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Spiritual renewal, Scripture, and the Oxford Movement: The vision of God

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from part of a convocation address at Nashotah House Theological Seminary (Sept. 25, 2015). This is the seventh piece in our Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition series. See the introductory essay by David Ney for more details on Anglicanism as a community centered on the Word: “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics.” Find all the essays (and others related to them) under the tag ressourcement.

In 1899, Edward Marshall, sometime curate of St. Mary Magdalene, Oxford, translator of the Venerable Bede, and a former student of E.B. Pusey, wrote to one of the first priest-librarians of Pusey House, the eminent and eccentric liturgical scholar F.E. Brightman. Pusey House had been founded 15 years earlier to be “a home to sacred learning and a rallying point of the Christian faith.” In addition to this vocation, it stood as a testimony to the influence of the one Newman had called ὁ μεγας, the great one. Five volumes of Pusey’s Life and Letters had just been published, and Pusey had become such an Anglo-Catholic totem that the editors of Liddon’s Life of Pusey removed the account of the newly married Puseys going to Sunday worship at a Presbyterian church while on honeymoon in Scotland. The editors also excised Liddon’s account of the evolution of Pusey’s eucharistic theology, removing signs that Pusey had held Calvinist views of the sacrament as a young man — too much information.

Similarly, when Marshall offered for publication the comprehensive notes he had taken of the great man’s lectures on the typological and sacramental reading of the Old Testament, the custodians of Pusey House put him off: Both the “subject matter” and the “discussions” that they would revive would be unwelcome — they represented an “early” Pusey, better forgotten.[1] Liddon appears to have found Pusey’s lectures on type and prophecy “strange and disturbing,” according to Andrew Louth. Even the sympathetic biographer of the Oxford Movement, Richard Church, condemned John Keble’s part in the project represented by the lectures as carelessly frivolous, a culpable offense to spiritual health and safety.

Well, if these obscure lectures were hardly deemed necessary reading even among those who viewed Pusey as a kind of a saint, why am I putting them forward today as part of a pathway to spiritual and ecclesial renewal?

The answer is contemplation. These lectures are part and parcel of the Tractarians’ efforts to help the English church recover her capacity to see and to enjoy the kind of vision of God, which is compellingly attractive, which is the beginning and end of Christian life. Many continue to reflect on what the renewal of the Church might look like, and some even call for a “new Oxford Movement” (e.g., see here, here, here, and here). A key part of any such movement, in my estimation, would be the recovery of the typological or figural vision embedded in Tractarian exegesis, for it would lead to a recovery of the vision of God.[2]

The leaders of the Oxford Movement are known more for their writing on ecclesiology and the sacraments than as students of the Bible. Yet, much of their better known work emerged from a sustained project seeking to understand and recover the way of seeing they found embodied in early Christian interpreters of the Scriptures. They looked to the Fathers because of how and what they saw. “They had Christ always in their thoughts,” Pusey wrote. And when they searched the Scriptures, it was the face of Christ that they looked for.

In the view of the ancient Church, no event recorded in Holy Scripture stands insulated and alone. All have bearing every way … But, chiefly, they all bear, she was persuaded, in some way upon Him, the Sun and centre of the system, our Incarnate Lord.[3]

But beware, all you students of the Bible, we cannot simply force ourselves to see. Pusey warned those seeking to learn from the Fathers that a forced or “constrained adoption of their views, and a determination to see with their eyes would not be safe, and would restore no healthful, or clear sight.”[4] Here Pusey was echoing Gregory of Nazianzus, who warned that seeking the vision of God “is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.”[5]

This warning has important connections with Martin Thornton’s approach. It is not simply enough to say that the vision of God is the goal of all Christian life. If we cannot simply force ourselves to see, how are we prepared for that vision? Thornton offers a three-fold rule of life ordered by the Daily Office, Mass, and private devotion. For Thornton, these are God-given means of participation in the life of God the Holy Trinity. This Regula or “Rule” puts flesh on the idea that “every truth flowing from the Incarnation, from the entrance of God into the human world as man, must have a practical lesson.”[6]

The Oxford reformers’ similar view was rooted in a patristic understanding of the purpose of the Incarnation. Consider their interpretation of the Divine Good Samaritan, that is, the Son of God who carried wounded humanity to “the inn” of the Church. The “beast of burden” in that parable is not just incidental for Ambrose, Augustine, or Origen, but a picture of the human nature lowered by sin, robbed of its proper garment, made beastly, but which becomes the Body of the Lord. Wounded humanity is carried to the inn of the Church in the human nature that the Divine Son takes on. In other words, the Incarnation is not only a doctrine about the union of divine and human in Christ the Word made flesh, but a reality that is the beginning of the end of Christian life. The Incarnation serves as the model for understanding how divine life and truth are communicated by sensible means in human words or earthly sacraments; this is what it means for the Son to come down from the heavenly Jerusalem, to fall among robbers on our behalf, but it is also how he carries us, how he restores us by Word and Sacrament until he comes again.

Exemplifying this approach, Pusey characterized the Christian religion according to a fundamental analogy between the way that God “comes down” in the Incarnation, the sacraments, and the Bible. In my next post, I will explores this incarnational understanding of Word and sacrament further.


[1] F.E. Brightman (1856–1932) to Marshall, Feb. 3, 1899, appended to “Notes,” Marshall’s notebook. Since “no other memoranda of the Lectures are available in print,” the notebook “may be of interest as well for their value as for the view which they give of the Lecturer’s method of Instruction at this early period of his career.” M-Obs, preface. Brightman refers to Liddon’s Life and The Spiritual Letters of E.B. Pusey. Mrs. Trench, the daughter of Abp Trench of Dublin, wrote The Story of Dr. Pusey’s Life.

[2] In proposing a focus on the vision of God, I echo here sentiments expressed by Rowan Williams during the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, as well as Martin Thornton’s sentiments regarding the end of all Christian discipleship.

[3] Pusey, Letter 1842.

[4] Pusey, Letter 38.

[5] John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision, p. 139.

[6] Martin Thorton, English Spirituality, p. 21.


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