Literature and Dogma/Chapter X

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Literature and Dogma by Matthew Arnold
Chapter X

CHAPTER X.

OUR 'MASSES' AND THE BIBLE.

Many, however, and of a much stronger and more important sort, there now are, who will not thus take on trust the story which is made the reason for putting ourselves in connexion with the Bible and learning to use its religion; be it the story of the divine authority of the Church, as in Catholic countries, or,—as generally with us,—the story of the three supernatural persons standing on its own merits. Is what this story asserts true, they are beginning to ask; can it be verified?—since experience proves, they add, that whatever for man is true, man can verify. And certainly the fairy tale of the three supernatural persons no man can verify. They find this to be so, and then they say: The Bible takes for granted this story and depends on the truth of it; what, then, can rational people have to do with the Bible? So they get rid, to be sure, of a false ground for using the Bible, but they at the same time lose the Bible itself, and the true religion of the Bible: righteousness, and the method and secret of Jesus. And those who lose this are the masses, as they are called; or rather they are what is most strenuous, intelligent, and alive among the masses, and what will give the signal for the rest to follow.

This is what everyone sees to constitute the special moral feature of our times: the masses are losing the Bible and its religion. At the Renascence, many cultivated wits lost it; but the great solid mass of the common people kept it, and brought the world back to it after a start had seemed to be made in quite another direction. But now it is the people which is getting detached from the Bible. The masses can no longer be relied on to counteract what the cultivated wits are doing, and stubbornly to make clever men's extravagances and aberrations, if about the Bible they commit them, of no avail. When our philosophical Liberal friends say, that by universal suffrage, public meetings, Church-disestablishment, marrying one's deceased wife's sister, secular schools, industrial development, man can very well live; and that if he studies the writings, say, of Mr. Herbert Spencer into the bargain, he will be perfect, he 'will have in modern and congenial language the truisms common to all systems of morality,' and the Bible is become quite old-fashioned and superfluous for him;—when our philosophical friends now say this, the masses, far from checking them, are disposed to applaud them to the echo. Yet assuredly, of conduct, which is more than three-fourths of human life, the Bible, whatever people may thus think and say, is the great inspirer; so that from the great inspirer of more than three-fourths of human life the masses of our society seem now to be cutting themselves off. This promises, certainly, if it does not already constitute, a very unsettled condition of things. And the cause of it lies in the Bible being made to depend on a story, or set of asserted facts, which it is impossible to verify; and which hard-headed people, therefore, treat as either an imposture, or a fairy-tale that discredits all which is found in connexion with it.

2.

Now if we look attentively at the story, or set of asserted but unverified and unverifiable facts, which we have summarised in popular language above, and which is alleged as the basis of the Bible, we shall find that the difficulty really lies all in one point. The whole difficulty is with the infinitely magnified man who is the first of the three supernatural persons of our story. If he could be verified, the data we have are, possibly, enough to warrant our admitting the truth of the rest of the story. It is singular how few people seem to see this, though it is really quite clear. The Bible is supposed to assume a great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the Universe. This is the God, also, of natural religion, as people call it; and this supposed certainty learned reasoners take, and render it more certain still by considerations of causality, identity, existence, and so on. These, however, are not found to help the certainty much; but a certainty in itself the Great Personal First Cause, the God of both natural and revealed religion, is supposed to be.

Then, to this given beginning, all that the Bible delivers has to fit itself on. And so arises the account of the God of the Old Testament, and of Christ and of the Holy Ghost, and of the incarnation and atonement, and of the sacraments, and of inspiration, and of the church, and of eternal punishment and eternal bliss, as theology presents them. But difficulties strike people in this or that of these doctrines. The incarnation seems incredible to one, the vicarious atonement to another, the real presence to a third, inspiration to a fourth, eternal punishment to a fifth, and so on. And they set to work to make religion more pure and rational, as they suppose, by pointing out that this or that of these doctrines is false, that it must be a mistake of theologians; and by interpreting the Bible so as to show that the doctrine is not really there. The Unitarians are, perhaps, the great people for this sort of partial and local rationalising of religion; for taking what here and there on the surface seems to conflict most with common sense, arguing that it cannot be in the Bible and getting rid of it, and professing to have thus relieved religion of its difficulties. And now, when there is much loosening of authority and tradition, much impatience of what conflicts with common sense, the Unitarians are beginning confidently to give themselves out as the Church of the Future.

But in all this there is in reality a good deal of what we must call intellectual shallowness. For, granted that there are things in a system which are puzzling, yet they belong to a system; and it is childish to pick them out by themselves and reproach them with error, when you leave untouched the basis of the system where they occur, and indeed admit it for sound yourself. The Unitarians are very loud about the unreasonableness and unscripturalness of the common doctrine of the Atonement. But in the Socinian Catechism it stands written: 'It is necessary for salvation to know that God is; and to know that God is, is to be firmly persuaded that there exists in reality some One, who has supreme dominion over all things.' Presently afterwards it stands written, that among the testimonies to Christ are, 'miracles very great and immense,' miracula admodum magna et immensa. Now, with the One Supreme Governor, and miracles, given to start with, it may fairly be urged that that construction put by common theology on the Bible-data, which we call the story of the three supernatural men, and in which the Atonement fills a prominent place, is the natural and legitimate construction to put on them, and not unscriptural at all. Neither is it unreasonable; in a system of things, that is, where the Supreme Governor and miracles, or even where the Supreme Governor without miracles, are already given.

And this is Butler's great argument in the Analogy. You all concede, he says to his deistical adversaries, a Supreme Personal First Cause, the almighty and intelligent Governor of the universe; this, you and I both agree, is the system and order of nature. But you are offended at certain things in revelation;—that is, at things, Butler means, like a future life with rewards and punishments, or like the doctrine of the Trinity as theology collects it from the Bible. Well, I will show you, he says, that in your and my admitted system of nature there are just as great difficulties as in the system of revelation. And he does show it; and by adversaries such as his, who grant what the Deist or Socinian grants, he never has been answered, he never can be answered. The spear of Butler s reasoning will even follow and transfix the Duke of Somerset, who finds so much to condemn in the Bible, but 'retires into one unassailable fortress,—faith in God.'

The only question, perhaps, is, whether Butler, as an Anglican bishop, puts an adequate construction upon what Bible-revelation, this basis of the Supreme Personal First Cause being supposed, may be allowed to be; whether Catholic dogma is not the truer construction to put upon it. Cardinal Newman urges, fairly enough: Butler admits, analogy is in some sort violated by the fact of revelation; only, with the precedent of natural religion given, we have to own that the difficulties against revelation are not greater than against this precedent, and therefore the admission of this precedent of natural religion may well be taken to clear them. And must we not go farther in the same way, asks Cardinal Newman, and own that the precedent of revelation, too, may be taken to cover more than itself; and that as, the Supreme Governor being given, it is credible that the Incarnation is true, so, the Incarnation being true, it is credible that God should not have left the world to itself after Christ and his Apostles disappeared, but should have lodged divine insight in the Church and its visible head? So pleads Cardinal Newman; and if it be said that facts are against the infallibility of the Church, or that Scripture is against it, yet to wide, immense things, like facts and Scripture, a turn may easily be given which makes them favour it; and so an endless field for discussion is opened, and no certain conclusion is possible. For, once launched on this line of hypothesis and inference, with a Supreme Governor assumed, and the task thrown upon us of making out what he means us to infer and what we may suppose him to do and to intend, one of us may infer one thing and another of us another, and neither can possibly prove himself to be right or his adversary to be wrong.

Only, there may come some one, who says that the basis of all our inference, the Supreme Personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor, is not the order of nature, is an assumption, and not a fact; and then, if this is so, our whole superstructure falls to pieces like a house of cards. And this is just what is happening at present. The masses, with their rude practical instinct, go straight to the heart of the matter. They are told there is a great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent wuthor and Governor of the universe; and that the Bible and Bible-righteousness come to us from him. Now, they do not begin by asking, with the intelligent Unitarian, whether the doctrine of the Atonement is worthy of this moral and intelligent Ruler; they begin by asking what proof we have of him at all. Moreover, they require proof which is clear and certain; demonstration, or else plain experimental proof, such as that fire burns them if they touch it. If they are to study and obey the Bible because it comes from the Personal First Cause who is Governor of the universe, they require to be able to ascertain that there is this Governor, just as they are able to ascertain that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or that fire burns. And if they cannot ascertain it, they will let the intelligent Unitarian perorate for ever about the Atonement if he likes, but they themselves pitch the whole Bible to the winds.

Now, it is remarkable what a resting on mere probabilities, or even on less than probabilities, the proof for religion comes, in the hands of its great apologist, Butler, to be, even after he has started with the assumption of his moral and intelligent Governor. And no wonder; for in the primary assumption itself there is and can be nothing demonstrable or experimental, and therefore clearly known. So that of Christianity, as Butler grounds it, the natural criticism would really be in these words of his own: 'Suppositions are not to be looked upon as true, because not incredible.' However, Butler maintains that in matters of practice, such as religion, this is not so. In them it is prudent, he says, to act on even a supposition, if it is not incredible. Even the doubting about religion implies, he argues, that it may be true. Now, in matters of practice we are bound in prudence, he says, to act upon what may be a low degree of evidence; yes, 'even though it be so low as to leave the mind in very great doubt what is the truth.'

Was there ever such a way of establishing righteousness heard of? And suppose we tried this with rude, hard, down-right people, with the masses, who for what is told them want, above all, a plain experimental proof, such as that fire will burn you if you touch it. Whether in prudence they ought to take the Bible and religion on a low degree of evidence, or not, it is quite certain that on this ground they never will take them. And it is quite certain, moreover, that never on this ground did Israel, from whom we derive our religion, take it himself or recommend it. He did not take it in prudence, because he found at any rate a low degree of evidence for it; he took it in rapture, because he found for it an evidence irresistible. But his own words are the best: 'Thou, O Eternal, art the thing that I long for, thou art my hope even from my youth: through thee have I been holden up ever since I was born.[1] The statutes of the Eternal rejoice the heart; more desirable they are than gold, sweeter than honey; in keeping of them there is great reward.[2] The Eternal is my strength, my heart hath trusted in him and I am helped; therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.'[3] That is why Israel took his religion.

3.

But if Israel spoke of the Eternal thus, it was, we say, because he had a plain experimental proof of him. God was to Israel neither an assumption nor a metaphysical idea; he was a power that can be verified as much as the power of fire to burn or of bread to nourish: the powcr, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. And the greatness of Israel in religion, the reason why he is said to have had religion revealed to him, to have been entrusted with the oracles of God, is because he had in such extraordinary force and vividness the perception of this power. And he communicates it irresistibly because he feels it irresistibly; that is why the Bible is not as other books that inculcate righteousness. Israel speaks of his intuition still feeling it to be an intuition, an experience; not as something which others have delivered to him, nor yet as a piece of metaphysical notion-building. Anthropomorphic he is, for all men are, and especially men not endowed with the Aryan genius for abstraction; but he does not make arbitrary assertions which can never be verified, like our popular religion, nor is he ever pseudo-scientific, like our learned religion.

He is credited with the metaphysical ideas of the personality of God, of the unity of God, and of creation as opposed to evolution; ideas depending, the first two of them, on notions of essence, existence, and identity, the last of them on the notion of cause and design. But he is credited with them falsely. All the countenance he gives to the metaphysical idea of the personality of God is given by his anthropomorphic language, in which, being a man himself, he naturally speaks of the Power, with which he is concerned, as a man also. So he says that Moses saw God's hinder parts;[4] and he gives just as much countenance to the scientific assertion that God has hinder parts, as to the scientific assertion of God's personality. That is, he gives no countenance at all to either. As to his asserting the unity of God the case is the same. He would give, indeed, his heart and his worship to no manifestation of power, except of the power which makes for righteousness; but he affords to the metaphysical idea of the unity of God no more countenance than this, and this is none at all. Then, lastly, as to the idea of creation. He viewed, indeed, all order as depending on the supreme order of righteousness, and all the fulness and beauty of the world as a boon added to the stock of that holder of the greatest of all boons already, the righteous. This, however, is as much countenance as he gives to the famous argument from design, or to the doctrine of creation as opposed to evolution. And it is none at all.

Free as is his use of anthropomorphic language, Israel had, as we have remarked already, far too keen a sense of reality not to shrink, when he comes anywhere near to the notion of exact speaking about God, from affirmation, from professing to know a whit more than he does know. 'Lo, these are skirts of his ways,' he says of what he has experienced, 'but how little a portion is known of him!'[5] And again: 'The secret things belong unto the Eternal our God; but the revealed things belong unto us and to our children for ever: that we may do all the words of this law.'[6] How different from our licence of full and particular statement: 'A Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe!' Israel knew, concerning the eternal not ourselves, that it was 'a power that made for righteousness.' This was revealed to Israel and his children, and through them to the world; all the rest about the eternal not ourselves was this power's own secret. And all Israel's language about this power, except that it makes for righteousness, is approximate language,—the language of poetry and eloquence, thrown out at a vast object of our consciousness not fully apprehended by it, but extending infinitely beyond it.

This, however, was 'a revealed thing,' Israel said, to him and to his children: 'the Eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness.' And now, then, let us go to the masses with what Israel really did say, instead of what our popular and our learned religion may choose to make him say. Let us announce, not: 'There rules a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe, and therefore study your Bible and learn to obey this!' No; but let us announce: 'There rules an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness, and therefore study your Bible and learn to obey this.' For if we announce the other instead, and they reply: 'First let us verify that there rules a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,'—what are we to answer? We cannot answer.

But if, on the other hand, they ask: 'How are we to verify that there rules an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness?'—we may answer at once: 'How? why as you verify that fire burns,—by experience! It is so; try it! you can try it; every case of conduct, of that which is more than three-fourths of your own life and of the life of all mankind, will prove it to you! Disbelieve it, and you will find out your mistake as surely as, if you disbelieve that fire burns and put your hand into the fire, you will find out your mistake! Believe it, and you will find the benefit of it!' This is the first experience.

But then the masses may go on, and say: 'Why, however, even if there is an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness, should we study the Bible that we may learn to obey him?—will not other teachers or books do as well?' And here again the answer is: 'Why?—why, because this Power is revealed in Israel and the Bible, and not by other teachers and books! that is, there is infinitely more of him there, he is plainer and easier to come at, and incomparably more impressive. If you want to know plastic art, you go to the Greeks; if you want to know science, you go to the Aryan genius. And why? Because they have the specialty for these things; for making us feel what they are and giving us an enthusiasm for them. Well, and so have Israel and the Bible a specialty for righteousness, for making us feel what it is and giving us an enthusiasm for it. And here again it is experience that we invoke: try it! Having convinced yourself that there is an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness, set yourself next to try to learn more about this Power, and to feel an enthusiasm for it. And to this end, take a course of the Bible first, and then a course of Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, Jeremy Bentham, and Mr. Herbert Spencer; see which has most effect, which satisfies you most, which gives you most moral force. Why, the Bible is of such avail for teaching righteousness, that even to those who come to it with all sorts of false notions about the God of the Bible, it yet does teach righteousness, and fills them with the love of it; how much more those who come to it with a true notion about the God of the Bible!' And this is the second experience.

4.

Now here, at the beginning of things, is the point, we say, where to apply correction to our current theology, if we are to bring the religion of the Bible home to the masses. It is of no use beginning lower down, and amending this or that ramification, such as the Atonement, or the Real Presence, or Eternal Punishment, when the root from which all springs is unsound. Those whom it most concerns us to teach will never interest themselves at all in our amended religion, so long as the whole thing appears to them unsupported and in the air.

Yet that original conception of God, on which all our religion is and must be grounded, has been very little examined, and very few of the controversies which arise in religion go near it. Religious people say solemnly, as if we doubted it, that 'he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek him;'[7] and that 'a man who preaches that Jesus Christ is not God is virtually out of the pale of Christian communion.' We entirely agree with them; but we want to know what they mean by God. Now on this matter the state of their thoughts is, to say the truth, extremely vague; but what they really do at bottom mean by God is, in general: the best one knows. And this is the soundest definition they will ever attain; yet scientifically it is not a satisfying definition, for clearly the best one knows differs for everybody. So they have to be more precise; and when they collect themselves a little, they find that they mean by God a magnified and non-natural man. But this, again, they can hardly say in so many words. Therefore at last, when they are pressed, they collect themselves all they can, and make a great effort, and out they come with their piece of science: God is a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe. But this piece of science of theirs we will have nothing to say to, for we account it quite hollow; and we say, and have shown (we think), that the Bible, rightly read, will have nothing to say to it either. Yet the whole pinch of the matter is here; and till we are agreed as to what we mean by God, we can never, in discussing religious questions, understand one another or discuss seriously. Yet, as we have said, hardly any of the discussions which arise in religion turn upon this cardinal point. This is what cannot but strike one in that torrent of petitiones principii (for so we really must call them) in the shape of theological letters from clergymen, which pours itself every week through the columns of the Guardian. They all employ the word God with such extraordinary confidence! as if 'a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' were a verifiable fact given beyond all question; and we had now only to discuss what such a Being would naturally think about Church vestments and the use of the Athanasian Creed. But everything people say, under these conditions, is in truth quite in the air.

Even those who have treated Israel and his religion the most philosophically, seem not to have enough considered that so wonderful an effect must have had some cause to account for it, other than any which they assign. Professor Kuenen, whose excellent History of the Religion of Israel[8] ought to find an English translator, suggests that the Hebrew religion was so unlike that of any other Semitic people because of the simple and austere life led by the Beni-Israel as nomads of the desert; or because they did not, like other Semitic people, put a feminine divinity alongside of their masculine divinity, and thus open the way to all sorts of immorality. But many other tribes have had the simple and austere life of nomads of the desert, without its bringing them to the religion of Israel. And, if the Hebrews did not put a feminine divinity alongside of their masculine divinity, while other Semitic people did, surely there must have been something to cause this difference! and what we want to know is this something.

And to this something, we say, the 'Zeit-Geist,' and a prolonged and large experience of men's expressions and how they employ them, leads us. It was because, while other people, in the operation of that mighty not ourselves which is in us and around us, saw this thing and that thing and many things, Israel saw in it one thing only:—that it made for conduct, for righteousness. And it does; and conduct is the main part of human life. And hence, therefore, the extraordinary reality and power of Israel's God and of Israel's religion. And the more we strictly limit ourselves, in attempting to give a scientific account of God, to Israel's authentic intuition of him, and say that he is 'the Eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' the more real and profound will Israel's words about God become to us, for we can then verify his words as we use them.

Eternal, thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another![9] If we define the Eternal to ourselves, 'a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' we can never verify that this has from age to age been a refuge to men. But if we define the Eternal, 'the enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' then we can know and feel the truth of what we say when we declare: Eternal, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another! For in all the history of man we can verify it. Righteousness has been salvation; and to verify the God of Israel in man's long history is the most animating, the most exalting and the most pure of delights. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Eternal![10] is a text, indeed, of which the world offers to us the most inexhaustible and the most marvellous illustration.

Nor is the change here proposed, in itself, any difficult or startling change in our habits of religious thought, but a very simple one. Nevertheless, simple as may be this change which is to be made high up and at the outset, it undeniably governs everything farther down. Jesus is the Son of God; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth that proceeds from God. What God? 'A Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the Universe?'—to whom Jesus and the Holy Spirit are related in the way described in the Athanasian Creed, so that the operations of the three together produce what the Westminster divines call 'the Contract passed in the Council of the Trinity,' and what we, for plainness, describe as the fairy tale of the three supernatural men? This is all in the air, but in the air it all hangs together. There stand the Bible words! how you construe them depends entirely on what definition of God you start with. If Jesus is the Son of 'a Great Personal First Cause,' then the words of the Bible, literally taken, may well enough lend themselves to a story like that of the three supernatural men. The story can never be verified; but it may nevertheless be what the Bible has to say, if the Bible have started, as theology starts, with the 'Great Personal First Cause.' And the story may, when it comes to be examined, have many minor difficulties, have things to baffle us, things to shock us; but still it may be what the Bible has to say. However, the masses will get rid of all minor difficulties in the simplest manner, by rejecting the Bible altogether on account of the major difficulty,—its starting with an assumption which cannot possibly be verified.

But suppose the Bible is discovered, when its expressions are rightly understood, to start with an assertion which can be verified: the assertion, namely, not of 'a Great Personal First Cause,' but of 'an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.' Then by the light of this discovery we read and understand all the expressions that follow. Jesus comes forth from this enduring Power that makes for righteousness, is sent by this Power, is this Power's Son; the Holy Spirit proceeds from this same Power, and so on.

Now, from the innumerable minor difficulties which attend the story of the three supernatural men, this right construction, put on what the Bible says of Jesus, of the Father, and of the Holy Spirit, is free. But it is free from the major difficulty also; for it neither depends upon what is unverifiable, nor is it unverifiable itself. That Jesus is the Son of a Great Personal First Cause is itself unverifiable; and that there is a Great Personal First Cause is unverifiable too. But that there is an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness, is verifiable, as we have seen, by experience; and that Jesus is the offspring of this Power is verifiable from experience also. For God is the author of righteousness; now, Jesus is the Son of God because he gives the method and secret by which alone is righteousness possible. And that he does give this, we can verify, again, from experience. It is so! try, and you will find it to be so! Try all the ways to righteousness you can think of, and you will find that no way brings you to it except the way of Jesus, but that this way does bring you to it ! And, therefore, as we found we could say to the masses: 'Attempt to do without Israel's God that makes for righteousness, and you will find out your mistake!' so we find we can now proceed farther, and say: 'Attempt to reach righteousness by any way except that of Jesus, and you will find out your mistake!' This is a thing that can prove itself, if it is so; and it will prove itself, because it is so.

Thus, we have the authority of both Old and New Testament placed on just the same solid basis as the authority of the injunction to take food and rest: namely, that experience proves we cannot do without them. And we have neglect of the Bible punished just as putting one's hand into the fire is punished: namely, by finding we are the worse for it. Only, to attend to this experience about the Bible, needs more steadiness than to attend to the momentary impressions of hunger, fatigue, and pain; therefore it is called faith, and counted a virtue. But the appeal is to experience in this case just as much as in the other; only to experience of a far deeper and greater kind.

5.

So there is no doubt that we get a much firmer, nay an impregnable, ground for the Bible, and for recommending it to the world, if we put the construction on it which we propose. The only question is: Is this the right construction to put on it? is it the construction which properly belongs to the Bible? And here, again, our appeal is to the same test which we have employed throughout, the only possible test for man to employ,—the test of reason and experience. Given the Bible-documents, what, it is inquired, is the right construction to put upon them? Is it the construction we propose? or is it the construction of the theologians, according to which the dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and so on, are presupposed all through the Bible, are sometimes latent, sometimes come more visibly to the surface, but are always there; and to them every word in the Bible has reference, plain or figured?

Now, the Bible does not and cannot tell us itself, in black and white, what is the right construction to put upon it; we have to make this out. And the only possible way to make it out,—for the dogmatists to make out their construction, or for us to make out ours,—is by reason and experience. 'Even such as are readiest,' says Hooker very well, 'to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of Scripture, what warrant have they that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged?' They can have none, he replies, but reasoning and collection; and to the same effect Butler says of reason, that 'it is indeed the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.' Now it is simply from experience of the human spirit and its productions, from observing as widely as we can the manner in which men have thought, their way of using words and what they mean by them, and from reasoning upon this observation and experience, that we conclude the construction theologians put upon the Bible to be false, and ours to be the truer one.

In the first place, from Israel's master-feeling, the feeling for righteousness, the predominant sense that men are, as St. Paul says, 'created unto good works which God hath prepared beforehand that we should walk in them,'[11] we collect the origin of Israel's conception of God,—of that mighty 'not ourselves' which more or less engages all men's attention,—as the Eternal Power that makes for righteousness. This we do, because the more we come to know how ideas and terms arise, and what is their character, the more this explanation of Israel's use of the word 'God' seems the true and natural one. Again, the construction we put upon the doctrine and work of Jesus is collected in the same way. From the data we have, and from comparison of these data with what we have besides of the history of ideas and expressions, this construction seems to us the true and natural one. The Gospel-narratives are just that sort of account of such a work and teaching as the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, according to our construction of it, was, which would naturally have been given by devoted followers who did not fully understand it. And understand it fully they then could not, it was so very new, great, and profound; only time gradually brings its lines out more clear.

On the other hand, the theologians' notion of dogmas presupposed in the Bible, and of a constant latent reference to them, we reject, because experience is against it. The more we know of the history of ideas and expressions, the more we are convinced that this account is not and cannot be the true one; that the theologians have credited the Bible with this presupposition of dogmas and this constant latent reference to them, but that they are not really there. 'The Fathers recognised,' says Cardinal Newman, 'a certain truth lying hid under the tenor of the sacred text as a whole, and showing itself more or less in this verse or that, as it might be. The Fathers might have traditionary information of the general drift of the inspired text which we have not.' Born into the world twenty years later, and touched with the breath of the 'Zeit-Geist,' how would this exquisite and delicate genius have been himself the first to feel the unsoundness of all this! that we have heard the like about other books before, and that it always turns out to be not so, that the right interpretation of a document, such as the Bible, is not in this fashion. Homer's poetry was the Bible of the Greeks, however strange a one; and just in the same way there grew up the notion of a mystical and inner sense in the poetry of Homer, underlying the apparent sense, but brought to light by the commentators; perhaps, even, they might have traditionary information of the drift of the Homeric poetry which we have not;—who knows? But, once for all, as our literary experience widens, this notion of a secret sense in Homer proves to be a mere dream. So, too, is the notion of a secret sense in the Bible, and of the Fathers' disengagement of it.

Demonstration in these matters is impossible. It is a maintainable thesis that the allegorising of the Fathers is right, and that this is the true sense of the Bible. It is a maintainable thesis that the theological dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, underlie the whole Bible. It is a maintainable thesis, also, that Jesus was himself immersed in the Aberglaube of his nation and time, and that his disciples have reported him with absolute fidelity; in this case we should have, in our estimate of Jesus, to make deductions for his Aberglaube, and to admire him for the insight he displayed in spite of it. This thesis, we repeat, or that thesis, or another thesis, is maintainable, as to the construction to be put on such a document as the Bible. Absolute demonstration is impossible, and the only question is: Does experience, as it widens and deepens, make for this or that thesis, or make against it? And the great thing against any such thesis as either of the two we have just mentioned is, that the more we know of the history of the human spirit and its deliverances, the more we have reason to think such a thesis improbable, and it loses its hold on our assent more. On the other hand, the great thing, as we believe, in favour of such a construction as we put upon the Bible is, that experience, as it increases, constantly confirms it; and that, though it cannot command assent, it will be found to win assent more and more.

Notes[edit]

  1. Ps. lxxi, 5, 6.
  2. Ps. xix, 8, 10, 11.
  3. Ps. xxviii, 7.
  4. Ex., xxxiii, 23.
  5. Job, xxvi, 14.
  6. Deut., xxix, 29.
  7. Heb., xi, 6.
  8. De Godsdienst van Israel tot den Ondergang van den Joodschen Staat (The Religion of Israel till the Downfall of the Jewish State); Haarlem. An English translation has now appeared.
  9. Ps. xc, 1.
  10. Ps. xxxiii, 12.
  11. Eph., ii, 10.