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Studies in the Philosophy of Religion

1921 to 1923
University of Edinburgh

In chapter 1, the author defines the scope of ‘philosophy of religion’, that philosophy is an attempt to give the synoptic view of things and religion is a ‘historical and psychological phenomenon’ in all its manifestations. History of religion is therefore crucial in providing the data for the study of the philosophy of religion. In chapter 2, he examines the relationship between religion and magic. Sir James Frazer’s argument that ‘An age of Religion has everywhere been preceded by an Age of Magic’ is discussed. Frazer’s thesis of the affinity of magic to science and their common opposition to religion is examined against Jevons and Durkheim, who sought to base the distinction between religion and magic on the social and communal character of the former and the individualistic or antisocial character of the latter. Chapter 3 is a critique of the Durkheim school of French sociologists, whose studies of religion among the Australian aborigines (clan religion and totemism) have reduced the religious as identical with the social. In chapter 4, he further examines the communal and social character of early religion and makes the claim that religion is a moral force in its rudest forms. In chapter 5, Pringle-Pattison explains the nature of ancestor-worship and nature-worship as driven by an animistic theory of the existence of spirits in nature, animals and objects, and by the fear of malevolent spirits. It highlights the significance of the Greek religion in making the transformation from finding the divine in objects furthest removed from humanity to worshipping humanized Gods. Chapter 6 relates how the religion of Greece humanizes its gods, as dramatised in Greek mythology. Chapter 7 examines the contribution of Greek philosophy, especially of Plato’s Timaeus, in bringing an ethical dimension to the Greek and other religions.

Chapter 8 is an account of the religion of people of Israel as a development from a tribal monolatry (worshipping own god without denying the existence of other gods) to a spiritual monotheism (upholding the God worshipped as the only true God). The experience of history was operative in this development, and Israel’s monotheistic faith was born out of the sublimating effect of the exilic crisis. Chapter 9 assesses the respective roles of the priest and the prophet in shaping Judaism. The author affirms the Law and the Prophets as two sides, two aspects, of the same religion, and that the priestly Law did not supplant, but succeeded in realising, the inward piety of the prophetic religion. Chapter 10 reviews the attempts of other ancient civilizations in establishing monotheism: the Egyptian Pharaoh Ikhnaton’s temple in Aton in fourteenth century B.C.; the Babylonian pantheon and King Hammurabi’s famous Code of Laws as a divine code; and the teaching of Zoroaster (circa 660 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) in Persia against polytheistic nature-worship and for a complete ethicizing religious belief. No evidence suggests that the religious development of Israel (from monolatry to monotheism) owed anything of importance to her powerful neighbours. However, the influence of Zoroastrian eschatology in apocalyptic is evident in Judaism and, consequently, in Christianity, and chapter 11 traces the Zoroastrian influence.

Chapters 12–17 analyse the development of Christianity from the ‘Historic Jesus’ to ‘The Christ of the Creeds’. Chapter 12 highlights the irresistible sense of vocation of the historic Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. This vocation consisted in fulfilling his messianic mission, which was epitomised by the coming of the kingdom of God. This kingdom is a spiritual experience; an attitude of the mind attainable under present conditions. Chapter 13 examines the familiar criticism since Lessing of the distinction between the religion of Jesus himself and the Christian religion founded in his name. The chapter discusses how the first community of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem were seen as a Jewish sect, in that they interpreted the historic Jesus as the Messiah who had come to fulfil the prophecy in the Jewish tradition. Chapter 14 traces how the historic Jesus became Christ the Saviour under Paul’s incarnational Christology, and highlights the fundamental difference in the conception of Christ between Paul (Christ as a preexisting heavenly being) and the original disciples (Christ started life as a human being). Chapter 15 accounts for the term ‘Christian’ as first used to denote the Gentile converts in Antioch. It traces the confession of the first disciples whereby ‘Jesus is the Christ’, to St Paul’s formula of ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, asserting Christ as the only true God in the general drift towards monotheism in the Hellenistic world. Through the Christian rites of Baptism and the Supper, Paul drew on the common fund of ideas from mystery religions then current to ‘smooth the way for the spread of Christianity’. Chapter 16 focuses on the Fourth Gospel and discusses how St John was influenced by the Alexandrian method of allegory and symbol, which allowed John to use the historical as a vehicle for the spiritual truths he wanted to convey as a combat against the heresies of Docetism and agnosticism. Chapter 17 is a brief account of ‘The Christ of the Creeds’, tracing the rise of heresies to the formulation of the Athanasian creed, which brought with it the problem of the ‘two natures’ in one ‘person’. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) and the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680) were attempts to deal with this problem of the ‘two natures’ in Christ. Pringle-Pattison sees this problem as inevitable given the ‘latent materialism’ in Greek theology, and concludes that ‘the lesson of Christianity is that we have to think of God in terms of Christ—sub specie Christi’.

  • Heidi Poon, University of Edinburgh