Application to Religion: Doctrine cannot be Severed From its Historical Setting

Application to Religion: Doctrine cannot be Severed From its Historical Setting

October 8, 2018 0 By Felso

The value of historical theology, then, consists in the fact that it is already philosophical.

It does not merely supply philosophical theology with materials; it is itself already grappling with the philosophical problems. Religion cannot afford to ignore its historical content, nor can it treat this content as something inessential to the establishment of its speculative doctrines.

History must bear the weight of speculative superstructure to the best of its ability; but in return it may derive help from philosophical light thrown thereby on its own difficulties. In this way the distinction between philosophical and historical theology disappears; there is seen to be only one theology, which is both these at once. It may be presented with comparative emphasis on constructive doctrine, as in the later chapters of this book; but if so, it does not omit or ignore history.

It is woven of strands each of which is historical in character, and the whole presents itself as a historical fact. Similarly, theology may be written from a historical point of view, with the emphasis on temporal development; but it is only theology so long as it is clear that the thing that is developing is really doctrine all the time.

An illustration may serve to indicate the necessity to theology of its historical aspect. In view of the criticisms often brought against the records of the life of Jesus, many are inclined to take up a sceptical attitude and to declare that our tradition is hopelessly incorrect. But, they go on to ask, what then ? We learn many valuable lessons from the Good Samaritan, though we do not believe him to have existed. We learn, too, from Homer, even if Homer never wrote what we ascribe to him. We have the tradition in black and white; it bears its credentials on its face; all else is a side-issue.

Is there anything we learn from the Christ-history that we could not equally learn from the Christ-myth ?

The simple religious mind would, I believe, emphatically reject such a suggestion. And this would be perfectly right. It is easy to say that the “Christ-myth” embodies facts about God’s nature which, once known, are known whether they are learnt from one source or from another. That is by no means the whole truth. The life of Christ gives us, conspicuously, two other things. It gives us an example of how a human life may satisfy the highest possible standards; and it puts us in contact with the personality of the man who lived that life.

The whole value of an example is lost unless it is historical. If an athlete tries to equal the feats of Herakles, or an engineer spends his life trying to recover the secret of the man who invented a perpetual-motion machine, they are merely deluding themselves with false hopes if Herakles and the supposed inventor never lived.

The Good Samaritan’s action is the kind of thing that any good man might do; it is typical of a kind of conduct which we see around us and know to be both admirable and possible. But if the life of Jesus is a myth, it is more preposterous to ask a man to imitate it than to ask him to imitate Herakles. Any valid command must guarantee the possibility of carrying it out; and the historical life of Jesus is the guarantee that man can be perfect if he will.

Further, in that perfection, or the struggle towards it, the religious man somehow feels that he is in personal touch with a risen Christ. We do not at present demand an explanation of this feeling, or ask whether there is a real intercourse; it is enough that the feeling exists and is an integral part of the Christian consciousness. The presence of Christ is as real to the believer as the love of God. But it can hardly be real if Christ is a myth.

It must be observed that we are not arguing to the reality of Christ’s presence now, or his historicity in the past, on the strength of this feeling. Such an argument would be extremely hazardous. We are merely concerned to show that Christianity would not be absolutely unchanged by the demonstration that these things were mythical. The belief that Christ really lived, whether it is true or false, colours the whole consciousness of the believer.

The same holds good even of purely “ intellectual” doctrine. If a doctrine is simple and easy, containing nothing very new or paradoxical, a fiction is enough to drive it home. But if it is difficult to grasp and conflicts with our preconceived notions, our first impulse is to challenge the reality of the fact which serves as an instance. A scientist propounds some new and revolutionary doctrine; at once we ask whether the experiments on which it is based were fairly carried out as he describes them. If not, we dismiss the doctrine. No doubt to an absolutely perfect mind a fiction would be as illuminating as a fact, because ex hypothesi such a mind would have no special difficulty in grasping any truth, however subtle, and would stand in no need of, so to speak, forcible conviction.

A person who was the equal or superior of Jesus Christ in spiritual insight could give up his historicity and not lose by it. But such a description only applies to God. And in God, we can no longer distinguish between the historical and the imaginary. If, speaking in a Platonic myth, we describe the course of history as a story told to himself by God, it makes no difference whether we say the story is imaginary or true.

But for us objective fact, history, is necessary. We all have something of the spirit of Thomas, and must know a thing has happened before we can believe its teaching. Is this, perhaps, one reason for the difference between the parables that Jesus spoke and the parable he acted ? He knew the limitations of his audience; he saw what they could understand and what they could not. Some things about God he could tell them in words, and they would believe his words; but one last thing—how could he tell that ? and if he could find words to tell it, who would not mock him for a visionary or shrink from him as a blasphemer ?

There was only one way; to act the parable he could not speak. We are accustomed to think of the death of Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins. Was it not also, perhaps, a sacrifice for our stupidity ?