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Our Masses And The Bible - Part 2

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Now if we look attentively at the story, or set of asserted but unverified and unverifiable facts, which we have summarised in popular language above, and which is alleged as the basis of the Bible, we shall find that the difficulty really lies all in one point. The whole difficulty is with the infinitely magnified man who is the first of the three supernatural persons of our story. If he could be verified, the data we have are, possibly, enough to warrant our admitting the truth of the rest of the story. It is singular how few people seem to see this, though it is really quite clear. The Bible is supposed to assume a great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the Universe. This is the God, also, of natural religion, as people call it ; and this supposed certainty learned reasoners take, and render it more certain still by considerations of causality, identity, existence, and so on. These, however, are not found to help the certainty much; but a certainty in itself the Great Personal First Cause, the God of both natural and revealed religion, is supposed to be.

Then, to this given beginning, all that the Bible delivers has to fit itself on. And so arises the account of the God of the Old Testament, and of Christ and of the Holy Ghost, and of the incarnation and atonement, and of the sacraments, and of inspiration, and of the church, and of eternal punishment and eternal bliss, as theology presents them. But difficulties strike people in this or that of these doctrines. The incarnation seems incredible to one, the vicarious atonement to another, the real presence to a third, inspiration to a fourth, eternal punishment to a fifth, and so on. And they set to work to make religion more pure and rational, as they suppose, by pointing out that this or that of these doctrines is false, that it must be a mistake of theologians; and by interpreting the Bible so as to show that the doctrine is not really there. The Unitarians are, perhaps, the great people for this sort of partial and local rationalising of religion ; for taking what here and there on the surface seems to conflict most with common sense, arguing that it cannot be in the Bible and getting rid of it, and professing to have thus relieved religion of its difficulties. And now, when there is much loosening of authority and tradition, much impatience of what conflicts with common sense, the Unitarians are beginning confidently to give themselves out as the Church of the Future.

But in all this there is in reality a good deal of what we must call intellectual shallowness. For, granted that there are things in a system which are puzzling, yet they belong to a system ; and it is childish to pick them out by themselves and reproach them with error, when you leave untouched the basis of the system where they occur, and indeed admit it for sound yourself. The Unitarians are very loud about the unreasonableness and unscripturalness of the common doctrine of the Atonement. But in the Socinian Catechism it stands written : `It is necessary for salvation to know that God is ; and to know that God is, is to be firmly persuaded that there exists in reality some One, who has supreme dominion over all things.' Presently afterwards it stands written, that among the testimonies to Christ are, `miracles very great and immense,' miracula admodum magna et immensa. Now, with the One Supreme Governor, and miracles, given to start with, it may fairly be urged that that construction put by common theology on the Bible-data, which we call the story of the three supernatural men, and in which the Atonement fills a prominent place, is the natural and legitimate construction to put on them, and not unscriptural at all. Neither is it unreasonable ; in a system of things, that is, where the Supreme Governor and miracles, or even where the Supreme Governor without miracles, are already given.

And this is Butler's great argument in the Analogy. You all concede, he says to his deistical adversaries, a Supreme Personal First Cause, the almighty and intelligent Governor of the universe ; this, you and I both agree, is the system and order of nature. But you are offended at certain things in revelation ;—that is, at things, Butler means, like a future life with rewards and punishments, or like the doctrine of the Trinity as theology collects it from the Bible. Well, I will show you, he says, that in your and my admitted system of nature there are just as great difficulties as in the system of revelation. And he does show it ; and by adversaries such as his, who grant what the Deist or Socinian grant; he never has been answered, he never can be answered. The spear of Butler's reasoning will even follow and transfix the Duke of Somerset, who finds so much to condemn in the Bible, but `retires into one unassailable fortress,—faith in God.'

The only question, perhaps, is, whether Butler, as an Anglican bishop, puts an adequate construction upon what Bible-revelation, this basis of the Supreme Personal First Cause being supposed, may be allowed to be ; whether Catholic dogma is not the truer construction to put upon it. Cardinal Newman urges, fairly enough : Butler admits, analogy is in some sort violated by the fact of revelation ; only, with the precedent of natural religion given, we have to own, that the difficulties against revelation are not greater than against this precedent, and therefore the admission of this precedent of natural religion may well be taken to clear them. And must we not go farther in the same way, asks Cardinal Newman, and own that the precedent of revelation, too, may be taken to cover more than itself; and that as, the Supreme Governor being given, it is credible that the Incarnation is true, so, the Incarnation being true, it is credible that God should not have left the world to itself after Christ and his Apostles disappeared, but should have lodged divine insight in the Church and its visible head? So Pleads Cardinal Newman ; and if it be said that facts are against the infallibility of the Church, or that Scripture is against it, yet to wide, immense things, like facts and Scripture, a turn may easily be given which makes them favour it; and so. an endless field for discussion is opened, and no certain conclusion is possible. For, once launched on this line of hypothesis and inference, with a Supreme Governor assumed, and the task thrown upon us of making out what he means us to infer and what we may suppose him to do and to intend, one of us may infer one thing and another of us another, and neither can possibly prove himself to be right or his adversary to be wrong.

Only, there may come some one, who says that the basis of all our inference, the Supreme Personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor, is not the order of nature, is an assumption, and not a fact ; and then, if this is so, our whole superstructure falls to pieces like a house of cards. And this is just what is happening at present. The masses, with their rude practical instinct, go straight to the heart of the matter. They are told there is a great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Author and Governor of the universe; and that the Bible and Bible-righteousness come to us from him. Now, they do not begin by asking, with the intelligent Unitarian, whether the doctrine of the Atonement is worthy of this moral and intelligent Ruler; they begin by asking what proof we have of him at all. Moreover, they require proof which is clear and certain ; demonstration, or else plain experimental proof, such as that fire burns them if they touch it. If they are to study and obey the Bible because it comes from the Personal First Cause who is Governor of the universe, they require to be able to ascertain that there is this Governor, just as they are able to ascertain that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or that fire burns. And if they cannot ascertain it, they will let the intelligent Unitarian perorate for ever about the Atonement if he likes, but they themselves pitch the whole Bible to the winds.

Now, it is remarkable what a resting on mere probabilities, or even on less than probabilities, the proof for religion comes, in the hands of its great apologist, Butler, to be, even after he has started with the assumption of his moral and intelligent Governor. And no wonder ; for in the primary assumption itself there is and can be nothing demonstrable or experimental, and therefore clearly known. So that of Christianity, as Butler grounds it, the natural criticism would really be in these words of his own : ' Suppositions are not to be looked upon as true, because not incredible.' However, Butler maintains that in matters of practice, such as religion, this is not so. In them it is prudent, he says, to act on even a supposition, if it is not incredible. Even the doubting about religion implies, he argues, that it may be true. Now, in matters of practice we are bound in prudence, he says, to act upon what may be a low degree of evidence ; yes, ' even though it be so low as to leave the mind in very great doubt what is the truth.'

Was there ever such a way of establishing righteousness heard of? And suppose we tried this with rude, hard, down-right people, with the masses, who for what is told them want, above all, a plain experimental proof, such as that fire will burn you if you touch it. Whether in prudence they ought to take the Bible and religion on a low degree of evidence, or not, it is quite certain that on this ground they never will take them. And it is quite certain, moreover, that never on this ground did Israel, from whom we derive our religion, take it himself or recommend it. He did not take it in prudence, because he found at any rate a low degree of evidence for it ; he took it in rapture, because he found for it an evidence irresistible. But his own words are the best : ' Thou, O Eternal, art the thing that I long for, thou art my hope even from my youth : through thee have I been holden up ever since I was born.' The statutes of the Eternal rejoice the heart ; more desirable they are than gold, sweeter than honey; in keeping of them there is great reward. The Eternal is my strength, my heart hath trusted in him and I am helped ; therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.' That is why Israel took his religion.



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