Eric Mascall and the knowledge of God

In the last couple of weeks I’ve reached something of a resting point in my work on the Anglo-Catholic philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall. Slightly to my surprise, the project expanded to fill what are now five articles or book chapters, two published and three coming very soon. Readers have in general been very supportive of the work, but also somewhat curious: why Mascall, and why now? One peer reviewer, while complimentary about the article in question, suggested that ‘it would be worth emphasising the importance of Mascall lest readers should find themselves wondering why somebody who was often regarded as a dinosaur and who was quite outside the theological mainstream should still be worth studying’.

The identity of that reviewer was of course withheld from me, but I very much suspect that he or she is a theologian. For the historian, there is (at one level) quite an easy answer to their question. Mascall seemingly read everything published in English theology during his career, and much else besides, and his work covered the full range of dogmatic theology and philosophy of religion. He also wrote a very great deal, and over fifty years. As such, his work is an excellent lens through which to look at what was going on in English theology from the 1930s right through into the 1980s. He also involved himself very publicly in several of the controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably aspects of the ecumenical movement, and the ordination of women, being widely acknowledged as one of the most cogent spokesmen for a particular kind of conservative Anglican catholicism. For all this, his historical interest is clear, I think.

But to say so avoids a deeper question about most, if not all, historical work: why this subject, now? To which current preoccupations in church and society do these stories speak? To be sure, there are still those in the Church of England who cannot accept ordained women; the question of Anglican-Methodist unity is still open. But what I think interests me most about Mascall is a question of method and attitude that, as he saw it, underlies all these other questions.

In his later years, Mascall several times argued that the most salient division within the church was becoming one between ‘those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it’. For my own part, I think this a false dichotomy, though I don’t want to pursue the thought here. But for Mascall, holding to this formulation was made easier by his fundamental conviction that the content of that revelation could be known, with a clarity and certainty that relatively few of his contemporaries could really feel. This conviction in Mascall was formed as a young man in the 1930s and never left him. As I shall show in a moment, it was as chalk and cheese in relation to the kind of liberalism that held sway in the universities at that time. The revival in interest in Mascall in recent years may in part be due to an appetite for the kind of uncompromising restatement of a kind of orthodoxy that he provided; other readers, I suspect, find this approach – which might be described as ‘dogmatic’ – impossible to engage with. My own fascination with Mascall is to do with the peculiar intensity of his pursuit of truth, to which I am myself drawn, but cannot quite fully inhabit.


Writing as a young man in the 1940s, Mascall felt himself to be in the vanguard of a confident Anglo-Catholicism, the success of which seemed evident in events like the 1933 centenary of the Oxford movement. The liberalism against which he set himself had several features, but fundamentally (he thought) it dealt too lightly with the accumulated treasure of Christian tradition, and was too ready to assume that unaided human reason could ‘erect an entirely new theological edifice to twentieth-century specifications’. As a result, it left itself open to the adoption of the governing assumptions of its time; of marrying the spirit of the age, only to be a widow in the next. Mascall’s first two books of academic theology appeared in the 1940s: He Who Is: a study in traditional theism (1943), and Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946). What follows is a reflection on how they were received by some of his readers.

Eric Mascall. (Rights situation unknown).

Mascall’s early books were certainly thought to be an attack on ‘liberalism’ by some older men who owned the name.  In 1941 A. E. Garvie, the Congregationalist philosopher of religion, reviewed three of the books in a series entitled Signposts (which Mascall co-edited) that included Mascall’s Man: his origin and destiny. Garvie could not, as one twice the age of the oldest of the authors, accept the general tenor of their argument; the matter required ‘more appreciation of the values of modern thought … and a more progressive attitude to the catholic tradition, as needing more adaptation to those values’ than the three displayed. Like Garvie, Clement Webb was approaching the age of 80 and long since retired as Oriel Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford when he reviewed Mascall in the 1940s. Webb wrote as ‘an old man, undertaking against the vigorous assaults of his juniors the defence of principles which inspired and guided the minds of his generation’. Mascall, and others like him, were too much taken ‘by a mood of self-congratulation, excited by a sense of being carried forward by a flowing tide that has left behind the out-of-date fashions of yesterday and the day before.’ But Mascall seemed to define liberalism by its faults rather than by its essentials. Though there was a temptation to be ‘mere idolaters of the passing mode’, for Webb, liberalism was characterised more by the commitment to following an argument where it led. Men like Webb and Garvie were no more committed to the new for its own sake than to the old, but to what seemed to the free and conscientious mind to be true.

That this critique was not merely that of the old and comfortable was evident from the review of Christ, the Christian and the Church by Alan Richardson, a near contemporary. Mascall’s insights were at a disadvantage ‘through being set forth in thought-forms which without reinterpretation are no longer credible to the great majority of non-Roman Christian thinkers today.’ Dark allusions to unnamed ‘liberals’ were not enough, Richardson thought, to rescue Mascall from his ‘refusal to look at the difficulties which the rise of the critical method has created for the traditionalist theory of Natural and Revealed Theology’. Even a figure as sympathetic as Donald Mackinnon had reservations. Mackinnon, then teaching philosophy at Keble College Oxford, was in fact younger than Mascall, and wrote two of the books in the Signposts series. Reviewing He Who Is, Mackinnon thought Mascall too dismissive of the modern philosophers, the exposition of whom was Mackinnon’s daily work in Oxford, and of Kant in particular. ‘One could wish again that Fr Mascall had dealt more sympathetically with the difficulties that minds, fashioned by the methods of modern science, find in learning to think ontologically. It is not mere stupidity, but a problem of reconciling perspectives that may, if we handle it sufficiently carefully, deepen our very insight into being itself.’ For Mackinnon, as for Clement Webb, Mascall’s method was of little help to those who felt the force of conflicting approaches and wished, however messily, to hold them together.

So Mascall’s work attracted criticism on account of its content. But there was also a question of tone, as Mascall’s apparent certainty itself gave readers pause for concern. Clement Webb noted the impression given in He Who Is of definiteness where none was quite justified. Mascall seemed ‘curiously unappreciative of the difficulties which yet indubitably beset [the Thomist approach] and may at least excuse those Christian thinkers who have found themselves unable to subscribe to it… he is always the man who has found the right explanation, not the seeker after a truth which eludes a perfect statement in terms needing no qualification and subject to no dialectical development.’ ‘I am bound to confess’, Webb wrote later, while reviewing Christ, the Christian and the Church, ‘that Mr. Mascall, when he is pluming himself on his “orthodoxy”, constantly puts one in mind of those Pharisees in the Fourth Gospel who were so sure they were Moses’ disciples and confident in their knowledge that God spake unto Moses’ that they need take no account of anything that seemed to conflict with it. Alan Richardson detected an ‘un-Anglican outlook and temper’ in Mascall, marked by special pleading of his own orthodoxy and an unwarranted willingness to ‘make pronouncements where many would prefer to keep a reverent silence.’ Mascall had ‘magisterially pointed out the errors of a great number of eminent theologians but we are still left wondering how he knows that he is right and they are wrong.’ This very certainty was in itself decisively different from the liberal temper, and an implicit rejection of it.

Though Mascall in 1943 was a young man with a vision in a time of national crisis, this fundamental certainty was never to leave him. It was particularly plain to see as Mascall took up the cudgels against the liberal theology of the 1960s and 1970s; his combativeness was a product of the cosmic seriousness, as he understood it, of the task in hand, and the consequences of getting it wrong. It was Mascall’s unbending conviction that made him a prominent opponent of the Anglican-Methodist union scheme in the late 1960s, a product of what one critic called his ‘theology of the trenches’. But it has to understood in the context of his equally clear sense of the limits of human knowledge. The mind, without the aid of grace, can never progress from natural theology into the fullest knowledge of God as derived from revelation, and there were still limits once it had. Just as revelation surpassed reason, ‘so does the experimental knowledge of God that is granted to the mystics surpass revelation.’

This was given fullest expression in the book which was perhaps closest to Mascall’s heart, the short popular exposition of the Christian’s vision of God, Grace and Glory (1961). Mascall returned to the mystical writers that had influenced him deeply in the 1930s: Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and (in particular) St John of the Cross. In the latter’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel Mascall found the paradox that faith, as it purified and perfected the understanding, brought certainty but without clarity: ‘the more accurately we come to know God, the more fully we understand that His infinite and transcendent being outstrips our finite powers of apprehension.’ It was the gift of faith that allowed the Christian to hold on in the dark night of the understanding, in the face of (in Jacques Maritain’s words) ‘that sacred abyss before which the angels fall trembling with love and terror.’ Mascall’s work drew the boundaries of what may be known of God more widely than some of his critics thought legitimate. But it is at those boundaries that the sheer distance that remained between God and human understanding could be seen most clearly. The apparently unwarranted certainty that so perplexed Clement Webb was only one part of Mascall’s constitution, and has to be read in relation to its other elements.

There was also a certain aesthetic element to Mascall’s understanding of knowledge. One of the pen portraits in Mascall’s memoir is of the poet, novelist and theologian Charles Williams. Mascall noted the pure aesthetic effect on Williams of the grasping of an aspect of the truth of God, while reading He Who Is. Williams had found himself ‘savouring a particular doctrine with an almost physical delight … it was in my mouth “sweet as honey”; it melted exquisitely into my corporeal organism and bestowed a richness.’ Although Mascall never quite explicitly owned the same kind of experience, that he admitted it as a type of experience is clear in He Who Is. Speaking particularly of mathematics, he wrote of the true grasping of a theorem, where ‘premisses and conclusion are related as parts of a whole possessing a definite – one might even say, an aesthetic – form.’ The theorems that were often described as beautiful were those that ‘stimulate precisely this kind of intuitive grasp of theorems as a whole.’ The scholar had ‘penetrated to the nature of the object and made it part of himself.’ Such an experience, or one analogous to it, was possible in metaphysics, but Mascall’s whole written output is suffused with a sense of the beauty of doctrine too, if only it could be stated as clearly as the human mind was able. There was beauty both in individual doctrines and the inevitable way in which Mascall thought he knew, both intellectually and aesthetically, that they all corresponded. And so part of the explanation for what Webb saw as arrogance, and what later looked like an impossible inflexibility to many on the other side of debates about ecumenism or the theology of the 1960s, was a sense that a beautiful, pristine system was at risk of being sullied or besmirched.

Some of this material is adapted from part of a forthcoming article on Mascall and his embrace of Thomism, forthcoming in the Journal for the History of Modern Theology. For more on Mascall, see the project page.

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