Literature and Dogma/Chapter IX

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Literature and Dogma by Matthew Arnold
Chapter IX



Miracles, and, above all, the crowning miracles of the Resurrection and Ascension to be followed by the second Advent, were from the first firmly fixed as parts of the disciples' belief. 'Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him, and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him!'[1] As time went on, and Christianity spread wider and wider among the multitudes, and with less and less of control from the personal influence of Jesus, Christianity developed more and more its side of miracle and legend; until to believe Jesus to be the Son of God meant to believe the points of the legend,—his preternatural conception and birth, his miracles, his descent into hell, his bodily resurrection, his ascent into heaven, and his future triumphant return to judgment. And these and like matters are what popular religion drew forth from the records of Jesus as the essentials of belief. These essentials got embodied in a short formulary; and so the creed which is called the Apostles' Creed came together.

It is not the apostles' creed, for it took more than five hundred years to grow to maturity. It was not the creed of any single doctor or body of doctors, but it was a sort of summary of Christianity which the people, the Church at large, would naturally develope; it is the popular science of Christianity. Given the alleged charge: 'Go ye and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,'[2] and the candidate for baptism would naturally come to have a profession of faith to make respecting that whereinto he was baptized; this profession of faith would naturally become just, such a summary as the Apostles' Creed. It contains no mention of either the 'method' or the 'secret,' it is occupied entirely with external facts; and it may be safely said, not only that such a summary of religious faith could never have been delivered by Jesus, but it could never have been adopted as adequate by any of his principal apostles, by Peter, or Paul, or John. But it is, as we have said, the popular science of Christianity.

Years proceeded. The world came into Christianity; the world, and the world's educated people, and the educated people's Aryan genius with its turn for making religion a metaphysical conception; and all this in a time of declining criticism, a time when the possibility of true scientific criticism, in any direction whatever, was lessening rather than increasing. The popular science was found not elaborate enough to satisfy. Ingenious men took its terms and its data, and applied to them, not an historical criticism showing how they arose, but abstruse metaphysical conceptions. And so we have the so-called Nicene Creed, which is the learned science of Christianity, as the Apostles' Creed is the popular science.

Now, how this learned science is related to the Bible we shall feel, if we compare the religious utterances of its doctors with the religious utterances of the Bible. Suppose, for instance, we compare with the Psalms the Soliloquies of St. Augustine, a truly great and religious man; and of St. Augustine, not in school and controversy, but in religious soliloquy. St. Augustine prays: 'Come to my help, thou one God, one eternal true substance, where is no discrepancy, no confusion, no transience, no indigency, no death; where is supreme concord, supreme evidence, supreme constancy, supreme plenitude, supreme life; where nothing is lacking, nothing is over and above; where he who begets and he who is begotten of him are one; God, above whom is no thing, outside whom is nothing, without whom is nothing; God, beneath whom is the whole, in whom is the whole, with whom is the whole…hearken, hearken, hearken unto me, my God, my Lord; open thy door unto me that knock!' And a further Book of Soliloquies, popularly ascribed to St. Augustine and printed with his works, but probably of a later date and author, shows the full-blown development of all this, shows the inevitable results of bringing to the idea of God this play of intellectual fancy so alien to the Bible. The passages we will quote take evidently their inspiration from the words of St. Augustine just given, and retain even in some degree his very forms of expression: 'Holy Trinity, superadmirable Trinity, and superinenarrable, and superinscrutable, and superinaccessible, superincomprehensible, superintelligible, superessential, superessentially surpassing all sense, all reason, all intellect, all intelligence, all essence of supercelestial minds; which can neither be said, nor thought, nor understood, nor known even by the eyes of angels!' And again, more practically, but still in the same style: 'O three co-equal and co-eternal Persons, one and true God, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, who by thyself inhabitest eternity and light inaccessible, who hast founded the earth in thy power, and rulest the world by thy prudence, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, terrible and strong, just and merciful, admirable, laudable, amiable, one God, three persons, one essence, power, wisdom, goodness, one and undivided Trinity, open unto me that cry unto Thee the gates of righteousness!'

And now compare this with the Bible:—Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee, for thou art my God! let thy loving spirit lead me forth into the land of righteousness![3] That is Israel's way of praying! that is how a poor ill-endowed Semite, belonging to the occipital races, unhelped by the Aryan genius and ignorant that religion is a metaphysical conception, talks religion! and we see what a different thing he makes of it.

But, finally, the original Semite fell more and more into the shade. The Aryans came to the front, the notion of religion being a metaphysical conception prevailed. But the doctors differed in their metaphysics; and the doctors who conquered enshrined their victorious form of metaphysics in a creed, the so-called Creed of St. Athanasius, which is learned science like the Nicene Creed, but learned science which has fought and got ruffled by fighting, and is fiercely dictatorial now that it has won; learned science with a strong dash of violent and vindictive temper. Thus we have the three creeds: the so-called Apostles' Creed, popular science; the Nicene Creed, learned science; the Athanasian Creed, learned science with a strong dash of temper. And the two latter are founded on the first, taking its data just as they stand, but dressing them metaphysically.

Now this first Creed is founded on a supposed final charge from Jesus to his apostles: 'Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!'[4] It explains and expands what Jesus here told his apostles to baptize the world into. But we have already remarked the difference in character between the narrative, in the Gospels, of what happened before Christ's death, and the narrative of what happened after it. For all words of Jesus placed after his death, the internal evidence becomes pre-eminently important. He may well have said words attributed to him, but not then. So the speech to Thomas, 'Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed; blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed!'[5] may quite well have been a speech of Jesus uttered on some occasion during his life, and then transferred to the story of the days after his resurrection and made the centre of this incident of the doubt of Thomas. On the other hand, again, the prophecy of the details of Peter's death[6] is almost certainly an addition after the event, because it is not at all in the manner of Jesus. What is in his manner, and what he had probably at some time said, are the words given elsewhere: 'Whither I go thou canst not follow me now, but thou shalt follow me afterwards.'[7] So, too, it is extremely improbable that Jesus should have ever charged his apostles to 'baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.' There is no improbability in his investing them with a very high commission. He may perfectly well have said: 'Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted; whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.'[8] But it is almost impossible he can have given this charge to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; it is by far too systematic and what people are fond of calling an anachronism. It is not the least like what Jesus was in the habit of saying, and it is just like what would be attributed to him as baptism and its formula grew in importance. The genuine charge of Jesus to his apostles was, almost certainly: 'As my Father sent me, even so send I you,'[9] and not this. So that our three creeds, and with them the whole of our so-called orthodox theology, are founded upon words which Jesus in all probability never uttered.


We may leave all questions about the Church, its rise, and its organisation, out of sight altogether. Much as is made of them, they are comparatively unimportant. Jesus never troubled himself with what are called Church matters at all; his attention was fixed solely upon the individual. His apostles did what was necessary, as such matters came to require a practical notice and arrangement; but to the apostles, too, they were still quite secondary. The Church grew into something quite different from what they or Jesus had, or could have had, any thought of. But this was of no importance in itself; and how believers should organise their society as circumstances changed, circumstances themselves might very well decide.

The one important question was and is, how believers laid and kept hold on the revelations contained in the Bible; because for the sake of these it confessedly is, that every church exists. Even the apostles, we have seen, did not lay hold on them perfectly. In their attachment to miracles, in the prominence they gave to the crowning miracles of Christ's bodily resurrection and second advent, they went aside from the saving doctrine of Jesus themselves, and were sure,—which was worse,—to make others go aside from it ten thousand times more. But they were too near to Jesus not to have been able to preserve the main lines of his teaching, to preserve his way of using words; and they did, in fact, preserve them.

But at their death the immediate remembrance of Jesus faded away, and whatever Aberglaube the apostles themselves had had and sanctioned was left to work without check. And, at the same time, the world and society presented conditions constantly less and less favourable to sane criticism. And it was then, and under these conditions, that the dogma which is now called orthodox, and which our dogmatic friends imagine to be purely a methodical arrangement of the admitted facts of Christianity, grew up. We have shown from the thing itself, by putting the dogma in comparison with the genuine teaching of Jesus, how little it is this; but it is well to make clear to oneself, also (for one can), from the circumstances of the case, that it could not be this.

For dogmatic theology is, in fact, an attempt at both literary and scientific criticism of the highest order; and the age which developed dogma had neither the resources nor the faculty for such a criticism. It is idle to talk of the theological instinct, the analogy of faith, as if by the mere occupation with a limited subject-matter one could reach the truth about it. It is as if one imagined that by the mere study of Greek we could reach the truth about the origin of Greek words, and dogmatise about them; and could appeal to our supposed possession, through our labours, of the philological instinct, the analogy of language, to make our dogmatism go down. In general such an instinct, whether theological or philological, will mean merely, that, having accustomed ourselves to look at things through a glass of a certain colour, we see them always of that colour. What the science of Bible-criticism, like all other science, needs, is a very wide experience from comparative observation in many directions, and a very slowly acquired habit of mind. All studies have the benefit of these guides, when they exist, and one isolated study can never have the benefit of them by itself. There is a common order, a general level, an uniform possibility, for these things. As were the geography, history, physiology, cosmology, of the men who developed dogma, so was also their faculty for a scientific Bible-criticism, such as dogma pretends to be. Now we know what their geography, history, physiology, cosmology, were. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Christian navigator of Justinian's time, denies that the earth is spherical, and asserts it to be a flat surface with the sky put over it like a dish cover. The Christian metaphysics of the same age applying the ideas of substance and identity to what the Bible says about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, are on a par with this natural philosophy. And again, as one part of their scientific Bible-criticism, so the rest. We have seen in the Bible-writers themselves a quite uncritical use of the Old Testament and of prophecy. Now, does this become less in the authors of our dogmatic theology,—a far more pretentious effort of criticism than the Bible-writers ever made,—or does it become greater? It becomes a thousand times greater. Not only are definite predictions found where they do not exist, as, for example, in Isaiah's I will restore thy judges as at the first,[10] is found a definite foretelling of the Apostles,—but in the whole Bible a secret allegorical sense is supposed, higher than the natural sense; so that Jerome calls tracing the natural sense an eating dust like the serpent, in modum serpentis terram comedere. Therefore, for one expounder, Isaiah's prophecy against Egypt: The Eternal rideth upon a light cloud, and shall come into Egypt,[11] is the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family, and the light cloud is the virgin-born body of Jesus; for another, The government shall be upon his shoulder,[12] is Christ's carrying upon his shoulder the cross; for another, The lion shall eat straw like the ox,[13] is the faithful and the wicked alike receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

These are the men, this is the critical faculty, from which our so-called orthodox dogma proceeded. The worth of all the productions of such a critical faculty is easy to estimate, for the worth is nearly uniform. When the Rabbinical expounders interpret: Woe unto them that lay field to field![14] as a prophetic curse on the accumulation of Church property, or: Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning that they may follow strong drink![15] as a prediction of the profligacy of the Church clergy, or: Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity![16] as God's malediction on Church bells, we say at once that such critics thus give their measure as interpreters of the true sense of the Bible. The moment we think seriously and fairly, we must see that the Patristic interpretations of prophecy give, in like manner, their authors measure as interpreters of the true sense of the Bible. Yet this is what the dogma of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds professes to be, and must be if it is to be worth anything,—the true sense extracted from the Bible; for, 'the Bible is the record of the whole revealed faith,' says Cardinal Newman. But we see how impossible it is that this true sense the dogma of these creeds should be.

Therefore it is, that it is useful to give signal instances of the futility of patristic and mediæval criticism; not to raise an idle laugh, but because our whole dogmatic theology has a patristic and mediæval source, and from the nullity of the deliverances of this criticism, where it can be brought manifestly to book, may be inferred the nullity of its deliverances, where, from the impalpable and incognisable character of the subjects treated, to bring it manifestly to book is impossible. In the account of the Creation, in the first chapter of Genesis, 'the greater light to rule the day,' is the priesthood; 'the lesser light to rule the night,'[17] borrowing its beams from the greater, is the Holy Roman Empire. When the disciples of Jesus produced two swords and Jesus said: 'It is enough,'[18] he meant, we are told, the temporal and the spiritual power, and that both were necessary and both at the disposal of the Church; but by saying afterwards to Peter, after he had cut off the ear of Malchus: 'Put up thy sword into the sheath,'[19] he meant that the Church was not to wield the temporal power itself, but to employ the secular government to wield it. Now, this is the very same force of criticism which in the Athanasian Creed 'arranged, sentence after sentence,' that doctrine of the Godhead of the Eternal Son for which the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester are so anxious to 'do something.'

The Schoolmen themselves are but the same false criticism developed, and clad in an apparatus of logic and system. In that grand and instructive repertory founded by the Benedictines, the Histoire Littéraire de la France, we read that in the theological faculty of the University of Paris, the leading mediæval university, it was seriously discussed whether Jesus at his ascension had his clothes on or not. If he had not, did he appear before his apostles naked? if he had, what became of the clothes? Monstrous! everyone will say.[20] Yes, but the very same criticism, only full-blown, which produced: 'Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.' The very same criticism, which originally treated terms as scientific which were not scientific; which, instead of applying literary and historical criticism to the data of popular Aberglaube, took these data just as they stood and merely dressed them scientifically.

Catholic dogma itself is true, urges, however, Cardinal Newman, because intelligent Catholics have dropped errors and absurdities like the False Decretals or the works of the pretended Dionysius the Areopagite, but have not dropped dogma. This is only saying that men drop the more palpable blunder before the less palpable. The adequate criticism of the Bible is extremely difficult, and slowly does the 'Zeit-Geist' unveil it. Meanwhile, of the premature and false criticism to which we are accustomed, we drop the evidently weak parts first; we retain the rest, to drop it gradually and piece by piece as it loosens and breaks up. But it is all of one order, and in time it will all go. Not the Athanasian Creed's damnatory clauses only, but the whole Creed; not this one Creed only, but the three Creeds,—our whole received application of science, popular or learned, to the Bible. For it was an inadequate and false science, and could not, from the nature of the case, be otherwise.


And now we see how much that clergyman deceives himself, who writes to the Guardian: 'The objectors to the Athanasian Creed at any rate admit, that its doctrinal portions are truly the carefully distilled essence of the scattered intimations of Holy Scripture on the deep mysteries in question,—priceless discoveries made in that field.' When one has travelled to the Athanasian Creed along the gradual line of the historical development of Christianity, instead of living stationary all one's life with this Creed blocking up the view, one is really tempted to say, when one reads a deliverance like that of this clergyman: Sancta simplicitas! It is just because the Athanasian Creed pretends to be, in its doctrine, 'the carefully distilled essence of the scattered intimations of Holy Scripture,' and is so very far from it, that it is worthless. It is 'the carefully distilled essence of the scattered intimations of Holy Scripture' just as that allegory of the two swords was. It is really a mixture,—for true criticism, as it ripens, it is even a grotesque mixture,—of learned pseudo-science with popular Aberglaube.

But it cannot be too carefully borne in mind that the real 'essence of Holy Scripture,' its saving truth, is no such criticism at all as the so-called orthodox dogma attempts and attempts unsuccessfully. No, the real essence of Scripture is a much simpler matter. It is, for the Old Testament: To him that ordereth his conversation right shall be shown the salvation of God!—and, for the New Testament: Follow Jesus! This is Bible-dogma, as opposed to the dogma of our formularies. On this Bible-dogma if Churches were founded, and to preach this Bible-dogma if ministers were ordained, Churches and ministers would have all the dogma to which the Bible attaches eternal life. Plain and precise enough it is, in all conscience; with the advantage of being precisely right, whereas the dogma of our formularies is precisely wrong. And if anyone finds it too simple, let him remember that its hardness is practical, not speculative. It is a rule of conduct; let him act it, and he will find it hard enough. Utinam per unum diem bene essemus conversati in hoc mundo! But as a matter of mere knowledge it is very simple, it lies on the surface of the Bible and cannot be missed.

And the holders of ecclesiastical dogma have always, we must repeat and remember, held and professed this Bible-dogma too. Their ecclesiastical dogma may have prevented their attending closely enough to the Bible-dogma, may have led them often to act false to it; but they have always held it. The method and the secret of Jesus have been always prized. The Catholic Church from the first held aloft the secret of Jesus; the monastic orders were founded, we may say, in homage to it. And from time to time, through the course of ages, there have arisen men who threw themselves on the method and secret of Jesus with extraordinary force, with intuitive sense that here was salvation; and who really cared for nothing else, though ecclesiastical dogma, too, they professed to believe, and sincerely thought they did believe,—but their heart was elsewhere. These are they who 'received the kingdom of God as a little child,' who perceived how simple a thing Christianity was, though so inexhaustible, and who are therefore 'the greatest in the kingdom of God.' And they, not the theological doctors, are the true lights of the Christian Church; not Augustine, Luther, Bossuet, Butler, but the nameless author of the Imitation, but Tauler, but St. Francis of Sales, Wilson of Sodor and Man. Yet not only these men, but the whole body of Christian churches and sects always, have all at least professed the method and secret of Jesus, and to some extent used them. And whenever these were used, they have borne their natural fruits of joy and life; and this joy and this life have been taken to flow from the ecclesiastical dogma held along with them, and to sanction and prove it. And people, eager to praise the bridge which carried them over from death to life, have taken this dogma for the bridge, or part of the bridge, that carried them over, and have eagerly praised it. Thus religion has been made to stand on its apex instead of its base. Righteousness is supported on ecclesiastical dogma, instead of ecclesiastical dogma being supported on righteousness.

But in the beginning it was not so. Because righteousness is eternal, necessary, life-giving, therefore the mighty 'not ourselves which makes for righteousness' was the Eternal, Israel's God; was all-powerful, all-merciful; sends his Messiah, elects his people, establishes his kingdom, receives into everlasting habitations. But gradually this petrifies, gradually it is more and more added to; until at last, because righteousness was originally perceived to be eternal, necessary, life-giving, we find ourselves 'worshipping One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.' And then the original order is reversed. Because there is One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, who receives into everlasting habitations, establishes his kingdom, elects his people, sends his Messiah, is all-merciful, all-powerful, Israel's God, the Eternal,—therefore righteousness is eternal, necessary, life-giving. And shake the belief in the One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, the belief in righteousness is shaken, it is thought, also. Whereas righteousness and the God of righteousness, the God of the Bible, are in truth quite independent of the God of ecclesiastical dogma, the work of critics of the Bible,—critics understanding neither what they say nor whereof they affirm.


Nor did even the Reformation and Protestantism much mend the work of these critics; the time was not yet ripe for it. Protestantism, nevertheless, was a strenuous and noble effort at improvement; for it was an effort of return to the 'method' of Jesus,—that leaven which never, since he set it in the world, has ceased or can cease to work. Catholicism, we have said, laid hold on the 'secret' of Jesus, and strenuously, however blindly, employed it; this is the grandeur and the glory of Catholicism. In like manner Protestantism laid hold on his 'method,' and strenuously, however blindly, employed it; and herein is the greatness of Protestantism. The preliminary labour of inwardness and sincerity in the conscience of each individual man, which was the method of Jesus and his indispensable discipline for learning to employ his secret aright, had fallen too much out of view; obedience had in a manner superseded it. Protestantism drew it into light and prominence again; was even, one may say, over absorbed by it, so as to leave too much out of view the 'secret.' This, if one would be just both to Catholicism and to Protestantism, is the thing to bear in mind:—Protestantism had hold of Jesus Christ's 'method' of inwardness and sincerity, Catholicism had hold of his 'secret' of self-renouncement. The chief word with Protestantism is the word of the method: repentance, conversion; the chief word with Catholicism is the word of the secret: peace, joy. And since, though the method and the secret are equally indispensable, the secret may be said to have in it more of practice and conduct, Catholicism may claim perhaps to have more of religion. On the other hand, Protestantism has more light: and, as the method of inwardness and sincerity, once gained, is of general application, and a power for all the purposes of life, Protestantism, we can see, has been accompanied by most prosperity. And here is the answer to Mr. Buckle's famous parallel between Spain and Scotland, that parallel which everyone feels to be a sophism. Scotland has had, to make her different from Spain, the 'method' of Jesus; and though, in theology, Scotland may have turned it to no great account, she has found her account in it in almost everything else. Catholicism, again, has had, perhaps, most happiness. When one thinks of the bitter and contentious temper of Puritanism,—temper being, nevertheless, such a vast part of conduct,—and then thinks of St. Theresa and her sweetness, her never-sleeping hatred of 'detraction,' one is tempted almost to say, that there was more of Jesus in St. Theresa's little finger than in John Knox's whole body. Protestantism has the method of Jesus with his secret too much left out of mind; Catholicism has his secret with his method too much left out of mind. Neither has his unerring balance, his intuition, his sweet reasonableness. But both have hold of a great truth, and get from it a great power.

And many of the reproaches cast by one on the other are idle. If Catholicism is reproached with being indifferent to much that is called civilisation, it must be answered: So was Jesus. If Protestantism, with its private judgment, is accused of opening a wide field for individual fancies and mistakes, it must be answered: So did Jesus when he introduced his method. Private judgment, 'the fundamental and insensate doctrine of Protestantism,' as Joseph de Maistre calls it, is in truth but the necessary 'method,' the eternally incumbent duty, imposed by Jesus himself, when he said: 'Judge righteous judgment.'[21] 'Judge righteous judgment' is, however, the duty imposed; and the duty is not, whatever many Protestants may seem to think, fulfilled if the judgment be wrong. But the duty of inwardly judging is the very entrance into the way and walk of Jesus.

Luther, then, made an inward verifying movement, the individual conscience, once more the base of operations; and he was right. But he did so to the following extent only. When he found the priest coming between the individual believer and his conscience, standing to him in the stead of conscience, he pushed the priest aside and brought the believer face to face with his conscience again. This explains, of course, his battle against the sale of indulgences and other abuses of the like kind; but it explains also his treatment of that cardinal point in the Catholic religious system, the mass. He substituted for it, as the cardinal point in the Protestant system, justification by faith. The miracle of Jesus Christ's atoning sacrifice, satisfying God's wrath, and taking off the curse from mankind, is the foundation both of the mass and of the famous Lutheran tenet. But, in the mass, the priest makes the miracle over again and applies its benefits to the believer. In the tenet of justification, the believer is himself in contact with the miracle of Christ's atonement, and applies Christ's merits to himself. The conscience is thus brought into direct communication with Christ's saving act; but this saving act is still taken,—just as popular religion conceived it, and as formal theology adopted it from popular religion,—as a miracle, the miracle of the Atonement. This popular and imperfect conception of the sense of Christ's death, and in general the whole in adequate criticism of the Bible involved in the Creeds, underwent at the Reformation no scrutiny and no change. Luther's actual application, therefore, of the 'method' of Jesus to that inner body of dogma, developed as we have seen, which he found regnant, proceeded no farther than this.

And justification by faith, our being saved by 'giving our hearty consent to Christ's atoning work on our behalf,' by 'pleading simply the blood of the covenant,' Luther made the essential matter not only of his own religious system but of the entire New Testament. We must be enabled, he said, and we are enabled, to distinguish among the books of the Bible those which are the best; now, those are the best which show Christ, and teach what would be enough for us to know even if no other parts of the Bible existed. And this evangelical element, as it has been called, this fundamental thought of the Gospel, is, for Luther, our 'being justified by the alone merits of Christ.' This is the doctrine of 'passive or Christian righteousness,' as Luther is fond of naming it, which consists in 'doing nothing, but simply knowing and believing that Christ is gone to the Father and we see him no more! that he sits in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, not as our judge, but made unto us by God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption;[22] in sum, that he is our high-priest making intercession for us.' Everyone will recognise the consecrated watchwords of Protestant theology.

Such is Luther's criticism of the New Testament, of its fundamental thought. And he picks out, as the kernel and marrow of the New Testament, the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle by the author of this Gospel, St. Paul's Epistles,—in especial those to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians,—and the First Epistle of St. Peter. Now, the common complaint against Luther is on the score of his audacity in thus venturing to make a table of precedence for the equally inspired books of the New Testament. Yet in this he was quite right, and was but following the method of Jesus, if the good news conveyed in the whole New Testament is, as it is, something definite, and all parts do not convey it equally. Where he was wrong, was in his delineation of this fundamental thought of the New Testament, in his description of the good news; and few, probably, who have followed us thus far, will have difficulty in admitting that he was wrong here, and quite wrong. And this has been the fault of Protestantism generally: not its presumption in interpreting Scripture for itself,—for the Church interpreted it no better, and Jesus has thrown on each individual the duty of interpreting it for himself,—but that it has interpreted it wrong, and no better than the Church. 'Calvinism has borne ever an inflexible front to illusion and mendacity,' says Mr. Froude. Surely this is but a flourish of rhetoric! for the Calvinistic doctrine is in itself, like the Lutheran doctrine, and like Catholic dogma, a false criticism of the Bible, an illusion. And the Calvinistic and Lutheran doctrines both of them sin in the same way; not by using a method which, after all, is the method of Jesus, but by not using the method enough, by not applying it to the Bible thoroughly, by keeping too much of what the traditions of men chose to tell them.


The time was not then ripe for doing more; and we, if we can do more, have the fulness of time to thank for it, not ourselves. Yet it needs all one's sense of the not ourselves in these things, to make us understand how doctrines, supposed to be the essence of the Bible by great Catholics and by great Protestants, should ever have been supposed to be so, and by such men. To take that chief stronghold of ecclesiasticism and sacerdotalism, the institution of the Eucharist. As Catholics present it, it makes the Church indispensable, with all her apparatus of an apostolical succession, an authorised priesthood, a power of absolution. Yet, as Jesus founded it, it is the most anti-ecclesiastical of institutions, pulverising alike the historic churches in their beauty and the dissenting sects in their unloveliness;—it is the consecration of absolute individualism. 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you.'[23] When Jesus so spoke, what did he mean, what was in his mind? Undoubtedly these words of the prophet Jeremiah: 'Behold the days come, saith the Eternal, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, which covenant they brake; but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Eternal, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour and every man his brother, saying: Know the Eternal! for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.'[24] No more scribes, no more doctors, no more priests! the crowning act in the 'secret' of Jesus seals at the same time his 'method,'—his method of pure inwardness, individual responsibility, personal religion.

Take, again, the Protestant doctrine of Justification; of trusting in the alone merits of Christ, pleading the Blood of the Covenant, imputed righteousness. In our railway stations are hung up, as everyone knows, sheets of Bible-texts to catch the passer's eye; and very profitable admonitions to him they in general are. It is said that the thought of thus exhibiting them occurred to Dr. Marsh, a venerable leader of the so-called Evangelical party in our Church, the party which specially clings to the special Protestant doctrine of justification; and that he arranged the texts that we daily see. And there is one which we may all remember to have often seen. Dr. Marsh asks the prophet Micah's question: 'Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?'[25] and he answers it with one short sentence from the New Testament: 'With the precious blood of Christ.' This is precisely the popular Protestant notion of the Gospel; and we are all so used to it that Dr. Marsh's application of the text has probably surprised no one. And yet, if one thinks of it, how astonishing an application it is! For even the Hebrew Micah, some seven or eight centuries before Christ, had seen that this sort of gospel, or good news, was none at all; for even he suggests this always popular notion of atoning blood, only to reject it, and ends: 'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Eternal require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?' So that the Hebrew Micah, nearly three thousand years ago, under the old dispensation, was far in advance of this venerable and amiable coryphæus of our Evangelical party now, under the Christian dispensation!

Dr. Marsh and his school go wrong, it will be said, through their false criticism of the New Testament, and we have ourselves admitted that the perfect criticism of the New Testament is extremely difficult. True, the perfect criticism; but not such an elementary criticism of it as shows the gospel of Dr. Marsh and of our so-called Evangelical Protestants to be a false one. For great as their literary inexperience may be, and unpractised as is their tact for perceiving the manner in which men use words and what they mean by them, one would think they could understand such a plain caution against mistaking Christ's death for a miraculous atonement as St. Paul has actually given them. For St. Paul, who so admirably seized the secret of Jesus, who preached Christ crucified,[26] but who placed salvation in being able to say, I am crucified with Christ![27]—St. Paul warns us clearly, that this word of the cross, as he calls it, is so simple, being neither miracle nor metaphysics, that it would be thought foolishness. The Jews want miracle, he says, and the Greeks want metaphysics, but I preach Christ crucified![28]—that is, the 'secret' of Jesus, as we call it. The Jews want miracle!—that is a warning against Dr. Marsh's or Mr. Spurgeon's doctrine, against Evangelical Protestantism's phantasmagories of the 'Contract in the Council of the Trinity,' the 'Atoning Blood,' and 'Imputed Righteousness.' The Greeks want metaphysics!—that is a warning against the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester, with their Aryan genius (if so ill-sounding a word as Aryan, spell it how one may, can ever be properly applied to our bishops, and one ought not rather to say Indo-European), dressing the popular doctrine out with fine speculations about the Godhead of the Eternal Son, his Consubstantiality with the Father, and so on. But we preach, says St. Paul, Christ crucified!—to Mr. Spurgeon and to popular religion a stumbling-block, to the bishops and to learned religion foolishness; but, to them that are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. That is, we preach a doctrine, not thaumaturgical and not speculative, but practical and experimental; a doctrine which has no meaning except in positive application to conduct, but in this application is inexhaustible.


So false, so astoundingly false (thus one is inclined to say by the light which the 'Zeit-Geist' is beginning to hold out over them) are both popular and learned science in their criticism of the Bible. And for the learned science one feels no tenderness, because it has gone wrong with a great parade of exactitude and philosophy; whereas all it really did was to take the magnified and non-natural Man of popular religion as God, and to take Jesus as his son, and then to state the relations between them metaphysically. No difficulties suggested by the popular science of religion has this learned science ever removed, and it has created plenty of its own.

But for the popular science of religion one has, or ought to have, an infinite tenderness. It is the spontaneous work of nature. It is the travail of the human mind to adapt to its grasp and employment great ideas of which it feels the attraction, but for which, except as given to it by this travail, it would have been immature. The imperfect science of the Bible, formulated in the so-called Apostles' Creed, was the only vehicle by which, to generation after generation of men, the method and secret of Jesus could gain any access; and in this sense we may even call it, taking the point of view of popular theology, providential. And this rude criticism is full of poetry, and in this poetry we have been all nursed. To call it, as many of our philosophical Liberal friends are fond of calling it, 'a degrading superstition,' is as untrue, as it is a poor compliment to human nature, which produced this criticism and used it. It is an Aberglaube, or extra belief and fairy-tale, produced by taking certain great names and great promises too literally and materially; but it is not a degrading superstition.

Protestants, on their part, have no difficulty in calling the Catholic doctrine of the mass 'a degrading superstition.' It is indeed a rude and blind criticism of Jesus Christ's words: He that eateth me shall live by me. But once admit the miracle of the 'atoning sacrifice,' once move in this order of ideas, and what can be more natural and beautiful than to imagine this miracle every day repeated, Christ offered in thousands of places, everywhere the believer enabled to enact the work of redemption and unite himself with the Body whose sacrifice saves him? And the effect of this belief has been no more degrading than the belief itself. The fourth book of the Imitation, which treats of The Sacrament of the Altar, is of later date and lesser merit than the three books which precede it; but it is worth while to quote from it a few words for the sake of the testimony they bear to the practical operation, in many cases at any rate, of this belief. 'To us in our weakness thou hast given, for the refreshment of mind and body, thy sacred Body. The devout communicant thou, my God, raisest from the depth of his own dejection to the hope of thy protection, and with a hitherto unknown grace renewest him and enlightenest him within; so that they who at first, before this Communion, had felt themselves distressed and affectionless, after the refreshment of this meat and drink from heaven find themselves changed to a new and better man. For this most high and worthy Sacrament is the saving health of soul and body, the medicine of all spiritual languor; by it my vices are cured, my passions bridled, temptations are conquered or diminished, a larger grace is infused, the beginnings of virtue are made to grow, faith is confirmed, hope strengthened, and charity takes fire and dilates into flame.' So little is the doctrine of the mass to be hastily called 'a degrading superstition,' either in its character or in its working.

But it is false! sternly breaks in the Evangelical Protestant. O Evangelical Protestant, is thine own doctrine, then, so true? As the Romish doctrine of the mass, 'the Real Presence,' is a rude and blind criticism of, He that eateth me shall live by me;[29] so the Protestant tenet of justification, 'pleading the blood of the Covenant,' is a rude and blind criticism of, The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.[30] It is a taking of the words of Scripture literally and unintelligently. And our friends, the philosophical Liberals, are not slow to call this, too, a degrading superstition, just as Protestants call the doctrine of the mass a degrading superstition. We say, on the contrary, that a degrading superstition neither the one nor the other is. In imagining a sort of supernatural man, a man infinitely magnified and improved, with a race of vile offenders to deal with, whom his natural goodness would incline him to let off, only his sense of justice will not allow it; then a younger supernatural man, his son, on the scale of his father and very dear to him, who might live in grandeur and splendour if he liked, but who prefers to leave his home, to go and live among the race of offenders, and to be put to an ignominious death, on condition that his merits shall be counted against their demerits, and that his father's goodness shall be restrained no longer from taking effect, but any offender shall be admitted to the benefit of it on simply pleading the satisfaction made by the son;—and then, finally, a third supernatural man, still on the same high scale, who keeps very much in the background, and works in a very occult manner, but very efficaciously nevertheless, and who is busy in applying everywhere the benefits of the son's satisfaction, and the father's goodness;—in an imagination, I say, such as this, there is nothing degrading, and this is precisely the Protestant story of Justification. And how awe of the first of these supernatural persons, gratitude and love towards the second, and earnest co-operation with the third, may fill and rule men's hearts so as to transform their conduct, we need not go about to show, for we have all seen it with our eyes. Therefore in the practical working of this tenet there is nothing degrading; any more than there is anything degrading in the tenet as an imaginative conception. And looking to the infinite importance of getting right conduct,—three-fourths of human life,—established, and to the inevitable anthropomorphism and extra-belief of men in dealing with ideas, one might well hesitate to attack an anthropomorphism or an extra-belief by which men helped themselves in conduct, merely because an anthropomorphism or an extra-belief it is, so long as it served its purpose, so long as it was firmly and undoubtingly held, and almost universally prevailing.

But, after all, the question sooner or later arises in respect to a matter taken for granted, like the Catholic doctrine of the Mass or the Protestant doctrine of Justification: Is it sure? can what is here assumed be verified? And this is the real objection both to the Catholic and to the Protestant doctrine as a basis for conduct;—not that it is a degrading superstition, but that it is not sure; that it assumes what cannot be verified.

For a long time this objection occurred to scarcely any body. And there are still, and for a long time yet there will be, many to whom it does not occur. In particular, on those 'devout women' who in the history of religion have continually played a part in many respects so beautiful but in some respects so mischievous,—on them, and on a certain number of men like them, it has and can as yet have, so far as one can see, no effect at all. Who that watches the energumens during the celebration of the Communion in some Ritualistic church, their gestures and behaviour, the floor of the church strewn with what seem to be the dying and the dead, progress to the altar almost barred by forms suddenly dropping as if they were shot in battle,—who that observes this delighted adoption of vehement rites, till yesterday unknown, adopted and practised now with all that absence of tact, measure, and correct perception in things of form and manner, all that slowness to see when they are making themselves ridiculous, which belongs to the people of our English race,—who, I say, that marks this can doubt, that for a not small portion of our religious community a difficulty to the intelligence will for a long time yet be no difficulty at all? With their mental condition and habits, given a story to which their religious emotions can attach themselves, and the famous Credo quia ineptum will hold good with them still. To think they know what passed in the Council of the Trinity is not hard to them; they could easily think they even knew what were the hangings of the Trinity's council-chamber.

Arbitrary and unsupported, however, as the story they have taken up with may be, yet it puts them in connexion with the Bible and the religion of the Bible,—that is, with righteousness and with the method and secret of Jesus. These are so clear in the Bible that no one who uses it can help seeing them there; and of these they do take for their use something, though on a wrong ground. But these, so far as they are taken into use, are saving.


  1. Revelation, i, 7.
  2. Matth., xxviii, 19.
  3. Ps. cxliii, 10.
  4. Matth., xxviii, 19.
  5. John, xx, 29.
  6. John, xxi, 18.
  7. John, xiii, 36.
  8. John, xx, 23.
  9. John, xx, 22.
  10. Is., i, 26.
  11. Is., xix, 1.
  12. Is., ix, 6.
  13. Is., lxv, 25.
  14. Is., v, 8.
  15. Is., v, 11.
  16. Is., v, 18.
  17. Gen., i, 16.
  18. Luke, xxii, 38.
  19. John, xviii, 11.
  20. Be it observed, however, that there is an honest scientific effort in the Schoolmen, and that to this sort of thing one really does come, when one fairly sets oneself to treat miracles literally and exactly; but most of us are content to leave them in a half light.
  21. John, viii, 24.
  22. I Cor., i, 30.
  23. Luke, xxii, 20.
  24. Jer., xxxi, 31.
  25. Micah, vi, 6.
  26. I Cor., i, 23.
  27. Gal., ii, 20.
  28. I Cor., i, 23.
  29. John, vi, 57.
  30. Matth., xx, 28.