THE THEOLOGICAL STATUTE AT OXFORD.
LESS attention than it deserved has been given to the recent controversy at Oxford on the subject of the Statute establishing an honours' school in theology, which passed Congregation last week by a majority of 120 against 61, or nearly two to one. The history of the controversy is itself curious. The idea of an honours' school in theology was originally taken up warmly by the Liberal party, and to that party, which has always been earnest for solid knowledge on every subject, the conception of allowing men whose chief interest lies in Theology, to go out in Theology at their final examination rather than in Logic and Philosophy, or Mathematics, or Natural Science, or Law and Modern History, or Modern Languages and Literature, was quite appropriate. It is clear that such a step may lead to our having a far more learned clergy than England has ever yet been able to boast. Those intending to enter the Church are far more likely to read for honours if they are permitted to take up a subject which must be more or less closely connected with their chief pursuit in life, and even with their worldly success in their profession, than if they be compelled to choose from among subjects which are remote from their immediate interests. Besides, no one who knows anything of theology doubts that it has, in the very highest degree, that peculiarly cultivating influence on the intellect and imagination, which the Oxford system has derived with such remarkable success from the elaborate and minute study of logic and ethics. We see no reason why men who are not intending to go into the Clerical profession should not select the theological school, and select it with the same marked profit for their after lives which so many have extracted from the exhaustive Oxford teaching of the Nicomachean ethics. Rate the absolute truth derivable from the Arian controversies, for example, almost as you will, —regard it with so many modern thinkers as a conflict about the names to be applied to utterly incomprehensible facts,— or regard it, as we should be disposed to do, as a controversy affecting real distinctions, on which hang many of the deepest and most important issues of our own daily life,— and in either case we defy a man who has mastered the controversy, who has entered into the spirit of that debate on an iota, between the Homoiousians and the Homoousians, a debate fruitful of political, no less than theological consequences,—to come out of the study without a mind and imagination essentially elevated and mellowed by the mingled subtlety and grandeur of the discussion. To mention only one result, it would be impossible for him ever again to ignore the profound and potent relation which age after age proves anew, between the philosophy of any land and its common daily life. It would be equally impossible for him not to admit the enormous importance of the distinct influences, —distinct in kind as well as degree,—exerted by the very opposite genius of Judea and Greece on the historical course even of Revelation. All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any practical result. It is a matter of no common importance that the University of Oxford should open honours to men who, whatever their future profession may be likely to be, prefer to acquire the necessary clearness and sureness in dealing with great and subtle questions, from theology rather than directly from logic and ethics.
But though the Liberals of the University of Oxford were the first to urge on the University to establish a theological honour school,—at a time when the Conservatives shrank (rather childishly, we think) from the mere idea of allowing competition between candidates to be examined on subjects so sacred,—they constituted, as they usually do, the minority, in the division of last week in Congregation. They were chiefly ranked amongst the 61 who opposed, and not among the 120 who supported the new statute. And the reason is simple. The question naturally arose whether the new honour school was to be turned into a machinery for testing opinion, rather than, or as well as, accurate knowledge, in theology, and it soon became apparent by the discussion in Congregation that a narrow party does exist which regards it as one of the duties of the examiners in the new theological school to reject men for heterodoxy no less than for ignorance. It was even maintained by Mr. Burgon, in the course of the controversy, that if a candidate be " so unreasonable " as to deny that " our Lord is the great object of prophecy," or " so foolish" as to assert that the ante-Nicene fathers teach the doctrine of transubstantiation, no examiner in his right mind ought to give him a first-class. The former statement, says Mr. Burgon, would be just as monstrous,—.the latter just as silly, as if a mathematical candidate were to deny that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or to maintain that 5 -V 5 might be 14. But such a. candidate would suffer not for his opinions, but "for his ignorance." Can the necessity of a guarantee that the new theological school should not judge men by their inferences but by their knowledge of the history of theology, be more clearly illustrated ? What Mr. Burgon means by " ignorance," any one with a particle of logic in him knows to be a question. of inference, and not of knowledge. Mr. Burgon thinks, for instance, that the Messianic character of prophecy is demonstrated as completely as the equivalence of 2 and 2 to 4 can be demonstrated by our Lord's statement "Oh fools and slow of heart tobelieve all that the prophets have spoken,—ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory I" But this only shows how utterly incompetent Mr. Burgon is to. discuss the question on which he lays down so positive an opinion. Would it involve an intellectual slur on any man's learning and reasoning powers,—and these are what a University examination properly tests,—to believe, as so many learned men, English and German, believe, that the text of ourGospels is of very uncertain authenticity,—or that Luke, especially, was an editor of comparatively late date ? Again, should any candidate be told that he was simply an ignoramus, because he had arrived at the Unitarian inference about Christ, and believed Him to be not God, but man ? Or grant the candidate's strict orthodoxy on this point,—why should he be held an ignoramus for believing, with plenty of eminent orthodox divines, that the words of our Lord during His human career were the words of a perfect, infinite spirit, coloured and sometimes disturbed by a limited human• intelligence which shared the Hebrew ideas of His timevn intelligence to the defects of which He himself bore witnesswhen He said, " That day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father " Or, finally, why should such a man be deemed anignoramus, if he held, as it would be quite competent to him to hold, with a number of learned men of the English Church, that though the prophecies of the prophets did indirectly delineate the necessary character and fate of the Redeemer, it was not by a projection of their intellect into the future, but through the Divine guidance which led them to see, in relation to their own time, what Saviour they then needed, so that in point of fact the older prophets applied to contemporaries of whom this delineation was only partially true, a spiritual impression which was never really fulfilled till the coming of our Lord ? Here, then, we have suggested no less than four explanations which might be given by a candidate who happened to reject what is usually called the Messianic character of prophecy, which are all of them, as Mr. Burgon must know, tenable by thoroughly educated and learned men,—explanations any one of which it would be simply ridiculous to brand with ignorance. And yet, as far as we can see, the new theological statute gives no guarantee whatever that Mr. Burgon's definition of " ignorance " shall not be adopted, and a candidate refused his te-stamur, or his proper class, for differing in opinion from the examiner. What makes the matter worse is, that the examiners are to be appointed by a Board of six, of whom three are to be professors in some branch of divinity, —so that a distinct theological school may, in all probability, have half the votes in appointing the examiners, who again are to have power to declare that differing from them as to the date of the express teaching of Transubstantiation in the Church, or as to the Messianic character of prophecy, is sheer ignorance. We confess that this great danger—that a most valuable machinery for encouraging and testing profound theological acquirements at Oxford may be transformed into a machinery for conferring intellectual distinctions on men of submissive frame of mind,—takes away a great portion of our satisfaction in the new measure. We should far rather have seen it deferred till the requisite guarantee that this examination should be a test of knowledge, and not of opinion, had been gained: will diminish the value of the honour to those who gain it that the impartiality of the University is open to a doubt, and what is worse, it can hardly fail to diminish the number of those who devote themselves to theological study in the hope of gaining it. If the examination were purely one in attainment, a man with quite unformed theological tions might gladly enter on the requisite study, convinced that if he proves his accuracy and clearness of apprehension and his historical acquirement, he will in any case get a good degree, and with it also the means of judging whether or not he can devote his life to preaching the truth of which he has thus possessed himself. This is precisely what all who have confidence in the Divinity of Christianity ought to wish. They ought to be glad to get men to give two years' provisional study to the subject before they decide upon their profession,—trusting that in the case of the most earnest and clearsighted, such study will confirm them in their faith and not shake it. Bat who can expect ordinary young men to enter on a course of provisional study the immediate effect of which may be not only to deter them from entering the Church, but to deprive them of a deserved honour through the narrowness of the examiners ? Of course, if they know that by taking up logic and ethics, or the natural sciences, or law and modern history, they can be quite certain of a high University distinction, whereas, by taking up theology they can only ensure their degree by sedulously concealing their own impression of the relative weight of different lines of argument, they will, if they be frank and candid and unused to diplomacy, prefer the former course. Unless the practice of the examiners belies very much the promise of the discussions in Congregation, we greatly fear that the advantages of the new measure will fulfil the worst fears of the Professor of Mathematics, and the rest of the party which has followed his very able lead.