The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 10. Opposition to Transcendentalism

Norton’s opposition to intuitionalism appears throughout his works. His Views of Calvinism scores the proposition (which had found support even at Andover Seminary) that “The truths of Christianity have always been addressed to the intuitive perceptions of the common mind.” Norton points out the inconsistency between the Calvinist doctrine that the common mind is naturally so depraved as to be unable to perceive religious truth, and the new Andover doctrine, adopted from Transcendentalism, that the common mind has absolute intuitions of religious truth. He thus hits out in opposite directions, against both the orthodox and the Transcendentalists, but on the same ground, namely, his rejection of intuitions. The violence of this rejection, indeed, carried him too far; so that when in the warmth of controversy he rejected all but the historical or external evidences of Christianity, he laid himself open to George Ripley’s charge of narrowness.

From the very first, however, for example in his Defence of Liberal Christianity (1812), Norton had been consistent in pleading for the historical and linguistic interpretation of the Bible, and the consideration of dogma less as prescribed by authority than as developed by history. His final contributions to scholarship, the Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837–44), and the Translation of the Gospels and Internal Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (both published posthumously in 1855), take the same line. Even by “internal evidences” Norton does not mean evidences of spiritual truth. He is concerned not with establishing Christianity but with the genuineness of certain documents; thus his remarks are limited generally to matters of historical and linguistic exegesis and logical probability. Least of all does he consider what might by some be defined as internal evidence, the adaptability of Christianity to the character of man, or the intuition that Christianity is true.

Norton is the representative Unitarian in taking the position, typical of that body, precisely half-way between Calvinism and Transcendentalism, engaging impartially in controversy on the one hand with Moses Stuart and on the other with George Ripley. The common basis of his opposition to both is his opposition to Plato. Platonism, his researches led him to believe, had in its Neo-Platonic avatar at Alexandria produced, among other doctrines of emanation, the doctrine of the Trinity. Platonism also, believing the soul to have been in contact with ideal archetypes whose memory it retained in this life, was the very fountain of the doctrine of intuitions. Norton’s opposition to Emerson and Ripley was thus of a piece with his opposition to Philo Judæus and Moses Stuart, the opposition of an exact scholar to what he considered loose, effusive, and sentimental thinking. Indeed, though Norton never says so in so many words, he seems to have recognized the Platonism of the Transcendental movement, and to have condemned it upon the same grounds as those upon which he condemned Plato himself. Anti-Platonism is the key to Norton’s position.