Malankara World

THE GOSPELS IN THE SECOND CENTURY

AN EXAMINATION OF THE CRITICAL PART OF A WORK ENTITLED
'SUPERNATURAL RELIGION'

By W. Sanday, M.A.


CHAPTER 14

CONCLUSION

And now that we have come to the end of the purely critical portion of this enquiry, I may perhaps be allowed to say a few words on its general tendency and bearing. As critics we have only the critical question to deal with. Certain evidence is presented to us which it is our duty to weigh and test by reference to logical and critical laws. It must stand or fall on its own merits, and any considerations brought in from without will be irrelevant to the question at issue. But after this is done we may fairly look round and consider how our conclusion affects other conclusions and in what direction it is leading us. If we look at 'Supernatural Religion' in this way we shall see that its tendency is distinctly marked. Its attack will fall chiefly upon the middle party in opinion. And it will play into the hands of the two extreme parties on either side. There can be little doubt that indirectly it will help the movement that is carrying so many into Ultramontanism, and directly it is of course intended to win converts to what may perhaps be called comprehensively Secularism.

Now it is certainly true that the argument from consequences is one that ought to be applied with great caution. Yet I am not at all sure that it has not a real basis in philosophy as well as in nature. The very existence of these two great parties, the Ultramontane and the Secularist, over against each other, seems to be it kind of standing protest against either of them. If Ultramontanism is true, how is it that so many wise and good men openly avow Secularism? If 'Secularism is true, how is it that so many of the finest and highest minds take refuge from it--a treacherous refuge, I allow--in Ultramontanism? There is something in this more than a mere defective syllogism--more than an insufficient presentation of the evidence. Truth, in the widest sense, is that which is in accordance with the laws and conditions of human nature. But where beliefs are so directly antithetical as they are here, the repugnance and resistance which each is found to cause in so large a number of minds is in itself a proof that those laws and conditions are insufficiently complied with. To the spectator, standing outside of both, this will seem to be easily explained: the one sacrifices reason to faith; the other sacrifices faith to reason. But there is abundant evidence to show that both faith (meaning thereby the religious emotions) and reason are ineradicable elements in the human mind. That which seriously and permanently offends against either cannot be true. For creatures differently constituted from man--either all reason or all pure disembodied emotion--it might be otherwise; but, for man, as he is, the epithet 'true' seems to be excluded from any set of propositions that has such results.

Even in the more limited sense, and confining the term to propositions purely intellectual, there is, I think we must say, a presumption against the truth of that which involves so deep and wide a chasm in human nature. Without importing teleology, we should naturally expect that the intellect and the emotions should be capable of working harmoniously together. They do so in most things: why should they not in the highest matters of all? If the one set of opinions is anti-rational and the other anti-emotional, as we see practically that they are, is not this in itself an antecedent presumption against either of them? It may not be enough to prove at once that the syllogism is defective: still less is it a sufficient warrant for establishing an opposite syllogism. But it does seem to be enough to give the scientific reasoner pause, and to make him go over the line of his argument again and again and yet again, with the suspicion that there is (as how well there may be!) a flaw somewhere.

It would not, I think, be difficult to point out such flaws [Endnote 352:1]--some of them, as it appears, of considerable magnitude. But the subject is one that would take us far away out of our present course, and for its proper development would require a technical knowledge of the processes of physical science which I do not possess. Leaving this on one side, and regarding them only in the abstract, the considerations stated above seem to point to the necessity of something of the nature of a compromise. And yet there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as compromise in opinions. Compromise belongs to the world of practice; it is only admitted by an illicit process into the world of thought. The author of 'Supernatural Religion' is doubtless right in deprecating that 'illogical zeal which flings to the pursuing wolves of doubt and unbelief, scrap by scrap,' all the distinctive doctrines of Christianity. Belief, it is true, must be ultimately logical to stand. It must have an inner cohesion and inter- dependence. It must start from a fixed principle. This has been, and still is, the besetting weakness of the theology of mediation. It is apt to form itself merely by stripping off what seem to be excrescences from the outside, and not by radically reconstructing itself, on a firmly established basis, from within. The difficulty in such a process is to draw the line. There is a delusive appearance of roundness and completeness in the creeds of those who either accept everything or deny everything: though, even here, there is, I think we may say, always, some little loophole left of belief or of denial, which will inevitably expand until it splits and destroys the whole structure. But the moment we begin to meet both parties half way, there comes in that crucial question: Why do you accept just so much and no more? Why do you deny just so much and no more? [Endnote 354:1]

It must, in candour, be confessed that the synthetic formula for the middle party in opinion has not yet been found. Other parties have their formulae, but none that will really bear examination. _Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus_, would do excellently if there was any belief that had been held 'always, everywhere, and by all,' if no discoveries had been made as to the facts, and if there had been no advance in the methods of knowledge. The ultimate universality and the absolute uniformity of physical antecedents has a plausible appearance until it is seen that logically carried out it reduces men to machines, annihilates responsibility, and involves conclusions on the assumption of the truth of which society could not hold together for a single day. If we abandon these Macedonian methods for unloosing the Gordian knot of things and keep to the slow and laborious way of gradual induction, then I think it will be clear that all opinions must be held on the most provisional tenure. A vast number of problems will need to be worked out before any can be said to be established with a pretence to finality. And the course which the inductive process is taking supplies one of the chief 'grounds of hope' to those who wish to hold that middle position of which I have been speaking. The extreme theories which from time to time have been advanced have not been able to hold their ground. No doubt they may have done the good that extreme theories usually do, in bringing out either positively or negatively one side or another of the truth; but in themselves they have been rejected as at once inadequate and unreal solutions of the facts. First we had the Rationalism (properly so called) of Paulus, then the Mythical hypothesis of Strauss, and after that the 'Tendenz-kritik' of Baur. But what candid person does not feel that each and all of these contained exaggerations more incredible than the difficulties which they sought to remove? There has been on each of the points raised a more or less definite ebb in the tide. The moderate conclusion is seen to be also the reasonable conclusion. And not least is this the case with the enquiry on which we have been just engaged. The author of 'Supernatural Religion' has overshot the mark very much indeed. There is, as we have seen, a certain truth in some things that he has said, but the whole sum of truth is very far from bearing out his conclusions.

When we look up from these detailed enquiries and lift up our eyes to a wider horizon we shall be able to relegate them to their true place. The really imposing witness to the truth of Christianity is that which is supplied by history on the one hand, and its own internal attractiveness and conformity to human nature on the other. Strictly speaking, perhaps, these are but two sides of the same thing. It is in history that the laws of human nature assume a concrete shape and expression. The fact that Christianity has held its ground in the face of such long-continued and hostile criticism is a proof that it must have some deeply-seated fitness and appropriateness for man. And this goes a long way towards saying that it is true. It is a theory of things that is being constantly tested by experience. But the results of experience are often expressed unconsciously. They include many a subtle indication that the mind has followed but cannot reproduce to itself in set terms. All the reasons that go to form a judge's decision do not appear in his charge. Yet there we have a select and highly-trained mind working upon matter that presents no very great degree of complexity. When we come to a question so wide, so subtle and complex as Christianity, the individual mind ceases to be competent to sit in judgment upon it. It becomes necessary to appeal to a much more extended tribunal, and the verdict of that tribunal will be given rather by acts than in words. Thus there seems to have always been a sort of half-conscious feeling in men's minds that there was more in Christianity than the arguments for it were able to bring out. In looking back over the course that apologetics have taken, we cannot help being struck by a disproportion between the controversial aspect and the practical. It will probably on the whole be admitted that the balance of argument has in the past been usually somewhat on the side of the apologists; but the argumentative victory has seldom if ever been so decisive as quite to account for the comparatively undisturbed continuity of the religious life. It was in the height of the Deist controversy that Wesley and Whitfield began to preach, and they made more converts by appealing to the emotions than probably Butler did by appealing to the reason.

A true philosophy must take account of these phenomena. Beliefs which issue in that peculiarly fine and chastened and tender spirit which is the proper note of Christianity, cannot, under any circumstances, be dismissed as 'delusion.' Surely if any product of humanity is true and genuine, it is to be found here. There are indeed truths which find a response in our hearts without apparently going through any logical process, not because they are illogical, but because the scales of logic are not delicate and sensitive enough to weigh them.

'Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.' 'I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.' 'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' The plummet of science--physical or metaphysical, moral or critical--has never sounded so deep as sayings such as these. We may pass them over unnoticed in our Bibles, or let them slip glibly and thoughtlessly from the tongue; but when they once really come home, there is nothing to do but to bow the head and cover the face and exclaim with the Apostle, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.'

And yet there is that other side of the question which is represented in 'Supernatural Religion,' and this too must have justice done to it. There is an intellectual, as well as a moral and spiritual, synthesis of things. Only it should be remembered that this synthesis has to cover an immense number of facts of the most varied and intricate kind, and that at present the nature of the facts themselves is in many cases very far from being accurately ascertained. We are constantly reminded in reading 'Supernatural Religion,' able and vigorous as it is, how much of its force depends rather upon our ignorance than our knowledge. It supplies us with many opportunities of seeing how easily the whole course and tenour of an argument may be changed by the introduction of a new element. For instance, I imagine that if the author had given a little deeper study to the seemingly minute and secondary subject of text-criticism, it would have aroused in him very considerable misgivings as to the results at which he seemed to have arrived. There is a solidarity in all the different departments of human knowledge and research, especially among those that are allied in subject. These are continually sending out offshoots and projections into the neighbouring regions, and the conclusions of one science very often have to depend upon those of another. The course of enquiry that has been taken in 'Supernatural Religion' is peculiarly unfortunate. It starts from the wrong end. It begins with propositions into which _a priori_ considerations largely enter, and, from the standpoint given by these, it proceeds to dictate terms in a field that can only be trodden by patient and unprejudiced study. A far more hopeful and scientific process would have been to begin upon ground where dogmatic questions do not enter, or enter only in a remote degree, and where there is a sufficient number of solid ascertainable facts to go upon, and then to work the way steadily and cautiously upwards to higher generalisations.

It will have been seen in the course of the present enquiry how many side questions need to be determined. It would be well if monographs were written upon all the quotations from the Old Testament in the Christian literature of the first two centuries, modelled upon Credner's investigations into the quotations in Justin. Before this is done there should be a new and revised edition of Holmes' and Parsons' Septuagint [Endnote 359:1]. Everything short of this would be inadequate, because we need to know not only the best text, but every text that has definite historical attestation. In this way it would be possible to arrive at a tolerably exact, instead of a merely approximate, deduction as to the habit of quotation generally, which would supply a firmer basis for inference in regard to the New Testament than that which has been assumed here. At the same time monographs should be written in English, besides those already existing in German, upon the date or position of the writers whose works come under review. Without any attempt to prove a particular thesis, the reader should be allowed to see precisely what the evidence is and how far it goes. Then if he could not arrive at a positive conclusion, he could at least attain to the most probable. And, lastly, it is highly important that the whole question of the composition and structure of the Synoptic Gospels should be investigated to the very bottom. Much valuable labour has already been expended upon this subject, but the result, though progress has been made, is rather to show its extreme complexity and difficulty than to produce any final settlement. Yet, as the author of 'Supernatural Religion' has rather dimly and inadequately seen, we are constantly thrown back upon assumptions borrowed from this quarter.

Pending such more mature and thorough enquiries, I quite feel that my own present contribution belongs to a transition stage, and cannot profess to be more than provisional. But it will have served its purpose sufficiently if it has helped to mark out more distinctly certain lines of the enquiry and to carry the investigation along these a little way; suggesting at the same time--what the facts themselves really suggest--counsels of sobriety and moderation.

What the end will be, it would be presumptuous to attempt to foretell. It will probably be a long time before even these minor questions--much more the major questions into which they run up-- will be solved. Whether they will ever be solved--all of them at least--in such a way as to compel entire assent is very doubtful. Error and imperfection seem to be permanently, if we may hope diminishingly, a condition of human thought and action. It does not appear to be the will of God that Truth should ever be so presented as to crush out all variety of opinion. The conflict of opinions is like that of Hercules with the Hydra. As fast as one is cut down another arises in its place; and there is no searing- iron to scorch and cicatrize the wound. However much we may labour, we can only arrive at an inner conviction, not at objective certainty. All the glosses and asseverations in the world cannot carry us an inch beyond the due weight of the evidence vouchsafed to us. An honest and brave mind will accept manfully this condition of things, and not seek for infallibility where it can find none. It will adopt as its motto that noble saying of Bishop Butler--noble, because so unflinchingly true, though opposed to a sentimental optimism--'Probability is the very guide of life.'

With probabilities we have to deal, in the intellectual sphere. But, when once this is thoroughly and honestly recognised, even a comparatively small balance of probability comes to have as much moral weight as the most loudly vaunted certainty. And meantime, apart from and beneath the strife of tongues, there is the still small voice which whispers to a man and bids him, in no superstitious sense but with the gravity and humility which befits a Christian, to 'work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.'

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