George Westhaver on Edward Bouverie Pusey’s battle to defend the truth of the Incarnation

‘I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.’

At Evensong each day here, we remember Edward Bouverie Pusey as one who was raised up to ‘contend by his life and learning earnestly for the truth of the Incarnation’.

Symptoms of deeper problems

The choice of words is particularly apt − to ‘contend by his life and learning earnestly for the truth of the Incarnation’ – Dr Pusey did not simply teach something about the union of the Divine and Human in Christ, he struggled, suffered, and fought for this truth. While we may look back to the nineteenth century as an age of faith, the view that the life of the Church and basic Christian teaching was under threat was a common one. Pusey’s part in these controversies as one who argued against new forms of biblical studies is well known, and probably contributes to the view that he was a narrow minded reactionary.

However, it is important to know that Pusey saw disagreements about the interpretation of the Bible as symptoms of deeper problems. Pusey’s diagnosis of the crisis of his age was both more profound and unsettling. Like his colleagues Newman and Keble, the first target of his contention for the truth of the Incarnation was not with those who challenged received readings of the Bible or questioned basic tenets of Christian doctrine, but those who defended both. The field of battle was first with those who defended the validity of biblical prophecy or who looked at the design of nature to demonstrate the existence and character of God, defenders of the faith like William Paley.

Misguided preoccupations

Pusey, along with Newman and Keble, did not see in such defenders of the faith a modern expression of an important tradition of Christian apologetic. Rather, in a surprising way, he accused these writers of twisting the old tradition, and of promoting a form of atheism without knowing it. Pusey argued that those who were preoccupied with borrowing ideas of proof from the natural sciences, with proving the truth of the Bible by applying standards of clarity or certainty, were confused about the kind of knowledge they were seeking. Treating passages of the Bible like bits of data which could be analysed and sifted by autonomous reason or analytical tools concealed the truth that was sought and produced a spirit that was hostile to the life of faith.

Instead of discovering the living God, Pusey thought that this kind of approach reduced God to an object of human knowledge, a particularly big and impressive artefact, but still an artefact or an idol. For these and other reasons, Pusey thought that the first battle for the truth of the Incarnation was with those who considered themselves as defenders of the faith. An approach which seemed to stand against new forms of unbelief rather produced a sensibility that made that Christ’s ‘for without me ye can do nothing’ seem like pious sentimentality, not the foundation of creative human freedom.

Darkness as well as light

Paradoxically perhaps, Pusey’s contention for the truth of the Incarnation began with an apophatic moment, with an emphasis not only on what the Scriptures reveal, but on what they conceal. To make this argument he often turned to our first lesson this afternoon. This passage from Isaiah emphasizes the importance of some of the great themes of the Oxford Movement – the emphasis on worship as a path to illumination and understanding, and the necessity of personal transformation, sanctification and purification to the vision of glory. But perhaps the most surprising part of the passage is the job description of the prophet that one finds there. Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord: ‘And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.’

Against those who emphasize the importance of clarity and certainty in matters of religion, Pusey points out that this passage of Isaiah which emphasizes the perplexity which will accompany revelation is one of the passages most quoted in the New Testament. Coming to know the truth of the Incarnation or any kind of religious knowledge does not begin with clarity or certainty. This knowledge comes with darkness as well as light. The highest forms of knowledge cannot be mastered or controlled. We come to know divine things not by an autonomous human power, but by a reason which is the divine light in us.

We find here a Pusey who is both a student of the Greek Fathers and a disciple of Coleridge. In the words of Coleridge: ‘In Wonder all Philosophy began: in Wonder it ends: and Admiration fills up the interspace’. This message can also be an encouragement for those who find themselves struggling with doubt, to understand that darkness and uncertainty are part of the religious life, not something to be denied.

A living reality

For many of those associated with the Oxford Movement, the Incarnation was the springboard for teaching about the world, the Church, the Sacraments, and caring for those in need. However, in Pusey, there is a special intensity and beauty in his descriptions of what he called ‘the Great Mystery, expressed in the words to be ‘in Christ,’ to be ‘Members of Christ’, ‘Temples of the Holy Ghost’. His descriptions of the union and distinction of the divine and human in Christ move on always to consider the communication of the divine life to humanity. For Pusey, the language of Christ in the second lesson, ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’, is not a metaphor or an abstraction, but a living and transforming reality.

In a sermon preached on Christmas day he asks ‘if [Christ has] so taken our poor nature into Himself, that in Him it is In-Godded, Deitate [or deified], and we, if we be truly His members, are parts of Him Who is One with God, how should He not be ‘with us’ now in all things, if we be His?’ The emphasis on Christian life as a participation in the divine life, being ‘In-Godded’, and salvation as theosis, a partaking of the divine nature, is one of the richest themes in the writings of the Oxford Movement.

Fruit of the Spirit

The West Window of this Chapel offers a commentary in glass on our second lesson and on the Incarnation as the fundamental reality of the Christian life. As the Incarnate Word is the Centre and the Sun of Christian life, so he is displayed at the centre of the window. The window represents both the divinity and heavenly origin of the Eternal Word, and his full humanity as the Son of his human mother, the God-bearer. On the back of your orders of service there is a detail of this window. There you see the Lord of Lords, who is also a child, blessing his mother and presenting her with a golden apple. This is not the apple of the fall, but the golden apple of redemption, given by the Second Adam to the New Eve. This new Eve is the mother of all the living by virtue of their being knit together with her Divine Son. Behind them both, the eternal day of our salvation breaks through the clouds and shines with a perfect light. It is a perfect light, but that means that it also contains streaks of darkness because close approach to this light will also lead into a necessary darkness. The oval mandorla is formed by vines which unite our Incarnate Lord with his ancestors in the flesh − with David and Solomon and with the prophets whose message He fulfilled. These vines are also the living vines of our second lesson, budding with the fruit of the spirit. We are invited us to see ourselves as knit in to the mystery displayed there, as vines abiding in Christ. There is another image on the front of your orders of service which makes this point. This is also from the West Window, and here we see Dr Pusey himself kneeling at prayer below Solomon and Jeremiah, abiding in Christ in the mystery of his body.

Earthly and heavenly

It is important to see that this emphasis on the Incarnation refuses to be limited by merely church concerns. So, for example, the understanding of the Incarnation which Pusey and his colleagues expressed guided their understanding of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of his body and blood. This was a source of great controversy and led to Pusey being suspended from preaching in this University for two years. However, what Pusey said about the presence of the Christ in the Sacraments is connected to his understanding of how Christ is present in the natural world, in a different manner and order. According to Pusey, all created things are both the offspring of God and the syllables of the Eternal Voice which spoke and speaks in them. The natural scientist also contemplates the mind of God, though in a different form or manner of approach from the theologian. The doctrine of the Incarnation reaches out to embrace the whole of the created order and all of human life: ‘For in Him Who is … Very God and Very Man, shall all things, ‘both which are in Heaven and which are in earth,’ be gathered together and summed up in one’.

One sees this expressed beautifully in another artistic commentary on the vines which abide in Christ. In San Clemente in Rome, in a splendid mosaic, the vines which emerge from the cross of Christ swirl to fill the east end of the Church. In the midst of the vines are scenes of daily life, the farmer at work, the lawyer with his clients, the doctor making a visit. The vines embrace the political, economic, and community life of the city which is both earthly and heavenly, pictured by Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The truth of the Incarnation is perverted and obscured if it is presented as a matter of personal piety alone.

Transforming vision

This vision of the Incarnation is one of the great legacies of Dr Pusey and the Oxford Movement to the contemporary Church. Any form of Church life or theological reflection which leads inward to merely churchy concerns or away from engagement with the world and the pursuit of knowledge is a confusion of the truth and reality of the Incarnation. The truth for which Pusey contended is, thankfully, all-redeeming because it is all-embracing. It is a transforming vision, and one which is full of joy. It is to this that Christ’s words lead in our second lesson: ‘These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.’ ND

This sermon was preached at the Installation of Fr George Westhaver as Principal of Pusey House