A Letter On A Serious Question Connected With The Irish Education Measures of 1832


I address you thus formally in a public document in which it is my object, not to express any personal feelings, but to investigate principles. Your language (as reported) has given me occasion to address you on the subject on which I write: a matter which I confess has occasioned some astonishment to my mind, though other principles than astonishment bring it into action. The character of the public meeting held in this city on the subject of the anti-scriptural system of education needs no comment at present. You were present at that meeting and spoke; but it is not my object to discuss the character of your speech. The unholy marriage between Infidelity and Popery—the devil’s apostate counterpart of the union between the bride the Lamb’s wife and the great head of the church—whose banns have been first published in this unhappy country, if not adequately exposed (as I think none can feel its evil sufficiently), has yet given occasion to so loud an expression of principle as I trust will, under God, give stability to those who might otherwise have been entangled, and maintain the public expression of the right, here at least, before God, when all principle and allegiance towards Him have been so atrociously invaded. But you were following in your opposition in the rear of those to whom you owed canonical obedience. It was at least, sir, an unfriendly way of doing it.

But not to leave seriousness, considering the path which the Archbishop has trodden, it was well you were behind him. Authority and circumstances hide much from the world, and I must feel that it is the assumed orthodoxy of official situation, which could alone blind the clergy of this country to the principles of the Archbishop by whom they are governed. Such principles known I should be sorry indeed to follow, and the fulness of an episcopal robe does but ill conceal—even though one be behind it—the false principles which may be set before its face. The circumstances of the case are these: a scheme is set on foot whose professed object is to exclude the scriptures from the school instruction of the children of this country, and this not for the purpose of meeting the poor people or consulting their feelings. It had required, Mr. Stanley states, the energetic exertion of the priests to prevent the people from embracing the proffered boon of instruction in the word of God, the boon of God Himself; not then to meet the prejudices of the people, but in acquiescence, we learn from the same authority, with the principles of the Roman Catholic religion. The scriptures are the witness, not only of the holiness of God, but of His love, of His prerogative love in Christ. The Archbishop has set himself forward as the main effectuator, as under the circumstances he certainly is, of a scheme which is professedly to meet the priests, in accordance with their principles, in excluding from the schools this witness of God’s love in Christ; for their introduction Mr. Stanley himself states to be the vital defect of the previous system.

But the clergy are more deeply concerned in this and the laity too, than, as far as I can see, they are aware. The only discerning spring of Christian activity, synergism in God’s love (for Christianity is the activity of God’s love), is the knowledge and love of Christ. The perception of His Person is the great centre and spring of all vital theology. To see this is the material of faith. “He that seeth the Son, and believeth on him, hath everlasting life.” Not to see this leaves a person in the darkness of this world.

The Archbishop of Dublin is a Sabellian. Of the painful situation in which this may place the clergy it is not for me to judge. What the laity will feel in thinking of their association with him, on the general superintendence of the establishment, they must consider for themselves. But Sabellianism may be considered some questionable opinion or difference. But you must know, sir, that it strikes at the root of all vital as well as orthodox Christianity, by neutralising the distinction between the Father and the Son. The Father’s sending the Son—the Son’s obedience to the Father—the whole scheme of mediatorial Christianity—that is, Christianity itself becomes lost in this form of infidelity. A Trinity in character, but not a Trinity of persons, in the essential force of that word, may ease the proud mind of man of that which is beyond its natural powers, but takes away, at the same time, the whole basis on which a sinner can rest by faith. Men may be guilty of Tritheism, and Sabellians may avoid this. But they also may undermine the faith in another way.

I shall extract, pretty much at length, the statements of Dr. Whately on this subject in the article on the word person, in the appendix to his Logic, “Ambiguous Terms.” “Person, in its most ordinary use, always implies a numerically distinct substance; each man is one person, and can be but one. It, besides a peculiar theological sense, is more closely connected with its etymology. It is well known that the Latin word persona signified originally a mask which actors wore on the stage; each of which being painted in each instance suitably to the character to be represented, and worn by every one who acted the part, the word came to signify the character itself which the actor played; and afterwards any character, proper or assumed, which any one sustained; as for example in a passage of Cicero (De Oratore) where he is describing the process by which he composed his pleadings, by imagining himself in the place of his opponent and of the judge, as well as his own. ‘Tres personas unus suscipio, summa animi aequitate: meam adversa, judicis.’ We should render this by saying, ‘ I assume these three characters,’ or ‘I place myself in these three situations.’ The further transition, by which persona, and, as Anglicised by us, person came to signify commonly a distinct being, is very natural, though I believe it never took place while the purity of the Latin idiom lasted. Persona, in some sense, not far remote, it may be supposed, from its classical signification, was adopted by theologians to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the blessed Trinity, so as to imply the strict and proper unity of the divine Being, Who is all and each of these: and the word person was employed by our divines as a literal, or rather perhaps an etymological, translation of the Latin word persona. In this sense, its difference from person, as employed in ordinary discourse (in which, however, it seems to have been much less common at the time when our liturgy, etc., were framed, than in the present day), is of the highest importance: since it is evident that ‘three divine persons,’ in the ordinary meaning of the word, is precisely equivalent to ‘three Gods.’”

Again— “In this, our church, very wisely and scripturally, sets before us the relations in which the Most High stands towards us of Maker, Redeemer, and Sanctifier: thus adhering to the apparent design of Holy Writ,” etc. “The same consideration has induced me to insert in the present edition some extracts from the theological works (less known than they deserve) of the celebrated Dr. Wallis’s, the mathematician and logician, who appears to have been the church’s most powerful champion against the Arians and Socinians of his day. Not that I wish implicit deference to be paid to any human authority, however eminent: but it may be worth while to correct the notion, if any shall have entertained it, that the views of the subject here taken are, in our church, novelties. That which makes these expressions (namely, those respecting the Trinity) seem harsh to some of these men, is because they have used themselves to fancy that notion only of the word person, according to which three men are accounted to be three persons, and these three persons to be three men. But he may consider that there is another notion of the word person, and in common use too, wherein the same man may be said to sustain divers persons, and three persons to be the same man; that is, the same man as sustaining divers capacities. As was said but now of Tully, tres personas unus sustineo. And then it will seem no more harsh to say, the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, than to say, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier, are one God—it is much the same thing whether of the two forms we use.” (Letters on the Trinity, p. 63.)

“The word person (persona) is originally a Latin word, and doth not properly signify a man (so that another person must needs imply another man); for then the word homo would have served, and they needed not have taken in the word persona; but rather one so circumstantiated. And the same man, if considered in other circumstances (considerably different), is reputed another person. And that this is the true notion of the word person, appeared by these noted phrases, personam induere, personam deponere, personam agree,and many the like in approved Latin authors. Thus the same man may at once sustain the person of a king and a father, if he be invested both with regal and paternal authority. Now, because the king and the father are for the most part not only different persons but different men also (and the like in other cases), hence it comes to pass that another person is sometimes supposed to imply another man, but not always, nor is that the proper sense of the word. It is Englished in our dictionaries by the state, quality, or condition whereby one man differs from another; and so, as the condition alters, the person alters, though the man be the same. The hinge of the controversy is that notion concerning the three somewhats, which the Fathers (who first used it) did intend to design by the name person; so that we are not from the word person to determine what was that notion, but from that notion which they would express to determine in what sense the word person is here used,” etc.—(letter in answer to the Arian’s Vindication).

This article was much altered in the fourth edition, and a good deal added, in the way of explanation, to guard against the too evident conclusion from the preceding extract. The date of this, sir, is 1831. But, however guarded, there is no repentance from the heresy itself. I shall insert a short extract, which may be sufficient to shew this:—

“Person, in its ordinary use at present, invariably implies a numerically distinct substance. Each man is one person, and can be but one. It has also a peculiar theological sense, in which we speak of the ‘ three persons ‘ of the blessed Trinity. It was probably thus employed by our divines, as a literal or perhaps etymological rendering of the Latin word, ‘persona.’ I am inclined to think, however, from the language of Wallis (the mathematician and logician) in the following extract, as well as from that of some others of our older writers, that the English word person was formerly not so strictly confined as now to the sense it bears in common conversation among us.” Then follows the extract from Wallis; and he adds in a note, “We are taught to call no man master on earth; but the reference to Dr. Wallis may serve both to shew the use of the word in his day, and to correct the notion, should any have entertained it, that the views of the subject here taken are, in our church, anything novel.”

Having quoted so largely from the other edition, it is needless after this to quote more. The circumstances connected with these alterations I shall not touch upon: if authentically stated, they do not weaken the inference naturally drawn from the papers themselves. I care not, sir, for the term Sabellianism: but when the personality of the Son of God is avowedly attacked, I cannot be surprised that the person who does so should be the instrument of establishing the first open public act of infidelity—avowedly rejecting the scriptures, to meet the principles of the Roman Catholic religion. It may not be unprofitable to see the suitableness of the agent to such a work. With what satisfaction any one can follow in the rear, or own canonical obedience to such a one, I must leave to their own consciences and their fidelity to Christ to determine. Certainly the fate of the Archbishop has been unfortunate. Famous, if fame is to be trusted, for being opposed to the union of church and state, he has with painful singularity united himself to it in its first public act of professed infidelity, to be the solitary agent of any consequence in carrying the blighting influence of that infidelity into general and diffusive operation. But he denies the personality of the Son of God, and I am not surprised. But are standards of truth no security as regards those who have solemnly signed them? Sir, whatever scripture may say of the personality of the Son of God, you must own it, and Dr. Whately ought; but his mind seems vague in this on principle, as it is far from scriptural truth. He thus writes, in a note to the same article, in the appendix to his Logic (4th edition, p. 331):—

“And truly, it is much better thus to consult scripture, and take it for a guide, than to resort to it merely for confirmation, contained in detached verses, of the several parts of some system of theology, which the student fixes on as reputed orthodox, and which is in fact made the guide which he permits ‘to lead him by the hand’; while passages culled out from various parts of the sacred writings, in subserviency to such system, are formed into what may be called an anagram of scripture; and then by reference to this system as a standard, each doctrine, or discourse, is readily pronounced orthodox, or Socinian, or Arian, or Sabellian, or Nestorian, etc.; and all this on the ground that the theological scheme, which the student has adopted, is supported by scripture. The materials, indeed, are the stones of the temple; but the building constructed with them is a fabric of human contrivances. If, instead of this too common procedure, students would fairly search the scriptures, with a view, not merely to defend opinions, but to form them; not merely for arguments, but for truth: keeping human expositions to their own proper purposes (see Essay 6, first series), and not allowing those to become practically a standard—if, in short, they were as honestly desirous to be on the side of scripture, as they naturally are to have scripture on their side, how much sounder as well as more charitable would their conclusions often be!”

The note of admiration as well as italics in the several quotations are Dr. Whately’s. Dr. Whately may be amiable, affable in manner, and efficient in business; but truth is truth, and principle is principle, and talents (however great or overestimated), and the most candid kindness of manner are but snares to the unwary. Satan is not foolish enough to make mischief disagreeable. These things appear to me, sir, not only heretical, and (as I should call it) infidel, on the most vital principle of Christianity, but, considering the circumstances in which the author of them is placed, sad want of principle. But when I consider that one who has sworn that the essential point of popish instruction and worship is a “blasphemous fable and a dangerous deceit,” as Dr. Whately has, should be the principal agent for securing the instruction of the majority of the children of this country in it, and their actual attendance on it, I cannot be surprised, sir. There never was a stronger instance of the principle, that, where the truth of the gospel did not exist, the grace or principle of it could not be found. I confess, sir, more heartless unprincipledness I never heard of. Nor, slight as Dr. Whately’s tie may be to standards which have elevated him to the place from which he throws them down, will the refuge this may be afford him much shelter. The results of such instruction as he is putting the children under I shall state in his own words. They are from a note to the same article. There is some ignorance on the subject shewn in it, but it is immaterial to the present point.

“The correctness of a formal and deliberate confession of faith is not always of itself a sufficient safeguard against error, in the habitual impression of the mind. The Romanists flatter themselves that they are safe from idolatry, because they distinctly acknowledge the truth, that God only is to be served (namely, with latria), though they allow adoration (hyperdulia and dulia) to the virgin and their saints, to images, and to relics. To which it has been justly replied, that, supposing this distinction correct in itself, it would be in practice purgatory, since the mass of the people must soon, as experience proves, lose sight of it entirely in their habitual devotions.”

It must be a happy office to one who has a heart and a conscience to secure to the mass of the people instruction which must plunge them into idolatries, however people may flatter themselves. But I must not pursue this part of the subject, or I should say a great deal more than is needful; and the general principles of the subject are already before people’s minds. There are two points which do not seem to be generally felt: that this is the first public leading act of infidelity, namely, a professed rejection of the scriptures, to meet the principles of the Roman Catholic religion; and, secondly, what it specially behoves the clergy to look to, that, under the garb of that which might seem to afford security for principle but may be the hiding-place of the contrary, we have one holding principles anything but a security against infidelity, a denial of the personality of the Son of God in anything like the sense in which that is ordinarily understood; and who holds that, as applied to the Son of God, it means no more than if I should say in making an oration, I put myself into three positions with the utmost equanimity—my own, my adversary’s, the judge’s. What use standards or undertakings may be to secure the principles of any connected with, or admitted into, the church under such circumstances, I must leave to others to judge. Of one thing I am sure, which keeps my own soul in peace, that in the midst of this “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.”

But I should be sorry, sir, to follow in the rear of a diocesan who denied the Lord that bought me; and when I see even the primate expressing his assurance of the zeal for Protestantism of the Archbishop of Dublin, if I respect the feeling which prompted it, I cannot but feel it important to inquire upon what ground of security in the truth the Protestants of this country rest, as regards one (as the Archbishop is) in perhaps the most important human station which any one can fill in it. Few, I dare say, read Dr. Whately’s Logic, and few know, therefore, his principles. I have transcribed his own statements here: let Christians judge.

Some question having been raised about the principles of the Roman Catholics as to reading the scriptures, it will be seen, by the following translation of the fourth rule of the Council of Trent respecting the Index, that a person reading them without the written permission of the bishop is refused absolution.

“Whereas it is manifest from experience, if the sacred Bible be allowed everywhere without discrimination in the vulgar tongue, more injury than profit arises thence on account of the rashness of men; let the judgment of the bishop or inquisitor be abided by in this respect; that, with the counsel of the parish priest, or confessor, they may allow the reading in the vulgar tongue of the Bible, translated by Catholic authors, to those who, they shall understand, may receive not injury but increase of faith and piety: which privilege let them have in writing. But he who without such privilege shall presume to have or read them cannot receive absolution of his sins, unless he shall have first given them up to the ordinary. But let booksellers who shall have sold, or in any other way given to those who have not the aforesaid privileges, Bibles written in the vulgar idiom, lose the price of the books to be converted into pious uses by the bishop, and let them be subjected to other penalties according to the quality of the crime at the discretion of the bishop. But regulars without a privilege from their prelates cannot read or buy them.”

I close a letter, sir, written under a sufficient suffering of body to have disposed me to keep quiet, if I had not felt it a duty. I have very briefly brought the subject forward, stating little of my own views or feelings, not because I have them not, but because I rather desired the facts should be presented for consciences of others. God may bring good out of evil. But these sorts of circumstances are just the trials of the faithfulness of God’s children. Let it be known only that, though God may be in a distinct position, there is, according to Dr. Whately, no distinction in the person of the Father and the Son. What may be the duty of the clergy in such a case I leave to themselves: of that of a Christian I can have no doubts.

O God, to what a pass is Thy church come, when those who govern and should feed it are found, even where the truth seems specially professed, deniers of that upon which Thy whole glory rests, even the person and therefore the mission of Thy Son, who loved it and gave Himself for it! O Lord, regard Thy people, and give them faithfulness and wisdom to do that which becometh Thy saints for the glory of Thy name, and acknowledgment of Thy love through Jesus, Thy sent One, come in the flesh that, according to that which is given them, all men should honour the Son even as they honour the Father by one Spirit! Amen.

I am, sir, faithfully yours,
J. N. D.