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A review of the baptismal controversy online

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Almighty God to take unto Himself the soul of our dear
brother,'' * undergoes the same total correction. In the
form of Absolution for the Sick, the statement, '^ I absolve
thee from all thy sins," undergoes the same : in the Adult
Baptismal Service, the statement, '^ These persons are
r^enerate,'' undergoes the same. In all these cases what
is prima fade a categorical assertion is determined not to
be one. The literal meaning is a false meanings the
meaning which is not literal is the true one.

From these cases of total correction then we come to

* Mr. Pitt insisted upon the literal meaning of the proviso
attached to certain pablic stocks, that the interest due upon them
" shall not be charged or chargeable with any rates, duties, or im-
positions whateyer." This literal meaning, howeyer, has been set
aside by the legislature, and a non-literal meaning has been,
declared to be the true one, viz. that the stockholder is only secured
from special taxes, not from taxes laid upon him in common with
the whole community.

* It is plainly incorrect to interpret this as being only the neutral
statement that God has taken the soul of the departed from one
world into another. It would be a shock to the common sense and
religious feeling of anybody to suppose that a wicked man or an
atheist could be our dear brother in Christ whose soul Gkxl had
^ken to Himself.

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Chap. IV.] Interpretation considered. 275

a case of partial correction ; that is^ to a case in which the
literal meaning is not wholly set aside as nntenable^ but
in which another meaning besides the literal is found to
be admissible. This is the characteristic of the statement
in the Infant Baptismal Service. Some persons have no
impediment in the way of understanding this statement
literally, and therefore they do so understand it ; others,
however, have an impediment arising from the sense of
the word ^^ regenerate," which appearing to them to imply
quite plainly in its Scriptural sense actual goodness, they
cannot in consistency with facts adopt the literal meaning,
which, upon their idea of regeneration, would be to say
that all baptized infants had actual goodness implanted
in them. Calvinists have the still greater impediment
that regeneration in their sense implies indefectible
goodness, or ultimate salvation. In this state of the case
then that statement contracts, in accordance with this
basis of opinion in the Church, a divided interpretation ;
that is to say, its literal meaning not being supplanted,
another or hypothetical meaning is found to be admissible.
The interpretation of it depends upon the sense of the
word regenerate, which in the one case does, in the other
does not, allow of the acceptance of the etatement in its
literal sense ; but the Church is neutral upon this question
of the sense of the term, nowhere defining regeneration.
These two senses of the term therefore stand, in this
silence of the Church, upon an equal footing; and, the
sense of the term being open, the construction of the
statement becomes open.

When then the charge of dishonesty is brought against
the hypothetical interpretation of this statement — ^for
though the interpreter is through the improved tone of
controversy excused personally, the interpretoHon is still
set down by many as dishonest, — I remark as follows : —

1. It is not enough to support the charge that this
T 2

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276 Rule oj Literal [Paet II.

interpretation is dishonest, to say simply and solely that
it is not literal. So &r all who are acquainted with the
nature of language, its forms, usages^ and constructions^
must agree. All must see that this simple and summary
ground is at any rate untenable ; because to maintain such
a ground would be in truth to assert that in language the
literal was always the true meaning, and the only true
meaning ; and that there was no such case as that of a
prima fade sense, which had to be corrected and sup-
planted by another sense. But such a position as this
would be in the teeth of the plainest facts. It is one
thing then to guard against a dishonest and evasive inter-
pretation, and another to impose an exorbitant and
inordinate rule of literal interpretation. It is evident that
in language Hie prima fade meaning is not the permanent
and fixed property of the statement to which it belongs,
but that it is a providonary meaning, exposed to appeal
and subject to revocation, upon proper grounds appear-
ing : that when no such grounds appear it is of course not
only iike prima fade meaning, but also the true one ; but
that, when such grounds do arise, then it is set aside and
the correction fixed in its place.

Such being the state of the case upon the field of lan-
guage generally, if controversy should have happened
to have fastened upon some minds the idea that in the
particular instance of the statement in the Infant Bap-
tismal Service the prima fade meaning is 'as ^such^aZ,
and that it is not amenable to examination or open to
revision, it must be said that this is not a natural but an
artifdal enforcement of literal interpretation. The natural
rule is a qualified and limited one, in agreement with
common sense and in accordance with the facts of lan-
guage; but this would be an arbitrary and fictitious
assumption — the creation of that pertinacity which is
engendered by strife, and no fruit of common sense and

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Chap. IV.] Interpretation considered. 277

nature. This would be to give a supremacy to the literal
principle in excess of its real rights. This statement is
amenable to the same ordeal to which all other statements
are subject^ viz. that of examination, to see if the literal
meaning of it is the true or the only true one. Do we
not observe indeed, in the interpretation of ordinary
books or documents, how weak a thing a prima facie
meaning is, and how easily set aside ? The particular use
then, the extreme advantage taken of the prima facie
meaning of the statement now in question, as if that one
consideration settled everything, is plainly untenable;
and the pure and simple recurrence to that meaning, the
repetition of the appeal to it, may give it a fanciful and a
counterfeit strengtii in people's minds, but is no answer
to the claim which must be met at last ; that this literal
meaning admitted and confessed is still open to correction ;
and that upon examination we may find, as we frequently
do in ordinary reading, that another meaning of the
statement is admissible.

The criterion of an honest interpretation then is not the
acceptance of the prima facie meaning of a statement as
such, — a test which would be opposed to the whole exist-
ing structure of language; implying, as it would, that
language is a perfect instrument and a transparent medium
of expression ; whereas it is a very complicated structure,
which has accumulated all kinds of usages and artificial
forms of construction in its growth. But the criterion
of an honest interpretation is whether it is upon examina-
tion admissible. We cannot touch bottom short of this,
or farther narrow the ethics of interpretation. However,
on abstract grounds, we might stand up for literal inter-
pretation alone ; we find, as a matter of fact, that language
assumes sucb forms as that we must apply another key
to it; that to insist on the literal principle exclusively
would be to confine ourselves to an instrument too narrow

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278 Rule of Literal [Pabt II.

to deal with language as a whole, large portions of which
it would ignore ; and that our definition of honesty in the
interpretation of statements must square with the facts of
language, which often compel a mode of construction,
which is honest and yet not literal.

Nor, if this general principle is conceded, can it be
maintained that there is any special dishonesty in the
principle of hypothetical interpretation. This is some-
times spoken of indeed as if it were, in a special and
peculiar way, opposed to plain dealing, and self-convicted
of insincerity ; as if nobody could adopt it without tamper-
ing with his conscience and inward sense of truth ; as if
it converted the statement in the Baptismal Service into
(I manifestly dishonest one, and lowered irremediably the
character of the compilers of our Prayer Book, by con-
verting them into hypocrites whose words and meanings
did not coincide. But the plain answer to this is that
hypothetical construction is a known form and usagCi
incorporated in language, and standing on exactly the
same ground in respect of honesty on which other usages
and forms of language, which require not to be inter*
preted literally, stand ; that, as a matter of fact, and by
the confession of all parties, it is used in Scripture, and
admitted into and adopted in our Prayer Book ; and that
therefore it is too late to doubt its honesty as a usage, the
only question to consider being whether it is correctly
applied in the particular case. Indeed, this point is con-
ceded by reflecting reasoners on both sides, none of whom
object to the principle of hypothetical interpretation ; the
only question being as to its application, whether it is
admissible in the particular case before us.

2. We come then to the particular case of the state-
ment before us ; and there meets us at the very outset
an obstacle to the literal interpretation of it — ^an obstacle
certainly which is not of our own making, because it lies

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Chap. TV.] Interpretation considered. 279

upon the very surface of Scripture, and consists in the
meaning itself of the word ^' regenerate/' or '' born of
Grod/' as employed in Scripture. In its apparent Scrip-
tural meaning this term implies actual goodness; but
can we say^ in consistency with simple facts, that all
infants are made actually good, or have a pious and
virtuous character implanted in them in baptism f Here
then is not a gratuitous but a natural obstacle ta the
literal interpretation of this statement.

But, without assuming this sense of the word as the
true one, however conspicuous in Scripture and supported
by the obvious and natural sense of the language of
Scripture, the issue is still the same. The Church no-
where defines the sense of the term '* regenerate : '* she
leaves it open then to any one to understand the word
in the sense just mentioned, implying actual goodness :
she leaves it open even to any one to understand it in
the Calvinistio sense, as implying indefectible goodness.
But the liberty to hold these senses is the liberty to hold
that construction of this statement which inevitably goes
along with them.

Those who make the charge of dishonesty against the
hypothetical interpretation of this statement do not put
before themselves the grounds on which this interpretation
is given by those who do adopt it. They imagine the
interpreter coming to this conclusion, simply upon the
ground of the statement itself, and with nothing else
before him ; in which case his conclusion justly appears
altogether untenable and gratuitous : whereas the inter-
preter, when he comes to this conclusion, is in possession
of other data besides the statement itself: he has the
advantage of the admitted fact of hypothetical construc-
tion as a usage in Church Services : he has the advantage
of the fact that the very statement in question is, by the
admission of all parties, used bypothetically in the Adult

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28o Rule of Literal [Paet II.

Baptismal Service ; and he has the advantage of the &ct
that the Chorch allows a specific doctrine and sense of a
term, which necessitate this construction in this particular
instance. These are facts or data beyond the statement
itself^ which plainly afiect its force and character as a
statement ; but if a person confines his attention to the
statement itself, as if that were the one and sole fact
in the case^ and does not recognize these further data,
he necessarily judges as a person does who has not the
true state of the case before him ; and he sets down an
interpretation for which he does not see the reasons as
simply unreasonable.

Those who urge this general objection of insincerity
forget the important point, that some persons come to
this statement in the Baptismal Service with a totally
different sense of the word ^' regenerate *' from their own.
They understand the word in a sense quite harmonizing
with the literal construction of this statement ; they then
say how gratuitous is any other construction. But other
persons come to this statement who have habitually
and all their lives understood the word " regenerate *' to
imply actual goodness and holiness, and who appeal to
this as the obvious sense of Scripture. These then say
that the simple meaning of the word obliges them to
understand this statement hypotheticaHy, and that they
have grown up in the Church with this sense of the word
in their minds, and with the right allowed them to con-
sider it the only true sense; and more than this, even
to attach indefectibility to that sense, inasmuch as the
Church nowhere prohibits this addition to the sense of
the word.

Any interpretation of a statement which is not the
literal one lies of course under the disadvantage that it
requires explanation; and this has made many shrink
from the defence of the hypothetical interpretation of this

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Chap. IV.] Interpretation considered. 281

statement. There is a disposition in controversy to take
nndae advantage of all admissions^ and that the case
requires explanation is an admission. But those who
have every day they live to hear explanations, and who
find it a daily occurrence that explanation brings out
truth; who have constantly to alter their impressions of
facts in consequence of explanation, and to correct their
understandings of terms and statements in consequence
of explanation, ought not to think it much of a presump-
tion against an interpretation that it requires explanation.
They must know that explanation very often is true
explanation ; consonant with the facts of the case, and
necessary to the simple end that those facts should be
seen and noticed. They must know that explatiation is
constantly but the supplement of omission, bringing
within our sight those further facts of which a prima facie
view does not take cognizance ; that, therefore, a prima
fade view has by no means so great a presumption in its
favour as compared with the result of explanation.

The mere fear of explanation then, L e. of a collision
and encounter with a prima fade impression, ought not
to deter us from stating how a matter really lies ; nor
should we affect obviousness and simplicity of ground at
the cost of truth; nor should we aim at forming such a
judgment as will correspond with the first-sight opinion
of other persons, but such as will correspond to the facts
of the case itself.

The consciousness of this need of explanation has
indeed been felt as a weight by some of the defenders of
hypothetical interpretation, who have confessed in conse-
quence an objection in the abstract to the use of such
forms of language in services as require explanation. I
cannot coincide in this regret, because there is no reason
why the language of a Prayer Book should be more simple,
direct, and categorical than human language generally ;

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282 Rule of Literal [Part II.

and hnman language has adopted these forms. The rule
of supposition pervades the language of society ; it enters
into poetry, into oratory, into social intercourse. It has,
because it has been incorporated in human language,
been adopted by Scripture. A Prayer Book would not
be improved by being divested of forms which are a part
of human and a part of sacred language. Why should
such a book aim at being more accurate than the natural
language of mankind, and more accurate than the Bible ?
Such language requires explanation in the Prayer Book,
and it requires explanation in Scripture too. And it is
better that a Prayer Book should follow established types,
and be moulded upon an ancient popular and sacred
model, than that it should adopt the nudity and stiffness
of a new devotional language. But when I differ from
this regret, I must remark that the advantage which has
been taken of this confession of regret is unfair. It has
been interpreted as a confession of error, but persons
admit nothing against the truth of a particular explana-
tion of certain language, by objecting to the use of
language which requires explanation.

But another and important defence of explanation has
still to be added, and that is, that on the question before
us neither side can do without it. Either interpretation
here entails the need- of explanation : if you get rid of it
in one quarter, it meets you in another. If you interpret
the statement that the infant is regenemte literally, you
are clear of explanation for that one step, but another
places you opposite the sense of the word " regenerate ^'
in Scripture, and then you have to explain. The re-
generate state implies actual goodness, if we interpret
Scripture literally. Have all infants actual goodness
implanted in them in baptism ? If you affirm this, you
apparently contradict facts, and have to explain bow you
do not. If you deny that regeneration means this, you

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Chap. IV.] Interpretation considered. 283

apparently oontradict Scripture, and have to explain how
you do not. And you will find either of these explana-
tions impracticable,* while the one which is given on the
other side is only an appeal to a known and familiar usage
of language.

^ Chapters v. and z. Part I.

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The relation of the Articles to the Prayer Book is some-
times stated as being this^ that the former exhibits the
doctrinal teaching of the Chnrch, while the latter does
not contain any doctrinal teachings but only her forms of
devotion. But this mode of describing the two is not
wholly correct, because devotional offices may contain and
teach doctrine^ as being founded and constructed upon it.
And accordingly the Fifty-seventh Canon declares, that
''the doctrine both of Baptism and the Lord^s Supper is
so sufficiently set down in the Book of Common Prayer
to be used at the administration of the said sacraments,
as nothing can be added unto it that is material and

But while devotional services, as well as Articles, may
contain and teach doctrine, they can only do so as ser-
vices ; according to the capacity which services have for
doctrinal teaching, and subject to the construction and
interpretation which the admitted liberties and usages of
language in services entail. In estimating the doctrinal
result of such services, we are bound to make allowance
for these usages and liberties of language, and cannot
fasten upon particular statements in them a tighter mean-
ing than the rules of language, as it is employed in
services, require.

What is the doctrine of Baptism then set down, as the
Fifty-seventh Canon says, in the Baptismal Services?

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Articles and Prayer Book, ^c, 285

Certainly these oflBces teach a connexion between regene-
ration and baptism^ because they are founded upon such
a connexion, and would indeed be entirely unmeaning
without it. But it does not follow that the particular
statement — '^This infant is regenerate/' — teaches the
doctrine that all infants are regenerate in baptism;
because there is a liberty and usage of language in Church
Services which allows of statements being made in them
literal in form^ but yet hypothetical in meaning. The
Fifty-seyenth Canon, while it says that the service
teaches a doctrine of baptism, does not say that it teaches
it in the manner and style of a dogmatic formulary, all the
statements of which must be interpreted litenJly; nor
therefore does it assert that this particular statement is a
dogmatic statement. The Adult Baptismal Service con-
tains the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, but the
statement in it, ^^ These persons are regenerate," does not
therefore teach that all adults are regenerate in baptism.
And the same distinction is applicable to the Infant
Baptismal Service.

But while the Articles do not monopolize the doctrinal
teaching of the Church, they may still in a particular
case throw an interpretative light upon the services, in
this way ; that we may upon examination find that the
Articles are manifestly constructed with a certain design,
and that it is wholly inconsistent with the evident design
of the Articles that a decisive dogma on a certain point
should be laid down in the Prayer Book. Such an
argument, if made out, could not but be confirmatory of
the interpretation of the Baptismal Service, which has
been arrived at upon formulistic grounds. For the
Articles and the Prayer Book being public documents of
the same Church, owning the same authorship ; it would
indeed be unaccountable, if a certain doctrinal design
was quite apparent in the Articles, which was yet

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286 Articles and Prayer Book [Part IL

positively contradicted and frustrated in the Prayer

The Articles then are, by the admission of all parties,
constructed with an inclusive and comprehensive aim.
It is universally considered that they use a cautiously
indefinite and a designedly ambiguous language on con-
troverted questions, for the very purpose that the same
statements in them may be subscribed by different schools,
which, though disagreeing with each other, are both
embraced within the limits of a general formula. By
some this is thought a fault in the Articles, by others a
merit, but all agree to the &ct. Let us turn to the
Twenty-seventh Article on Baptism. This article too is
obviously constructed, in accordance with the design of
the whole, with a deliberately inclusive aim; carefully
confining itself to such genei^ statements of the nature
of baptism as a sacrament and the grace attaching to it,
as all recognized parties in the Church could then agree
in, and accept in common. It is evidently with this
design that it leaves out all mention of the effect of
baptism upon infants \ because it could not lay down any
precise or definite doctrine on this subject, but at the
imminent peril of offending one or other existing school,
whereas by omitting the subject and confining itself to
the assertion of the duty of admitting the infant to the
rite itself, it avoids this danger, and the whole Article
becomes a general formula of the kind just nLentioned, to
which different schools may subscribe.

It is contrary then to the plain design of the Church as
manifested in the Article on Baptism, that a dogmatic
statement upon a strongly controverted point relating to
the subject of that Article, should be inserted in any
other portion of our formularies. For the obvious reason
why the Article on Baptism is made so compr^enmve as
it is, and cautiously confined to neutral and inclusive

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Chap. V.] considered in connexion. 287

statements^ is that the basis of the Church may be inclusive
on this subject. But this object is not attained if a test-
ing dogmatic statement is only omitted in the Articles in
order to be inserted in some other section of our formu-
laries ; that is to say^ if all that is gained by the omission
of it in one place, is that it is shifted to another. For
the particular place in which a dogmatic statement
appears makes no difference^ so long as it i^ a dogmatic
statement ; and it is as testing, occurring in one portion
of our formularies, as occurring in another. The Articles
then, so far as they treat of baptism, being palpably
constructed with the design of inclusion, and of avoid-
ing any statement to which one or other party in the
Church could not assent ; it is as total a contradiction
as can be conceived to the design of the Articles, that
a statement which, on account of the opposition it
would create, is avoided in an article, should be inserted
as a dogmatic statement in one of the services of the

It must be observed that the ground upon which this
argument rests is not the simple omission of the statement
in question in the Articles ; for, so far as this is concerned,
the Church is not confined to one place for the situation
of a doctrinal statement, but may make it in another if it
suits her convenience ; and it is admitted that doctrinal

Online LibraryJames Bowling MozleyA review of the baptismal controversy → online text (page 23 of 38)