Page:Modern Rationalism (1897).djvu/46

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46

MODERN RATIONALISM.

Until the seventeenth century divines had assumed that Providence had miraculously guarded its inspired books. From this torpid belief they were at length roused by the controversies on the date and origin of the vowel points of the Hebrew text between the Buxtorfs and Morinus and Cappell, and by the discovery of a vast number of variations in the manuscripts and printed books of Scripture—Kennicott's Hebrew Bible, published from 1776 to 1790, gave 200,000 variations. Thus a door was opened to a certain reverent kind of criticism. Here and there, as in the case of R. Simon and Leclerc, criticism assumed a more threatening character, but it was easily suppressed, and only such radical Freethinkers as Hobbes and Spinoza ventured to anticipate, in some measure, the destructive views of subsequent ages.

The eighteenth century witnessed a graver and more systematic attack upon the cherished idol. The English Deists, the German Illuminati, and the French philosophes made a direct attack, before the middle of the century, upon the supernatural origin of the Scriptures. Their criticism, however, was comparatively superficial, and confined itself to the obvious contradictions and gross indecencies of the narrative. It was effectually (however illogically) restrained by the theological ingenuities of excuse and conciliation which it evoked. In its old form, it perished before the end of the century. However, it had achieved an important work; it had emancipated reason and conscience, and planted the seeds of a new force, more fatal to traditional belief, and more useful to intellectual progress. The "Higher Criticism" which thus virtually commenced in the last century had an entirely different character from the Voltairean Scepticism—not an opposite character, but a more profound and scientific method. It is foolish to contrast nineteenth-century criticism with the older method and endeavour to make capital of their divergence. The new method recognises the destructive inferences to be drawn from the contradictions, etc., which are obvious in all versions of the Bible; but it has forged new and more powerful instruments—not only weapons of destruction, but useful implements of construction. It relies upon an accurate and profound science of philology, which finds important critical considerations in the original text of