An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (by Hartwell Horne, 1856).
The publication of a tenth edition of so large a work as Horne's Introduction affords striking evidence of the interest felt by the public in theology. There are, moreover, special circumstances connected with the present edition which increase the importance which attaches to it. In order to adapt the book to the existing state of knowledge, two gentlemen —Dr. Davidson and Dr. Tregelles—were associated with Mr. Horne in the task of preparing this edition. Dr. Davidson wrote the whole of the second volume, which consists of an introduction to the Old Testament; Dr. Tregelles wrote part of the fourth, consisting principally of textual criticism on the New Testament, and edited the rest; and Mr. Horne revised the first volume, which contains a summary of the evidences of the authenticity and inspiration of the Bible, and the third, which is devoted to the subject of biblical geography, and antiquities. When the book was finally published in its present form, so great a difference was apparent between Dr. Davidson's volume and the others that Mr. Horne and Dr. Tregelles took the very unusual step of disavowing all responsibility for the views of their associate; and the publishers, we believe, divided the work, so that the second volume now forms a distinct publication from the first, third, and fourth. We do not wish to enter upon any of the personal questions to which these proceedings have given birth, nor shall we discuss the theological correctness or otherwise of the views respectively adopted by Mr. Horne and Dr. Davidson; but we think it very important to call attention, not so much to the specific opinions of these gentlemen upon the matters on which they differ, as to the different methods in which they approach and handle them. We shall confine our remarks on the present occasion to the first volume. We propose to take an early opportunity of referring to the second, by Dr. Davidson; but as the third and fourth relate either to subjects of a special nature, or to topics handled in a similar tone to that which prevails in the first volume, we do not propose to refer to them further.
Thirty-eight years have passed since the first edition of the volume which we are considering was published; and subsequent alterations and additions have not deprived it, in any material degree, of the character which was almost sure to be impressed upon a theological book written at that time. We wish to speak with all possible respect of a man who has laboured so long and so usefully for his generation as Mr. Horne; but we do not think that we are violating that rule in saying that, since his first appearance as an author, the whole controversy to which he addressed himself has—in the minds at least of the more thoughtful, part of the community-shifted its ground to such an extent that both parties are entitled to claim at each other's hands a very different treatment from that which they were accustomed to expect, and to afford, forty years ago. We will attempt to describe the nature of this change.
A gentleman, who was some years since on a visit to a solicitor in a large country town, found in his friend's library a pamphlet, published in the early part of this century, entitled, Trial of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, fishermen of Galilee, for Wilful and Corrupt Perjury. There were of course a judge, a jury, and counsel for the Crown and for the prisoners; and, as might have been expected, the proceedings terminated in a triumphant acquittal. The pamphlet was a striking example of the whole tone of the controversy upon the subject of the evidences of Christianity, which was carried on so vehemently during the latter part of the last, and the early part of the present century. Nothing can be more curious, in our day, than to remark the extreme narrowness of the conception which all but the highest minds seem to have had of the points at issue. Whatever they may have doubted, both parties appear to have agreed that there was a certain set of opinions which, taken together, made up a definite system, called Christianity, which was contained in the Bible; but the one party affirmed, and the other denied, the possibility of answering certain a priori objections to its reception, and of adducing sufficient positive evidence in its favour to induce a belief in it. It is curious to see how instinctively the national mind looked upon the whole subject as a question for a jury. Paley's Evidences is nothing more than the speech of an advocate affecting the tone of a judge, and the volume before us answers to the same description, except that it neither is, nor affects to be, impartial. It would be unjust to call it bigoted or intolerant, but it has some of the characteristics of intolerance. It is like the writing of a lawyer determined to get all he possibly can for his client. In the time at which Mr. Horne wrote, it was the Christian advocate's duty to have an answer for any objection. There was the Christian side, and the Infidel side, and it was no more the business of a Christian writer to enter into, or to sympathize with the infidel's difficulties, than it was the business of the Duke of Wellington to suggest to Massena or Soult improvements in the plan of their operations. The very first paragraph in Mr. Horne's introduction says— “That there now is, and that for more than eighteen centuries there, has existed in the world, a religion called the CHRISTIAN, and that its professors . . . . appeal to certain books by them accounted sacred, as the basis on which their religion is founded, are facts which no one can controvert;” and his conception of his duty seems to have been, that he had to act as counsel for the Bible, not only answering all objections to its truth, but, even when an admission was made as to a general principle, objecting as much as possible to its application to any particular fact.
A most remarkable illustration of this is to be found in the reasonings about the Mosaic account of the creation and deluge. Pp.582-6 are occupied by arguments to prove that, consistently with the first chapter of Genesis, the earth may have existed for any number of ages. At p.586 there is a similar attempt to show that Genesis vii.19 (“The waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth, and all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered”) is consistent with a partial deluge. But at p.588 there is a triumphant refutation of “Count Borch, who, towards the close of the eighteenth century, attempted to prove Mount Etna to be 8000 years old by the different strata of lava discovered therein,” and the process terminates in the following moral reflection:—“Faith in a miracle rests upon testimony, but faith in their scheme must be founded on an extreme desire to prove a falsehood.” Surely Mr. Horne can never have heard the old bar joke. An action being brought for breaking the knees of a horse, lent by the plaintiff to the defendant, the latter pleads first that the horse was never lent—secondly, that his knees were never broken—thirdly, that they were broken when he was lent—and, fourthly, that they were not broken when he was returned. Mr. Horne's argument is, first, that the Bible does not deny the antiquity of the earth, and, secondly, that Count Borch failed to prove it. The whole tone in which various difficulties which have distressed the most sincere Christians are dealt with, puts the same thing in a clearer light. For example—the passages in which God is spoken of as putting “lying spirits” into the mouths of prophets have not unnaturally caused much perplexity. “God,” says Mr. Horne, “is charged by the opposers of divine revelation with being guilty of falsehood by inspiring prophets with false messages and by violating his promises. e grossness of such assertions is sufficiently disgusting, but it is the duty of a Christian advocate fully to meet them and expose their falsehood.” In the same way, speaking of the tortures said to have been inflicted by David on the Ammonites, Mr. Horne remarks:–“The cavils of the objectors in this, as in every other instance, are utterly unfounded.” It is well worthy of observation, that in this, as in some other instances, “the cavils of the objectors” are refuted by an assertion that the passage upon which the objection is founded is a mistranslation. No tenderness, however, is shown to the “objector” on this account. If he had remained satisfied with statements which, as they stand, confessedly impugn the truth and justice of God, the “Christian advocate” would have been perfectly satisfied, for they would have given him no trouble; but as soon as any one objects, not to the Bible, but to a misrepresentation of its meaning, his objections are rebuked as “groundless,” “gross,” and “disgusting.” Almost the whole volume might be quoted in proof of its entirely one-sided character. At p.442-6, we find an elaborate proof that unbelievers are “more credulous” than Christians. At p.31-32, we have an account of the opinions of various Deists, from Lord Herbert of Cherbury to Voltaire, which ascribes to men most of whom were possessed of considerable, some of preeminent, ability, opinions so wildly absurd and contradictory that no one out of Bedlam ever did or possibly could hold them. In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that any objection or demur to any doctrine which the writer considers necessary to Christianity is either referred to the natural depravity of the human heart or dismissed as a “groundless cavil.”
It is obvious that this kind of criticism was adapted entirely to an age in which the energies of men were withdrawn from matters of speculation to the transaction of public affairs, and in which what was called infidelity was considered—not entirely without justice—as being only another name for political disaffection. Indeed, it must never be forgotten that the shallowness and narrowness of the Christian advocacy of those days was only equalled by the shallowness and narrowness of the counsel on the other side. In the great ferment which followed the French Revolution, theological controversy was constantly degraded into a kind of Old Bailey wrangle. The writers on the one side inferred forgery and priestcraft from any text in the Bible which bore the slightest appearance of inaccuracy, or which, by any possible mode of interpretation, seemed to be opposed to morality. The writers on the other side treated every one who saw a difficulty in the Bible as little better than a profligate blasphemer, and silenced every objection to their own especial set of evidences of Christianity as a “groundless cavil” or an “infidel suggestion.”
In some quarters, this bad fashion still survives; and we regret to say that, in many instances, after a temporary lull, it is beginning to show symptoms of revival. Still it may be affirmed, with some confidence, that the immense progress of knowledge of various kinds which has taken place during the last forty years has produced a very different and an improved state of opinion upon the subject. It has long since become obvious to minds entitled to any kind of respect, that the proposition which seems to Mr. Horne the simple statement of an incontrovertible fact is really an assertion of the most complicated kind. To say “that there is a religion called the Christian” is something like saying that “there is such a thing as humanity or philosophy;” and it is as impossible to establish, by a single class of proofs, the truth that men ought to be Christians, as it would be to prove in a similar manner that men ought to be humane. The meaning of the word “Christianity” is so very indefinite that in all probability no two persons would define it in the same manner; and indeed it is not easy to assign any very specific meaning to a term which is intended to denote the aggregate opinions, feelings, and sentiments of vast numbers of persons who have hardly a single opinion, feeling, or sentiment in common. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Russians, Italians, and Abyssinians are all Christians. A member of the Church of England, a Quaker, a Unitarian, the Chinese rebels—all claim the Christian name; and it is therefore impossible to prove or to disprove the truth of Christianity, as you would prove or disprove that a man stole a pocket-handkerchief at a given time and place. One might as well attempt to prove, by judicial process, the proposition that A B is a good man.
The recognition of this and similar truths has a most important bearing on the whole method of biblical criticism. It shows that the principal question relating to the Bible is not whether certain opinions about it are true or false, but what, in point of fact, are its claims and its characteristics—questions which must be answered by a fair application of the ordinary methods of criticism. No reasonable man in the present day would think of maintaining that the Bible is a forgery. The strongest opponents of the common opinions about it would admit that, as a matter of fact, it has exercised, and does still exercise, the strongest possible influence over the human race—that at any rate a great proportion of it was written by the authors usually supposed to have written it—and that the parts of which the authenticity is disputed were written bona fide, and not forged with sinister objects. On the other hand, those who hold in the strongest form the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible must feel that it cannot become them to shrink from the conclusions to which a quiet examination of the volume may lead them—that the Bible itself is the best evidence of its own nature and contents—and that the object which they ought to keep in view is rather to ascertain how far their theories square with the fact, than to stigmatize all who reject them as infidels and blasphemers. It is surely more reverent to believe that the Bible stands upon a foundation quite independent of the private opinions of a particular man or set of men, than to believe that its power would at once be destroyed if certain opinions as to its nature and extent were to be shaken. It is the Bible which sustains the opinions, and not the opinions which sustain the Bible; and those who have the strongest sense of this truth will be the most candid, the most fearless, and the most charitable inquirers into the greatest phenomenon that ever engaged the attention of mankind. The Bible is a mine in which thousands of labourers may work, and which will not be exhausted for generations to come. No doubt their exertions will show that many—perhaps all—the opinions which have been framed upon the subject are more or less false and incomplete; but it seems to us that nothing can be more grievously injurious to the best interests of mankind than to declare that no one shall work in the mine unless he is prepared, before he begins, to subscribe a declaration as to the thickness of the vein and the purity of the ore. Surely the question as to what the Bible is, de facto, takes precedence of the question as to what we may imagine and infer, on the strength of a priori arguments, that it necessarily must be.
Saturday Review, January 31, 1857.