‘The general development of this tone of thought is sufficiently understood. For more than half a century the professors and philosophers of the North German Universities have occupied their indomitable industry in attempting to dissect with unattainable minuteness the sacred books and truths of Christianity, and have engaged their almost superstitious imagination in constructing ideal histories in place of the real. It is, probably, the same strange, brooding genius of the German mind which has at one time rendered it the home of the most weird superstitions, and at another of the most impalpable idealities.’After one or two slight remarks upon the historical cause of this state of things, we reach the following surprising passage:
‘Germany, in a word, is, and has been for some time, in a state of revolution, and, as has generally been seen in history, the revolution has been religious as well as political.The expression, ‘other grounds,’ implies that the writer regards the fact that a nation is in a state of revolution as a reason for thinking that it will shortly return to the status quo ante bellum: as if France had re-established the ancien régime, or as if England, after the restoration, had gone back to the condition of things which preceded 1642, as if, in a word, a revolution was, practically as well as etymologically, a mere turning like the spin of a teetotum, ending by bringing everything back to its original position. This remarkable view is followed by some of the regulation sneers at the contradictions between the constructive efforts of German critics. Like all other such sneers, they proceed upon the assumption that if many people agree in thinking a given, story false, while they disagree in the inference as to what really happened, which they form from avowedly imperfect materials, their opinion is entitled to no weight. If, for instance, twelve jurymen agree to convict a prisoner notwithstanding an alibi set up on his behalf, their verdict is to be entitled to no weight, because some of them think the alibi true, but inconclusive, whilst others think it was founded on a genuine mistake, and others that it involved wilful perjury. A short excursus of this kind is followed by a practical application summing up the whole matter in these words:
There are several other grounds for regarding the present state of German thought as transitory, and for being confident that the nation will, sooner or later, recur to its former faith. There is, for instance, a conspicuous extravagance about the criticisms and arguments of these writers which says little for the reasonableness of their rationalism.’
‘A state of feeling cannot last which supports itself on dreamy criticism, and which must forget domestic as well as general history in order to preserve the ‘logical sequence’ of its ideas. We have firm faith in the ultimate triumph of sound knowledge and natural feeling. It may, indeed, need some severe experience before the Germans return to the recognition of the essential facts of human nature. Meanwhile, we can only advise our own countrymen not to be so ready as they sometimes are, to take German theories on trust. There is not the slightest reason to be either frightened or fascinated by these dreams. Nature will sooner or later reassert its needs, and the days of common sense and common faith will return.’
This passage is eminently characteristic. It assumes that the writer knows perfectly well what is the truth in relation to the subjects upon which the poor dreaming Germans have got so terribly bewildered with their ‘conspicuous extravagance,’ their ‘almost superstitious imagination,’ and ‘their strange brooding genius.’ If he would only take the trouble he could give us in a few words the result of the ‘ultimate triumph of sound knowledge and natural feeling.’ Nay, he knows what are the dictates of ‘common sense and common faith,’ for their day is to return. The Germans will soon ‘recur to their former faith.’ It would be satisfactory indeed to get the writer into the witness-box and cross-examine him as to the meaning of these hints. What is the ‘former faith ’ of the ‘Germans? What is the ‘common faith ’ to which they are to ‘recur?’ Does the writer mean that all the Germans will become Roman Catholics ? This would perhaps be common faith, but is it common sense? That would be a strange gospel to preach to the British breakfast table. Moreover, as it is immediately preceded by a eulogy upon Luther, our philosopher can hardly be a Catholic. Is he then a Lutheran, and does he think that Northern Germany is going, after a short interval, to find repose in a common belief in consubstantiation? This is even a queerer version of common sense than the other, and if it is to be common faith we must see Calvinism extinguished. It is, however, useless to break upon the wheel anything so unsubstantial as the philosophico-theological writings which the conditions of its circulation compel the Times to provide. Such articles are more like puff-balls than anything else. At first sight they look white, hard, round, and firm, and they raise hopes of a mushroom at worst, but if you press upon them they break up at once into mere dust or slime.
It is rather melancholy that the British public should have so strong a taste for such diet. We propose to try to approach the subject in a somewhat different spirit, and without special reference to Germany—the difference between which and other parts of the world there is, we think, a considerable tendency to exaggerate—to attempt to state, to some extent, the religious problem of these days, to draw something of an outline of its different parts, and to indicate shortly the manner in which, as it seems to us, it must be dealt with.
We must connect together the leading events of several centuries in the world of literature, science, and politics before we can fully appreciate the true nature of that immense change which is passing over the world, and the true relation to each other of the different parts of the vast controversy in which we are all involved.
To begin at the beginning, it is necessary to form some sort of conception of what theology was when it claimed, and that with much plausibility, the title of the Queen of the Sciences. Perhaps we should not be far wrong in taking as its culminating point the latter part of the thirteenth century, when the power of the Popes had reached its highest point, and when the common creed of all Europe—for in those days there was such a thing—had asserted its political supremacy by the destruction of the Albigenses, and had put forth its highest power over the human intellect and imagination in the theology of Aquinas and the poems of Dante. In those days the whole intellect of Europe, with exceptions which at the time appeared trivial, was in one way or another under the sway of theology. To realise this, we must glance for a moment at the Queen of the Sciences under its triple aspect of Dogmatic, Mystic, and Moral Theology, and we must bear in mind the fact that what we understand by physical science did not exist at all, and that the positive knowledge then attainable was contained within what we should regard as a ludicrously narrow compass. First, then, let us look at dogmatic theology. It was a system which professed to reveal to mankind in minute detail an answer to the eternal questions, What? Whence? Whither? and it was universally believed that it did so with absolute and infallible truth. The medium by which it was transformed from a creed into a science was supplied by the scholastic philosophy, which seems to have been a curious mixture of the metaphysical speculations of the day with an indirect and diluted version of Aristotle which had reached the schoolmen by circuitous paths through the Mahometans. At all events to realise to ourselves what in those days was the position of dogmatic theology, we must imagine a single set of religious dogmas and a single metaphysical system welded together into one mass and applied to the solution of every problem about God and man and their relations to each other which human curiosity or ingenuity could state. This process was conducted with an unhesitating conviction which is now found only in the researches of mathematicians, and was brought to bear upon mankind with all the combined weight of the temporal and the spiritual sanction. It is probably no exaggeration to say that in those ages the most important part of mankind had a firmer conviction of the truth of everything which was regarded as a theological dogma than the generality of mankind now have or ever will have of the truth of the best established conclusions of astronomy. It must moreover be remembered that the subjects upon which this sort of certainty was felt were infinitely more interesting than any of which modern science ever professes to assure us. To get some sort of notion of the scope of theology in the thirteenth century, we must try to imagine a state of things in which all the great moral and religious problems which can exercise the human mind were finally solved in such a manner as to make it possible to argue downwards from them to particular results. In a certain sense indeed theology was a progressive science. The decisions of theologians accumulated. They discovered new ways of solving old difficulties. Under the fiction of expounding traditions they invented new doctrines which were verified by devices and according to rules of their own as they were called for by the circumstances and temper of the times. It is difficult in these days to form any notion of the effect which the existence of an organised and established system of this sort would have upon the whole range of human thought. Probably something like it may be seen in the manner in which lawyers administer and develope a system, which in many respects is arbitrary, and which in almost all countries is enlarged by professional activity to dimensions comparable to those of the systems which were the work of the lives of the schoolmen. For every practical purpose courts of law are infallible, as the fact that they decide in one way or another settles a question which may previously have been open, whilst the interpretation which they put upon the language of the legislature or upon the principles set forth by their predecessors becomes by that very fact the true, or, which in practice is the same thing, the authoritative and recognised interpretation for all future time. The development of doctrine, too, goes on in law courts, much as the development of doctrine went on in the schools, by the accumulation of decisions. Thus, for instance, the question under what circumstances and to what extent a master is liable to one servant for the consequences of the negligence ‘of his fellow servant has greatly exercised our courts of law in the course of the last generation. The first case on the subject was decided within the last thirty years, and it has been followed by probably scores of others which define the applications and the distinctions connected with the general principle. Substitute schools in the mediaeval sense for law courts, exchange for the discussion of the petty interests of private litigants the comparatively free discussion of subjects regarded as being of the highest importance to the temporal and eternal welfare of mankind at large, and suppose that the spirit of discussion combines much of the freedom and reference to general considerations which distinguish scientific research, with that prospect of arriving at a definite result, by the vindication or condemnation of particular opinions, which gives litigation its point and edge, and we may form to ourselves some sort of notion of the position which dogmatic theology held amongst men as being the most glorious, the most important, and the most authentic branch of human learning, whilst at the same time it was the most vigorous of all the employments which could occupy the human mind.
The study of dogma, however, was only one branch of theology. Mystical theology aimed at providing a systematic and organised expression for one of the most powerful of human feelings. Convents and monasteries were used, amongst other things, for the purpose of training and satisfying spiritual ambition and all the other emotions of love, hope, and fear which the invisible world excites in men and women of certain classes. Moral theology again extended its dominion over every part of practical life, and through the confessional enforced by terrible penalties the ecclesiastical view of morals upon all subjects, public and private. A good history and exposition of moral theology would throw an entirely new light, not only upon the growth of private morals proper, but upon a variety of kindred subjects, such, for instance, as the growth of constitutional and international law.
Theology, therefore, as it existed in its palmiest days and under the triple division to which we have referred, was nothing less than a vast organised system claiming, and to a certain extent really exercising, an empire over the intellect, the affections, and the conduct of mankind in their highest and most interesting functions. What, in general terms, was the means by which this was done? The answer is plain enough. The clergy had succeeded, partly by the great services which they had rendered to mankind, partly by the fact that they had exclusive possession of such knowledge as was then in existence, in impressing upon far the greater part of the population of this part of Europe the belief that they were the representatives of God upon earth, that they were the guardians and exclusive possessors and authorised interpreters of a divine revelation, and that to obey them was the highest of moral and intellectual duties, sanctioned by the highest rewards and the most tremendous penalties.
The unchallenged dominion of these views over the reason, the feelings, and the conduct of mankind lasted long, and was vigorous and in many respects beneficial whilst it lasted. But the history of several centuries is filled with accounts of the shocks which ultimately reduced their influence to the comparatively low ebb at which it now stands. Each department had to sustain separate and repeated attacks. Men were brought into continual and angry collision with dogmatic, mystical, and moral theology respectively, by the gradual growth first of literature and afterwards of science; by the impatience with which all sorts of heterodox mystics regarded the intervention of any priest between—as they would phrase it—themselves and God; and by the disgust which men naturally felt at the process of laying bare the secrets of their hearts before priests, and of submitting to their judgment every thought and action of their lives—a judgment regulated by a code which was either secret, or intensely unpopular in so far as it was not secret.
The first great and general outbreak of this opposition, after many minor ones, was the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Like other such movements, and in particular like the French Revolution, of which no doubt it was the precursor, it set out with higher aspirations and pretensions than it was able to make good, and it produced many positive theories which experience showed to be crude, slight, and imperfect. It will nevertheless be for ever regarded as one of the greatest and most glorious epochs in the history of mankind, if indeed any part of that chequered history deserves such epithets, for it was the first great and general act by which any large part of mankind recognised the allimportant doctrine that religious ought to be true, and that the popular religion of the day was intolerably far from the truth. Down to the time of the Reformation many religions had been preached, and had prevailed over large parts of the world, but probably no one of them had been accepted upon the ground of a solid and rational conviction of its truth based upon real evidence. The great eastern religions, Buddhism and Brahmanism, were rather authoritative systems of philosophy than anything else, and the progress both of Christianity and Mahometanism was clearly due far more to that moral sympathy which is one of the meanings of the word faith, than to the force of evidence. Each creed and each heresy which had in its turn addressed itself to the human race, had claimed their intellectual allegiance on the ground that it was complete and systematic, and their moral allegiance on the ground that it was good. The notion of requiring positive evidence of its truth, or at all events of making the weight of that evidence the test by which to decide upon its acceptance or rejection, was hardly known at the time of the Reformation.
It was, indeed, only by slow degrees, and under the pressure of infinite controversy, that the fact that this was the leading principle of the Reformation was ascertained. Even at the present day there are those who do not admit the fact, or do not appreciate its importance. It is, however, impossible to understand the bearings of the tangled controversies of our own days unless we understand this point, and the manner in which it influenced and bore upon the controversies which have been in progress at a continually increasing rate from the days of Luther to our own time.
There can be no doubt at all, that in its origin the Reformation was a political, moral, and spiritual, rather than an intellectual movement. Luther’s internal combats and other spiritual experiences must have been substantially the same as those of many other persons, and must no doubt have led them as well as him to the conclusion, that the medicines for the soul provided by the ecclesiastical system then established were no medicines at all, but mere quackery. On the other hand, the popular mind was excited by practical scandals and evils, by the corruptions of the clergy, and by a general suspicion that they were hypocrites, whose objects were of the most selfish and worldly kinds, and were attained by gross fraud. It is highly probable that if all the doctrines of the Romish Church as they were understood in the sixteenth century had been preached by men who lived as if they really and heartily believed them, their truth would long have remained unquestioned. The question of the truth of the doctrine was incidental and supplementary, in the first instance to the question of the sincerity of those who professed to believe it. Look—to take one instance out of a thousand—at the Epistole obscurorum Virorum. The whole tendency of that volume is to cover the monks with every species of disgraceful reproach; but the step from this to a repudiation of their doctrine was short and obvious. How could any one practically doubt that the doctrines of a stupid licentious ignorant barbarian were as false as the man himself was hateful? The consequence, though by no means necessary, was sure to be drawn, and as a fact it actually was drawn all over a great part of Europe. Controversy stepped in to complete what popular indignation had begun. The controversialists of course began, as it was impossible for men not to begin, by assuming the truth of Christianity as a whole. Their indignation was naturally directed against the wicked monks and priests who had corrupted it for purposes of their own. The revival of learning supplied the Protestants with an immense armoury of formidable weapons. It was easy to show that a great part of the popular system was to be found neither in the Bible nor in the writings of the early Fathers. The translation and general circulation of the Bible enabled large numbers of persons who had never before taken the smallest interest in theological speculations to see this for themselves. If the Reformers had been able to make out their case as clearly as they thought they could, if they had been able to say in perfectly plain and distinct terms, This is the religion taught by Jesus Christ, and these are your additions to it made at such and such times, for such and such objects, they would have accomplished their purpose, both on the positive and negative side. They would have done this by putting forward a case which could have been debated on its own merits by persons agreeing in the rejection of the Roman Catholic creed, on the ground that this at all events was not true, in asmuch as large parts of it were unauthorised additions to the original creed, with which it professed to be identical. Their efforts to do this, and the efforts of the Roman Catholics on the other hand to show that the attempt was hopeless, and that no solid distinction could be made between what they admitted and what they rejected, so that they must either renounce all claims to the Christian name, or accept the whole theology of Rome, was the essence of the great controversy between the Protestants and Catholics. This controversy exercised many of the most powerful and accomplished minds of several successive generations, produced some of their most remarkable books, and deeply influenced many of their most important political events. It is not, however, on these grounds only, or chiefly, that it is still of interest. Its interest for us is derived rather from the fact that it gave birth to the far deeper and more interesting controversy as to the truth of the Christian religion itself, which after raging so warmly during the greater part of the eighteenth century, was for a time superseded by the surpassing interest of the political events with which it was connected, and has now revived with a degree of earnestness which seems likely to produce incalculable effects upon every department of life and thought. For all these reasons we will try to sketch slightly the progress of the controversy in our own country and in France. The experience of the two countries was in this, as in some other particulars, complementary. The Catholics in the one, the Protestants in the other, argued at a disadvantage and under penalties, so that those who are not disposed to take the trouble to investigate obscure literary problems must be content to take their notions of the arguments of English Catholic writers from Laud, Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor, and their successors and their notions of French Protestant writers from Bossuet and his contemporaries and successors. It is hardly possible, however, that such controversalists as these should have failed to do full justice to their own sides, and to deal more or less vigorously with the leading arguments of their opponents, however much they may have misrepresented or misunderstood particular individuals. [Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants contains a reprint of his antagonist’s entire work.] We will begin then with the English writers.
The great revolution in English ecclesiastical affairs which signalised the sixteenth century was made, like other revolutions, under the influence of various circumstances and conflicting feelings. It was not till the thing was done that people began to construct its theory. The first great effort in this direction was made by Hooker at the end of the sixteenth century, and it is impossible to read the Ecclesiastical Polity without feeling that he, if ever any man could do so, might claim the merit of having devised by a single effort the most plausible and the most durable theory of a great institution of which that institution was capable. His object is only indirectly controversial. His immediate purpose was simply to state the case of the Church of England, and he certainly stated it with such consummate skill that it may be doubted whether all the efforts made during the last 270 years in the same direction have added very much to what he said. In a few words his theory is somewhat as follows:—Laws may be divided into two great classes: those of which the obligation is perpetual, and those which may be changed from time to time as circumstances require. The laws which enjoin the belief of the great doctrines of Christianity, theological or moral, belong to the first class. Those which regulate Church government belong to the second. It is the duty of sovereign legislatures to recognise and enforce laws of the first class, and to enact from time to time such laws of the second class as may appear to them expedient. Now, King, Lords, and Commons together are the sovereign legislature of England, and the laws which they have established in England as to matters ecclesiastical satisfy these conditions. They do recognise and provide for the teaching of that part of the Christian system which as we can see by the use of our natural reason is its essence and foundation, and which as we may learn by the common methods of history and criticism was in point of fact taught as such from the very origin of Christianity; whilst, as to Church government, the system established is not only prudent, but is in full accordance with the most ancient and respectable ecclesiastical precedents. This appears to us to be in several respects one of the most remarkable political theories that any single person ever devised by his own unassisted genius. It belongs to the same class of works as Locke’s essays on Government and Toleration, &c., and Warburton’s Alliance; but to us it appears far superior to either. If we regard it legally and historically, it not only represents what actually happened at the Reformation, but it is to this very day the theory of the law of England. If we regard it as a theory, it has the double merit of being perfectly intelligible and straightforward, and of being very difficult to answer. To prove as a fact that any scheme of Church government whatever is coeval with Christianity and was devised by Christ, is simply impossible. On the other hand, all or nearly all Christians agreed in Hooker’s day as to the divine right of sovereign powers to legislate. Why then should they not legislate upon such subjects as were confessedly not matters of perpetual obligation? To this it may be added that the voluntary system which is so popular at present is at bottom only a particular case of Hooker’s system. A Church, according to it, is a voluntary association bound together by contract. Under this system Churches are as much dependent on the State as railway companies. The State directly interferes with neither, but it gives facilities for the establishment of each by private persons. On the other hand it steps in to compel in each case the fulfilment of all engagements once undertaken.
If it be asked, Where then was the objection to Hooker’s theory? the answer is similar to that which must be given to the question, What was the objection to the theory of Innocent III. and others, that the Pope is the moral and spiritual sovereign of mankind, and that temporal governments are the sheriffs by whom his decrees are to be executed? The objections to Hooker’s theory were, amongst, others the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby, and the scaffold at Whitehall. The objections to the Papal theory were the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the independence of Holland, and the final issue of the Thirty Years’ War. Each theory was perfectly coherent and intelligible, and much might be said in favour of each, but the men who were respectively affected by them refused to submit to them, which is the most fatal of all objections to a theory. There is no use in proving to people that they ought to obey you, if their answer is, We will one and all die first, and if that answer is vigorously persisted in.
The fortunes of the theological parenthesis, for such it really was, in Hooker‘s theory of Church government, were very different from those of the theory itself. It contained, as it appears to us, the very essence of Protestantism, and indicates, as we also think, the battle-field on which the fortunes of Christianity itself must be and indeed are actually being decided, though we do not think that Hooker himself had an adequate notion of its importance. Disengaged from a great deal of other matter not relevant to our present purpose, it will be found that a good deal of Hooker’s book is occupied by considering and answering this question:—If the Church is what you say it is, if it has no permanent constitution and organisation, where does it get its doctrines, and on what warrant do they ultimately rest? The answer is, Its doctrines are those which, as we believe, can be shown by the ordinary methods of historical investigation to have been communicated to men by Jesus Christ, and to have been by him miraculously authenticated. This is the characteristic doctrine of the Church of England as against the Roman Catholic, who believes, or rather who ought to believe if he were as consistent as he boasts of being, that the Church proves itself, or rather that the Pope proves himself, and as against those ‘Protestants who believe or used to believe with Calvin that the Bible proves itself. Before we say what we have to say upon the critical aspects of the subject, we will try to trace the history of this doctrine, and to show what were its fortunes, and how it was used in controversy.
It forms, so to speak, the soul of the writings upon this subject of the generation which succeeded Hooker, and who combined two elements which we are accustomed to regard as inconsistent: very high ecclesiastical notions of Church government with strong theoretical liberalism. Laud, Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor, and Jackson were all men of this type. The net result of their writings upon the matter in question is that the Apostles’ Creed contains all the doctrines the belief of which is necessary to salvation; and it is probable that Chillingworth and Jeremy Taylor would have gone so far as to say that the bona fide belief of the articles of that creed in any sense which its words would fairly bear was sufficient for salvation. When asked upon what the Apostles’ Creed rested, they would have said that the first article of it can be proved by reason; the clauses relating to the life of Christ, like other historical facts, by appropriate historical evidence; and that the remainder could be shown by such evidence to consist of doctrines taught either by Christ himself or by his immediate followers, from which fact they would, of course, derive the character of a supernatural revelation. It is obvious that the case (as a lawyer would say) thus set up is altogether independent of the Church of Rome, and indeed of Church testimony in general; and one of the most striking passages in Chillingworth is that in which he triumphantly refers his antagonist to Grotius, De Veritate, in proof of the proposition that Protestants could do without tradition. No one, of course, who has even a superficial acquaintance with the literature of those times will suppose that the members of the school to which we have referred confined their own belief within these limits. On the contrary, they believed in elaborate theological systems, but they regarded such points of them as were not contained in the creed as matters upon which, on the one hand, Christians might differ without risk of damnation, and as to which, on the other, the legislature might properly determine how far belief, or at all events acquiescence in them should be made a condition of external communion with the Church, with all the advantages, temporal and spiritual, appertaining thereto. This cramped and lawyer-like, though genuine and vigorous liberalism, has we think been very imperfectly understood by those who have treated of what have been called the Caroline divines. Modern High Churchmen and modern Liberals have agreed to pass over in silence a tendency which Dr. Newman, for instance, must have looked upon as a blemish in Laud regarded as a martyr, and which would have prevented Lord Macaulay from calling him without qualification, a ridiculous old bigot.
The controversial advantages, as against Roman Catholics, of the position which we have described were obvious. On the one hand it enabled those who held it to do without the authority of the Church; on the other it enabled them to attack its corruptions. It laid a plain foundation for Christian belief, and supplied an intelligible test by which to ascertain whether any given doctrine properly belonged to it. It was long before the objections to it were pointed out, and when they were, it appeared, as we shall attempt to show immediately, that they were objections not to Protestantism specially but to Christianity itself, and that they in no degree diminished the force of the case made by the Church of England against the Roman Catholics.
These objections, however, were not raised in their full force for a great length of time. The theory which had been constructed in order to justify the Reformation deeply influenced the course of English speculation all through the eighteenth century, long after the controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics had ceased to have anything like the importance which had attached to it under the Stuarts. All through the seventeenth century, from the time of Lord Herbert of Cherbury to the days of Bayle, Deism in its various forms had been on the increase. It may be said to have culminated in Bolingbroke and Hume in England, and in Voltaire in France, and nothing can be more characteristic of the genius of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively than the manner in which they confronted their common enemy, nor can anything throw a stronger light upon the controversies of our own days. Deism, like almost every new doctrine which has powerfully affected mankind, was in the first instance rather a moral than a merely intellectual movement. From Lord Herbert to Theodore Parker and Mr. Francis Newman, mysticism has always been congenial to Deism, and has introduced some strange inconsistencies into the theories of its professors. The moral groundwork of the Deist of the eighteenth century consisted in the indignation which was provoked in many persons, of whom Voltaire may be regarded as the type, by the wars, the cruelties, the harsh and brutal theories, and the temporal and spiritual despotism which they attributed to theology and theologians. To attack as false theories which are supposed to be pernicious is an almost universal practice, and as the first Protestants attacked Roman Catholic theology principally because they were disgusted with those who held, taught, and enforced the creed, so the Deists with more or less directness and openness attacked Christian theology in general. Great controversies are always confused unless they can be compressed within bounds by legal or quasi-legal machinery, and there can be little doubt that the Deists confused together a good deal the charge that Christian theology was false, and the charge that it was mischievous and immoral from the merely human point of view. There is a double singularity in the turn which the controversy took. It is remarkable in the first place that the question of the truth of Christianity as a matter of historical fact should have occupied the English mind, not indeed exclusively, yet to a far greater extent than the question of its utility or morality, and that in France this should have been reversed. It is perhaps still more remarkable that, for the time at all events, the Christian cause should have triumphed upon the question of truth and have been lost upon the question of utility and morality; yet nothing can be more certain than each of these propositions. Warburton, Butler, Lardner, Berkeley, Paley, and others, succeeded beyond all question in persuading English people in general to accept, or, at all events, to acquiesce in some such way as this of regarding the great problem of religion:—It is impossible to apply to the relations between God and man the common rules of morality which are usually applied to the relations between man and man. Our knowledge of the relations between God and man can be derived only from the positive testimony of some person specially acquainted with them. The miracles and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ raise a presumption that he was specially acquainted with them, and the assertions that he did perform those miracles, did rise from the dead and ascend into heaven, and did make such and such statements as to those relations, are proved by historical evidence sufficient to convince reasonable men of their truth. This theory, elaborated in its different parts with extraordinary vigour and a boundless expenditure of various kinds of learning, was the final answer of orthodox Protestant theologians to the deists and atheists of the eighteenth century, as it had been their final answer to the Roman Catholics in the seventeenth century. Paley was to the one what Chillingworth was to the other.
Let us now turn to the Roman Catholics and see how they had dealt with the subject. Bellarmine is perhaps the most distinguished of the earlier Roman Catholic controversialists, and though probably few English readers in the present day have ever opened them, the four quarto volumes printed in double column, and bearing the ominous title of Bellarmine’s Controversies, contain much that is in the highest degree curious and interesting, and would on many grounds repay examination. Their style and language are of themselves quite sufficient to attract even a casual reader. Their Latin is not unlike a literal translation of modern French: nothing can be less classical, nothing more simple, natural, easy and symmetrical. The arrangement is as good as the language. It is precise and systematic to the highest degree—a great convenience to a modern reader, because a little attention will enable him to see what parts of the argument are likely to interest him and what he can skip without much risk of loss. We have not space, however, to enter upon anything that could be called a criticism of Bellarmine, or to do more than state in a very few words the general impression which his writings produce. The impression is that he is defending an institution which he does not seriously believe to be in danger. He is full of learning. Upon every subject he has his scripture proofs from the Old Testament, scripture proofs from the New Testament, proofs from the Fathers, proofs from the decrees of councils, and proofs from reason. But he always gives, to us at least, the impression rather of a lawyer delivering an elaborate argument before a favourable court with an immense apparatus of legal authorities, than that of a man who is really setting forth the true grounds of belief in a matter in which he does heartily believe. He throws endless difficulties in the way of his opponents, and in various places and in particular in treating both of the Bible and of the authority of the Church he appeals largely to reason, and to the sort of argument which such an appeal renders natural. There is, however, little difficulty in seeing that he is continually impressed with the feeling that the Church, so to speak, proves itself by its very existence, and that whether the process is logical or not the practical problem is to answer objections and puzzle antagonists, leaving the presumption raised by the very existence of the body to which he belongs to produce its natural effect. He does not say in so many words, but he obviously feels and thinks thus: The Church is an existing institution of enormous power and vast extent. This creed is its account of this world and the next. It is of course open to any one to attack the Church and to refute its creed, but till the one is overthrown and the other disproved, the presumption is in their favour, and all that I need do is to repel such attacks. It is not my business to justify the existence of the Church or to prove the truth of the creed. This sort of attitude is the one which Roman Catholics have for centuries habitually affirmed. They have differed from each other in many of their views. Montaigne, Pascal, and Bossuet may be said to illustrate the effect of this upon three remarkable people as strongly contrasted to each other as any three men could well be. Whether the endless professions of submission to the Church as something quite apart from reason and superior to it which alternate in Montaigne’s essays with the most thorough-going scepticism, were or were not sincere there can be no doubt of the perfect sincerity of Pascal in views which had a close intellectual affinity to those of Montaigne; though their moral and spiritual tone was utterly opposed to his. Each in his own way conceives of the Church and its creed as great facts not amenable to human reason at all though not without a peculiar sort of reason of its own. Bossuet however, as he was one of the greatest of all writers, is one of the most characteristic of Roman Catholic controversialists. Never was there a sturdier man, never had any one less sympathy with any form of weakness, nor could any man of genius ever present a greater contrast either to Montaigne or to Pascal. Notwithstanding this, however, the general character of his controversial writings as against the Protestants is exactly like that of Bellarmine, Montaigne and Pascal. It is impossible to read his most characteristic works, the Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle, the treatise de la Connaissance de Dieu et de Soi-même, or the Avertissements aux Protestants, without being struck by a pervading petitio principii which are incomprehensible in the writings of a man of so much genius and especially of such conspicuous logical power, till we remember the attitude in which his mind was habitually placed. The Avertissements aux Protestants afford perhaps the best illustration of our meaning. Apart from personal and technical bickerings which have lost much of their interest, the argument, especially the argument of the sixth and most famous of the series, is simply this—Protestantism leads to Socinianism, that to Deism, and that to Atheism: therefore Protestants are inconsistent. The answer of the Protestant was simple:—If you are right I am quite ready to become an atheist, for your argument contains not one word to show that my method is the wrong one, whatever may be the force of your arguments as to the consequences which its proper application will involve. The Connaissance de Dieux et de Soi-même no doubt contains passages which might furnish Bossuet with a reply to this, but the reply would consist merely of the substitution of an express for an implied petitio principii, for the passages to which we refer assert in so many words that several of the fundamental propositions of Bossuet’s theological scheme are first truths which the mind of man recognises as true by direct intuition, as for instance the necessary character of the connection between guilt and punishment.
Speaking generally and shortly, the final result of the great controversy of the Reformation may be given in the form of two propositions. The Protestant proposition was, that ordinary historical evidence showed the truth of the facts stated in the Apostles’ Creed, and the fact that Jesus Christ taught or authorised the teaching of the matters of doctrine contained in it. The Roman Catholic proposition was, that the Church being altogether a divine superhuman institution taught this and that, and proved its character by its existence, so that the creed rested on the institution. It was on these grounds that the two great divisions of Christendom have met and are still meeting, as best they may, the attacks made upon Christianity by Deists, Pantheists, and Atheists for the last two centuries.
We have already said that in England the great controversy of the eighteenth century ended in favour of Christianity. The general belief was that the various apologists of Christianity had silenced their antagonists, and Burke was able, in his reflections on the French Revolution, to ask with scornful triumph what had become of the Deists. ‘Who reads Bolingbroke now? Who ever read him through?’ The state of thought in France presented a singular contrast to this. In the history of literature and philosophy there can scarcely be found a more instructive contrast than that which is presented by Bossuet and Voltaire. The seventeenth century may be said to have been closed and the eighteenth century to have been opened by the great theologian’s triumphant challenge to the whole world to deny the divinity of the Church and the surpassing glory and greatness of the French State, which, as he proves step by step, represented in its fullest perfection the Christian and the philosophical ideal of a state. All governments are by divine right, but monarchy is the noblest of governments. Hereditary monarchy is to other monarchies what monarchy is to other governments. Hereditary monarchy confined to the male line is to other hereditary monarchies what they are to other monarchies. But the flower and supreme glory of such a monarchy is to be found in its orthodoxy, and the French constitution affords the perfect exemplar of the true relations between Church and State. The Church with its dogmas, its laws, and its various orders of ministers is so emphatically and obviously divine that no one capable of appreciating its beauties can in good faith deny their divinity. The human imagination cannot conceive, the human mind cannot wish for, anything more sublime, more august, more absolutely satisfactory to the intellect, and to the heart of man, than the joint rule of Church and State founded on the deepest and truest principles of philosophy and religion, and happily established in France.
This haughty challenge of universal worship is the key-note of the different treatises prepared by Bossuet for the education of the Dauphin. They have always appeared to us to form a prelude to Voltaire. There is hardly one of his writings which may not be read as an answer to such a challenge. Your philosophy true? Your dogmas sublime? Your Church beneficent? Your state well governed? Why your philosophy is a mere string of idle subtleties, your dogmas are old wives’ tales, your Church has been an ignorant corrupt, and puerile tyrant, prompting the state to conduct as bad as its own! Look here, and here, and here, and here at the scandals, the absurdities, the falsehoods, the corruptions, the cruelties, which you have decked out with all these fine feathers, and which are intrinsically so hideous, so grotesque, so monstrous, that when I state them in plain words, and throw aside the conventional tone of reverence and mystery in which you have contrived to veil them, all the world thinks that I am making a joke, and laughs with me and at you, though there is little real mirth in my heart whilst I am holding up yon and your idols to the contempt which they deserve. The weaker, but to many minds the more seductive, voice of Rousseau was a variation upon the same air. How harsh and inhuman, he seemed to say, are your splendour, your dogmas, your priests and kings! What a fearful tyranny you have succeeded in erecting both in heaven and on earth! How you have misconceived and vitiated human nature, making that bad by your sternness and hypocrisy which but for you would have been good, gentle, and happy! My Savoyard vicar teaches a doctrine infinitely purer and better than your kings and priests. How impressive these voices were, how absolutely they carried the day in France and, indeed as far as they reached, throughout continental Europe, how much they aided in bringing about the great revolution in the midst of which we are living, is known to all the world. The special point to which we wish to refer is the contrast which the whole temper and scope of the controversy presents to that which was carried on upon similar subjects in England. In each country Christianity was accused of being neither true nor good; in England it was defended, and that successfully, on the ground of its truth. Not a few of its leading apologists write, more or less, as if it must be admitted, that the Christian revelation was a doubtful advantage at all events to the existing generation of men; but they argue if it really was made, if most of us really are to be damned, and if we are all in great danger of it, it is surely best to know and if possible to avoid our fate. Such preaching as Wesley’s and Whitfield’s greatly encouraged this view of things, and both the popular preaching and the apologetic literature of the day turned the attention of the public in England far more to the question of the truth and much less to the question of the goodness of Christianity than was the case in France. It is indeed an obvious consequence of the fundamental characteristics of the Protestant and Roman Catholic theories that this should be so. A statement of fact is either true or false. An institution is good or bad. The Protestant creeds rest upon allegations of fact. The Roman Catholic Church is essentially an institution. [Their difference as to predestination was of very little practical importance as far as human prospects are concerned. According to Whitfield some are to be saved, do what they please, and others to be damned, do what they can. According to Wesley men are like children, hardly able to walk. They are sent out in a thick fog into a street crowded with horses and carriages, and warned not to get themselves run over. The benevolent person who sent them out guides a few to a place of safety. The rest are run over, but it was their own fault. They went under the wheels of their own free will. Of the two theories Whitfield’s has always appeared to us the most straightforward and rational.]
Whatever success attended the Protestant controversialists and preachers, the defeat of the Roman Catholic Church by Voltaire was one of the most signal and memorable events in history. Till the days of De Maistre hardly a word was said on its behalf. It would indeed have been very difficult to defend as a whole what Voltaire attacked as a whole, for it was obvious as soon as the matter was stated, that in many respects he was in the right, and that the claims made on behalf of the Church which was the principal object of his attacks were in many respects monstrous.
During the period which has succeeded the French revolution the fortunes of the great controversy have changed again, and the change has again been eminently characteristic. A widespread and signal revival of Catholicism has taken place, and Protestantism, we are told, has been discredited. Few topics in our day have attracted more attention or have been made the theme of more eager or in some respects of more unfair discussion.
Let us attempt to estimate the facts. In almost every part of Catholic Europe, but particularly in France, the old order of things which Bossuet celebrated with such arrogant enthusiasm has been broken down, and he must be a very sanguine Catholic indeed who supposes that it will ever return. The general nature of the changes which have taken place is singularly uniform. The Church has for the most part been stripped of its political power and position. A line has been drawn between the temporal and the spiritual province. There is a constantly growing tendency, shackled it is true by various official and other difficulties, but still capable of being recognised in a great variety of different forms, to establish the voluntary system all over Europe, as it actually has been established in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Civil life so to speak has been placed everywhere on an independent footing, and persecution, and the theories on which its practice used to be justified, are repudiated on all hands. One result of this has been that the Roman Catholic Church has been freed from many of the scandals by which it was brought into discredit. A body which can say that it rules only over voluntary subjects, and that it rules over them only by persuasion, has an excellent defence to the charge of tyranny. Many gross and obvious scandals have perished in the storm which they helped to provoke, and the growth of historical knowledge and our increased sympathy with past times have shown that many of the charges which Voltaire and other writers of the eighteenth century lavished upon the Church and the clergy were unjust and ignorant, and that many others were greatly exaggerated. In this way a sufficiently impressive answer has been made to that part of Voltaire’s charge against the Church which affected its usefulness, and which in its immediate political effects was by far the most important of his charges. De Maistre’s works were the earliest literary symptoms of the great revival. They seize with characteristic skill on the weak points of the enemy’s position, and glance at, though none of them does more than glance at, the nature of the defence. Innumerable brilliant hints and rapid sketches scattered over the Soirées de St.-Pétersbourg, the work on the Pope, and the minor essays, suggest the conclusion that the eighteenth century in general, and Voltaire in particular, had taken a shallow and ignorant view of the mediaeval Church, and had formed a totally false estimate of human nature. On the other hand by vague appeals to traditions of stupendous depth and universality; by hints as to the treasure of wisdom expressed it might be in a strange dialect but still contained in the works of the schoolmen; and by occasional dashes from modern science into mysticism, De Maistre did much to propagate the belief that the objections of the men of the eighteenth century to the truth of Christianity were as shallow as their charges against its utility. Few if any of De Maistre’s successors have equalled his genius, but many writers of his own creed, as well as many Protestants, have countenanced his views and have shown the policy of the line which he adopted. The history of modern Europe and of modern civilisation is so complicated and so enormously extensive, and the part which churchmen played in every one of its departments has been so remarkable, that it is easy to employ almost any amount of ingenuity and learning in extolling the effect of their enterprises and the objects which they had in view. Nothing, on the other hand, can be more easy than to find mystical justifications for their doctrines, and to raise objections true or false in endless variety to every other positive system which can be advanced upon the subjects to which they refer. Whilst the breaches in the fortifications were repaired by such means as these, the scattered population of the city was brought back, and even increased in number and patriotism by simpler means. To regain the affections of the masses alienated from Catholicism at the Revolution was an undertaking in which the intellectual element, though present, was subordinate. As far as theory went, the controversy had been above the heads and out of the reach of the great bulk of those whom it affected. A contagious moral enthusiasm in favour of the new ideas had indeed spread over Europe, and had produced, as it is still producing, immense results, but it is absurd to suppose that in the bulk of those who were affected by it, it rested upon anything deserving the name of an intellectual conviction. It was and is a sort of religion propagated by moral sympathy, and capable of being met and overpowered by any other religion which is able to offer superior attractions to those who embrace it. If the question of truth is left on one side, and the question of the comparative moral attractions of the Roman Catholic system on the one hand, and what is sometimes vaguely but neither unimpressively nor inappropriately called the Revolution on the other, is considered, it will appear that each attracts most powerfully particular classes of men and women, at particular periods of their lives and under particular circumstances. These classes run into each other so much, their boundaries are so irregular, the influence of local and personal causes upon them is so great, that it is impossible to draw the line between them. Generally, however, we may say that the attractions of each are exceedingly powerful, and are so various that as they become more and more fully appreciated in different departments of life they continually win over, to the one side or to the other, increasing numbers of adherents. We may, in short, sum up the effect of the Revolution upon Catholicism somewhat as follows. Each party has established its power to exist as against the other. The case of each has been stated with continually increasing vigour and consistency, and the attractions of each considered rather as competing modes of life rather than as conflicting theories, are understood more distinctly and by a larger number of persons than they ever were before. The scandals of the old state of things, the alliance of the corrupt clergy with the corrupt state, and the invidious position in which the possession of political power placed them, put Catholicism morally at an undue disadvantage during the last century. The terror inspired by the Revolution put the view of life which it embodied at a similar disadvantage during the first half of the present century. To a considerable extent each of these disturbing causes has now ceased to affect the question. Reasonable people of each way of thinking must admit on the one hand that Catholicism was only accidentally connected with the gross corruptions which so much scandalised the eighteenth century, and on the other hand that reigns of terror, the destruction of family ties, and the redistribution of property, are only accidentally connected with modern Liberalism. The two theories in short are coming to look each other in the face, and mankind is being silently asked the question, which of the two it prefers upon its intrinsic merits?
This brings us by a path the nature of which will become apparent as we go on to the question how matters have gone with Protestantism since the success of the English theologians over the English Deists in the latter part of the last century. The general character of the answer which must be returned to this question is sufficiently well known.
The last word of the Protestant controversialists of the last century was this:—We are prepared with such proof as ought to satisfy reasonable men that Jesus Christ taught, and authenticated by miracles, certain doctrines as to the relations between God and man here and hereafter, which, though repugnant in some respects to human feeling, are not so monstrous as to be incapable of being proved by any evidence whatever. Every part of this statement has been exposed to the most vehement attacks from every sort of assailant—Protestant, Catholic, Deist, Pantheist, and Atheist; some of which we may shortly notice. It has been argued that the notion that miracles can prove anything at all is in itself unphilosophical, and that it does not by any means follow, for instance, that because a man raises a dead body to life, he ought to be believed when he asserts the truth of the Nicene Creed. The answer to this argument has always appeared to us short and perfectly decisive. People may argue and talk as they please, but if any one were now to do in Hyde Park what Jesus Christ is said to have done in Judaea, the great mass of mankind would, in fact, believe all he said. For instance, if it were an admitted fact that such a person cured people born blind by a word, that he created large quantities of food, that he came to life after being put to death, and then ascended up into the clouds and disappeared, and if, before doing so, he were to say that there was a future state, and that in the sun there lived a very powerful being who had ordered all men, under pain of awful punishments to be inflicted after death, to abstain from all food and all work from noon till ten at night every Friday, and all governments to make laws to enforce such abstinence, can any one doubt that in point of fact he would be believed and obeyed? It would be useless to argue that he might have told a lie or have known nothing about the matter. People would say that, on the other hand, he might have told the truth, and might know all about the matter, and that one thing at least was quite clear, namely, that he was a very extraordinary person, who knew and could do a great deal more than other men—if, indeed, he could be called a man at all. They would feel, in short, that it was safer to act upon his directions in a matter of which they knew little. If any one doubts this, he has only to remember the fact that whenever and wherever it is or has been clearly and undoubtingly believed that Jesus Christ actually was a supernatural person, and actually did issue commands authenticated by miracles, millions of people have practically adopted those commands as the law of their lives—a law which they might often break, but which no one ever yet disowned until he had come to disbelieve either the fact that Christ gave those commands or the facts from which men infer—and, as it appears to us, justly and reasonably infer-his power to give them. It is true that in the case of Christianity many other feelings have been mixed up with that of submission to superior force. Intense moral sympathy, passionate love, have been enlisted on the side of miraculous power; but the belief in the power of Christ has been, if not the mainspring and foundation of Christianity, at all events an absolutely essential condition to its rule over large bodies of men.
It has also been argued that no evidence possibly could prove a miracle, inasmuch as the laws of nature are immutable, and a miracle is a transgression of a law of nature. To us, this has always appeared a foolish argument, being based on a supposed opposition between two vague words, ‘miracle’ and ‘law.’ What after all is a miracle, except something which greatly excites wonder? and what is a law, except a short general description of a large class of facts? Striking a lucifer match would be a miracle to a savage. Those who assert the impossibility of miracles on this ground appear to us to say, if they say anything, Our descriptions of the facts by which we are surrounded are so complete that nothing ever did or ever will happen, the truth of which would imply that any one of those descriptions is false or incomplete. Hume appears to us to have given the true account of the matter. The truth of every strange story, whether the strangeness of the story does or does not reach such a pitch, that people in general would call it miraculous, is a case of the conflict of opposite improbabilities. The question is, which involves the more striking deviation from the common course of events, the supposition that this particular evidence is false, or the supposition that this particular occurrence, under the particular circumstances alleged, really happened? Paley expressly accepts this issue, and argues, surely very reasonably, that the circumstances under which human testimony affirms very strange events, may be such as to carry the conviction of their truth to every reasonable mind.
[The word ‘miracle’ is used in many senses, but perhaps the most definite sense which can be given to it is that of an occurrence caused by an abnormal power of volition on the part of a human being, or by the direct volition of some being who is not the object of our senses. A certain number of bodily motions are caused by that sort of wish which we call a volition, and of which it is the characteristic peculiarity that it fulfils itself. Acts so done which are not usually so done would be miraculous. If by a wish I could move my table, my gun, or my house as I can move my arm or my leg, or if these objects were moved under circumstances which admitted no other supposition than that some invisible agent had moved them as a men might by the use of his bodily organs, that which is generally meant by a miracle would happen. To prove a miracle in this sense it would be necessary to prove first the phenomena, next the existence of a rational agent capable of producing them by volition, and lastly, the absence of every other cause by which they could be produced. An angel opens my book. This is a miracle. To prove it to be one I must prove at least, first that the book was opened; next the existence of an angel able to open the book and in the room at the time ; lastly, that no one else did it. To bring the matter to a plain test. Suppose the act were a crime, on what evidence short of this could the angel be convicted? There is an ambiguity in the word ‘impossible’ 'which is worth noticing in this place because it frequently comes under notice in discussions on this subject. ‘Impossible’ may mean that which can be imagined but cannot be accomplished by any known means. For instance, it is impossible for a man to lift a weight of ten tons, and for almost every man to lift a weight of half a ton, but it is as easy to imagine such a feat as to imagine a man lifting any weight at all. ‘Impossible’ may also mean unimaginable or ‘unmeaning.’ For instance, we say it is impossible that two straight lines should enclose a space. The meaning of this is that the proposition implied in the use of the word ‘straight’ is opposed to that which is expressed by the words ‘enclose a space ’ in such a way that when we try to combine the two into one mental image we are unable to do so. In other words the proposition is as unmeaning as any arbitrary sounds or signs would be.]
A third argument against the case stated by Paley and his School is aimed at the assertion that the Christian doctrines are not too repugnant to human nature to be believed upon any evidence whatever. It has frequently been asserted on the contrary that they are, that the doctrine of eternal damnation in particular, unless it is so completely explained away as to be practically unmeaning, falls under that description. Under the pressure of this argument many writers have set themselves to explain away the doctrine in question, Paley for instance (perhaps not without a recollection of the honour list and the poll at Cambridge) observing that for aught we know there may be as little to choose between the circumstances as there is to choose between the characters of the last man in heaven and the first man in hell. Hey remarks that a fine of one shilling is an everlasting punishment inasmuch as if you are fined you are fined to all eternity. The more common and on the whole the more satisfactory answer, and it cannot we think be denied that it is satisfactory, is that it is impossible to set limits to the probative force of evidence, and that there is quite misery enough in this life to explain if not to justify our worst fears as to any other.
The fourth argument joins issue with Paley on his principal averment. It is that the evidence to which he appeals is not such as would justify a reasonable man in believing the truth of the gospel history; that the hypothesis of the falsehood of the miraculous part of it involves little or no difficulty, and can on the contrary be explained in many different ways, none of which involve any departure from the common experience of mankind; whereas the hypothesis of its truth does involve the widest possible departure from it. This argument has been put forward by many writers. Some, as for instance Voltaire and Paine, have confined themselves principally to the specific objections which may be made to the gospel history as it stands. Others have attempted to construct theories by which the admitted facts of Christianity may be explained without resorting to the hypothesis that the miraculous history which the Christian theology is founded is true. Strauss and Renan are perhaps the best known writers of the class in the present generation. The general line of argument which they have adopted in answer to Paley and his predecessors is sufficiently well known. It is in a few words that the original evidence of what occurred is no longer in existence, not having been preserved at the time; that the evidence before us consists mainly of the fact that very soon after the time when the alleged events are said to have happened, large numbers of persons believed that they did happen, and that with all the enthusiastic earnestness which distinguishes religious convictions from all others. This however, it is argued, proves not the truth of the alleged facts but the inherent attractions of the creed. It is further asserted that various natural causes for the progress of Christianity are to be found in the circumstances of the times and in the analogies afforded by the growth of other religions and of religious opinions generally in our own and other ages. It is in short alleged that a complete examination of the circumstances proves that the establishment and success of Christianity was not a miraculous or exceptional but an ordinary event which ought to be regarded as the result of well known and distinctly assignable causes.
In our opinion, the question whether this can or cannot be made out as against such reasoners as Paley, is the question by the decision of which Christianity must stand or fall; whence it will follow that Protestantism thus stated is the only consistent and reasonable form in which Christianity can be proposed to the belief of rational men. There is, we think, no other way of stating it which does not involve a petitio principii, either in express words or else in the shape of a deliberate determination to draw a wider conclusion from given premisses than the premisses will warrant. Should this be shown to be true, it will follow that the charges so often brought by Roman Catholics against Protestants, of inconsistency and want of logic, are not only false, but recoil on their own heads.
Two cautions or explanations are necessary, by way of preface to what we have to say upon this subject. The first is that the question debated, for instance, between Priestley and Horsley, whether the Christian revelation contains any other doctrines than the unity of God, a future state of reward and punishments, and a code of morals, in so far as the Sermon on the Mount can be so described, becomes upon this principle a mere question of fact. Horsley, as well as Priestley, admitted that the question whether the doctrine of the Trinity was taught by or by the authority of Christ, was to be determined on precisely the same principles as the question whether it was anticipated by Plato. When, therefore, Bossuet argued against the Protestants, that their method would lead to Socinianism, he was of that logical error, whatever may be its technical name, which consists in inferring the falsehood of the method from the unwelcome nature of the results to which in a given case it would lead, as if, for instance, a man should argue that the eldest son cannot by the law of England be his father’s heir-at-law, because if he were it would follow that A B had no right to property of which he was in possession.
The second observation is, that there is no direct inconsistency between the belief that the Christian revelation was very short and the establishment and maintenance of articles of religion like the Thirty-nine Articles as the standard of doctrine and teaching in a given Church. There is no absurdity in the supposition that materials exist out of which systems can be framed upon subjects which do not form part of the matter expressly revealed. The whole group of doctrines, for instance, which are connected with the subject of predestination and free-will fall under this head. It was certainly not unnatural, though it may or may not have been a mistake, to suppose that the general efficiency of the clerical body for the purposes for which they were established would be promoted by laying down rules as to the character of their preaching, even though the persons who laid them down were well aware of their own fallibility. When Parliament directs the parish doctor to vaccinate all poor children brought to him for that purpose, no one supposes that it professes medical infallibility, and, in the same way, the enactment of the Thirty-nine Articles as the standard of teaching amongst the clergy of the Church of England was perfectly consistent with the views held by nearly all Church of England Liberals that there was no particular harm, morally or spiritually, in dissenting from them.
These considerations appear to us to prove that the Protestant theory, stated as writers of the evidential school stated it, is perfectly logical and consistent, whether as a fact the truth of its cardinal doctrine can or cannot be proved. Let us now consider whether any other theory of Christianity is capable even of being stated without incurring the objection of being either purely gratuitous or else contradictory and unintelligible.
There are three principal systems which may be examined in reference to this matter:—the system of what may be called the Transcendental Protestants, the Roman Catholic system, and the principal forms of Mysticism, Catholic and Protestant, which are perhaps best exemplified amongst some of our own Protestant Dissenters.
Transcendental or mystical Protestantism in this country has always been professed to a certain extent, but during the last forty years it has made great advances. Its first great professor in these times was Coleridge, from whom to a great extent have been derived, on the one hand, the High Church school, to which it is perhaps a misnomer to apply the name of Protestant at all, and on the other hand, the Mystical Liberal school, which has been ably represented by various living writers whom we need not specify by name. Of the High Church school it is needless to say much, as what we have to say of the Roman Catholics applies a fortiori to them. Of the Liberal descendants of Coleridge, who seem to us to represent far more faithfully than the High Churchmen that side of Coleridge’s wavering and inconsistent character which was really most characteristic of the man, it is impossible to speak without respect and liking; but their intellectual position, in so far as we are able to understand it at all, appears to us hopelessly confused and contradictory. They faithfully repeat the bewilderment which pervades all Coleridge’s writings on that subject, and to which, therefore, we will confine our observations.
Of the many things which he despised intellectually, there was probably nothing which Coleridge despised so heartily as the view of Christianity which we have endeavoured to state. It was, for one thing, far too distinct and definite for him. For another, he thought that Christianity would be defeated upon the issue which that view raises; and for this reason he was unwilling to accept it. There is a remarkable criticism upon Priestley in one of his works which sets this in a very clear light. The substance of it is that Priestley tried to save the Christian faith ‘as over a razor’s edge,’ by producing quasi-judicial proof of the Resurrection. Coleridge expresses his own conviction that this could not be done, and that faith so treated would fall off the razor’s edge into infidelity. The logical inference from this ought, we think, to have been the repudiation of historical Christianity altogether, and the substitution for it of the philosophical theory—whatever it might be—which Coleridge preferred. This, however, was far too audacious and decisive for Coleridge. He was one of those men who like to sit upon two stools, and shift about between them. Accordingly he racked his ingenuity to produce a version of Christianity which should make its philosophical beauty and historical truth support each other. Part of it was to be true because it was beautiful, and the rest beautiful because it was true; and every individual disciple, or knot of disciples, could apportion the truth and the beauty in their own way.
This clue gives the principle of a good many of the intricacies which render his writings so wearisome, and which but for his occasional gleams of humour, shrewdness and vigour, would make them utterly intolerable. On the one hand, Christ gave a divine revelation as a matter of fact. On the other, reason—not the vulgar thing commonly so called, but that peculiar kind of reason which it was superlatively necessary to distinguish from the understanding (Vernunft as opposed to Verstand, if that makes it any plainer)—was at all events semi-divine, and had a variety of canons and maxims of its own, to which the doctrines revealed by Christ were in some way or other to conform. The fundamental difficulty under which Coleridge and his followers have always laboured has been that of adjusting the claims of these two authorities. They never know which of the two is to be the ultimate test of the truth, or even of the meaning of a doctrine. Their perpetual problem is to show that Christ, reason, and conscience all mean the same thing, and the result is, to twist the Bible out of all shape, to put an intolerable strain upon the reason, and utterly to bewilder the conscience. For instance, such doctrines as the atonement and original sin come out of their crucible in such a shape that no human creature can recognise them, either as what is taught in the Bible, or as what was believed in the Church, or as what reason or conscience could ever have been brought to approve, if they had not been to a certain extent washed over with Biblical phraseology. It is impossible to read Coleridge without feeling that if he had put Christianity entirely on one side, and had taken trouble enough, he would have had a chance of giving what he would have regarded as its philosophical equivalent, and that if he had put philosophy on one side, he might have preached remarkable sermons; but he and his followers muddled up the two things together in such a manner as to prolong probably for many years the final decision of the decisive question. Any one who has watched the current of English thought for the last twenty-five or thirty years, must have observed the steady decline of the influence of this kind of mystical Protestantism. It leads and can lead to no result at all, except that of encumbering a philosophy which is quite difficult and obscure enough as it is with a theological nomenclature, which makes it ten times more difficult and obscure. The problem of finding something that looks rather like the old-fashioned doctrine of the atonement, and which also looks rather like new-fashioned transcendental morals, is hard to solve, and would be perfectly useless if it were solved. To believe a doctrine because it is revealed is intelligible; to believe it because it appears to be true on independent grounds is intelligible. But to believe it upon both grounds, and to show how the two fit together, is to persist in sitting upon two stools, protesting all the time that they are only one. What the merits of Coleridge and his followers may be, if they are regarded as the authors of a religious philosophy, is a wide question upon which we cannot now enter.
The Roman Catholic system is usually put forward as by far the most logical and perfect of all theories of Christianity. It has become fashionable in many parts of the world to say, A Catholic I understand, and an atheist I understand, but a Protestant is incomprehensible and inconsistent. We are utterly unable to understand this. It appears to us impossible to state the Roman Catholic system without either a petitio principii, or the recognition of the Protestant principle, and the preliminary proof of the Protestant case. Of course if a Roman Catholic says, as consistent Protestants do, that common historical evidence proves, not merely the truth of the facts stated in the Apostles’ Creed, but the further fact that Jesus Christ established the Roman Catholic system of dogmas and of Church government, with all the powers which are now claimed for the Pope and the priesthood, he is perfectly logical, but in that case he not only admits the validity of the Protestant method, and proves the case of the Protestant as the foundation of his own, but he takes upon himself in addition a burden of proof so overwhelming in its nature, that no rational man could ever hope to sustain it. Practically, too, he is open to the further objection that his edifice when erected overhangs his foundations. That there ever was such a person as Jesus Christ, that he ever taught any doctrine at all, that he instituted the Roman Catholic Church, and gave its clergy supernatural power, are all matters of fact to be established by common historical evidence. If they are be believed at all, they must be believed to the extent to which the evidence proves them, as long as it proves them, and subject to the discovery of further evidence, or further arguments upon the old evidence. To deny this is to deny their character as matters of fact; to admit it is to admit something utterly inconsistent with the whole Roman Catholic theory, which requires absolute unhesitating unconditional faith, as to all articles of faith. How can these states of mind be consistent? How can the one be founded by any legitimate process upon the other? If belief rests upon evidence it is absurd to suppose that the belief can go beyond the evidence. If the belief is independent of the evidence, what is the good of the evidence, and what is the condition of the belief? In order to get what Catholics call faith, out of what every one calls evidence, faith must be defined as a supernaturally imparted facility for believing true doctrines upon insufficient grounds, an absurdity which can be avoided only by defining it as a supernatural perception of the truth without any grounds at all. As in the present day hardly any supposition can be regarded as too absurd to require refutation, let us shortly consider the effect of accepting these views of faith.
Logically considered, faith defined as a supernatural power of perceiving religious truth is simply a petitio principii. It is a mere assertion that a certain set of propositions is true. Such assertions may always be made elaborate and consistent, and in that sense of the words, as logical as you please; and if they relate to matters beyond human experience, they are of course incapable of being directly disproved. Suppose, for instance, it is assumed that the sun is inhabited by a race of persons resembling men in certain particulars. It is obviously possible to construct a theory as to their mode of life, their laws, their government, their feelings, their literature, and whatever else you please, which will be perfectly consistent and intelligible. The only objection to such a theory would be its purely gratuitous character. No one who had not been to the sun could possibly assert of his own positive knowledge that it was false. Yet every one who knew that the persons by whom the theory was constructed knew no more about the inhabitants of the sun than their neighbours, would dismiss it with total indifference, and refuse to allow his conduct to be influenced in the smallest degree by the bare possibility of its truth. If the account given were not only altogether gratuitous, but were intrinsically improbable, its importance, if possible, would be diminished. This is an exact account of the nature of every theological system which requires the truth of a certain set of doctrines announced as true by clerical teachers. All of them, in so far as they require any credit whatever beyond that which would naturally be produced by the evidence any) on which they are based, are gratuitous; but, in addition to this, all of them contain a greater or less amount—generally speaking, a very large amount—of violent intrinsic improbability. If these two points had been clearly understood, they would have spared mankind an infinite quantity of controversy, often as ingenious as it was worthless; for its object was to show that given doctrines proposed for the belief of mankind in an authoritative manner were not absolute nonsense, and that their statement did not involve a downright contradiction in terms. An excellent example of this is to be found in Leibnitz’s speculations about the origin of evil and the goodness of God. The problem is to reconcile the doctrine of the goodness of God with the existence of evil and the doctrine of eternal damnation. Whether or not Leibnitz succeeds in showing that it is possible to attach such meanings to the words employed in these propositions, and to make such conjectures about things of which neither he nor any one else can by any possibility know anything whatever, as to suggest a possible escape from an absolute from its adherents faith, in the facts, as far as they go, render sense of a supernatural intuition of the doctrine which it seeks to contradiction, is a question which may have an interest for people with a turn for verbal ingenuity. To those who care for realities, it will probably always appear that, even if his theory is perfect in itself, it is utterly valueless, for this plain reason: It proposes to justify an arbitrary assertion about the character of God, by showing that it is not absolutely inconsistent with the known facts, though it admits at the very outset that the justify improbable. The defences of the doctrine of transubstantiation—nay, the very doctrine itself—are illustrations of the same thing. Christ is supposed to have said, ‘This is my body;’ meaning thereby that a piece of bread which he had in his hand was changed into his body. How, it is asked, can the belief that such was the case be reconciled with the testimony of the senses of those who were present on the occasion, that it was not the ease? The reconciliation is effected by the supposition that Christ spoke with reference to a crude and clumsy metaphysical theory about substance and accident, and that he meant to say, ‘The substance of my body has been miraculously multiplied. The substance of the bread has been taken away, the accidents being left unchanged, and one of the miraculously multiplied substances of my body has been miraculously put into each of the bits of head which I am now about to distribute to you, whereby each of them has become my body.’ This is obviously meant as the explanation of a difficulty, but it is equally obvious that the difficulty to be explained is altogether gratuitous. No difficulty at all exists until it has been proved, first, that the words of Christ are entitled to more, and if so to how much more, attention than those of any ordinary man; next, that he spoke those words, as to which the evidence is not merely hearsay upon hearsay, but hearsay in a foreign language, recorded probably many, perhaps sixty, years or more after the event; and next, that he did not use them in a metaphorical sense.
If Dryden had gone a very little further he would have seen that of all bungling bigotry none is so bungling as that double botching, which after invoking faith as the proof of an arbitrary assertion, which it calls a mystery, invokes it again to support a clumsy explanation of the mystery which it calls a doctrine. Every part of systematic theology, whether the system is Calvinistic, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, is pervaded by this constantly recurring petitio principii. Protestants for the most part have come to see this, and have ceased to systematise. Their systems, moreover, were far less ludicrous than the Catholic system, as they were produced under less unfavourable circumstances. There is less nonsense in Calvin, for instance, than in Bellarmine. The Catholics on the other hand seem never to tire of extolling a system which keeps up a perpetual game of leap-frog between the tortoise and the elephant, each in its turn supporting the other. The explanation supports the mystery and the mystery supports the explanation, and faith supports both. The odd part of the matter is that they are so particularly proud of the logic of the system. It is indeed peculiar, for it is the sort of logic which might be found in the calculations of a person who, having to arrive at given arithmetical conclusions upon the assumption that 2+2=5 and 3x9=28, is obliged after infinite twists and turns to state as facts that the desired conclusion is true, and that his operations prove it.
This strange jumble of arbitrary faith and clumsy reason does not perhaps differ much in principle, though it differs greatly in other respects from the simple and thoroughgoing mysticism of the English Protestant Dissenters. Their view of religion may be summed up in a well-known devotional stanza:
‘A sneering infidel once askedTo many persons there is something specially attractive in this perfectly simple unquestioning faith, the simple acceptance of religion with out any critical process at all on account of its inherent attractions for the mind which so accepts it. No doubt much at all events of the early success of Christianity was due to this influence. No doubt those who were converted by the preaching of Wesley and Whitfield, or by the preaching of St. Bernard, did beg the question of the truth of the doctrine offered to them. Much the same may be said of the mob which took the Bastile, and of that which massacred the Huguenots, of the volunteers of 1793‘, of the Leaguers of the sixteenth century, and of the Covenanters of the seventeenth, of all in short who surrendered themselves body and soul to any great popular or spiritual impulse, in which they have recognised their own passions and feelings raised to a higher power and drawn on a larger scale. All the great impulses by which society has from time to time been traversed and sometimes transformed have been revealed to babes and sucklings and hidden from the wise and prudent. It is impossible to deny these facts, but it is of the greatest importance not to be misled by them. They suggest and are used for the purpose of suggesting two very different inferences. One inference commonly suggested is, that faith is a short cut to truth. The other is, that faith is indispensable to the wide reception and general success of every creed whatever, political or religious. The first of these inferences appears to us a natural but mischievous error. The second appears to us an important truth. In order to explain this, it is necessary to say a few words on the general theory of belief. The ultimate fact at which at present we can arrive about men is, that every man is a force or has a force—for either expression may be used—the nature of which is unknown, but which tends to action as surely as a spring coiled up tends to uncoil itself. This action, moreover, is from time to time directed towards the attainment of certain objects which vary from time to time. Very young children act apparently without any distinct object at all, their actions being probably caused by the uneasiness which arises from an accumulation of unexpended power. Very soon, however, the notion of acting for an object is by some means acquired; and as soon as this is the case, the element of belief comes into play. A child wishes, for instance, to put something into its mouth. It stretches out its hand for that purpose. It obviously believes when it does so that it can effect its purpose; for if it does not, as for instance if the object desired is one which it cannot or is not permitted to move, it will show its disappointment by crying and struggling. This is the simplest case of belief. It is a case which precedes the use of language, and it shows, as do cases of belief after language has been mastered, that to believe is much the same as to expect steadily or to remember clearly,—to reckon that is the fact believed amongst those facts which by your own senses you have perceived or will perceive, or which you would have perceived or would hereafter perceive by your own senses if you were favourably situated for the purpose. The case of a child’s readiness to believe further shows that originally there is no connection whatever between the firmness of our belief and the truth of the proposition which we believe. Belief and true belief are different things: the former may be produced in a thousand ways, and quite independently of evidence; the latter is composed of two factors —'interest in the subject, and evidence to guide it. The greater part by far of a child’s beliefs are false. It is only by slow degrees that it learns to derive any information at all, and by still slower degrees that it learns to derive true information from any one of its senses, external or internal. A child, for instance, takes a very long time to learn to see, and there is hardly one of its gestures which does not show that it learns to use its various members by a long series of trials and errors; and this is the case through life. Few of us can recollect learning to walk or to speak, but most of us can recollect learning a foreign language and various bodily accomplishments—skating for instance. To success in these matters faith— confidence in our power to express our meaning, say in German, or to get forward upon our skates—is absolutely essential; but our faith leads us into innumerable errors, and it is by the process of making mistakes and correcting them that we gradually acquire all that we know. No man could boast that he had never had a fall in skating, or that he had never talked bad German, except one who had never tried either to skate or to speak German. Faith guides a man to truth as a foul wind guides a ship on her course. It brings him into collision with experience, and goads him on to interpret it, just as a north wind by pressing a ship’s broadside against the water to the south of it enables it to steer either to the east or to the west. If there were no water the ship would drift like a balloon. If there were no experience by which the suggestions of faith could be continually verified and controlled, there would be absolutely no connection at all between faith and truth. To say that faith is the foundation of religion, unless it is added that evidence is an equally indispensable foundation for it, is to say, in an obscure and impassioned way, that religion has no foundation at all, that is, that it is not to be desired or expected that religions should be true.
A clown to prove his Bible true;
He laid his hand upon his heart,
And said, I feel it here.’
This, at all events as regards Christian sects, may, we think, be safely regarded as a reductio ad absurdum for several reasons. In the first place, if it is an irrelevant assertion to say of a religion that it is false, no one Christian sect can condemn any other, for all that any of them has ever said about its rivals may be reduced to this: I am right, my religion is true, and yours is untrue. Let it once be fully and distinctly admitted on all hands that all religions are mere dreams, that they contain no element of truth at all, and that all that can be said of them is that some are prettier fables than others, and that to be a Protestant or a Roman Catholic is a mere matter of taste, and mankind will cease to care about religion at all. It must be added that, though arbitrary assumption upon such subjects is in every possible case absurd, it is perhaps more monstrous when it is directed to specific matters of fact than under any other circumstances. If any one asserts that by spiritual intuition and independently of evidence, in the common sense of the word, he knows that Pontius Pilate and not Cauponius or Gallio was the governor of Judea by whom Christ was put to death, or that the mode of execution was crucifixion, not stoning or beheading, he asserts that which no sane person can possibly believe; but if it is admitted that these are common facts to be proved by common evidence, how is it possible to distinguish between them and spiritual facts discernible by intuition? The facts of the resurrection and the ascension together form the cardinal doctrine of Christianity. It is impossible to separate the doctrine from the facts, for the doctrine consists of an assertion of the truth of the facts. Could the very best or most spiritually minded of human creatures believe in these facts, either before they happened, or after they happened, except upon evidence? and if he is to believe upon evidence how could his belief go beyond the evidence if it were genuine belief? Suppose, for instance, a very spiritually minded Chinaman heard the history of Christ from a debauched European sailor who said that he had been told it by a priest whom he knew to be a licentious hypocrite, is he to believe it or not? Practically, every one knows that the infamy of the witnesses would destroy all belief in their evidence. Ought it to do so? To say that it ought not is to insult the common sense of mankind. To say that it ought admits the whole principle of historical investigation, for if the imaginary Chinaman is justified in disbelieving a true story because he hears it upon very bad authority, he must be justified in feeling some doubt about it if the authority is only rather bad. It is, in short, impossible not to admit that he ought in every case to consider the whole matter fully upon its merits, giving to every item of evidence that amount of weight which properly belongs to it; and if this is admitted it will follow that it is impossible to define rational faith as anything else than that degree of interest in religious subjects which leads a man to investigate them to the bottom and to admit and act upon the conclusions at which he finally arrives. The great objection to Christian mysticism is that, whereas all such mysticism includes an element of fact, upon the truth of which its existence, to say nothing of its utility, depends, it offers no guarantee for the truth of the facts except its own existence. If, however, we are to have mysticism at all, if the existence of strong feelings is to be put forward as evidence of the truth (if the facts which would justify their existence (a test which if applied to cases where its operation can be tried would prove that a lover is the best judge of character and a jealous man the best interpreter of conduct), then it seems to us to follow that the simpler forms of Protestantism are far less irrational than the mysticism of the Roman Catholics.
Each indeed is entangled in a petitio principii, but the Protestant makes fewer and simpler assumptions and is not involved in the necessity of supporting by his enthusiasm a huge fabric composed of every sort of heterogeneous material, political, metaphysical and legal. The mystics who in their eager, simple-minded enthusiasm sustain the credit of an enormous mass of theological speculation of the contents of which they are for the most part profoundly ignorant, are more nearly allied than they would suppose to the women who flock to the car of Juggernauth. It is perhaps romantic to hope that a time will come when people in general and women in particular will not only be aware of the extremely narrow limits of their knowledge but also of the harm they do by nourishing in their own minds an intense conviction of the truth of theories about which they know nothing whatever.
The general result of this slight sketch of the history and general position of modern religious controversies appears to us to be, that Protestantism as stated by Paley and other writers of that school is the only form of Christianity which is worthy of the serious consideration of rational men. By Protestantism, we mean to refer not to any specific set of doctrines, but to the method by which a consistent Protestant would agree to be bound. This is a question worth dwelling upon for several reasons. Nothing is so common with theological writers in the present day as assertions of the decay of Protestantism and the progress of Romanism, between which and atheism we are told the final battle is to be fought. We shall not discuss the question whether or not this is so; but we wish to point out and insist a little upon the proposition that if this is the case, if Protestantism is indeed dead or dying Christianity itself must be dead or dying. If there is no standing ground for Protestants as against atheists there is most assuredly none for Roman Catholics. This consideration may tend at all events to moderate a little the triumph with which Roman Catholic writers are so fond of celebrating the weakness of Protestantism and its defeats real or supposed by deists and atheists. Such demonstrations, if their authors could but see it, are as absurd and as ungenerous as would be such language as this used by the population of a besieged town:—We are all safe and perfectly comfortable. We can walk about the streets, eat our meals, sleep well at nights, and amuse ourselves as usual, but look at those wretched brutes of soldiers who are struggling in the trenches defending the walls, being blown up by mines and pierced by bayonets. What a miserable, contemptible, illogical position they are in. Why, they neither enjoy the comfort of the town nor the freedom of the camp, and those splendid fellows outside who are assaulting the works so victoriously and who are in every respect so much braver, wiser, and more consistent, will soon knock them all to pieces. The answer to this would be, See how comfortable you will be when the fortifications are taken and when your town is laid open to the enemy whom you admire so much. The parallel is complete and its character is obvious. If the Protestants are finally defeated and silenced it will be because they will have failed to show grounds on which a reasonable man would believe that the main incidents in the history of Jesus Christ are true, and because their opponents will have succeeded in showing that in order to explain Christianity there is no necessity for resorting to the supposition of its miraculous origin, inasmuch as it is merely an historical event like another capable of being produced by the operation of common causes. It is impossible to suggest any argument whatever which can be used by a Catholic, and which cannot be used by a Protestant upon this subject. Indeed as soon as a Catholic enters upon the controversy in good faith and with an honest determination to abide by the result he becomes a Protestant, for the essence of Protestantism lies not in its creed but in its method. Suppose then that the free application of this method has put an end to Protestantism. Suppose it is universally admitted and established that the balance of evidence is against the truth of the gospel history, and that any reasonable man impartially considering the subject would come to the conclusion that the history of Jesus Christ as told in the Gospels is not true, what place is left for the Roman Catholics? It may be said that the testimony of the Church is left, but a moment’s consideration will show that this is mere nonsense. The phrase itself is ambiguous. It may mean the authority of the clergy, and it may also mean the belief of the general body of Roman Catholics. In the first case it means that failing everything else we have the word of honour of the Pope and his bishops for the truth of the Christian religion. This is true, but what do they know about it beyond what any one else may learn by study? Dr. Manning indeed tells us that the Pope and the bishops collectively are an incarnation of the Holy Ghost, and that on that ground they are to be implicitly believed. Some people of course may be disposed to believe Dr. Manning on his own assertion when he tells them that the Pope made him a part of the Holy Ghost, but inasmuch as we have only his word for that doctrine as well as the rest it is impossible not to remember that his change of religion in mature life diminishes the value of his own assertion of his own infallibility. At all events the assertion that the Pope and his clergy know all about it is just as arbitrary as the assertion that any other person—Mr. Spurgeon for instance—knows all about it. If again the testimony of the Church means no more than the fact that a large section of human beings do believe and have for many centuries believed the truth of the religion in question, that is a fact of which the Protestant is as much entitled as the Catholic to make use as against atheists or deists. Moreover it is a fact which proves nothing as to the truth of any creed, whatever it may prove as to its attractions for mankind. Buddhists, Brahminists, Mahometans and Parsees, to say nothing of the various sects of Christians, are numerous and sincere in their belief.
Turn the matter then how we will, it always comes back to the same thing. The only intelligible way of stating the Christian case is, that Jesus Christ being a supernatural person, affirmed the truth of certain doctrines relating to matters beyond the reach of human observation, and that this appears from. common historical evidence. This conclusion enables us to complete the observations made above as to the respective positions of the different forms of intuitional Christianity—Catholic, and Protestant, and modern Liberalism. These antagonists embody, more or less distinctly, two classes of conflicting views of human life, each of which have their attractions for certain minds, and neither of which can dispossess the other, as Christianity and Mahometanism dispossessed idolatry in different parts of the world, by the mere force of moral superiority, ultimately backed up by the secular arm. How, if at all, is the issue between these antagonists to be decided? It is useless to deny its extreme gravity. It affects every part of human life, and every relation, domestic, economical, social, and political, between man and man. Our belief is, that the conflict will in the end be determined by the question, which of the two rests upon the truth? Is Paley right, or is Strauss right? Is or is not Christianity a miraculous transcendental system, founded upon a supernatural message addressed to mankind through Jesus Christ about nineteen hundred years ago? This point we further believe must be decided by the very same process of investigation, by which all other matters of fact are decided, namely, by the critical investigation of the evidence.
Many objections may be made to this. We will notice one only. It is, that there is something petty and narrow in, such a mode of treating such a subject. Can you really believe, it may be asked, that matters of such vast importance as the maintenance of Christianity can depend upon the result of the critical investigation of a narrow question of fact? Writers of the most opposite characters would protest with equal energy against such a theory. M. Renan for instance, would probably regard as childish the notion that a vast moral and religious revolution should have been caused by the invention of a legend, which only expressed some of its tendencies, and was afterwards moulded and supplemented by further inventions as the progress of events required them. On the other hand, such a writer as Dr. Newman would probably say, that common observation will show that there is in the faith of large masses of men, something which you may call either immaterial or supernatural, but which, call it what you will, cannot grow from so narrow a root as critical investigation, or in so barren a soil as that of which critical investigation is the natural product. It is impossible not to feel the force of these remarks as addressed to the imagination. We are, however, convinced that the difficulty is one of the imagination only, and that in truth the dry question of fact, the legal question, so to speak, is the all important and decisive one.
We will try to explain the grounds of this opinion by reference to broader considerations than any which bear upon the controversy between Protestants and Catholics. All religion is an attempt to answer the great questions, What? Whence? Whither? For some persons these questions apparently possess no interest at all; to others, their interest is so absorbing that if any answer can be returned which appears to them satisfactory, the whole course of their lives, and the whole bent of their characters, will be regulated by it. Between these extremes lie the vast mass of mankind—or, at all events, the vast mass of civilised European mankind—who, without being quite indifferent on the subject, are interested in it in degrees indefinitely various. Consider, first, the case of earnestly and intensely religious men or women. It is obvious that if any view of life is presented to them which perfectly satisfies all their strongest feelings, and which is not strikingly inconsistent with known facts, they will, in almost every instance, ardently believe in its truth, and mould their lives upon its principles. Even if it is only partially instead of being wholly satisfactory, they will accept the unsatisfactory parts for the sake of the satisfactory ones with which they are connected; and by regarding the other parts as mysteries which call upon them for intellectual or moral or, it may be, for physical sacrifices, they will come to entertain a passionate affection for the whole system, and to love it all the more because of the sacrifices which it has imposed. Longing, love, and belief, thus run into each other in their case, and the general result is perhaps the most powerful and absorbing passion known to human nature. Persons thus disposed form the backbone of every creed which influences mankind, and it is by their agency that creeds are propagated as well as established. The propagation of a creed, however, introduces a new element into the matter. The people who passionately love a creed because the belief in its truth satisfies their spiritual wants-indeed, the people who have spiritual wants sufficiently well marked to make themselves at all distinctly felt—are a small minority. When, in obedience to an imperious instinct, they try to propagate their creed, they are speedily confronted by the fact that the most that they can really expect to find in the mass of mankind is a lukewarm liking for certain parts of it. To elevate this unsatisfactory disposition into anything more satisfactory they are obliged to resort to coercion or persuasion, fear, and hope, fear being by far the more powerful agent of the two. Until they have become sufficiently powerful to get possession of the resources of the temporal power, till the time has come for Constantine or Charlemagne or Simon de Montfort, or after that time has passed away, the only way in which this can be done is by holding out the prospect of heaven and hell to all whom they are likely to affect; and for this purpose a basis of fact is obviously indispensable. Practically speaking, the beauty of a creed is usually received as proof of its truth by those to whom it looks beautiful; but tastes differ widely upon this point. There are many persons to whom that which their neighbours regard as a beautiful creed appears exceedingly ugly, and still more whose genuine opinion about it, if fully realised and clearly expressed, would be somewhat as follows:--If we must make up our minds to it, we can. It has certain attractions and certain drawbacks, but the subject is one on which we are very ignorant; and if you have any new information about it—if you really are in possession of any light from beyond the grave, we are ready to adopt your views up to a certain point. We will profess your creed; we will admit the obligation of living up to your moral standard; we will submit to your reproofs for not doing more, and we will give you honour, respect, and a certain amount, more or less according to circumstances, of money and power, political and social. You, on the other hand, must not be hard upon us. You must remember that we are not saints. You must, if possible, devise some moderately easy way of getting us into heaven. Ease off a little some of the angles of your creed, keep its unpleasant parts in a judicious obscurity. Ally the good parts with undertakings which have advantages on grounds of their own, such as works of charity and philanthropy, and we shall get on admirably together. This is the substance of that tacit compromise between the world and the church, in virtue of which, and of the institutions and associations connected with it, the overwhelming majority of nominal Christians hold their nominal Christianity. The truth of this picture can be denied by no one who is not prepared to affirm that nearly every preacher who ever has reproached or who does now reproach the mass of mankind with their coldness, their inconsistency, and their lukewarm worldly ways, has been utterly wrong in his estimate of the world in which he lives, or wilfully mendacious in expressing it.
The more the nature of this compromise is examined, the more clearly will it appear that to those who have entered into it the question of the historical truth of the history of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, is of absolutely vital importance, for the determination of that question one way or the other would show whether they really are foolish and short-sighted as the preachers say, or whether they are acting like sensible men in caring for religion as little as they do. Men of this class do not really like Christianity. Little as they may think so, they do not really admire or love the character of Christ. If they were quite sure that the history of his resurrection and ascension was a mere legend, not supported by any such evidence as they are accustomed to require in the transaction of ordinary matters of importance, they would very soon pick holes in the sermon on the mount and in the parables. If men were left quite to themselves, if heaven and hell were put quite out of the question, perfect trust in an invisible God, and intense love for the human race in general, would have few attractions for ordinary men. It is indisputable that disinterested love for both God and man is possible and does exist; but it is at least equally plain that such feelings exercise infinitesimally little influence over that immense multitude who are immersed in the common business of life. Most of us naturally care just about enough for our neighbours to be capable of being partly persuaded and partly threatened into what is commonly described as Christian conduct and feeling, by the belief in a God whose character was displayed in Christ, and whose relations to the world were correctly described by him. Faith is thus the common ground on which, if at all, the saint and the man of the world must meet, and in which the former must, if he can, coerce the latter. The eternal object, of religious people is to conquer the world; but no one can possibly be conquered except by an appeal to some part of his nature; and the hold of the saint upon the worldly man lies in proving to him, as a fact, that Christ threatened him with hell-fire, and proved his power to threaten by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. Thus the question whether Christ was a supernatural being (whether God incarnate or not, is a subordinate question, though of course the highest theory makes the doctrine most emphatic) is vital to ordinary men, for if Christ was a mere man, all that can be said of his teaching is that it represents his individual opinions, and whatever may be their power over sympathetic minds, they have of themselves no power over the coarse, the cold, the haughty, the sceptical, the indifferent, in short, over ninety-nine men in a hundred. If on the other hand, Christ was not a mere man, but God incarnate, or a supernatural being of any kind, then his communications are not mere expressions of opinion with which we may or may not agree, but revelations to which it would obviously be dangerous to refuse obedience. What was he then? God, or at least a supernatural being, or a more man? That depends on the question, Did he or did he not rise from the dead and ascend into heaven? Bare question of fact as this may be, we firmly believe that upon its decision one way or the other hangs the fate of Christianity. If it were decided in the negative by the common opinion of mankind, the great mass of nominal Christians of all denominations would by degrees quietly drop of from Christianity, and after a generation or two their descendants would cease to give it even nominal support. Christianity would be confined to religious enthusiasts, who would cease to allege any reason for their faith, except their own personal liking for it—an assertion which might assume various forms according to the habits and education of those who made it.
The defection of the worldly and half-hearted, it may perhaps be said, would be but a slight loss, perhaps, not a loss at all; but this is not true. Every creed must either spread or die. A creed which the world cannot be persuaded or compelled to believe will soon die out. The enthusiast who passionately believes in the truth of his creed because it appears to him so beautiful and complete, is after all a man like his neighbours. The strength of his convictions depends to a great extent upon the degree of sympathy with which they meet. He is encouraged by perceiving that he impresses others with his own convictions, and discouraged by perceiving that he cannot do so. In fact, the effect which he produces on others is his evidence of the truth of his views. Grant that the beautiful is true. Can that be beautiful which most men reject? If he were to find that the great mass of quiet reasonable people, whose good sense and good faith it would be absurd to doubt upon any other subject, and who had shown themselves not indisposed to give him a hearing, rejected his creed because the proof of the facts was not strong enough to oblige them to overcome their dislike to part of the doctrines, he must in time be led to question himself upon the matter. In many instances, enthusiasts would come to acquiesce in the general view. As we have already observed, a certain element of fact is essential to the most eager mysticism, and every one more or less obscurely and confusedly recognises the principle, that there is only one way in which the truth of matters of fact can be determined. Here and there no doubt a violent partisan may declare that in morals, goodness and truth are synonymous, and that to prove a doctrine to be good is the same thing as to prove it to be true, but the common process is far simpler and, if less ingenious, more sincere. It consists of sanguine credulity, and is a sort of inverted panic, a panic caused by hope and love instead of hatred or terror.
A single consideration puts this beyond a doubt. It is surprising that it should have been so little attended to, though when stated it is, one would have supposed, self-evident. This consideration is that the goodness of a system, the utility of a creed, depends upon the nature of the facts to which it relates, whereas the nature of the facts is altogether independent of their utility. In a word, Christianity is not useful unless it is true. To set this in the broadest and plainest light we will take the strongest of all illustrations. Let us suppose that atheism and materialism are true, that there is no God and no future state: what ought we, upon that supposition, to think of the character and life of Christ? We must admit in the first place that he was a mere man, next that he was of the whole human race the one who was most grievously deceived; and that on the most important subject, and at the same time the one who most deeply, widely, and permanently deceived others. We must further suppose that his life was short, miserable, and closed for ever by a death of prolonged and useless torture, that he involved all his nearest friends and the most ardent admirers of his character in similar misfortune, and that he contributed largely, to say the very least, to the natural propensity of mankind to quarrel and fight about unintelligible trifles in which they have no real interest. It may, indeed, be said on the other hand that he introduced a new and pure morality which has permeated and more or less influenced for good every relation of human life, which has made millions kinder, more tender, less selfish, less coarse than they would otherwise have been, which has raised the poor and miserable all over the world, and contributed in a thousand ways to the growth of modern civilisation. Admitting this to be true, it must, upon the supposition of the falsehood of his teaching, be taken subject to whatever answer may be given to the question, Is the Christian morality and the frame of mind which it tends to produce suitable for mere animals limited to a few years of life? Can it be regarded as good except in so far as its fundamental assumptions are true? Assuming it to be in some sense good, yet if it is false, are there not, moreover, tremendous set-offs against its advantages, be what they may? Look, for instance, at the delusions, for upon the supposition under consideration they will be delusions, that there is such a thing as sin as distinguished from crime, and that sins will be punished hereafter by eternal torture, which almost every one frequently commits, and which, if this life is all, do no one any great harm. If sin is a phantom, how vast an amount of superfluous mental torture has been caused by the dread of it to some of the most amiable of human creatures! Have not the martyrs whose testimony was false after all, and the monks and nuns who crucified the flesh for the sake of a shadow, and the vast crowds of people who allowed the clergy to rule over them on false pretences, been considerably damaged by Christian morality, if it is all false, and may not the same be said of every one who has ordered his course of life or regulated his passions or feelings otherwise than he would have done if he had known that he had nothing to hope In a word, upon the suppositions under consideration, may not Christian morality be compared to a set of rules for teaching people to fasten paper wings to their shoulders and to hop instead of walking, because hopping is more like flying and flying is nobler than walking?—or to the Ptolemaic system, which by making the earth the centre of the universe involves the heavens in a heap of hopeless confusion, though it may perhaps be said to increase in a certain sense the dignity of our conceptions of the position of the world? Goodness, like all other words, is a relative term. A good moral rule is a rule which gets the greatest amount of happiness out of a given state of things. A good moral rule for a dog would not be a good moral rule for a man, and a moral rule for a man which falsely assumes his immortality is as unlikely to be good as one which, he being immortal, falsely assumes his mortality. It is obvious, therefore, that the question of the truth of a religion must precede the question of its goodness, just as the question, What is the disease? must precede the question, What is the remedy? To say that the goodness of a creed proves its truth is the very same absurdity as to say that a man’s liver must be out of order because calomel is such an excellent medicine. It is no doubt an excellent medicine when administered under certain conditions, but the question whether it is an excellent medicine or a deadly poison depends on the existence of those conditions.
We may now sum up very shortly the results at which we have arrived. The great controversies of the Reformation finally reduced themselves to two rival theories—a petitio principii on the part of the Roman Catholics, and an allegation of facts, to be ascertained by critical investigation, on the part of the most thorough-going and consistent of the Protestants. The Roman Catholic petitio principii was beginning to appear incredible in the course of the eighteenth century to a working majority of the Catholic population of Europe, because it was confronted by a hostile system which made a more successful appeal to their sympathies; during the present century the energetic reassertion of the Catholic theory, and the equally energetic assertion of Liberal principles, has gone a long way towards dividing continental Europe into two hostile camps each animated by a passionate moral enthusiasm for one or the other of two conflicting views of this world and the next. The orthodox Protestants on the other hand, in England at least, succeeded in making good their case as against the deists by producing what was regarded as satisfactory proof of the substantial truth of the gospel history, and their victory was closely allied with, it was indeed a part of that general triumph of Conservatism in England which decided English policy during the French Revolution. The question, however, has since been reopened, and is still being eagerly debated. The attempts of Transcendental Protestantism to evade it by substituting Christian philosophy for revealed religion, have ignominiously failed, and the question stands for decision between the disciples of Paley and others on the one hand, and those of Strauss and others on the other. The decision of this issue, be it what it may, will also decide the question between Ultramontanism and the Revolution. If it is in the negative, all forms of Christianity will sooner or later disappear; but if it is in the affirmative then the questions raised at the Reformation will have to be rediscussed, and that upon the Protestant method, inasmuch as it is only by the triumph of Christians using that method against unbelievers, that Christianity itself can be saved. If the truth of the history of Christ can be established by ordinary historical investigation, the same means will tell us what doctrines Christ taught. If the truth of the history of Christ cannot be established by ordinary historical investigation, it cannot be established at all, and in that case it matters very little what he taught. Upon all this we conclude that it appears from the history of the controversies of the Reformation and of the eighteenth century that Protestantism is the only form of Christianity capable of being stated to reasonable men without absurdity, and that if it is to fall it can only be because Christianity itself is untrue.
There is only one point which remains to be noticed in conclusion. It is the assumption that no question of fact about Christianity remains to be decided, that the facts are and have been for many ages before the world, and that the world has decided that upon the evidence, the fundamental assertions of Christianity are probable to that degree which constitutes moral certainty, whilst only a factious minority, many of whom are actuated by corrupt motives, takes a different view. This way of speaking is very common, though the opinion is more frequently assumed than expressed in so many words. Let us, however, consider how far it is justified by facts. It can scarcely be doubted that even now the enormous majority of the human race are altogether at the mercy of a very small minority in regard to their opinions on religion and morals, as well as in regard to their opinions about matters of physical science. The instincts and feelings of the mass react, no doubt, upon the minority of specially learned or specially fervent men, but the specific belief into which the general mass of evidence, speculation, and sentiment, settles down at last, is the work of a small class of leading men, who, in a very real sense, are the guides of the rest. A very small number of people practically decided the question, whether Christianity or Mahometanism, whether Protestantism or Romanism, should be the religion of France at critical periods in its history. That the bulk of the population of Europe has voted in favour of the truth of Christianity is perfectly true; that their vote has proceeded upon any real knowledge of the subject, that it could not and would not be revoked if an instructed minority voted the other way, appears to us at least entirely false. Is it then the case that the historical truth of the history of Jesus Christ has been so generally affirmed by the instructed minority capable of forming a real judgment upon the subject, that the matter ought to be regarded as res judicata? A person who affirms that it has must either be ignorant or impudent—ignorant if he has never even heard of the writings of the many German, French, and English authors who have taken the negative side of the question; impudent if he affirms that their opinion is founded upon corrupt motives, or is professed in bad faith. The ignorance, moreover, must go far beyond want of acquaintance with specific books; it must include ignorance of methods and tendencies as well as of results. Every one who is in any degree acquainted with the history of speculation ought to know that till physical science had taught people what the accurate and precise investigation of facts really meant, facts, and in particular historical facts, were investigated with extreme looseness and clumsiness. The only case in which even an attempt was made to attain anything like precision was the case of trials in courts of law, where it was always necessary to handle, to some extent, the problem, How can we ascertain whether or not this is true? A good history of the legal method of investigation and of the rules of evidence which prevailed in different parts of Europe, would form one of the most interesting chapters in the history of the efforts of men to arrive at truth. It would set almost in a pathetic light their conscious inability standing difficulties of the subject. Beginning with ordeals, trials by combat, and a superstitious belief (which even now is not quite exploded) in the intrinsic and almost mechanical value, so to speak, of oaths, courts of law have, by slow and intricate paths, arrived at last, at least in this country, at a method of which it may be said, with a good deal of justice, that it is founded on a really scientific conception of the nature of proof, and completed by practical rules of much sagacity for arriving at it, but the path itself has been wonderful. To appreciate our English rules of evidence as they were not very many years ago, it is enough to read Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence—a hideous monument of exploded nonsense. The continental rules in old times, with their silly refinements about plena, and semiplena probatio, about adminicula, about the number of witnesses required to prove particular facts, and other matters of the same sort, were not less absurd. The use of torture showed some common sense in particular instances, but there is a distinction upon the subject which is often overlooked, though it is well illustrated by the practice of the French, who still employ torture for the extraction of evidence, often with highly satisfactory results, but often also with no result at all, and often with a wrong one. So long as solitary confinement, varied by constant interrogation by a juge d’instruction, is used merely for the purpose of forcing the suspected person to state facts capable of independent verification, it is exceedingly useful; when it is used merely to drive him into a confession which cannot be verified, it is idle. The question whether its utility is upon the whole counterbalanced by its cruelty is foreign to our present purpose. Be all this how it may, the slow and gradual character of such advances as have been made in the judicial investigation of matters of fact, sufficiently proves how difficult it is to investigate matters of fact, and how many considerations must be taken into account before a just conclusion can be reached respecting them. This is particularly true of matters of history. The more we learn, the more we are able to appreciate the enormous difficulty of correctly inferring what really occurred upon a given occasion from the accounts given in books. When a person goes up a mountain for the first time, he thinks that the highest point he can see must be the top. When he arrives there he finds that it is a mere knob, just high enough to prevent a person immediately under it from seeing any higher, and surmounted in its turn by scores of other horizons. The continual raising and continual disappointment of hopes of this sort is one of the great elements of fatigue in climbing mountains. It is just so in history. In a simple age, the fact that something is stated as true in a standard book—for instance, in Livy or Thucydides —is regarded as conclusive. Yet, as time goes on, as the art of writing books and the importance of obtaining first-hand evidence of the transactions related in them come to be better understood, the impossibility of disposing of history in this summary way is continually made plainer and plainer. Our standard as to historical evidence rises not because men are becoming fastidious or impracticable, but because they are learning by degrees to see what very complicated things historical facts and the evidence upon which their credibility depends really are. Our ancestors would have been just as exacting and fastidious if they had been equally well informed. For these reasons we cannot regard the question of the historical truth of the facts stated in the Apostles’ Creed as having been decided by the investigations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The real decision must proceed from the full and free application to the subject of the most approved methods of modern historical investigation. To suppose that anything less than this will settle the question finally, or that this will settle it finally if succeeding generations improve their methods of investigation or discover new evidence, is the same absurdity as to suppose that there is no use in looking at the moon or at the planets through Lord Rosse’s telescope, because Galileo and Newton looked at them to good purpose through simpler instruments, or that there never will be any use in looking at them hereafter in any better telescope than Lord Rosse’s.
Fraser’s Magazine, November 1869.