John Rogerson’s The Bible and Criticism in Victorian Britain has a curious focus: ‘scholars who were dismissed from their posts … in those heady days before the churches decided to deal with the prophetic voices in their midst by simply ignoring them’. The author chooses two, F. D. Maurice, obliged to resign from his post at King’s College in 1853; and, drawn from a series of Gifford Lectures Rogerson gave in 1994, William Smith, expulsed from the Free Church College in 1881. Smith wrote that some work of Moses was actually post-exilic and, in his Theological Essays, Maurice felt punishment in hell was not everlasting.
In the first third of the book, Rogerson begins his investigation with Maurice, a pioneer in the education of women and working-class men but one who was a ‘transitional figure’, somewhat open to the ‘new wave of biblical criticism’. He develops a triangular analysis of Maurice, his relationship to the Old Testament, Old Testament criticism of his day and how Maurice measures up to criticism today. After providing a biography of Maurice, Rogerson begins to concentrate on the two main ideas that moved Maurice; first, that the Bible is the record of God’s dealing with the human race. Although Maurice believed the Bible is primarily didactic, with ‘God seeking to educate humanity’, he did not think of scripture as a set of teachings or doctrines. Instead ‘it is the story of God dealing with men and women who are not particularly special; in these dealings, God shows who he is and what he requires’. Maurice’s second emphasis was on God’s purpose to bless and to accept the whole human race. He rejected ‘any idea of the Fall that implied that the human race stood under the judgment of God so that only a small elect would be saved from hell’.
Rogerson details how Maurice came under the sway of historiography and was not reticent about expressing his views. As Maurice wrote, ‘the mere sentimental feeling which attaches a particular passage to a particular name will be readily sacrificed by a lover of truth’. Rogerson points out that although Maurice rejected traditional views about who had written the Bible, he still accepted the Bible as divine revelation. Already in 1852 Maurice was pressing for a historical rather than a christological interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, something that Rogerson observes ‘was a brave thing to do’.
In his summary of Maurice, Rogerson believes he was essentially conservative, that while he recognized a lack of historicity and did see literary elements in the Bible, he was in the end a precritical scholar. Rogerson writes, ‘We are disappointed if we look for anything that we could see in terms of a modern literary reading.’ What Rogerson finds admirable in Maurice was his dislike of ‘biblical criticism of his day because it turned the Bible into an object, an object that was in an inferior position to the critic’.
Rogerson is more taken with William Smith, ‘probably because he was larger than life’. As with Maurice, Rogerson details some of Smith’s attributes and achievements. ‘Brilliant linguist’ (roughly eight languages mastered), ‘he could have had an academic career in mathematics or physics, and his ties with scholars in all parts of the world were probably unmatched in his lifetime.’ Here Rogerson offer a more in-depth treatment, beginning with ‘A Tale of Two Cultures,’ where in the late nineteenth century a Kulturkampf took place. Serious discussions were being held in the Free Church on whether a knowledge of Hebrew was necessary and that historical criticism needed to be firmly rejected. As Rogerson points out, the church in Britain lost perhaps its final opportunity to provide ‘an interpretative framework in which the church played a central role’. Instead, the church was ‘too concerned with stemming the tide of liberal thought’.
In the middle of this battle, Rogerson positions Smith; for him, Smith is one who ‘more clearly than anyone else in Victorian Britain, saw the nature of the challenge’. Rogerson then provides a survey of Smith’s development. Fluent in German, Smith paid a second visit to Germany to spend a semester in Göttingen, attending lectures from Hermann Lotze, Albrecht Ritschl and Ernst Bertheau. Rogerson appears almost wistful when he mentions the existence of a letter showing the Germans ‘regretted [they] might not have the chance of claiming him’ (Rogerson states Ritschl became known to Britain through Smith’s efforts). It was under the influence of Ritschl, Wellhausen and Rothe that Smith became a proficient scholar in historical and systematic theology.
Rogerson ends his discussion by summing up Smith’s achievements. ‘Smith developed, and throughout his life maintained, a theological position that made him a leading and radical biblical critic, and a fervent committed evangelical.’ Smith’s writing was often ‘astonishingly up to date’. Smith was a rare scholar who called for historical research not because he doubted inerrancy, but because, in comparing ‘the religion of other ancient Semitic peoples, the superiority of Israelite religion would be clear for all to see’. Smith has also ‘come to be regarded as a founder of the sociological study of religion’. Finally, Rogerson believes Smith was a scholar who would have felt home into today’s world. He may not have felt comfortable with the various theological developments, but he ‘would have welcomed them’.
At the end of October 1880, a ‘Commission of Assembly appointed to examine W. R. Smith’s article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica voted by a majority of 68 votes to suspend him from his chair of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Free Church College of Aberdeen’.