I have added a section on Ronald Knox’s life, from son of evangelical bishop to leading Catholic apologist and public intellectual, to my essay on Knox (click below) in my website dpcrook.wordpress.com.
Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was well known as a public intellectual of his time, a prolific writer, speaker and outspoken critic of the growing secularisation of the western world. Son of the evangelical Bishop of Manchester, Ronald was a brilliant classical scholar at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. Sadly, he lost most of his close friends in the Great War of 1914-18. An Anglican priest, he converted to Catholicism in 1917, and despite finding the English Catholic world unfamiliar and challenging, he made his way up the hierarchy, translating the New Testament and becoming a monsignor.
In this essay I look at two of his books: Caliban in Grub Street (1930) and Enthusiasm (1950), the last being his “Big Book”, a lifelong study of Christian heresies. Click on Knox above.
Paul’s latest book is out, entitled Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion, featuring essays on such people as G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Toynbee, Malcolm Muggeridge, R. H. Tawney, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis and Joseph Needham. It is available from Boolarong Press, Brisbane.
According to Laurence Sterne:
“Thus the whole circle of travellers may be reduced to the following heads:
The Travellers of Necessity,
The delinquent and felonious Traveller,
The unfortunate and innocent Traveller,
The simple Traveller,
And last of all (if you please) The Sentimental Traveller (meaning thereby myself)….”
[Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768].
Even being a great evangelist, like the 18th century John Wesley, did not guarantee spiritual peace. Ronald Knox writes how some of Wesley’s converts possessed “an equilibrium of spirit which Wesley could not find in himself. Arvin Gradin, for instance, could boast of ‘a firm confidence in God, and persuasion of his favour; serene peace and steadfast tranquillity of mind, with a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and from every outward and inward sin’ [Wesley Diary 10 August 1738)]. Wesley was destined to come across this kind of thing again, but not to experience it. He was to be like Moses, viewing from Mount Phasga, a promised land he was fated never to enjoy”: (Knox, Enthusiasm, 1950, p.469).
Antinomianism is, in the words of that master wordsmith St Donald the Trump, ” not good”.
It is, strictly speaking, a heresy, a teaching that can be seen to absolve people from obeying the moral law, and thus, possibly, leading to licentiousness. Much was written about it and it had serious consequences, such as being condemned to a fiery death by the Inquisition. Those accused included Gnostics, Anabaptists, Cathars, Calvinists and American Puritans.
The theology gets complicated, but it seems connected to the “dualist” heresy that divides spirit and matter, the good spirit versus the sinful flesh, whereas Christianity holds that both are God-given. It is also seen as arising from the doctrine of grace and atonement of sins, which some distorted into “if God always forgives sins, why not sin?”
Ronald Knox writes a good deal about antinomianism (from the Greek “lawless) in his massive book about heresy Enthusiasm. Let me quote from his chapter on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, widely known for their fornicating tendencies and “low life”:
“It seems clear that there were those at Corinth who adopted the antinomian attitude; who claimed that sexual purity was a Mosaic scruple which had disappeared with other Mosaic scruples. Christian life was a life of the spirit, not of the body; the Christian, therefore, should be above these materialistic taboos”. The apostles were forced to combat such heretical notions. They promulgated a decree that included the need to “abstain from fornication”. This precept was “to remain in vigour”. As Knox says: “The body, no less than the spirit, has to be dedicated to Christ.”
[Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1950),p.15.]