Friday, 11 November 2011

The day that hell was abolished

The subject of this post is the remarkable case of Williams v Bishop of Salisbury (1863) 15 ER 943, in which the British state officially determined that eternal damnation is not part of the doctrine of the Church of England.

The Church and the State

In spite of the general acceptance by the judiciary of the secular character of British law, the Church of England is an established national church, and her doctrine and discipline forms part of the concerns of the British state.  This was even more so in the 19th century.  Hence the Williams case, which had originally been heard by the ecclesiastical Arches Court of Canterbury, ended up being decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, an essentially secular body.  Moreover, the proceedings were brought under an Act of Parliament, the Church Discipline Act (3-4 Vict. c.86), which imposed criminal liability for professing heretical doctrines.

It is worth noting that Williams was not the only Victorian ecclesiastical case that ended up being decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.  Another famous example is provided by Gorham v Bishop of Exeter.  A number of Anglican churchmen were displeased at the spectacle of a secular tribunal exercising jurisdiction over religious matters.

In the Williams case, the seven-member panel which heard the appeal consisted of four judges and three bishops.  Of the four judges, two were Conservatives and two were Liberals, and they included three past, present and future Lord Chancellors.  The bishops included the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

The background of the case

Victorian Anglicanism was the site of various political battles, one of the most important of which was the battle between liberal churchmen who accepted the findings of modern biblical criticism and conservatives who rejected those findings.  This battle in turn formed part of the larger war between liberal and conservative takes on Christianity which, in other contexts, produced the Catholic modernist crisis and the publication in the United States of the Fundamentals series.

In 1860, there appeared in England a compilation of seven essays by Anglican scholars and clergymen entitled Essays and Reviews.  It was published just months after Darwin's Origin of Species, and it appears to have had an even greater immediate impact.  The controversy over the ideas expressed in the volume continues today.  Essentially, the contributors to Essays affirmed the basic tenets of modern liberal Christianity and advocated interpreting the Bible in line with contemporary critical scholarship.

The judgment

Judgment was given by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Westbury, on 8 February 1864.  He made it clear that it was not the court's function to decide matters of faith or to determine what ought to be Anglican doctrine: it was simply a matter of ruling on what Anglican doctrine was and on whether the defendants, Williams and Wilson, had offended against it.

Williams was charged with asserting that the Bible was not the word of God and with teaching heresy on the rather technical theological subject of imputed righteousness.  Wilson was charged with denying the divine inspiration of the Bible and denying the doctrine of the Last Judgement, with its ideas of the salvation of the righteous and the damnation of the wicked.

On the last of these charges, Lord Westbury said this:
Mr. Wilson expresses a hope that at the day of judgment those men who are not admitted to happiness may be so dealt with as that “the perverted may be restored,” and all, “both small and great, may ultimately find a refuge in the bosom of the Universal Parent.” The hope that the punishment of the wicked may not endure to all eternity is certainly not at variance with anything that is found in the Apostles' Creed, or the Nicene Creed, or in the Absolution which forms part of the Morning and Evening Prayer, or in the Burial Service....

We are not required, or at liberty, to express any opinion upon the mysterious question of the eternity of final punishment, further than to say that we do not find in the Formularies, to which this Article refers, any such distinct declaration of our Church upon the subject, as to require us to condemn as penal the expression of hope by a clergyman that even the ultimate pardon of the wicked, who are condemned in the day of judgment, may be consistent with the will of Almighty God.
The two archbishops who sat in the case dissented from the acquittal of the two defendants on the charges of denying the inspiration and divine origin of the Bible.  They concurred in the other two acquittals.

The decision caused considerable displeasure in some quarters.  It was said that the Privy Council had "dismissed hell with costs".

Extracts from the judgment

The seventh Article, as reformed, sets forth certain passages extracted from pages 60 and 61, and from pages 77 and 78, of the volume containing Dr. Williams's Essay, and charges that in the passages so extracted, Dr. Williams has advisedly maintained and affirmed that the Bible or Holy Scripture is “an expression of devout reason,” and “the written voice of the congregation” — not the Word of God, nor containing any special revelation of His truth or of His dealings with mankind, nor the rule of our faith. Dr. Williams has nowhere in terms asserted that Holy Scripture is not the Word of God; and the accusation, therefore, must mean that by calling the Bible “an expression of devout reason, and, therefore, to be read with reason in freedom,” and stating that it is “the written voice of the congregation,” Dr. Williams must be taken to affirm that it is not the Word of God.

Before we examine the meaning of these expressions, it is right to observe what Dr. Williams has said on the subject of Holy Scripture, in the second of the passages included in this charge. Dr. Williams there refers to the teaching of the Church in her Ordination Service as to the abiding influence of “the Eternal Spirit,” and then uses these words, “If such a Spirit did not dwell in the Church the Bible would not be inspired;” and again, “The Sacred Writers acknowledge themselves men of like passions with ourselves, and we are promised illumination from the Spirit that dwelt in them.” Dr. Williams may not unreasonably contend that the just result of these passages would be thus given: — “The Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit that has ever dwelt and still dwells in the Church, which dwelt also in the Sacred Writers of Holy Scripture, and which will aid and illuminate the minds of those who read Holy Scripture trusting to receive the guidance and assistance of that Spirit.”

The words that the Bible is “an expression of devout reason, and, therefore, to be read with reason and freedom,” are treated in the charge as equivalent to these words: — The Bible is the composition or work of devout or pious men, and nothing more; but such a meaning ought not to be ascribed to the words of a writer who, a few lines further on, has plainly affirmed that the Holy Spirit dwelt in the Sacred Writers of the Bible. This context enables us to say that the words “an expression of devout reason, and, therefore, to be read with reason and freedom,” ought not to be taken in the sense ascribed to them by the accusation. In like manner we deem it unnecessary to put any interpretation on the words “written voice of the congregation,” inasmuch as we are satisfied that whatever may be the meaning of the passages included in this Article, they do not, taken collectively, warrant the charge which has been made that Dr. Williams has maintained the Bible not to be the Word of God, nor the rule of faith.

We pass on to the remaining charge against Dr. Williams, which is contained in the fifteenth Article of charge. The words of Dr. Williams, which are included in this charge, are part of a supposed defence of Baron Bunsen against the accusation of not being a Christian. It would be a severe thing to treat language used by an imaginary Advocate as advised speaking or teaching by Dr. Williams. Against such a general charge as that of not being a Christian, topics of defence may be properly urged, although not in conformity with the doctrines of the Church of England. But, even if Dr. Williams be taken to approve of the arguments which he uses for this supposed defence, it would, we think, be unjust to him to take his words as a full statement of his own belief or teaching on the subject of justification.

The eleventh Article of Religion, which Dr. Williams is accused of contravening, states, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” The Article is wholly silent as to the merits of Jesus Christ being transferred to us. It asserts only that we are justified for the merits of our Saviour by faith, and by faith alone. We cannot say, therefore, that it is penal in a Clergyman to speak of merit by transfer as a fiction, however unseemly that word may be when used in connection with such a subject.

It is fair, however, to Dr. Williams to observe that, in the argument at the Bar, he repudiated the interpretation which had been put on these words, that “the doctrine of merit by transfer is a fiction,” and he explained fiction as intended by him to describe the phantasy in the mind of an individual that he has received or enjoyed merit by transfer.

Upon the whole, we cannot accept the interpretation charged by the promoter as the true meaning of the passages included in this fifteenth Article of charge, nor can we consider those passages as warranting the specific charge, which, in effect, is, that Dr. Williams asserts that justification by faith means only the peace of mind or sense of Divine approval which comes of trust in a righteous God. This is not the assertion of Dr. Williams. We are, therefore, of opinion, that the judgment against Dr. Williams must be reversed.

We proceed to consider the charges against Mr. Wilson.

These have been reduced to the eighth and fourteenth Articles of charge. The other Articles of charge were either rejected by the Court below, or have been abandoned at the hearing before this Tribunal.

In the eighth Article of charge an extract of some length is made from Mr. Wilson's Essay, and the accusation is, that in the passage extracted Mr. Wilson has declared and affirmed in effect that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were not written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that they were not necessarily at all, and certainly not in parts, the Word of God; and then reference is made to the sixth and twentieth Articles of Religion, to part of the Nicene Creed, and to a passage in the Ordination of Priests in the Book of Common Prayer.

This charge, therefore, involves the proposition, “That it is a contradiction of the doctrine laid down in the sixth and twentieth Articles of Religion, in the Nicene Creed, and in the Ordination Service of Priests, to affirm that any part of the Canonical Books of the Old or New Testament, upon any subject whatever, however unconnected with religious faith or moral duty, was not written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

The proposition or assertion that every part of the Scriptures was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not to be found either in the Articles, or in any of the Formularies of the Church. But in the sixth Article it is said that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation,” and the Books of the Old and New Testament are therein termed Canonical. In the twentieth Article the Scriptures are referred to as “God's Word written;” in the Ordination Service, when the Bible is given by the Bishop to the Priest, it is put into his hands with these words, “Take thou authority to preach the Word of God;” and in the Nicene Creed are the words, “the Holy Ghost, who spake by the Prophets.”

We are confined by the Article of charge to the consideration of these materials, and the question is, whether in them the Church has affirmed that every part of every Book of Scripture was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and is the word of God.

Certainly, this doctrine is not involved in the statement of the sixth Article, that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” But inasmuch as it doth so from the revelations of the Holy Spirit, the Bible may well be denominated “Holy,” and said to be “the Word of God,” “God's Word written,” or “Holy Writ;” terms which cannot be affirmed to be clearly predicated of every statement and representation contained in every part of the Old and New Testament.

The framers of the Articles have not used the word “inspiration” as applied to the Holy Scriptures; nor have they laid down anything as to the nature, extent, or limits of that operation of the Holy Spirit. The caution of the framers of our Articles forbids our treating their language as implying more than is expressed; nor are we warranted in ascribing to them conclusions expressed in new forms of words involving minute and subtle matters of controversy.

After an anxious consideration of the subject, we find ourselves unable to say that the passages extracted from Mr. Wilson's Essay, and which form the subject of this article of charge, are contradicted by, or plainly inconsistent with, the Articles or Formularies to which the charge refers, and which alone we are at liberty to consider.

We proceed to the remaining charge against Mr. Wilson, namely, that contained in the fourteenth Article.

The charge is, that in the portion of his Essay which is set out in this Article, Mr. Wilson has advisedly declared and affirmed, in effect, that after this life and at the end of the existing order of things on this earth, there will be no judgment of God, awarding to those men whom He shall then approve everlasting life or eternal happiness, and to those men whom He shall then condemn everlasting death or eternal misery; and this position is affirmed to be contrary to the three Creeds, the Absolution, the Catechism, and the Burial and Commination Services.

In the first place, we find nothing in the passages extracted which in any respect questions or denies that at the end of the world there will be a judgment of God awarding to those men whom He shall approve everlasting life or eternal happiness; but with respect to a judgment of eternal misery, a hope is encouraged by Mr. Wilson that this may not be the purpose of God.

We think that it is not competent to a Clergyman of the Church of England to teach or suggest that a hope may be entertained of a state of things contrary to what the Church expressly teaches or declares will be the case; but the charge is that Mr. Wilson advisedly declares that after this life there will be no judgment of God awarding either eternal happiness or eternal misery, — an accusation which is not warranted by the passage extracted. Mr. Wilson expresses a hope that at the day of judgment those men who are not admitted to happiness may be so dealt with as that “the perverted may be restored,” and all, “both small and great, may ultimately find a refuge in the bosom of the Universal Parent.” The hope that the punishment of the wicked may not endure to all eternity is certainly not at variance with anything that is found in the Apostles' Creed, or the Nicene Creed, or in the Absolution which forms part of the Morning and Evening Prayer, or in the Burial Service. In the Catechism the child is taught that in repeating the Lord's Prayer, he prays unto God “that He will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death;” but this exposition of the Lord's Prayer cannot be taken as necessarily declaring anything touching the eternity of punishment after the resurrection.

There remain the Commination Service and the Athanasian Creed. The material passage in the Commination Service is in these words: “O terrible voice of the most just judgment which shall be pronounced upon them, when it shall be said unto them, Go, ye cursed, into the fire everlasting which is prepared for the Devil and his angels.” In like manner the Athanasian Creed declares that they that have done evil shall go into everlasting fire. Of the meaning of these words “everlasting fire,” no interpretation is given in the Formularies which are referred to in the charge. Mr. Wilson has urged in his defence that the word “everlasting” in the English translation of the New Testament, and of the Creed of St. Athanasius, must be subject to the same limited interpretation which some learned men have given to the original words which are translated by the English word “everlasting,” and he has also appealed to the liberty of opinion which has always existed without restraint among very eminent English divines upon this subject.

It is material to observe that in the Articles of King Edward VI., framed in 1552, the forty-second Article was in the following words:—“All men shall not bee saved at the length.—Thei also are worthie of condemnation who indevoure at this time to restore the dangerouse opinion, that al menne, be thei never so ungodlie, shall at lengtht bee saved, when thei have suffered paines for their sinnes a certain time appoincted by God's justice.”

This Article was omitted from the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the year 1562, and it might be said that the effect of sustaining the judgment of the Court below on this charge, would be to restore the Article so withdrawn.

We are not required, or at liberty, to express any opinion upon the mysterious question of the eternity of final punishment, further than to say that we do not find in the Formularies, to which this Article refers, any such distinct declaration of our Church upon the subject, as to require us to condemn as penal the expression of hope by a clergyman that even the ultimate pardon of the wicked, who are condemned in the day of judgment, may be consistent with the will of Almighty God.