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THE most notable fact as to Jowett’s doctrinal position is that he lays very little stress on the Church system, either the system of worship or that of dogma. From this it has been concluded that he held lightly by Christianity itself and was content with a vague theism, in which Plato counted for as much as Christ Himself.

The readers of these Sermons will hardly think that his theism was vague. Metaphysically, they will find that he shrank neither from the assertion of the divine personality, though conscious of the limitations attendant upon the transfer of that expression from man to God, nor from speaking of Christ as ‘our Saviour,’ and as the expression of the divine nature in a human form; and that God and immortality were all in all to him. Morally, they will find that the image of Christ is dominant in the preacher’s thoughts.

It may be admitted that he was naturally of a visceptical turn of mind. But he combated this tendency in all practical matters. No one was more decided than he in all that concerned moral character or educational discipline; and, though he would criticize a proposal which aimed at some good object, yet, when convinced, he would support it steadily. ‘I think enthusiasm so much more valuable a quality than criticism,’ he would say. But there were several causes which increased his natural tendency to shrink from sharp definitions on matters of deep importance. His love of truth was fastidious, and an over-statement of the side of a case with which he sympathized was positively painful to him. He was also habitually reticent. His early evangelical associations, and the Tractarian controversy in his youth at Oxford, had resulted in a strong sense of the evils of much talk about religion. He regretted at the close of his life that religion should be put aside in conversation; but, only occasionally, and with intimate friends, would he speak of it at all freely. I remember, when I was his pupil, his closing a discussion in which I had tried to engage him, by saying, ‘We are tired in Oxford of talk about such things.’ To an undergraduate, at a much later time, who had undergone a very sudden conversion, and told him that he had ‘found Jesus,’ he said, laying his hand on his shoulder, ‘I am very glad of it, my dear boy, but don’t talk about it.’ To this fear of exaggeration was added in his early manhood a conviction that the statements in which theological opinion viiwas commonly expressed were inadequate. I recall a saying of his in the beginning of 1853, that, if we could make a tour of the world, getting to understand the faith of each country, our religious beliefs would probably be very different from what they are. I do not think this implied any essential scepticism, but merely the doubt whether Christian freedom of thought had as yet been allowed its full scope: and this feeling will be found in many of the sermons in this volume.

His attitude was well indicated in a few words which I heard from him in 1857, when I was reading theology in Oxford: ‘The criticisms of the present day will at first be felt as a blow to faith, but they will issue in its fuller establishment; all that is important will survive.’ The method of exposition followed in his book on St. Paul’s Epistles (published in 1855) also throws light on it. He was never satisfied with such an interpretation as would commit the Apostle to an exact logical system, but sought to bring out the ‘streams of tendency’ which combined in each phrase, and to make it point to a truth larger than any which our theological systems have expressed. The reception, however, which was given to this work, the misrepresentation of it as an attack upon Christian truth, and the personal injustice of which he was the object, made him shrink into himself. He published a second edition, in which the Essays were rehandled, the doctrinal utterances of the first edition were explained, and a positive statement was viiisubstituted for a negative one: for instance, in the Essay on the Atonement, where the first edition had not the sacrifice, not the satisfaction, but the greatest moral act ever done in the world, the second edition explains how the moral act is the true sacrifice and satisfaction. But these explanations were not accepted by those who had prejudged the case. He published his treatise on the Interpretation of Scripture in the ‘Essays and Reviews’ in 1860, and had it in contemplation as late as 1870 to contribute to a second series of essays on the same lines; but, partly, the new duties and responsibilities of the Master ship, partly, the growing doubt whether the time was come for the profitable discussion of such subjects in England, made him feel it undesirable to proceed. In his illness in 1891, when he thought of asking me to be co-editor with Professor Campbell of a new issue of his work on St. Paul’s Epistles (a task which he afterwards felt it better to entrust to Professor Campbell alone), he said to me: ‘The chief interest of the book and the essays contained in it is that they came a little before their time.’ Some of his friends urged him, when the termination of his tenure of the Vice-Chancellorship at Oxford in 1886 left him with somewhat more leisure, to undertake some definite theological work. But, though not absolutely declining, he said that he doubted whether he could then write such a work as would live. His energy, which was then exhausted by four years of incessant official ixwork, revived to some extent, but not sufficiently for the effort required.

Had Jowett’s early work been received with candour, instead of being treated as an attack upon Christianity, he would in all probability have been a great religious teacher. The positive side of his convictions would have gained strength through sympathy, and he would have put forward his conclusions as the development and extension of received truth, not as a criticism upon its previous expression; for he, no less than others, varied in his tone about such subjects according to his environment. I remember his saying, when I had been appointed Bampton Lecturer, and he was wishing me to come to Balliol as theological tutor: ‘I think we have been too much afraid of system.’ Some casual remarks may, no doubt, be found in his biography which may seem to show a distrust of the records of the life of Christ; but, on the other hand, all through his later years the work which he most longed to write, had health and strength sufficed, was a life of Christ. What he opposed was the dwelling upon each statement in the record as if all alike were unimpeachable, upon each word casually uttered as equal to the most solemn statements of moral and religious truth. But the character and spirit of Christ, which the record alone discloses, were to him supreme. “The perfect man,” he says, “the Lord Jesus Christ, is the only image we are capable of attaining of the perfect God.”


A few of his sayings may perhaps be introduced here in corroboration of this general statement. ‘We are not,’ he is constantly saying, ‘to be the slaves of words; the reality beneath them is alone important.’ “We cannot really understand religious propositions if we are unable to re-word them.” His dislike of dogmatic statements was due to his feeling that there is something untruthful in closing over a complex subject by a general and inadequate affirmation. “The nature of God is inscrutable, and can no more be expressed in words and figures of speech than in the graven images of olden times.” On the other hand, he constantly points to the firm standing-ground for religion which is presented by nature and morality. “Physical laws are a revelation of God. By knowing and using them we become safe from the arrow that flieth by day and the pestilence which walketh in darkness.” “The curtain of the physical world is closing in upon us. What does this mean but that the arms of His intelligence are embracing us on every side?” As regards moral truth he is still more emphatic. “If a man were to worship truth, justice, and love, would he not be really worshipping God?” “We may say of God that He is infinite, incorporeal, and the like. But to say all this of Him is not half so much as to say that He is just, loving, and true.” Sayings of this kind, which abound in these sermons, when taken on their negative side, have made some men (rather recklessly, I think) speak of him as xia ‘disintegrator.’ They are really the attempt to disclose the unassailable basis of faith. As our Lord said that on love to God and man hung all the law and the prophets, so he would say: The great moral ideas implanted within our hearts are the foundation; all that we assert in theology must be consistent with these; on these we fall back when traditional ideas have become untenable. And, as he further contends, these moral principles are fruitful: they enable us to harmonize and develop the new revelations of Himself which God is giving to this generation through science or criticism or the knowledge of other religions. Also, he maintains that this teaching is as positive and authoritative as that which is more commonly acknowledged, and which only appears more certain because it is accepted without inquiry.

There are signs that men’s convictions are moving in the direction towards which Jowett pointed. It is possible that he may still be treated among theologians as Thomas Young, the discoverer of the Undulatory Theory of Light, was treated among physicists; of whom the great German, Helmholtz, writes: ‘He was one of the most profound minds that the world has ever seen; but he had the misfortune to be too much in advance of his age. . . . His most important ideas, therefore, lay buried and forgotten . . . until a new generation gradually and painfully made the same discoveries, and proved the exactness of his assertions. But we may hope that the xiirecognition of Jowett’s services in the grander sphere of theology may not be thus delayed.

This short appreciation of Jowett’s theological position will, I believe, be felt to be borne out by the sermons in this volume. They will be found, no doubt, to be unsystematic (this is inherent in their form), and so far incomplete. But it may be well to bear in mind that the greatest teachers of the world, whether we take the Central Figure of all, or whether we take Buddha or Socrates in the East and West, left no writings: their ideas, which have moved the heart of mankind, must be gathered from the reports of their disciples. What was felt by Jowett’s pupils and friends was an influence of a similar kind, not the binding force of a system, but great thoughts opening out an aperçu of things not commonly realized, or a special light which coloured the whole scene. It is not, therefore, as chapters of a work, of which each part has been thought out and made to fit in to the whole, that these sermons should be read; the estimate formed of them will be various, and those who most appreciate them will value, some one part, some another. He himself had no very high opinion of them, and, but for the strong wish of his friends11See their letter, contained in vol. i., would not have desired their publication. On the other hand, some of the reasons which made him shrink from publicity have passed xiiiaway; and men are often more ready to learn from the dead22Should any one desire a fuller and more systematic presentation of Jowett’s teaching, I would refer him to an article by Mr. C. G. Montefiore in the Jewish Quarterly Review for January, 1900..

It may not, therefore, be out of place if an attempt be made, however briefly, to give an outline of the contents of these sermons. I have placed first a sermon on Evolution, not only as showing the writer’s mode of dealing with the most remarkable philosophical conception which had appeared during his lifetime, or as evincing his perfect independence of thought, but because it meets directly the question raised by that conception as to the central truth of theology, the being of God. The teaching is that the chief source of the knowledge of God is not in the region affected by physical causes, but in the higher nature of man. Next comes a series of sermons which Jowett appears to have intended to place together as giving his teaching on Natural Religion; but two sermons to which he alludes, on the ideas of God conveyed by the Oriental religions and the Greek philosophers, are not among those which have come under my hand, and if they were ever preached they have disappeared. I have therefore thought it best to insert here two sermons which touch upon these subjects in a more general way. The sermon on the ‘other sheep not of this fold,’ and that on the growth of the true xividea of the divine character, indicate Jowett’s method of treating non-Christian faiths. The sermons on Hebrew religion and on the Christian idea of God embrace the field of what is commonly called Revealed Religion; while that on ‘the Subjection of the Son’ (1 Cor. xv. 28) is an attempt to exhibit the modern aspects of religion, in which the biblical ideas are modified and enlarged by the experience and discoveries of later times.

The sermon on ‘Feeling after God’ describes the universal elements of religion and their influence on the life of mankind. The idea that God can ever disappear from men’s minds he declares to be chimerical. The contemplation of the ideal of truth and justice is in itself a kind of worship of God; the pursuit of goodness is an incipient Christianity. ‘In Him,’ says the text of another similar sermon, which it has been found impossible to include, ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’ We commune with God through nature, and worship Him by obeying its laws; and in history by honouring each type of goodness. God is within us as well as without us, we are His off spring and have affinity with Him.

To these sermons, which Jowett himself seems to have selected as typical, are added others in which these general views are expanded or are looked at from various sides: that on the ‘Image of the invisible God,’ the reflexion of the Divine in nature, in the moral law, in the sense of spiritual things which xvbelong to our higher life, and in the communion of saints; that on ‘God just, loving, true,’ in which, by means of three parables, His justice, truth and love are indicated in contrast with certain systems of theology; and in which there is a remarkable passage on the subject of eternal punishment; and that on God as a Spirit—‘Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall men worship the Father’—(‘one of the revolutionary sayings of Christ’), drawing out the spirituality of the true religion, which is not dependent on system. Jowett’s biography shows how earnestly in his later years he dwelt upon the belief that the main elements of religion were not only consonant with, but necessary parts of, human nature, and that the fact that they have been revealed or disclosed in the Scriptures should not result in a dependence on the letter of Scripture, or on systems drawn from it, but should stimulate us to find them as they have been enshrined, by the purpose of God, in the very structure of the universe, in the life of humanity, and in our own better mind. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this attitude implied any lack of confidence in the divine character of Christ and His religion. The sermons which follow, on the oneness of Christ with God, through complete community of nature and allegiance; on the authority of Christ, as flowing from His spiritual nature and His union with God; the sermon on ‘My Kingdom is not of this world,’ which exhibits the spirit of Christ and the xvilife flowing from it as always above the course of the world, though not necessarily disjoined from it; those on the Lord’s Prayer and on prayer generally; and that on the Lord’s Supper, show how heartily he responded to the claims which the nature and character of our Lord make upon the conscience.

The concluding sermon is on Immortality, arguing from God’s nature and His justice to His children, from the hopes which He has excited in us, from the assurance which we feel that what is best is most enduring, that we shall live to Him beyond the grave, and giving a new and striking view of the saying, ‘If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable.’ I have added, since space permits it, a sermon on Friendship. It is unconnected with the rest, but its publication has been asked for by several of those who heard it, and who lamented its exclusion from a former volume.

It will be felt, no doubt, by many who crave for a complete theological system, that these sermons are but fragmentary, and, so far, unsatisfying. But it should be remembered that the teachings of some of the greatest of men have not been given in detailed statements, but rather, to use a phrase of Matthew Arnold’s, ‘as language thrown out at an object of consciousness not fully grasped.’ Another thing which will be observed in these sermons is the constant recurrence to a few great ideas. This also is a characteristic of the greatest religious teachers, especially in old age. xviiRichard Baxter, whom Jowett greatly admired, says that a single expression from the Lord’s Prayer or the Decalogue gave him more spiritual sustenance than all the intricate theories for which he had once contended. We may admit that Jowett’s mind was strongly influenced by Plato, and that the ‘contemplation of the idea of good’ was the medium through which religion most powerfully influenced him. But the ‘idea of good’ was what theologians have always dwelt on as ‘the image of Christ,’ not as a model or literal exemplar, but as a spirit capable of renewing the world.

His presentation of this may not embrace the whole of religion; it certainly will not answer all the questions which men may ask. If it is felt by some of us that Jowett’s philosophic mind was too readily satisfied with the idea, and gave too little weight to the outward form, whether of the Incarnation or of the Church; yet we may recall to mind that St. John, who applies to the teachers of his day this test, ‘Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God, also records the words in which Christ bids His followers rejoice that this outward form should pass from their view, and the Spirit, the Comforter, should come. To many minds this is the truth which is specially needed. To those who feel that the systems in which religion has clothed itself have become to them, in a certain degree, inadequate or unreal, Jowett’s teaching will bring strong consolation. xviiiThey will find in it a constant effort to restore the moral and spiritual basis of religion, not conflicting with the ancient standards, but rather tending to interpret them and make them minister more fully to the needs of our day.

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