By "Roman doctrine" might be meant one of three things: 1, the Catholic teaching of the early centuries; or 2, the formal dogmas of Rome as contained in the later Councils, especially the Council of Trent, and as condensed in the Creed of Pope Pius IV.; 3, the actual popular beliefs and usages sanctioned by Rome in the countries in communion with it, over and above the dogmas; and these I called "dominant errors." Now Protestants commonly thought that in all three senses, "Roman doctrine" was condemned in the Articles: I thought that the Catholic teaching was not condemned; that the dominant errors were; and as to the formal dogmas, that some were, some were not, and that the line had to be drawn between them. Thus, 1. The use of Prayers for the dead was a Catholic doctrine,—not condemned in the Articles; 2. The prison of Purgatory was a Roman dogma,—which was condemned in them; but the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils was a Roman dogma,—not condemned; and 3. The fire of Purgatory was an authorized and popular error, not a dogma,—which was condemned.
Further, I considered that the difficulties, felt by the persons whom I have mentioned, mainly lay in their mistaking, 1, Catholic teaching, which was not condemned in the Articles, for Roman dogma which was condemned; and 2, Roman dogma, which was not condemned in the Articles, for dominant error which was. If they went further than this, I had nothing more to say to them.
A further motive which I had for my attempt, was the desire to ascertain the ultimate points of contrariety between the Roman and Anglican creeds, and to make them as few as possible. I thought that each creed was obscured and misrepresented by a dominant circumambient "Popery" and "Protestantism."
The main thesis then of my Essay was this:—the Articles do not oppose Catholic teaching; they but partially oppose Roman dogma; they for the most part oppose the dominant errors of Rome. And the problem was, as I have said, to draw the line as to what they allowed and what they condemned.
Such being the object which I had in view, what were my prospects of widening and of defining their meaning? The prospect was encouraging; there was no doubt at all of the elasticity of the Articles: to take a palmary instance, the seventeenth was assumed by one party to be Lutheran, by another Calvinistic, though the two interpretations were contradictory of each other; why then should not other Articles be drawn up with a vagueness of an equally intense character? I wanted to ascertain what was the limit of that elasticity in the direction of Roman dogma. But next, I had a way of inquiry of my own, which I state without defending. I instanced it afterwards in my Essay on Doctrinal Development. That work, I believe, I have not read since I published it, and I do not doubt at all I have made many mistakes in it;—partly, from my ignorance of the details of doctrine, as the Church of Rome holds them, but partly from my impatience to clear as large a range for the principle of doctrinal Development (waiving the question of historical fact) as was consistent with the strict Apostolicity and identity of the Catholic Creed. In like manner, as regards the 39 Articles, my method of inquiry was to leap in medias res. I wished to institute an inquiry how far, in critical fairness, the text could be opened; I was aiming far more at ascertaining what a man who subscribed it might hold than what he must, so that my conclusions were negative rather than positive. It was but a first essay. And I made it with the full recognition and consciousness, which I had already expressed in my Prophetical Office, as regards the Via Media, that I was making only "a first approximation to the required solution;"—"a series of illustrations supplying hints for the removal" of a difficulty, and with full acknowledgment "that in minor points, whether in question of fact or of judgment, there was room for difference or error of opinion," and that I "should not be ashamed to own a mistake, if it were proved against me, nor reluctant to bear the just blame of it."—Proph. Off. p. 31.
I will add, I was embarrassed in consequence of my wish to go as far as was possible in interpreting the Articles in the direction of Roman dogma, without disclosing what I was doing to the parties whose doubts I was meeting; who, if they understood at once the full extent of the licence which the Articles admitted, might be thereby encouraged to proceed still further than at present they found in themselves any call to go.