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Book review: The Missionary of Knowledge: Hastings Rashdall’s life and thought by Christopher Cunliffe

by
05 July 2024

Paul Avis considers the fate of a theologian in a bruising controversy

THE bitterest controversies in the Church of England a century ago were not about questions of sex and gender, but about the interpretation of the Creeds. Two of the principal protagonists were Charles Gore (1853-1932), recently retired from the see of Oxford and still probably the most powerful theologian among the bishops, currently embarking on his main retirement project, the impressive trilogy The Reconstruction of Belief, and Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), Dean of Carlisle, one of the most formidable intellectuals of his age, who deserves to be rescued from undeserved neglect and restored to the pantheon of those giant figures who led the Church of England in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th — and were engaged in constant battles with one another!

The Modern Churchmen’s Union (as it then was) held its conference at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1921, on the subject of Christology. Rashdall, a polymath theologian, philosopher, historian, and ethicist, presented an interpretation of the incarnation which was premised on the orthodox doctrine of divine immanence — the presence of God in all nature and especially in human nature. This enabled Rashdall to posit a “supreme” and “unique” presence of God in Jesus Christ, which some have called a “degree Christology”. Gore, who naturally had not attended such a conference, violently overreacted on the basis of newspaper accounts. Gore publicly accused Rashdall of denying the divinity of Christ, abandoning the concept of divine revelation, and ditching the Creeds.

Not one of these accusations was true: they were slanders. Gore, who had himself been a notorious radical about Christology in his younger days, was now a knee-jerk, battle-scarred, warrior for the literal interpretation of the Creeds, and this was not his finest hour. Rashdall was deeply bruised by such false accusations, based perhaps on wilful misunderstandings (Gore could have troubled to find out what he had actually said).

Russell & SonsHastings Rashdall

William Temple, then Bishop of Manchester, wrote to console Rashdall as one whose influence on him, at a critical stage in his life, had been “of supreme value”. That influence, Temple continued, was rooted in Rashdall’s “combined love of truth and personal devotion to our Lord”. The wounds inflicted by the attacks of Gore and others are thought to have hastened Rashdall’s death, at the height of his powers, three years later.

It was an unfortunate and tragic conclusion to a remarkable life, lived in the service of the Church, the university, and ground-breaking scholarship. Rashdall was a passionate and pugnacious warrior for truth and justice. His published output runs to 400 works: books, pamphlets, articles, and sermons. His greatest works, which still deserve attention, are The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895; posthumous second edition, 1936); The Theory of Good and Evil (1907; second edition, 1924); and The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (1919). In these major works we see, respectively, the historian, the ethicist, and the Christian theologian displayed.

Rashdall’s assertive manner denied him the highest offices in university or Church. He never received a university chair and was passed over for the deanery of Durham in favour of Hensley Henson. That life, that personality, that scholar and churchman, is ably and freshly presented here by Christopher Cunliffe as a complement to the standard but scarce biography by P. E. Matheson, The Life of Hastings Rashdall, D. D. (1928). Cunliffe describes Rashdall as “one of the most significant figures in the Anglican theological world of his time”, pointing out that the great mission of Rashdall’s life — the construction and promotion of “a coherent statement of the Christian faith which is intellectually convincing as well as religiously satisfying” — is as urgent now as it was then.

Rashdall had the ability to articulate a credible faith through dialogue with the best philosophical, historical, and scientific thought of his time. He was a supremely gifted apologist.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is Honorary Professor in the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh, and Editor-in-Chief of
Ecclesiology.

The Missionary of Knowledge: Hastings Rashdall’s life and thought
Christopher Cunliffe
Sacristy Press £16.99
(978-1-78959-334-1)
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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