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Part I | F.D. Maurice as Interpreter of the Old Testament: The F.D. Maurice Lectures For 1992

Chapter 1: Order and Creation in the Old Testament

Maurice's treatment of the Old Testament was mainly confined to sermons. The two volumes of sermons entitled Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament and Prophets and Kings of the Old Testament contain 46 sermons preached at Lincoln's Inn between 16 February 1851 and 20 June 1852. To these can be added a further six sermons on Old Testament subjects in The Doctrine or Sacrifice deduced from the Scriptures which were preached at Lincoln's Inn from 26 February to 30 April 1854. In addition, some of the sermons given at Lincoln's Inn from 3 December 1848 which were published under the title The Prayer Book contain addresses on the Old Testament; and we must not overlook the sections on the Old Testament in Maurice's best known works The Kingdom of Christ and Theological Essays.1 This list of sources is not exhaustive;2 but it is a sufficiently large sample to ensure an adequate coverage of Maurice's handling of the Old Testament. As far as I can judge, Maurice's view of the Old Testament did not develop once he had established his mature convictions. His sermons on the Old Testament were thus a dialogue between the text and his beliefs. This dialogue inevitably repeated Maurice's basic convictions; but it was almost always fresh and vigorous and driven by the belief that the Old Testament lessons read at divine service were meant to speak to himself and his listeners. I shall deal with this last point later in the first lecture; but in order to indicate the nature of Maurice's style, I shall quote some sentences from his sermon on the purpose of the Old Testament lesson from his series on the Prayer Book:

The word ‘Lesson’ implies that we are not speaking but spoken to. Another is teaching; we sit to learn. Now thoughts of this kind suggest themselves to a great many in every Church where the Old Testament is read, ‘What have we to do with these? We have been hearing perhaps a Chapter out of the Book of Kings, perhaps one of Jewish Prophecy—the first is simple enough, but it belongs to the far-gone past; the other, for aught we know, may belong to past, present or future, but we do not understand it. We can find something profitable to our souls in the Psalms… The commandments we admit are of standing value but why not make a collection of profitable extracts; why force upon an English congregation, composed of the most various elements, that which cannot be applicable to the condition of one in twenty?’3

Maurice answered his rhetorical questions as follows:

‘Sit down’ says the Prayer-Book, ‘and listen. Hear this Chapter, and this. We tell you it is a lesson. We tell you that it will interpret yourselves to you and the world to you. And again, that the world and yourselves, or, in other words, God's dealings with the world and yourselves will interpret it to you.’4

Incidentally, Maurice by no means confined his preaching to the lessons prescribed for Sundays in the Book of Common Prayer. His addresses in Patriarchs and Lawgivers did follow the appointed readings from Septuagesima to the Third Sunday after Trinity in 1851; but this was not an invariable practice. It must also be said that Maurice did not go through passages verse by verse in his sermons. Rather, he would concentrate on one or two main ideas in a passage, and enlarge and elaborate them. This method inevitably left many questions unanswered.

The two main ideas that inform Maurice's use of the Old Testament are these: first, the Bible is the record of God's dealings with the human race. In these dealings, God seeks to educate humanity so that it learns the moral principle on which the universe is based, and comes to accept and live by this principle. Thus, the Bible is not a set of teachings or doctrines about God. Nor is it a law book containing God's moral instructions to the human race. It is the story of God dealing with men and women, and men and women who are not particularly special or even particularly religious. In these dealings, which include punishments to guide and correct his people, God shows who he is and what he requires. The value of the Old Testament for readers in Maurice's days is that its stories will help them to see that the same God wishes to have dealings with them now, who had dealings with people then in the sacred stories.

The second main idea behind Maurice's approach to the Old Testament is that God's purpose is to bless and to accept the whole human race. Maurice totally 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. He also rejected the view that Christ had died only for those predestined to be saved. Further, Christ's death had not been a sacrifice which reconciled God to humanity and now made it possible for God to forgive the human race. The death of Christ had been part of God's reaching out in love to the human race, and it created new possibilities for humanity, new possibilities into which men and women were to be invited. One of Maurice's most perceptive modern interpreters, H.G. Wood, suggests that Maurice would have agreed with the scholastic theologians who believed that the Incarnation would have taken place even if there had been no fall of the human race. ‘The Son of God became Son of Man, for us men as well as for our salvation’.5

In showing how these main ideas were applied to the Old Testament, I begin with Maurice's sermons on the Creation and the Fall. In the sermon on Creation (the text chosen is Gen. 2.1) Maurice argues that Genesis 1–2 does not allude to the creation of the material universe:

Scriptural readers and commentators have insisted that the Mosaic history of Creation shall be the history of the formation of the material earth, though there is not a single sentence in which the slightest allusion is made to that formation.6

Maurice goes on to say that this position means that there will be no clash between his interpretation of Genesis 1–2 and the findings of modern science; but he is at pains to emphasize that this is not the reason why he adopts the position that he does:

We have the greatest interest in getting rid of them [notions that Gen. 1–2 is about the creation of the material world]—not in order to make peace with science, not even in order to assert the letter of Scripture, though both these objects are highly important,—but because, as long as these conceptions last, we cannot enter into that idea of Creation which the Scripture is in every page bringing out before us; because we cannot feel the beauty of that order of the Universe which Moses was permitted to reveal to us.7

These last words bring us to the heart of Maurice's understanding of the purpose of Genesis 1–2. God somehow communicated to Moses a vision of the universe seen from the divine point of view. It was a universe still in the process of becoming (note the command to the earth to produce grass and to the trees and vegetation to produce seed and to the animals to be fruitful and multiply—something that they were still doing); but if it was a universe still in process of becoming it was complete in the sense that it perfectly represented what was in the mind of God; and it was what was in the mind of God that Genesis 1–2 was intended to convey, so that the reader gained not information about how the world came into being, but an awareness of a Being ‘who is, and was, and is to come’.

The purpose of Genesis 1–2 was to deliver the human race from idolatry, which for Maurice meant the worship of the creature instead of the creator. The six-day scheme of creation was designed to make the readers contemplate the order of the universe so that they would know that they were not the rulers of the universe. The command to rest on the seventh day was a further reminder that human beings were not the rulers of creation and was also, and more importantly, a way of discovering how to live in harmony with the order that was at the heart of creation.

The most striking thing about Maurice's sermon on the Fall is his insistence that there is no difference between what Adam did once and what we do now. The offence of Adam and Eve was that they declined to be dependent upon God and insisted on becoming independent. As Maurice put it: ‘they claimed to be something which they were not. They refused to be that which they were’.8 Adam and Eve wanted to be gods, not to be in the image of God. They wished to above the law, not subject to it. The fact that we, today, can match this from our own experience confirms the truth of the Old Testament story.

What, then, were the consequences of the Fall? The first was the coming of death, by which Maurice seems to mean that God let Adam and Eve have their own way. If they wished to be independent beings, then they would suffer the same fate as other animals. The second consequence was that they were driven from their garden into a harsh world where the ground was cursed and brought forth thorns and thistles. Yet, if this seemed to be a punishment, it was also a blessing. The disobedience of Adam and Eve did not destroy or undermine God's order. Rather, it created the situation in which the human race could now learn more about God's order; learn how it was possible to be human and inhuman; how it was possible to try to frustrate the purposes of God and how it was possible to live in harmony with them.

The Fall, then, set in motion a process of divine education of the human race, an education of which the Bible was the record. The God of this process was not the stern God of Calvinism condemning all humanity except the elect to eternal torment on account of Adam's sin. It was a God striving with the whole human race, seeking to make humans right within. This did not mean that God was a benevolent parent indifferent to human wrongdoings. There was judgment, and there was punishment brought about by God. But this was God ‘carrying on a perpetual course of discipline for [the] reformation and restoration [of the human race]’.9 Towards the end of the sermon on the Fall is a passage which sums up Maurice's view of the Old Testament, his approach to the problem of evil, and his conception of the nature and purposes of God. Answering the question why God could not purge the world and humanity from their corruptions by a fiat of omnipotence, Maurice replied:

Because…He had made man in his own image; because He had given him a Will; because He could only restore and regenerate him by restoring and regenerating his Will. Hence we have to read all the Bible through, of floods, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, anarchy, tyranny. It is throughout the history of an actual government,—throughout, the history of an actual education; a government of voluntary creatures to teach them subjection;— an education of voluntary creatures to make them free. And He who carries on this government and education, is seen, the more He makes Himself known to us, to be not a hard despot, but a loving Ruler; with that heart and sympathy in perfection which He requires in His creatures.10

So far, I have dealt with that part of the lecture which uses the word ‘order’. I now turn to consider Maurice's use of the notion of covenant, something that brings us to Maurice's treatment of the history of Israel.

In a sermon preached on Whit Sunday, 8 June 1851, Maurice departed from the set lessons and chose his text from Deut. 30.19-20. He described Deuteronomy as a constitutional treatise, as a statement of the fundamental principles which determined the existence of Israel as the people of God. Most basic of all these principles was the fact of a redemption already received. It was stated early in Deuteronomy when the reason for observing the Sabbath commandment was linked to the exodus from Egypt; but it was implied throughout Deuteronomy by the repetition of the words ‘thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt’. In Maurice's own words:

That fact of redemption lay…beneath all the institutions which the chosen people were enjoined to preserve. Apart from the faith and acknowledgement of it, their institutions,—one and all,—became unreal, unintelligible. They could not observe them, if they did not receive them as witnesses that they had been delivered from a tyrant and taken under God's immediate government. That truth was the foundation of their society. It would hold together so long as that truth was remembered. It would perish when that truth was lost.11

Granted this statement, it does not require much imagination to see how Maurice preached his way through the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament. The history of the people of the covenant was the history of a nation continually asked to choose between life and death; between life which God had already made possible and which was enjoyed by living in obedience to him, and death which was not God's will, but which inevitably followed when Israel foresook God and tried to live without him. Yet even when Israel chose death, which seems to have been most of the time, the nation was not out of reach of God's mercy and forgiveness. According to Maurice, the book of Deuteronomy presumes that the Israelites have incurred the deepest curse which the book pronounces, but it still addresses them as children of the covenant, and states that God is at hand to lift them from the abyss of unbelief and falsehood into which they have sunk. Commenting on the clause in the Ten Commandments that God is a jealous God who punishes the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations Maurice declares:

There is a jealous God, jealous over his creatures because He loves them—who is watching over them when they are wandering furthest from Him…He has not caused or decreed their superstitions, their divisions, their slavery. All have come from their not choosing the state which He intended for them; from their going out of the good way, from their liking death better than life.12

And in an illuminating comment on this observation, Maurice says that what he calls ordinary history cannot tell us how people who are sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of their own choosing can be rescued from it. This, he declares, ‘is precisely the information which the Scriptures are written to give us; that ordinary history may become to us not a dark but an illuminated scroll’.13

Among the institutions of the covenant with Israel were the provisions for sacrifice, and it is to these that I now turn. Maurice's treatment of sacrifice is interesting in itself, and it is also a useful way of approaching how Maurice believed that the Old Testament addressed the society of his own day.

Maurice's most profound treatment of sacrifice in the Old Testament is not, as we might expect, in the sermons on sacrifice, but in two sermons preached on Easter Day, 22 April 1851, and the following Sunday.14 The first, entitled ‘The Passover’ and based loosely on the evening reading, Exodus 14, connected the institution of sacrifice with the Passover, and not, as we might have expected, with the law-giving at Sinai. The connection of sacrifice with the Passover and the deliverance from slavery in Egypt enabled Maurice to argue that sacrifices symbolized and effected the return of people to an orderly state of affairs that had been disrupted.

As slaves in Egypt, the proper status and position of the Israelites had been degraded from what they should have been. On the eve of their deliverance they are to kill a lamb and to daub the blood on the doors of their tents. This action is a witness to the Pharaoh that the Hebrew slaves are about to be restored to their proper status as the redeemed people of God. Thus, sacrifices in ancient Israel are an order or system whose purpose is to declare that the Israelites are a called and sanctified people. Sacrifices are not offerings to win God's favour or to change his mind. They embody a vital principle. Since sacrifices involve the surrender of something valuable on the part of those who make them, they indicate the truth that, in order to restore what has been disturbed, the giving up of something is involved. In the case of human behaviour, order is disrupted when humans assert their own rules in opposition to the will of God. Order is restored when that human self-will is given up. Sacrifices proclaim and embody the need for self-surrender if order is to replace disruption.

But sacrifice in the Old Testament requires a priesthood, and it is in his discussion of priesthood on 27 May 1851 that Maurice makes one of his strongest connections between the Old Testament and the society of his own day. One of the lessons for the day was Numbers 16, the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, Abiram and others against the authority of Moses and Aaron. Maurice points out that Korah was a Levite and that the protest was not, therefore, the protest of lay people against the existence of the priestly order, but a protest about the nature of priestly authority itself. This led Maurice to reflect upon the purposes of the priesthood, and upon its possible abuses.

An important part of this reflection is a distinction between priesthood as an order and priesthood as a caste. A caste, according to Maurice, is a group that is jealous of its own privileges, power and prestige, a group that believes that it possesses the right to pass on to others the privilege of membership, a group that is concerned to protect its position from invasion from without. An order, on the other hand, acknowledges that God is the giver of its privileges, and that God is able to withdraw these privileges at any time if the order becomes concerned with its own existence, and forgets that it is there to assist in God's purposes.

Maurice claims that priesthood, which is an order ordained by God, contains the tendency to become a caste; and he warns himself and his fellow-clergy against overstepping the limits of the order to which God has called them:

We who minister in holy things should remember of what infinite confusion we may be the cause, through our pride and self-exultation, through our eager assertion of rights and powers, when our business is to confess responsibilities; through our fancy that we are doing God service by lifting up ourselves above civil rulers, by complaining of our ecclesiastical superiors, by feverish and restless efforts to get a position for ourselves which God has not given us.15

But it is far too soon for hard-pressed politicians and archdeacons to cheer Maurice's apparent attempt to keep the lower clergy in their place. He now switches his argument by noting that, if Korah was a Levite, some of those who supported his rebellion were laypeople. By insisting that they, too, should have a share in priestly ministry they were supporting the lie, a lie all too often encouraged by priests, that only priests are consecrated to the service of God. At this point, Maurice needs to be quoted again.

We [clergy] are sent into the world in this day, as the tribe of Levi was sent into the world under the old dispensation, to bear witness for the consecration and the holiness of God's entire family. We become guilty, as they did, when by our words or acts we lead you to think that you have not received this consecration; that you are not set apart to God; that you and your children and your occupations are not holy in His sight.16

In other words, priests in ancient Israel existed to symbolize and effect the consecration of every aspect of human life; and what was true for ancient Israel was also true for Christian ministers today. Christian clergy exist to symbolize and effect the truths, first, that all human life is based upon sacrifice—the surrender of self-will—and secondly, that all human life is under the rule of God who is the ‘real ground of its orders and institutions’. Thus it is the duty of clergy to proclaim that every aspect of human life is subject to God's laws and part of his purposes, even to the point where this brings them into collision with prominent men in civic and ecclesiastical life. To quote Maurice again:

Let him [the priest] make the people who are living under it [local or central government] see that…their society is no work of human hands, no result of vulgar conventions. Let him say further, that God being the author and lawgiver of human society, all its disorders and anomalies are contrary to His will; and that statesmen as well as churchmen, instead of tolerating and excusing them, ought to be labouring day and night for the removal of them…a man who takes this course may be very disagreeable to the high or the low wrong-doers of the land…but he will not and cannot be a disturber of the family or national order of a country.17

My initial exposition of Maurice's use of the Old Testament for his own society is almost complete. It needs to be rounded off by reference to the sermon delivered on 11 May 1851, the Third Sunday after Easter. The evening lesson was Deuteronomy 5, and Maurice took from it the words ‘ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land that ye shall possess’. The sermon is a sustained attack on the view that the Old Testament differs from the New Testament because it is concerned with material blessings in this life, whereas the focus of the New Testament is upon spiritual, eternal benefits. The sermon contains so many memorable passages that the temptation to quote more than taste or time allow is considerable. Here is one such passage:

It is surely a perilous and almost fatal notion, that Christian men have less to do with the present than the Jews had, that their minds and their religion are to be projected into a region after death, because there only the Divine Presence is dwelling. Is it possible that this is what the writers of the New Testament meant when they proclaimed that the Son of God had taken flesh and become man, and that thenceforth the Lord God would dwell with men and walk with them, and that they should be His children and He would be their Father? Do such words import, that the world in which God has placed us has lost some of the sacredness which it had before; that the visible has become hopelessly separated from the invisible; that earth and heaven are not as much united as they were when Jacob was travelling to the land of the people of the east; that now earth is merely a forlom place, in which men are forced to stay a certain number of years, engaged in a number of occupations with which Heaven has nothing to do, while yet it is held that the preparation for Heaven is the great business of those who dwell here? Surely there must be a terrible contradiction in such language, a contradiction which cannot fail to exhibit itself in our practice, to introduce unreality, insincerity, heartlessness into every part of it.18

Maurice insisted, then, that the Old Testament was a vital text for the society of his day because it was the account of God's dealings with an entire nation and not the story of a specifically religious people. What Israel was to enjoy was a salvation in our material world, not a salvation in an afterworld. As Maurice was preaching, the shock-waves of the revolutions in Europe of 1848 were still being felt. Maurice referred to them in this sermon of May 1851, together with his own fear that the churches would try to prop up the existing order in Britain by making common cause with the upper and middle classes against the working classes. The aim of this alliance would be to preserve the respective privileges of the church and what Maurice called the respectable classes. But for Maurice, this was a denial of the church's role to proclaim that all members of a nation were of concern to God, and that all activities were to be related to God's purposes. He believed that the nation was facing a choice between faith and atheism. Atheism would be the acceptance of the view that there is a separate, religious department in the affairs of the nation to which the things of God are to be confined. Faith would be the belief, and its practical consequences, that all the pursuits and toils and relations of all humans were of concern to God and that they were ‘holy according to God's eternal order and purpose’. To quote a second of the memorable passages:

If we believe in our hearts that the New Testament is not contrary to the Old; that our Covenant is larger, deeper, more social than the Jewish…that every maxim of trade or government, however sustained by custom, opinion, authority, which is opposed to Truth and Righteousness, is doomed to perish; then we have a Gospel which men will listen to in the nineteenth century more than they did in the sixteenth or the third.19

In this lecture I have tried to present Maurice as a powerful advocate of the message of the Old Testament for his own times. Those present who are familiar with Maurice's writings will no doubt feel, and with justification, that I have presented Maurice too positively: that I have overlooked his sometimes elusive and obscure style and that I have underestimated his deficiencies as a systematic thinker. There are, indeed, aspects of Maurice's Old Testament sermons that can irritate modern readers. In the sermon on the Fall, Maurice states that he believes that the devil tempted Adam, but he insists that the text says that it was a beast, not a spirit that tempted Adam, and that we should not try to improve upon Moses. In the Theological Essays where there is a discussion of the Evil Spirit, Maurice tells us nothing of his views about the origin of evil or the devil, but prefers to insist that God offers victory over the devil and his works.20 Again, in the sermon on Balaam, the non-Israelite who was reproved by his donkey, Maurice treats the talking ass in a cavalier fashion. Whereas this remarkable talking animal had worried interpreters even as far back as the compilers of Pirke Aboth 9, where Balaam's ass is a special creation in the interval between the close of the work of creation and the beginning of the very first Sabbath, Maurice was able to say:

How ‘the dumb ass rebuked the madness of the prophet’ I know not, nor care to know. But I believe that whatever sounds it uttered, they did convey exactly that meaning to the mind of the prophet which it is said that they conveyed.21

How does this naivety, as it seems to us, and others that can be adduced, affect our estimate of Maurice as an Old Testament interpreter? Was he a pre-critical user of the Old Testament? If so, can he have anything to say to us? The second lecture will address the matter of Maurice and biblical criticism, paving the way for a treatment in the third lecture of Maurice and contemporary issues.

  • 1.

    F.D. Maurice. The Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament (London, 1892); The Prophets and Kings of the Old Testament (London, 1879); The Doctrine of Sacrifice Deduced from the Scriptures (Cambridge, 1854); The Prayer Book (London: James Clarke, 3rd edn, 1966); The Kingdom of Christ (2 vols.; repr.; London: James Clarke, 2nd edn, 1959 [1842]); Theological Essays (Cambridge, 1853).

  • 2.

    There are a few resources on the Old Testament in Lincoln's Inn Sermons (6 vols.; London, 1891–92).

  • 3.

    The Prayer Book, p. 71.

  • 4.

    The Prayer Book, p. 74.

  • 5.

    H.G. Wood, Frederick Denison Maurice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), p. 112.

  • 6.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, pp. 43–44.

  • 7.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 44.

  • 8.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 54.

  • 9.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 62.

  • 10.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 63.

  • 11.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 290.

  • 12.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 300.

  • 13.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 301. We can suggest that Maurice's view is similar to that in Augustine's City of God: that the history recorded in the Bible shows us the reality beyond all history.

  • 14.

    See Patriarchs and Lawgivers, pp. 186–203 and 204–20.

  • 15.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, pp. 215–16.

  • 16.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 216.

  • 17.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, pp. 218–19.

  • 18.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 251–52.

  • 19.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 253–54.

  • 20.

    Theological Essays, pp. 34–55.

  • 21.

    Patriarchs and Lawgivers, p. 230.