The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 16. Ecce Homo

Prosecutions for heresy and indictments of heterodox publications brought theological questions into general discussion throughout the sixties. The magazines, and especially the new Fortnightly Review, often provided the arena. The excitement over Essays and Reviews was not allayed before a new quarry was started by bishop Colenso’s free handling of the Pentateuch, which found few whole-hearted defenders in the Christian camp, partly owing to the author’s provocative and unfortunate manner. It was more difficult for the contemporary orthodox mind to decide whether the anonymous author of Ecce Homo (1865) was friend or foe. Like Matthew Arnold’s essays and many other books of the period, Ecce Homo represents the attempt to save religion in the shipwreck of orthodoxy, and, above all, to save Christian ethics. Its author, who was soon discovered to be John Robert Seeley, at that time professor of Latin in University college, London, intentionally avoided controversial theology. When he was reproached for “concealing” his theological opinions, he replied that he concealed them “only in the sense in which the vast majority of the community have concealed them; that is, he has not published them.” Seeley took for granted, as orthodox and heterodox writers commonly did in his generation, that “almost all men” could agree upon the Christian ethical standard. With an engaging fervour and literary grace, he set before his readers Christ’s “enthusiasm for humanity,” and found in it a motive which could still be for Christians a stronger passion than any other.

  • Christ raised the feeling of humanity from being a feeble restraining power to be an inspiring passion. The Christian moral reformation may indeed be summed up in this—humanity changed from a restraint to a motive.
  • Seeley regarded Christianity as natural fellow-feeling or humanity raised to the point of enthusiasm. He did not think that the world could “do without Christ and his Church.” Indeed, he reckoned the person of Christ to be of more account than anything which he said or did: “Christ’s discovery is himself.” The moral teaching of the New Testament, for instance, the law of forgiveness, “Christ’s most striking innovation in morality,” was commended by Seeley to his generation with greater freshness and charm than by any other writer. No one could miss his meaning or ever forget his fine tribute to the distinctive note of Christian morality.

    There was much to discourage the Christian advocate in the ’seventies. Neither science nor culture was inclined to be docile. Huxley made merry in the monthly reviews, and Matthew Arnold subjected the defenders of traditional theology to successive volleys of Gallic raillery. Confidence was restored to the orthodox ranks, less by the concessions of broad churchmen or the defence of orthodox apologists, than by the rise of a school of historical criticism. If the appeal was to be to scholarship, even the general reader would soon see that sound learning and candour were not all on one side.