Oxford Movement

As we wait for Spring, here’s a game to while away the wintry evenings. Which event from the past would you most like to have witnessed? It can be something public or domestic, famous or homely (I except the events of our Lord’s earthly life, as being too sacred to set into the balance with others.)

Someone, I suppose, might choose the founding of the city of Rome, or else, going maybe further back, desire to have heard Homer sing the Odyssey or the Iliad to his lyre. We might have heard great Homer in his hall, begins one of Belloc’s ballades. Or would you choose to have seen Joseph discover himself to his brethren; or further back by far, our common father when he came forth from his mighty ship and saw a whole world made new?

Or to return to a more recent antiquity, what about watching the 300 take up their places at Thermopylae, and hearing one of the Spartans say to General Leonidas (trying to keep the fear from his voice), ‘The Persians are so many that their arrows will blot out the sun!’, and hearing Leonidas answer, ‘So much the better – we shall get to fight them in the shade’?

It would have been fine, too, to have heard Socrates and the others at the world’s most famous dinner-party discussing the nature of love; or to have been at the Academy on the day when a promising young student from Stagira ventured to put up his hand and ask Professor Plato whether there weren’t some difficulties involved in the theory of the forms.

What would one not give to have been in Rome on the Christmas morning of 800, when like the lightning that come out of the East and passes even to the West, the Pope translated the empire to the brows of Charlemagne, and then, as if awed by the boldness of his own deed, threw himself to the ground before the monarch of the world?

Or perhaps one would choose to have been present three centuries later when another pope preached the first Crusade in the heart of France; or when the French knights whose faith and imaginations he had kindled scaled the walls of Jerusalem? Or on into the very heart of the middle ages, dining at the same table with St Louis and St Thomas Aquinas, seeing the friar bring down his fist upon the table with a bang, and the king, amused, called for pen and paper to be brought him?

What a scene, too, in Augsburg, when Cajetan met Luther! Will there ever again be so perfect an encounter of reason and anti-reason? Some good Protestant who plays the game might like to have been a spectator when Friar Martin nailed his theses to the castle door. Alas, it seems it never happened. Or again, some bold republican might wish to have been in Paris on an August night in ’92 to hear the tocsin sound and watch Danton set to work; or even to have shivered by the guillotine a few months later when a blameless king knelt beneath the blade, and an Irish priest murmured holy words into his ear: Fils de Saint Louis, montez au Ciel!

Turning back to peaceful England, how I should like to have sat in a church in Oxford in the 1830’s and listened to the silvery voice reading the sermon from the pulpit of St Mary’s, as the shadows began to lengthen down the High; but even more to have heard Newman himself afterward talking with Keble and Pusey and Ward and Froude, late into the night; yes, and to have joined in too.

Yet if I must make my choice, I think I must settle upon the Council of Nicaea. To have been there when the 318 came in, so many of them noble and saintly confessors; brethren of the martyrs; men who had come through the Great Persecution and washed their robes therein. To have seen Constantine the Great enter, and kiss their scarred and mutilated limbs, expiating thus the crimes of his forebears, and refusing to sit until they had first sat down. Then to have heard the debates, as bishop after bishop bore witness to the truth handed down from the apostles, of the true divinity of the Son. To have seen St Alexander of Alexandria, or St Nicholas of Myra, and, combining the freshness of youth with the gravity of age, the deacon Athanasius. And the men sent from the west, from the throne of Peter, presiding over the discussions by undisputed right.

To have beheld the Eusebii, also; seen faithless Nicomedia confuted, and ambiguous Caesarea disconcerted. And the poor Novatian bishop silenced by the emperor’s wisdom:

For aiming at ecclesiastical harmony, he summoned to the council Acesius also, a bishop of the sect of Novatians. Now, when the declaration of faith had been written out and subscribed by the Synod, the emperor asked Acesius whether he would also agree to this creed to the settlement of the day on which Easter should be observed. He replied, ‘The Synod has determined nothing new, my prince: for thus heretofore, even from the beginning, from the times of the apostles, I traditionally received the definition of the faith, and the time of the celebration of Easter.’ When, therefore, the emperor further asked him, ‘For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?’, he related what had taken place during the persecution under Decius; and referred to the rigidness of that austere canon which declares, that it is not right persons who after  baptism have committed a sin, which the sacred Scriptures denominate ‘a sin unto death’ to be considered worthy of participation in the sacraments: that they should indeed be exhorted to repentance, but were not to expect remission from the priest, but from God, who is able and has authority to forgive sins. When Acesius had thus spoken, the emperor said to him, ‘Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.’

Then to have heard the great Symbol recited by all save a wretched few, and to have watched as they processed into the basilica, to sing some liturgy even more ancient than those of St Basil or St Chrysostom; for these men were not yet born. Yes, I should be glad to have seen those things.


If we enter deeply into a spiritual epoch like the Oxford Movement, we find ourselves in the presence of men whose spirits still live and have power to move us. For the men who count in the end are not the successful men who rode on the crest of the wave of change, like Napoleon, but those who are indifferent to success or failure, who despise quick results and preserve their spiritual integrity at all costs. It is they who are the real judges of the world (‘The Spirit of the Oxford Movement’, chapter 1).

Newman, writing still as an Anglican, defends the traditional idea that the Roman Empire is the the power alluded to by St Paul as ‘that which restrains’ the coming of the antichrist. He raises the difficulty that the Roman empire has apparently passed away, as the Greek, Persian and Babylonian ones did before it. He replies

It is difficult to say whether the Roman Empire is gone or not; in one sense, it is gone, for it is divided into kingdoms; in another sense, it is not, for the date cannot be assigned at which it came to an end, and much might be said in various ways to show that it may be considered still existing, though in a mutilated and decayed state.

Of course one might suggest dates for the end of the empire: AD 476, AD 1453, AD 1805, AD 1918 – though perhaps this very multiplicity of possible dates supports Newman’s contention. Yet in what sense, if any, can the Empire be said still to exist: to be ‘dormant’, as he says, rather than extinct? Is it not just special pleading to claim that this empire has not vanished like the three preceding empires?

The first thing that could be said is that no other empire has succeeded to the Roman one as earlier ones succeeded to it. Newman, and the Fathers, are vindicated here. But that by itself is not enough to show that it somehow still exists. So should we say that it has left an indelible mark on the memory and imagination of Western man, as a hot iron could brand someone’s face with a mark that would remain after it was taken away? Is it in this sense that the Empire remains? Or might we say that its laws, language, measures, divisions of land, tools and architecture are the foundation for ours: that despite the the revolutions that have taken place here and there in many of these things, the organic link joining us to our Roman past has not been wholly snapped?

Or are we to say that the Roman empire has indeed now gone; and that the hour is later than we suppose?

When I was 18 or 19, the Protestant clergyman who was tutoring me in the New Testament advised me to be ‘more sceptical about the sceptics’. I took this bracing advice to heart, and have been following it ever since. In this spirit I approach the question of Dionysius the Areopagite.

What are the arguments that are brought forward against the authenticity of the writings once universally accepted to be from the disciple of St Paul, disputed since the late 15th or early 16th century, and now almost universally rejected? Gandillac, a French translator in the 1940’s of the Dionysian corpus for the series ‘Bibliotheque Philosophique’, makes a list of them. He, by the way, is thoroughly convinced that the works are not from the Areopagite, and has plenty of ironic fun with the few stragglers who haven’t yet caught up. I list his objections below, with my sceptical thoughts after each one.

1. The earliest extant reference to Dionysius’ works is in the first half of the 6th century.

Bellarmine’s reply to this was that the works were lost and then found again. This is not implausible given the shortness of the corpus: less than 300 pages in my French paperback edition. It is not like imagining that the whole of St Augustine’s works, or St Jerome’s, might have been lost. Again, books, even precious one, did get lost in antiquity. Where are Aristotle’s dialogues now? Yet Cicero called them ‘a river of gold’. Even in modern times valuable works can be lost: St Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion was only discovered 125 years after his death. And the difficulty of Dionysius’ works would have militated against a wide circulation at a time when most philosophers were not Christians, and most Christians not philosophers.

{A 19th century article argues that there are testimonies to Dionysius before the 6th century. Apart from that by Origen, already rejected as spurious by Bellarmine, I haven’t found what modern scholars say of these claimed testimonies.}

2. Dionysius speaks of monks and hermits with habits and tonsures. But St Paul the first hermit lived in the 3rd century, and it would have been unwise to have worn identifying marks like religious habits in a time of persecution.

St Paul the first hermit could have been the first man to live a completely solitary life, but not a relatively solitary one. It is clear from the New Testament that some people took vows not to marry. Wherever we have clear and detailed information about the life of the Church we find religious profession, so it is reasonable to suppose that it is found even in those early years where our information is less clear and detailed. The religious life belongs, if not to the esse, at least to the bene esse, of the Church. The significance of the religious habit in the first century could have been not that it was dramatically different from what other people were wearing, but that it had been blessed by the bishop.

3. He speaks of the exclusion of catechumens during the Holy Mysteries, and the incensation of the altar, but these are practices later than the first century.

Who says? With the exception of Dionysius, we have no author purporting to be from the first century who tells us what happened to catechumens during the Holy Mysteries, as far as I know. Are we to suppose that the apostles were totally relaxed about who was there and who wasn’t? As for incense, this fits the criteria which St Augustine gives for reckoning a custom as apostolic, namely, that it is found throughout the Church and that there is no record of any council introducing it. It is in any case likely that the first Christian would have used incense, since it was used in the temple worship in Jerusalem. When St Paul’s tomb was opened recently, grains of incense were found inside.

This kind of objection stems from the tendency to suppose that complex things come into being by gradual stages from simple beginnings. This tendency seems to be another ‘Idol of the Tribe’, but it has no doubt got far worse because of Darwinism.

4. He speaks of the singing of the Creed during the liturgy, when this was not done till the year 476 according to Peter the Fuller.

In fact he does not mention the Creed, but simply a ‘universal canticle of praise’, commemorating God’s mighty deeds. From Dionysius’ description, it sounds much more like a kind of ‘Eucharistic prayer’.

5. He claims to be writing after the martyrdom of St Ignatius which happened around AD 107, yet he addresses his work to St Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, who would have been already dead.

Does he specify that the Timothy he is addressing is that to whom the two canonical letters were written? I don’t remember him doing this. But even if he does (and I haven’t read through the whole corpus for a couple of years), so what? We don’t know anything for certain about the death of that St Timothy, according to the modern Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’.

6. He calls Timothy ‘child’, even though Timothy was an old man (as well as being already dead, apparently!)

This is a silly objection. He also calls Timothy his fellow priest, so clearly ‘child’ has a special meaning here. Probably he uses it as St John uses it in 1 Jn. 2:12, as a reference to Christian innocence.

7. He is familiar with the whole canon of Scripture, even though the canon wasn’t formulated by the beginning of the second century.

There may have been no papal or episcopal decrees setting out the whole canon, but it must have been known by the beginning of the second century, or it could never have been defined. This is compatible with individual people expressing doubts about e.g. Hebrews and the Apocalpyse because of Novatianism and Millenarianism, controversies that arose after the beginning of the second century.

8. He speculates about how exactly the apostles knew that Matthias was the man chosen to replace Judas – why didn’t he ask St Paul, if he had known him?

St Paul had been dead for 40 years, and perhaps he’d never thought of asking him while he was alive. Perhaps St Paul didn’t know himself, as he wasn’t in the Cenacle when Matthias was chosen.

9. He uses expressions that belong to a later period, such as ‘Trinity of Persons’, or, when talking about Christ, the Chalcedonian term ‘unmixed’.

Someone had to be the first to use the phrase Trinity, or three persons. Why not a disciple of St Paul who was also a philosopher?  No later author claims to have been the first to use them. The word unmixed may only have been defined at Chalcedon, but again it could only be defined because it had been believed from the beginning. It is in itself an ordinary Greek word, not a technical term. On the other hand Dionysius doesn’t use some important post 2nd century terms, like ‘homoousios’ or ‘theotokos’.

10. His desire to be neutral in certain questions shows the influence of the decree Henotikon issued in AD 482.

This begs the question. If he doesn’t address certain questions about the relation of the two natures in Christ, this could equally be because they hadn’t arisen in his day.

11. His works contain close parallels to those of Proclus, who died in AD 487.

Maybe Proclus got some things from Dionysius, directly or indirectly. Or maybe both of them drew on a common source, now lost. Why should similarities between a Christian and a pagan be interpreted in favour of the pagan?

A series of poor arguments don’t add up to a convincing argument. Only argument (1) seems weighty, but against it is the fact that the 6th Century Greeks, Catholics and dissidents alike, presumably better able than anyone today to judge, concluded that these works were indeed by the Areopagite.

Again, for all the learned talk about ‘traditions of pseudepigraphy’, a fraud is a fraud. If these works were not by someone who had known the apostles, they were by a bad man, since he says he knew the apostles and he convinced people that he did.

Again, there is the esteem in which these writings have been held by Catholics for so long a time. Bellarmine, after the question had been aired for more than 100 years, was able to say that only heretics and a few dabblers (scioli) like Erasmus and Valla doubt their authenticity (presumably he means dabblers in theology.) This argument is sometimes rejected on the ground that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and so the tradition in favour of Dionysius is no more valuable than the earliest witnesses to him. But this forgets that the tradition in his favour is also a tradition in favour of the holiness of the author, based on the prayerful study of his writings. If the author was holy, he was the Areopagite, since if he was not the Areopagite he was a forger.

Fr PF posts his 123 answer, and asks if anyone can guess who is being spoken of, and what the book might be:

He was neither in, nor out of the Oxford Movement, but a most sympathetic outsider, and the letters written in 1845 contain references, fairly numerous, to the great ‘going-out’ from the City of Confusion that was in progress around him. In April we find him writing to a Mrs. Wilkinson who, it would seem, was housekeeper ar Oscott, and who had been ousted from her rooms by Miss Gladstone. Gladstone, President of the Board of Trade under Peel, found time in 1845 for more than commercial matters and published a ‘Manual of Prayers from the Liturgy’.

Any ideas?