Littell's Living Age/Volume 126/Issue 1629/The Late Bishop Thirlwall

From The Spectator.


Bishop Thirlwall has not long survived his retirement from his episcopal duties. He died at Bath on Tuesday last. We doubt whether the English bench of bishops has included a man of greater intellect than the deceased bishop in its ranks at any time since—now 123 years ago—Bishop Butler died. The work, indeed, by which Dr. Thirlwall will be chiefly remembered is a very different kind of work from that by which Bishop Butler is constantly recalled to the mind of English thinkers; nor is it one which, in spite of its large intellectual grasp, will be likely to perpetuate his memory so widely, still less to win for the church of which he was a prelate so considerable a fame. Indeed, Dr. Thirlwall's mind was greater than his "History of Greece" could give any adequate conception of, and this can hardly be said of Bishop Butler in relation to the "Analogy." It would be necessary to follow the late Bishop of St. David's outside the historical region, to study not only his essay on "The Irony of Sophocles," but his charges and his speeches in relation to the theological and political movements of modern times, before one could adequately appreciate the highest characteristics of his mind,—its reserved power, its delicate and finely-chiselled lines, his keen and constant knowledge of the narrow limits imposed on the speculative powers of man, the cautious sobriety which this steady conviction inspired, and the mastery with which he exposed the ignorance of fanatics and the rashness of dogmatists. We do not, of course, mean that Bishop Thirlwall will rank intellectually with Bishop Butler, and still less that in the special sphere of theology his power was anything like as great. Bishop Butler's mind was of that type which has always achieved the greatest influence in theology,—namely, a mind of exceeding religious intensity, controlled and restrained by an intellect of even more than corresponding depth, clearness, and precision. Dr. Thirlwall had the latter qualities highly developed, but his mind had not the moving power which is the spring of force in such natures as Pascal's, Bishop Butler's, and Dr. Newman's. He saw the difficulties of dogmatizing as keenly as the keenest, but he had not in him that devouring flame of faith which made it a necessity for him to use his intellect for the purpose of solving, or, at least, defining and strictly limiting his own doubts. There was more of discrimination than of ardour in the character of his mind, more of critical than creative power. Still, there was a true vein of piety in him, though it was not of the order of feelings which, taken alone, makes a great character. Certainly the people who could seriously believe that Bishop Thirlwall had composed such a book as "Supernatural Religion," while still retaining his place as a prelate of the Church of England, utterly misunderstood his character. Probably no bishop on the Bench ever felt the inadequacy of man's mind to the problems of theology more keenly than Bishop Thirlwall, but probably also no bishop on the bench was more convinced of the supernatural life in Christianity, or of the inadequacy of the many slashing sceptical refutations with which it had been not only assailed, but, according to the rash dogmatists of the negative sort, demolished.

The peculiarity indeed of Dr. Thirlwall's mind in the special position which he held, and the quality which, in spite of great differences, makes us go back along the long line of English bishops to Bishop Butler, when we think of him, is this,—that amidst a string of theologians who have not unfrequently had no intellects to take much account of, or when they had, had intellects chiefly of the rhetorical and persuasive kind, he, like the great predecessor we have named, had above everything the characteristics of a judicial mind, and this in relation to subjects on which those characteristics are seldom displayed. We have, at the present time, several men of considerable ability on the bench of bishops; fearless and earnest men like Bishop Fraser and Bishop Temple; a great orator in Bishop Magee; a man of weighty and, to some extent, judicial practical sense in the Archbishop of Canterbury; but we cannot recall a single man eminently distinguished by a judicial type of speculative intellect on the English bench of bishops between Bishop Butler and Bishop Thirlvvall. It is to be regretted that Dr. Thirlwall never showed his great intellectual qualities in any field more popular than that of the history which he wrote in his earlier manhood, and the scattered charges and speeches of his later life. But none who read even the least interesting of these, or who conversed with him on the most superficial of intellectual questions, could doubt for a moment the genuinely speculative power of the mind with which they were in contact. Such a mind on the episcopal bench was unquestionably a sentinel where a sentinel was wanted. And if, on the whole, Dr. Thirlwall was somewhat more cautious than he need have been in warning his brethren against rash and hasty dogmatism, if it might be plausibly maintained that in one or two instances—notably, perhaps, in joining in the opposition to Sunday excursions—he found an excuse with which his colleagues would have had but a cold sympathy for joining in a popular movement, the mainspring of which he avowedly disapproved, unquestionably on all great occasions he stood up boldly against the "half-views of men and things," into which so many of his brethren not so much fell as eagerly rushed,—defending, for instance, the Bishop of Natal against the utterly unjudicial and unfair treatment of Bishop Gray, boldly condemning the "moral torture" to which the clergy were subjected when they were asked to sign the celebrated "Oxford Declaration," on pain of having imputed to them, if they refused, deficiency in "love to God and the souls of men," and openly expressing his dissatisfaction with the "burial service," not for always dwelling on the hope of resurrection to eternal life, but for the apparent irreverence of urging God "shortly to accomplish the number of his elect" and "to hasten his kingdom." Again, in the debate on the Irish Church Dr. Thirlwall dealt with the argument that the disendowment of a Church was sacrilege, in the spirit of a statesman, no less than in that of a wide-minded divine. And everything he did in this way had the judicial stamp on it. Hardly even the narrowest of his brethren would feel as easy in his dogmatism after Bishop Thirlwall had been heard in condemnation of it, as he was before.

No one would get an adequate insight into Bishop Thirlwall's mind who had not studied the singularly fine essay to which we have already referred, on "The Irony of Sophocles," an essay in which he evidently expressed not only thoughts which had struck him as a scholar in dwelling on the evolution of the literary plans of the greatest of the Greek dramatists, but also thoughts which had struck him as an historian in dwelling on the evolution of national destinies greater than any which human foresight had been able to conceive. They were thoughts, too, which undoubtedly entered deeply into his meditations on the theological subjects more especially brought under his consideration as a bishop. Dr. Thirlwall held, and his various writings illustrate, a very strong view of the appropriateness of the tone of irony to the higher moods of thought and feeling,—nay, even of its function in the development of all plans which are worked out through fragmentary and partial instruments, i.e., of all great plans, human and divine. "Where irony," he says, "is not merely jocular, it is not simply serious, but earnest. With respect to opinion, it implies a conviction so deep as to disdain a refutation of the opposite party. With respect to feeling, it implies an emotion so strong as to be able to command itself, and to suppress its natural tone in order to vent itself with greater force." And there are traces of both kinds of irony, the intellectual and the emotional, in his writings. But it is the judicial irony,—of which he speaks as the irony natural to a mind commanding both sides of a hotly-contested question,—which was most characteristic of him. "There is always a slight cast of irony," he says, "in the grave, calm, respectful attention impartially bestowed by an intelligent judge on two contending parties who are pleading their cases before him with all the earnestness of deep feeling;" and he goes on to explain that the irony of this attitude of mind consists in the almost inevitable conviction that both antagonists are right and both are wrong; that, with all their warmth, neither can be intellectually justified in the passion with which he maintains his exclusive point of view, even though it is the very onesidedness of that passion which could alone make good for him such ground as he eventually contrives to hold. This ironic judicial insight into the onesided machinery of even the best human passion and action, Bishop Thirlwall evidently attributed, with Sophocles, to the Divine Mind, as a necessary incident of its omniscience. Perhaps we have an instance of this irony in our Lord's sorrowful promise to his two ambitious apostles, that they should indeed drink of the cup that he would drink of, and be baptised with the baptism with which he was baptised, though that would issue in a destiny very different from that which they craved for themselves. But it was in the destinies of cities, and of nations, and of empires, that Dr. Thirlwall saw, with a mixture between reverential awe and intellectual admiration, the most striking illustrations of this irony of Providence who sows the seeds of ruin in the very acts which seem to consummate success, and moulds the elements of a fresh career in the very heart of seeming failure. And the same thought evidently penetrated the bishop's theology. He was never severer than he was on the attempt to brand with heterodoxy the Bishop of Natal's criticisms on the finite and human elements in Christ's earthly life. How the divine and human could be blended in any life Dr. Thirlwall maintained to be a mystery which no one could fathom; but the way to fathom it was certainly not to deny Christ's true humanity, or to throw doubt over all statements which assume it. He saw clearly the irony of destiny which drives such orthodox excesses of zeal as these into inevitable heresies of denial, as he saw also the irony of destiny which drives almost as surely the excesses on the side of denial back into superstition. To Dr. Thirlwall, theology was a line of thought marking very inadequately a thread of practical divine guidance of which it was hardly possible to exaggerate the importance, but most easy to misunderstand the drift; and the history of Christian theology seemed to him full of the irony of providence, showing how error led to the assumption of infallibility, and dogmatism to the glorification of ignorance; how the neglect of the human side of Christianity issued in the degeneration of theology, and the neglect of the divine side, in the degeneration of man. We deduce these inferences as to Dr. Thirlwall's theology from hints scattered through several of the Bishop of St. David's charges during the last ten years; and certainly his general theologic conclusions corresponded strikingly with this fear of incurring the ironic nemesis which follows human dogmatism, for throughout the theological passages of these writings there runs a tone of speculative reserve and reverential liberalism which seems to be as much afraid of either presumptuous assertion or denial, as a nation ought to be of assuming that its prosperity is sound or a man that his happiness will be lasting. In Dr. Thirlwall there was an habitual desire to catch the judicial view even of faith and ecclesiastical history, a desire which is as rare in English bishops, as it should be useful to the English episcopate when in exceptional cases it is found. Dr. Thirlwall's was not the mind to lead men to believe, but to warn men against undue belief or undue doubt. And since it is even easier to be arrogant about divine things than about human, it will probably be long before such an influence as Dr. Thirlwall's shall be replaced among the higher authorities of the English Church. The glimmer of his judicial irony in dealing with over-confident spirits was always a beneficial influence, though it was not one of a kind which theologians particularly affect.