Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Newman and Maurice on the Via Media of the Anglican Church: Contrasts and Affinities

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Newman and Maurice on the Via Media of the Anglican Church: Contrasts and Affinities

Article excerpt


Though it has been attempted, it is not easy to place F. D. Maurice and J. H. Newman, perhaps the two greatest Victorian theologians, side by side in comparative perspective.1 Newman's star rose throughout the twentieth century. Maurice, by contrast, is unpublished and almost unread today. Despite some grudging mutual respect, neither man devoted very much attention to the work of the other, once Maurice had decisively rejected Tractarian theology in the late 1830s. It would be trivial merely to list points of comparison and contrast. Nor would it be valuable or perhaps convincing to set out to inflate Maurice s reputation once more at the expense of Newman's. But placing these two theologians-especially taking Newman in his Anglican phase-in putative dialogue on particular points of controversy is illuminating, not least because it helps to lay bare the presuppositions and shape of two quite different ecclesiological models in Anglicanism, both of which continue to exert some influence on Anglican thinking on the church today, and yet which are often confused with each other. This is especially so, I want to suggest, when their ecclesiological theories are examined and compared in the light of the idea of Anglicanism as a via media, or middle way between two extremes.

Exploration of both authors' defense of Anglicanism via a mediating relation to two fixed poles, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, forms the centerpiece of this article. First, it is necessary to lay down some obvious differences and similarities in their use and treatment of history, which supply the context for their views of Anglicanism. After the central section comparing aspects of their ecclesiological theories of Anglicanism, some further comments reasserting their strikingly different evaluations of the history of the Christian church will be necessary before moving to a conclusion.


History was central to the ecclesiological theories of both men, a fact not necessarily evident from some critical views of them as antior unhistorical. Newman has been accused of excessive credulity about the lives of the saints.2 Admittedly, this was offset by a sensitivity to the critical limitations of historical epistemology, which could lead, via the doctrine of probability, to the apparently opposite charge of rationalism.3 Maurices philosophical Platonism led to a different accusation, namely that he subordinated historical events to a quite independent philosophical schema. Newman himself said as much, writing to Walter Hook in 1835 (before Maurice fell out with the Tractarians):

He is a Coleridgian [sic] and a Platonist, I believe-and so though not far from a Catholic, when contrasted with Rationalists, yet some way off too. He is of the Cambridge School-and from the little I have seen of those men, they seem to me never satisfied to take things as they find them, but . . . to believe sacred doctrines, not because they have received them, but because they can prove them from philosophy.4

Maurice has been pursued by this charge ever since. Torben Christensen, for example, suggested that, for Maurice, "the truth of an idea establishes the historical validity of its outward embodiment."5

Both theologians in fact professed to take history very seriously. They were interested in it as a formal object of study.6 But it also constituted a central feature of their respective theological methods. On Newmans side, briefly, one can mention his concern to trace the development of the doctrinal tradition of Catholic Christianity, his conviction of the authority of tradition, and his appeal to the experience of the church in history.7 For Maurice, history itself could be read providentially, as the unfolding in time of the divine order of the universe, and so as a record of God's revelation of himself.8 Historical arguments are at the very center of both theologians' assessments of the Church of England.

There is perhaps nothing remarkable in two Victorian theologians sharing a common conviction of the theological significance of history. …

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