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CHAPTER 9. 19th Century

 

Passage 9b: John Henry Newman, Private Judgment

 

There is this obvious, undeniable difficulty in the attempt to form a theory of Private Judgment, in the choice of a religion, that Private Judgment leads different minds in such different directions. If, indeed, there be no religious truth, or at least no sufficient means of arriving at it, then the difficulty vanishes: for where there is nothing to find, there can be no rules for seeking, and contradiction in the result is but a reductio ad absurdum of the attempt. But such a conclusion is intolerable to those who search, else they would not search; and therefore on them the obligation lies to explain, if they can, how it comes to pass, that Private Judgment is a duty, and an advantage, and a success, considering it leads the way not only to their own faith, whatever that may be, but to opinions which are diametrically opposite to it; considering it not only leads them right, but leads others wrong, landing them as it may be in the Church of Rome, or in the Wesleyan Connection, or in the Society of Friends.

Are exercises of mind, which end so diversely, one and all pleasing to the Divine Author of faith; or rather must they not contain some inherent or some incidental defect, since they manifest such divergence? Must private judgment in all cases be a good per se; or is it a good under circumstances, and with limitations? Or is it a good, only when it is not an evil? Or is it a good and evil at once, a good involving an evil? Or is it an absolute and simple evil? Questions of this sort rise in the mind on contemplating a principle which leads to more than the thirty-two points of the compass, and, in consequence, whatever we may here be able to do, in the way of giving plain rules for its exercise, be it greater or less, will be so much gain.

Now the first remark which occurs is an obvious one, and, we suppose, will be suffered to pass without much opposition, that whatever be the intrinsic merits of Private Judgment, yet, if it at all exerts itself in the direction of proselytism and conversion, a certain onus probandi lies upon it, and it must show cause why it should be tolerated, and not rather treated as a breach of the peace, and silenced instanter as a mere disturber of the existing constitution of things. Of course it may be safely exercised in defending what is established; and we are far indeed from saying that it is never to advance in the direction of change or revolution, else the Gospel itself could never have been introduced; but we consider that serious religious changes have prima facie case against them; they have something to get over, and have to prove their admissibility, before it can reasonably be allowed; and their agents may be called upon to suffer, in order to prove their earnestness, and to pay the penalty of the trouble they are causing. Considering the special countenance given in Scripture to quiet, unanimity, and contentedness, and the warnings directed against disorder, insubordination, changeableness, discord, and division; considering the emphatic words of the Apostle, laid down by him as a general principle, and illustrated in detail, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called”; considering, in a word, that change is really the characteristic of error, and unalterableness the attribute of truth, of holiness, of Almighty God Himself, we consider that when Private Judgment moves in the direction of innovation, it may well be regarded at first with suspicion and treated with severity. Nay, we confess even a satisfaction, when a penalty is attached to the expression of new doctrines, or to a change of communion. We repeat it, if any men have strong feelings, they should pay for them; if they think it a duty to unsettle things established, they show their earnestness by being willing to suffer. We shall be the last to complain of this kind of persecution, even though directed against what we consider the cause of truth. Such disadvantages do no harm to that cause in the event, but they bring home to a man’s mind his own responsibility; they are a memento to him of a great moral law, and warn him that his private judgment, if not a duty, is a sin.

An act of private judgment is, in its very idea, an act of individual responsibility; this is a consideration which will come with especial force on a conscientious mind, when it is to have so fearful an issue as a change of religion. A religious man will say to himself, “If I am in error at present, I am in error by a disposition of Providence, which has placed me where I am; if I change into an error, this is my own act. It is much less fearful to be born at disadvantage, than to place myself at disadvantage.”