Monday, February 19, 2007

Essays and Reviews, 1860. Eds. Victor Shea and William Whitla (2000)

I’m nearing the end of my second year of a three-year program at Trinity College. That has not meant less reading, as the decrease in blog postings might suggest, but reflects a decision I made at the beginning of last year. I have not blogged about the books I have read for classes. There have been a large number of such books, but when one is writing essays and assignments, a blog is not the place in which to work out the beginnings of my thoughts about these texts.

This book, though, is one I started reading some time ago, and the sidebar of this blog advertised for a long time that I was reading it. Last term, I designed a reading course around it, and now that that course is out of the way, I felt it appropriate to blog about the book now.

Essays and Reviews is a massively important book to the history of Anglicanism. It reshaped how people thought about the Bible; it reshaped how people approached the discussion of religious norms. To describe its publication as beginning a revolution would not be an exercise in hyperbole.

Before I take a quick look at the seven essays and reviews which form this book, as it was first published in 1860, I want to discuss briefly the importance of this particular edition. William Whitla and Victor Shea, of York University, have produced an apparatus that brings this book back to life. The ideas of Essays and Reviews are far from daring in contemporary Anglican thought, and so the real value of reading the book now lies in the field of social history, or the history of ideas. It is difficult to do such a reading, though, because of a loss of context. The copious notes provided for each essay by Shea and Whitla restore this context: they translate the fragments included in original languages, left untranslated in other publications of Essays and Reviews; they explicate history and allusions; and they make clear which points were disputed and why, offering an entry into the ludicrously vast collection of secondary literature about this book. Their masterful introduction not only explicates the essays themselves and gives requisite biographical information about their respective authors, but also situates the book within the context of the Victorian church far better than many book length studies of the issues. (One might well argue that their writing is itself book-length! This tome, after all, with introduction, essays, supporting material, bibliography, and information about both the publication history and the heresy trials of the authors, weighs more than a large sack of sugar, and is more than 9.5” by 6.5” by 3”. It’s not light reading material!)

Seven pieces comprise the original text. Frederick Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) contributed a piece entitled “The Education of the World,” a rather Victorian look at progress in humanity’s evolution and life of faith. Rowland Williams was tried for heresy for his review, “Bunsen’s Biblical Researches.” Nominally a look at a German theologian, Williams used Bunsen’s ideas as a basis for his own assertion of principles of higher criticism. Baden Powell’s essay, “On the Study of the Evidence of Christianity” is a rejection of the type of logic so inextricably associated with Paley. Henry Bristow Wilson’s interesting essay is called “Scéances Historique de Genève: The National Church,” a critical look at the Church of England. Charles Wycliffe Goodwin’s contribution, “Mosaic Cosmogony” is a look at the relevance of geological sciences and the accepted history of the world from a faith perspective (Ah, Archbishop Ussher and the world being created in exactly 4004 BC!). Benjamin Jowett's essay is about the proper interpretation of scripture. The final essay, and one of the most intriguing, is a brilliant work of history by Mark Pattison, “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688-1750.”

None of the essays are particularly earth-shattering to modern ears, and it’s hard to feel the storm of excitement that arose because of this book. So why look for the excitement? Well, for two reasons. The first is that, in 1860, the world (by which I mean people in England who could read) cared—about poetry, science, and religion. They cared about ideas, and so it’s interesting to try to gain some sense of what that was like. The second reason is that the controversy around Essays and Reviews was largely confined to the Church of England, and was principally about how to read the Bible. It’s an argument in which the Anglican Church, now even more widespread, finds itself engaged. Moreover, the actual details of the argument have not shifted much. Does, then, Essays and Reviews offer us some solution? Certainly if history repeats itself, things would look bright for the more liberal side: some trials and tribulation, followed by an acceptance of correctness? While I doubt that things will fall out in quite so simple a repetition of the past, Essays and Reviews—in the remarkably large Shea & Whitla edition—is well worth the time it takes to engage with a fascinating period in the life of the Church.

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