Essay / Theology

“Inhabited by that Sacred Impression”

Here is something which I suspect I have said before. But when John Henry Newman (1801-1890) says something, it always sounds a lot better than when anybody else says it. I found it on the last page of Andrew Louth’s odd little book Discerning the Mystery (1983), and Louth’s footnote places it in Newman’s Sermons, Chiefly on the Theory of Religious Belief, Preached Before the University of Oxford (London, 1843), pages 335-6. I print it here without comment, and may say more about it later.

Though the Christian mind reasons out a series of dogmatic statements, one from another, this it has ever done, and always must do, not from those statements taken in themselves, as logical propositions, but as illustrated and (as I may say) inhabited by that sacred impression which is prior to them, which acts as a regulating principle, ever present, upon the reasoning, and without which no one has any warrant to reason at all. Such sentences as “the Word was God” or “the Only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father,” or “the Word was made flesh,” or “the Holy Ghost which proceedeth from the Father,” are not a mere letter which we may handle by the rules of art at our own will, but august tokens of most simple, ineffable, adorable facts, embraced, enshrined, according to its measure, in the believing mind. For though the development of an idea is a deduction of proposition from proposition, these propositions are ever formed in and round the idea itself (so to speak), and are in fact one and all only aspects of it. Moreover, this will account both for the mode of arguing from particular texts or single words of Scipture, practised by the early Fathers, and for their fearless decision in practising it; for the great Object of Faith on which they lived both enabled them to appropriate to itself particular passages of Scripture, and became a safeguard against heretical deductions from them. Also, it will account for the charge of weak reasoning, commonly brought against those Fathers; for never do we seem so illogical to others, as when we are arguing under the continual influence of impressions to which they are insensible.

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