E.B. Pusey: Knowing and Reading Oxford’s Priest-Scholar

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The Life of E.B. Pusey

Early Life

Edward Bouverie Pusey was born in 1800 to a devout aristocratic family. Late in his life, when he was famous (and infamous) as a great theologian, he would often say that all of his theological convictions had their root in the faith that he learned from his mother when he was still sitting on her knees. As a teenager, it became clear that he had extraordinary academic gifts, and before he left for Oriel College (Oxford), he knew also that he wanted to serve God as a priest. While an undergraduate, he joined a circle of friends who were as earnest in their faith as they were prodigious in their academic studies, including John Keble and John Henry Newman.

Pusey left to study Hebrew in Germany for a couple of years. Upon his return, in short order, he was ordained, married (to Maria, his teenage sweetheart), was made Regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and therefore automatically also became a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, as he also continued to pray and discourse with his old Oriel colleagues. Turning into the 1830s, as many bishops and church authorities generally continued to slide further into lackadaisical theological liberalism (“latitudinarianism”), this Oriel set had been deepening their Christian formation by reading Church Fathers and pursuing a life of more faithful adherence to the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and a more austere and God-fearing manner of life.

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The Oxford Movement Begins

In 1833, the “Oxford Movement” was unintentionally launched by John Keble. It began with a series of tracts sent out to clergy across the country called ‘Tracts for the Times’ in which the authors of the Tracts (chiefly Newman) urged consideration of the principles they had found to be life-giving and spiritually fruitful in Oxford. Pusey did not throw his hat in with the writers of the Tracts immediately but did start contributing writings after a couple of years.

Pusey was a formidable scholar and a man with great moral force stemming from the deep devotion of his heart. His name got attached to the movement, which was referred to scornfully as “Puseyism” throughout the 19th century. Newman was considered the movement’s leader, but when he resigned his Anglican Orders and became a Roman Catholic, the mantle fell on Pusey (much to his dismay and lack of desire for it).

In his personal life, the 1840s saw the untimely death of his wife and two of his children, which left an indelible mark on Pusey’s life and led him to throw himself even more deeply into the arms of God, trusting his providence even amidst great pain.

Theological Controversy

The treasures that Pusey and his Oxford brothers had unearthed from their study of the theology and spirituality of the early Church had greatly enriched their Anglican beliefs and practices, and Pusey believed fully harmonized with Anglican doctrine— strengthening, clarifying, and beautifying it. Many around the country were not so sure and condemned the teachings of Pusey as “Romish” and asserted that they were not, in fact, truly Anglican. Thus, from 1840-1860 or so, Pusey was engaged in almost constant controversy on these matters—where he was always patiently trying to show that our Anglican formularies do make space for and even invite the doctrines we see present in the early Church.

One of the chief areas of controversy was about Holy Communion. Pusey preached a sermon in 1843 on Holy Communion, in which he was very careful only to use phrases that had been taken from the Church Fathers (whom, the canons of 1571 assert, are to be adduced in teaching[1]) or from Anglican formularies. Nevertheless, the brew was too strong for most of his low-church Oxford colleagues, and he was banned from preaching for two years. Upon being re-instated as a preacher, he published his footnotes to his sermon as a two-volume 1200-page study on the doctrine of Holy Communion! Pusey’s skills as a scholar were now on full display.

Elder Statesman

As opposition to the Oxford Movement cooled in the 1860s and the threat of unbelieving higher criticism and theological liberalism rose, Pusey became an elder statesman leading the conservative charge. He spent many years on a commentary on the Minor Prophets (still in print today!) and died at a ripe old age, having taught at Oxford for 50 years and having published over 50 large and erudite books on theological topics.

The Value of Reading Pusey Today

Theological Gravitas

The volume that best introduces Pusey’s unique theological contributions is the first volume of his University Sermons (1843-1855). Pusey was not a parish priest but a priest-scholar at Oxford. So, although he did, from time to time, preach in parish pulpits by invitation, his primary audience consisted of young scholars and the professors who were his colleagues. Pusey, therefore, discharges a double duty in these sermons. On the one hand, he has the liberty to speak in an academic register. However, on the other hand, he felt morally bound to shape the lives of the young men listening to him toward a life of godliness and humility, which is not always the preeminent characteristic of academia.

In his first collected volume of University Sermons, we see him handle these two tasks with great dexterity. As for preaching style, Pusey very intentionally had none. He mostly read from his manuscript, deviating into ad-lib thoughts on-theme only occasionally. H.P. Liddon, in his famous four-volume biography of Pusey, comments on his preaching style,

Pusey’s manner in the pulpit was marked by a total absence of all rhetorical artifice. There was no declamation, no conscious oratorical display. His voice was low and subdued, though distinct and penetrating, his manner tranquil, natural, unpremeditated. Few pulpit orators have appealed less to the nerves or imagination of their hearers. And yet beneath this homely exterior there burned a deep and steady enthusiasm, fed by the flame of an intense conviction of Divine truth, which made itself felt in every careless phrase as the utterance of a devoted and illuminated soul. When preaching on some theme specially connected with the supernatural world he seemed to be speaking face to face with invisible realities; the awfulness of his expression corresponded with the majesty of his theme.[2]

What a description! This intensity of moral force is evident even in merely reading one of his sermons. Indeed, this reader has often found himself moved to tears of compunction reading Pusey’s sermons.

But it was not merely the gravity of Pusey’s ethos that made his sermons compelling (then and now); it was also the depth with which Pusey researched his chosen topic. He prepared for several months for nearly every sermon he preached (he was on a preaching rota, which meant he was only called on to preach a couple of times a year).[3]

Patristic Scholarship

Pusey’s love for the Truth led him to a deep study of the Fathers in the 1830s, and so he joined the Tractarians in claiming as much of patristic teaching as his oath of subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles would allow. Pusey was punctilious in his ex animo affirmation of Anglican formularies and, to the last, maintained that he had never taught in contradiction to them. Indeed, whereas Newman believed the occasional vagueness of phrasing in the thirty-nine articles to be problematic, Pusey believed this to indicate a sincere intentionality of the Anglican reformers to leave room for the convictions of the High Church party that had always been a minority presence within the Church of England.

By the time of his preaching in the 1840s and 1850s (contained in this volume), Pusey’s thought was fully “ripe,” and his synthesis of deep biblical studies and patristic reading, together with his own personal and pastoral experience, come together with magisterial force. It was never Pusey’s intention to incite controversy (on the contrary, he always sought to avoid it when possible, as a matter of duty), as he protested to the Bishop of Oxford in 1850, “My preaching (as your Lordship will have seen if you have looked into my sermons) is uniformly doctrinal or practical, but entirely separated from controversial subjects.” [4]

And yet, for all the uprightness of Pusey’s intention, many of his sermons were perceived as controversial, and many aspersions were cast on Pusey for purportedly teaching “Romanist” doctrine. Pusey was even banned for two years for his 1843 sermon on Holy Communion (The first in this volume)! Since his sermons turned out to be so controversial, when his friends insisted on their publication, Pusey felt obliged to offer a defense of his teaching alongside the text of the sermon itself. This took two forms: First, most of the sermons in University Sermons – Volume I are prefaced with Pusey’s own remarks that, in many cases, are as informative and helpful as the sermon itself, both as to the doctrine and its location in the history of Anglican controversy.

Additionally, Pusey would publish his “footnotes” to his 1853 sermon on Holy Communion, which would come to over 1200 pages published in two volumes! The first of these collections of footnotes is published as “The Doctrine of the Real Presence as Contained in the Fathers.” This volume is an enormous contribution to scholarship on both the Fathers and Holy Communion, as it is a nearly exhaustive catena of Patristic teaching on various aspects of the Sacrament. It can be considered a “supplement” to University Sermons, and the reader eager to encounter Pusey’s thought would do well to acquire it as well and thus see first-hand the well from which Pusey drew so frequently.

Going Deeper

For those who read some of the University Sermons and are eager to encounter more of Pusey’s thought, I would suggest the following three works, in this order.

Spiritual Letters

Published after his death as a supplement to Liddon’s massive biography, this short (~250 pages) collection of Pusey’s private letters of spiritual counsel is a treasure-trove of insight and guidance for Christian readers today. Here, we get to encounter Pusey in a more personal and less academic register and, from him, receive masterful spiritual guidance that is perennially applicable as the problems of the soul transcend historic location. Arranged somewhat topically, this serves both as a reference manual to Pusey’s thoughts on various practical matters as well as a handy devotional book.

Lenten Sermons

The recurring theme throughout almost all of Pusey’s published work is the great theme of repentance. In this collection of Lenten Sermons, the reader can encounter Pusey going “full bore” on this theme, and the sermons are profoundly challenging to the moral laxity that was as endemic in Victorian England as it is in 21st-century America. Brace for impact!

What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment?

This is the last book Pusey wrote in his life, and it was a response to a series of lectures that a Dr. Farrar had given in the 1870s at Westminster, where the speaker had espoused the heresy of Universal Salvation. Farrar had based a large portion of his argument on his interpretation of the Aramaic Targumim roughly contemporaneous with the mortal ministry of our Lord.

As a Hebrew professor, this was right in the center of Dr. Pusey’s wheelhouse, so he took Farrar’s argument to task and summarily dismantled it. Along the way, Pusey brings out the patristic teaching of the eternality of hell but also very carefully warns against over-inflated teachings on hell that are commonly held to be Christian but are not actually enjoined by the catholic faith. This book is a most valuable work in showing how to engage in theological conflict and is a bastion against the resurgence of this same heresy in our own day.

All of these works may be purchased at www.NashotahHousePress.com.


Footnotes

[1] “. . .see to it that they teach nothing in the way of a sermon, which they would have religiously held and believed by the people, save that what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old and New Testament, and what the catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this self-same doctrine.”

[2] H.P. Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, vol. 3 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894)

[3] Ibid. “As usual he began to think about the object, plan, and details of his sermon some months before.”

[4] Ibid.


Image: Reverend Edward Bouverie Pusey, Member of Keble College Council (1870–1880) by Rosa Corder (1853–1893). Creative Commons: Keble College, University of Oxford.

Author

Ben Jefferies

Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.

View more from Ben Jefferies

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