[The follow passage appears in Stopford A. Brooke's Life and Letters (1865). George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown University, has scanned it from the text of the 1902 edition (see bibliography) and formatted it in HTML.]
o all who are perplexed with casuistry, with the solution of peculiar cases of moral action in which two duties appear to clash, or in which of two duties the highest is to be discovered and chosen — to all who wish, by the accurate performance of the smallest duties of life, to reach the starting point of the higher life where Christ replaces the Law in our hearts by the Gospel, and coerced obedience to the moral law is succeeded by the willing obedience which love renders to a righteous Father — Robertson will always be a helper and a director. But considered only as a theological teacher, I doubt if his influence will be permanent. I do not see how it can last in the rapid advance of the river of religious thought in England.
I will try in conclusion of this Introduction to mark as distinctly as possible Robertson's theological position. He represents the transition period of the theological movement of this century in England. He was partly a prophet of the old, partly of the new. Hence he is a favourite with all those minds who in this age of inquiry have not determined their position. The religious Radical, while admiring his religious thinking, looks down upon his theological teaching. The defined High Churchman and Evangelical adopt the same position. The true Liberal clearly recognizes Robertson's position and work, but at the same time holds that to fix himself into another man's mould when time and knowledge are advancing, would deny not only the necessity of progress, but even the principles on which Robertson insisted. But there are thousands, on as it were a kind of theological bridge, to whom Robertson's teaching is dear, and whom he helps to see their position. Representing, as he did, the transitionary period some time before it appeared, these men find themselves reflected in him, Some of them cross over to the bank of Liberal Theology, others return to the shore they had left. He has helped them to find certainty of opinion, not only by showing them to themselves, but by the whole drift of his moral teaching, which above all else urges men to be true to their convictions.
Again, his spiritual life, itself travelling through so many phases, has an attraction for such men. They see their own fluctuations there, and either pass on with him to his secure position, or go back, finding that they cannot accept his conclusions. As long as this large section of men who are unsettled exists, Robertson's influence as a theological teacher will endure. But the moment a man, having used Robertson thus as a means of determining his position, becomes a declared Liberal, or retires into the opposite ranks, Robertson, as a theological teacher, though not as an ethical or religious teacher, ceases to be of any use to him. Therefore when Liberal Christianity, assisted as it is by the march of social, scientific, and political events, becomes the regnant form of Christianity among the educated classes in England, Robertson will cease to possess his present wide-spread influence as a theologian. Nevertheless he will always be read. As a theological teacher he will always be useful at that point. of an inquiring man's religious life, when his opinions are floating in solution.
At the time of his death High Churchmen tried to claim Robertson as tending to their views. Since his death Evangelical reviewers have declared that he would have returned, if he had lived, to their orthodox fold. So much devotion, such love of Christ, has seemed to them quite inexplicable to one who was wandering on the dark mountains of scepticism. But such a return would have been impossible to Robertson. The principles which formed the very back-bone of his mind, were in direct opposition to principles which have been very generally enunciated in the late discussions; such as the assumed infallibility of the Bible on all questions; the necessity of stifling doubt; the repression of all who stir up theological discussions; the duty of keeping strictly in the old paths; the habits of shutting the eyes to difficulties and of answering opponents without the requisite knowledge; the denial of the development of doctrine and of religious progress, and the general deprecation, as an evil to be dreaded, of active and critical inquiry. In none of these things could Robertson have concurred. He liked war and excitement. He believed in progress. He had no fear of God's truth being overwhelmed. To him Christianity could not be in danger. I do not think he could have breathed in an atmosphere of obstinate theological optimism. It was not stir, or inquiry, or scepticism, which he feared, but unrelenting conservatism and stagnation; and there are few who will not believe that he was right, few who will not declare, in spite of all our divisions and troubles, that the Church is in a healthier condition than it was twenty years ago — who will not hope, taking the very excitement as the ground of the hope, that the Church is advancing towards that condition of well-established health which is characterized by the possession, not of the spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind. . . . We live in a world of religious excitement, from the highest to the lowest ranks. We are going through a religious revolution, and it is not impossible that we shall manage it with as much wisdom as we managed, in 1688, our political revolution. . . . I shall not readily forget the fervour with which I heard him read, '"Ring in the Christ which is to be."' [From Tennyson's In Memoriam — GPL]
No one holding such principles could have found a home in Evangelicalism, or have retired into that High Church system which holds that the Christianity — and practice and ritual — of the past are better than those of the present or the future. I am far from depreciating the noble and honourable work which the two Conservative parties in the English Church have done and may yet do. There are principles at the root of Ritualism, or rather lying hidden in it, which it would be a misfortune to the Church to lose, and which will probably, as time goes on, shake off the mists of error which now conceal them and come forth into clear light to help forward the march of Christianity. There are hopes, and I think with good grounds, that the large Evangelical party in the Church will soon, if it has not done it already, take up more Liberal ground and revive into a Liberal-Conservative condition. This is earnestly to be desired, for it is most important that there should be a strong opposition to prevent the Liberal theologians from going too fast for Christian safety. But one thing at least is necessary for the existence of such an opposition — that it should allow that Theology has not reached its ultimate expression, and that it should reserve its strength, not to oppose all extension of Theology, but only an unconsidered, hasty, and unwise extension. Theology is not Christianity — it is the scientific exposition of Christianity; and to declare that it is now perfect is to degrade it from the ranks of all true sciences, which are always relative, perfectible, and therefore cannot be delivered to man in a moment. Those who say that no higher views of truth can be given or discovered by Theology, say that we have exhausted the meaning of the Words of Christ — tantamount to the absurdity of saying that we have exhausted the Infinite — and make of Theology not the temple, but the sepulchre of the human mind.
- Robertson's basic beliefs — His advice to a young girl
- Frederick W. Robertson on Moral Culture, Repression, and Tractarianism
- The evidence of goodness and wisdom in the external world is very questionable": Frederick W. Robertson on Finding God amid the Cruelties of Nature
Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.
Last modified 16 July 2006