Newmania – 2: The method of personation
The second of Newman’s Oxford University Sermons addressed “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively.” He made it clear that the sermon would compare only their respective practical efficacy; he meant no disregard of “those fundamental doctrines of our faith, the Atonement, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
He began by explaining what he meant by “natural religion,” a description that might have something to say to contemporary debates:
When, then, religion of some sort is said to be natural, it is not here meant that any religious system has been actually traced out by unaided Reason. We know of no such system, because we know of no time or country in which human Reason was unaided. Scripture informs us that revelations were granted to the first fathers of our race, concerning the nature of God and man’s duty to Him; and scarcely a people can be named, among whom there are not traditions, not only of the existence of powers exterior to this visible world, but also of their actual interference with the course of nature, followed up by religious communications to mankind from them. The Creator has never left Himself without such witness as might anticipate the conclusions of Reason, and support a wavering conscience and perplexed faith. No people (to speak in general terms) has been denied a revelation from God, though but a portion of the world has enjoyed an authenticated revelation.
Newman returned to the theme at the end of the sermon:
And hence, at the same time, may be learned the real religious position of the heathen, who, we have reason to trust, are not in danger of perishing, except so far as all are in such danger, whether in heathen or Christian countries, who do not follow the secret voice of conscience, leading them on by faith to their true though unseen good. For the prerogative of Christians consists in the possession, not of exclusive knowledge and spiritual aid, but of gifts high and peculiar; and though the manifestation of the Divine character in the Incarnation is a singular and inestimable benefit, yet its absence is supplied in a degree, not only in the inspired record of Moses, but even, with more or less strength, as the case may be, in those various traditions concerning Divine Providences and Dispensations which are scattered through the heathen mythologies.
After locating the ground and sanction of natural religion and morality in Conscience, he identified its failure as that of neglecting the personal character of God.
The God of philosophy was infinitely great, but an abstraction; the God of paganism was intelligible, but degraded by human conceptions. Science and nature could produce no joint-work; it was left for an express Revelation to propose the Object in which they should both be reconciled, and to satisfy the desires of both in a real and manifested incarnation of the Deity.
There follows this beautiful paragraph:
No thought is more likely to come across and haunt the mind, and slacken its efforts under Natural Religion, than that after all we may be following a vain shadow, and disquieting ourselves without cause, while we are giving up our hearts to the noblest instincts and aspirations of our nature. The Roman Stoic, as he committed suicide, complained he had worshipped virtue, and found it but an empty name. It is even now the way of the world to look upon the religious principle as a mere peculiarity of temper, a weakness, or an enthusiasm, or refined feeling (as the case may be), characteristic of a timid and narrow, or of a heated or a highly-gifted mind. Here, then, Revelation meets us with simple and distinct facts and actions, not with painful inductions from existing phenomena, not with generalized laws or metaphysical conjectures, but with Jesus and the Resurrection; and “if Christ be not risen” (it confesses plainly), “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Facts such as this are not simply evidence of the truth of the revelation, but the media of its impressiveness. The life of Christ brings together and concentrates truths concerning the chief good and the laws of our being, which wander idle and forlorn over the surface of the moral world, and often appear to diverge from each other. It collects the scattered rays of light, which, in the first days of creation, were poured over the whole face of nature, into certain intelligible centres, in the firmament of the heaven, to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. Our Saviour has in Scripture all those abstract titles of moral excellence bestowed upon Him which philosophers have invented. He is the Word, the Light, the Life, the Truth, Wisdom, the Divine Glory. St. John announces in the text, “The Life was manifested, and we have seen It.”
Newman called this “the method of personation,” which might be seen as anticipating the argument in the Essay on the Development of Doctrine that Incarnation is the distinctive “Idea” of Christianity. Toward the end of the sermon he returned to the theme:
Further, a comment is hence afforded us on the meaning of a phrase perplexed by controversy—that of “preaching Christ.” By which is properly meant, not the putting Natural Religion out of sight, nor the separating one doctrine of the Gospel from the rest, as having an exclusive claim to the name of Gospel; but the displaying all that Nature and Scripture teach concerning Divine Providence (for they teach the same great truths), whether of His majesty, or His love, or His mercy, or His holiness, or His fearful anger, through the medium of the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ. A mere moral strain of teaching duty and enforcing obedience fails in persuading us to practice, not because it appeals to conscience, and commands and threatens (as is sometimes supposed), but because it does not urge and illustrate virtue in the Name and by the example of our blessed Lord. It is not that natural teaching gives merely the Law, and Christian teaching gives the tidings of pardon, and that a command chills or formalizes the mind, and that a free forgiveness converts it (for nature speaks of God’s goodness as well as of His severity, and Christ surely of His severity as well as of His goodness); but that in the Christian scheme we find all the Divine Attributes (not mercy only, though mercy pre-eminently) brought out and urged upon us, which were but latent in the visible course of things.