Thomas Rawson Birks

Last updated
Thomas Rawson Birks
Thomas Rawson Birks.jpg
Born28 September 1810
Staveley, Derbyshire
Died19 July 1883
Education Trinity College, Cambridge
Occupationtheologian and controversialist
Spouse(s)two [1]
Childreneight
Parent(s)Thomas and Sarah (nee Fletcher)

Thomas Rawson Birks (28 September 1810 – 19 July 1883) was an English theologian and controversialist, who figured in the debate to try to resolve theology and science. He rose to be Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His discussions led to much controversy: in one book he proposed that stars cannot have planets as this would reduce the importance of Christ's appearance on this planet. [2]

Contents

Biography

Birks was born on 28 September 1810 in Staveley in Derbyshire, England, where his father was a tenant farmer under the Duke of Devonshire. The family being nonconformists, Birks was educated at Chesterfield and then at the Dissenting College at Mill Hill. He won a sizarship and a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in his third year gained the chief English declamation prize. As the holder of this prize he delivered the customary oration in the college hall. The subject chosen was Mathematical and Moral Certainty and Dr William Whewell spoke very highly of this oration. [1] In 1834, like Whewell before him, Birks became second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman. [3] [4]

The church

Watton-at-Stone church, where Birks worked with Edward Bickersteth Watton-at-Stone church and graveyard.jpg
Watton-at-Stone church, where Birks worked with Edward Bickersteth

Having joined the Church of England on leaving the university, Birks settled at Watton-at-Stone as tutor and then curate to the Reverend Edward Bickersteth. During his stay there he studied the prophetic scriptures, and took the affirmative side in the warm controversy which arose on the subject of the premillennial theory of the Lord's return. In 1843-4 Birks won the Seatonian prize for the best English poem at Trinity College. Some years before he had been elected a fellow of this college. He engaged in many religious controversies, and one of these, on the future of the Lost, led to the severance of private friendships and religious connections. In his views on this subject he was equally opposed to the universalists and the annihilationists. In 1844 Birks married Bickersteth's daughter, Elizabeth, and accepted the living of Kelshall in Hertfordshire.

Birks published Modern Astronomy in 1830 to demonstrate a harmony between science and religion; in it he attempts to join together theology and a modern understanding of astronomy. He deals with such subjects as the insignificance of man, if we are but one race alone in the universe except for the angels. How can Christ's importance be squared with the unimportance of the human race in a large universe with a multitude of stars and planets? Birks' solution was to decide that the existence of planets around other stars is only conjecture. [2]

In 1850 he published his edition of William Paley's Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul with notes and a supplementary treatise entitled Horae Apostolicae.

Widower

In 1856 Birks' wife, Elizabeth, died at the age of 46. [5] His widowhood led to the suspension of his writing for several years. Nevertheless, The Bible and Modern Thought was published in 1861 at the request of the committee of the Religious Tract Society. Birks subsequently enlarged his work by a series of notes on the evidential school of theology, the limits of religious thought, the Bible and ancient Egypt, the human element in Scripture, and Genesis and geology. In 1862 he published On Matter and Ether, Or, The Secret Laws of Physical Change which dealt with issues of physics. [6]

Cambridge and second marriage

Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge (in 2004) where Birks served as vicar from 1866 to 1877 Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge.jpg
Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge (in 2004) where Birks served as vicar from 1866 to 1877

Birks left Kelshall in 1864. In 1866 he accepted the important charge of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge; and on 17 May 1866 married his second wife, Georgina Agnes Beresford, widow of Major James Douglas. [7]

At the time of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Birks came forward with a lengthy treatise on Church and State which was an elaboration of a treatise written thirty years before, and was now republished as bearing upon the ecclesiastical change proposed by William Ewart Gladstone and carried into effect by Parliament. Birks was installed honorary canon of Ely Cathedral in 1871, [8] and in 1872, on the death of the Rev. Frederick Maurice, he was elected Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy. This appointment led to a stormy controversy. It was regarded as a retrograde step by the large body of liberal thinkers who sympathised with the views of Frederick Maurice. [9] As pastor at Cambridge, Birks gave religious instruction to the undergraduates, to older members of the university, and also to the residents in the town. In the year of his appointment he published his Scripture Doctrine of Creation and The Philosophy of Human Responsibility. His inaugural lecture as professor of moral philosophy was on The Present Importance of Moral Science(1872).

In 1873 Birks published his First Principles of Moral Science which was a course of lectures delivered during his professorship. This work was followed in 1874 by Modern Utilitarianism in which the systems of William Paley, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were examined and compared. In 1876 he delivered the annual address to the Victoria Institute, his subject being The Uncertainties of Modern Physical Science.

In 1876 he published his work on Modern Physical Fatalism and the Doctrine of Evolution. It contained the substance of a course of lectures devoted to the examination of the philosophy unfolded in Herbert Spencer's First Principles. Birks held the views expressed by Spencer to be unsound and opposed to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and even the existence of moral science. To the strictures upon his First Principles Spencer replied at length, and this led to the re-publication, in 1882, of Birks's treatise, with an introduction by Charles Pritchard, Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, in which Spencer's rejoinder was dealt with, and the original arguments of Birks illustrated and further explained.

Birks resigned the vicarage of Trinity in 1877, and in the same year published a volume on Manuscript Evidence in the Text of the New Testament, which was an endeavour to bring "mathematical reasoning to bear on the probable value of the manuscripts of different ages, with a general inference in favour of the high value of the cursive manuscripts as a class". In the same year Birks issued his Supernatural Revelation, being an answer to a work on Supernatural Religion which had given rise to much criticism. Birks's treatise was again republished at a later period by Pritchard, with a reply to objections that had been urged against it.

Other activities

For twenty-one years Birks served as honorary secretary to the Evangelical Alliance, but he resigned when the committee failed to agree with his views on eternal punishment. [4] He was an examiner for the theological examination at Cambridge in 1867 and 1868, and was a member of the board of theological studies. He took an active part in all university affairs during his connection with Cambridge, was appointed to preach the Ramsden sermon in 1867, and was frequently a select preacher before the university.

Illness and death

Early in 1875 Birks suffered from a paralytic seizure, and this was followed by a second stroke in 1877. He still took a deep interest in questions of the day, and was able to dictate various works, pamphlets, and letters bearing upon these questions.

In April 1880, while residing in the New Forest, he was paralysed for a week, [10] his third attack. He was conveyed home to Cambridge, where he lingered for three years incapable of intellectual effort. He died on 19 July 1883.

Family

By his first marriage to Elizabeth Bickersteth, Birks had eight children. His eldest son, Edward Bickersteth Birks, also became a theologian and succeeded him as a fellow of Trinity. [7]

Works

In addition to the works named in the course of this article, Birks was the author of a considerable number of treatises on prophecy and other subjects connected with the older revelation, as well as his Memoir of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth. [1]

Related Research Articles

John Locke English philosopher and physician

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Natural theology, once also termed physico-theology, is a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature.

As defined by Scholasticism, theology is constituted by a triple aspect: what is taught by God, teaches of God and leads to God. This indicates the three distinct areas of God as theophanic revelation, the systematic study of the nature of divine and, more generally, of religious belief, and the spiritual path. Theology is taught as an academic discipline, typically in universities and seminaries. It occupies itself with the unique content of analyzing the supernatural, but also deals with religious epistemology, asks and seeks to answer the question of revelation. Revelation pertains to the acceptance of God, gods, or deities, as not only transcendent or above the natural world, but also willing and able to interact with the natural world and, in particular, to reveal themselves to humankind. While theology has turned into a secular field, religious adherents still consider theology to be a discipline that helps them live and understand concepts such as life and love and that helps them lead lives of obedience to the deities they follow or worship.

William Paley Christian apologist, natural theologian, utilitarian

William Paley was an English clergyman, Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his natural theology exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which made use of the watchmaker analogy.

Samuel Clarke English philosopher and clergyman

Samuel Clarke was an English philosopher and Anglican clergyman. He is considered the major British figure in philosophy between John Locke and George Berkeley.

John Taylor (dissenting preacher) English preacher and theologian

John Taylor (1694–1761) was an English dissenting preacher, Hebrew scholar, and theologian.

William Whewell English philosopher & historian of science

Rev Dr William Whewell DD HFRSE was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science. He was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In his time as a student there, he achieved distinction in both poetry and mathematics.

Henry Sidgwick English philosopher

Henry Sidgwick was an English utilitarian philosopher and economist. He was the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1883 until his death, and is best known in philosophy for his utilitarian treatise The Methods of Ethics. He was one of the founders and first president of the Society for Psychical Research and a member of the Metaphysical Society and promoted the higher education of women. His work in economics has also had a lasting influence.

<i>Tractatus Theologico-Politicus</i> literary work

Written by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP) or Theologico-Political Treatise was one of the most controversial texts of the early modern period. It was a preemptive defense of Spinoza's later work, Ethics, published posthumously in 1677, for which he anticipated harsh criticism.

The Knightbridge Professorship of Philosophy is the senior professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. There have been 22 Knightbridge professors, the incumbent being Rae Langton.

Hugh of Saint Victor German-French canon regular and theologian

Hugh of Saint Victor, was a Saxon canon regular and a leading theologian and writer on mystical theology.

William Ritchie Sorley, FBA LLD, usually cited as W. R. Sorley, was a Scottish philosopher. A Gifford Lecturer, he was one of the British Idealist school of thinkers, with interests in ethics. He was opposed to women being admitted as students to the University of Cambridge.

Joseph Milner (1744–1797), an English evangelical divine, has a reputation particularly for his work on The History of the Church of Christ (1794–1809).

The University of Cambridge was the birthplace of the 'Analytical' School of Philosophy in the early 20th century. The department is located in the Raised Faculty Building on the Sidgwick Site and is part of the Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities. The Faculty achieved the best possible results from The Times 2004 and the QAA Subject Review 2001 (24/24). It is ranked first in the UK by the Guardian.

John Grote was an English moral philosopher and Anglican clergyman.

Henry Bickersteth, 1st Baron Langdale British lawyer

Henry Bickersteth, 1st Baron Langdale, PC was an English physician, law reformer, and Master of the Rolls from the prominent Bickersteth family.

George Turnbull was a Scottish philosopher, theologian, teacher, writer on education and an early but little-known figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He taught at Marischal College, Aberdeen, worked as a tutor and became an Anglican clergyman. Aside from his published writings on moral philosophy, he is also known for the influence he exerted on Thomas Reid and as the first member of the Scottish Enlightenment to publish a formal treatise on the theory and practice of education.

<i>De Doctrina Christiana</i> (Milton) book by John Milton

De Doctrina Christiana is a theological treatise of the English poet and thinker John Milton (1608–1674), containing a systematic exposition of his religious views. The Latin manuscript “De Doctrina” was found in 1823 and published in 1825. The authorship of the work is debatable. In favor of the theory of the non-authenticity of the text, comments are made both over its content, as well as since it is hard to imagine that such a complex text could be written by a blind person However, after nearly a century of interdisciplinary research, it is generally accepted that the manuscript belongs to Milton. The course of work on the manuscript, its fate after the death of the author, and the reasons for which it was not published during his lifetime are well established. The most common nowadays point of view on De Doctrina Christiana is to consider it as a theological commentary on poems.

Michael Banner is Dean and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. From 2004–2006 he was Director of the UK Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Research Forum and Professor of Public Policy and Ethics in the Life Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, and from 1994 to 2004 F.D. Maurice Professor of Moral and Social Theology, King’s College, London. Well known in science and public policy arenas, he was also a member of the Human Tissue Authority, Chairman of the Home Office Animal Procedures Committee from 1998 to 2006 and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics from 2014 to 2016.

Joseph Bickersteth Mayor English philosopher and classical scholar

Rev. Joseph Bickersteth Mayor was an English professor, classical scholar, and Anglican clergyman.

References

  1. 1 2 3 Dictionary of National Biography now in the public domain
  2. 1 2 Crowe, Michael J. (1999). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900: the idea of a plurality of worlds from Kant to Lowell (2nd ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. pp. 196–7. ISBN   0-486-40675-X.
  3. "Birks, Thomas Rawson (BRKS829TR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. 1 2 New York Times obituary July 1883, accessed 24 March 2008
  5. Papers of Elizabeth Birks
  6. Birks, Thomas Rawson (1862). On Matter and Ether, Or The Secret Laws of Physical Change. London: MacMillan & Co.
  7. 1 2 Gregory, Stephen (2004). "Birks, Thomas Rawson (1810–1883)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2458.(subscription required)
  8. Guide to Ely Cathedral, Anon., 1880, accessed 24 March 2008
  9. A recent study considered Birks and Maurice to have "significant parallels": Brown, Ralph (2007). "Victorian Anglican Evangelicalism: the radical legacy of Edward Irving". Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 58: 675–704.
  10. New York Times, 1880, accessed 24 March 2008

Further reading