Challenges to the Bible

Another religious battle was going on at a more academic or theological level.

Darwin and geology

Charles DarwinIn 1859, Charles Darwin published his book, The Origin of Species, in which he laid out the theory of evolution. Many saw this as being contrary to the teachings of the Bible, though there were others who saw no necessary contradiction at all.

There had been earlier challenges to biblical truth, especially when its interpretation was taken very literally. New findings in geology seemed to challenge the traditional, biblically-derived age of the earth, for example.

Philosophy and science

Philosophically, some German theologians were suggesting the Bible was no more than a collection of writings of what men thought about God. It could, therefore, be criticized or, as we would say these days, relativised:

  • they refused to accord the Bible the status of absolute truth
  • they held that a modern scientific viewpoint should now see many of its beliefs as outdated.

This debate about the possibility of absolute truth is still going on in many areas of thought and belief.

The Church gets involved

Various writers in England were expressing such thoughts, including the poet Matthew Arnold and the novelist George Eliot. However when various academics and clergymen in the Church of England starting saying such things too, it became very disturbing to ordinary believers.

Benjamin Jowett

Benjamin Jowett had become a tutor at Balliol College, Oxford in 1842. He had a hand in publishing a book of essays in 1860, simply called Essays and Reviews, in which many arguments challenging the orthodox and traditional view of the Bible, Christ and Christianity were put forward.

The Tractarians, especially, challenged Jowett, even in court. They could not stop him becoming Professor of Greek, but they could make sure he didn't get his salary for it. Eventually, Jowett won through.

The Tractarians' last effort was the 1864 Oxford declaration, suggesting Jowett and his friends were in error guilty of heresy in fact and ought to be expelled from the Church of England. However, the Anglican Church tried to encompass these varying views.

In their day, terms such as Latitudinarians or Broad Church were used of people like Jowett. To-day, we use the simpler terms liberals and ‘liberal theology'.

Hopkins' encounter with religious debate

When we consider Hopkins came up to Oxford in 1863, we can see he was walking into a number of sharply fought controversies:

  • between the main Anglican church and the Evangelicals (‘low' church)
  • between the main Anglican church and the Tractarians (‘high' church)
  • between the Tractarians and the Catholics
  • between the Tractarians and the Latitudinarians (‘liberal' church).

He was not to remain uninvolved and his involvement changed his life and shaped his poetry.

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