Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/June 1887/Theology Under its Changed Conditions
|THEOLOGY UNDER ITS CHANGED CONDITIONS.|
A PROFESSOR of divinity who has been thought at times to be by no means insensible to a reputation for orthodoxy, preaching in the University of Oxford a few days ago, said: "The field of speculative theology may be regarded as almost exhausted; we must be content henceforward to be Christian agnostics." It is probable that these words, had they been uttered in the same place twenty-five years ago, would have excited an alarm comparable to that which was raised by Bishop Colenso or the "Essays and Reviews." In the present case they appear to have been accepted without a murmur; so great is the change which has come over the conditions of theological thought in England in a quarter of a century. It will be the object of the present paper to make clear what are the new conditions of which theology has to take note, to point out what they involve either certainly or by probable inference, and to show what we may expect theology to be under these new conditions.
It is very necessary that such an attempt should be made, so that illusions should cease, and also unnecessary alarms; and that theologians should strike boldly into the new paths, not reverting to unfruitful methods which separate theology from other parts of human knowledge. For it is to be observed that such utterances as that just quoted are met with again and again, even when least expected, in theological literature, but that this has by no means prevented the prevalence of dogmatism. St. Augustine wrote, in his treatise on "Christian Doctrine":
Yet this did not hinder him from repeating the language in which he had suddenly checked himself, and his methods have so enchained the study of theology that we are only now beginning to free ourselves from them. The melancholy experience of the sixteenth century which turned the Reformation from a great act of emancipation into a renewed scholasticism must not be repeated in our day.
The conditions which it is necessary to notice may be taken under four heads: 1. Those imposed by the advance of science, and 2. Of criticism; 3. Those made by the altered state of church-life; 4. Those caused by social and democratic progress.
1. Under the head of Science we may notice as specially bearing on theology the fuller knowledge of the laws of nature with the increasing sense of their uniformity which imposes itself as a necessary condition of thought wherever things physical are concerned; the hypothesis of evolution, which suggests an account in harmony with this uniformity of the genesis of the whole animate creation; and, turning to another department, the history of religion, of which so much more is know now than formerly. 2. In referring to criticism we may dwell upon the discoveries recently made as to the dates of the books of the Old Testament, and the consequent rearrangement of Hebrew literature and history; the views now given by scholars of the origin of the Gospels, the diminished historical value which it is found necessary to ascribe to the Acts of the Apostles, the dubious character of the later Epistles ascribed to St. Paul, and the greater clearness of the circumstances under which the Apocalypse was composed—we must pass on to the investigations into the structure of the early Christian Churches and their theological ideas, especially those relating to the Eucharist, and we must also take in the change which has come about in the treatment of all early documents—that which teaches us to value them as literature, not as the quarry from which dogmatic statements may be hewed out. 3. Turning to the conditions of church-life we shall have to notice the abolition or mitigation of tests and subscriptions, and the greater tolerance and friendliness between those who hold different opinions or belong to different religious bodies; the freedom which the law of the Church, as interpreted by the Privy Council, gives to theological opinions of clergymen; together with the tendency, to which all religious bodies have been subject for some time past, to make less of abstract theological statements and more of practical piety and philanthropy. 4. Lastly, turning to the social and political conditions, we must consider the effect of our greater acquaintance with the wants of the masses, and the admission of the demand for equality. Theology has to take account not of a mere mass of ignorance and sin, but of human beings standing in moral equality with their teachers, and capable of virtue and self-direction, who require to be told, not, after the manner which reminds them of the older political economy, of a way of salvation under which a few elect souls may be saved, but, in a manner corresponding with the better social policy, how they may be helped to rise in all respects and all together.
Before going more into detail and showing the necessary or probable effects of these conditions upon theology, there are three remarks which should be made:
First, in the present day every institution is passing through the ordeal of criticism, and lives only because it can justify its existence. It would be foolish, if it were possible, to attempt the exemption of the study of theology from this process. Nor is there any reason why it should shrink from the questioning, if only it be applied with the patience and care which are necessary in dealing with an abstract subject, and one which touches men's inmost susceptibilities. This patience is required alike from those who are irritated by the old usurpations of theology, and would not be sorry if it could be banished altogether, and from those who esteem theology as the venerable mother and head of the sciences, and fear lest her majesty should be disparaged by too unabashed a gaze.
Secondly, it is neither honest nor politic to hide the real state of things. The questions which it suggests are felt not only by theologians, but by many thoughtful ministers and laymen; and we need not doubt that they are honestly met and solved in many cases. But the impression on the mind of the laity is that a hard system of dogmas which they have identified with "the gospel" exists unmodified in the mind of the clergy, and that theologians are quite unaware of the change which modern conditions have imposed upon religious thought. For instance, Professor Huxley, some years ago, when asked to give an address to the London clergy, proved in an elaborate exposition that the world was more than six thousand years old. Probably there was hardly one of his hearers, even at that time, who needed to be convinced of it. But theologians must feel that it is not mere personal and esoteric conviction, but a frank acknowledgment of the conditions of things, which is needed for the vindication of the dignity of their science and of their own intelligence and veracity.
Thirdly, it is not to be supposed, as sometimes happens, that those who subject an institution to such an ordeal are detracting from it. Criticism is not necessarily negative. More than thirty years ago Prince Albert said that constitutional government was on its trial, at a time when it hardly existed in any great European country but England. The trial it underwent was so successful that it is now recognized, more or less, as the form of government in all Europe, except Russia and Turkey. Criticism, moreover, even where barely negative, is often the means of purging away the dross and making the metal appear in its purity. Theology at the Christian era and at the Reformation underwent such a purification, and stood forth afterward far stronger and more fit for the purposes of piety. We must get down, at whatever expense, to the solid rock, and then we can safely build; but the tower we build will be nobler and more useful, because it stands firm. We need have no fear as to the future of theology and of the religious life which is founded upon it.
I.—1. To begin with the conditions imposed by the physical sciences. The immense advance which has been made in this department, alike in the way of discovery, of diffusion, and of application, is the most marked intellectual feature of our epoch. But physical science can not advance a step without the assumption of the uniformity of Nature. This uniformity is tested at every stage and never fails. The idea that it can fail becomes almost inconceivable. When the student turns to experience, he finds that violations of natural order which were supposed to take place in old times now take place no more; that no such violations can be found in times and places where they can he verified. Even in the sphere of Christian apologetics this is admitted more and more. The position of miracles has completely changed. They are no longer the basis of the argument, but are themselves the subject of apology. One accepted writer puts them in the fifth rank of evidences. Bishop Temple, in his "Bampton Lectures," shows by his treatment of them that they have lost their power. It is only the fact that they are supposed to be bound up with the moral and spiritual forces of Christianity which prevents their being treated as wholly indifferent.
We notice next the theory of evolution. Let it be granted that it is still a theory, and that the vast gaps in the geological record, and the chasm between man and brute, are not filled up. Yet the existence of evolution, in a constantly increasing circle of observed phenomena, is clear; and it would be perilous to rest any belief upon a supposition that the theory, even in its full compass, will be disproved. It is said that life must have had a beginning. Is it certain that life itself has not been developed, as some persons believe, or that the potency of life is not inherent in the elements of which the world is formed? The evidence may not at present point toward such a conclusion; but again it would be perilous to build upon the opposite theory. Indeed, the idea of creation must be admitted to be a negative rather than a positive idea. God made the world; but how? As soon as we attempt to put a positive sense into the word creation, it fails us. But what, it is asked, and where, is God, if he be not a creator? We must conceive of him otherwise than as a workman standing outside his work.
If we turn from the physical sciences to the science of language, which is said by Professor Max Midler to be itself a physical science, we are led up through comparative philology to comparative theology. The knowledge of the religions of the East and West shows us in their development points of the closest analogy with that recorded in the Bible, and the question is forced upon us whether there is any line to be drawn between them. Is not the idea of God in some of them both monotheistic and moral? If we fix our minds upon ideas once thought to be exclusively Christian, are there not incarnations and miraculous births and resurrections in the Brahmanical religion? Is there not the idea of self-sacrifice and of the equality of men in Buddhism? Does not Confucius come very near, to say the least, to the enunciation of the golden rule of the gospel? And has not this estimate of the Eastern religion so forced itself upon us that, whereas before the knowledge of the sacred books of the East missionaries were apt to speak only of the perishing heathen, and of their superstition and immorality, which were sinking them to perdition, now they speak rather of the hopeful side of their life, and apply the gospel as the means of evoking this into perfection? We evidently must not assert for Christianity an exclusive place in the upraising of the world to God.
2. Passing on to the sphere of criticism, we find that the Old Testament has undergone a great change. The successive labors of Ewald, Graf, and Wellhausen, in Germany; of Kuenen, in Holland; of Reuss among French, and Robertson Smith among English critics, have won the general assent of scholars—even of men of such conservative leanings as Delitzsch, in Germany; of Briggs, in America; and of the Oxford Hebraists, Driver and Cheyne. The "Guardian" newspaper, which represents the more educated opinion of the Anglican clergy, published, on the 3d of last November, a cautious article, from which we may infer its readiness to accept the results of this criticism, and its consciousness that Christian doctrine has nothing to fear from it. Let us endeavor to give a succinct account of these results.
The Pentateuch is now held to be of Mosaic origin only in the sense of incorporating historical and legal elements, which a tradition, partly but not wholly trustworthy, had handed down as connected with Moses. In its present state it consists mainly of three elements: 1. The early documents, which combine two sources, one of which uses the name Jehovah, the other Elohim; 2. The Deuteronomic; and, 3. The priestly: these three elements are represented in successive casts of the law by, 1. The Decalogue and the book of laws in Exodus xx-xxiii; 2. The Book of Deuteronomy; 3. The Book of Leviticus; and took shape in writings, the first about 800 b. c.; the second at the time of Manasseh or Josiah; the third during the period between Ezekiel and Ezra. In these three periods the early documents were successively rehandled, so that the first four books bear traces of the later influence, first of the Deuteronomist, and, secondly, of the Levitical writers; the Book of Joshua, also, has been subjected to the same processes, being, in fact, a continuation of the first five books, and forming with them the "Hexateuch." The histories, from Judges to 2 Kings, form a connected work, the various parts of which were composed at various times, some of them being contemporary with the events described, but which took its final shape in the time of Jeremiah. The Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, form similarly one work, written under priestly influence long after the time of Ezra. The Book of Esther is a very late work, its claims to be placed in the Canon being disputed by the rabbis down to the Christian era. The Psalms are of many ages and authors, the Psalms actually written by David being limited to a very few, possibly to the eighteenth alone. The Proverbs belong to Solomon only in the sense in which the Psalms belong to David. Job is of quite uncertain date and origin, while Ecclesiastes belongs to the later Persian era, and the Song of Songs to the days of the northern kingdom. The Prophets remain as the solid center, their date beginning with the eighth century B.C., and the books being written by those whose names they bear, with the exception of Isaiah xl-xlvi, which belongs to the Babylonish captivity; of parts of Zechariah, which belong to several periods; and of the Book of Daniel, which is not properly to be numbered with the Prophets (the critics in this respect following the old Jewish estimate), but consists of a series of traditions put together for the encouragement of the faithful Jews in the time of the Maccabees.
In regard to the New Testament there is far less tendency to agreement among scholars. The researches relating to the Synoptic Gospels have made it clear that they are not independent accounts, but have a common origin either in an oral or a written tradition which was variously handled; that in all probability Mark was the oldest and Luke the latest of the three, but that the title "according to" St. Matthew or St. Mark permits of the hypothesis that they passed through a rehandling in a later generation of their disciples, and that the same is highly probable in the case of the fourth Gospel, which, however, many believe to have been wholly composed in the second century by some disciple or successor of St. John; that the Acts of the Apostles can not be wholly relied on for the details of the history; that the four great epistles of St. Paul are the earliest and most certain Christian documents; and that no reasonable doubt attaches to the Epistles to the Thessalonians. The Epistles of the Captivity present so different an aspect of Christianity that their actual Pauline authorship is the subject of some doubt, though from this doubt the Epistle to the Philippians is almost free; the pastoral Epistles, however, can not be treated with any certainty as having been written by St. Paul himself, and the Hebrews are almost certainly by another, though one in close sympathy with him. The Epistle of St. James is reckoned genuine; the Second Epistle of St. Peter and that of Jude are liable to the gravest doubts, and the First Epistle of Peter is not wholly undoubted. The Johannine epistles go with the fourth Gospel, and can hardly be by the same author as the Apocalypse, which is fixed almost without doubt to be the work of the apostle, and to have been written in the reign of the Emperor Galba.
It is, of course, quite possible that some of these opinions may be unsound. Few of them are wholly undisputed. It is possible also that the estimate here given of the tendency of opinion may not be entirely correct. Yet it can hardly be far from the truth; and the main lines of this criticism acquire a greater certainty and acceptance every year. In any case it has become impossible to deal with the sacred history as exempt from the conditions of ordinary history, or with the Psalms and prophets as if their glowing words could be taken as definitions of theological truths or rules of life. In the history we have to pick our way amid many doubtful paths, to ask at every turn whether the facts are exactly as they have been represented. Even in the didactic portions we have to inquire whether the sayings are genuine, and if so, to which of the various phases of a rapidly-changing development they belong. We have to admit the various tendencies in the teaching of the apostles; and, in regard to the central figure of all, to gain from books subject to the same incidents as other forms of literature, and written by men who imperfectly understood him, our consciousness of the value of his life, his character, his teaching, and of his relation to mankind and to God.
The early history of the Church has likewise been subjected to a minute criticism, which has been stimulated of late by the discovery of the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." The result has been to give us a simpler view of the organization of the Christian societies and of their life and thoughts, to show the influence of various social circumstances working naturally upon them, and forming their institutions and their theology. It becomes less and less possible to attribute to the earliest period of the Church, as having been formally imposed or exclusively admitted, any of the theories of Church government which we now know, whether Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Independent, or the formed doctrines of later times, whether relating to the plan of redemption or to the Incarnation or the Trinity.
3. While the progress of science and criticism have thus made new conditions for theological thought, church-life has also undergone changes which allow of the necessary expansion. First, we must recall the formal liberation of opinion effected mainly by the judgment of the Privy Council, delivered in 1864, in the cases arising out of the "Essays and Reviews." The alarm excited ten years before by Mr. Maurice's theological essays, especially on the questions of the atonement and of eternal punishment, and by the works of Professor Jowett and Dr. Rowland Williams, found expression in Mr. Mansel's "Bampton Lectures"; and when there appeared successively the first volume of Bishop Colenso's work on the Pentateuch, which was practically a polemic against verbal inspiration, and the "Essays and Reviews," which were a distinct demand for liberty of thought in the authorized teachers of the English Church, this alarm showed itself in the shape of prosecutions for heresy. Out of the multitude of statements impugned in the "Essays" of Dr. Williams and Mr. Wilson three only remained on which the Privy Council were called to adjudicate; but they represented the three departments of theology on which liberty was most distinctly demanded: 1. The Atonement and Justification; 2. The Inspiration of Scripture; 3. Eternal Punishment. The charge relating to the first of these was withdrawn, and on the other two the judgment was in favor of the accused. Thus an almost complete liberty was won on the matters then under discussion, and the principles on which the judgment was based practically gave a similar assurance on other points. The tendency of the Privy Council, as representing the supremacy of the national over ecclesiastical law, has been almost uniformly in favor of liberty. It has been possible in a few extreme cases to procure the condemnation of clergymen for matters of opinion; but these cases have been very rare, and the tendency to give liberty has been even-handed. The Gorham case gave a similar liberty to those who denied abnormal or supernatural power to one of the sacraments; the Bennett case gave liberty to those who asserted a similar power in the other. Even in cases of ritual, which stand on a different ground, being matters of formal regulation, there has been great unwillingness to press hardly on conscientious men, even when palpably defying the law; and the bishops have vindicated for themselves a power of stopping suits which they consider vexatious.
This action of the Privy Council corresponds with the general feeling. The different sections of the clergy and their adherents who made some outcry against the judgments, have gradually adopted more and more of the spirit of toleration which characterizes the law. To a large extent the judgments in doctrinal matters have preluded an actual change of opinion. The stringent doctrine of substitution as the essence of the atonement, the notion of inspiration as consisting in verbal accuracy rather than in the general spirit of the book, the belief in the everlasting perpetuation of sin and suffering, are alike strange to the present generation. They may still be held in some form, but probably in all cases with modifications, and they are certainly not insisted on as marks of true religion.
It may be partly the ill-success of past prosecutions for heresy, or it may be a consciousness that we are none of us in such literal conformity with the standards as to warrant us in casting stones at one another, or it may be some other consideration, which is the cause of the present aversion from an appeal to the courts. At all events, such an aversion exists. A striking proof of it has lately been furnished at Oxford. The rector of the City Church, Mr. Carteret Fletcher, was "delated" to the vice-chancellor for a sermon preached before the university, which contained the following passages:
On these passages the accusation was grounded—1. That the preacher departed, and that knowingly, from the teaching of St. Paul on the fall of Adam. 2. That he denied the fact of the resurrection of our Lord. 3. That he claimed for the teachers of to-day to correct the teaching of the apostles, and of the Church on various other points.
It is true that three of the six doctors whom the vice-chancellor considered himself bound by the statute to appoint to inquire into the complaint could not bring themselves to pronounce Mr. Fletcher's teaching as free from the charge of being "dissonant or contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England as publicly received"; and that he was acquitted only by the casting vote of the vice-chancellor. But not only was the feeling of both residents and non-residents, of all shades of opinion, strongly adverse to the proceeding, but (we quote from the journal which represents the more conservative and clericalist side of university opinion) "an opinion to this effect was conveyed to Mr. Ffoulkes (the delator) in a letter signed by a number of those whose judgment might be supposed likely to have weight with him"; and it is added, "Mr. Ffoulkes's action is entirely his own." We may add that a certain sense of incongruity is imparted to the proceeding by the fact that Mr. Ffoulkes was himself for some time the holder of views within the Church of England which led him to become for some years a Roman Catholic. But the prevalent feeling has been that expressed by Trajan about persecution, "Non nostri sæculi est." As Mr. Fletcher says in the preface to his published sermon: "It is so incongruous with the ideas of our time that, even in serious people, it excites a sense of humor. It is like fighting with bows and arrows after the invention of cannon. Let us hope it will have the historical interest of being the last instance of its kind; the last flickering, expiring flame of a fire which once burned so fiercely, and nowhere more so than in Oxford." This feeling is shared by religious persons generally. It may rightly be said that almost any opinion, if put forward with sincere conviction and in a becoming spirit, will be allowed an unprejudiced hearing; and that, whether in the university or in the Church generally, prosecutions for matters of opinion are very unlikely to be repeated.
This conviction arises from the fact that this aversion from prosecution is not an isolated fact. It is connected with a spirit of tolerance which is wide-spread and well-grounded. Meetings like the Church Congress and the Diocesan Conferences have made the clergy and their adherents know and esteem one another, and Church parties have not the bitter antagonism they once had. In clerical circles this tolerance as yet hardly extends to Nonconformists; the clergy still to a great extent hold theories, and still more entertain exclusive feelings, which separate them and those attached to their teaching from co-operation in all spiritual things with dissenters. But there are exceptions to this which are becoming more frequent; personal esteem is often sincerely felt even where co-operation is refused, and co-operation is sometimes given in philanthropic schemes when refused in spiritual work. The free discussion of religion in the reviews and magazines and in private circles induces a still larger tolerance, so that even agnostics and positivists are not treated as outcasts by the most zealous of their Christian relations.
We must add to this the new state of things created by the modification of the tests imposed upon the clergy, and their abolition both in public life and at the universities. The clergy now profess only a general adherence to the formularies of worship, while in all other spheres tests are gone or doomed. This has tended to make religious profession more sincere, and to separate religion from injustice. It has also brought together those who would never have met. The presence even of one like Mr. Bradlaugh in Parliament is a preservative against conventionalism and hypocrisy when matters moral and religious are under debate. In the universities the fact that young men who are preparing for the ministry of various denominations, live together and share the same thoughts and associations, is pregnant with consequences to the future of church-life and of theology, as is also the freedom of speech and practice and the altered tone of religious instruction resulting from the presence of dissenters.
4. Theology can not separate itself from public life. The democratic and social uprising of our day must influence it. "While a system of privilege was dominant in the state, it was natural perhaps to think of the few who were called, and to pass over the rest. The idea of men having no claim upon God, and of his relation to them as being either that of a vigorous upholder of law, or of one who only in certain cases and on certain terms showed favor to transgressors, was congenial to all to whom the chief political factors were the monarch and the upper classes, and the maintenance of a law in the making of which the mass of the subjects had had no hand. But the modern conviction that all men have their rights, and that the government exists for their sake, has communicated itself to theology. We can not think of men simply as offenders who need pardon; rather the fact that they have been created seems to give them a claim on their Creator. The mission and self-sacrifice of Christ seem an answer to this claim, and a promise of a better condition in this world as well as in the world to come. Nor is this only for individuals. The democracy moves in masses; we can not be content with the blessing of individuals as separate from their fellows, but must strive for the building up of the masses in true relations and brotherly equality.
Such appear to be the main conditions under which our theological beliefs are destined in future to move. We have now to consider what the movements of theology can be under these conditions.
II.—When the preacher whose words were quoted at the beginning of this article said that we must be Christian agnostics, he used the term agnostic not in the sense in which it is frequently used, and which implies, first, that it is more than doubtful whether the objects of theology exist at all; and, secondly, that it is a pestilent piece of folly to seek for any knowledge about them; but simply in the sense that they must be approached by other paths than those of a speculation which results in the formation of dogmas. The distinguished inventor of the name agnostic has in a recent number of this Review reminded us that "physical science is as little atheistic as it is materialistic." It may be as well to quote the passage ("Fortnightly Review" for December, 1886, page 799):
Mr. Herbert Spencer goes further, and dwells upon this eternal energy as the mystery of mysteries, and considers that religion as maintaining the sense of this mystery is one of the most important factors of human life. We are all alike in the admission of a great object of thought to which the name of God has commonly been given. We have all to co-operate in the endeavor to estimate the nature and character of that object.
In the sermon above quoted it was pointed out that literature was one of the channels through which the great objects of theology would in future be approached. The preacher implied, like Mr. Matthew Arnold, that the literary conceptions of God and immortality ("words thrown out at a great subject," to use Mr. Arnold's expression) bring us nearer to the truth than dogmatic statements. It is not very different from what Aristotle says about morals "We must be content in such matters to exhibit the truth roughly and in a figure, and to reach our object by words which describe it in the general and to draw of the same kind; for it is the mark of a man of culture to seek for exactness in each subject only so far as the nature of the thing admits. You do not expect exhortations from a mathematician or demonstration from a rhetorician." But theologians have commonly started in entire defiance of this warning. They have begun with axioms and definitions, and have proceeded to demonstrations. They have said or "proved" that God is just or good, God is personal, God is omniscient and omnipotent; and they have used these phrases not in a literary but a quasi-scientific manner, and have then proceeded to draw strict inferences from them. But in doing this they have not only acted in the way of unwarrantable assumption: they have often produced what St. Paul termed the vain janglings of a science falsely so called, have enslaved the Divine to their own puny conceptions, and have provoked violent revolt.
Suppose that a similar process had been applied to the greatest of moral powers, that of love. Suppose that men had upheld the importance of love by saying love is supreme, spontaneous, disinterested, and had written treatises to "prove" these statements, and had made deductions from them with little aid from experience; suppose that others had contradicted some of these statements and deductions, saying that love depends upon circumstances, upon juxtaposition, or upon prudential considerations, and that we have power over it, that it is a duty. Then suppose that each side had invoked poetry, proverbs, or historical records to "prove" his own theory, and had insisted that every verse or line that was quoted involved a certain proposition or dogma about love, and that, unless such a proposition was admitted, neither thought nor feeling nor action in the subject had any meaning or validity, so that the only question was which theory was correct. Suppose, further, that a physicist came in among them and said: "All this is quite unreal; love is a function of the bodily organization, and depends upon age and health, upon the state of the nerves, the heart, and the liver"; should we think that any of these processes was reasonable, or that any of them exalted our estimate of love? Should we not sweep them all away, and welcome one bright saying, one little idyl, one embrace, as having more meaning and bringing us more to the root of the matter than all of them?
In religious matters abstract reasoning is not our best mode of reaching truth. The objects we are dealing with are too great and too distant. We approach them from various sides, and say what we can and what appears true; but it is often by metaphor, and parable, and poetry, and by the experience which gives us the actual dealings convey to others any theological truth. This does not imply that we abandon a constructive theology, but that we must so speak of God with men rather than by direct statements, that we can perceive and as not to narrow down the true sense of the divine which we wish to receive and impart, that we must take account of all the conditions, that we must constantly appeal to experience; and, lastly, that the systems which we form must be understood to be a response to the intellectual need of our own day, necessarily imperfect, and always liable to revision.
1. As regards God. Instead of asserting a priori, or taking ready-made from the Scriptures abstract statements, such as those alluded to above, theologians must accept as their task the attempt to give a true account of the totality of things which is also a unity impelled by a single power or energy. They will show the traces of order, mind, and purpose which the world presents, and will cautiously draw from the processes of human life as that which is highest in the moral scale their inferences as to the nature of the Supreme Power. They will not merely be careful not to contravene the laws of Nature, but will consider essential a knowledge of them as manifestations of the Supreme Will, to which men must reverently submit themselves. They will not spend time in questions which admit of no solution, such as the eternity of matter or the origin of the world, or the possibilities of other spheres of life than those known to us by experience. They will trace the divine as working through Nature and man; or, if they endeavor to think of a transcendental God, they will take care not to represent him as a demiurge standing outside his work and putting in his hand here and there, a conception which has turned so many physicists into atheists. But they will feel able to speak of God as just and loving, since the Supreme Power ex hypothesi includes mankind, the leading portion of the world, with all its noblest ideals. They need not quarrel with those who think of the Supreme Power rather after the analogy of force or law than according to the strict idea of personality, provided that the moral nature of man be held fast and its supremacy acknowledged.
2. As regards the Scriptures. The theologian of our new epoch will start without any theory of inspiration. He will be ready to admit that God has revealed himself in part in other systems, ancient and modern. He will not pretend that the Scriptures are absolutely perfect in any part, but will take them for what they are really worth, and as constituting a history and a literature in which the development of religion is to be studied. But the fact that the Bible can not be used as the infallible mine of ready-made statements concerning history and morals, will throw him back from the letter to the spirit, from the external proof to the truth which is gained by thought and prayer; while the development of religion described in Scripture, which even now stands forth in clear outline, will be found to be unique in its variety and completeness, and at the same time a type of the development of religion generally. The beauty and harmony of the whole, and the moral elevation of special parts, will gain by this natural treatment, as well as by comparison with other sacred books; and the study will become more attractive, more inspiring, and more capable of giving; strength and consolation.
3. As to the nature of Christ. Putting aside the long controversies which began in the third century, the theologian will be content to exhibit him as he really was, and then to trace and estimate the power which his life and spirit have exerted over mankind. The fact that he takes human nature as the chief guide to the divine, and does not pretend to an absolute knowledge of God, will give a new and peculiar interest to the study of the life and influence of Christ. It will make men much more cautious in framing dogmas about his divinity; but experience in the future as in the past can but increase the sense of his moral supremacy, and the power of his life and death. And it is supremacy, not exclusiveness, which must be vindicated for the whole Christian system. These two terms, supremacy and exclusiveness, may be taken as marking the contrast between the position of Christianity under the new and under the old conditions.
4. As to miracles. It is evident that the arguments relied on in the last century do not help us now. We see that they imported the idea of a violation of the order of Nature into a time when no such notion as the order of Nature existed; that they assumed an exactness of observation and description in the narrators which our knowledge of the times and the documents forbids us to assume; and further that they dwelt on the mere physical process, while to the writers it is a part of the "many good works shown them from the Father," or the "signs of the kingdom of heaven." The theologian of the future will probably be little concerned with them. We have all learned to read in a natural sense the account of the crossing of the Red Sea, which even Mr. M. Arnold, some years ago, took as meant to record a violation of physical order. The strong east wind; the cloud which beat in the faces of the Egyptians, but by its lightning showed the Israelites their way; the waters kept back at low tide by the east wind, and walling in the course of the fugitives, but returning upon their pursuers when the tide rose and the eye of God looked forth upon them through the cloud in the morning, lose nothing in majesty or in providential importance when we read them without importing violations of the laws of Nature. And so it will be in many other cases; while as to those which are notable only for their strangeness, the action of hyperbole and the growth of the wonderful by tradition will be always present to the mind of the theologian, and will make him pass over them "with a light foot." We have no difficulty when we read of the miracles of St. Bernard or the prophecies of Savonarola, nor do they interfere with our estimate of those great men. The miracles of healing in the Gospel will, we can hardly doubt, always appear as evidence of a peculiar condition of human life in the East in the first century, and of the restorative power of a great personality. Little stress will be laid on the accounts of the infancy of Christ, since they are mentioned nowhere in the New Testament, outside the first chapters of the first and third Gospels. The case of the resurrection is quite different, since it passed immediately into the Christian consciousness. But the theologian who starts from the Epistles of St. Paul as the solid central ground of New Testament literature, will go upon the apostle's teaching that not flesh and blood, but the spiritual personality—clothed in the new house which is from heaven—inherits the kingdom of God, and will take the vision by which the apostle was converted as the type of all the manifestations by which the companions of Christ were assured that he was not lost but gone before. He will, with St. Paul, take the assurance that Christ was alive after his passion as the fulfillment of the general hope of immortality which Israel had long entertained.
This hope of immortality was grounded on the connection of man with God, and with his moral nature; and consequently, after the confirmation it received by the assurance of Christ's resurrection, it became a kind of passionate certitude. The history of the Church, however, shows how such a passion may become a great danger and source of corruption; and we may expect that the theologians of the future will substitute the "words thrown out at a great subject" for the certitude and definitions of the past. Immortality will be to them a great background of hope beyond the scene of present duty.
5. The theology of sin and redemption. This is the department of theology in which a kind of ideal dogmatism has most interfered with truth. The ideal characters of the wicked and the just, as they are described in Scripture, have been taken as literally existing; and, since men can not be ranked with the ideally righteous, they have been taken in the mass as belonging to the ideally wicked. Each action has been regarded as a conscious and open-eyed contradiction of a revealed standard of right, a contradiction which is described in the Gospel as a sin against the Holy Ghost. The false judgments, the mutual condemnations, the hypocrisy, the strange theories of redemption, the readiness to believe in eternal torments, the ascetic practices and unreal life which have resulted from this, could hardly be traced out in a lifetime. The reconstruction which will be required will need great labor. But in no department will the results be more fruitful. They will bring theological ethics into closer alliance with general science and practice. They will enable Christian teachers to treat all men as brothers, and make Christianity the means by which the state of men generally may be ameliorated.
6. The notion of the Church, the study of Church history, and the practice of church-life will be profoundly modified when once men realize that the Church is not necessarily a society held apart from the rest of mankind by having different pursuits as its object, and a peculiar form of government enjoined upon it. The Church will be simply that section of mankind in which the Christian spirit reigns; its history will be the history of the working out of the Divine principle in human society, with all its blessed results. The Church of the future will make its worship bear upon the higher ends of life; or, rather, it will teach that the true ritual is a holy life in all its departments, and thus it will merge itself more and more in general society, being ready, in the true spirit of its Lord, to lose itself that it may save mankind.
If we ask, in conclusion, what the prospects are as to the actual coming in of this better theology, there are three things which may enable us to answer hopefully.
First, the tolerance, which has been mentioned as one of the conditions under which we live, makes the path smooth before us. That which some have dignified by the name of "The New Reformation" has, we may hope, passed its stage of contention. The facts and views which have been set forth in this paper are not opposed by any solid array of party opinion, but rather find men in all parties who admit them. The ground, therefore, has been cleared, and the building has to be erected. The chief point on which our energies must be expended is Church history. This study, in its larger sense, embraces almost the whole field. The study of Scripture itself is mainly the study of the historical development by which the Church was prepared and founded. The study of dogma can not be profitable unless its history be known, and its various phases taken in combination with the circumstances of the time. And the knowledge of the progress made in the past is the surest guide for the future. History, therefore, is the frame in which all theological study must be set; and the knowledge of facts, their co-ordination and their significance, is that to which all theological students must turn their attention. We need not give up the hope of a full Christian philosophy, nor delay taking the initial steps toward it. But at every turn we are dependent on a knowledge of the path, which is as yet but imperfectly explored.
It may be asked, secondly, whether the introduction of these views will demand any great alteration in the formularies and practices of the Church. It is, indeed, desirable to give liberty, since tender consciences are fettered by any sense of bondage; and irritation, or needless pain, or incapacity, or in some cases hypocrisy, are the result. The clergy should not be required to make any subscription at all, but should simply be subject to the law of the system under which they serve. In the Church services some greater facilities for substitution and omissions would be desirable under the sanction of a competent local authority; and a document like the Athanasian Creed, which, where intelligible, recalls the age of controversies and condemnations, should not be read in the public services. But the chief adaptations of the old to the new must be made by thoughtful men for themselves; and the key to them will be found by going below the letter and seizing upon the real meaning of the assertions made, and translating them into practice. If the divinity of Christ is identified with his moral supremacy as a spiritual power; if the atonement means to us self-sacrifice, and faith a confidence in the divine righteousness; if absolution is the authoritative assurance of God's forgiveness; if election is the endowment of a few to be the leaders of the rest in Christian devotion, we shall not find any great difficulty in the language of the prayers and the other formularies in any of the Christian denominations.
Lastly, it is quite possible that much which is a puzzle to one generation will not be so to the next. It was often asked twenty years ago what would become of faith when men no longer believed the Bible to be infallible, and what of morality when they ceased to believe in eternal torments. But those who are now growing to maturity seem to find no lack of grounds for belief or of sanctions for practice. And the next generation may find no difficulty in the conditions of theological thought described in the first half of this article. The claims of Christian piety are strong, and the simplest doctrines are its best support. Duty, philanthropy, love, social and political improvement earnestly prosecuted in the fear of God and in the spirit of Christ, are independent of the ideas of dogmatic theology, and often unconscious of its changes.—Fortnightly Review.