I MUST not quit the subject of Private Judgment, without some remarks on the popular view of it; which is as follows,—that every Christian has the right of making up his mind for himself what he is to believe, from personal and private study of the Scriptures. This, I suppose, is the fairest account to give of it; though sometimes Private Judgment is considered rather as the necessary duty than the privilege of the Christian, and a slur is cast upon hereditary religion, as worthless or absurd; and much is said in praise of independence of mind, free inquiry, the resolution to judge for ourselves, and the enlightened and spiritual temper which these things are supposed to produce. But this notion is so very preposterous, there is something so very strange and wild in maintaining that every individual Christian, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, young and old, in order to have an intelligent faith, must have formally examined, deliberated, and passed sentence upon the meaning of Scripture for himself, and that in the highest and most delicate and mysterious matters of faith, that I am unable either to discuss or even to impute such an opinion to another, in spite of the large and startling declarations which men make on the subject. Rather let us consider what is called the right of Private Judgment; by which is meant, not that all must, but that all may search Scripture, and determine or prove their Creed from it:—that is, provided they are duly qualified, for I suppose this is always implied, though persons may differ what the qualifications are. And with this limitation, I should be as willing as the most zealous Protestant to allow the principle of Private Judgment in the abstract; and it is something to agree with opponents even in an abstract principle.


At the same time, to speak correctly, there seems a still more advisable mode of speaking of Private Judgment, than either of those which have been mentioned. It is not the duty of all Christians, nor the right of all who are qualified, so much as the duty of all who are qualified; and as such it was spoken of in the last Lecture. However, whether it be a duty or a right, let us consider what the qualifications are for exercising it.

To take the extreme case: inability to read will be granted to be an obstacle in the exercise of it; that is, a necessary obstacle to a certain extent, for more need not be assumed, and perhaps will not be conceded by all. But there are other impediments, less obvious, indeed, but quite as serious. I shall instance two principal ones; first, prejudice, in the large sense of the word, whether right or wrong prejudice, and whether true or false in its matter,—and secondly, inaccuracy of mind. And first of the latter.


1. The task proposed is such as this,—to determine first, whether Scripture sets forth any dogmatic faith at all; next, if so, what it is; then, if it be necessary for salvation; then, what are its doctrines in particular; then, what is that exact idea of each, which is the essence of each and its saving principle. I say its exact idea, for a man may think he holds (for instance) the doctrine of the Atonement; but, when examined, may be convicted of having quite mistaken the meaning of the word. This being considered, I think it will be granted me, by the most zealous opponent, that the mass of Christians are inadequate to such a task; I mean, that, supposing the Gospel be dogmatic, for that I am here assuming, supposing it be of the nature of the Articles of the Creed, or the Thirty-Nine Articles, the greater number even of educated persons have not the accuracy of mind requisite for determining it. The only question is, whether any accurate Creed is necessary for the private Christian; which orthodox Protestants have always answered in the affirmative. Consider, then, the orthodox Protestant doctrines; those relating to the Divine Nature, and the Economy of Redemption; or those, again, arising out of the controversy with Rome, and let me ask the popular religionist,—Do you really mean to say, that men and women, as we find them in life, are able to deduce these doctrines from Scripture, to determine how far Scripture goes in implying them, to decide upon the exact force of its terms, and the danger of this or that deviation from them? What even is so special, in the mass of men, as the power of stating any simple matter of fact as they witnessed it? How rarely do their words run with their memory, or their memory with the thing in question! With what difficulty is a speaker or a writer understood by them, if he puts forward anything new or recondite! What mistakes are ever circulating through society about the tenets of individuals of whatever cast of opinion! What interminable confusions and misunderstandings in controversy are there between the most earnest men! What questions of words instead of things.


View the state of the case in detail. For instance let it be proposed to one of the common run of men, however pious and well-meaning, to determine what is the true Scripture doctrine about original sin, whether Adam's sin is or is not imputed and how; or again, about the Holy Eucharist, how to interpret our Lord's words concerning it; or again, whether we are justified by works, or by faith, or by faith only: what answer can he be expected to give? If it be said, in answer, that he may gain religious impressions and practical guidance from Scripture, without being able to solve these questions, I grant that this, thank God, is, through His blessing, abundantly possible; but the question is, whether Gospeldoctrine, the special "form of sound words" which is called the Faith, whatever it be, can be so ascertained. I say "whatever it be," for it matters not here whether it be long or short, intricate or simple; if there be but one proposition, one truth categorically stated, such as, "Prayers to good men departed are unlawful," or "we are justified by faith only," I say this is enough to put the problem of proving it from Scripture beyond the capacity of so considerable a number of persons, that the right of Private Judgment will be confined to what is called in this world's matters, an exclusive body, or will be a monopoly. And I repeat, it does seem as if reflecting men must grant as much as this; only, rather than admit the conclusion, to which it leads, they will deny that the Gospel need be conveyed in any but popular statements, it being (as they would urge), a matter of the heart, not of creeds, not of niceties of words, not of doctrines necessary to be believed in order to salvation. They would maintain that it was enough to accept Christ  as a Saviour, and to act upon the belief; and this, they would say, might be obtained from Scripture by any earnest mind. .......

Enough has now been said on the theory of Private Judgment. I conclude then that there is neither natural probability, nor supernatural promise, that individuals reading Scripture for themselves, to the neglect of other means when they can have them, will, because they pray for a blessing, be necessarily led into a knowledge of the true and complete faith of a Christian. I conclude that the popular theory of rejecting all other helps and reading the Bible only, though in most cases maintained merely through ignorance, is yet in itself presumptuous.

I make but one remark in conclusion. A main reason of the jealousy with which Christians of this age and country maintain the notion that truth of doctrine can be gained from Scripture by individuals, is this, that they are unwilling, as they say, to be led by others blindfold. They can possess and read the Scriptures; whereas of Traditions they are no adequate judges, and they dread priestcraft. I am not here to enter into the discussion of this feeling, whether praiseworthy or the contrary. However this be, it does seem a reason for putting before them, if possible, the principal works of the Fathers, translated as Scripture is; that they may have by them what, whether used or not, will at least act as a check upon the growth of an undue dependence on the word of individual teachers, and will be a something to consult, if they have reason to doubt the Catholic character of any tenet to which they are invited to adhere.

Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church
Via Media, Volume 1 Lecture 6.