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The New Testament Record - Part 3

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Truly, then, someone will exclaim, we may say with the Imitation : Magna ars est scire conversari cum Jesu ! And so it is. To extract from his reporters the true Jesus entire, is even impossible ; to extract him in considerable part is one of the highest conceivable tasks of criticism. And it is vain to use that favourite argument of popular theology that man could never have been left by Providence in difficulty and obscurity about a matter of so much importance to him. Such an argument we are not bound to notice. For the cardinal rule of our present inquiry is that rule of Newton's : Hypotheses non jingo ; and this argument of popular theology rests on the eternal hypothesis of a magnified and non-natural man at the head of mankind's and the world's affairs. And as to the argument itself, even if we deal with it, we may say that the course of things, so far as we can see, is not so ; things do not proceed in this fashion. Because a man has frequently to make sea-passages, he is not gifted with an immunity from sea-sickness ; because a thing is of the highest interest and importance to know, it is not, therefore, easy to know ; on the contrary, in general, in proportion to its magnitude it is difficult, and requires time.

But the right commentary on the sentence of the 'Imitation' is given by the 'Imitation' itself in the sentence following : Esto humilis et pacificus, et erit tecum Jesus!

What men could take at the hands of Jesus, what they could use, what could save them, he made as clear as light and Christians have never been able, even if they would, to miss seeing it. No, never ; but still they have superadded to it a vast Aberglaube, an after or extra-belief of their own ; and the Aberglaube has pushed on one side, for very many, the saving doctrine of Jesus, has hindered attention from being riveted on this and on its line of growth and working, has nearly effaced it, has developed all sorts of faults contrary to it. This Aberglaube has sprung out of a false criticism of the literary records in which the doctrine is conveyed ; what is called ' orthodox divinity' is, in fact, an immense literary misapprehension. Having caused the saving doctrines enshrined in these records to be neglected, and having credited the records with existing for the sake of its own Aberglaube, this blunder now threatens to cause the records themselves to be neglected by all those (and their numbers are fast increasing) whom its own Aberglaube fills with impatience and aversion. Therefore it is needful to show the line of growth of this Aberglaube, and its delusiveness ; to show, and with more detail than we have admitted hitherto, the line of growth of Jesus Christ's doctrine, and the far-reaching sanctions, the inexhaustible attractiveness, the grace and truth, with which he invested it. The doctrine itself is essentially simple ; and what is difficult,—the literary criticism of the documents containing the doctrine,—is not the doctrine.

This literary criticism, however, is extremely difficult. It calls into play the highest requisites for the study of letters ; great and wide acquaintance with the history of the human mind, knowledge of the manner in which men have thought, of their way of using words and of what they mean by them, delicacy of perception and quick tact, and besides all these, a favourable moment and the ` Zeit-Geist.' And yet everyone among us criticises the Bible, and thinks it is of the essence of the Bible that it can be thus criticised with success ! And the Four Gospels, the part of the Bible to which this sort of criticism is most applied and most confidently, are just the part which for literary criticism is infinitely the hardest; however simple they may look, and however simple the saving doctrine they contain really is. For Prophets and Epistlers speak for themselves : but in the Four Gospels reporters are speaking for Jesus, who is far above them.

Now, we all know what the literary criticism of the mass of mankind is. To be worth anything, literary and scientific criticism require, both of them, the finest heads and the most sure tact ; and they require, besides, that the world and the world's experience shall have come some considerable way. But, ever since this last condition has been fulfilled, the finest heads for letters and science, the surest tact for these, have turned themselves in general to other departments of work than criticism of the Bible, this department being occupied already in such force of numbers and hands, if not of heads, and there being so many annoyances and even dangers in freely approaching it. As our Re-formers were to Shakespeare and Bacon in tact for letters and science, or as Luther, even, was to Goethe in this respect, such almost has on the whole been, since the Renascence, the general proportion in rate of power for criticism between those who have given themselves to secular letters and science, and those who have given themselves to interpreting the Bible, and who, in conjunction with the popular interpretation of it both traditional and contemporary, have made what is called 'orthodox theology.' It is as if some simple and saving doctrines, essential for men to know, were enshrined in Shakespeare's Hamlet or in Newton's Principia (though the Gospels are really a far more complex and difficult object of criticism than either) ; and a host of second-rate critics, and official critics, and what is called 'the popular mind' as well, threw themselves upon Hamlet and the Principia, with the notion that they could and should extract from these documents, and impose on us for our belief; not only the saving doctrines enshrined there, but also the right literary and scientific criticism of the entire documents. A pretty mess they would make of it ! and just this sort of mess is our so-called orthodox theology. And its professors are nevertheless bold, overweening, and even abusive, in maintaining their criticism against all questioners ; although really, if one thinks seriously of it, it was a kind of impertinence in such professors to attempt any such criticism at all.

Happily, the faith that saves is attached to the saving doctrines in the Bible, which are very simple ; not to its literary and scientific criticism, which is very hard. And no man is to be called 'infidel' for his bad literary and scientific criticism of the Bible ; but if he were, how dreadful would the state of our orthodox theologians be ! They themselves freely fling about this word infidel at all those who reject their literary and scientific criticism, which turns out to be quite false. It would be but just to mete to them with their own measure, and to condemn them by their own rule ; and, when they air their unsound criticism in public, to cry indignantly : The Bishop of So-and-so, the Dean of So-and-so, and other infidel lecturers of the present day ! or : That rampant infidel, the Archdeacon of So-and-so, in his recent letter on the Athanasian Creed ! or : ` The Rock,' The Church Times,' and the rest of the infidel press! or : The torrent of infidelity which pours every Sunday from our pulpits ! Just would this be, and by no means inurbane ; but hardly, perhaps, Christian. Therefore we will not permit ourselves to say it ; but it is only kind to point out, in passing, to these loud and rash people, to what they expose themselves at the hands of adversaries less scrupulous than we are.

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