One-sided Historical Views of Religion (Historical Positivism)

One-sided Historical Views of Religion (Historical Positivism)

The danger at the present time is not so much that the religious importance of history may be forgotten as that it may be overrated.

The great successes of historical theology and of comparative religion sometimes lead theologians to expect more from these methods than they ever really supply. There is a tendency to regard historical methods as the only respectable approach to religious truth ; to suppose that the vexed questions of theology are soluble by historical means or not at all ; in fact to imagine that theology has tried the method of speculation and found it wanting, and that it has now at length found the right method, a method which properly used will yield all the truth that can ever be known.

This theory I shall describe as historical positivism, by analogy with Comte’s view that human thought was in his time emerging from a “metaphysical ” stage and entering on a “ positive ” ; casting aside barren a priori speculation and waking up at last to the reality and all-sufficiency of a posteriori science ; passing out of the region of ideas into the region of facts. Comte’s forecast, it may be observed in passing, was just. Thought did from his time assume for a while a notably less metaphysical and more positive character.

It had been well frightened by its own philosophical daring in the previous period. It had jumped in and found itself out of its depth ; and Comte was the mouthpiece by which it recorded its vow never to try to swim again. Who has not made a similar vow? and who, after making it, has ever kept it ?

As in the case of Comtian positivism, so this historical positivism in theology seems to imply a definitely antiphilosophical scepticism; it is a merely negative attitude. It is characteristic of two religious types which at first sight seem to have little in common. On the one hand, it is expressed by that extreme anti-speculative orthodoxy which takes its stand on the bald historical fact “ so the Church believes and has believed ” ; on the other, it is found in the extreme antidogmatic view of many Liberal Protestants, to whom “metaphysic ” is anathema. These positions we shall not criticise in detail.

We have already laid down in a former chapter the necessity to religion of a speculative creed, and there is no need to repeat the arguments there used. Instead of proving the impossibility of a totally unphilosophical theology, we shall consider two instances of unphilosophical representations of religion and try to show where and why they break down. These instances are abstract or one-sided forms of the two sciences mentioned above ; namely, (a) comparative religion, and (b) historical theology.