By W. Sanday, M.A.
It would be natural in a work of this kind, which is a direct review of a particular book, to begin with an account of that book, and with some attempt to characterize it. Such had been my own intention, but there seems to be sufficient reason for pursuing a different course. On the one hand, an account of a book which has so recently appeared, which has been so fully reviewed, and which has excited so much attention, would appear to be superfluous; and, on the other hand, as the character of it has become the subject of somewhat sharp controversy, and as controversy-- or at least the controversial temper--is the one thing that I wish to avoid, I have thought it well on the whole to abandon my first intention, and to confine myself as much as possible to a criticism of the argument and subject-matter, with a view to ascertain the real facts as to the formation of the Canon of the four Gospels.
I shall correct, where I am able to do so, such mistakes as may happen to come under my notice and have not already been pointed out by other reviewers, only dilating upon them where what seem to be false principles of criticism are involved. On the general subject of these mistakes--misleading references and the like--I think that enough has been said [Endnote 2:1]. Much is perhaps charged upon the individual which is rather due to the system of theological training and the habits of research that are common in England at the present day. Inaccuracies no doubt have been found, not a few. But, unfortunately, there is only one of our seats of learning where--in theology at least--the study of accuracy has quite the place that it deserves. Our best scholars and ablest men--with one or two conspicuous exceptions--do not write, and the work is left to be done by _littérateurs_ and clergymen or laymen who have never undergone the severe preliminary discipline which scientific investigation requires. Thus a low standard is set; there are but few sound examples to follow, and it is a chance whether the student's attention is directed to these at the time when his habits of mind are being formed.
Again, it was claimed for 'Supernatural Religion' on its first appearance that it was impartial. The claim has been indignantly denied, and, I am afraid I must say, with justice. Any one conversant with the subject (I speak of the critical portion of the book) will see that it is deeply colored by the author's prepossessions from beginning to end. Here again he has only imbibed the temper of the nation. Perhaps it is due to our political activity and the system of party-government that the spirit of party seems to have taken such a deep root in the English mind. An Englishman's political opinions are determined for him mainly (though sometimes in the way of reaction) by his antecedents and education, and his opinions on other subjects follow in their train. He takes them up with more of practical vigor and energy than breadth of reflection. There is a contagion of party-spirit in the air. And thus advocacy on one side is simply met by advocacy on the other. Such has at least been hitherto the history of English thought upon most great subjects. We may hope that at last this state of things is coming to an end. But until now, and even now, it has been difficult to find that quiet atmosphere in which alone true criticism can flourish.
Let it not be thought that these few remarks are made in a spirit of censoriousness. They are made by one who is only too conscious of being subject to the very same conditions, and who knows not how far he may need indulgence on the same score himself. How far his own work is tainted with the spirit of advocacy it is not for him to say. He knows well that the author whom he has set himself to criticize is at least a writer of remarkable vigor and ability, and that he cannot lay claim to these qualities; but he has confidence in the power of truth--whatever that truth may be-- to assert itself in the end. An open and fair field and full and free criticism are all that is needed to eliminate the effects of individual strength or weakness. 'The opinions of good men are but knowledge in the making'--especially where they are based upon a survey of the original facts. Mistakes will be made and have currency for a time. But little by little truth emerges; it receives the suffrages of those who are competent to judge; gradually the controversy narrows; parts of it are closed up entirely, and a solid and permanent advance is made.
The author of 'Supernatural Religion' starts from a rigid and somewhat antiquated view of Revelation--Revelation is 'a direct and external communication by God to man of truths undiscoverable by human reason. The divine origin of this communication is proved by miracles. Miracles are proved by the record of Scripture, which, in its turn, is attested by the history of the Canon.--This is certainly the kind of theory which was in favor at the end of the last century, and found expression in works like Paley's Evidences. It belongs to a time of vigorous and clear but mechanical and narrow culture, when the philosophy of religion was made up of abrupt and violent contrasts; when Christianity (including under that name the Old Testament as well as the New) was thought to be simply true and all other religions simply false; when the revelation of divine truth was thought to be as sudden and complete as the act of creation; and when the presence of any local and temporary elements in the Christian documents or society was ignored.
The world has undergone a great change since then. A new and far- reaching philosophy is gradually displacing the old. The Christian sees that evolution is as much a law of religion as of nature. The Ethnic, or non-Christian, religions are no longer treated as outside the pale of the Divine government. Each falls into its place as part of a vast divinely appointed scheme, of the character of which we are beginning to have some faint glimmerings. Other religions are seen to be correlated to Christianity much as the other tentative efforts of nature are correlated to man. A divine operation, and what from our limited human point of view we should call a _special_ divine operation, is not excluded but rather implied in the physical process by which man has been planted on the earth, and it is still more evidently implied in the corresponding process of his spiritual enlightenment. The deeper and more comprehensive view that we have been led to take as to the dealings of Providence has not by any means been followed by a depreciation of Christianity. Rather it appears on a loftier height than ever. The spiritual movements of recent times have opened men's eyes more and more to its supreme spiritual excellence. It is no longer possible to resolve it into a mere 'code of morals.' The Christian ethics grow organically out of the relations which Christianity assumes between God and man, and in their fullness are inseparable from those relations. The author of 'Supernatural Religion' speaks as if they were separable, as if a man could assume all the Christian graces merely by wishing to assume them. But he forgets the root of the whole Christian system, 'Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.'
The old idea of the Aufklärung that Christianity was nothing more than a code of morals, has now long ago been given up, and the self-complacency which characterized that movement has for the most part, though not entirely, passed away. The nineteenth century is not in very many quarters regarded as the goal of things. And it will hardly now be maintained that Christianity is adequately represented by any of the many sects and parties embraced under the name. When we turn from even the best of these, in its best and highest embodiment, to the picture that is put before us in the Gospels, how small does it seem! We feel that they all fall short of their ideal, and that there is a greater promise and potentiality of perfection in the root than has ever yet appeared in branch or flower.
No doubt theology follows philosophy. The special conception of the relation of man to God naturally takes its color from the wider conception as to the nature of all knowledge and the relation of God to the universe. It has been so in every age, and it must needs be so now. Some readjustment, perhaps a considerable readjustment, of theological and scientific beliefs may be necessary. But there is, I think, a strong presumption that the changes involved in theology will be less radical than often seems to be supposed. When we look back upon history, the world has gone through many similar crises before. The discoveries of Darwin and the philosophies of Mill or Hegel do not mark a greater relative advance than the discoveries of Newton and the philosophies of Descartes and Locke. These latter certainly had an effect upon theology. At one time they seemed to shake it to its base; so much so that Bishop Butler wrote in the Advertisement to the first edition of his Analogy that 'it is come to be taken for granted that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious.' Yet what do we see after a lapse of a hundred and forty years? It cannot be said that there is less religious life and activity now than there was then, or that there has been so far any serious breach in the continuity of Christian belief. An eye that has learnt to watch the larger movements of mankind will not allow itself to be disturbed by local oscillations. It is natural enough that some of our thinkers and writers should imagine that the last word has been spoken, and that they should be tempted to use the word 'Truth' as if it were their own peculiar possession. But Truth is really a much vaster and more unattainable thing. One man sees a fragment of it here and another there; but, as a whole, even in any of its smallest subdivisions, it exists not in the brain of any one individual, but in the gradual, and ever incomplete but ever self-completing, onward movement of the whole. 'If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.' The forms of Christianity change, but Christianity itself endures. And it would seem as if we might well be content to wait until it was realized a little less imperfectly before we attempt to go farther afield.
Yet the work of adaptation must be done. The present generation has a task of its own to perform. It is needful for it to revise its opinions in view of the advances that have been made both in general knowledge and in special theological criticism. In so far as 'Supernatural Religion' has helped to do this, it has served the cause of true progress; but its main plan and design I cannot but regard as out of date and aimed in the air.
The Christian miracles, or what in our ignorance we call miracles, will not bear to be torn away from their context. If they are facts we must look at them in strict connection with that Ideal Life to which they seem to form the almost natural accompaniment. The Life itself is the great miracle. When we come to see it as it really is, and to enter, if even in some dim and groping way, into its inner recesses, we feel ourselves abashed and dumb. Yet this self-evidential character is found in portions of the narrative that are quite unmiraculous. These, perhaps, are in reality the most marvelous, though the miracles themselves will seem in place when their spiritual significance is understood and they are ranged in order round their common centre. Doubtless some elements of superstition may be mixed up in the record as it has come down to us. There is a manifest gap between the reality and the story of it. The Evangelists were for the most part 'Jews who sought after a sign.' Something of this wonder-seeking curiosity may very well have given a color to their account of events in which the really transcendental element was less visible and tangible. We cannot now distinguish with any degree of accuracy between the subjective and the objective in the report. But that miracles, or what we call such, did in some shape take place, is, I believe, simply a matter of attested fact. When we consider it in its relation to the rest of the narrative, to tear out the miraculous bodily from the Gospels seems to me in the first instance a violation of history and criticism rather than of faith.
Still the author of 'Supernatural Religion' is, no doubt, justified in raising the question, Did miracles really happen? I only wish to protest against the idea that such a question can be adequately discussed as something isolated and distinct, in which all that is necessary is to produce and substantiate the documents as in a forensic process. Such a 'world-historical' event (if I may for the moment borrow an expressive Germanism) as the founding of Christianity cannot be thrown into a merely forensic form. Considerations of this kind may indeed enter in, but to suppose that they can be justly estimated by themselves alone is an error. And it is still more an error to suppose that the riddle of the universe, or rather that part of the riddle which to us is most important, the religious nature of man and, the objective facts and relations that correspond to it, can all be reduced to some four or five simple propositions which admit of being proved or disproved by a short and easy Q.E.D.
It would have been a far more profitable enquiry if the author had asked himself, What is Revelation? The time has come when this should be asked and an attempt to obtain a more scientific definition should be made. The comparative study of religions has gone far enough to admit of a comparison between the Ethnic religions and that which had its birth in Palestine--the religion of the Jews and Christians. Obviously, at the first blush, there is a difference: and that difference constitutes what we mean by Revelation. Let us have this as yet very imperfectly known quantity scientifically ascertained, without any attempt either to minimize or to exaggerate. I mean, let the field which Mr. Matthew Arnold has lately been traversing with much of his usual insight but in a light and popular manner, be seriously mapped out and explored. Pioneers have been at work, such as Dr. Kuenen, but not perhaps quite without a bias: let the same enquiry be taken up so widely as that the effects of bias may be eliminated; and instead of at once accepting the first crude results, let us wait until they are matured by time. This would be really fruitful and productive, and a positive addition to knowledge; but reasoning such as that in 'Supernatural Religion' is vitiated at the outset, because it starts with the assumption that we know perfectly well the meaning of a term of which our actual conception is vague and indeterminate in the extreme--Divine Revelation. [Endnote 10:1]
With these reservations as to the main drift and bearing of the argument, we may however meet the author of 'Supernatural Religion' on his own ground. It is a part of the question--though a more subordinate part apparently than he seems to suppose--to decide whether miracles did or did not really happen. Even of this part too it is but quite a minor subdivision that is included in the two volumes of his work that have hitherto appeared. In the first place, merely as a matter of historical attestation, the Gospels are not the strongest evidence for the Christian miracles. Only one of the four, in its present shape, is claimed as the work of an Apostle, and of that the genuineness is disputed. The Acts of the Apostles stand upon very much the same footing with the Synoptic Gospels, and of this book we are promised a further examination. But we possess at least some undoubted writings of one who was himself a chief actor in the events which followed immediately upon those recorded in the Gospels; and in these undoubted writings St. Paul certainly shows by incidental allusions, the good faith of which cannot be questioned, that he believed himself to be endowed with the power of working miracles, and that miracles, or what were thought to be such, were actually wrought both by him and by his contemporaries. He reminds the Corinthians that 'the signs of an Apostle were wrought among them ... in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds' ([Greek: en saemeious kai terasi kai dunamesi]--the usual words for the higher forms of miracle-- 2 Cor. xii. 12). He tells the Romans that 'he will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ hath not wrought in him, to make the Gentiles obedient, by word and deed, through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God' ([Greek: en dunamei saemeion kai teraton, en dunamei pneumator Theou], Rom. xv. 18, 19) He asks the Galatians whether 'he that ministereth to them the Spirit, and worketh miracles [Greek: ho energon dunameis] among them, doeth it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?' (Gal. iii. 5). In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, he goes somewhat elaborately into the exact place in the Christian economy that is to be assigned to the working of miracles and gifts of healing (1 Cor. xii. 10, 28, 29). Besides these allusions, St. Paul repeatedly refers to the cardinal miracles of the Resurrection and Ascension; he refers to them as notorious and unquestionable facts at a time when such an assertion might have been easily refuted. On one occasion he gives a very circumstantial account of the testimony on which the belief in the Resurrection rested (1 Cor. xv. 4-8). And, not only does he assert the Resurrection as a fact, but he builds upon it a whole scheme of doctrine: 'If Christ be not risen,' he says, 'then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.' We do not stay now to consider the exact philosophical weight of this evidence. It will be time enough to do this when it has received the critical discussion that may be presumed to be in store for it. But as external evidence, in the legal sense, it is probably the best that can be produced, and it has been entirely untouched so far.
Again, in considering the evidence for the age of the Synoptic Gospels, that which is derived from external sources is only a part, and not perhaps the more important part, of the whole. It points backwards indeed, and we shall see with what amount of force and range. But there is still an interval within which only approximate conclusions are possible. These conclusions need to be supplemented from the phenomena of the documents themselves. In the relation of the Gospels to the growth of the Christian society and the development of Christian doctrine, and especially to the great turning-point in the history, the taking of Jerusalem, there is very considerable internal evidence for determining the date within which they must have been composed. It is well known that many critics, without any apologetic object, have found a more or less exact criterion in the eschatological discourses (Matt. xxiv, Mark xiii, Luke xxi. 5-36), and to this large additions may be made. As I hope some day to have an opportunity of discussing the whole question of the origin and composition of the Synoptic Gospels, I shall not go into this at present: but in the mean time it should be remembered that all these further questions lie in the background, and that in tracing the formation of the Canon of the Gospels the whole of the evidence for miracles--even from this _ab extra_ point of view--is very far from being exhausted.
There is yet another remaining reason which makes the present enquiry of less importance than might be supposed, derived from the particular way in which the author has dealt with this external evidence. In order to explain the _prima facie_ evidence for our canonical Gospels, he has been compelled to assume the existence of other documents containing, so far as appears, the same or very similar matter. In other words, instead of four Gospels he would give us five or six or seven. I do not know that, merely as a matter of policy, and for apologetic purposes only, the best way to refute his conclusion would not be to admit his premises and to insist upon the multiplication of the evidence for the facts of the Gospel history which his argument would seem to involve. I mention this however, not with any such object, but rather to show that the truth of Christianity is not intimately affected, and that there are no such great reasons for partiality on one side or on the other.
I confess that it was a relief to me when I found that this must be the case. I do not think the time has come when the central question can be approached with any safety. Rough and ready methods (such as I am afraid I must call the first part of 'Supernatural Religion') may indeed cut the Gordian knot, but they do not untie it. A number of preliminary questions will have to be determined with a greater degree of accuracy and with more general consent than has been done hitherto. The Jewish and Christian literature of the century before and of the two centuries after the birth of Christ must undergo a more searching examination, by minds of different nationality and training, both as to the date, text, and character of the several books. The whole balance of an argument may frequently be changed by some apparently minute and unimportant discovery; while, at present, from the mere want of consent as to the data, the state of many a question is necessarily chaotic. It is far better that all these points should be discussed as disinterestedly as possible. No work is so good as that which is done without sight of the object to which it is tending and where the workman has only his measure and rule to trust to. I am glad to think that the investigation which is to follow may be almost, if not quite, classed in this category; and I hope I may be able to conduct it with sufficient impartiality. Unconscious bias no man can escape, but from conscious bias I trust I shall be free.
Table of Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter
eBooksHome | Inspirational Articles | General Essays | Sermons | Library - Home | Baselios Church Home
A service of St. Basil's Syriac Orthodox Church, Ohio
Copyright © 2009-2020 - ICBS Group. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer
Website designed, built, and hosted by International Cyber Business Services, Inc., Hudson, Ohio