Chapter XV | The Appeal to History
§ 1. The appeal to history
If the traditional arguments for the existence of God are found to be inconclusive, this does not mean that philosophers have no further questions to ask about religion: their task may be only beginning. But some religious men may be inclined to abandon all hope of philosophical help. They may think that philosophers are looking in the wrong places when they try to discover in abstract speculation or in biological science a basis, or at least a support, for religious faith. Religion, it may be said, has its roots, not in philosophy or science, but in history. Unaided reason may be unable to find in physical nature, or even in the general history of mankind, a plan or pattern of divine action analogous to the plan or pattern of a rational human enterprise. Nevertheless in the history of one human and yet perfect life there may be revealed, though not to unaided reason, the divine plan for creation and the very nature of God Himself. There may be, as it were, an empirical knowledge of God which, like other empirical knowledge, is independent of philosophy and must be accepted as a basis for philosophical thinking. It would seem to be a grave omission, not to say a dereliction of duty, if nothing whatever were said about the philosophical problems raised by so remarkable a claim.
The appeal to history is specially Christian, but it is also to be found in other religions. Even Buddhism, for example, is sometimes said to make a similar appeal. Although it is, so to speak, officially atheistic, yet in its popular form it may treat the Buddha as a Saviour-God: it then becomes a religion of salvation through faith in a personal Saviour, a faith which rests on the historic vow of the Buddha not to enter into bliss until he had brought light to his fellows. Apart from other parallels the examples of Christianity and Buddhism are more than enough to compel discussion of the relation between religion and history. In natural theology such a discussion must be intellectually detached and must be concerned with a general problem. Yet even in considering the general problem those who inherit the traditions of Christendom cannot but have in mind the Christian doctrine. It is better that this should be made explicit, although the intricate questions of dogmatic theology lie beyond the scope of a merely natural theologian, even if he were qualified to deal with them.
From the side of human needs it is not difficult to see the attraction of an appeal to history, and especially to the history of a single human life. To ordinary men, and even to philosophers in their more human moments, the God of philosophy may appear remote, impersonal, and vague: elaborate argumentation about the ultimate concepts and timeless truths of a philosophical theology are unlikely to move the heart. What man seems to want is a personal Saviour. His instinct is to worship what has been called, not too happily, ‘the concrete God’ or, in more religious language, ‘the living God’—a God who meets human weakness and human love with an unfailing response. Such a God can be portrayed only in a myth or story, not in a metaphysical treatise; and if He is to be known as real—such is the common belief—the story has to be a history and the myth a fact.
A distaste for abstractions and a quest for concrete reality is not unknown even among philosophers. Modern existentialists, especially the Christian ones, would claim to be moved by such considerations; but so too would empiricists and even, in their very different way, the followers of Hegel. It might almost be said that every philosopher, no matter how abstruse, would assert emphatically that he is trying to get near to concrete reality or even to common sense. But it is Hegel and his followers who have in fact laid most stress on history and have been conspicuous in treating historical events as the temporal embodiments of eternal principles. If their doctrines fail to satisfy the needs of the religious man, this may be because he suspects that in this philosophy the events may be swamped by the principles and time be swallowed by eternity.
History itself can be exposed to no such danger, and it seems more likely than any philosophy to give us knowledge of concrete individual reality. It combines the vividness of art with something like the precision of science; and its concern is not so much with general laws as with actual individuals. So far as it ventures, unlike science, to pass judgements of value, it may give life and body to the abstractions of the philosopher and so bring them within the range of common understanding. Some history is too scientific to allow itself this indulgence, and there may be reasons for its austerity; yet a history of art, for example, would not obviously be improved if it dissociated itself from all aesthetic standards. History has even been regarded as the completion of philosophy; and philosophical speculation may be thought profitable only so far as it becomes also historical insight.
If any such view can be justified, it is not unreasonable that religious men should expect the historian rather than the philosopher to be the defender of their faith. History has some of the wholeness and comprehensiveness claimed for religion; for it too is concerned with the whole of human life. And if God is to be conceived by the help of an analogy with human ideals, the history of a perfect man might afford a unique manifestation or revelation of God such as would be most appropriate to our limited human understanding. An ideal man who was also real might, so to speak, be a mediator between man and God.
On the other hand, it would be an error to identify historical knowledge with religious faith or even to suppose that history could supply a proof of the goodness of God or the divinity of Christ. History is concerned only with the finite; it can work only with human categories; and its explanations must be psychological rather than theological. This may be expressed in Earth's aphorism ‘Whoso says history, says non-revelation’. If history is to be the source of a religious faith, it must, we are often told, be illuminated by ‘the inward witness of the Holy Spirit’—testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum. Its message is sometimes said to be accessible only to those who already believe.
Hence appeals to history cannot enable men either to dispense with religious experience or to disregard philosophical questions about its validity. When considered as a source of revelation history can be only one strand, even if an essential one, in the web of faith.
For natural theology the fundamental question is this—What must be the character of a history which may reasonably be regarded as a vehicle of divine revelation?
It may be suggested that the history must, in the first place, be true: otherwise we might as well be content with a parable or a myth. In the second place, since it cannot depict an eternal and infinite reality, it must portray a finite, but ideal, character—the character of a man whose perfection can be recognized, and whose life and teaching can arouse admiration and love and even awe. In the third place, the history must be susceptible of a theological interpretation: it is, for example, not enough for Christian theology that the ideal man portrayed should be used as an analogy in our human thinking about God—he has to be regarded as the Son of God or even as God Himself.
There are thus three questions to be raised about what may be called a religious history: (1) a question of fact; (2) a question of evaluation; and (3) a question of theological interpretation. These questions, although they would be appropriate in considering any history that formed the basis of a religion, have a direct bearing on the doctrines of Christianity.
§ 2. The question of fact
The history traditionally accepted as the basis of Christian doctrine extends far beyond the human life of Jesus of Nazareth. It includes within itself the story of the Jews and lays special stress on their prophecies of the coming Messiah. It covers also the story of the Church on earth, which has followed Jesus as its Master and Lord. Beyond these stories it looks back to the Creation and the Fall of Man, and forward to the Last Judgement. It appears as a great drama played, as it were, in Heaven as well as on earth—a complete history of mankind in which the centre is Jesus Christ, who is both Man and God. That part of it which concerns the Church after the death of the first disciples has no authoritative record and is interpreted differently by Protestants and Roman Catholics; but for both alike (apart from minor differences about the Apocrypha) the remainder is contained in one sacred book—in the Bible which is also the word of God; and the whole Biblical story from beginning to end has been taken to be a true chronicle of historical facts.
This traditional belief is stated with admirable clarity in the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus promulgated by Pope Leo XIII as recently as 1893. ‘All the books which in their integrity the Church receives as sacred and canonical, with their parts, were written by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and therefore exclude all possible error’. Among the possible errors excluded we must presumably reckon errors of fact as well as of doctrine. This inerrancy was equally accepted by the Reformers, although they appealed to the authority of the Holy Spirit rather than to that of the Church. They maintained further that natural reason, if not competent to prove that the Scriptures are the infallible word of God, is at least able to establish their credibility against the criticism of unbelievers.
We need not enquire too closely into what is meant by the ‘dictation’ of the Holy Spirit: at one time it seems to have been taken literally. What is important for our purposes is this. During the last hundred years and more there has gradually taken place, outside the Church of Rome, a radical revolution in theological thinking about the Bible. Apart from a few Fundamentalists, who make up in zeal what they lack in scholarship, theologians are no longer able to accept what used to be the common belief of Christendom. The accounts of the Creation and the Fall, whatever their religious significance, are recognized to be myth and not history. Much in the history of the Jews is seen to be legend; and all of it is exposed to errors found in the early history of other nations. Even the prophecies are no longer interpreted in the literal way that is accepted as obvious by New Testament writers as well as by later theologians.
Questions of fact—and it is only with these that we are at present concerned—have to be determined in a critical age by competent scholars on the basis of empirical evidence: they cannot be decided by appealing to a revelation which is taken to be exempt from criticism. This is the clear principle which has to be accepted by religious men to-day if their faith is not to be regarded as superstition. Here again the Church of Rome forms a notable exception. So far from questioning the historical inerrancy of the Scriptures it claims a similar inerrancy for its own traditions; and it has recently promulgated as a dogma to be accepted by all Christians the statement that the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken up into Heaven before death. Unless this factual assertion can be established by dispassionate examination of historical evidence—and it is not easy to believe that it can—it must presumably be guaranteed by revelation. It would be hard to find a more direct clash of principles between theology and science—if under the head of science we may include historical criticism.
It may be objected that if we have already accepted, on whatever grounds, the other elements in a revelation—in particular its evaluative judgements and theological interpretations—we may be entitled to believe in historical facts other than those which could be established by a dispassionate historian. Such a contention is not without difficulties, especially if evaluation and interpretation have in turn to be based on the historical facts; but it is not unreasonable to claim that a historical revelation has to be judged as a whole. On the other hand, if the great religious drama of God and man has been declared for centuries to be historical fact from beginning to end, and if we have now to admit that some of it is myth and some of it is legend, we are faced with a new situation and a new need for criticism. It becomes all-important to discover how much is factually true, and this is a work for scholars rather than for saints. The old assurance has been lost, and it is impossible to decide a priori where the line may have to be drawn between historical fact and religious myth.
§ 3. The historical Jesus
Even if many of the ancient props have given way, it is still possible that the central narrative—the life of Jesus of Nazareth-might stand fast as history. Yet here too the eroding activity of Biblical critics has been long at work, and it appears to be now undermining—I again except the Church of Rome—the very citadels of positive and orthodox theology.
It is impossible to outline this critical movement in a few words. A brief and yet comprehensive account of its modern developments, and one which—if I may say so—manifests a rare combination of the critical and the religious spirit, is to be found in Professor D. M. Baillie's book God was in Christ. Here there is no room to do more than mention the most recent school of Form Criticism—or Formgeschichte—as it is called, whose leaders in Germany are Professor Rudolf Bultmann and Professor Martin Dibelius. Its exponents study the Gospels historically—I quote Professor Baillie—‘by distinguishing the various “forms”, the various types of anecdote, parable, apophthegm, wonder-story, homiletic reminiscence, that were used in the preaching of the early Church about Jesus and grew into the Gospel tradition’. This inevitably suggests that it may be impossible to get behind the primitive Christian ‘Kerygma’ (or message) to the historical Jesus. The issue is controversial, but if the present situation is to be understood, it is necessary to note the kind of conclusion reached by some of the most eminent Biblical critics, whether they belong to this school or not. In order to avoid misrepresentation I quote their actual words, though even these may be misleading when considered apart from their context.
Professor Bultmann tells us that ‘we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus’. ‘It seems then’, says Professor R. H. Lightfoot, ‘that the form of the earthly no less than of the heavenly Christ is for the most part hidden from us’, ‘To practise Christology’, writes Professor Tillich, ‘does not mean to turn backwards to an unknown historical past or to exert oneself about the applicability of questionable mythical categories to an unknown historical personality’.
These are not the utterances of professed sceptics, but of outstanding theologians in Germany, England, and America. Even if we turn to those who have a reputation for the most rigid orthodoxy, the story is not very different. Thus Emil Brunner can say: ‘Faith presupposes, as a matter of course, a priori, that the Jesus of history is not the same as the Christ of faith’. And Karl Barth himself can make the astonishing statement: ‘Jesus Christ, in fact, is also the Rabbi of Nazareth, historically so difficult to get information about, and when it is obtained, one who is apt to impress us as a little commonplace alongside more than one other founder of a religion and even alongside many later representatives of His own religion’.
It would be wholly unfair to take these isolated declarations as expressing adequately the beliefs of their authors; but we may perhaps descry in them a common appeal from the historical Jesus—‘the Christ who died at Jerusalem’, to quote the words of James Nayler, the Quaker preacher—to the Christ who lives and reigns. The truth or error of their historical views can be judged only by those who have given their lives to Biblical scholarship—some weighty criticisms are supplied by Dr. Baillie himself. Yet—from the point of view of natural theology—it seems hard to resist the conclusion that, in an age of questioning, religion cannot be established or defended, as is sometimes thought, by a simple appeal to known historical facts.
A further difficulty has been brought into prominence by Professor Bultmann in an essay on The New Testament and Mythology. This is published in a volume entitled ‘Kerygma und Mythos’, which contains also criticisms from other theologians: the title of the English translation is ‘Kerygma and Myth’. In his essay Dr. Bultmann insists that the New Testament provides a world-picture which belongs entirely to Jewish or gnostic mythology and is incredible or even meaningless in a scientific age. In this mythological picture he includes, not only the accounts of Creation and the Fall and the Last Coming, and of a three-storey universe in which the Heaven above the earth and the Hell below it are full of supernatural powers—of angels and demons who intervene constantly in earthly affairs—but also the miracles of Jesus, and even the central doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension, the Atonement and the Sacraments. He maintains that the myth of a past era is so essential to the whole story that it is no longer possible, as was once thought, to separate the kernel from the husk; and he sets before the theologians the heavy task of ‘demythologizing’ the Gospel message if it is to be accepted by modern men. This is a problem incomparably more difficult than a commonplace effort to determine ordinary historical facts.
Some may think that the acceptance of such views must mean the end of historical Christianity; but it should be noted that the most radical interpretations of the Gospel story can in fact be held by sincere and devoted Christians. This is already clear from the very names of the authors I have listed; but in order to make it even more clear another quotation may be given—this time from Albert Schweitzer, whose book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, marked a crucial stage in criticism nearly fifty years ago, and whose religion is attested by his life. After saying that the names in which men expressed their recognition of Jesus, such as ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Son of God’, have become for us ‘historical parables’, he goes on:
‘He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word; “Follow thou me!”, and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is’.
§ 4. The question of value
If we pass from the question of fact to what I have coldly called the question of evaluation, two different kinds of judgement appear to be necessary. First of all, there are ordinary moral judgements. Although these may be possible only through divine grace, they make no pretence to be other than human; but it is impossible to dispense with them since a history of folly and wickedness cannot be taken as a revelation of God. Secondly, there are what may be called religious judgements or ‘immediate utterances of faith’. There, much more than moral or even aesthetic judgements, are strongly emotional; and we have to ask how far men are moved by a religious story to awe and reverence and worship. It is presumably here above all that theologians speak of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.
To treat such questions summarily, as is here inevitable, cannot but give an impression of extreme crudity—an appearance of labelling religious stories as a grocer might affix price tickets to sacks of potatoes. What has to be said must be taken only as a series of signposts indicating routes that have been followed; but in these matters every man must find his own way for himself.
In the Old Testament there are many writers of high morality and deep religious insight, but their teaching loses little, if it does not actually gain, by being separated from the history of the Jews. So far as they look forward to the Messiah as an earthly ruler, they throw more light on Jewish nationalism than on religious faith. The historical narrative itself may depict some heroic and religious men, and some of the events may be interpreted as religious parables, but the record is very human and contains a great deal of primitive savagery. The fact that it has been used indiscriminately as a model for human actions has had many unhappy results. There may be traced in it a gradual development of religion, and this may be ascribed to the grace of God; but on the whole its religious influence springs more from its teachings and meditations and prayers than from any historical facts.
It would be even more unseemly to pass a summary judgement on the history of the Christian Church. To some this may be the main ground of their belief, which may even harden into submission to an authority whose utterances have to be accepted as infallible. Yet it has also been said—I think by an Anglican divine—that Church history is the main obstacle to religious faith. This may be contrasted with Boccacio's flippant story of the Jew called Abraham, who was converted after a visit to Rome because he became convinced that so corrupt a Church could have not survived unless it had the Holy Spirit for its foundation and support. There are many conflicting voices, and to some men the record is one of ecclesiastical squabbles and theological intolerance and intellectual obscurantism, of moral obliquity and religious persecution—as if the pride of the Pharisees had all but triumphed over the spirit of Jesus. How many innocent human beings have been slaughtered in the name of the Prince of Peace! It is a terrible thought that men, women, and even children have been bullied and frightened into religion. Nor is it fair to ascribe all European progress to the influence of the Christian Church—a miracle like that of Athens in the fifth century before Christ shows the vast potentialities already present in imperfect human nature. Nevertheless, when all is said, there have been faithful followers of Jesus all down the ages, whose humble service has kept alive the memory and ideals of their Master. Without the influence of the Christian spirit the life of Europe and of the world would have been incomparably poorer than it is. But our judgement of the Church, whatever it may be, must in the long run turn on what is thought of the life of Jesus Himself.
This is the central question, and the only one that matters. There is to-day a new difficulty for human judgement because of the admitted imperfection of our records. Although the moral and religious value of a story may be recognized independently of its historical accuracy, complications arise when we are asked to make up our minds about a life that was actually lived and so extends far beyond the limits of what has been recorded. The question of value cannot be completely separated from the question of fact. The difficulty is not merely that the Evangelists described events with presuppositions—about signs and wonders and angels and demons—which we can no longer share. If the school of Form Criticism 13 right, it may be hard to determine which of the sayings of Jesus are His own and which of them express rather the thoughts and emotions of His disciples. This difficulty is particularly obvious in St. John's gospel. The reflexions and feelings and message of the early Church stand as a kind of veil between us and the historical reality. Some modern critics even tell us that it was a mistake of the ‘liberal’ theologians to enquire too closely into what was actually said and done; and from this they take a curious comfort. Yet no one has ever doubted that the early Christians had certain beliefs and feelings about their Master: what men want to know is whether their feelings were justified and their beliefs true. If we think this unnecessary, we might as well accept the story at once as a myth or parable whose foundation in fact we are unable to ascertain.
Although there are difficulties in this historical uncertainty, there can also be some advantage; for we may be able to suppose that some of what may appear to ordinary human judgement as blemishes—such as the praise of eunuchs and the violent denunciations of the Pharisees and the belief in eternal punishment—have been wrongly coloured or imperfectly understood: the narrative itself shows continual misunderstanding on the part of the disciples. Nevertheless, if we speak merely as historians, the imperfections and brevity of our records must render hazardous the claim that we can here have unquestionable empirical knowledge of a completely perfect life. Yet, whatever be the view of scholars, it is hard to believe that a great figure does not shine through all the obscurity. At the very least Jesus was a religious teacher who did not preach either history or theology, but the need for repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God. He spoke in parables; He was interested in the everyday things of life—the birds, the trees, the flowers, the sower at his sowing, the women at the mill; and He was a friend of publicans and sinners. If we put aside our critical questions and think of Him very simply as He taught the multitudes and healed the sick and blessed the children, as He prayed in Gethsemane and died on the cross, as He talked with Mary in the garden and walked in the evening to Emmaus with His disciples and showed Thomas His hands and His side, we cannot doubt that this is a story which can move men greatly in the way that is characteristic of religion. In view of centuries of religious history it would be foolish to think otherwise. All of this is coloured for us by a long theological and religious tradition, and much will be lost if we have to treat as poetry or parable the attendant wonders—the miraculous birth, the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds, and even the bodily resurrection and ascension—but the moving power of the story is unquestionable; and this moving power has depended to a great extent on the belief that the story is true.
§ 5. The theological interpretation
Men are moved by the humanity of Jesus. Yet humanity, although it may be respected and admired and loved and even reverenced, cannot be worshipped or adored. The immediate utterance of faith is said by theologians to go far beyond what we have described. It may be expressed most simply in the words of Simon Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’. This is not ordinary human judgement, but religious faith; and it is here that there is a bridge between moral judgement and dogmatic theology—a bridge which is to be crossed only by ‘the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit’. Some may think it can be crossed on the sheer authority of the Bible or the Church; but—apart altogether from intellectual objections—this would have no religious value for the individual unless it were accompanied by some direct personal vision; for the religious judgement, like the aesthetic, must be one's own.
On this view dogmatic theology is not itself religious faith: it is an attempt to interpret religious faith and to think out its implications. Divine inspiration is sometimes claimed even for theological thinking; but it would seem more reasonable to hold that it derives what inspiration it may have from the faith it seeks to interpret. The faith itself is not the acceptance of a series of theoretical propositions: it is not so much an interpretation as a direct experience or encounter. Admittedly it may, in its turn, be coloured by its theological interpretation; but even so the thinking that is in religious experience must be distinguished from the thinking that is only about it.
The central doctrine of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth is also the Christ, and that Jesus Christ is both Man and God. Traditional theology insists on the full humanity of Jesus; and at the present time even orthodox theologians declare without ambiguity that not only His knowledge and His healing power, but also His moral and religious life, were as human as our own. Yet at the same time He is said to be Very God of very God’. Let me quote a passage from Professor Baillie:
‘It is impossible to do justice to the truth of the Incarnation without speaking of it as the coming into history of the eternally pre-existent Son of God. This does not mean, it need hardly be said, anything like a conscious continuity of life and memory between Jesus of Nazareth and the pre-existent Son. Nor are we to think of the human personality of Jesus of Nazareth as having had any heavenly and eternal pre-existence. The Church has never taught that the human element in Jesus, His manhood, is consubstantial or co-eternal with God, but that it is consubstantial with ourselves and belongs to the order of created things. But it was the eternal Word, the eternal Son, very God of very God, that was incarnate in Jesus. And the initiative is always with the divine; so that we are bound to say: ‘God sent forth His Son”, and’ He came down from heaven and was made flesh and was made man”.’
In this way the earthly history of Jesus acquires, as it were, the background of a divine history. The divine history has to be told in what look like temporal terms, but these must be symbolical, and not literal; for otherwise the divine history takes on the character—especially as details are multiplied—of an empirical, but unverifiable, record of facts. So far as temporal language is used, this record must be described as a myth—a story or parable which expresses a mystery not to be understood in conceptual terms. Yet since men can think only in conceptual terms, the divine history itself has to become more like a philosophy, or metaphysics, which treats of God, not merely as the supreme reality, but as one God who is yet three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This doctrine had to be expressed in the language of Greek philosophy at a time when there was no other; and it should not be supposed that the word ‘Person’ has its modern meaning or even that the word ‘three’ has a literal numerical sense. The mystery of the Incarnation has to be explained in terms of ‘Substance’; and bitter controversies raged on the question whether the Son was of the same substance, or only of like substance, with the Father. All the terms employed are of the utmost complexity and subtlety, full of possible ambiguities, and open to different interpretations at different times. Their precise and proper meaning is still subject to dispute among modern theologians, and pitfalls for heresy are open on every side. Yet, although the Church to-day may speak in milder accents, this theological interpretation is traditionally identified with the Faith which, unless one keeps whole and entire, one will without doubt perish everlastingly.
This identification of the Faith with a series of metaphysical propositions may have been forced on religious thinkers by particular controversies in particular historical situations, and perhaps by the practical consequences of certain theological beliefs. Able men have elaborated these doctrines with much searching of heart and honesty of purpose, and have found in them, in spite of all the subtleties, a fresh religious inspiration. Greek philosophy and its developments by such Christian thinkers as Augustine and Aquinas have always to be treated with respect. But the philosophers of Greece made no claim to be divinely inspired; and it would be more in accordance with their spirit, and perhaps more like the practice of the greatest Christian theologians, to think out a new philosophy in the light of modern knowledge and make use of this in theological reflexion rather than to insist on preserving ancient doctrines as far as possible intact.
Something of this more philosophical—and more religious—spirit is already shown in St. Hilary of Poitiers, the great contemporary of Athanasius; although even he does not refrain from applying pejorative terms to those with whom he disagrees. ‘The errors of heretics and blasphemers’, he writes, ‘force us to deal with unlawful matters, to scale perilous heights, to speak unutterable words, to trespass on forbidden ground. Faith ought in silence to fulfil the commandments, worshipping the Father, reverencing with Him the Son, abounding in the Holy Spirit; but we must strain the poor resources of our language to express thoughts too great for words. The error of others compels us to err in daring to embody in human terms truths which ought to be hidden in the silent veneration of the heart’.
The problems of the modern theologian are much more difficult than those which had to be faced by St. Hilary. When the Christian history with all its mythological background was universally accepted as an unquestionable record of fact, a dogmatic theology based on this history might seem to have the solid certainty of a science—of the very queen among the sciences. One of the strangest tendencies of modern times is to reject or belittle the historical facts and yet to construct a dogmatic theology very similar to the old—to gather, as has been said, apologetic figs from sceptical thistles. This too may be an attempt to re-think old thoughts in the light of religious experience; but to plain and simple men theology and history used to give one another mutual support. As each of these is weakened with the increase of knowledge, it tends to produce a corresponding weakness in the other. The currency of theological thinking may have its own inflationary spiral; and it seems as if drastic measures may be necessary if its value is to be restored. Perhaps as theologians reflect afresh on their own experience and the experience of the Church, they may be able to produce a simpler theology which will speak in more gentle tones, will not be afraid to admit uncertainty, and will not make the acceptance of metaphysical propositions the condition of a saving faith. What attracts men to the Christian to-day—and perhaps all down the ages—is not his doctrines or creeds, nor even his rites and sacraments, but the fact that, like the early disciples, he follows a merciful Master, whom he believes to be, although he does not know how, a revelation of the nature and love of God.
The new Biblical learning and the whole scientific outlook has made it necessary for theologians to re-think their theology from its foundations, as some of them are trying to do. Although religion is a life of faith and dedication, it is bound to lose in depth if it does not—so to speak—think seriously about God and the world; and in this task it is not enough to be merely vague and negative—to drop things out and leave men in a kind of golden haze. In the present predicament a new theology may not be enough. If religion is to avoid total eclipse, what the world may require is a religious genius—perhaps one who is also a theologian or a philosopher. But while men can always get on with the humble task of thinking, for the coming of religious genius or religious inspiration they can only wait.
§ 6. History and faith
Our enquiry into the relations between history and religion has become a hasty—and some may think an ill-considered—incursion into the realm of dogmatic theology. Is it possible to return from this unlicensed foray with some tentative conclusions, or at least questions, more appropriate to a philosophy of religion?
We may begin with some principles which seem least likely to be a source of controversy.
Belief in historical facts is not to be confused with religious experience or religious faith. In particular it is not to be confused with Christian experience or Christian faith—that is, with a saving faith by which a man feels enabled, through God's grace, to turn from self and the world to the worship and service of God.
It follows that historical belief cannot be a substitute for religious faith or religious experience. The fact of experience must remain central in religion.
If this is true, an appeal to history cannot do away with the need for reflecting about religious experience and trying to interpret it. The whole development of Christian theology is an attempt to meet this need—an attempt which shows that theological reflexion and interpretation must be philosophical. Where this is not so, theology becomes merely legal or historical and in any case superficial.
We may go farther. It seems necessary to conclude that by appealing to history we cannot get rid of philosophical questions about the validity of religious experience itself. If a religious history simply assumes the existence of God, we have still to ask as philosophers how far this assumption is justified and how far it can be supported or refuted by what is known of the universe. If we are told that the assumption is justified by the feelings which the history arouses, we have still to face the difficulty that although feeling can carry conviction, it cannot by itself justify a claim to knowledge.
If it is possible to have historical beliefs without religious faith, is it also possible to have religious faith without historical beliefs? This is a more searching question, and any answer is likely to be controversial.
A religion in which a belief in historical facts is considered essential to faith may be called a historical religion. Christianity has traditionally been preached as a historical religion. It is more doubtful whether this could be said of the teaching of Jesus, which looked more to the future than to the past.
To adherents of a historical religion it must seem that if the history is regarded as non-essential, the whole religion must go, or at the very least must be transformed beyond recognition. Even to more detached observers it will be obvious that to abandon the history, or to regard a great deal of it as myth or parable, must mean the loss of much that has been felt as infinitely precious. Hence it may be in the interests of a religion to preserve a historical belief if this can be done without violence to the truth.
On this view it may be argued that the divine character of a story, or of a person, can be recognized only by religious faith and that the story has been shown in the experience of the believer to be a revelation of God. Since it would already be a miracle if such a story were invented by men, even by men of genius, it is simpler, as well as religiously more satisfying, to believe that the story is true.
Here the argument is from religious faith to historical belief instead of vice versa, and it is perhaps the strongest argument that can be found provided that the history can be accepted or rejected as a whole. The strength of the argument is diminished if men think that the different parts must be accepted or rejected separately—if they feel obliged to reject, for example, what has been disproved by historical research or what is incompatible with the fundamental principles of science or what belongs to the mythology of a past age.
Those who hold that historical facts cannot be determined without the elaborate research possible only to scholars must consider it wrong to make belief in historical statements—and belief in a metaphysical theology based on these statements—the necessary condition of a saving faith. They are bound to ask whether a story may not retain its religious value and still be a revelation of God even if it is no longer accepted as an unquestionable statement of fact. The existence of non-historical religions suggests that an affirmative answer is at least not impossible, even if it may be unwelcome both to orthodox believers and to their fiercest critics. And it may be urged that such an answer would at least have the merit of diminishing the exclusiveness and intolerance which are the special bane of religions based on belief in historical facts.
Sincere and able men have interpreted the Christian history as a parable or allegory of timeless religious or moral truths. Others have used it as a guide to a way of religious, and even mystical life, within the Christian community itself. Professor Bultmann, more recently, hopes it may be possible to express the purely religious message (Kerygma) of the New Testament in terms of an existentialist philosophy which lays stress on living decisions in the present rather than on traditional beliefs about the past. Those who hold such views seek to find in religious experience, or in some element of religious experience, a faith which may survive the history by which it was originally inspired.
To all this it may be objected that such views either reduce religion to a philosophy or else attempt to retain a faith which will not outlive the historical beliefs it has ceased to regard as essential. More fundamentally, it may be said that all religious faith must depend on a belief that God acts in the world and that such a belief is of necessity historical. A God who does nothing cannot be an object of worship.
Such a contention raises more general problems to which we shall have to return later. Those who maintain that belief in the truth of a past history cannot be made the necessary condition of a saving faith may reply that God does act inasmuch as He enables men to lead a life of dedication and worship which they cannot live in their own strength: to regard belief in historical records as inessential is not to discount that present and living history which is religious experience itself. They may even reply that God must do everything—that the whole universe is a sacramental universe, although some events in it may have more significance to men than others. But these replies are ceasing to regard history as a record of past events, and they formulate afresh the central problems of natural theology as such. They remind us that it is time to get back to our proper business and to leave the warm, personal world of religious history for the colder world of philosophy. And although this discussion has been too brief and too naive, both from the religious and from the philosophical point of view, it will not have failed in its purpose if it has outlined, however crudely, some problems of most pressing concern to religious men in the present age.