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Lecture 24. Modern Thought (3).

NOBODY doubts now that philosophy must influence our conception of religion, few dispute the claim of science to some voice in the matter; but as regards criticism, opinions are more divided. Criticism moves entirely in the plane of history. IT settles the precise text and meaning of documents, their date and authorship, and the sequence and character of historical events and what have such sublunary things to do with religion? The traditionalist has got his dogma; and if history does not agree with him, so much the worse for history. It must be made to agree, or simply set aside as uncertain. The philosopher or the æsthetic person may say, Christ stands only for the moral or the æsthetic ideal; and if the ideal satisfies me, the facts which suggested it pray as well be false as true. The man of science may remind us that Nature is permanent, while man passes away; and surely the final truth, whatever it be, must be sought in things that cannot pass away. The mystic or the pietist may say, I know that Christ lived in me: what more can I want to know? and the man in the street may add in his commonsense way, that if there is any good at all in religion, it cannot need to be hunted out from the dust of the past. Thus we find many who would separate history from religion, because they believe in religion but not in history; and others would agree to the separation because they believe in history but not in religion.

Against it, however, there is the consideration that the religion with which civilized peoples chiefly have to do is one that alleges historical facts and challenges historical investigation; and the challenge cannot be refused, for the central figure of the religion is also the central figure of history. Even if the facts turned out false or proved nothing, we could form no scholarly opinion of the religion, or of history generally, without a critical study of them.

This was fully understood by early Christian writers. It is a mistake of the grossest ignorance to ridicule them as generally uncritical. On the contrary, the claim of the Gospel to be historical forced them to a much more serious study of critical methods than the heathens had occasion for. If Clement of Rome believes in the Phœnix, so does Tacitus; and while Tacitus is the greatest of the heathens, Clement is one of the least intellectual of the Christians. Irenæus has two or three bad mistakes, and hasty thinkers have made too much of them; but he knows exactly what he has to prove, and brings exactly the kind of evidence needed to prove it. Eusebius is careful to give accurate quotations, and to name his authorities for the stories he tells; and all antiquity can show no finer piece of critical work than the discussion of the authorship of the Apocalypse by Dionysius of Alexandria. The Latins, as usual, are much behind the Greeks can match with Jerome.

But critical method after the fifth century was first replaced by authority and then forgotten. Even the Greeks follow authority in the most slavish way at the Nicene Council of 787, which restored image-worship. In the West everything went down which seemed to make for edification. Piety was omnivorous; and the Church of Rome has a bad preeminence in devising or adopting forgeries, from the spurious canons of Nicæa to the False Decretals. But there was a good deal of criticism in the Middle Ages, though it was hampered by fear of heresy. Hincmar was not deceived by the False Decretals, and such writers as Lambert of Hersfeld or Matthew Paris are no mean historians. Criticism came to vigorous life again at the Renaissance, and when the Reformation made the historical position of the Church of Rome the central question of the time, Protestants were forced into criticism like the early Christians.

In England after the Reformation, historical work was controversial, and very much limited to the disputes and sects of the early Church and the Reformation. The Middle Ages were not commonly studied, except for the direct purpose of setting forth “the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities.” Gibbon too was largely controversial; but if he took a wider view of history, he left no successors. The Tractarians produced very little that was not thoroughly uncritical even or its own time. Unhistorical theories drove them to special pleading on every page. The best historical work of their time was almost always done by declared enemies of the school, such as Thirlwall and Grote Arnold and Milman, Macaulay and Stanley. History in England has always been deeply coloured by politics, for our best scholars have seldom regarded it as “a science, neither more nor less.” A purely objective narrative of facts may be excellent material for history, but pace the determinists, it is not history—or at best it is history gone back to the stage of the Ptolemaic system—unless its motive forces are found in human character. Moreover, we have widespread doubts whether the historian ought to be purely indifferent. Perhaps he will do his work none the worse for having a side of his own and a clear belief that it is upon the whole the right side, provided he tries to do full justice to the other side, and never wilfully colours facts. It may be that this is the nearest approach to perfect impartiality which the weakness of human nature will allow. If every movement stands for a principle of some sort, it will be better understood by a fair-minded opponent than by the “impartial” writer who ignores its principle. Sympathy with all may be ideal: sympathy with none is injustice to all.

In Germany the conceptions of criticism and history were differently developed. At first the histories were controversial, like those of the Magdeburg Centuriators, and in another direction Arnold and Semler. But the rising spirit of historical criticism, visible even in Semler, and well seen in Bengel, was checked by the philosophers. The Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, and the endless controversies which arose from it, had made the Person of Christ the central problem of theology. From theology it was now carried over to philosophy; and a philosophical interpretation of it was essayed by most of the philosophers from Kant to Hegel, including even Schleiermacher. Meanwhile the work of men like Pertz and Ranke was establishing historical criticism generally on a firm basis of the study of original documents, so that, when the Leben Jesu of Strauss in 1835 came down like a bomb in the Hegelian camp, all parties were prepared for the closer historical study which it made necessary. What, then, were the facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? Men like Neander, Ullmann, Tholuck did good work on the central question at this stage; and if Baur and the Tübingen school turned the discussion aside for a while to their Hegelian reconstruction of St. Paul, the facts they brought out only made it swing back with greater emphasis than ever to One greater than Paul as the central problem of Christianity, and therefore of history generally.

During the last forty years the whole field of history has been critically worked over with increasing vigilance and thoroughness, both in Germany and England, and in France also, now that she is working off the debasement of the Second Empire and its Ultramontanisni. Year by year the subject seems to increase in range as new materials are discovered and new countries come into the reckoning, and year by year the standard of work becomes more exacting. In the region which used to be called profane we have great names like Freeman and Gardiner, Giesebrecht and Mommsen; and more decidedly dealing with the ecclesiastical side, Lightfoot and Seeley, Hort and Westcott, Creighton and Lord Acton—to name only men whose memory is fresh in Cambridge. The Bible has been sifted through and through from end to end as never book was sifted yet. The keenest of intellects have scrutinized it, the sharpest of critics have done their utmost on it, and hundreds—nay thousands—of toiling students have searched every corner of human knowledge for help to understand it—for there is no side of life or learning which has not been found to bear upon it. And as was fitting, the hardest fight of all is round the Man of Nazareth. We still hear sharp denial that he is the Son of God, though men have almost ceased to call him “that deceiver”; but there seems to be no dispute that the whole history of religion somehow gathers round him.

It is true that this magnificent work is flecked with human weakness. Purely critical, machinery may be perfect, and yet bring out false results. If we begin with a bad philosophy we shall make false assumptions; and criticism will no more set us right than logic, for the assumptions will govern the criticism. Thus, if we begin, as many do, by assuming that criticism is a pure science which has nothing to do with feeling, we shall miss all that cannot be reached without sympathy; and this is the chief part of history, for nothing but sympathy can tell us the meaning of human action. So of other assumptions. I will not ask whether the historical problem of the Person of Christ, including the history that radiates from him as well as the history that converges on him, will ever be solved by any criticism that rests on the philosophical assumptions of open or disguised materialism; but it seems clear that, after a good deal of trial, no such criticism has hitherto been reasonably successful.

Be that as it may, the results of all this criticism are not unworthy of the enormous labour they have cost. Criticism has done as much as even science to deepen and widen our conception of the knowledge of God. Its first efforts were aimed at the mediæval theory of the Church. The False Decretals were demolished before the Reformation, and the traditional claim of Latin Christianity was refuted in the sixteenth century. After an interval, criticism turned against the Protestant theory of the Bible. In the eighteenth century it did not get much beyond pointing out the varieties of reading, discrepancies of narrative, and mistakes of fact, which are fatal to crude theories of its infallibility; but in the nineteenth century criticism became constructive. If the Bible is not an infallible authority in the same sense as the Church was supposed to be, what is it? Does it differ essentially from other sacred books? and if so, how?

We shall plainly have to question the book itself, and put it in the fullest light of nature, history, and life. Criticism must do its perfect work, and cannot do it unless all relevant facts of whatever kind are taken into account. But the broad answer to our question rests on broad facts which no serious criticism can well dispute. Some sacred books, the Koran, for example, are held to be revelations, but the Bible does not profess to be more than the record of a revelation. Only, that revelation is confessedly a special or central revelation in the sense that it lies much nearer than any other to the main line of religious development. No matter so far if it is false or true; in either case it is an alleged revelation which the guiding Power has allowed to take a place unique in history. Beyond all others it has been a conquering and expanding force, beyond all others it has shewn power to redeem its failures and outgrow its weakness, and beyond all others it has called out that mysterious force of kindliness and purity which sways the heart and renews the life of men. With all the unsettlement and noisy doubt around us, I see no sign that its ancient might is withering in these latter days. So far as a student of history like myself can judge, it shews more signs of vigorous life now than when it fought and overcame the Empire of Augustus. For good or for evil, it is still a growing force. If its outward observances are not made so much the business of life as they were in certain past ages, its influence is far more subtle and penetrating, and controls opinions and standards of conduct with more success than in the “ages of faith,” or even in the best times of Puritanism, when religious enthusiasm and sordid vice went together more easily and more commonly than they do now, and caused less scandal. The moral sense of heathenism was upon the whole true,—meaning that it seldom failed to condemn the things we see to be wrong; but it often condemned admitted wrong with such lenience as almost amounted to taking it as a matter of course. Christianity has maintained a higher standard, except in manifestly degraded churches; and that standard, with all its shortcomings, is higher in our own time than in any past age. There is not much good in modern civilization which is not either originated by Christianity or assimilated by it. Even its enemies owe most of their best things to it. Some truth there must be in this unique phenomenon; for if we found, after all, that the guiding Power has allowed the main development of religion in history to go on altogether mistaken lines, we might have to revise our assumption that such Power is morally trustworthy.

But whatever be the case for the Gospel on the old theory, it is not often much altered by any corrections of text or shiftings of authorship and date. To put this more precisely, we note the substance of the revelation, namely, that God has given us a final assurance of his goodness in certain alleged historical facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If these facts are true, it can hardly be denied that they do constitute such an assurance; and if so, the only valid reply is to maintain that they are false. All criticism which stops short of this leaves the truth of the revelation exactly where it was before.

For instance, no critical question about the Old Testament can of itself be vital. A late date for Genesis or Daniel shews only that the method of the revelation was on this wise and not on that; and proof that Esther or Jonah is a fictitious narrative means only that the element of parable is larger than we supposed. The truth of the revelation is not affected till further proof is given, either that the traditional dates are an integral part of it, or that parable cannot belong to a true revelation. To put the hardest case at once, let it be supposed that Jesus of Nazareth believed Psalm ex to be by David, and that it is not so. Even this is irrelevant, unless it can be further shewn, either that such mistake was sinful, or that he deliberately taught it without caring about its truth, or else that an argumentum ad hominem is of itself immoral. On the other hand, it would be much to the purpose if it could be shewn that he never pretended to be divine, or never rose from the dead. The revelation stands or falls with the central facts alleged in the Gospels. This is the one point where a decisive battle can be fought: elsewhere there cannot be more than skirmishing.

Now, the story of the Temptation is certainly symbolical; and there may be (I do not think there is) a small further element of symbolism at one or two other points of the New Testament where we seem to find a plain narrative. On the other hand, I am satisfied that the margin of uncertainty in the reports of Christ's words is greatly exaggerated even in “orthodox” circles, especially in connexion with the Fourth Gospel. However, the question of less or more is not very serious except for those who feel bound on principle to insist in all cases on the literal as the only legitimate meaning. By far the largest part of the narrative is presented as literal fact; and much the larger part of this, “from the baptism of John to that same day that he was taken up from us,” is given as that which the disciples had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears. It does not come before us as a romance whose value is in its spiritual significance, but claims to be nothing less and nothing else than a serious account of things which actually came to pass. If a fair review of the whole of the evidence (not literary possibilities only) brings us to the conclusion that the broad facts alleged are false, then there is an end of the Gospel; but (except so far as it may help to prove this) criticism of details is itself only a detail which need trouble none but the believers in verbal inspiration. In itself it is insignificant

In more ways than one the critical work of modern times has cleared for us the conception of revelation. The change—to put it in general terms—is that from the theorist who assumes the method of revelation and thence determines the facts, to the student who ascertains the facts and thence infers the method. It is the same change which science underwent some time before. Criticism has demolished alike the Catholic assumption of an infallible church and the Protestant assumption of an infallible book. Again, criticism has brought to light a unity of plan in history corresponding to the unity of plan in Nature. Even Christianity is not the isolated thing it seemed to be—a rigid dogma given once for all from heaven, and standing in no relation to the world of human thought around it. We see now that while a special or central revelation must deal with the permanent questions of religion, and answer the aspirations of all the ages, it must also touch the life of its own time on every side, and be sensitive above all others to every change of environment. In past ages the proof of the revelation was found in its utter unlikeness to the thoughts of men;but now the conception of revelation has been so humanized, that its likeness to those thoughts is made a reason for denying that there can be anything divine in it. But there is not much to choose between the old fallacy, that what is divine cannot be human, and the new fallacy, that what is human cannot be divine.

The political movement can be traced to religion like the scientific, and has quite as deeply influenced the conception of revelation. The steady drift of centuries towards democracy is more to a form of society than to a form of government. Democracy allows of a king, provided he is constitutional;and an aristocracy, provided it has no oppressive privileges. Even the French Revolution did not strike at the monarchy till it found that Louis XVI was not to be trusted;and in our own time the kings sit much more firmly than they did a couple of generations ago. The abolition of monarchy does not seem likely to become practical politics anywhere, though we may see changes in constitutionally backward countries like Germany and Russia. But the danger which most nearly threatens us is neither a despotism of kings nor an anarchy of mob rule. It is the organized rings of capitalists: and parties in England and America seem disposed to group themselves round governments which are willing to play into the hands of the “interests,” and governments which are not.

The movement we speak of began with Christianity, and for more than a thousand years Christianity alone kept any life in it. The ancient democracies were no more than oligarchies in the midst of slaves, and their memory perished for ages. Stoicism spoke brave words about the equality of men, but the declining Empire settled down into something like a system of caste. In feudal society also a man's place was fixed by his birth, so that he could seldom rise out of it. Chess-feeling was still supreme. In the midst of a world of inequality, Christianity spoke to the image of God, which is the same in all men. Its teaching was the same for rich and poor, and in its central ordinance of the Supper of the Lord it ignored all differences of rank. The senator and the slave came up alike, and were on a footing of absolute equality. But if equality was the rule in the highest sphere of all, it must be the ideal in the lower spheres. Thus all distinctions of class are put on their defence. There may be good reason for them: but it must be shewn, not taken for granted;and, after all, it must be relative to a given state of society, not grounded on any permanent needs of human nature

It is simple matter of history that the Lord's Supper has been by far the most powerful of the influences which have tended to level class prejudices. It comes out strongly in the Early Church. If slavery was not abolished, the sting of it was drawn when the slave was fully recognized as in spiritual things his master's equal. No thought ever seems to cross Perpetua's mind that “their good companion” Felicitas is any the worse for being a slave;and in the last scene, where the matron and the slave are standing hand in hand to meet the shock of death, the deepest prejudice of the ancient world is not simply overcome, but utterly forgotten.

This strong and subtle influence was greatly weakened when the Communion was turned into the Mass. Instead of the spiritual equality of men, it now preached their common dependence on the priest. Yet something of the old spirit lasted far into the later Middle Ages. For centuries the Church was the one democratic society, where the son of a serf might become Robert of Lincoln, and a poor scholar like Nicolas of Langley could find his way to St. Peter's chair itself. But in the later Middle Ages there was heresy abroad, and the Church was panic-stricken, and took to savage methods of repression. A fixed policy of persecution forced it to lean on kings and nobles, and to become more aristocratic as well as more reactionary. So it turned finally away from the Commons of England, and made its compact de h230;retico comburendo with the House of Lancaster. Arundel, Beaufort, Neville are the typical bishops of the fifteenth century, though Chicheley and Waynflete still represent a lower social class. Things were much the same on the continent in the days of Albert of Brandenburg and Hermann of Wied, so that the control of the Church by the nobles which commonly followed the Reformation was not entirely the novelty it seems.

The Reformation turned back the Mass into a Communion, and so far restored the spiritual equality of Christian men; but its political influence was at first quite in the other direction. This was due partly to the general causes which made for strong government at the end of the Middle Ages, partly to the fact that the Reformation was hardly anywhere controlled by the people. In England, Germany, and Scandinavia, its course was guided by princes; in France and Scotland, by nobles; at Geneva, by a religious dictator. Besides this, the Mass was now replaced by preaching as the central ordinance of worship, so that the importance of the change was less than it might have been. Then came the wars of religion and the age of religious exhaustion, The movement was still working—even the League sometimes found it convenient to assert the rights of a Catholic people against a heretic king—but upon the whole the aristocratic organization of society was not greatly weakened before the eighteenth century. Signs there were of coming change like the Commonwealth of England, which often worked quite in the spirit of the Reformed Parliament of 1832; but the Restoration brought back the rule of the landowners, and all over Europe the question still chiefly lay between kings and oligarchies. If the philosophic despots did everything for the people, they were careful to have everything done by the king, nothing by the people. If they swept away the class privileges and other traditional anomalies that stood in the way of a well-ordered monarchy, they had no idea of creating popular rights which might prove equally troublesome. Frederick II was the last man to play democrat in practical politics.

The first decisive blow was struck when the American colonies became a great republic—the first great republic in history—with every trace of privilege among white men rooted out. This was a vast advance on the city states of ancient times, for the scale was so much larger, and the excluded blacks were comparatively few in the northern states. The French Revolution, however, was not the new beginning it is often taken for. Both originally in France and afterwards in Europe generally it rather cleared away the wrecks of the old age than opened a new period. The creative ideas date before and after; seldom from the Revolution itself. Its leaders borrowed their political ideas from America, their notions of religion from the English Deists, though they certainly dressed them up in Rousseau's fashions: and Rousseau was behind the times in politics and religion, though he made a real advance in 230sthetics. In the next half century other countries as well as France found out that the tree of liberty cannot be transplanted full-grown. The training of England had been going on since the days of Henry Fitz-Empress; and the work of ages could not be done in a day by a paper constitution. So failure after failure marks the earlier nineteenth century. Though there was little fighting in the generation after Waterloo, there was much political instability. If the Holy Alliance partly restored the old order, it had to be maintained more and more by sheer military violence; and if the revolutionists could not overturn it, Liberalism gained strength at every change, for through all the changes ran a deepening sense of the worth and dignity of man as man, and of his right and duty to make himself the best man he can. It was a secular counterpart of the religious work of the Reformation

This, then, was the work of the liberal movement which swept over Europe in the middle of the century—to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free. It is not finished yet, and indeed has been partly undone by the great reaction of the last thirty or forty years, to the vain glory of militarism and the futile selfishness of commercial wars. But political reform is passing into social. As new and larger problems arise, we are coming to see that we are only manufacturing crime by giving the degraded classes freedom without more active help. So most of the great reforms since the Poor Law of 1835 have been cautious moves in the direction of socialism; and in that direction we seem likely to go further. Though society will never be essentially socialist—at least till men are very different from what they are—it might well be more socialist than it is at present. We shall need wary statesmanship, for the problems grow harder every year, and there are wild schemes in abundance; but the line of advance is in this direction, not the other way. Far as we have gone from the individualism of the early nineteenth century, the State is not even now undertaking all that the government of a free State might safely be entrusted with. It is not a foreign power as it is in despotisms and oligarchies, but the true expression of the nation; and we need our growing sense of social duty to strengthen its hands for the struggle against the corrupting influences of the selfish materialism which is common to the actual plutocrats at the top of the scale and the would-be plutocrats at the bottom

The actual plutocrats are the more pressing danger, both directly and in view of the savage anarchism they are likely to call out. We are coming to a state of things not unlike the later period of the Roman republic, when an aristocracy of birth was replaced by an oligarchy of wealth, and public opinion was debauched wholesale. We have had samples in South Africa and in America—samples of systematic corruption, of turning men into “hands,” of ruthless crushing-out of adverse opinion—and we shall see worse things than these, unless we have sense enough of social duty to make the State put some limit on the power of the great rings to force their own terms on all who have to deal with them. If we are to advance in the knowledge of God, and not to fall back to the alternative between serfdom for most and anarchy for all, the advance will have to be made in the power of a higher sense than ours of social duty. And it will not be the triumph of organization so many seem to look for. It will have to be won like the advances of the past, by the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of the few who will not worship the golden image

But if the advance of the next age depends on a fuller sense of social duty than we have now, social duty will itself need a fuller vindication than it has now. By this I mean not a higher view of its relation to the individual, though this too is needed, but a fuller sanction. Even those who believe in a divine command will shrink more and more from the crude legalism of resting duty on a bare outside command, without an echo of conscience from within to shew that it is divine. But if man is the image of God, the echo in human nature must echo something in the divine. Can any human duty be firmly established by referring it to human nature only? Can we believe that the social element, which forms so large a part of human nature, has no counterpart at all in the divine? And if such counterpart exists, it must be eternal. The surface drift seems Unitarian in our time, as it was in the third century, and “advanced thinkers” often take it for certain that the religion of the future will be some form of Unitarianism. Were the political outlook different, I might have less difficulty in agreeing with them; but a broader view of history seems to point another way

Polytheism was the religion of civilized peoples in ancient times; and when Monothcism first won its victory, it was necessarily conceived in the forms of the Roman Empire, for indeed the Empire was by far the worthiest image of the kingdom of God yet seen on earth. An idealized emperor was a noble conception of God; but it was too legal, and reflected too much of the weakness and cruelty entailed on the executive by the want of a good police. Such as it was, however, the imperial theory ruled the thoughts of Christendom for ages; and when it began to decay after the fall of the Hohenstaufens, it was followed by six hundred years of makeshifts and wavering. Catholics might look to St. Peter's chair for a worthier image of God on earth, while Protestants devolved on princes the divine right of fallen emperors, and presently the “carpenter theory” came in with a fourth conflicting ideal—that of the great Engineer who lives somewhere away in heaven. But now we seem to have reached firm ground. It appears to be finally settled that all these conceptions are not only defective in their several ways, but radically defective; because they represent God as an outside power acting at intervals only, whereas it is now certain that he is continuously evolving things by immanent law.

But when we ask what there is behind the evolution, only two answers are possible. If we drop religion, it may be the issue of some pantheistic necessity; but if religion is not wholly an illusion, the rigid law cannot express anything short of the perfect love of a Father in heaven. And when we have reached the conception of a divine Fatherhood, we cannot go back on it. Like the appearance of man, it must mark the end of a cycle, for however it may be developed in the future, we cannot expect to see it abandoned for the confessedly poorer ideals of past ages. Now we come to the question that concerns us. The Fatherhood of God is a great and imposing truth; but is it strong enough in its current Unitarian form to bear the increasing burden which a developing society will lay on it? On the contrary, I doubt if we can continue to believe it at all, unless we lay increasing stress on that element of the divine nature which makes such a relation possible. If many signs are not misleading, the battle of the next age will be fought round the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, for the simple reason that it is the only serious theory of religion at present before the world which fully vindicates the social element in human nature, by firmly planting it inside the divine

Varied and far-reaching as the influence of the political development on the conception of the knowledge of God has been, its principle is of the simplest, and can be illustrated in a very few words. That which is unworthy of man cannot be worthy of God; so that a higher estimate of man cannot but bring with it a higher conception of God. For example, if it is not worthy of man to hold slaves, we may be sure that God will not deal with men as slaves. If the modern free state does well in calling for intelligent as well as loyal help from all its members, we know that the kingdom of heaven will do no less. If a good man will not turn away from the appeal of ignorance and misery for help, we may be sure that God will not be deaf to the cry that cometh up from earth to heaven. If a life of selfish happiness is not the ideal of man, neither can we believe in a God who seeks some other glory than the highest welfare of all his creatures.