In his admirably useful summary of the development of English philosophy between the two World Wars Professor J. O. Urmson writes as follows about the latest period of that development:
In place of the dogmatic ‘The meaning of a statement is the method of its verification’, we were now advised ‘Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use’ and told that ‘Every statement has its own logic’.…, The slogan ‘Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use’ warns us to stop asking ‘What is the analysis (the meaning) of this statement?’ expecting to find some equivalent statement;… instead we are to ask what is done by the use of the statement. If, for example, it is unverifiable, then its job is clearly not to describe the world about us, but perhaps it is used for some quite different purpose. We shall find out by finding out what the utterance of that sentence enables us to do.1
This change of front appears to have been dictated by the following train of thought among the reductive empiricists. The logical positivists had held that moral and theological statements were incapable of verification, since the only verification they would acknowledge was by reference to sensory experience. They therefore concluded that these statements have no meaning, since to have a meaning was taken as equivalent to conveying some information about the real world which was assumed to be the world of sensory experience. It now came to be felt, however, that in spite of their telling us nothing about reality, moral (and perhaps also theological) statements did have their uses, and we were encouraged to investigate their nature by asking ourselves what these uses are. The general answer given was that they conveyed something, whether to ourselves or to others, either about our emotions or about our intentions or about both together. But to convey something is to have a meaning; and thus the above-mentioned slogan has come to be understood, not as saying that such statements have no meaning, but rather as saying that we can best understand such meaning as they have, not by seeking it directly, but by approaching it through an examination of the uses we make of them. Thus Professor Braithwaite:
Though a high-minded logical positivist might be prepared to say that all religious statements are sound and fury, signifying nothing, he can hardly say that of all moral statements. For moral statements have a use in guiding conduct; and if they have a use they surely have a meaning in some sense of meaning.2
The difference between the old and the new way of it would then be expressed, not by contrasting meaning and use, but by contrasting the verification-principle with the use-principle.
We have already had occasion to note that Professor Braithwaite prefers to follow the conative rather than the emotive theory of the nature of moral assertions, holding that these are essentially announcements how those who use them intend to act, and further that the only use, and therefore the only meaning, of whatever in religious assertion goes beyond merely moral assertion is that we should be fortified in our intention thus to act by the entertainment in our minds of the stories to which these assertions belong.
My present interest in the use-principle is of a limited and rather special kind. When I say ‘Ask for the use’, I shall have in mind not all possible uses but only usefulness for the practical conduct of our lives; and when I speak of the use of Christian affirmations I shall be thinking of their usefulness as contributing to the frame of reference which serves for the guidance of Christian living. The two things I want to say, then, are that no affirmation has right of place within a system of Christian theology if it has no such usefulness, and that the meaning of any such affirmation is best understood from an examination of the precise difference it would make to the conduct of Christian life if it were not believed or at least if it were deliberately denied.
It will be remembered that in his little book After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy Mr T. S. Eliot includes an appendix in which he explains that his first intention had been to append a graduated Exercise Book, beginning with very simple examples of heresy and leading up to those which are very difficult to solve, and leaving the student to find the answers for himself. On second thoughts, however, he decided to content himself with offering only four examples, the first very elementary, the second only slightly more advanced, but the remaining two among the most advanced that he could find. The fourth is from Professor Macmurray's The Philosophy of Communism (pp. 62–63) and reads as follows:
Any serious criticism of communist philosophy must start by declaring openly how much of its theory is accepted by the critic. I must therefore preface my criticism by saying that I accept the rejection of idealism and the principle of the unity of theory and practice in the sense in which I have expounded it. And since this is the truly revolutionary principle, such an acceptance involves taking one's stand with the tradition of thought deriving from Marx. The negative implications of accepting this fundamental principle go very deep. They include the rejection of all philosophy and all social theory which does not accept this principle, not because of particular objections to their conclusions, but because of a complete break with the assumptions upon which they are based and the purpose which governs their development. They involve the belief that all theory must seek verification in action and adapt itself to the possibility of experiment. They make a clean sweep of speculative thought on the ground that the validity of no belief whatever is capable of demonstration by argument. They involve a refusal at any point to make knowledge an end in itself, and equally, the rejection of the desire for certainty which is the motive governing speculative thought.
I do not now propose to submit myself to this test in the practice of detection, except in one particular which is of interest for our present argument. ‘All theory’, Professor Macmurray here says, ‘must find verification in action.’ I have already quoted from his Gifford Lectures the dictum that ‘All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship’, and I may now add this further sentence from the same volume, ‘If we can understand, to whatever extent, what difference would be made in our intention if we acted in the belief that a certain proposition were true, then that proposition has a meaning.’3 All this is very like what I have myself been saying; and I agree with it all, if by action is meant not merely active intervention in the created physical and human order, but the total response of our spirits—whether in worship, meditation and prayer, or in sentiments and deeds of love—to the universal reality with which we are confronted, human and divine. Perhaps this is what Professor Macmurray has in mind, though I do not think it is what Marx had in mind. Yet in still another of his books, The Structure of Religious Experience, while he speaks of God as ‘that infinite person in which our finite human relationships have their ground and their being’,4 he tends to write as if the primary reference of religious experience were to our inter-human relationships, the idea of God being no more than an implicate of these. ‘The focus of all human experience is’, he says, ‘to be found in our relations to one another’; and religion
arises from our ordinary experience of living in the world in relation with other people, and to that experience it refers.… So soon as this fact of our relationship to others is brought to focus in reflective consciousness, religion is born. The only way to avoid religion is to avoid the consciousness that we are members of the community.5
But I can accept this, and can differentiate the Christian view from the too humanist Marxist one, only if this community is understood as being a community or communion with God. Certainly I cannot enjoy communion with him unless I am at the same time in communion with my fellow men, but the primary truth is the converse one that, as was declared in the ‘Message’ issued by the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948, ‘In seeking Him, we find one another’. My own contention then is that no doctrine has right of place within our Christian theology unless we can show that the denial of it would disturb or distort the pattern of our Christian sharing in that koinōnia of agapē which goes back to Pentecost and which I have described as a triangular system of relationships between the triune God, ourselves and our fellows. The word koinōnia in this specific sense, wrote Dr Anderson Scott in a memorable essay on ‘What Happened at Pentecost’, to which I wish to acknowledge my great indebtedness for the understanding of this whole matter, ‘would appear to denote a fellowship which was not merely a fellowship of believers inter se, nor yet a fellowship of the believers individually with the Spirit, but a complex experience which included both’.6 But the primacy belongs to the relationship with the Spirit. To St Paul the koinōnia is ‘the fellowship of the Spirit’,7 or alternatively ‘the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’8 into which God has graciously called us; and the unity which is enjoyed in it is ‘the unity of the Spirit’.9
I cannot but here remember how my late brother Donald was always saying to me that the challenge addressed to us by so many of our contemporaries in regard to a particular Christian doctrine, if not indeed to the system of doctrine as a whole, was not so much ‘Is it true?’ as ‘What is its relevance?’ He himself gave much time to the counselling of young students in his own University, and again and again would find himself confronted with the question: ‘What practical difference does it make to me whether or not I believe this traditional dogma, or whether or not it is true?’ The average student was not a metaphysician or even a theologian, and much of what the theologians were saying appeared strangely remote from his vital concerns, having about it an air of unreality.
Those who have been nurtured from early youth in a doctrinal piety are less likely to feel this difficulty, and certainly have less excuse for doing so, since they have had long opportunity of observing how doctrine and piety are inter-related in the life of the pious community. Yet not a few who have enjoyed this privilege today find themselves in much the same case as their less fortunate neighbours. This is due to a complexity of reasons. For one thing, it is probable that some things taught by the theologians are not properly relevant to the Christian concern. Many of the early Fathers of the Church inherited, together with the New Testament teaching, a strong interest in the problems raised and the methods employed by Greek metaphysics, and though this was undeniably of invaluable service to them both in providing categories for a further understanding of the intellectual implications of their Christian faith and in enabling them to relate it to the other activities of the human mind, yet they were misled into making that faith itself appear far too much as an affair of the intellect, as if it were in its own essence a metaphysical system. The later history of natural theology clearly testifies to the continuing presence of this danger. But further, this too intellectualist approach persisted even among those theologians who, as has been the case of so many Protestant thinkers, turned aside from natural theology, virtually confining themselves to what was called revealed theology. How many expositions of a Christian dogma have we read, or even listened to from the pulpit, which altogether failed to make clear to us why it was important that we should accept it, beyond perhaps the general statement, to which less and less credit is apt to be given in our own time, that if we did not we should be damned eternally! I call this latter a general statement, and an unconvincing one at that, because it offers no insight into just how the presence in our assenting minds of the particular dogma in question is suited to exercise a beneficent effect upon our spiritual well-being either in this life or any other.
Take for example the doctrines that there are three Persons in the one Godhead and that the second of these has two natures in his one Person. These shadow forth fundamental Christian convictions such as I believe to be most intimately relevant to the daily conduct of the Christian life, but they require much interpretation and even restatement before the typical modern mind can grasp that relevance. They were built up in a post-apostolic period of Christian thought, though, as we are accustomed to say, the ‘materials’ for the building of them are already present in the apostolic teaching. Yet that teaching itself stands only less in need of translation—translation not merely of word but of idea—if the men of our time are to grasp what it portends. The thought-forms by means of which the apostolic authors were enabled to receive the revelation vouchsafed to them were those which stood ready to their hand. Belonging as they did to that time and place, they were also those that would be most readily understood by the men and women to whom the apostles addressed themselves, but except in the one context of traditional Christian preaching they have long ceased to form any part of the furniture of the Western mind. Grave damage has therefore been done to the Christian cause, not only by those of our evangelists who still recoil from any attempt at retranslation, but also by the belatedness of such valiant attempts as have now in fact been made. How many great and good men of nineteenth-century England, to go no further afield, found themselves forced to repudiate virtually the whole of Christian dogma!
I think, among many others, of Thomas Carlyle, of Matthew Arnold, of Arthur Hugh Clough, of John Stuart Mill, of James Anthony Froude, of Frederic Harrison, of William Hale White (better known as ‘Mark Rutherford’), of Thomas Hardy, of Leslie Stephen, of Henry Sidgwick, of John Morley. Most of these men were fundamentally Christian in temper and were of a quality of mind and spirit that would have made them distinguished servants of the Church in another age: Edmund Chambers wrote of Clough ‘He is a sceptic who by nature should have been with the believers’;10 Lord David Cecil has written of Hardy as ‘one of the most Christian spirits that ever lived’;11 it was said of Morley by one of his most intimate friends ‘They call him agnostic, but he lived Christianity’;12 and of Sidgwick it used to be said in Cambridge that ‘he exhibited every Christian virtue except faith’. Most of them, like the Arthur Henry Hallam whose struggles led Tennyson to believe that ‘there lives more faith in honest doubt… than in half the creeds’, struggled no less painfully than he; though alas, of none of them could it be said that ‘At last he beat his music out’ or that
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own.13
We may indeed wonder that men who, besides being endowed with so much of Christian sentiment as these, possessed also such penetrating intellects, showed so little understanding for the profound truths that underlay the inherited and time-conditioned formulae. Yet we can hardly find it in our hearts to reproach them, since they received so little help to this end from the Christian believers of their time. There were indeed ‘liberal’ Christian thinkers like Benjamin Jowett and Thomas Arnold, but theirs was a liberalism of so wide (and withal of so faultily designed) a mesh that many of the profoundest elements of the Christian revelation largely escaped it; and of this not a few of the doubters I have mentioned were aware, protesting that this diluted version of Christianity was no easier of acceptance by the intellect than the old one, while at the same time failing to provide that easement of the spirit, that satisfaction of heart and soul, which the old one, if only it could be believed, was well fitted to bestow.
Of course at the bottom of all this distress of mind and ‘honest doubt’ lay the difficulty of synthesizing the insight into reality contained in the Christian revelation with the very different type and body of insight which has been ours since the Aufklärung or, let us say, since the days of Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Newton and Locke. It is a difficulty well understood by many of ourselves who, having in early youth been nurtured in a traditional orthodoxy, were soon afterwards subjected to a modern education at school and college—an education almost the whole of whose direction derived from the Aufklärung. The thinkers of the patristic period were able to synthesize the faith of the New Testament with the wisdom of the Greeks in a way that satisfied most of the intellectuals of that age; and the so-called ‘medieval synthesis’, as fashioned by the doctors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, performed a like office for the men of the earlier Renaissance, but there has been long delay in reaching a workable synthesis between what as Christians we believe and the scientific outlook of the modern world which most of us also share. Brave attempts in this direction are now being made, not a few of them by recent Gifford lectures, but though the nineteenth century had already witnessed some such attempts, these proved largely abortive, so that we cannot wonder that so many of its most intelligent sons never reached the fulfilment of their prayer ‘That mind and soul, according well, May make one music as before, But vaster’.14
It will be understood that my immediate concern in offering such an analysis of our present distress has been to expose some of the reasons why so many of our contemporaries profess difficulty in understanding the relevance of much that is given them in the name of Christian doctrine. I have already sufficiently declared my conviction that their demand to be shown the practical bearing of every detail of such doctrine is not only an entirely legitimate one but also a most encouraging sign of their awareness of the real issue at stake. I hope and believe that we are now doing more to satisfy this demand than our forefathers ever did, being less speculatively theological in our exposition of the Christian faith and more concerned to bring out what Kierkegaard taught us to call its ‘existential’ significance for the active conduct of our lives and the solution of the problems we have every day to face. The earliest Protestant Reformers, with their impatience of medieval scholasticism, did indeed move most significantly in this direction. I think especially of Luther and the Melanchthon of the first edition of the Loci Communes, with their declaration that Christum cognoscere est beneficia eius cognoscere and with Luther's saying that ‘The heart of religion lies in its personal pronouns’. While this initial impulse was largely lost in the Protestant scholasticism of the succeeding age, it burgeoned again in the best of the English Puritans—the so-called ‘experimental’ Puritans who were concerned always with the bearing of the doctrine they enounced on the inward personal life of the believer; and at a later date in Pietism and Wesleyanism and the other movements of evangelical revival. But in the first place, these were all addressing generations of men to whom the doctrines were quite familiar and who had in general no difficulty in giving a purely intellectual assent to them, so that the task of the preacher was less to show why the doctrines should be accepted than to summon those who already accepted them with their intellects to apply them each to his own case. But in the second place, the application they had in mind was far too narrowly conceived. It was a very other-worldly application, and in consequence a very individualistic one, while above all it remained all but wholly oblivious to the new movements of thought and insight that were already rapidly developing in the modern mind, and consequently offered no guidance as to the relation of these to the Christian faith.
With this we may now contrast the approach to Christian doctrine represented by such a contemporary theologian as Reinhold Niebuhr. He consistently defends what he likes to call the ‘classical’ Christian teaching against all reductive ‘liberal’ versions of it, but he defends it precisely by exhibiting its detailed relevance to the situation in which modern man now finds himself—a relevance which extends not only to what (in Whitehead's phrase15) ‘the individual does with his own solitariness’ but to every phase of our corporate and public life. In his Gifford Lectures Dr Niebuhr has something to say under most of the familiar heads of Christian doctrine—the creation of man in the image of God, original righteousness, the Fall and original sin, the Atonement, the Parousia, the resurrection, the Last Judgement and many another, but in each case his endeavour is to show how only within the frame of these conceptions can we reach a satisfying adjustment to our human situation and a right-minded attitude to the various exigencies with which in our time we are faced. He seems to be saying that if any least detail of that frame is ignored or rejected, the result is likely to be a dangerously false and over-simplified solution of this or that social or even international problem.
I remember hearing it said when the lectures were being delivered that Dr Niebuhr's defence of a particular dogma was always an ‘indirect’ one, that he neither offered arguments for its truth of the kind to which the old natural theologians had accustomed us nor yet, in the manner of the old revelational theologians, appealed for its establishment to the authority of Biblical and patristic texts and ecclesiastical pronouncements, but was content to demonstrate that without its controlling presence in our minds some distortion of our Christian life-in-community was bound to ensue. Moreover, at the same time I heard the question asked whether the lecturer was really as much concerned for the ultimate truth of the dogma as he ought to be. If this question had been put with regard to those who, like Hardy, Santayana and Professor Braithwaite, are satisfied to regard Christian dogmas as imaginative constructions whose entertainment in the mind stimulates us to a more faithful adherence to such resolves as even without their aid we were able to make, the answer would have to be in the negative. But with Dr Niebuhr it is not so. If I understand him aright, his concern is both to clarify the meaning of the doctrine and at the same time to justify its truth by the demonstration that only by its means can we attain to a realistic understanding of our human situation as it actually exists, all alternative doctrines being the victims of illusion, of self-deception or, if you like, of wishful thinking.
Many examples of this procedure might be quoted from his pages, but I must content myself with one, which he prints under the heading ‘A Synthesis of Reformation and Renaissance’, and which I select because it illustrates his keen awareness of the need of such a synthesis.
The defeatism of the Lutheran, and the tendency towards obscurantism in the Calvinist, Reformation must be regarded as a contributory cause of defeat of the Reformation by the Renaissance. It failed to relate the ultimate answers of grace to the problem of guilt to all the immediate and intermediate problems and answers of life. Therefore it did not illumine the possibilities and limits of realizing increasing truth and goodness in every conceivable historic and social situation.
This defeatism is only a contributory cause of its defeat because the general atmosphere of historical optimism in the past centuries seemed to refute even what was true in the Reformation; just as it seemed to validate both what was true and what was false in the Renaissance. There was, therefore, little inclination to discriminate between the true and the false emphases in the Reformation; between the truth of its ultimate view of life and history and its failure to relate this truth helpfully to intermediate issues of culture and social organization.
But when we are confronted with the task of re-orienting the culture of our day, it becomes important to discriminate carefully between what was true and what was false in each movement. There is of course a strong element of presumption in the effort to make such judgements which will seem intolerable to those who disagree with them; and which can be tolerable even to those who find them validated, at least partially, by contemporary history, only if it is recognized that they are made in ‘fear and trembling’.
The course of modern history has, if our reading of it be at all correct, justified the dynamic, and refuted the optimistic, interpretation contained in the various modern religious and cultural movements, all of which are internally related to each other in what we have defined broadly as ‘Renaissance’. It has by the same token validated the basic truth of the Reformation but challenged its obscurantism and defeatism on all immediate and intermediate issues of life.…
No apology is necessary for assigning so great a pedagogical significance to the lessons of history. The truth contained in the Gospel not found in human wisdom. Yet it may be found at the point where human wisdom and human goodness acknowledge their limits; and creative despair induces faith. Once faith is induced, it becomes truly the wisdom which makes ‘sense’ out of a life and a history which would otherwise remain senseless.16
To complete the argument of this chapter, let us now briefly examine the measure of justice in Kant's constantly reiterated injunction against employing for the extension of our theoretic or speculative knowledge the conceptions of super-sensible reality which we are led by faith to entertain. It will be understood from what has already been said that we cannot accept his denial of the name of knowledge to these conceptions nor his doubts concerning the ontological status of their objects, but I believe there lies valuable insight behind his contention—a contention which he was the first clearly to formulate—that they are not of such a kind as to allow us to rest speculative conclusions upon them, making them the foundations of a metaphysical scheme.
The objects of faith are all apprehended by us in a mode of knowing which, though it may be accompanied by full conviction, nevertheless falls far short of full comprehension. Our thought can reach up to them, but we cannot, as it were, get our thought round them. We see them only ‘as in a mirror dimly’, and therefore our notions of them are never adequate to their essential nature. The pulse of certainty beats throughout the whole of our Christian knowledge, but we can never quite capture it for our particular formulations. It was with this acknowledgement that our whole argument began, and we subsequently found much confirmation of it in the utterances of theologians of different schools, as for instance that all theological statements are dialectical in nature, that the deus revelatus remains to the end a deus absconditus, that we do not know God per se but only quoad nos, and that in our theologizing we are all the time dealing with mysteries that we do not fully understand. In plain words, the light of revelation that has been vouchsafed to us is never enough to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, though it is a light sufficient to illuminate our way, so that we can see to do the work we were meant to do and to adjust ourselves to the situation in which by the will of God we have been placed within the human society but also within the cosmic immensity. Had the true end of our being been ‘knowledge for knowledge's sake’, we should no doubt have a right to grumble at such a divine disposition of things; but if our end is the love and service of God, we cannot justly demand more light until we have better used the light we already have. If indeed, in Keats's phrase, this world is something like ‘a vale of soul-making’,17 then the very limitation of our possible knowledge may be seen as an indispensable part of the probation to which God is subjecting us. Many Christian thinkers have seen it so, and it is interesting to note that Kant saw it so also. He concludes his discussion of the limits of our knowledge in the second Critique with the section entitled ‘Of the Wise Adaptation of Man's Cognitive Faculties to his Practical Destination’, and his last words of all are that ‘the unsearchable wisdom by which we exist is not less worthy of admiration for what it has denied us than for what it has granted us’.18
It was Kant's keen awareness of this that made him so content, perhaps in his case too readily content, to be forced to ‘abolish Wissen to make room for Glaube’. But indeed it had already been put forward as a cardinal truth by Bishop Butler in the last of his Fifteen Sermons, which bears the title ‘Upon the Ignorance of Man’. Our condition in this world, he says, is a school of self-discipline, and there would have been insufficient opportunity for the exercise of such discipline if we had what he calls complete sensible evidence of the truth of what we believe by faith.
The strict discharge of our duty with less sensible evidence does imply in it a better character than the same diligence in discharge of it upon more sensible evidence. This fully accounts for and explains that assertion of our Saviour, ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’… If to acquire knowledge were our proper end, we should indeed be but poorly provided: but if somewhat else be our business and duty, we may, notwithstanding our ignorance, be well enough furnished for it; and the observation of our ignorance may be of assistance to us in our discharge of it.
The classical dogmas of the Church, as set forth in the decisions of the ecumenical councils, the confessions and dogmatic theologies, are all attempts to gather up, to relate to each other, and to present in precise formulae, the various elements of insight into reality which are native to the Christian faith as such. Their purpose was one of conservation and defence, that faith might be saved from corruption, and not least from the intrusion of such alien elements as would give a wrong direction to the practice of Christian piety. If the accepted formulae now appear to us to be too speculative in nature, it is because they were preceded by other constructions which would have disturbed and distorted that practice. In Whitehead's words which I have elsewhere quoted: ‘Wherever there is a creed, there is a heretic round the corner or in his grave.’19 The formulae were certainly speculative to the extent that they were in the nature of logical deductions from faith's more immediate utterances. These deductions had to be drawn by the aid of such categories of intellectual understanding as were available in that time and place, categories that had for the most part been provided by Greek philosophy and were shared by the heretics whom it was hoped to confound by the use of the very same tools they themselves had used. Such have been the changes in philosophic thought between that day and our own that contemporary theologians do not easily work within these categories, yet they will often be heard to say something like the following: ‘We should not put things that way today, but that way of putting it served the purpose of its own time. Of the alternative formulations that were possible within the thought-forms then available the Church did actually in each case choose the better ones.’ Not a few such contemporary theologians have, however, tried their hands at reshaping the accepted solutions in terms of the very different thought-forms now more generally current among us, or even in terms of one particular modern metaphysical system, like those of Hegel or Bergson or Whitehead. It cannot be denied that for the time being the ‘problem of communication’ has in this way been frequently eased. How many intellectuals in the England of the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, were saved from complete unbelief by reshaping the Christian dogma in terms of Hegelian idealism! If they were Hegelians in their philosophy, they were partly justified in doing this, though we could have wished that they had rather used such Christian insight as they possessed to save them from the errors of their Hegelianism. As I have already contended and as I think we should all agree, we moderns must do everything we can to understand how our modern outlook hangs together with our Christian faith. Yet we must also allow for a certain looseness of connexion between the two, especially if in ‘our modern outlook’ we include not only the general spirit animating science but its currently prevailing findings; and more especially still if we include in it a particular metaphysical system to which we have attached ourselves. These findings and that system must, if we are wise, be regarded as strictly provisional, destined to be superseded by others in their turn, perhaps very quickly. A too close linkage between them and our faith, while it may yield us present easement and a readier address to the men of our own generation, will be all the more likely to hinder our Christian communication with the men of a later time. Let us then, taking a lesson from past experience, beware of creating for our successors another such distressful situation as our fathers created for us when they not only assumed the finality of the old dogmatic definitions (determined as they were by the prevailing categories) but even made the Christian's unqualified intellectual acceptance of them a test of his loyalty to his Lord and Master.
But the point on which I am most anxious to insist is that, because the dogmas so defined cannot, in spite of the wisdom and skill which went to the making of them and which made them so excellently suited to their practical purpose, be regarded as possessing the type of theoretical adequacy to which we are accustomed in philosophic discourse, we cannot safely proceed from them to further inferences of a theoretical kind. They are themselves deductions from the primary perceptions of faith, but they have not the character of metaphysical propositions and must not be treated as such. St Athanasius himself, well aware of the purpose it was intended to serve, described the Nicene Creed as a notice-board set up to preserve Christian thinking against all the heresies that were then threatening it (sthlografi,a kata. pasw/n ai`re,sewn). If we are minded to reach a fuller theoretical understanding, it is therefore safer to go back to the original foundations, resting it once more upon faith's primary insight rather than upon the dogmas that were so long ago formulated for the preservation of that insight.
I have italicized that sentence, because it expresses exactly the conclusion I desire to draw. Let us give point to it by means of a particular example. The controversies which so violently agitated the Church of the patristic period, and which issued in the ecumenical definitions, mainly concerned the closely related dogmas of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. The dogma of the Trinity was in essence an attempt to think together three elements that had from the beginning been present in the faith and worship of Christians. That faith took its rise on Hebrew soil and among men who had been nurtured in the uncompromising monolatry, if not monotheism, of the Hebrew prophets. Nothing, therefore, could make these waver in their conviction that there is but one true God who alone must be worshipped. Yet now they found themselves irresistibly constrained to worship Jesus. This, however, could only be if his relation to God was such that in worshipping him they were at the same time worshipping God. Clearly they could not simply identify this Man whom they had known in the flesh and who had died on the Cross with the God of their fathers to whom also he himself prayed; yet just as clearly they could not, without lapsing into ditheism, regard him as other than that one God. Moreover, Jesus had now ‘gone away’.20 When the disciples met on the Day of Pentecost, their Lord was no longer with them as he had been with them in the days of his flesh. But now they found another Presence in their midst, ‘another Helper, the Spirit of truth’,21 whom they were likewise impelled to worship, yet whom they could not, without lapsing now into tritheism, regard as simply other than the God of their fathers, nor yet as simply other than the Jesus with whom they had lately companied. Thus from Pentecost onwards the Christians found themselves worshipping a God who was One but at the same time Three in One, and the later dogmas of the Trinity and the Person of Christ are attempts to express this in terms which would preserve it against every wayward direction of thought which tended to simplification at the expense of truth. My revered teacher, H. R. Mackintosh, has written:
History alone, then, is our true point of departure; but when men call a halt at the outer boundary of historical experience on the ground that to transcend fact is to speculate, and that speculation is injurious to faith, it must be answered that all such proscription is unavailing. In the first place, men will persist in thinking… It is, moreover, illegitimate to insist on restricting the Christian mind to the supremely practical language of the first disciples, whether on the Trinity or on any other aspect of the creed.… We search the New Testament in vain for theories; but assuredly we encounter great vital data which it is our duty to cross-examine and explicate and synthesize without being too much concerned with the recurrent charge of having strayed into the domain of metaphysic.22
Yet such cross-examination and explication and synthesizing is carried on, as it were, at our own risk and peril. We cannot think that even the first formulations in which it issues are entirely free from error. But if we then attempt to build further inferences upon these earlier ones, this error will be multiplied, and the further we proceed with this process, the greater and more numerous our errors are likely to be; for the farther a chain of reasoning travels from the experienced facts on which it founds, the greater is the chance that it is leading us astray.
Let me conclude by quoting the following paragraph from a scholarly Anglican work of some sixty years ago:
For example, it was not until Sabellianism attacked the Tripersonality of the Godhead, extending the unity of nature into a unity of person, that the Church found it necessary to co-ordinate her belief in the Deity of the Son and of the Spirit with her intellectual hold upon Monotheism. Nor was it until Arius rationalistically denied the Eternal Divinity of the Word that she had to discover terms in which to express her faith in the essential unity of the Father and the Son which embraced without destroying the Personal distinctness. Similarly, it was due to the attacks of Apollinarius, Nestorius and Eutyches upon the completeness of either the Humanity or the Divinity of her Lord that the Church was led to work out the right expression of her belief in the Two Perfect Natures united in His own Divine Personality.23
‘Notice-boards against all heresies’ were thus exactly what these dogmas were. It is for this purpose that they were framed, and in arguing for the limitation that it imposes upon their use, I have perhaps sufficiently explained the sense in which I would here apply the Kantian injunction against employing for the further extension of our metaphysical knowledge those ideas of supersensible reality which our faith nevertheless obliges us to entertain.24