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Reflections on Scripture


Chapter Seventeen:
Enter Modernism

The Bible, the Word of God in human speech, is not like a manual of instructions - though it has often been treated like that. While most of it is straightforward enough, there are also many passages whose meaning is far from immediately self-evident. This is why Bible study has a history going back to Old Testament times.

The obscurities are basically of three kinds.

The first are due to mistakes by copyists. In the transmission of the manuscripts down the ages, the attention of the copyists sometimes wandered, or they added comments in the margin which later became incorporated in the text. As a result, the surviving manuscripts contain numbers of variant readings. The kind of scholarship that tries to determine which of these different readings comes nearest to the original is called textual criticism. It is largely a matter of comparing manuscripts to determine which seems most reliable. 1

It is not difficult, I think, to see why God, in his providence, allowed the texts to become corrupted in this way. Had he prevented it, had he ensured that the thousands of copyists working over two to three millennia had never made a mistake, the Bible would so obviously be a work of divine origin that faith would no longer be a free act. The variant readings are never sufficient to make the main substance of the biblical books uncertain. They only affect particular sentences or phrases.

Obscurities of the second kind flow from the human limitations and character traits of the inspired human authors. While ensuring that they wrote what he wanted, God did so through the medium of their particular personalities and styles of writing and the kinds of literary composition char­acteristic of their age. Since they were writing a long time ago, they, not surprisingly, used modes of expression or referred to events and things some­times beyond the comprehension of later readers.

Difficulties arising from this second class of causes are resolved, in so far as they can be, by the study of ancient languages, history, archaeology, and literary forms or genres (not to be confused with "form criticism"). Are some words to be taken literally or metaphorically? Is a certain book or passage intended to be history in the strict sense, or an allegory or parable, or is it some combination of the two? The search is for what the human author 144 intended to say and how. This is called "the literal sense".

These first two forms of Bible study simply prepare the ground for what in the Church's eyes has always been the most important branch; the study of the religious significance or theological meaning of the texts.

Obscurities in this field are due to the mysterious nature of the subject matter, or, according to St. Augustine, are deliberately put there by the divine author himself. "The Sacred Books inspired by God were purposely interspersed by him with difficulties both to stimulate us to study and examine them with close attention, and also to give us a salutary experience of the limitations of our minds and thus exercise us in proper humility". 2  God does not disclose the full meaning of what he is saying to mere cleverness or sharp wits.

Most of the problems connected with these three branches of Bible study were familiar to the scholars of the ancient world, with the school of Antioch concentrating on the literal meaning and those of Alexandria on possible symbolic or "spiritual" meanings. The critical approach was not unknown either Origen and St. Jerome, for instance, on the basis of internal evidence, doubted whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was really by St. Paul. 3 But whatever the problems, down to 200 years ago the end in view was always the same: to strengthen belief, deepen understanding and increase love of God.

Since around 1800, on the other hand, "advanced" biblical scholarship has followed a markedly different course with the precisely opposite results. The critical method has been given pride of place over every other approach; attention has focused on technical rather than spiritual questions (when and in what circumstances were the books written), with a high percentage of those trying to answer the questions losing most of their beliefs in the process. This is a plain historical fact which receives surprisingly little attention. Does it mean that the Bible cannot stand up to close examination? No. We have to distinguish between the method and the spirit in which it is used, or between the critical method and the critical movement.

That the critical method, once formulated, would be applied to the Bible was more or less bound to happen, but it was clearly a much more sensitive business than applying it to other historical documents, seeing that implicit in its use was the assumption that the origin of at least some of the books would turn out not to be what had hitherto been thought.

The method also carries with it a number of temptations. Experts like to exercise their skills. But if a text is the work of a single author, without additions or interpolations and written when it was thought to have been, there is nothing for the critic to do. The method, of its nature, therefore 145 carries within it a kind of bias against single authorship. There will be a tendency to see any ancient text as necessarily a patchwork of literary fragments put together by groups of editors at some considerable time after the events described  which is different from recognizing, as has always been done, that the biblical authors, like other writers about past events, when not writing about events they had themselves taken part in, depended on external sources. We can see the tendency at work in 19th-century Homeric studies, where it came to be more or less taken for granted that any work before the fifth or sixth century A.D. must be of composite authorship. Homer's very existence was doubted, and the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey assigned to a mob of Greek poets spanning several centuries. Since then Homeric studies have changed course. A real Homer is credited with the bulk of the epics. 4 But there has been no such change of course in advanced biblical scholarship.

Another temptation will be to try to ape the exact sciences by assigning a certainty to conclusions, which, because of the nature of the subject matter, can only be conjectural. 5  Nevertheless, as we have already said, there is nothing objectionable about the method itself. The Church has approved it, and its use by biblical scholars with faith and a sense of proportion has thrown light on numbers of incidental scriptural obscurities.

The critical movement is another matter. Although forerunners like the 17th-century French Oratorian priest Richard Simon and the 18th-century French physician Jean Astruc were Catholics, we can take as the movement's starting point the publication of The Wo!ffenbuttel Fragments (1774-1778) by the German Lutheran dramatist and writer Lessing. The "fragments" were actually extracts from an unpublished manuscript by the rationalist scholar Reimarus, which Lessing pretended he had found in the royal Hanoverian library at Wolffenbuttel. A few years later, Gottfried Eichorn, the Lutheran professor of oriental languages at Jena (and subsequently Gottingen) published his Introductions to the Old and New Testaments (1780-1783 and 1804-1812), and from then on the movement was dominated by scholars whose conclusions about the time and the way the biblical books were written were influenced as much by philosophical assumptions and cultural prejudices as by concrete evidence.

Their principal assumption was that supernatural phenomena like miracles and prophecy are impossible, and therefore a large part of the Bible must be folklore. They also tended to see people in the past as necessarily inferior, uninterested in objective truth and incapable of transmitting facts accurately, while regarding priests as by nature deceitful and only interested in the maintenance of their collective authority. Evidence that the art of writing was 146 practised by the Hebrews at least by the time of the Exodus, and of the capacity of non-literate peoples to orally transmit religious traditions faithfully over long periods of time was either downplayed or ignored. 6 These assumptions had in most cases already been made before they set to work.

The Pentateuch and Gospels were the main objects of attention. The crucial question about the composition of the Pentateuch is not "When were the books written or put together in the form we now have them?" but "Was the information they contain, whether recorded by Moses or others, transmitted accurately down the centuries?"

The crucial question about the composition of the Gospels is "Were they, or were they not, written by eye-witnesses, or by men with more or less direct access to eye-witnesses?"

To both questions the critics' conclusions tended towards a negative answer.

If Moses existed, it was maintained, little could be known about him except that he was neither the Pentateuch's author nor Israel's lawgiver. The Pentateuch was put together after the Exile out of four collections of documents and oral traditions, the earliest written four or five hundred years after Moses' death, with the books of the Law coming last. Deuteronomy had been composed at the time of King Josiah's religious reform (640-609). The clergy responsible pretended they had found the book in a part of the temple undergoing reconstruction. Before that the Jews had no fixed laws. They lived by a shifting mass of customary rules and regulations. Most of Leviticus, also the work of priests, was written during and after the Exile. But in order to convince the Jewish people that these two codes of laws were not the innovations they must have appeared to be, the post-exilic clergy combined them with two sets of oral and written traditions ("Yahwistic" and "Elohistic") about the supposed early history of the world and the Jewish people, now found in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Joshua.

Most of these ideas are associated with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). But long before he was born, Eichorn had been suggesting that Leviticus, for which he invented the name "priestly code", had a different origin from the other four books of the Pentateuch, while between 1802 and 1805 ,J. S. Vater had introduced the "fragment theory" of the suspended Scottish Catholic priest, Alexander Geddes. According to Geddes, the Pentateuch had been put together at the time of the Exile from 39 separate sources. In 1833, E. Reuss was teaching that no traces of the law can be found in the early prophetical and historical writings, consequently the law could not have existed in the early period of Jewish history. In a book published at Gotha in 1850, Eduard Riehm attributed Deuteronomy to the reign of King Manasses. 147

It was less easy to dismiss the New Testament miracles as myths and the Gospels as patchworks of folklore. Between the death of Christ and the writing of the Gospels there were no long centuries during which myths could form and orally transmitted information become garbled. The best the critics could do was date the Gospels as long after the death of the last eye­witnesses as possible. 7 This in a sense is what a great part of New Testament scholarship outside the Catholic Church has ever since been about.

For Reimarus the New Testament miracles were due to conscious deception. In the case of the Resurrection, the apostles simply stole the body, then lied about it. (Reimarus also seems to have been the first modern scholar to present Christ as a political agitator.) Less crude were the theories of critics like Semler (d. 1791) and Paulus (d. 1803). They attributed the miracles to natural causes misunderstood by the witnesses. The apostles thought they saw Christ walking on the water when he was actually walking on the lake-shore. But if this was the way Christianity began (lies or poor eyesight), how do we explain its phenomenal expansion and later triumph? Efforts to answer this question took a more sophisticated philosophical form.

The leader of this new school of thought, Ferdinand Christian Baur, founder of the Tübingen school, side-stepped the question as to what prompted the apostles to invent the myths, or give them the form they did. He concentrated on the way the myths developed. The rise of Christianity was explained in terms of Hegel's theory that progress takes place through the clash of contradictory ideas.

According to Baur, a conservative Jewish party under St. Peter and St. James (thesis) came into conflict with the Gentile-oriented party under St. Paul (antithesis). The eventual result was a compromise (synthesis) from which sprang the Catholic Church. St. Matthew's and St. Mark's gospels represent the conservative view, St. Luke's gospel and St. Paul's epistles that of the innovators, and the "Johannine writings" (not from the pen of St. John) the standpoint of the party of compromise. Baur attributed the bulk of the New Testament to the late second century. He was also one of the first critics to regard the Gospels as primarily a record of the early Christians' collective thinking rather than a record of events and facts. However, he was at least honest enough to admit that if the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses or the friends of eye-witnesses, his theories fell to the ground.

But how, asked Bruno Bauer, another critic of the period, can a collective consciousness produce a connected narrative? A good question. However Bauer (with an "e") was even more radical than Baur (without an "e"). For Bruno Bauer, Christianity originated with the author of St. Mark's Gospel, an 148 Italian living in the Emperor Hadrian's time, who never intended his book to be anything but a  work of fiction. Nethertheless the idea got  about that the hero was a real person, a sect of admirers formed, and the other New Testament books followed. Bauer eventually lost his teaching post.

Such, roughly, were the beginnings of the biblical critical movement. The Bible, it would seem, is like an atomic reactor. Anyone working on it without the protective coating of prayer and reverence rapidly has his faith burned to cinders.

This is not the place to consider to how many of the theories we have been describing contemporary scholarship still attaches weight. Here we are only concerned with the immediate results.

At first sight it may not seem to matter much when or by whom the biblical books were written, provided they are still believed to be inspired God, in the sense intended by him. It is true, however, that most men and women will, rightly or wrongly, assume that the greater the span of time between the occurrence of an event and its being recorded in writing, the less likely the record is to be true. 8 It was therefore not long before the readers of Reimarus, Eichorn and their successors were believing the Bible to be largely a work of fiction too, the critics' immense erudition being the principal factor enabling them to carry the day. Their readership included growing numbers of Lutheran pastors, who were simultaneously being exposed to Kant's idea that God's existence could no longer be proved from his works.

Seeing that, as Lutherans, they believed neither in an infallible Church nor a tradition complementary to Scripture, there seemed no longer to be any reliable basis for belief. Religion appeared to be at its last gasp, and for many it was in fact so. Most of the fathers of modern German atheism, like Feuerbach, the forerunner of Karl Marx, began life as Lutheran theological students.

However, men can rightly want to go on believing in God even when they are unable to answer the formal objections to belief, and so it often was in this case. The situation was saved for the poor victims of Reimarus' scepticism, Eichorn's doubts, and Kant's agnosticism - or they thought it had been - by the Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.

*           *           *

Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a leading figure in the German romantic movement, had likewise had his belief in the reliability of Scripture and the value 149 of natural theology undermined by Eichorn and Kant, but he thought he had discovered a way out of his impasse.

His message was roughly this: "Take heart. All is not lost. Religion does not need outside evidence to justify its existence. Religion is not knowledge, whether in the form of creeds, doctrines or the content of sacred books. It does not need philosophical reflection either. The essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. If you have a feeling of dependence on God you have all that is necessary to make you a member of the worldwide 'communion of saints' or company of the truly religious. The separate beliefs and practices of the various religions scattered through time and space are simply different ways, all more or less valid, of cultivating and expressing this fundamental instinct or attitude, which by itself is sufficient". 9

Such was the tenor of the book which first made Schleiermacher famous: On Religion - Addresses to its Cultured Despisers (1799).

Equating religion and feeling had of course long been a feature of certain kinds of Protestantism, not least with the Moravian brethren, one of whose schools Schleiermacher had attended as a boy. But no professor of theology had hitherto denied the Bible and creeds any objective value, or made feeling - even if it was a feeling of absolute dependence on God - the sole substance of Christianity.

In 1811, Schleiermacher, who had been teaching at Halle, was offered the chair of theology at the recently founded university of Berlin, a post he held until 1830, and in 1821 and 1822 he published in two parts the other book on which his fame chiefly rests, The Christian Faith.

In The Christian Faith, in spite of its title, Schleiermacher does not retreat from his previous position. Christianity remains only one of many expressions of the feeling of dependence or "God-consciousness". But he tries to show why it is the best expression so far: Christ was the man in whom God­consciousness reached the highest intensity. Christ was not God. He did not found a Church. But the followers who naturally gathered round so remarkable a man received the impress of his personality, his special way of feeling dependence on God, and later, by forming themselves into a permanent community were able to transmit his special way of feeling or personhood down the ages. We do not know how many, if any, of the words attributed to Christ by the Gospels actually come from him. But each Christian receives the impress of Christ's way of feeling, by living and experiencing the sense of absolute dependence within the Christian community.

What differentiates the Christian religious consciousness from other forms of religious consciousness, and makes it superior to them, is the sense of 150 having been redeemed from sin by Christ. This does not mean that Christ paid the debt for mankind's sins by his death on Calvary. Such a notion borders on magic. Redemption means that by receiving the impress of Christ's personhood, the Christian is better able to overcome sin (or whatever is an obstacle to the feeling of absolute dependence) and reach the highest level of God-consciousness of which he is capable.

One is inclined to agree with Karl Barth a century later that a characteristic note of Schleiermacher is an astonishing self-assurance. Schleiermacher is the real founding father of modernism. With Schleiermacher, everything essential to modernism has arrived. Radical biblical scholarship destroys belief. There follows a desperate attempt to construct a gimcrack religious shelter out of the ruins with the help of some form of modern philosophical subjectivism. This in turn leads to the positing of the two fundamental modernist theses. First, since there is no reliable external source of religious knowledge, it can only be found in personal experience (early modernists inclined to stress individual experience, today's modernists communal experience). Secondly, doctrines - those at least which are found "difficult", or, as would be said today, "lacking in credibility" - should not be regarded as statements of fact, but symbolic expressions of personal experience. Supernatural happenings, like the parting of waters at the Red Sea or the Resurrection, take place in people's minds or imaginations, never in the real world.

Personal experience is therefore the judge before which every objective statement of belief, whether in the Bible, the creeds, or any other source, will have to justify itself. If a teaching finds an echo in personal experience it can be accepted, if not, it should be left on one side or rejected. That is why, in The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher relegates the Trinity to an appendix: "What is not directly given in Christian consciousness", as a contemporary admirer of Schleiermacher puts it, "is of no primary concern to faith". We can have a feeling of sinfulness (concupiscence), or of having had our sins forgiven (redemption). These ideas are therefore "meaningful", but we no more feel that there are three persons in the One God, than that there are four, five or six.

Schleiermacher stands at the turning point in the history of Protestantism where the fierce certainties of Luther, Calvin and the other reformation patriarchs start to crumble, and doctrine or any clear statement of belief comes to be seen as something repulsive, something that, instead of giving light to the mind, weighs on it like a sack of cement which the mind wants to throw off.

As the 19th century proceeds, this turning away from doctrine will become first a flight, then a stampede, and finally a Gadarene rush, until in the 151 mid-20th century it hits the rocks at the bottom of the cliff in the patronising agnosticism of Bultmann and the barely disguised unbelief of Tillich. Catholics swept into the stampede usually express their dislike of religious certainty with the lament "Oh, no! Not another infallible doctrine".

The one interesting feature of Schleiermacher's theology, from the Catholic standpoint, is his shift of attention away from the Bible to the "Christian community". What Schleiermacher meant by that term is not what Catholics mean. Nevertheless he reintroduced into Protestantism as a whole an awareness of the Church as a factor in Christianity of at least equal importance with the Bible. The Bible might be untrustworthy. But the Christian community with its personal experiences was an indisputable past and present fact.

Book Information

Notes to Chapter Seventeen

1.The term "higher criticism" was reserved for analysing texts, whether biblical or profane, in order to elucidate their authorship, date and meaning. The higher critics regarded textual criticism as a lower branch of scholarship.

2. Quoted by Pius XII, Divino Af ante Spiritu, 47.

3. For Origen's doubts, see Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., 6.25, 11-13. For St. Jerome's: Eph.

129. C.S.E.L. 55169.

4. See Geschichte der Griechischen Literatur, Franke Verlag, Bern, 1963 (English translation 1966) by Albin Lesky, professor of Greek, University of Vienna.

5. Some examples will help to illustrate the difficulty of assessing the significance of stylistic differences. (a) Dr Johnson's two accounts of his journey to the Western Isles - one in letters written on the spot, the other in book form published after his return - are so unalike in style that, in Macaulay's opinion, if we did not know otherwise, we should find it hard to credit that they were written by the same man. (b) The 17th­ century mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was ordered by her superiors to write her memoirs. The result was found too unpolished for the intended readership, so they were rewritten in a style suited to the Grand Siècle. Should we infer from this that St. Margaret Mary had nothing to do with them? (c) There are versions of Chaucer in contemporary English. If these alone were to survive, what conclusions would be drawn about their authorship? The style of a text can belong to a period later than that of the author, with the content remaining essentially his product.

6. See Ricciotti, History of Israel, Vol. 1, Milwaukee 1955, who cites a succession of cases where texts of enormous length have been handed down orally, with apparently little if any alteration, for centuries. See also William Dalrymple, City of Djinns, HarperCollins, 1996. According to this author, in India today there are still "bards" who can recite from memory the whole of the Mahabharata, an epic longer than the Bible. 152

7. In taking this line, the critics were making, even by their own standards, an illegitimate inference; namely that the books of the New Testament were necessarily formed in the same way as those of the Old Testament as though literary composition and culture had remained unchanged between the period of Sennacherib or Cyrus and the age of the early Caesars. In fact, after two centuries of debate, there seems to be no compelling reason not to accept the already ancient tradition enshrined in the History of Eusebius of Caesarea (264-340), that the Gospels were written by the four Evangelists at roughly the time and in the way always believed. Justin Martyr (100-165) calls them the "Memoirs of the Apostles". Vatican II affirms both their "apostolic origin" and "historicity". (Dei Verbum 18 & 19). How could St. John have recalled lengthy speeches like Our Lord's at the Last Supper? We have only to recall similar feats of memory on the part of Macaulay and Mozart to realise it is entirely possible even without special divine assistance.

8. It is now common, in Catholic Bible study groups and popular commentaries, to hear the Exodus miracles described as merely literary devices used by the author to convey the idea of God's power. See, for example, A Catholic Guide to the Bible, Oscar Lukefahr C.M., Liguori Publications, Liguori, MO.

9. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Macmillan, New York, 1971, pp. 96-113. 153


Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011

Version: 11th May 2011

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