Literature and Dogma/Chapter VI

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Literature and Dogma by Matthew Arnold
Chapter VI

CHAPTER VI.

THE NEW TESTAMENT RECORD.

Now, then, will be perceived the bearing and gravity of what I some little way back said, that the more we convince ourselves of the liability of the New Testament writers to mistake, the more we really bring out the greatness and worth of the New Testament. For the more the reporters were fallible and prone to delusion, the more does Jesus become independent of the mistakes they made, and unaffected by them. We have plain proof that here was a very great spirit; and the greater he was, the more certain were his disciples to misunderstand him. The depth of their misunderstanding of him is really a kind of measure of the height of his superiority. And this superiority is what interests us in the records of the New Testament; for the New Testament exists to reveal Jesus Christ, not to establish the immunity of its writers from error.

Jesus himself is not a New Testament writer; he is the object of description and comment to the New Testament writers. As the Old Testament speaks about the Eternal and bears an invaluable witness to him, without yet ever adequately in words denning and expressing him; so, and even yet more, do the New Testament writers speak about Jesus and give a priceless record of him, without adequately and accurately comprehending him. They are altogether on another plane from Jesus, and their mistakes are not his. It is not Jesus himself who relates his own miracles to us; who tells us of his own apparitions after his death; who alleges his crucifixion and sufferings as a fulfilment of the prophecy:—The Eternal keepeth all the bones of the righteous, so that not one of them is broken;[1] who proves salvation to be by Christ alone, from the promise to Abraham being made to seed in the singular number, not the plural. If, therefore, the human mind is now drawing away from reliance on miracles, coming to perceive the community of character which pervades them all, to understand their natural laws, so to speak,—their loose mode of origination and their untrustworthiness,—and is inclined rather to distrust the dealer in them than to pin its faith upon him; then it is good for the authority of Jesus, that his reporters are evidently liable to ignorance and error. He is reported to deal in miracles, to be above all a thaumaturgist. But the more his reporters were intellectually men of their nation and time, and of its current beliefs,—the more, that is, they were open to mistakes,—the more certain they were to impute miracles to a wonderful and half-understood personage like Jesus, whether he would or no. He himself may, at the same time, have had quite other notions as to what he was doing and intending.

Again, the mistake of imagining that the world was to end, as St. Paul announces, within the lifetime of the first Christian generation, is palpable. But the reporters of Jesus make him announcing just the same thing: 'This generation shall not pass away till they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then shall he send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds.'[2] Popular theology can put a plain satisfactory sense upon this, but, as usual, through that process described by Butler by which anything can be made to mean anything; and from this sort of process the human mind is beginning to shrink. A more plausible theology will say that the words are an accommodation; that the speaker lends himself to the fancies and expectations of his hearers. A good deal of such accommodation there is in this and other sayings of Jesus; but accommodation to the full extent here supposed would surely have been impossible. To suppose it, is most violent and unsatisfactory. Either, then, the words were, like St. Paul's announcement, a mistake, or they are not really the very words Jesus said, just as he said them. That is, the reporters have given them a turn, however slight, a tone and a colour, a connexion, to make them comply with a fixed idea in their own minds, which they unfeignedly believed was a fixed idea with Jesus also. Now, the more we regard the reporters of Jesus as men liable to err, full of the turbid Jewish fancies about 'the grand consummation' which were then current, the easier we can understand these men inevitably putting their own eschatology into the mouth of Jesus, when they had to report his discourse about the kingdom of God and the troubles in store for the Jewish nation, and the less need have we to make Jesus a co-partner in their eschatology.

Again, the futility of such demonstrations from prophecy as those of which I have quoted examples, and generally of all that Jewish exegesis, based on a mere unintelligent catching at the letter of the Old Testament, isolated from its context and real meaning, of which the New Testament writers give us so much, begins to disconcert attentive readers of the Bible more and more, and to be felt by them as an embarrassment to the cause of Jesus, not a support. Well, then, it is good for the authority of Jesus, that those who establish it by arguments of this sort should be clearly men of their race and time, not above its futile methods of reasoning and demonstration. The more they were this, and the more they were sure to mix up much futile logic and exegesis with their presentation of Jesus, the less is Jesus himself responsible for such logic and exegesis, or at all dependent upon it. He may himself have rated such argumentation at precisely its true value, and have based his mission and authority upon no grounds but solid ones. Whether he did so or not, his hearers and reporters were sure to base it on their own fantastic grounds also, and to credit Jesus with doing the same.

In short, the more we conceive Jesus as almost as much over the heads of his disciples and reporters then, as he is over the heads of the mass of so-called Christians now, and the more we see his disciples to have been, as they were, men raised by a truer moral susceptiveness above their country men, but in intellectual conceptions and habits much on a par with them, all the more do we make room, so to speak, for Jesus to be a personage immensely great and wonderful; as wonderful as anything his reporters imagined him to be, though in a different manner.

2.

We make room for him to be this, and through the inadequate reporting of his followers there breaks and shines, and will more and more break and shine the more the matter is examined, abundant evidence that he was this. It is most remarkable, and the best proof of the simplicity, seriousness, and good faith, which intercourse with Jesus Christ inspired, that witnesses with a fixed prepossession, and having no doubt at all as to the interpretation to be put on his acts and career, should yet admit so much of what makes against themselves and their own power of interpreting. For them, it was a thing beyond all doubt, that by miracles Jesus manifested forth his glory, and induced the faithful to believe in him. Yet what checks to this paramount and all-governing belief of theirs do they report from Jesus himself! Everybody will be able to recall such checks, although he may never yet have been accustomed to consider their full significance. Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe![3]—as much as to say: 'Believe on right grounds you cannot, and you must needs believe on wrong!' And again: 'Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe for the very works' sake!'[4]—as much as to say: 'Acknowledge me on the ground of my healing and restoring acts being miraculous, if you must; but it is not the right ground.' No, not the right ground; and when Nicodemus came and would put conversion on this ground ('We know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no one can do the miracles that thou doest except God be with him'), Jesus rejoined: 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God!' thus tacitly changing his disciple's ground and correcting him.[5] Even distress and impatience at this false ground being taken is visible sometimes: 'Jesus groaned in his spirit and said, Why doth this generation ask for a sign? Verily I say unto you, there shall no sign be given to this generation!'[6] Who does not see what double and treble importance these checks from Jesus to the reliance on miracles gain, through their being reported by those who relied on miracles devoutly? Who does not see what a clue they offer as to the real mind of Jesus? To convey at all to such hearers of him that there was any objection to miracles, his own sense of the objection must have been profound; and to get them, who neither shared nor understood it, to repeat it a few times, he must have repeated it many times. Take, again, the eschatology of the disciples, their notion of the final things, of the approaching great judgment and end of the world. This consisted mainly in a literal appropriation of the apocalyptic pictures of the book of Daniel and the book of Enoch, and a transference of them to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. It is not surprising, certainly, that men with the mental range of their time, and with so little flexibility of thought, that, when Jesus told them to beware of 'the leaven of the Pharisees,'[7] or when he called himself 'the bread of life' and said, He that eateth me shall live by me,[8] they stuck hopelessly fast in the literal meaning of the words, and were accordingly puzzled or else offended by them,—it is not surprising that these men should have been incapable of dealing in a large spirit with prophecies like those of Daniel, that they should have applied them to Jesus narrowly and literally, and should therefore have conceived his kingdom unintelligently. This is not remarkable; what is remarkable is, that they should themselves supply us with their Master's blame of their too literal criticism, his famous sentence: 'The kingdom of God is within you!'[9] Such an account of the kingdom of God has more right, even if recorded only once, to pass with us for Jesus Christ's own account, than the common materialising accounts, if repeated twenty times; for it was manifestly quite foreign to the disciples' own notions, and they could never have invented it. Evidence of the same kind, again,—evidence borne by the reporters themselves against their own power of rightly understanding what their Master, on this topic of the kingdom of God and its coming, meant to say—is Christ's warning to his apostles, that the subject of final things was one where they were all out of their depth: 'It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father hath put in his own power.'[10]

So, too, with the use of prophecy and of the Old Testament generally. A very small experience of Jewish exegesis will convince us that, in the disciples, their catching at the letter of the Scriptures, and mistaking this play with words for serious argument, was nothing extraordinary. The extraordinary thing is that Jesus, even in the report of these critics, uses Scripture in a totally different manner; he wields it as an instrument of which he truly possesses the use. Either he puts prophecy into act, and by the startling point thus made he engages the popular imagination on his side, makes the popular familiarity with prophecy serve him; as when he rides into Jerusalem on an ass, or clears the Temple of buyers and sellers. Or else he applies Scripture in what is called 'a superior spirit,' to make it yield to narrow-minded hearers a lesson of wisdom; as, for instance, to rebuke a superstitious observance of the Sabbath he employs the incident of David's taking the shewbread. His reporters, in short, are the servants of the Scripture-letter, Jesus is its master; and it is from the very men who were servants to it themselves, that we learn that he was master of it. How signal, therefore, must this mastery have been! how eminently and strikingly different from the treatment known and practised by the disciples themselves!

Finally, for the reporters of Jesus the rule was, undoubtedly, that men 'believed on Jesus when they saw the miracles which he did.'[11] Miracles were in these reporters' eyes, beyond question, the evidence of the Christian religion. And yet these same reporters indicate another and a totally different evidence offered for the Christian religion by Jesus Christ himself. Every one that heareth and learneth from the Father, cometh unto me.[12] As the Father hath taught me, so I speak;[13] he that is of God heareth the words of God;[14] if God was your Father, ye would have loved me![15] This is inward evidence, direct evidence. From that previous knowledge of God, as 'the Eternal that loveth righteousness,' which Israel possessed, the hearers of Jesus could and should have concluded irresistibly, when they heard his words, that he came from God. Now, miracles are outward evidence, indirect evidence, not conclusive in this fashion. To walk on the sea cannot really prove a man to proceed from the Eternal that loveth righteousness; although undoubtedly, as we have said, a man who walks on the sea will be able to make the mass of mankind believe about him almost anything he chooses to say. But there is, after all, no necessary connexion between walking on the sea and proceeding from the Eternal that loveth righteousness. Jesus propounds, on the other hand, an evidence of which the whole force lies in the necessary connexion between the proving matter and the power that makes for righteousness. This is his evidence for the Christian religion.

His disciples felt the force of the evidence, indeed. Peter's answer to the question, 'Will ye also go away?'—'To whom should we go? thou hast the words of eternal life!'[16] proves it. But feeling the force of a thing is very different from understanding and possessing it. The evidence, which the disciples were conscious of understanding and possessing, was the evidence from miracles. And yet, in their report, Jesus is plainly shown to us insisting on a different evidence, an internal one. The character of the reporters gives to this indication a paramount importance. That they should indicate this internal evidence once, as the evidence on which Jesus insisted, is more significant, we say, than their indicating, twenty times, the evidence from miracles as the evidence naturally convincing to mankind, and recommended, as they thought, by Jesus. The notion of the one evidence they would have of themselves; the notion of the other they could only get from a superior mind. This mind must have been full of it to induce them to feel it at all; and their exhibition of it, even then, must of necessity be inadequate and broken.

But is it possible to overrate the value of the ground thus gained for showing the riches of the New Testament to those who, sick of the popular arguments from prophecy, sick of the popular arguments from miracles, are for casting the New Testament aside altogether? The book contains all that we know of a wonderful spirit, far above the heads of his reporters, still farther above the head of our popular theology, which has added its own misunderstanding of the reporters to the reporters' misunderstanding of Jesus. And it was quite inevitable that any thing so superior and so profound should be imperfectly understood by those amongst whom it first appeared, and for a very long time afterwards; and that it should come at last gradually to stand out clearer only by time,—Time as the Greek maxim says, the wisest of all things, for he is the unfailing discoverer.

Yet, however much is discovered, the object of our scrutiny must still be beyond us, must still transcend our adequate knowledge, if for no other reason, because of the character of the first and only records of him. But in the view now taken we have,—even at the point to which we have already come,—at least a wonderful figure transcending his time, transcending his disciples, attaching them but transcending them; in very much that he uttered going far above their heads, treating Scripture and prophecy like a master while they treated it like children, resting his doctrine on internal evidence while they rested it on miracles; and yet, by his incomparable lucidity and penetrativeness, planting his profound veins of thought in their memory along with their own notions and prepossessions, to come out all mixed up together, but still distinguishable one day and separable;—and leaving his word thus to bear fruit for the future.

3.

Truly, then, some one will exclaim, we may say with the 'Imitation:' Magna ars est scire conversari cum Jesu! And so it is. To extract from his reporters the true Jesus entire, is even impossible; to extract him in considerable part is one of the highest conceivable tasks of criticism. And it is vain to use that favourite argument of popular theology that man could never have been left by Providence in difficulty and obscurity about a matter of so much importance to him. For the cardinal rule of our present inquiry is that rule of Newton's: Hypotheses non fingo; and this argument of popular theology rests on the eternal hypothesis of a magnified and non-natural man at the head of mankind's and the world's affairs. And a further answer is, that, as to the argument itself, even if we allowed the hypothesis, yet the course of things, so far as we can see, is not so; things do not proceed in this fashion. Because a man has frequently to make sea-passages, he is not gifted with an immunity from sea-sickness because a thing is of the highest interest and importance to know, it is not, therefore, easy to know; on the contrary, in general, in proportion to its magnitude it is difficult, and requires time.

But the right commentary on the sentence of the 'Imitation' is given by the 'Imitation' itself in the sentence following: Esto humilis et pacificus, et erit tecum Jesus! What men could take at the hands of Jesus, what they could use, what could save them, he made as clear as light; and Christians have never been able, even if they would, to miss seeing it. No, never; but still they have superadded to it a vast Aberglaube, an after or extra-belief of their own; and the Aberglaube has pushed on one side, for very many, the saving doctrine of Jesus, has hindered attention from being riveted on this and on its line of growth and working, has nearly effaced it, has developed all sorts of faults contrary to it. This Aberglaube has sprung out of a false criticism of the literary records in which the doctrine is conveyed; what is called 'orthodox divinity' is, in fact, an immense literary misapprehension. Having caused the saving doctrines enshrined in these records to be neglected, and having credited the records with existing for the sake of its own Aberglaube, this blunder now threatens to cause the records themselves to be neglected by all those (and their numbers are fast increasing) whom its own Aberglaube fills with impatience and aversion. Therefore it is needful to show the line of growth of this Aberglaube, and its delusiveness; to show, and with more detail than we have admitted hitherto, the line of growth of Jesus Christ's doctrine, and the far-reaching sanctions, the inexhaustible attractiveness, the grace and truth, with which he invested it. The doctrine itself is essentially simple; and what is difficult,—the literary criticism of the documents containing the doctrine,—is not the doctrine.

This literary criticism, however, is extremely difficult. It calls into play the highest requisites for the study of letters; great and wide acquaintance with the history of the human mind, knowledge of the manner in which men have thought, of their way of using words and of what they mean by them, delicacy of perception and quick tact, and besides all these, a favourable moment and the 'Zeit-Geist.' And yet everyone among us criticises the Bible, and thinks it is of the essence of the Bible that it can be thus criticised with success! And the Four Gospels, the part of the Bible to which this sort of criticism is most applied and most confidently, are just the part which for literary criticism is infinitely the hardest, however simple they may look, and however simple the saving doctrine they contain really is. For Prophets and Epistlers speak for themselves: but in the Four Gospels reporters are speaking for Jesus, who is far above them.

Now, we all know what the literary criticism of the mass of mankind is. To be worth anything, literary and scientific criticism require, both of them, the finest heads and the most sure tact; and they require, besides, that the world and the world's experience shall have come some considerable way. But, ever since this last condition has been fulfilled, the finest heads for letters and science, the surest tact for these, have turned themselves in general to other departments of work than criticism of the Bible, this department being occupied already in such force of numbers and hands, if not of heads, and there being so many annoyances and even dangers in freely approaching it. As our Reformers were to Shakespeare and Bacon in tact for letters and science, or as Luther, even, was to Goethe in this respect, such almost has on the whole been, since the Renascence, the general proportion in rate of power for criticism between those who have given themselves to secular letters and science, and those who have given themselves to interpreting the Bible, and who, in conjunction with the popular interpretation of it both traditional and contemporary, have made what is called 'orthodox theology.' It is as if some simple and saving doctrines, essential for men to know, were enshrined in Shakespeare's Hamlet or in Newton's Principia (though the Gospels are really a far more complex and difficult object of criticism than either); and a host of second-rate critics, and official critics, and what is called 'the popular mind' as well, threw themselves upon Hamlet and the Principia, with the notion that they could and should extract from these documents, and impose on us for our belief, not only the saving doctrines enshrined there, but also the right literary and scientific criticism of the entire documents. A pretty mess they would make of it! and just this sort of mess is our so-called orthodox theology. And its professors are nevertheless bold, overweening, and even abusive, in maintaining their criticism against all questioners; although really, if one thinks seriously of it, it was a kind of impertinence in such professors to attempt any such criticism at all.

Happily, the faith that saves is attached to the saving doctrines in the Bible, which are very simple; not to its literary and scientific criticism, which is very hard. And no man is to be called 'infidel' for his bad literary and scientific criticism of the Bible; but if he were, how dreadful would the state of our orthodox theologians be! They themselves freely fling about this word infidel at all those who reject their literary and scientific criticism, which turns out to be quite false. It would be but just to mete to them with their own measure, and to condemn them by their own rule; and, when they air their unsound criticism in public, to cry indignantly: The Bishop of So-and-so, the Dean of So-and-so, and other infidel lecturers of the present day! or: That rampant infidel, the Archdeacon of So-and-so, in his recent letter on the Athanasian Creed! or: 'The Rock,' 'The Church Times,' and the rest of the infidel press! or: The torrent of infidelity which pours every Sunday from our pulpits! Just would this be, and by no means inurbane; but hardly, perhaps, Christian. Therefore we will not permit ourselves to say it; but it is only kind to point out, in passing, to these loud and rash people, to what they expose themselves at the hands of adversaries less scrupulous than we are.

Notes

  1. Ps. xxxiv, 20.
  2. Matth., xxiv, 30, 31, 34.
  3. John, iv, 48.
  4. John, xiv, 11.
  5. John, iii, 2, 3.
  6. Mark, viii, 12.
  7. Matth., xvi, 6–12.
  8. John, vi, 48, 57.
  9. Luke, xvii, 21.
  10. Acts, i, 7.
  11. John, ii, 23.
  12. John, vi, 45.
  13. John, viii, 28.
  14. John, viii, 47.
  15. John, viii, 42.
  16. John, vi, 68.