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4.2 The ‘inadequate consciousness of the real teachings of Christianity’

Following the Introduction, Wilberforce describes what he regards as an inadequate consciousness of the real teachings of Christianity among those who profess to adhere to it. This ignorance is grounded in a widespread failure to study the Bible in any depth and detail. He then expounds the Evangelical view of human nature as fundamentally corrupt, evil and depraved, as against the ‘professed Christian’ view that it is ‘naturally pure and inclined to all virtue’. In this darkly pessimistic view of human nature, Wilberforce was also at variance with the relatively optimistic perception of humanity held by secular or deist Enlightenment writers. For him, such an insufficient awareness of sin leads to a failure to appreciate the central importance of the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ in reconciling human beings to God and delivering them ‘from eternal misery’.

In an interesting digression Wilberforce comments on the role of emotions in religion, a passage that indicates the transitional nature of this text between Enlightenment and Romantic attitudes; that is, between the view that human nature is a constant: social, rational and progressive, and the view that it is driven by feelings, subjectivity and a strong sense of self. He observes that the ‘idea of our feelings being out of place in religion is an opinion which is very prevalent’, a view that he holds to be ‘pernicious’. Warm feelings, he argues, are very much expressed and advocated in the Bible, and, moreover, at a human level need to be cultivated and encouraged as a basis for worthwhile achievement. ‘Mere knowledge on its own’, Wilberforce maintains, ‘is not enough’. He therefore seems very much to be reflecting and encouraging one of the main cultural shifts of his time, that ‘from reason to sentiment and passion’. But in the very same passage he also shows his ties to the Enlightenment state of mind: he feels the need to justify his appeal to feelings as ‘reasonable’, on the grounds that it is supported by the authoritative text of Scripture and by the commonsense experience of life. And while the emotions need to be encouraged, they must also be controlled and tested in the objective examination of one’s daily life and achievements. Although it might at first seem difficult to cultivate warm feelings towards an invisible deity, in fact such emotions are ‘reasonable’ because they are encouraged by Scripture and apparent in the experience of Christians in past ages.

In the following lengthy chapter Wilberforce expands his comparison of a perceived widespread ‘inadequate’ understanding and practice of Christianity with his conception of ‘real’ Christianity. He addresses specific issues such as Sunday observance, advocating that the day should be ‘spent cheerfully’ on spiritual pursuits, helping others and spending uplifting time with family and friends. He denounces the contemporary practice of duelling as ‘the disgrace of a Christian society’. He criticises a tendency to equate Christianity merely with being considerate to others and leading a useful life. Such specific spiritual exhortations and moral critique of his contemporaries build up to his reiteration of what he believes to be the ‘grand radical defect in the practical system of these nominal Christians’ in the section entitled ‘Grand defect – neglect of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity’).

Click to view ‘Grand defect – neglect of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] from A Practical View

Exercise 2

Read ‘Grand defect – neglect of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity’ from A Practical View in the attached pdf (above) with the associated commentary, which will help you to understand this central pivot of Wilberforce’s argument and to appreciate its significance.


Page 272

After the extensive preceding discussion of moral and lifestyle issues, Wilberforce now asserts the fundamental underlying importance of doctrinal issues. The three points he emphasises are the corruption of human nature, the atonement of the Saviour (Jesus) and the ‘sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit’. First, Wilberforce claims, human nature is fundamentally flawed or, in theological terms, sinful. Sin comes not only from specific wrongdoing but from selfishness, neglect of doing good, and from a state of mind in rebellion against God. Sin is inherent to humanity (the doctrine of ‘original sin’), and dates back to Adam’s and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. This pessimistic view of human nature is clearly at variance with the more optimistic visions of human potential inherent in much Enlightenment thought, and nowhere more so than in the visionary schemes of the revolutionaries in France to create an ideal society. Second, ‘the atonement of the Saviour’ is shorthand for that sense of being ‘Wash’d in the Redeemer’s blood’ to be found in William Cowper’s (1731–1800) and John Newton’s Olney Hymns (1779) such as ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ (1:60) and ‘There is a fountain fill’d with blood’ (1:79). God’s justice means that he has to punish sinful humanity, but by dying on the Cross Jesus satisfies the need for judicial retribution. The ‘sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit’ is not so much a feature of the Olney Hymns, but is nevertheless apparent in lines such as Cowper’s ‘Return, O holy Dove, return’ (1:3, verse 4). In traditional Christian teaching, following the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit was a supernatural force poured out by God on his followers at Pentecost. It empowered them to continue to follow Jesus now that he was no longer physically present on earth, and to proclaim the Christian Gospel to others. For Wilberforce it is crucial to recognise the Holy Spirit's continuing presence today as a source of strength and power for holy and obedient Christian living, which is what he means by ‘sanctifying influence’. Here too, in emphasising the supernatural dimension of religion, Wilberforce is reflecting a wider cultural shift towards Romanticism.

Page 273

Before developing the assertions of the first two paragraphs directly, Wilberforce digresses to consider two kinds of religious resolution that he considers inadequate. First, bereavement or illness induces an awareness of mortality and leads someone to feel they have offended God. Hence they resolve to lead a more moral life in future. However, either they give up the attempt, or they set themselves too low a standard and become offensively complacent.

Pages 273–4

Second, there are those who really try hard, but become depressed by their own failures, being either driven to despair or to give up Christian belief altogether (‘infidelity’). Note Wilberforce’s implication that unbelief is a result of misconception and spiritual difficulty rather than an outcome of rational reflection.

Pages 274–6

The advice of conventional religious teachers that such strugglers should merely do their best and trust that all will be well is misleading comfort. Rather the Bible and, Wilberforce significantly adds, the official teaching of the Church of England itself require a much more radical approach. There needs to be heartfelt recognition of the goodness of Christ, leading to deep penitence and dependence on the grace of God for forgiveness. Holiness cannot be achieved by unaided human exertion, but requires first reconciliation to God through repentance and then the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.

Page 276

Failure to appreciate the above is the fundamental error of most nominal Christians. They need a much more profound sense of the depth of their own sinfulness, of the worth of the soul and of the costliness of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Such recognition is the essential basis for true Christian morality.