Liberal Thought In Nineteenthcentury Britain

In Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century a creative use of the Old Testament is to be found among so-called liberal Anglicans, men such as Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) and Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72). While they rejected the theories of verbal inspiration that characterized British theology, they were not biblical critics in the German sense (Rogerson 1984:188-92). Their view of the Old Testament was that its history was by and large accurate if not infallible, and it had considerable relevance for modern readers. As a famous headmaster of Rugby School, Arnold was concerned to inculcate in his pupils a high sense of moral responsibility; and he used the Old Testament accordingly. He did not deny that it contained moral crudities that could not be accepted by nineteenth-century Christians, and he explained this by saying that the human race had passed through successive stages of development, in each of which God had adapted his revelation to the particular point of development that each stage had reached. Yet at each stage there had been a conflict between good and evil, and those involved had been faced with a moral choice. Thus even though the slaughter of the Canaanites by Joshua could not be regarded as civilized behaviour, the accounts of the slaughter could be pressed into service to show the need today for humans to be on the side of morality and virtue.

Maurice, too, was an educationalist; but he had deep social concerns, and for him the Old Testament had much to say about how a nineteenth-century Christian country should be ordered. His overall view of the Bible can be summed up in his own words: 'It is throughout, the history of an actual government,—throughout, the history of an actual education; a government of voluntary creatures to teach them subjection;—an education of voluntary creatures to make them free' (Maurice 1855:63). The account of this education was the story of God's dealings with Israel; but the Old Testament showed that God was the creator of the whole human race. Just as he continually reached out to Israel in spite of its people's continual backsliding, so he reaches out to the whole human race. This is not apparent when the general history of the human race is considered, but it is made clear in the Bible. Old Testament history thus becomes the key to understanding all history as God's progressive education of the human race.

Two other themes that are important in Maurice are sacrifice and the hallowing of every part of human activity. Maurice saw in the Old Testament sacrificial system the principle that, in order to restore the disorder brought about by human self-will, sacrifice, i.e. surrender of self-will, was necessary. In contemporary Christianity this meant the surrender of self-will in the service of God. The Old Testament was also important to Maurice because it concerned a people who, as a whole, were a chosen nation. It was the whole nation that was a 'priestly kingdom and a holy nation' (Exod. 19:6) not just its priests and Levites. Maurice held that this was as true for Britain as for Israel and appealed to the Old Testament to argue that the Church of England and its clergy existed to show that the whole of life in Britain was of concern to God—its modes of government, its commerce and its industry. If these were of concern to God, then any injustice or wrong that was found in them stood under God's judgement.

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