[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
November 19th, 1852
. . . Have you looked into the remarkable book[*] which the Chevalier Bunsen has just published? I have just got to the end of the third volume at a first reading. But, thoroughly to estimate the work, I must go through it a second time, and more carefully, with a reference, so far as I have time and means, to the original authorities on which some of his statements are founded. What a multifarious book it is! It is the most difficult thing in the world to describe it to one who has not read it. It is not so much one book, as a congeries of books, and would I think, be best described by that good old-fashioned title which one so often meets with in the pedantic treatises of the 17th century—"Syntagma Commentationum, etc., etc." His command of English for a foreigner is really wonderful, though his style is, as the Germans would express it, "etwas weitlaüfig und geschwätzig." His reading is immense, and one seems to see poured out over his pages the contents of his common place book, which have been accumulating for a quarter of a century.—But to speak of more important points: it does appear to me in many respects a truly noble and courageous book, particularly from one filling his position in society, and has left on my mind a far more reverential and admiring feeling towards the author, than I derived from his earlier work, "The Church of the Future." I think it must produce a salutary impression on the best part of the Church of England, and on the cultivated few among the Dissenters; and not the less so, that on some points it is decidedly conservative. That is an advantage, which makes it a book for the day and the hour. He sees—and I fully agree with him there—the necessity of the reorganisation of a truly living Church, to preserve the moral culture, and guarantee the healthful progress of Europe; to stave off, in fact, the return of a chaotic barbarism. But, according to my present impression of his book, I do not very clearly see why he should particularly select the age of Hippolytus as a normal type for the future developments of the Church. If we once quit those grand fundamental spiritual principles respecting our relations to God and man, which find their eternal witness and their unanswerable warrant in the convictions of every awakened soul, which to my feeling are so fully and so perfectly expressed in that wonderful personality of Christ,—and of which the age of Hippolytus merely exhibits to us one of many possible phases—very interesting and very beautiful, from its comparative simplicity and ingenuousness—I do not see where we can consistently stop in this process of outward, authoritative, development. Bunsen's limitation seems to me arbitrary; and for the same reason that he finds a rule in the constitution and the creed which existed at the end of the second century, another, acting on similar grounds, might take up your brother's theory, and carry the idea of development through the times of Gregory the Great, Bernard, Anselm, Aquinas, etc., down to the Council of Trent itself, and through it to the present day. I may have misunderstood Bunsen; but that is my present impression of the weak part of his book. It has always seemed to me that the Gnostic controversies of the middle and first part of the second century produced a strong conservative reaction among those whom Eusebius calls εκκλησιαστικοι, the inheritors of the Apostolic tradition respecting Christ; and that to this reaction we owe the expansion and consolidation of the creed, the fixation of the outlines of the future hierarchy, and, possibly too, the earliest approach to a determination of the Canon. I have never yet had time satisfactorily to work out the this idea; but I have ever thought it contained an element of important truth. On the other hand, I enter most heartily into Bunsen's conception of the aim and design of the Christian religion. I have long been inclined to believe that there is some deeper truth veiled under the old doctrine of the Logos, than the religious party with which I am traditionally connected, have perceived. Indeed it has been unfortunate for the development of Christian truth among the Unitarians, that their intense resistance to the gross corruption of the Athanasian trinity, has induced a certain one-sidedness and spiritual weakness into their system. But we shall outlive all that. Better and more genial elements are coming into play. The spirit of Christ,—the spirit of humanity and the most elevated theism,—will bring them forth more and more. I fully anticipate a day when the miserable partitions of our modern sectarianism will break down, and good and pious men of all creeds will enter into com-munion, and the Church of Christ will again be one: and in that day there will be no want of cordial welcome and recognition to you, my excellent and honoured friend, and all who like you, in the spirit of Christ, are labouring so bravely for freedom and humanity and the highest truth of God. Farewell. Ever yours affectionately.
[*Bunsen, Christian Karl Josias, Baron von. Hippolytus and His Age; or, The Doctrine and Practice of the Church of Rome under Commodus and Alexander Severus; and Ancient and Modern Christianity and Divinity Compared. 4 vols. London: Longmans, Brown, and Longmans, 1852.]