George Ripley ,
Review of James Martineau's Rationale of Religious Inquiry
1836

Occasionally a book review is much more than a review of a book. Such was the case with George Ripley's (1802-1880) consideration of James Martineau's Rationale of Religious Enquiry. The minister of a Unitarian congregation in Boston, Ripley was beginning to question the apologetics that he had imbibed at Harvard. In this review, Ripley voiced his agreement with Martineau that the science of theology had fallen behind the other sciences and therefore needed reform. On the question of the scriptures, Ripley agreed with Martineau that "reason is the ultimate appeal" when judging the truth of any particular passage. But he markedly disagreed with Martineau's assumption that the fallibility of the authors of the New Testament meant that they were not actually inspired. They were still human with human flaws, but "the light from above was streaming into their souls" nonetheless. Ripley's argument for the reality of inspiration, however, took a radical turn. In his defense of supernatural inspiration, he showed more interest in establishing the fact of "natural inspiration." He proposed nothing less than to revolutionize theology by changing the starting point from which theological inquiry would begin. While Ripley had his supporters among the younger Unitarian ministers (many of whom would be tagged "Transcendentalists"), his suggestions provoked Andrews Norton, of the old guard, to denounce his ideas as dangerous in a letter to the Boston Advertiser. Norton's more complete response to the presumed heresies of Transcendentalism appeared in his 1838 Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity. Ripley's reply, in three pamphlets, ran to nearly four hundred pages. --D. Voelker



1
Between theology and mythology, a sharp line of distinction yet remains to be drawn. It is a problem, which we who speak the English tongue have hardly looked in the face. . . . The time has come when a revision of theology is demanded, as the commencement of a reform. What are our prevailing systems of theology? . . . . It is hard to imagine a study more dry, more repulsive, more perplexing, and more unsatisfactory to a scientific mind, than theology, as it is presented in the works of by far the greater part of English writers on the subject. It is no wonder that the heart is pulverized, that the freshness of life is exhausted, under their influence. It is no wonder, that the most vigorous efforts of sacred eloquence have been made by those, who have avoided, as much as possible, the hard abstractions of our technical systems; who have studied divinity in communion with their own nature and with the universe or who have not studied it at all. We respond, with living sympathy, to the earnest voice that comes to us from beyond the sea, calling for a new organ of theology, and [228] presenting us a specimen of its scientific culture. . . .
2
[245] We believe . . . in opposition to Mr. Martineau, that the mental state of the Apostles involved, among other elements, that of divine inspiration. They professed to have received, not the gift of infallibility but an extraordinary illumination from on high. This claim, we think, is substantiated by all that we know of their character and history.
3
We will briefly indicate the process by which we arrive at this conclusion. The first step in the proof of supernatural inspiration is the admission of natural inspiration. The foundation for this is laid in the primitive elements of our being. The power of the soul, by which it gains the intuitive perception of spiritual truth, is the original inspiration that forms the common endowment of human nature. This, we maintain, is established by the testimony of the absolute and intuitive reason in man. Our own consciousness assures us that a revelation of great spiritual truths is made to the soul. There are certain primitive and fundamental ideas which compose the substance of reason, that exist, with more or less distinctness, in every intelligent mind. These ideas are the intuitive perceptions on which all moral and religious truth is founded, just as the whole science of mathematics is built up on a few simple definitions and axioms, which neither require, nor are susceptible of demonstration. . . .
4
[247] The natural inspiration which is possessed by all must sit in judgment on the supernatural inspiration which is imparted to an elect few. . . . The light of the soul is of a kindred nature with the light of the spiritual sun with irradiates the universe of thought; and it enables man to recognise between the reflections of the primal luminary and the meteors, which , of impure and earthly origin, often flash over the gloom of night. . . . Is not the correspondence of that with our most exalted ideas of divine perfection a better demonstration that he was of God and from God, than if we heard it thundered forth from the flames of Sinai, or saw it written by an angel's hand on the noon-day sky? . . .
5
[248] Our Saviour explicitly declared, that he came into the world to bear witness to the truth, not to exercise marvellous power over the agencies of physical nature; and he more than intimates, that they who cherished the love of truth in pure hearts, would hear his voice and acknowledge his sovereignty, without reference to wonders and prodigies addressed to the outward eye. Hence we infer, that whoever believes the truth which it was the mission of Christ to announce, is entitled to the name of a disciple, whatever be the foundation on which he has been led to rest his faith. . . . We maintain, that [Christ] ever enforced the paramount need of faith in [249] his doctrine, which bore its own evidence on its face to those who would do his will; and that as a general rule, so far from requiring a faith in his miracles as the condition of receiving his word, he required a faith in his word as the condition of receiving his miracles. . . .
6
[253] Let the study of theology commence [254] with the study of human consciousness. Let us ascertain what is meant by the expression, often used, but little pondered, --the Image of God in the Soul of Man. Let us determine whether our nature has any revelation of the Deity within itself; and, if so, analyze and describe it. If we there discover, as we firmly believe we shall, a criterion of truth, by which we can pass judgment on the Spiritual and Infinite, we shall then be prepared to examine the claims of a Divine Revelation in history. If our inward eye is unsealed, we shall discern the glory of God in the Person of his Son. Our faith will embrace him, with a vital sympathy and certainty, as the bearer of the highest inspiration of Heaven. We shall experience in our own souls, the miracles of redemption and grace which he daily works therein, and with this conscious perception of his divine power, it will be easy to believe that he who has quelled our earthly passions, and raised us from the death of sin to a life in God, had authority to still the elements and restore Lazarus from the grave.

Source: Christian Examiner 21 (Nov. 1836), 225-254. paragraph numbers have been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets. This text has been abridged.

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