In all ages, the tendency of the heretic has been to single out one aspect of Christian life or doctrine, and treat it as if it were the whole.

 Ronald Knox

Monsignor Ronald Knox, 1949, St.Edmund's, Ware


Two works by Ronald Knox stand out from the rest: Enthusiasm, his most widely read book, and God and the Atom, his most neglected. The former was his life's work, the latter was written within days.

ENTHUSIASM (1950) A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries. Msgr. Knox traces a tendency to enthusiasm - or "ultrasupernaturalism" - from the first days of the Church into the XX Century. It contains not only a characteristically charitable analysis of this tendency but valuable lessons for those of us who remain confused by the strange enthusiasms of so many of our neighbors in the XXI Century.

Chapters include:

  • The Nature of Enthusiasm
  • The Corinthians' Letter to St. Paul
  • The Montanist Challenge
  • Donatist and Circumcellion
  • The Underworld of the Middle Ages
  • The Pattern of Medieval Heresy
  • The Anabaptists and the Reformation
  • George Fox and 17th Century Protestantism
  • Jansenism
  • Quietism
  • Malaval, Petrucci, Molinos
  • Madame Guyon and the Battle of the Olympians
  • The French Prophets
  • The Convulsionaries of Saint-Medard
  • The Moravian Tradition
  • John Wesley
  • Some Vagaries of Modern Revivalism
  • The Philosophy of Enthusiasm

Msgr.Knox concentrates his most in-depth research on John Wesley and the Religion of Experience. He devotes no less than four chapters to this remarkable man. From the Introduction:

"There is, I would say, a recurrent situation in Church history - using the word 'church' in the widest sense - where an excess of charity threatens unity. You have a clique, an elite, of Christian men and (more importantly) women, who are trying to live a less worldly life than their neighbors; to be more attentive to the guidance (directly felt, they would tell you) of the Holy Spirit...The pattern is always repeating itself, not in outline merely but in detail. Almost always the enthusiastic movement is denounced as an innovation, yet claims to be preserving, or to be restoring, the primitive discipline of the Church... I would have called [this] tendancy 'ultrasupernaturalism'. For that is the real character of the enthusiast; he expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man's whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement. He will have no 'almost-Christians', no weaker brethren who plod and stumble... the emphasis lies on a direct personal access to the Author of our salvation, with little of intellectual background or of liturgical expression... at the root of it lies a different theology of grace. Our traditional doctrine is that grace perfects nature but leaves it nature still. The assumption of the enthusiast is bolder and simpler; for him, grace has destroyed nature, and replaced it."

"Let us note that traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines, and not merely of doctrines but of emphases. You must not exaggerate in either direction, or the balance is disturbed. An excellent thing to abandon yourself, without reserve, into God's hands; ... but, teach on principle that it is an infidelity to wonder whether you are saved or lost, and you have overweighted your whole devotional structure... Conversely, it is a holy thing to trust in the redeeming merits of Christ. But, put it about that such confidence is the indispensable sign of being in God's favor, that, unless and until he is experimentally aware of it, a man is lost, and the balance has been disturbed at the opposite end;"

"In itself enthusiasm is not a wrong tendency but a false emphasis. Quietism exaggerates only a little the doctrine of the mystics about simplicity in prayer, about disinterested love.  Quakerism does but enthrone in dangerous isolation the truth of God's presence within us. Jansenism is the vigilant conscience of Christendom overshadowed by a scruple. Methodism is the call back to Christ in an age of Deism."

GOD AND THE ATOM (1945) "Peace in Europe and the Socialist regime in England brought [Knox] little comfort. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled him. The event, which others were greeting with jubilation constituted for Ronald a triple outrage on Faith, Hope, and Charity; on Faith in that the actual mechanics of the device, the discovery, as he phrased it, of 'an indeterminate element in the heart of things' seemed at first flush to cast a doubt on the hypothesis of causality and so on the five classical proofs of the existence of God; on Hope by 'the prospect of an age in which the possibilities of evil are increased by an increase in the possibilities of destruction'; on Charity by 'the news that men fighting for a good cause have taken, at one particular moment of decision, the easier, not the nobler path. At the moment of victory a sign appeared in heaven; not the comforting Labarum of the Milvian Bridge, but the bright, evil cloud which hung over Hiroshima. In this sign we were to conquer'." - Evelyn Waugh, Monsignor Ronald Knox, 1959, Chapman & Hall

Knox wrote God and the Atom in response to this triple outrage and provides, in addition to his keen analysis, a consolation unequaled by his contemporaries. 

"This essay, a masterpiece of construction and expression which gives no evidence of the speed with which it was written, fell quite flat. Consciences were dulled by war and minds agitated by the superficial problems of peace. It was a moral and philosophical tract offered to a public obsessed by practical politics. It appeared out of due time, nearly a year before the New Yorker startled America by devoting an entire issue to Mr. John Hersey's gruesome report of the physical effects on Hiroshima; more than five years before the public to whom it was addressed, awoke to the fact that they themselves were threatened by the invention they had applauded; ten years before the publicists began to exploit the panic. Ronald had not sought to raise the alarm. He felt himself charged with an urgent message of consolation to a people who did not then know that they had been hurt." - Evelyn Waugh, Monsignor Ronald Knox, 1959, Chapman & Hall