Arthur Middleton on the Gnosticism of sociological reductionism

During his boyish familiarity with the ancient Fathers, Edward Pusey admits that in these early years in his estimation he placed them below modern divines. What changed his mind he explains in a letter (H. P. Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, Longmans, Green & Co, London 1893–7, vol. I, p. 410). It was a response to a request from Dr Arnold for help with two sermons.

Interpreting Scripture

Dr Arnold, who was no friend to the Tractarians, needed Pusey’s advice about which books to consult on the patristic view of prophecy. Pusey makes plain the true claims of the Fathers as interpreters of Holy Scripture, and admits that like Dr Arnold he once measured Christian antiquity by a modern standard before discovering that the two systems are entirely different and at variance.

He describes how he was led back to the ancients. First, he found that the majority of Old Testament quotations in the New created difficulties in the modern system, that were absent in the ancient; so that the ancient system was more like that of inspired Scripture. Secondly, most ancient Jewish interpretations, in general principles, harmonized with the ancient Christian, but the modern interpretations derived from a modern philosophical-grammatical Jewish school. This school was an unbelieving one since it arose in opposition to the Gospel. Calvin’s interpretative system, the basis of most modern interpretations, is from the later Jews, as are early Protestant Old Testament commentators.

Mysterious depth

Thirdly, Pusey found the same interpretations in different parts of the Church, therefore independent of each other and deriving from a common source. Fourthly, he was struck with the Fathers’ great combination of Scripture and the beauty and truth of things he had rejected earlier as fanciful. Fifthly, the Fathers’ views seemed to Pusey to be possessed with greater consciousness of the mysterious depth of every work and way of God. The fundamental principle of the patristic mind is that nothing in God’s creation is accidental, everything has a meaning if we would find how to read it. ‘All things are made double one against another, and he hath made nothing imperfect’ (Ecclesiasticus 42.24).

A strong warning

Pusey admitted that it had taken him some time to arrive at this view and that he is:

‘not looking at the modern view as untrue, but as a small portion of the truth only, and wrong when it assumes to be all, and for the most part miserably shallow. At the same time, neither do I see my way through all the details of ancient interpretation; I have not studied enough for it; I am only satisfied that the principles of their system are right, and that much which one should reject at first sight as fanciful is true’ (Liddon, Life, pp. 411–12).

He did suggest a number of texts, but he strongly cautioned Arnold against ‘any attempt to engraft the Fathers into a modern system,’ as this would only end in ‘disappointment and disgust.’ He ended with a strong dissuasive that anyone imbued with modern principles should not attempt such a study as it might do more harm than good.

Today’s hermeneutic

A bishop recently said to me that the Church today has become captive to a hermeneutic of sociological reductionism. The pressure to feminize the historic order of the threefold ministry as received in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is a feature of this trend, and has come not so much from advances in theological knowledge as from changes in the social sphere in an increasingly secular society. In all areas of life, the roles of men and women seem to be becoming more and more similar, while sociological studies have given currency to the view that the vast majority of differences between the sexes are but products of social conditioning. Any and every restriction of women’s scope of activity tends to be seen as an instance of unjust ‘discrimination’ and a denial of the demand for ‘equal rights’ and ‘emancipation’.


The plea is that the Judaeo-Christian Tradition be engrafted on to this modern view by allowing male and female to share an equivalence of function in the historic order of the threefold ministry. Then it would become more representative of the relation between the sexes in contemporary society and its sociopolitical understanding of equality. This plea has emerged from a cluster of ideas that stem from an unbelieving school of modern socio-political philosophy that has intruded into the theological scene to provoke a debate about the inclusion of women in the threefold ministry.

The issue is not about women or human rights but about the true nature of what priesthood is. ND