Ist es der Sinn, der alles wirkt und schafft?
Es sollte stehn: Im Anfang war die Kraft!
Doch auch in dem ich dieses niederschreibe,
Schon warnt mich was, dass ich dabei nicht bleibe.
Mir hilft der Geist! Auf einmal seh’ ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die Tat.
The object of our last lecture has been to urge that there is nothing inherently unreasonable in the recognition of specific “revelation” as a source of knowledge of God and the eternal. But it would be possible to concede all for which we have so far pleaded, and yet to object that we have not so much as touched the real problem created by the claims of the great positive revelational religions of the world. At most, we have only vindicated the reasonableness of recognising the possibility that significant truth about God may be made known to, or through, particular persons at a particular place and time. We have left it an open possibility that the truths thus historically disclosed—if such a disclosure has indeed taken place—might be one and all of a supra–temporal order, concerned entirely with the eternal and timeless, like, for example, the Christian doctrine of the triune nature of God, or the great Jewish doctrine of the divine Unity. Even if we adopt the view that the proposition “the Lord our God is One” is at once vital to religion and incapable of rational proof, so that it can only be received, where it is received, on the strength of faith in an immediate historical revelation—to Moses or to another—still, the doctrine itself, however we have come by it, is not a statement about the historical course of events; it is a statement about the supra–historical reality, God. But when we examine the credenda propounded for acceptance by any of the great positive religions, we find that in every case there are included among them some propositions which are themselves statements about events of the historical order, allegations that certain transactions have taken place in the past, or will take place in the future. The creed of each of these religions is found to contain specific assertions about the course of history in the past, and specific anticipations or prophecies of the course which events are to follow in the future. In the creed of orthodox Christianity we see this presence of an historical element in its most pronounced form. Side by side with propositions concerning the eternal divine nature, it contains a number of distinct statements of fact about the life of Jesus Christ, and one definite prophecy of an historical event to occur in the future, a “coming” of Christ to bring the temporal history of humanity to a close.
Now here, it may be said, and not in the mere concept of revelation, lies the real crux for a philosophy of religion. The revelational religions regularly treat the whole of their credenda as alike “saving truth,” no portion of which can be denied without the “loss of the soul.” But how is it possible for the philosophic mind to attach this kind of value to any statement of historical fact? As for serious error about the divine nature, since such error means acceptance of an unreal and unworthy object for the soul’s unqualified worship, we can understand that it must lead to impairment of the soul’s life. For we inevitably grow ourselves into the likeness of that which we contemplate with adoration and self–surrender. There is thus, in principle, no mystery about the dependence of our attainment of eternal life upon the worthiness and truth of our real convictions about God. But how can there be any such connection between spiritual vitality and a man’s convictions about the events of the past? How, to take an extreme example, can a man be the better or worse according as he believes or doubts that the Roman procurator who gave the order for our Lord’s death was named Pontius Pilate?1 How would the truth of the Christian religion as a revelation of God be affected, even if it should be discovered that the Gospel tradition had made a mistake of a few years, and ascribed to Pilate an act which really belonged to his precursor’s or his successor’s tenure of office?2 Must it not be false in principle to assert that our beliefs about such historical points have any bearing upon the spiritual life? And is it not also a sin against intelligence to demand of any man that he shall affirm propositions of this kind on any ground but that of the goodness of the historical testimony for them? Must we not say that in dealing with assertions about historical events there can be no appeal from the standards of historical evidence, as in dealing with assertions about the physical there can be no appeal from accurately recorded and registered scientific observation? The philosopher, indeed, might conceivably be justified in accepting as true all the statements about historical events contained in the “creed” of a given religion, but he would only be justified if he had independently convinced himself that these statements satisfy the ordinary tests applicable to all allegations about facts in the past, and assent of this kind is something quite different from religious faith, and may, in fact, exist without being accompanied by such faith. It would be easy, for instance, to name writers who have combined rejection of the Christian faith with assent to the mere historical truth of such articles of the Christian creed as “born of the Virgin Mary,” “the third day he rose from the dead,” and such assent is not what any orthodox Christian has ever meant by the faith which saves.
One might go on to support the main position thus outlined in more detail by appealing to the indisputable fact that the great historical religions have, one and all, been convicted of putting forward among their credenda assertions about historical fact which have undergone definite disproof, and, in the end, been abandoned, not without grave sacrifice of dignity. We have only to think of the widespread and complete surrender of “orthodox” Christianity, within the last half–century, to “critical” research in the matter of Old Testament history.3 There is the further problem created by the fact that so many of the events included among the credenda of the historical religions are of a kind unparalleled in the “ordinary course” of nature. All these religions have their “miracles,” and a “miracle” creates a very real difficulty for a mind in earnest with the conviction on which all philosophy is based, the conviction that the world is an intelligible unity. Here, then, is a special problem of which the significance cannot well be exaggerated. How “actual” it is we can see for ourselves by studying, for example, the recent series of works by Dr. Gore, who may fairly be taken as representative of the position of the educated “conservative” in these matters of history, at its best. Dr. Gore is resolute in his insistence that there are certain statements of matter of historical fact which are so vital to the Christian religion that no compromise about them, no permission to take the words of the “articles” which affirm them in anything but their “plain, literal” sense, can be allowed to anyone who claims to adhere fully to the faith of the Church. Yet it is manifest that all along the line Dr. Gore is standing on the defensive in a fashion very different from the buoyant, occasionally truculent, aggressiveness of the apologists of two or three generations ago. Again, one is struck by the fact that Dr. Gore reduces his list of positions which must be defended at all costs to a minimum. What is really instructive is that a High Anglican Bishop and former Principal of Pusey House should be satisfied to draw his line round two or three propositions expressly enunciated in the so–called Apostolicum, where Dr. Pusey would have stood out, and did stand out, for the whole body of Scripture narrative. Even within the four corners of the Apostolicum Dr. Gore finds himself driven to make a distinction. There is to be no “latitude of interpretation” of the clause natus ex Maria virgine, but a generous latitude enough when we come to ascendit ad caelos, inde venturus est. In fact, the policy of “no surrender” is apparently not to be insisted on in its full rigour for more than perhaps two clauses of three or four words apiece, and this looks much as though Dr. Gore himself were conscious of being the conductor of a “forlorn hope”.4 One is naturally tempted to ask whether the foreseeable end must not be the general abandonment of all insistence on the religious value of assertions about the historical. May not Tyrrell have been a true prophet when he wrote that all that will survive permanently of Christianity is “mysticism and charity,” with the possible addition of the Eucharist, reduced to its simplest form, as an impressive symbol in act of the spirit of mysticism and charity? And may not the method of “allegorical interpretation,” so dear to the earliest Fathers, come once more to be adopted as the only “way out” for a great religion which has entangled itself in a web of dubious assertions about history?
We all know men of deeply religious spirit and fine intelligence who have already reached a position like Tyrrell’s, or are certainly on the direct road thither, and we should all be able to understand both the strength of the temptation to secure one’s religion once for all from the historical critic at a stroke, and the cruelty of the practical problem created for such men by the conflict between their conviction that one cannot cut one’s self loose from the life of communal worship without grievous impoverishment of spiritual personality and the demand, still formally made by the Churches, that the participant in the common worship shall profess a belief which includes a great deal in the way of statements about history. There is, at the very least, ample excuse for those who hold that the future of the Churches depends on their willingness to rise to the opportunity of ridding their teaching about God of what has been the source of so many burnings of heart and so much disloyalty to truth. Others than “ultramontanes” might well be pardoned for feeling that they would heartily thank God to be “done with history.”5
Still, the real question is not whether this attitude of mind is intelligible and pardonable, as it assuredly is, but whether it is justifiable. To myself the unqualified Modernist solution of this particular difficulty, like most simple solutions of serious problems, seems too simple to be trusted. It would be at least a singular paradox that one and the same age should find it necessary to save its physics, after the fashion urged by Dr. Whitehead—by reconstructing traditional doctrines in the light of biology, as a remedy for the incurably unhistorical character of the “classical” mechanics—and also to save its theology by the elimination of all historical reference. If “misplaced concreteness” has really been the curse of ninetenth–century physics, it should presumably be an equally objectionable thing in divinity. And what it would really mean to “have done with history” we may perhaps gather, if we will make a simple Denkexperiment. Let us suppose the elimination of the historical to have been successfully “carried to the limit.” To make the illustration the more telling, we will suppose this to have happened with the religion in which we have been ourselves brought up, and whose influence is written large in the life of our own society at its best. We will suppose, then, that the theory which denies the very existence of the founder and central figure of Christianity as a historical person should cease to be the private fad of a few amateurs of little judgement who have wandered into history from other fields, and become the accepted and unchallenged teaching of historians at large, and thus pass as a standing assumption into the “general mind.” That is, we will suppose that all but the entirely uneducated, devout and undevout alike, have acquired a habit of mind to which it is as unquestioned a “truth” that the life of Christ is pure fable or allegory as it is now an “unquestioned truth” that existing animal species have “evolved” within a measurable period of time. We will imagine a society which will regard the dwindling minority among those who have passed through its schools who still cling to the belief that Jesus Christ was a real man much as our own society regards minorities who deny that “the earth is round,” or that the dog and the jackal are descendants of a common ancestor. If it were true that the spiritual value of a religion is wholly independent of beliefs about matters of historical fact, it should follow that the Christian life would flourish just as well in these supposed conditions as in any others, and possibly better. It should be as easy in principle for the Christian religion and worship to make terms with the resolution of Christ into an astronomical or moral symbol as it has been for it to adjust itself to the view that the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent has only symbolic value. The only difference should be that the unreasoned sentimental prejudice against reducing the Cross to the status of a mere symbol might be expected to be deeper rooted, and to require a longer time for its evaporation than a similar prejudice in favour of the botanical reality of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The spiritual power of the “word of the Cross” for the regeneration of human life should remain unaffected. But I venture to think that we have only to envisage the suggested situation clearly to be convinced that this is preposterously false. The whole “power of the Gospel” to remake human personality is intimately bound up with the conviction that the story of the passion and exaltation of Christ is neither symbol nor allegory, but a story of what has been done for man by a real man, who was also something more than a real man, a story of a real transaction at once divine and human. You cannot cut the motivation conveyed by such words as “if God so loved us, we ought…” out of the practical Christian life without destroying that specific kind of life at its root.
Similarly, if the triumph of a human “Lord of life” over death is no more than an allegorical way of conveying some philosopheme about the “conservation of values,” the story surely loses all its power to inspire us with the hope which
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.
The whole point of the Christian story is that it claims to be a story of an opus operatum, an act which has, in fact and not in fiction, been achieved by God through man and for man. The point is that love and goodness have, in perfectly plain and downright fact, “power as they have manifest authority,” and that in the face of all the apparently overwhelming testimony of history to the superior power of evil, and the apparent complete failure of nature to disclose an “All–great” who is also an “All–loving.” If the story is not fact, and has no permanent value but that of a symbol, it loses all its depth, for it is a symbol of what may be dreadfully un–fact. If we ask ourselves seriously what it is in Christianity which is the element of supreme value to Christians, that is to men who are actually trying to live the Christian life, what it is they find in Christianity and nowhere else, I do not think there can be any doubt about the answer; it is, as Soloviev has said,6 the person of Christ himself, taken as the completest revelation of God. But a religion without any historical credenda would be a religion without the person of Christ, and thus, even if it retained a host of theologumena expressed in Christian terminology and a mass of traditional Christian devotional practices, it would no longer be Christianity. It would be—to adopt Huxley’s mordant definition of the Comtist “religion of humanity”—Catholicism (or Protestantism, as the case might be) “minus Christianity”.
Now I can understand and respect a man who says that, whether we like it or not, this is all that loyalty to truth can leave standing in the way of a religion for mankind in the future. Perhaps we all of us sometimes feel a misgiving that it may be so. What I cannot understand is that any thoughtful man should maintain either that this is the substance of Christianity, and that the evaporation of the historical would still leave the Christian religion potent to produce the types of character we see in the Christian saints and heroes, an Augustine, a Xavier, a George Herbert, a Bunyan, or that, though it may be true that the world must never expect to see that type of man again, the world, and religion itself too, will be none the worse for the loss. And unless one is prepared to say one or the other of these things, one must admit that Christianity, at any rate, could not be simply relieved of its historical credenda without being transformed into something of radically different character.7
It might, no doubt, be suggested that this is an accident of one particular historical religion, and I can conceive that this might actually be made a ground for depreciating Christianity by comparison with some of its rivals for world–wide allegiance. The person of Christ, so I can imagine some non–Christian but devout student to reason, is certainly central in the religion of Christians, and the obscure and perplexing “doctrine of the person of Christ” consequently central in their theology; so much the worse for it and them. By deifying their Founder (for I may fairly assume that the imagined critic will regard the Christian worship of Christ as simply a striking instance of the post–mortem deification of a great man by the love and admiration of his followers), Christians fatally committed themselves from the outset to a hopeless conflict with history, which knows nothing of praesentes divi and has the duty to reduce their figures to the proportions of flesh and blood; naturally, such a religion must not hope to survive the exposure of its initial mistake. But other historical religions have not committed the error of what the Mohammedan doctors call “association” (shirk), the giving of a partner to their Deity. They have kept their founders and prophets on the strictly human level, and there is thus not the same reason why the fate of their traditions of their great men should affect their value as “religious knowledge.” Judaism and Islam are faiths whose message to mankind has, as its content, simply a doctrine about God; the worst that destructive criticism of their historical traditions could do would only be to disprove the supposed fact that this doctrine was integrally proclaimed at a given place by Moses the Levite, or Mohammed, son of Abdallah, a fact which obviously has no relevance to the truth and importance of the doctrine itself. It is wholly illegitimate to mistake for a universal character of revelational religion what is, in truth, an incidental weakness of one special religion.
The contention at least sounds plausible, and we should be careful not to underestimate its force. Yet, when all is said, I feel the greatest misgivings about it. Is it so obvious, after all, that Mohammedanism or Judaism is in substance nothing more than a “philosophical” Theism, or Deism, with the relatively unimportant characteristic of having been, according to tradition, first promulgated by a particular person on a particular occasion? Does common experience show that the Jew or Moslem who jettisons his historical credenda fares so much better than the Christian who is in the same case? Take the case of the Jew who eliminates what is, after all, the central motif of Old Testament religion, and a motif of distinctively historical kind, the “covenant” once made by the one God with the Israelite Fathers. Does he usually find that what is left him of his Judaism still serves equally well to sustain a life of active faith in eternal realities, or does he not more commonly tend to lapse into a mere agnostic worldliness? And what happens to the “young Turk” who has simply thrown overboard the great historical credendum of his inherited beliefs, the Day of Judgement, and everything in the traditions of his fathers which stands or falls with the Day of Judgement? These are questions which we cannot well avoid raising, and serious consideration of them may possibly suggest that it is by no accident that our own religion is as closely bound up with convictions about the significance of an historical personality as we find it to be. It may rather be that Christianity shows itself to be the most true to type of all the great universal religions, precisely by exhibiting in that intensest form a character which is present in all, though in the others its presence is less obtrusive and more easy to overlook.8
This, in fact, is no more than one might expect, if we have been right in holding that the great function of religion in human life is the transformation of personality by the substitution of the abiding and eternal for the merely temporary and transient, as the centre of man’s interests. We should expect that in proportion as a religion succeeds in effecting this transformation, it will show a quickened and keener sense of the reality of both terms of the opposition. Unless our whole conception of the relation between “nature” and “grace,” “this” world and the “other,” as we tried to develop it in our former series, was false in its principle, it might have been foreseen that the religion which grapples most successfully with the practical task of reorganising life with an eternal good as its centre will be the religion which brings its God down most intimately into contact with the temporal historical process, not one of those which simply set Him outside and beyond it, and consequently that it will find its historical connecting link between God and man in a personality standing in a much closer relation to God than that of the prophet, the mere bearer of a “message from the other side” which might equally well have been put into the mouth of another. We should naturally expect in such a religion what we actually find in Christianity, that its historical revelation of God consists primarily neither in a body of propositions about God, nor in a code of precepts from God, but in the whole of a concrete divine personality and life; that, in fact, the “revealer” would be the content of his own revelation. And for the same reason we might, as I think, anticipate a priori that the intellectual elaboration of such a self–disclosure of the divine through the detail of a concrete human life, its abstentions and silences, no less than its acts and utterances, would inevitably involve, as the theology of a religion which still leaves its God more or less remote need not involve, a doctrine of the person of an historical “Christ.” To a religion which leaves God more or less aloof in the beyond, to be known only by the instructions and commands which come to us from Him, the teaching or the commandment is the primary thing, and the only importance which the bearer of them need have for us is that he is the conduit through which the communication has reached us. So long as we accept the message he transmits, it is really irrelevant what we believe or do not believe about his personality. But if a religion actually brings God down into the heart of temporality, as working through it, not from outside it only, then it will be the person and life in which the complete interpenetration of the eternal and the temporal has been actualised which is itself the revelation, and to believe will be primarily not to assent to the utterances of a messenger, but to recognise the person in whom the interpenetration of the two “worlds” has been achieved for what he is. In a religion which still leaves God and man, the eternal and the temporal, in their relative aloofness, the intermediary between them will be honoured for the message which he brings; when the aloofness has been abolished “by unity of person,” the sayings and precepts of the intermediary will be honoured because they are his.9
If what we have tried to say in earlier lectures about the relation between eternity and temporality is at bottom sound, we can thus see that the prominence of credenda of an historical character in our own religion, all of them connected with the conviction that the complete interpenetration of Creator and creature has been realised in fact in an individual life, is evidence of strength rather than of weakness. It could not be otherwise with a religion which is to do justice to the given reality of human life, as the region where the eternal and the temporal are bound up with one another as the antithetic poles of a single tension. So, and only so, is eternal life, in fact, brought down within the reach of mortal men. The ultimate justification of the refusal to make religion wholly “philosophical” by the reduction of the whole element of historical credenda to mere edifying allegory or symbolism is to be found, then, in the character of specifically human life itself, as a life which can be, and ought to be, one of “participated eternity,” one in which successiveness is increasingly penetrated by permanence and abidingness, but where, because we are and must remain men, not gods, the successiveness which marks us as “creatures” never wholly vanishes. Its complete disappearance would mean that each of us had himself become an independent ens realissimum, self–contained and self–supporting. If that were our nature and our destiny, it would be as true as it is, in fact, revoltingly false to say of that finest of all creaturely virtues, which Christians have called the one virtue which is wholly supernatural, what Spinoza unhappily said of it, humilitas virtus non est, ex ratione non oritur.10 It would follow, in the same way, that the ultimate aim of the religious life is to supersede itself, to conduct us to a heaven where, if it could ever be reached, each of the beatified would have ceased to have anything to worship, being simply “shut up in measureless content” with himself. And I conceive we might draw the further corollary that even now, while we are still in statu viatoris towards such a consummation, prayer of all kinds would be a hindrance, not a help to the life of the spirit, since the very point of prayer is that it is the expression of a sense of utter dependence. These are, I think, all inevitable consequences of permitting ourselves to forget that we are, and must always remain, historical beings, just because we are dependent beings, creatures and not our own creators.
“The historical,” says an eminent philosopher recently taken from us, “is what we understand least and what concerns us most. How far below us, how far above, the historical extends, we cannot tell. But above it there can be only God, as the living unity of all, and below it, no longer things, but only the connecting, conserving acts of the one supreme.”11 By way of comment I would subjoin two reflections. Below the historical, I should say, and I think I should be in accord with the trend of the contemporary philosophy of the physical sciences in saying so, there could be nothing actual, but only the materia prima or informis of the Aristotelians, that ghost of just nothing at all which Dr. Whitehead is wrestling so hard to lay. And when God is said to be above the historical, this does not mean, and I take it that the philosopher I have quoted did not suppose it to mean, that God, being eternal, cannot intimately inform and work through the temporal and historical. Time, indeed, cannot be made, by stretching at both ends, so to say, to envelop eternity, but eternity can and does envelop time, and penetrate it through and through at its every point. This, as we thought we saw long ago, is the open secret of the moral and spiritual life of man, depending, as it does, all through on the delicate balancing of right attachment to and noble detachment from temporal good, and sustained, as well as initiated, by an outgoing spontaneous movement from the eternal, God, to the temporal, humanity. Carried to its extreme limit, such a self–disclosure of the eternal in and through its own creation, the temporal, would be an actual individual temporal life, subject in each of its details to the contingency inseparable from creatureliness, and so the life of a creature with its own apparently accidental place in the “kingdom of nature,” as just the historical creature it is, when and where it is, and yet also, in every detail, the complete and adequate vehicle of the eternal. Such a life, plainly, would not be that of a creature which had somehow achieved beatitude, like a Buddhist arahat, by victory over its own initial vices and defects, nor yet the life of a creature which, though uniquely faultless, was still a mere creature. So long as we have the strictly eternal on the one side, and the merely creaturely, however faultless, or the other, the actual interpenetration and enfolding of the temporal by the eternal remains incomplete. If the full resolution of the ultimate dissonance is to be achieved, what is necessary is a life which is at once everywhere creaturely and yet also everywhere more than creaturely, because its limitations, circumscriptions, and infirmities, whatever they may be, interpose no obstacle to the divine and eternal purpose which controls and shines through it, but are themselves vehicles of that purpose. That there has been one human life of which this is a true description, and that the life of the Founder of Christianity, is the undemonstrated and indemonstrable conviction which gives the Christian religion its specific character.
It would be inconsistent with my duty, as defined by Lord Gifford, to assert or deny the truth of this conviction. Here it is in place only to make two observations: that the conviction, if true, though lying outside the limits of a strictly “natural” or “philosophic” theology, is in full harmony with such conceptions of the divine nature and the divine way with men as a sound philosophy leads us to entertain; and, again, that the surrender to such a conviction is definitely an act of walking by “faith,” and not by “sight.” That the Word has been “made flesh,” and made flesh in just the specific person whom a Christian calls Lord, is a proposition which admits of no establishment by the empirical appeal to certified fact.
Some apologists for the Christian faith need, I think, to recognise this more unreservedly than they are apt to do. It is, I submit, a mistake to suppose that the unique cosmical significance Christianity ascribes to its Founder and Master can be sustained by a simple induction from the recorded events of his earthly life. In the first place, the Gospel narratives, like all records of human doings, permit of very different interpretations. Even the moral perfection of our Lord’s character cannot be established beyond all possible question by the appeal to the record. Even of him, Kant’s observation holds true, that, since we cannot read the secrets of men’s hearts, we can never be sure as a matter of ascertained fact of the moral purity of the motives behind any act of any man.12 The current anti–Christian attacks on various recorded acts of Jesus as indicating moral imperfections are, for the most part, malignant and stupid enough, and reflect grave discredit on those who can stoop to them; yet there really is no means of proving beyond cavil that all such unfavourable interpretations are false. The actual record, as it stands, might without logical absurdity be read as the story of a well–meaning and gracious, but self–deluded, sentimental “idealist” gradually embittered by contact with disagreeable realities; or again, even as that of an ambitious, or patriotic, “nationalist” insurgent against the political supremacy of Rome. Even apart from such crudely hostile interpretations, we have only to contrast the “liberal Protestant” reading of the story with that of the apocalyptists who find the key to Christ’s conduct and teaching not in the Sermon on the Mount, but in eschatology, to appreciate the extreme difficulty of constructing an unambiguous and convincing portrait of “the historical Jesus”.
Again, we must remember that on the most favourable estimate of our biographical material, it is painfully scanty. Even if the record permitted no alternative interpretations, it remains the fact that apart from the narrative of the week between the entry into Jerusalem and the return of the frightened women from the empty tomb, it consists only of a few anecdotes and a handful of discourses. Of the Lord’s life as a whole we know hardly anything, and this of itself seems to vitiate all attempts to justify the Christian conception of the significance of that life by appealing to the testimony of plain fact. And finally, we are bound to take into account the results of careful and unbiassed scrutiny into the sources of our narratives and the stages through which they have passed, as seriously affecting our right to regard them as trustworthy in their details. We are bound in honesty, I think, even from the standpoint of the most judiciously conservative criticism, to admit that we really know much less about the Master’s life than might be supposed at first sight, or than we could wish. It is not too much to say that there never has been, and never will be, a trustworthy Life of Jesus Christ; we have no materials for such a work outside the Gospels, and the purpose of the Evangelists was not that of a biographer.
Similarly, if the chief emphasis is laid not so much on the Gospel narrative as upon the asserted incontestable perfection of the Gospel rule of life, it might be objected that it is not evident that the Gospels contain anything which can properly be called a rule of life; that what they do contain is rather a number of particular decisions on special moral issues; that it has always been a disputed question among Christians themselves what body of consistent moral principles, if any, can be extracted from these incidental decisions; and that they afford no unambiguous guidance in many of the most important moral problems of societies living in conditions very different from those of the Galilee or Judaea of the first Christian century. All this, so far as I can see, has to be conceded, and it would seem to follow that the utmost we can expect to do by appeal to the records is no more than to show that it is possible and permissible to interpret the recorded acts and teaching of Our Lord in a way which does not conflict with the claims Christian theology makes for his person. Hostile criticism can be shown not to have made out its case; it seems doubtful whether empirical methods can show more than this. The specifically Christian “faith” in the person of Christ can be defended against attacks based on unfriendly interpretation of the records of his life and teaching, but not adequately substantiated by examination of those records.
It is clear, in fact, that the first believers were led to their belief neither by inference from the observed moral perfection of their Master, nor by reflection on the excellence of his moral precepts. What weighed with them, as we see clearly enough from the synoptic story and the Acts of the Apostles, was, first and foremost, the direct and immediate impression made by his whole personality of the presence in him of something “numinous,” not to be understood in terms of the categories of ordinary human life, and next, the confirmation of this impression by the transcendent events of the resurrection on the third day and the wonderful manifestations of the day of Pentecost. And it seems that when the message of the Gospel was to be conveyed to a world at large which had known nothing of the Master before his death, the only facts of his career to which importance was attached were just the facts that he had been crucified “for our sins,” “declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead,” and was now actively “sending the Spirit” on believers. Thus it is notorious, though the fact is an awkward one for some “liberal” reconstructions of early Christianity, that St. Paul records only one incident of the life of Christ antecedent to the passion on Calvary,13 and that an eminently “numinous” and “other–world” act, the declaration that the bread and wine of the Last Supper are “my body on your behalf” and “the new covenant in my blood”.
One might, I believe, go a step further and say truly that the first Christians primarily read even these facts wholly in the light of the Pentecostal “outpouring of the Spirit.” If they were persuaded that their Master’s death was something more than, what the world has seen so often, the murder of a wise and good man by the blinded and wicked, and his reappearance on the third day more than a signal vindication of the truth that the righteous man is not finally abandoned by his Maker, that, as they said, “Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification,” they were so persuaded because they were first convinced that they had in themselves the actual experience of a new kind of life with God as its centre, and that this life had begun with the Pentecostal “giving of the Spirit”.14 They did not infer the transcendent significance of Christ from an antecedent belief in the moral perfection of his character, or the ethical elevation of his recorded sayings: rather they inferred these—though it is singular how little appeal any of the New Testament writings outside the Synoptic Gospels make to ethical precepts of Jesus—from their antecedent belief in the transcendent significance of Christ as the “glorified” sender of the Spirit. And one may fairly doubt whether, in later days, any man has ever really been converted to the Christian faith simply by the impression made on him either by the story of Christ’s life or by the reports of his moral teaching. It is perhaps noteworthy that Christianity has never developed any counterpart to the enormous Mohammedan collections of Aḥādīth, traditions of the sayings of the Prophet, genuine or apocryphal, relative to the discharge of duty in all the conceivable situations in which the good Moslem may find himself. Something of this kind is indispensable in a religion whose Prophet has no significance for life beyond that of being a preacher and a moral exemplar, but Christianity has never felt the need of such a literature. Apocryphal Gospels were at one time freely invented, either to recommend specific theologumena like the Gospel of Peter, or to satisfy a craving for the marvellous, like the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of the Infancy, but not to meet a demand for sayings of the Lord regulating in detail the moral duties of the Christian life. That need was met not by falling back on parables and precepts of Jesus, but by reliance on the guidance of the present and living Spirit.
This is not to say that there is not an appeal to history by the success or failure of which Christianity, or any other faith, may fairly be judged. But that appeal has very little to do with what are known as the “historical evidences” of a religion; it is the application to religion of the Gospel maxim “by their fruits ye shall know them.” The vital question is not how much or little of the chronicled detail of the Founder’s life can be authenticated in a way which will satisfy the exacting historical critic, or how far his certainly genuine utterances can be made into a code of “categorical imperatives”; it is whether he has brought, and continues to bring, a new quality of spiritual life into humanity, or not. This is an issue which can only be tried, so far as it can be tried at all, at the bar of history. But the historian who is to sit as judge must, of course, himself have the gift of genuine spiritual vision, if he is to discern the fact, just as he must have the dower of imaginative vision before he can pronounce on the question whether a given poet has or has not enriched our reading of nature with a new quality. (No one who understands the issues would, for example, accept the superficialities of Macaulay as the verdict of history on Loyola, or Bunyan, or George Fox; of St. Teresa, Macaulay fortunately had no occasion to say much.)
No doubt, this means that there must always be an element of the “subjective” and personal about such verdicts. Erudition, critical acumen, and honesty will not of themselves ensure the justice of any man’s answer to the question whether Christ has brought us a new and true revelation of God, any more than the same gifts, by themselves, will ensure the justice of his answer to the question whether Wordsworth has brought us a new and authentic revelation of nature, or Beethoven dowered us with new thoughts and a new language. Yet true as this is, it does not leave us at the mercy of merely “subjective” impressions dictated by the prepossessions of the individual historian. The same problem arises, in a less accentuated form, whenever history is conceived as more than the construction of a register of births, accessions, and deaths, battles, treaties, and Acts of Parliament. Erudition and acumen alone will not suffice to answer the modest questions whether a statesman has, or has not, breathed the breath of life into the programme of his party, or a statute or tariff moulded the destiny of a society. Yet these questions are precisely those we ask our historians to answer for us, and the study of history would not long retain its high place as a chief instrument in liberal education if we seriously thought the historian could present us with nothing more satisfactory as an answer than a series of brilliant but wilful and contradictory “personal impressions.” This may be magnificent journalism, but it is not history, and I think it would not be hard to name more than one eminent littérateur among us whose reputation has been already shattered by the discovery that the work by which he dazzled our fathers was, in spirit, brilliant journalism and nothing more.
For a time, no doubt, it may seem as though the historian of the religious life and thought of mankind had nothing more than his “personal impressions” to offer us. The strictly “orthodox” historian of a religion will tend always to assume as beyond question that the faith he professes does for its followers something wholly different in kind from that which any other faith can do for its own adherents; the historian of a religion in which he does not himself personally believe will equally tend to assume, again as known and certain, that it does nothing of the sort. Among ourselves, even at the present day, we have still the type of “historian” who can see nothing in the still living non–Christian faiths which even prepares the way for the light of the Gospel, and the other type who obstinately persists in seeing nothing in the provision made by Christianity for man’s spiritual needs but what was equally provided by the host of more or less obscure “mystery cults” of late antiquity. It should be possible for the opposing subjectivities of the two types to cancel out against one another. The questions whether there is something unique and imperishable in the spiritual life which has its historical origin in Christ and his little band of followers, and what that something is, however complex, ought not to be in principle insoluble.
Indeed, I think it may fairly be said that so far as the presence of something entirely unique in the spiritual life historically traceable to that actual historical personality is concerned the verdict of sober history is already clear. The attempt to retain the secret of the specifically Christian life, when the figure of Christ and the events of the Gospel narrative have been resolved into symbolism, is not, after all, an experiment of recent years. We call this tendency to dispense with the historical element in religion “Modernism,” but there is really nothing peculiarly modern about it, or, as we might prefer to put it, our own age is not the first which has felt itself “modern” by contrast with those which have gone before it. George Tyrrell and his friends called themselves modern, mainly with the great scholastics of the thirteenth century in their minds as the “ancients” from whose domination they were determined to free themselves. But these very ancients, who fashioned the Christianised Aristotelianism which Tyrrell and the rest wished to replace by a philosophy of the “pragmatist” or “activist” type, spoke of themselves, as St. Thomas does, as moderni, by way of opposition to their antiquity, the Platonic–Augustinian tradition. Nor is the particular kind of modernism which resolves historical credenda into symbol a new thing in the history of the Christian Church. It is as old as the beginnings of speculative theology itself. The very first “heresy” with which the Church was confronted, even before the later of the New Testament writings, such as the First Epistle of John, had been composed, was Docetism,15 the doctrine which resolved the human personality and recorded life of Christ on earth into a long–continued symbolic illusion. It is to combat this doctrine, as we know, that the Johannine epistle insists on the denial that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” as the distinguishing mark of an “antichrist,” and it is apparently for the same reason that the Johannine Gospel gives a curious prominence to points of detail which illustrate the reality of the Lord’s physical life, his weariness as he sat by the well in Samaria, his tears at the grave of Lazarus, his sufferings from thirst on the Cross, the water and blood which flowed from his side. Docetism, in that early age of the Church, seems to have spread like wild–fire among the educated, and to have been as hard to extinguish. It was the common basis of the whole bewildering growth of half–Christian speculations known as Gnosticism, in which a symbolic theosophic figure is substituted for the historical human “Son of the Carpenter.” In the end the Church succeeded in casting out Gnosticism, but the success was only won by a hard struggle, to which the presence of statements of historical fact, or what was meant to be taken as such, in the traditional baptismal Confession of Faith still bears witness.
In some respects, we are sometimes inclined to think, the Church suffered in the conflict, as a man commonly suffers from wounds or maiming in a life–and–death struggle with a formidable opponent. But the known facts of the development of Gnosticism seem to have convinced serious historians that the Church did well in setting its face stubbornly against it, even at the cost of arresting philosophical speculation and losing for long enough a firm grip on the distinction between what is and what is not sufficiently attested fact. For the alternative was that Gnosticism, with its substitution of a symbolic figure for a real historical person, would kill the spiritual life of the community, and the essential thing was to preserve that life, even if it could only be preserved as a wounded life. The choice was between religion and faith, things tremendously alive, and theosophy, a lifeless thing which stands to living faith as the “bloodless ballet of impalpable categories” of Hegel’s Logic to the breathing life and the movement of the world of sense. One cannot have a religion without something or someone whom one can trust, and to whom one can pray; but no one can trust in a category, or address heart–prayer to a symbol. Worship of a category (or a law, or a tendency) would be the most tragic of all forms of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”.
It seems to me, then, that the actual history of Gnosticism is a sufficient warning against repetitions of the attempt to divorce the spiritual life, which we know in fact only as mediated by religions with roots in historical facts and happenings, wholly from its historical attachments. At bottom it is an attempt to manufacture God, the most tremendous of all realities, out of universals, and if there is any result that can be taken as final in philosophy, we may say that it has been finally established, beyond possibility of dispute, that the real, though pervaded everywhere by universals, cannot be constructed out of them. The metaphysician trying to make a fact out of categories is only repeating the task of twisting ropes out of sand imposed by Michael Scot on his fiends. However cunningly you complicate category with category, the process always leaves you with something which may be, or should be, or ought to be, and, as Baron von Hügel was fond of saying, “No amount of Ought–ness can be made to take the place of one Is–ness.” As we have been trying to urge all through our argument, the great and unbridgeable gulf between a morality which remains morality and any religion which is religion is that morality remains an affair of the ought, religion is concerned with something which overpoweringly is.
If we once let the mere ought usurp the place of the is, however unconsciously, we may indeed try to retain, as some of the Roman Catholic ultra–modernists of twenty years ago tried to retain, all the wealth of devotional life which has been called into being by the felt need of feeding the soul’s life on contact with a supreme “Is–ness,” but whether we know it or not, we shall really have reduced religion to the status of a mere instrumental adjunct to an independent morality, and history is there to bear witness that this reduction of religion to a position of mere subservience to morals regularly has two effects. The religion so treated soon ceases to be genuine worship, and it is not long before it also ceases to be an effective stimulus to earnest moral action. In the hands of the Gnostics, worship became theosophy, and a morality with no better sanction than theosophy then ceased to be a vigorous and elevated morality. We see the same thing illustrated by the subsequent history of some of the “modernists” censured by the Roman curia. One cannot but feel deep sympathy with men who, as I suppose most of us think, were so largely right in their opposition to traditional intellectual idleness and stagnation, and were met by angry and largely stupid official violence on the part of authorities who should have mingled encouragement with admonition and caution. Probably it is just those among us who feel most respect for the great Church of the West who are most vehemently stirred to indignation when we see her authorities engaged in “putting back the clock.” Yet the fact does remain that too many of the Continental leaders of the movement, after their breach with the representatives of official tradition, rapidly sank into contented secularism.16 Unintelligent as the authorities at the Vatican showed themselves in their attitude alike to critical scholarship and to genuinely personal philosophical thinking, we must do them the justice to add that they do not seem to have been wrong in their conviction that the detachment of extreme “modernism” from all vestiges of historical tradition is as incompatible with the deepest spiritual inwardness as it is with the practical necessity that a religion which is to be available for all must be one and the same for the subtle and the simple, the critical and the uncritical.
I feel sure, then, that it is not from any defect or temporary accident that there is, in all the great world–religions, more or less of insistence on an element of historical fact which cannot simply be dismissed or denied without striking a formidable blow at the substance of the religion itself. But it does not follow that it is ever possible to say with finality just how much of what has been handed down as historical fact in the tradition of the community really has this character, or that the last word can ever be said for all time by men of one age upon any single historical credendum. At most, we can only safely formulate very general principles; the application of them to particular cases is always a matter of infinite difficulty. One can, no doubt, see that in the case of any actual positive religion there are some credenda of an historical kind which cannot be denied without challenging the value of that religion as a genuine disclosure of the divine character and purpose, and that there are others which at least have not the same manifest spiritual value. Thus, merely for purposes of ready illustration, we may consider the assertions about the historical facts of our Lord’s life which figure in the great Christian confessions of belief. As I have said, Docetism, which cuts away all these assertions by denying the reality of the Lord’s actual historical existence in toto, would clearly destroy the specific character of Christianity itself. Again, a denial, for example, of the article tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, if taken to mean that our Lord’s personal existence ceased when he breathed his last on the Cross, and that the band of followers who believed him to be still living and directing and inspiring their activities, and shaping the whole course of history, were simply deluded, would be almost as directly fatal to Christianity as Docetism itself. Whatever religion might survive general acceptance of the thesis that from the first until now Christians have been worshipping a dead man and mistaking their reminiscences of him for experiences of direct contact with God, it would not be a religion with any right to the name of Christianity.
We can only blind ourselves to this manifest truth by committing the common confusion between the theological formulae in which men give an account of what they suppose themselves to believe and the faith by which they, mainly subconsciously or unconsciously, shape their lives. A man, in fact, often really believes so much more than he is himself aware that he believes. He says and thinks, perhaps, that he believes Christ to be no more than a good man who has been wholly non–existent for nineteen centuries. But in his life he acts on a very different assumption. He professes to think that Christ belongs to the dead past; he acts as though Christ belonged to and dominated the living present. But to be convinced that Christ is an abiding living personality, and that our own destinies are in his hands, is not exactly the same thing as to regard the New Testament narratives of his “resurrection appearances” as one and all beyond historical criticism, or to have any particular theory about the nature of those appearances. One may intelligibly hold that the belief in the real continued personal activity and the supremacy of Christ, and in the reality of the contacts between the still living Christ and his disciples, out of which Christianity arose is what is essential in the historical credendum, and everything else matter for criticism and speculation, not affecting the true substance of the Christian faith.
For, we may say, that Christian conception of the relation of Christ to God and to man which would be ruined by the view that Christ has been non–existent for nineteen hundred years is no more affected by an uncertainty whether he did or did not eat honey–comb or fish with his friends after his Passion than by a difference of opinion on the point whether St. Paul, on his day of Damascus, actually saw a vision of the features of Christ, or only heard the memorable words which St. Luke records in the Acts; or again by the possibly unmeaning question whether this hearing itself should be called an “external” or an “interior” audition. From the most completely traditionalist point of view possible to a rational man it has to be admitted that the events in question are, ex hypothesi, so remote from the familiar order that they can hardly be described in language devised to serve familiar daily purposes without obscurity; and again, that the descriptions we possess, like all bona fide independent narratives of real and striking events, are not completely consistent: and even these elementary admissions have far–reaching implications. Consensus as to the historical character of the central incidents in such narratives should be recognised to be compatible with wide divergences in estimation of details.
So much seems to be conceded, even by the conservatives of Christian theology, at least so far as concerns some of the credenda of an historical kind specified in the classical Christian confessions. Dr. Gore,17 for example, with all his anxiety to fence round some of these credenda, frankly puts a symbolic sense on the phrase ascendit ad coelos, with the qualification that the symbol must be understood as representing a real transaction of an order indescribable in ordinary language, and he is here, no doubt, speaking the sense of the majority of strictly “orthodox” educated Christians of the present day. None of them, if confronted with the question, would be likely to assert that by “ascension into heaven” they mean physical displacement in a direction perpendicular to the horizon of Jerusalem. (And in respect of this particular article it is, of course, easy to claim, as Dr. Gore does, the authority of learned Fathers such as Gregory Nyssen and Jerome for the “symbolical” interpretation.) What I myself find it a little difficult to understand in a position like Dr. Gore’s—which I desire to treat with all the respect rightly due to its author—is the hard and fast line which is drawn between credenda thus admitted to contain symbolic elements and others which are taken to be bare records of happenings with no such intermixture.
It is not that I deny all validity to this distinction, so long as it is regarded as one of degree; of course, I am aware that, when we use words in a popular fashion, we can say that the statement that Christ “ascended” or that he “sits on the right hand of the Father” is symbolic in a way in which the statements that he was crucified and buried are not. What I dispute is the right of any man, or body of men, to claim once and for all to limit the right to recognise the presence of the symbolic element to the case of certain specified articles and to exclude from active participation in the devotional life of the Christian community those who do not make the same precise restriction. I do not understand on what principle the line of delimitation between the two classes of historical credenda is to be drawn, and—a still more fundamental difficulty—I think it actually impossible to describe any real event in language wholly non–symbolic.18 No language, if I may be pardoned the merely apparent “bull,” is even approximately free from the symbolic, except the artificial language of “symbolic” logic,19 and that idiom is impotent to describe the simplest and most familiar event. I gather that Dr. Gore’s own view is that the principle of distinction is itself an historical one—certain credenda have long been understood (but by whom?) to be expressed in symbolic language, others not so, and the line must continue to be drawn always just where it was drawn in the past (in the fourth century?). I own that I feel some doubt about the fact. I cannot help thinking that one would only have to go sufficiently far back in the history of the Church to find a time when a Council of Dr. Gore’s episcopal predecessors would either have condemned his “symbolic” Ascension, or have left it uncondemned only because a distinction so clear to his mind would have been unintelligible to theirs.
The real difficulty, however, arises chiefly in connection with traditional historical credenda which appear to stand in no discoverable connection with the great central credendum of any religion, its doctrine of God and of God’s ways with men. Such propositions, it is often said, have no “spiritual value”; a man’s personal walk with God is in no way affected by his opinion about them: they are mere assertions about incidents of past history irrelevant to the spiritual life, and therefore religiously insignificant. These at least, then, should be expunged, should they not, from a confession of faith, before a rational man can be asked to accept it? But here again there are several considerations which ought to be carefully pondered.
In the first place, it is not always apparent on inspection what allegations of historical matter of fact have, and what have not, a spiritual value such that the rejection of them would seriously impair the personal religious life of the rejector. There may be such a connection in cases where it is not so patent as in those which I began by alleging. And it should be remembered that the very presence of a statement in a great communal profession of faith at least affords some presumption that it was originally placed there to rule out some opposing position which had been found practically mischievous to the religious life of the community, and may be mischievous again, if it is suffered to revive. It may, of course, not be so; the credendum in question may owe its place to the contentious ingenuity of theologians dogmatising for dogmatism’s sake (though this motive does not appear historically to have been very prominent in the great creed–making age of the Christian Church). But the initial presumption, at least, is the other way, and modesty suggests that before we declare an “article” to have “no spiritual value,” we should go to history to learn why and how it obtained its place. We may find that there has been an excellent reason for this, as in the case of certain biographical statements about Our Lord in the Christian confessions. At first sight the inclusion in these confessions of the chronological detail that the Crucifixion took place in the procuratorship of Pilate might seem to be pure irrelevance. But the clause acquires a different significance when we learn from history that the purpose of insisting on such details was to make it clear, once and for all, that the Saviour confessed by Christians is a real man of flesh and blood, not a phantom or a theosophical symbol. Docetism—as we may see from the fantastical revival of it by the faddists who deny the “historicity of Jesus” in our own day—is an ever possible perversion of a religion of incarnational type which is fatal to its spirit, and a philosopher cannot quarrel with Christians for their determination to keep Docetism out of their religion.20
Of course, it may be said that, even after the appeal to history has been made, the case is not equally clear with all credenda of this kind. Even when we have been at pains to discover why they were originally adopted, we may be left unable to see, in the case of some of them, that they are denials of anything which would injure religion by impairing a soul’s intercourse with its God; or such mischief as might have been done in this way in a past age may be dependent on modes of thought and feeling peculiar to that age, and no longer formidable. Hence it is a real possibility that there may be no close or clear agreement between thoughtful and sincerely religious men about the presence of a real spiritual significance in such credenda, and it might plausibly be argued that what cannot be seen to be thus directly connected with a true belief in God, being at best superfluous, must be actually injurious to personal religion; that whatever is more than the unum necessarium is, for that very reason, harmful. Here, again, I suppose we may say that private judgement needs to be tempered with humility. Even if I cannot myself see any connection between acceptance of a certain credendum and the quality of a man’s belief in God, yet, if it also appears to be widely true that persons and societies which cherish that credendum enjoy a rich and vigorous spiritual life, while those who reject it do not, it is wise to suspect that there really is a connection between the belief in question and “growth in grace” which a more penetrating scrutiny would make manifest, though possibly it would also reveal hitherto unsuspected points of distinction between the substance of the credendum and temporary accidents of the form in which it has traditionally been held. It is not the part of the true wisdom, which is always humble, to pronounce too confidently that there is “nothing in” any conviction which has fed the spirituality of generations.
It may, no doubt, be urged by way of objection to this appeal to the consensus of the great multitude of the spiritually minded that, as Dr. Bevan has said,21 fine spirituality and sound historical insight are not in pari materia. It is reasonable to defer to the judgement of the spiritually minded against my own when the question is one of the tendency of some practice to promote or check spirituality of mind, but what reason is there to suppose that the exceptionally spiritually minded man is an exceptionally trustworthy authority about historical fact? It is, after all, only in his own “art” that the “artist” may fairly claim to be listened to. I own that the argument would be final but for one consideration. When such an appeal is made, the point on which one is appealing to the judgement of the spiritually minded man is not a point of naked fact. We do not ask him whether or not there is good documentary evidence to establish the asserted fact; what we are really asking him is whether denial of it would involve deterioration in our conception of God and God’s dealings with ourselves. The question itself is, in the end, one of “spiritual value,” and therefore the verdict of the “spiritually minded,” if it is clear and accordant, as it seems to me, does count, exactly as an accordant verdict of musicians on the question of historical fact, “Did Mozart, or Beethoven, write this piece of music?” or the accordant verdict of great men of letters on the question, “Had Shakespeare a hand in The Two Noble Kinsmen?” really counts, even though none of those who accord in giving it should have been specially trained in the critical investigation of documentary evidence. It seems to me, therefore, not unreasonable to allow real weight to the intuition of the spiritually minded, where they are clearly in agreement, even on the question whether acceptance of certain statements as to matters of historical fact is of the substance of religion.
But I would also add that the very ground I have just urged in favour of genuine deference to this kind of intuition is also equally a ground for recognising that the rights of such intuition are rather closely circumscribed. The whole argument rests on two broad general presuppositions: (1) that, as is implied in the assertion of the existence of God, the disjunction between “value” and “fact” is not absolute, the supreme “value,” God, being also the ultimate source of the whole course of historical “fact”; (2) that the religion to which it is essential that a certain assertion about historical fact should substantially be true is a religion which conceives God rightly, so that the conviction “here is something which is significant fact” is equivalent to the conviction “if this is not fact, then God, the source of all facts, is something less than God.” In the application of the principle to a specific case it is also presupposed that what leads the spiritually minded man to insist on the “historicity” of a certain event really is a perception that denial of the fact would involve surrendering a more for a less adequate conception of God.
If the true motive for the insistence is different, if it is no more than intellectual inertia, a fortiori if it is only the reluctance of officials with a prestige to maintain to admit their own liability to error—and none of us are so spiritual that these motives can be wholly excluded—the apparent consensus may lose much, or all, of its significance. In fact, I think we may say we know that a good deal of conservative traditionalism in “matters of religion” has often been inspired by little more than the intellectual apathy of good men, or the fear on the part of official men that their prestige is in danger. Even when motives of this order are not dominant, there is always the possibility to be reckoned with that they are present, and that, under their influence, a great deal which has really a very different origin may masquerade as the genuine intuition of spiritual minds. Even when we can be sure that we are dealing with real spiritual intuition, we still have to remember that the affirmations based on such intuition have regularly been elicited by specific denials; their legitimate object has been to safeguard something felt to be vital to the spiritual life which has been challenged by these specific denials, not, in the interests of “pure thought,” to settle once for all the question exactly how much in the received assertions of historical fact constitutes the significant “substance.” The formulation of a credendum cannot reasonably be regarded as intended to solve in advance problems which have never been present to the minds of the promoters. The highest regard for the intuitions of the spiritually minded need not blind us to the patent fact that such intuitions, like the immediate judgements of men of high conscience and moral insight on practical problems of conduct, are regularly evoked by concrete situations and as responses to these situations; intuition does not function in vacuo.
If these considerations were only borne in mind as they should be, we might anticipate not only greater humility on the part of the individual “historical critic,” when he finds himself confronted by a genuine deliverance of the body of the spiritually minded, but an answering greater humility on the part of those who claim officially to speak in the name of religion. The individual critic of the traditional would have to admit that a living religion, because its God is a God of an historical world, does imply credenda of an historical kind among its foundations. He would have to abandon the claim, sometimes advanced by the negative critic of tradition in our own day, to be doing high service to the spirit of a religion by merely destroying its body. I would add that he would be less prone than he sometimes is to confuse the very different assertions, “This cannot be shown to be matter of fact by testimony which will satisfy the religiously indifferent, or the anti–religious,” and “There is nothing in this but illusion.” But equally the guardians of a religious tradition would have to admit that, in the last resort, their own claim to be “guided by the Spirit” can only be justified in so far as they really embody neither the mental indolence of the unthinking, nor the lust of officialdom for prestige and power, but the genuine insight of “holy and humble men of heart”; and, again, that however decisive the pronouncements of intuition upon the concrete situation which has elicited them, they cannot by anticipation foreclose issues which have never been presented in concreto.
If these limitations are remembered, it is not necessary that there should be any irreconcilable conflict between the demand of a living religion for an indispensable basis in genuine historical fact and the right of critical historical investigation to deal with all “evidences” freely and fearlessly, by its own methods and without interference. Most of our acutest trouble in this kind seems to be due to the proneness of theologians and historical critics alike to an unconscious assumption of their own infallibility in metaphysics. The theologian tends to assume too hastily that religion demands not merely that God should have disclosed Himself through the past, but that we should already know in all detail what the pattern of the past through which God has disclosed Himself is. The historical critic too often assumes, with equal rashness, that we know that certain patterns never were, and never will be, exhibited by any fact. Each is trying in his own way, with equal unreason, to canalise the same living current, which the one might call the “march of events,” the other the “great river of the grace of God”.
The example is actually given by Abelard—whom I name at second–hand from Wicksteed, Reactions between Dogma and Philosophy, p. 115—as proof that the text of Holy Scripture alone does not contain all things necessary to be believed. (Either Abelard’s memory must have played him false, or he used a bad text of the Vulgate, since the nomen Pontius occurs at least thrice in the New Testament, Luke iii. 1, Acts iv. 27, 1 Timothy vi. 13.)
And a fortiori, how could our religion be affected by the discovery that the nomen of the procurator is inaccurately given in the two passages just cited, and consequently in the Creeds? (The Gospel narrative uniformly uses only the cognomen, Pilate.)
It may be objected to me that the Roman Church, at any rate, seems not to have made the surrender. It is not for an outsider to pretend knowledge of the official attitude of any Church, but if the Roman Church really has committed itself to some sort of “Fundamentalism” on this issue, I can only remark that, in my own opinion, that is so much the worse for the Roman Church.
For a defence of the position in question, of which I wish to speak with the deep respect due to all the pronouncements of the author, and with which I find it hard not to feel real sympathy, I would refer to Dr. Gore’s summary of his doctrine in the volume Can We Then Believe? (1926). I sincerely hope that I have succeeded in describing the general attitude taken up throughout the volume without unconscious misrepresentation.
Cf. Inge, Philosophy of Plotinus,1 ii. 227: “Neo–Platonism differs from popular Christianity in that it offers us a religion the truth of which is not contingent on any particular events, whether past or future. It is dependent on no miracles, on no unique revelation through any historical person, on no narratives about the beginning of the world, on no prophecies of its end. There is a Christian philosophy of which the same might be said. … Christianity … can only exert its true influence in the world … when it stands on its own foundations, without those extraneous supports which begin by strengthening a religion and end by strangling it.”
See the brilliant and suggestive dialogue “The End of History,” in War, Progress, and the End of History (E. tr., p. 213).
Here rather than in the “Copernicanrevolution,” to which Dr. Inge attaches so much significance, I should find the secret of the now acute crise du christianisme. The supposed theological consequences of the deposition of our planet from its unique status appear to be in process of dissipation by the return of astronomers themselves to the old belief that the status of the Earth is unique, or at least, most exceptional. Cf. Eddington, Nature of the Physical World, pp. 169 ff.
St. Paul’s attitude, as we gather it from his epistles, seems to me very instructive. The covenant under Moses appears to have lost its main significance for him, and to be reduced to the status of a decidedly secondary episode. But his depreciation of the Law only throws into stronger relief his unwavering faith in the earlier covenant with “Abraham and his seed” as a central fact in the history of mankind.
Cf. Soloviev, op. cit., p. 173: “Until you show me the goodness of your lord in his own deeds and not in verbal precepts to his employees, I shall stick to my opinion that your distant lord, demanding good from others but doing no good himself, imposing duties but showing no love, never appearing before your eyes but living incognito somewhere abroad, is no one else but the god of this age.”
Ethica, iv. 53.
Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism1, ii. 280 (after Lotze).
Werke (Hartenstein2), iv. 256.
1 Cor. xi. 23. St. Paul’s insistence on the point that he had “received” the narrative seems to me to demand the interpretation that it had been officially communicated to him by St. Peter and other eye–witnesses of the scene, and thus to be evidence for the Christianity of the date of his own conversion.
Cf. the valuable chapter on “The Christ of History” in E. G. Selwyn’s Approach to Christianity (1925).
See the useful article “Docetism,” by Adrian Fortescue, in E.R.E. iv. 532 ff. And with what follows in the next paragraph cf. E. Bevan, Hellenism and Christianity, p. 100 ff. “What strikes one in this Gnostic account of the descent and reascension of the Redeemer is that it is just a reduplication of the Hellenistic story of the soul. But in these fragments which we have of Hellenistic theology, unmodified by the influence of Christian faith in a human Person, there is no Redeemer. … Salvation by such gnosis and salvation by Christ present the appearance of two alternative schemes which have been imperfectly joined together.”
For evidence on this point I may be content to refer to the volume of Selected Letters of von Hügel (1927) and the accompanying Memoir by Mr. Bernard Holland.
Can We Then Believe? p. 206 ff. Cf. J. H. Bernard, art. “Assumption and Ascension,” in E.R.E. ii.
Let me illustrate by an example. Dr. Gore notoriously would include the article natus ex Maria virgine among those which must be understood “literally.” But how much is to be meant by this? We know the interpretation put on this credendum by St. Thomas and in the Catechism of Trent. Ought we, then, to insist on the whole of it, or only on some part, and if not on the whole, how shall we justify ourselves against the criticism, which might be brought against us from the Tridentine point of view, of not really accepting the article without diminution? Must we regard it as de fide to hold that Christ, as a physical fact, ex mulieris alvo sine ullo maternae virgimtatis detrimento editus est? If not, are we not permitting a latitude we professedly reject in the interpretation of the word natus?
And even this exception seems apparent rather than real.
It seems to me important, in view of current controversies which I need not specify, to remember that the original purpose of all the statements made in the Creeds about the earthly life of Jesus was to insist on the reality of his humanity. They are directed against Docetism, not against “humanitarianism,” which was not a theory of the creed–making ages.
Hellenism and Christianity, p. 245 ff.