A person who has no liking for, or connection with, the Roman Catholic Church is ill fitted to judge of the degree of importance which, within its borders, may attach to Mr. Mivart's writings.
They cannot, however, be wholly unimportant. That he is an able and accomplished man is obvious to everyone, that his views can hardly have escaped the attention of the principal Roman Catholic dignitaries in England is certain. He tells us himself, in his second article, that certain persons “earnestly solicited his condemnation’ for the first article, and that ‘up to the present time’ he has ‘not received even a private hint of disapprobation from any ecclesiastical authority.’ He publishes part of a grateful and highly eulogistic letter on his first article from ‘a most esteemed superior of one of the mediaeval religious orders,’ and upon the whole he says, ‘from the evidence I have now obtained it is abundantly clear to me that all danger of conflict between the Church and biology is for ever at an end. Encouraged by this triumphant result he proceeds in his second article to carry matters a long step further. Historical science and biblical criticism, he considers, are to be accepted by Roman Catholics as fully and unreservedly as biology, and he gives specimens of the results to which his attention has been directed, and which he is ready to accept as far as the principle which they involve is concerned. He does not, of course, pledge himself to details, but he thinks the method by which many known critical and historical results have been reached is sound, and they can, he thinks, be held by the most genuine Catholics consistently with their faith. The conclusions are familiar enough, and the justification for holding them is expressed by the following remark on the inspiration of the Bible:
‘No decree whatever binds Catholics to regard as inspired anything but such passages as may turn out to have been scripta propter se and it is of course conceivable that they may consist only of brief sentences scattered at wide intervals through the sacred books.’In short so far as it is concerned with matters not scripta propter se the Bible may be all false, and it is a question of detail to be determined by historical criticism whether any particular statement in it is true or not. In many particulars the meaning of the Bible is supplied by the teachings of science. ‘The greatest stickler for literalism' cannot ‘deny it to be a fact that our knowledge of truth in relation to the Bible has gained by the increase of scientific knowledge.’ The meaning of this remark is illustrated by an anecdote. ‘A most pious Catholic and weekly communicant’ being asked by some startled hearer whether the biblical account of the deluge was true replied—“True! of course it is true. There was a local inundation, and some of the sacerdotal caste saved themselves in a punt, with their cocks and hens.’ The last article concludes with the remark—
‘We cannot therefore refuse to believe that there is in store for the Catholic world a transformation of opinion in the domains of history and criticism similar to the transformations which it has antecedently experienced in the fields of astronomical, geological, and biological science.’All this, it appears, may be held consistently with the most severe Catholic orthodoxy. There is, however, in that capacious Church, room for opinions which are, if possible, even further from the common conception of the Roman Catholic creed. In the first place the old ‘Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus,' is, according to this view, a vulgar error and a great hindrance to truth and honesty, unless indeed it is to be inverted like other things, so as to be read in the negative sense—‘Nothing need be believed by Catholics except that which complies with a test which nothing satisfies, so that nothing at all need be believed by Catholics.’ [II. 50. ‘These instances’ (he had been referring to Galileo) ‘have an especial value, since they appear to give, as regards questions of science, the coup de grâce to those two bugbears of timid Catholics which are known as a “consensus of theologians” and the “ordinary teaching,” and the passage goes on to point out the way in which the Pope is always the last to be convinced of the falsehood of common opinions, and maintains them ‘till the irresistible advance of historical as of other science permeates and transforms the whole Catholic body, and ultimately reacts upon its supreme head,' and how he contrives to be infallible all the while. The Church and the Pope are infallible because, after denying and often persecuting the truth, they end in the long run by admitting it, ‘and may end by thoroughly adopting what was at first resisted and denounced.’]
In the next place it has hitherto been, if not the universal at all events the common opinion of Roman Catholics that ecclesiastical authority is to be treated with the utmost respect, that the decisions of high ecclesiastical tribunals like the Roman Inquisition, and much more the decisions of Councils, especially those of the Council of Trent and of the Vatican, are not to be questioned, and are at all events to be respectfully obeyed, even by those who, however conscientiously, differ from them. All this it appears is wrong. Nothing could be more utterly wrong and absurd than the judgment passed on Galileo by the Inquisition at Rome. So bad was it, indeed, that Mr. Mivart in both his articles expresses the opinion that Catholics ought to be thankful for it,
‘because it has thus made absolutely and unanswerably plain and clear to them what are their duties in the pursuit of science. God has thus taught us that it is not to ecclesiastical congregations but to men of science that He has committed the elucidation of scientific questions, whether such questions are or are not treated of by Holy Scripture, by the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and by ecclesiastical assemblages and tribunals.’Nor is this the only advantage of the condemnation of Galileo.
‘Its ethical aspect shows us how much we have gained through the moral no less than the scientific advance of modern times. As the authorities who condemned Galileo were ignorant not only of the physical knowledge of our day, but of the physical knowledge of their own day, . . . as also they were ignorant of those economical truths which their successors now not only confess but make use of; so also they appear to have had no glimmering perception of the practical claims of the most sacred and inalienable of all rights—the rights of conscience.’
[A few pages before Mr. Mivart condemns those “who denounced as usurers the individuals who timidly began to develop the great modern system of finance and commercial credit' (I. 35). See also II. 46, ‘What, in matters of morals, could have been more unequivocal than the most authoritative and distinct decrees of popes and councils against usury? Yet what ecclesiastic has now a single word to say against it?]Mr. Mivart has no sympathy even with the old distinction between imposing belief and imposing silence.
‘Thanks to our progress, it has now become plain to all men that no fear inspired by threats of fire, whether temporal or eternal, ought to make the man of science swerve for a hair's breadth from the duty he owes to God of declaring the very truth with respect to those laws which God has instituted (I. 42).’These are specimens of Mr. Mivart's views, but the whole of the two articles may be reduced to an expansion and illustration of these two propositions.
1. In all matters of physical science, also in all matters of history and biblical criticism, the common methods of inquiry are the ultimate test of truth; and ecclesiastical authority, if it condemns the results arrived at by the application of those methods is wrong. This is now practically admitted to be true in regard to physical science, and this admission involves a similar one about history and criticism.
2. As the admission of the supremacy of science in relation to scientific matters has not injured but greatly improved the position of the Roman Catholic Church, it is to be hoped that similar results will follow from making the same admission as to history and criticism.
I agree with the greater part of these two propositions, but I doubt if Mr. Mivart sees how far his principles go, and probably we may differ as to the nature of the advantages which their adoption would be found to confer upon the Church of Rome. My object in the present article is to try to illustrate these points.
To find myself for once in cordial agreement with so much of what is said by a very zealous Roman Catholic is odd, but a great part of Mr. Mivart's article reminds me of the first case of any importance in which I was engaged at the Bar twenty-six years ago, when I argued, not quite unsuccessfully, though not, as at least one subsequent decision has shown, with complete success, in favour of the legal right of clergymen of the Church of England to hold and to preach the view of Biblical inspiration which Mr. Mivart sets up. Indeed most of his remarks recall to my mind arguments which I then and on various subsequent occasions have made use of.
The only part of Mr. Mivart's articles with which I cannot at all agree is the consistency of the opinions which he advocates with the Roman Catholic creed. It is, however, so difficult for anyone who is not a Roman Catholic, and indeed for most of those who are, to be sure that they rightly apprehend the teaching of the Romish Church, that I willingly admit that he may be right and I wrong in this matter. Far be it from me to try to bind Proteus. I will try, however, both to show how far Mr. Mivart's principles lead him, and what doctrines commonly supposed to be essential parts of his creed they place entirely at the mercy of critical and historical inquiries, and therefore render, as it seems to me, impossible to be believed without doubt.
How far, then, do Mr. Mivart's principles carry him, and with what results? I will illustrate this matter sparingly. I believe every single doctrine of the Roman Catholic creed would furnish further illustrations.
It is generally supposed to be a fundamental doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the statements made in the Apostles' Creed about Jesus Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension are literally, historically, true. Yet Mr. Mivart's proposition appears to imply that all of them are open to question. The assertions that Jesus Christ was ‘conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and rose again from the dead the third day, and that he ascended into heaven” are as much historical statements as the accounts given of the flood, the creation, and the formation of Eve. These last mentioned statements Mr. Mivart disbelieves. Speaking of the flood, and relating the little joke made about it by “a most pious catholic,’ Mr. Mivart says:
‘If an inspired narrative which has God for its author can be thus deemed entirely unhistorical and untrustworthy without prejudice to Catholicism, why may not the various other narratives which Kuenen, Wellhausen, Colenso, and Reuss criticise be unhistorical likewise?’ [II. 49]I venture to add the names of Strauss and Renan to those mentioned by Mr. Mivart. How can he object to my doing so? He can hardly say that the negative criticism which these writers make on the history of Jesus Christ are not made in good faith, or on grounds which require attention. The method which they employ is in substance identical with that of the other critics mentioned.
To come to details, are not the following observations well founded? At the very lowest, are they not continually made in good faith by competent persons?
The earliest accounts of the life of Jesus Christ now extant are those which are contained in the four gospels. There is not now, nor is there any sort of evidence that there ever was any earlier, more authentic, fuller, or more detailed account of him.
But these accounts are most unsatisfactory. It is wholly uncertain who were the authors of the gospels, and when they were written. Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been either copied, with additions and modifications, from each other, or from some earlier original which has been lost.
There is no proof that the Gospel of John was written by John the Apostle. There are very good grounds for thinking it was not, and he is the only evangelist who professes to have been an eyewitness of what he relates. Luke is admittedly a compilation. The title of ‘the Gospel according to St. Matthew’ suggests an unknown author. The statements of the gospels are therefore uncertified hearsay. They are not, and do not pretend to be, the statements of eye-witnesses of the facts related, and intrinsically those facts are as far removed from the common standards of probability as the history of the creation or the flood.
Such reflections, of course, do not directly contradict the received history, they do not absolutely displace it and replace it by another account, as is sometimes the case in historical inquiries. It does now and then happen that it is possible to show (as by the discovery of documents not previously known) that the accepted version of a story is false, and that the true account of the matter is different. In regard to the history of Christ this cannot be done, because all memorials of the time and place where the scene is laid have disappeared for many centuries; but historical researches may show, by the examination of details, that the accounts which still remain of particular occurrences have all the well-known marks of legends as distinguished from history, and if so why are they not to be believed? How can you admit that, all things being duly considered, the histories of the birth, the resurrection and the ascension of Christ have all the marks which distinguish poetical legends from history, that such legends may easily have arisen in connection with their subject, that similar legends have often arisen in all ages about other persons whose lives deeply stirred the sympathies of men, and yet believe that the events in question did actually occur? How, again, can it be denied that even if the initial difficulty of believing marvellous events upon the evidence of uncertified hearsay is waived, the evidence itself, such as it is, varies greatly in its cogency. The evidence of the miraculous birth, for instance, must, from the nature of the case, be ultimately that of Mary herself, and it is nowhere said that she ever said anything about it. The only writer who professes to have been intimate with her, the author who calls himself John, does not mention it. The ascension, though mentioned in the Acts, is not mentioned at all in the gospels, except in what is regarded, on independent grounds, as a spurious addition to Mark.
Historical students, as I understand Mr. Mivart, are not only not wrong in making such observations; it is emphatically their duty to make them. ‘No threat of fire, whether temporal or eternal, ought to make the man of science swerve for a hair's breadth from the duty he owes to God of declaring the very truth;’ but to what purpose can they be made except as steps to a conclusion that the books in question are unhistorical? Suppose historical students do make these remarks. Suppose, on the fullest inquiry, they adhere to them, and draw the inference that all that is miraculous in the history of Jesus Christ is unhistorical and untrustworthy, will not the Catholic Church have, according to Mr. Mivart, to admit that the truth is so; and, if it makes that admission, must it not practically strike Christ out of Christianity, and admit that he was only a man, better or worse, like other men? Is it possible for the Church to do this and yet to keep up a claim to be the Church? The negative seems to me so clear that there is something like a want of respect in arguing upon or illustrating it. Speculation, however, and especially speculation on religious and theological questions, takes such extraordinary twists and turns in these days that a few remarks on the subject may possibly be required. If Christ was born in the common course of nature, if he was dead and buried, but did not rise again, and did not ascend into heaven, what else can be said of him but that he was a man like others, and not God at all? Logically it is not impossible that all the evidence for a conclusion may be false and the conclusion itself be true; but it is in practice as idle to put forward such a possibility as to contend that if the walls of a house are pulled down the roof will not fall, it being possible that it may be otherwise supported.
If Christ was a mere man the Nicene Creed is distinctly, emphatically wrong, and those who opposed it were as emphatically right in their opposition as, according to Mr. Mivart, Galileo was when he opposed the Inquisition; as those who protested against the invasion of the rights of conscience (as Mr. Mivart calls them) when they were invaded by the Romish Church at the Reformation; and as those persons, if any such there were, who in the middle ages protested against the condemnation by the Church of usury. It is often said that the Church itself is a witness superior in weight to all others of these matters, but Mr. Mivart cannot say so, for it is emphatically a question of history whether the Church existed as an organised body in the first century, and what were its means of knowledge and the value of its testimony.
It would be out of place to attempt to trace out here the various consequences of such a conclusion. It is enough to say that all theology would fall with it. It is perhaps barely imaginable that a belief in the Trinity might be theoretically shown to be consistent with disbelief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Practically, no one who gave up the latter would hold to the former. No one ever has done so. The doctrine of transubstantiation could not survive such a change, nor could any doctrine which rests upon anything which is alleged to have been said by Christ. If the historical conclusions of Strauss and Renan are established, how can anyone affect to be sure that Christ ever used the words, “This is my body,’ whatever may be their true meaning? That he did not use either those words, or the words hoc est corpus meum, or the words τούτό έστι τό σώμά μον, is certain, that he did use equivalent Syriac words may plausibly be maintained by anyone who believes that the authority of the Church on that subject is conclusive; but how can anyone be sure of this who considers, with Mr. Mivart, that all ecclesiastical authority may be overruled by the results of historical inquiry upon historical questions? If a true Catholic is at liberty to believe that historical criticism rightly concludes that the four gospels only represent the traditions collected long after Christ's death by unknown persons, and that therefore it is wholly uncertain whether particular words which they attribute to Christ were ever spoken by him, how can he be sure that a doctrine resting only on hearsay was ever really revealed by Christ? If the foundation is admittedly unsound, how can absolute confidence in the superstructure be justified.
Mr. Mivart does not seem to me to recognise the nature, extent, and multiplex application of his doctrine about history. I will illustrate its application to the doctrine of transubstantiation in a different way. No part of history is more curious, more important, or more authentic than the history of words and opinions. The doctrine of transubstantiation has, like all others, its history. I do not pretend to say how far it is true, but it has often been asserted, with all sorts of details, that the doctrine is comparatively modern, that its gradual rise and development can be traced with much distinctness, and that it rests upon a theory about substance and accident which no one now affects to believe or to employ for any other purpose. Whether these things are true or not is as much a question of history as the question, What is Queen Victoria's title to the crown? If ecclesiastical authority is liable to be overruled upon it by historical research, what is the value of ecclesiastical authority ? It is powerful only where it is superfluous, and becomes powerless as soon as it is challenged. Let Mr. Mivart specify any single point on which any ecclesiastical authority could really decide, consistently with his principles about historical inquiry.
Let us take the greatest of all doctrines, the existence of God. I am sure Mr. Mivart would never knowingly admit any principle of which it was a legitimate consequence that doubt could ever come to be thrown upon this doctrine; but I think he would find it impossible to prove that the principles which he puts forward in these two articles would not, or at least might not, have this result. It is no doubt true that the assertion that God exists cannot be described as raising directly a historical question which can be discussed as we discuss the question whether there was a siege of Troy; but though the principal ultimate question cannot be historically discussed, various subsidiary questions which lead up to it and throw light upon it are historical, and must be decided by historical and scientific evidence. The following are some of them.
The question What is the meaning and what is the history of the word ‘God’ and its equivalents in different languages, is historical. Mr. Max Müller's investigations of this matter, for instance, are historical and scientific in the strictest sense of the words. They throw the greatest light not only on the question of the original meaning of words still in daily use, but on the connection in which from time to time they have been used, and on the way in which the meanings now attached to them gradually came into existence and extended themselves through the world.
Apart from the history of the word ‘God,’ the history of the belief in God, or in the Gods—for there have been Gods many and Lords many, from Jehovah to Comte's Great Being—may be written, and many attempts have been made to write it. In particular the sense in which the word “God’ was used by the Jews of different ages is a historical question. It has been maintained on well-known grounds that the author or authors of the first chapter of Genesis, the Jehovist and Elohist as they are called, took quite different views on this matter, and that neither of their views corresponded either with those of Jews of later times or with those of modern Christians. I merely allude in passing to those well-known topics; I say nothing as to the truth of any conclusions which have been arrived at. It is enough for me to say that if the conclusion arrived at should be that the word ‘God’ expresses only a vague aspiration of the mind, which in the course of ages has had many different shapes, according to the character and temper of the nations which have used it, and which has been and is wholly unknown to large populations like the Chinese and other Buddhists, I do not see how Mr. Mivart could say that the conclusion was not the result of a legitimate process, entitled to overrule any decision of any ecclesiastical authority whatever.
This is, however, by no means the only way in which what Mr. Mivart recognises as legitimate scientific processes may be brought to bear upon this subject. Endless argument on the existence and attributes of God has taken place, and at this moment the results arrived at operate powerfully on innumerable minds. How are these speculations to be dealt with? If their weight is to be determined by reason, then the existence of God is a question on which reason is competent to decide, and to overrule authority. If the question is one on which no light at all can be thrown by reason, how can anyone pretend to answer it, and especially what authority can the Church (whatever may be the meaning of that word) have upon the subject? Without a previous belief in God on independent grounds the Church is inconceivable; for the loosest description of it, to say nothing of any sort of definition, must involve the existence of God. The Church therefore rests ultimately upon a conclusion of reason, namely, that there is a God.
I may just add—for the remark is so obvious that an apology for making it may be necessary—that the question, What is the Church? is emphatically a question—perhaps it is at present the greatest question—of history. It is practically the same question as, What is the history of Christianity in its innumerable variations and divisions under the infinite varieties of circumstance in which it has been placed, and in relation to the many things which have acted upon it, from Greek philosophy and Roman law, down to the latest discoveries of modern science? Suppose the result of historical inquiry upon this subject is somewhat as follows. Every dogma has its history, made up of all sorts of elements, theoretical, political, personal, literary, and scientific. All ecclesiastical events, the rise of heresies, the division between the West and the East, Protestantism, the Gallican controversy, and much else, have also had their histories, the result of which is that it is as difficult to feel fully satisfied with either party, in any controversy, as it is for a rational and fair man to sympathise absolutely with either Henry the Eighth or Queen Mary, with Charles the First or the Long Parliament, with the Ancien Régime or the French Revolution. Would Mr. Mivart accept that result? If no, he goes back from his first principle. If yes, he practically gives up the infallibility of both the Church and the Pope, in any intelligible sense of the words. At the very least he cannot refuse to own that competent judges, using legitimate means of ascertaining the fact, may and do deny its existence; and the Church of which he speaks so much becomes a shadow of a shade, ‘the ghost’—to use Hobbes's memorable words—‘of the old Roman Empire, sitting on the grave thereof.’
Once allow full play, in their own special provinces, to physical science, to literary criticism, and to history, and it is impossible to be absolutely certain either of the existence of God, the infallibility of the Church, or the truth of any one of its dogmas. If it is possible for a man in this state of mind to be nevertheless a devoted Catholic, that must be because the Roman Catholic Church permits doubt upon these subjects, which, if a true conclusion, is a very strange one indeed, and puts the whole system in a light entirely different from any in which it has ever stood before. If the supremacy of human reason on any subject whatever, and above all on science, history, and criticism, is admitted, it is absolutely impossible to deny its unqualified supremacy in relation to all subjects whatever. You might as well allow a small part of a powder magazine to be blown up, and try to confine the explosion to that part only.
It is also impossible, upon the same supposition, to retain absolute unqualified belief upon any religious dogma whatever. Even if it be assumed, though many persons deny it, that mathematics supply a case in which absolute truth is attainable, and if (which is a much stronger assumption) the same is asserted about some ethical propositions, it is impossible in good faith to make this assertion about the propositions either of natural or revealed religion. It cannot be asserted that the existence of God is self-evident, as the propositions that two straight lines cannot inclose a space, or that twice two are four, are said to be ; nor can such an assertion be made about any article of the Apostles' Creed, or about any matter of fact whatever. Again, some theological doctrines are alleged to be nonsense, unmeaning propositions, and therefore incapable of being believed; but whether this is so or not must, as well as other matters, be decided by reason. A word is a sound conveying a meaning; a sound, or set of sounds, professing to convey a meaning, but not doing so, are nonsense, and can be neither true nor false. Whether this is so, in any particular case, must obviously be a question of reason. The truth of this is so clear that it is a little difficult to prove it. I will, however, try to do so. Narrow the range of reason as much as you please, it must, by the nature of the case, decide upon its own limits. It must decide whether the question as to the age of the world, as to the facts of astronomy, as to the period at which death was first introduced into the world, as to the creation, &c. &c., are or are not questions of physical science, and the same must be said of history and of criticism; but as I have already shown in part, and might show by further illustrations to any required extent, these various topics will together cover the whole range of theological assertion, for all objections to theology are reducible to the assertions that the doctrine objected to is either unmeaning or unproved or else inconsistent with facts shown to be true by the means appropriate to the investigation of such facts.
To put the matter on wider grounds, the temper of mind in which a man believes in a scientific conclusion, and the temper in which he believes in any conclusion without qualification, upon evidence known to be imperfect, are so different that I doubt greatly whether they can possibly coexist. A man like Mr. Mivart, who is continually looking out for ingenious reasons why he may be allowed to believe in this, that, and the other, which contradict the opinions usual in the religious body to which he belongs, who wants to be free to explain away the creation, to reject the flood, to show as much error in the Bible as he can, may be very ingenious, but he is not in his right place. His position in the Church of Rome is in every respect as false—though its falseness is not of the same sort of importance— as was the position of Dr. Newman in the Church of England. He is playing fast and loose with reason, he is trying to explain away what he acknowledges to be obligations. Roman Catholics should be the last to try to do so; for the charge that such is the habit of Protestants, is one which has for centuries been their great controversial commonplace. It is summed up with such point and energy by Dryden, in the very unequal poem of the Hind and Panther, that it would be almost wrong to state it in other words, though the hard phrases which the last three lines contain certainly do not apply to Mr. Mivart, or suit the tone in which everyone would wish, in these days, to conduct such a controversy.
‘To take up half on faith and half to try,The first of these celebrated lines describes Mr. Mivart's position inadequately. He goes a step beyond taking up half on faith. He takes up all on faith and tries all by reason. Every part of his belief rests upon two conflicting principles. This leads straight to a result which some very eminent men of his way of thinking seem to me to have arrived at. I have certainly known it to be adopted by more persons than one of great talent and the widest learning. It nevertheless appears to me to be absolutely fatal to common sense, to common honesty, and to all simplicity and directness of mind. This is the habit of having a double standard of truth, of using the word truth in its ordinary sense upon all other occasions, but in reference to one particular class of subjects, the extent of which is determined from time to time by the Church, in the sense of ‘that which is according to the doctrines of the Church.’ This state of mind is, perhaps, best illustrated by a saying ascribed, justly or otherwise, to Cardinal Newman in one of his sermons at Oxford: ‘In science the earth goes round the sun; in theology the sun goes round the earth.’ In modern Acts of Parliament it is common to introduce interpretation clauses which are useful when they replace a long formula by a single word, and mischievous when they provide that a common word shall bear some unnatural meaning. I have often thought that many Neo-Catholics would find it a great convenience to announce once for all that in all creeds and similar documents the word ‘believe’ should include the words ‘doubt’ and ‘disbelieve.’ It would leave all formularies just as they are to the world at large, and make them quite inoffensive to every intelligent person.
Name it not faith but bungling bigotry;
Both knave and fool the merchant we may call,
To pay great sums and to compound the small,
For who would break with heaven and would not break for all?’
That this is true may be easily shown. Take as an instance the first article of the Apostles' Creed. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.' A man who repeats this and declares its truth in the most solemn and unqualified way will agree with and eagerly sympathise with every sort of speculation which shows that whether there is or is not any meaning in the words “God the Father Almighty, it is an absurd error and a mere piece of ignorance to suppose that heaven and earth were ever made at all. He will say that, if the matter is properly looked at, “heaven and earth’ in the sense of the physical universe, the various heavenly bodies, and the spaces which contain them, will be perceived to be, not a product consciously designed and put together by an intelligent being, but an ultimate fact which has assumed its present shape according to what he will call certain ‘laws’ of development and evolution behind which we cannot get, and which we can trace only in an imperfect and to a great extent conjectural way. Upon these he will discourse with the utmost interest and vivacity, and will (in my experience) be ready to go beyond what he can prove, to show himself more or less credulous, enthusiastic, and willing to supply by his own imagination gaps in the evidence by which his conclusions are supported or suggested.
Turn to the theological point of view, and the very same man will be zealous for the words of the creed. He will say they are matter of faith and that he believes them absolutely. They appear no doubt to be opposed to his scientific conclusions, but he believes them too. All truth must be consistent. This and that may possibly be explained. Probably “maker” does not mean maker in the ordinary sense. Perhaps “heaven and earth’ do not mean the visible universe. Who can tell, in short, how far the old form will stretch to meet the new fact?
Now, I say that a man who reasons thus uses the word ‘believe’ in reference to a theological doctrine in the sense of ‘disbelieve.’ That which he believes in is the scientific view, for when he says he believes God to be the maker of heaven and earth, he puts upon those words the meaning which he considers to be scientifically true. If words are capable of two interpretations and you put upon them that interpretation which is suggested by A, and not that which is suggested by B, it is obvious that you believe A and not B. But this does not fully represent the confidence shown in Science as against religion in the case in question. Science does not suggest the interpretation given to the words ‘Maker of heaven and earth.’ Science agrees with theology as to the meaning of the words, but says that they are false. Mr. Mivart and his friends are so passionately attached to science, in opposition to theology, that they are willing to say that theologians do not know their own meaning, and that, whatever they say, they must be taken to mean to assert that which science ultimately discovers to be true.
The method of interpreting white to mean grey, green, orange, or black, as occasion requires, is not the only one which is adopted in this matter. It is equally common to take the slightly different course of saying that, if different truths, each established by its appropriate standard, appear to conflict, then both are true, and their reconciliation will appear in due time, as happened when the telescope revealed that Venus had phases like the moon, and so removed what at one time appeared to be an unanswerable objection to the Copernican system.
I do not think it possible to give a more perfect illustration of the reasonable way of looking at these matters than this memorable instance affords. I say that in such cases the only proper state of mind is doubt, inclining in the direction towards which, for the time being, the evidence appears to preponderate, and that if a man says he believes in spite of evidence, he either speaks dishonestly or uses ‘believe’ so as to include doubt. If with such telescopes as we now possess it had been impossible to observe any phases in Venus, the Copernican system ought to be subject to the gravest doubt. If no planet external to Uranus had been discovered, the formula which states the force of gravity ought to have been doubted. If the mistake made by Flamstead in his calculations of the moon's orbit, undertaken to test Newton's theories, had never been discovered, that formula would not, and ought not, to have been established, and any belief in it which had come to prevail would have been a belief mixed with doubt. If we suppose a series of facts, or even any one fact, to be fully established, which is absolutely inconsistent with any formula or, as people usually call it, law whatever, that formula is shown to be false if it is put forward as of universal application. The way of thinking which I am observing upon appears to come to this. As a man of science I admit all your objections. Biology and geology are true, and are opposed to the doctrine of the creation of the world; history is true, and is opposed to the truth of the history of Christ; in short, I admit your premisses, but then I am a man of faith as well as of science, and I will not admit the conclusion which your premisses suggest. Whatever science may say to the contrary, God did create the world. Whatever history may say to the contrary,” the historical part of the Apostles' Creed is true.
The answer to this is, we are not speaking the same language. What you call belief I call doubt if not disbelief. The meaning of doubt, to me, is the state of mind to which I am reduced by what on full consideration appears to me to be conflicting evidence. The meaning of disbelief is the state of mind to which I am reduced by a great preponderance of evidence against a given conclusion. If you use the word ‘believe’ in a sense which is consistent with doubt or disbelief, I have no more to say. I content myself with referring to Hallam's reflections on the inconvenience which arose in the sacramental controversy from the habit of using the words ‘real presence’ in the sense of ‘real absence.’
I pass now to that part of Mr. Mivart's article which states that as the acquiescence of the Church in the results of science has greatly improved it, it is to be hoped that the same result will follow from its acquiescence in history and criticism. I think this is like saying that, as a man has got no harm, but much good, from living a more sober life than he used to live, it is to be hoped that his health may be still further improved by his discarding other bad old habits. But let this pass. The whole question of the present and future state of religion is one of such awful importance that it ought to be discussed without petty sectarian feelings, and without the indulgence of personal likes and dislikes.
Now as the Roman Catholic Church is, for good or bad, the spiritual teacher and leader of a great mass of human beings, and especially of a great number of British subjects, I do not think that any humane person can seriously wish it unmixed ill, however much he may dislike it, and however strongly he may sympathise with every one of the grievances against it which many generations of Englishmen have felt so deeply. I do not think anyone can feel more deeply than I do the common objections to it. It cannot, however, be denied that in it, as in all religions, there is more or less good. I cannot, therefore, refuse to regard it as susceptible of improvement or to hope that it may be improved. Nay, I think that the ‘transformation’ expected by Mr. Mivart would be an improvement, but it takes an effort to realise in imagination the extent of the change implied in it. However, let us try to do so. In the first place, if reason and not ecclesiastical authority is to be its guiding principle, its theology, whatever Mr. Mivart may imagine, will quickly disappear. It will be transformed into a poetic fable. M. Renan's description of the Breton peasantry, who, he says, think that everyone has the right to ‘tailler son roman à sa guise,’ would thenceforth become the description of the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the gospels would become an historical romance, recommending for imitation such parts of the character of Jesus Christ as particular people might like, with such explanations and modifications as particular tastes might require, and this would run through the whole system. In some minds God the Father might typify or personify force guided by intelligence; Jesus Christ, Human Nature, glorified but struggling; the Virgin Mary the feminine side of Human Nature, and so on. Thus Catholicism would gradually be converted to Positivism, and supply the poetical version of scientific results which Comte, in his dry and essentially clumsy fashion, wished for and tried to provide. In short, as paganism, having died down into a set of ceremonies and myths, was replaced by dogmatic Christianity, with its explanations of human life and destiny, and its far-reaching ecclesiastical organisation to superintend and develop it, so dogmatic Christianity, having been confuted by science, history, and criticism, having, in a word, been shown not to be true, would take up the place of its old rival and oppressor, and idealise and poetise the evils of life, striving, like the Christmas snow in Milton's Ode—
‘O'er her naked shame,Would this be a great improvement, a thing to look forward to with enthusiasm, or to accept if it came with satisfaction? The question is not one to be answered in a moment or in a sentence, and it would be specially foolish to try to do so because the question implies the occurrence of one of those changes which is of such enormous range, and dependent on such a vast number of conditions all connected together, that no sort of argumentation about it is likely, in any appreciable degree, to affect the chance of its happening, or to quicken or retard its occurrence. Some things, however, may be said about it. I am inclined on the whole to think that it will happen, not indeed formally, but practically, and I am further disposed to think it will bring about an improvement, as cowpox, though not in itself an advantage, is better than smallpox. To some extent indeed it has already happened. An immense number of Roman Catholics care almost nothing about the dogmas of the Church, most people care for Church doctrines rather for political and social reasons than for any others. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, has ceased to interest the great mass of mankind, and it is difficult to imagine in these days a controversy about original sin or the sacraments attracting much attention.
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of virgin white to throw.’
Still, the practical admission that the dogmas of the Church of Rome are not true would have a great effect, for of all existing religions the Roman Catholic is by far the most dogmatic. Some of the Protestant forms of the Christian religion may be more strictly logical. The Greek Church has its own special position, and its highest authorities will declare that the Popes of Rome were the first Rationalists, and will on inquiry be found to have more to say on the subject than most people would suppose; but, be all this as it may, it is clear beyond all possibility of doubt that, to the part of the Christian world most important to us, the Church of Rome is the champion of dogmatism—of the belief, that is, that certain definite propositions about religious matters are absolutely true, are revealed by God, and are so fully and closely grasped by the Church, that it possesses the power of deciding all controversies as they arise by reference to them. The fact that this theory is bad upon the face of it, because it either assumes the existence of God, which is a petitio principii, or proves it, which is an appeal to reason, as an authority superior to the Church, does not, so far as popular opinion and impression go, lower the position of the Roman Catholic Church as the great champion of dogmatism.
If the ‘transformation of opinion,’ which, Mr. Mivart says, ‘is in store for the Catholic world in the domains of history and criticism,’ [II. 51] is fully carried out, this will be at an end. The champion will be a champion no more. In relation to history, criticism, and science, and their teachers, the Church will be
‘The desolator desolate,To own that the function of a spiritual ruler is one which it cannot perform, that the function to which it is adequate is that of a repeater of old fables, a performer of curious old ceremonies more gorgeous though less picturesque than the passion play at Ammergau, may be a healthy humiliation for the Church and its priesthood, and may be beneficial to mankind, but it would be more bitter than any ordinary persecution if it did not come as gradually and imperceptibly as great changes generally do.
The victor overthrown,
The arbiter of others' fate,
A suppliant for its own.’
It is difficult to imagine a more painful position than that of an earnest and sincere man, who, having undertaken to be the exponent and vindicator of such a system under a real belief in its truth, gradually comes to believe that in every one of its essential features he is constrained to admit it to be liable to refutation by processes of which he admits the validity. With what terror and shrinking must he inquire how the main points of such books as those of Strauss and Renan are to be dealt with; how pleased he must feel when slips and errors in their constructive efforts are pointed out; and how bitter must be the quiet reflection, made deep down, that these things do not affect the force of their destructive theories. How hard it must be to join with and repeat all that Colenso and many others have said about the Old Testament, and to try in vain to draw any sort of line between these well-known criticisms and those made in the same spirit and by the same method about the New Testament! How strange must it be at one and the same time to contend that the doctrine of the creation of the world, that of the origin of the human race, and the story of the flood are to be rejected because biology and geology and so on contradict them, but that the historical assertions of the Apostles' Creed are a true narrative of the most important events that ever happened.
But this is not all. It is probably not the worst part of the humiliation which Mr. Mivart's theories prepare for himself and for the body to which he belongs. The attitude assumed by Roman Catholics in England for the whole of the last generation has uniformly been one which such speculations as these make incredibly absurd. The great controversial weapon of Cardinal Newman, for instance, was always the dilemma:--Catholics, he used to argue, are consistent; Atheists are consistent; but you Protestants are wretched daubers with untempered mortar. You try to sit upon two stools. You cannot make up your minds between faith and reason. You are Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold, and deserve the same treatment. If Mr. Mivart's views are correct, all this applies properly to the Roman Catholic Church. It is the Catholics who halt between faith and reason, who are inconsistent, who daub with untempered mortar, who believe all sorts of things relating to both faith and morals, which they have to give up at the orders of science, and yet refuse, on other matters of the same kind, to accept science as a guide. Moreover, this inconsistency is all the more marked and glaring because it exists in a body which claims infallibility. The truth I take to be that neither Protestants nor Catholics were ever consistent. The very earliest attempts at any sort of systematic theology were essentially compromises between faith and reason—attempts to use Comte's famous expression about Bossuet: “De faire de l'ordre avec du désordre.” Whatever may be said to the contrary, alternatives in such a matter as this are impossible. The equation has only one root, and not two. One way of looking at the subject only is possible in the long run. It is that ordinary human reason in the last resort is the supreme judge of all controversies whatever. No one but a madman can reject the use of reason. No one who admits its authority in any department of affairs can deny its absolute supremacy in all, as the one guide to truth. That the prevalence of Mr. Mivart's views will inflict cruel humiliations on the Roman Catholic clergy and controversialists appears to me to be certain; but that such a humiliation will be good for the world at large, I think equally certain. Whether it will be good for those who feel it depends on the way in which they take it.
Notwithstanding this it must be observed that though, from the nature of the case, all Christian bodies must share the reproach of inconsistency, some of them are much less candid than others, and the real distinction between Roman Catholics and Protestants appears to me to be that Protestant bodies are very much more candid than the Roman Catholic Church. The fact that no Protestant body has ever claimed infallibility is one reason of this, and many others will suggest themselves on a moment's reflection, such, in the case of Protestant churches established by law, as the moderating influence derived from the recognised supremacy of lay courts and fixed legal standards of belief. This both disables them from and disinclines them to persecution, or at least to the persecution of mere opinions as distinguished from the punishment of attacks upon their political position. A Protestant body not established by law is bound to be both tolerant and more or less candid, because it is as much dependent upon contract and as much exposed to competition as any trading association, and tolerance and candour are in themselves attractive to many persons, while their absence affords a great handle to competing controversialists.
The effect of the adoption of Mr. Mivart's views would be to place the Roman Catholic Church on the same level on which Protestant bodies already stand on this point. It would, as I have already said, become a rival to Comte's religion of humanity, which, after all, is only a prosaic version of it from exactly the point of view which Mr. Mivart partially realises. The degree of success which it might meet with in the new character of an institution having for its object the function of teaching mankind good moral lessons by theatrical representations of different kinds, and by moral exhortations founded on affecting myths admitted not to be historically true, no one can estimate. There are many who might wish success to such an enterprise. There are multitudes who would perceive no difference between what it would then become and what it has always been.
One or two points of considerable interest may be noticed, as to which the change suggested by Mr. Mivart would have remarkable effects. It would put the Church of Rome on precisely the same level as all other churches, as far as concerned persons who wish to set up an authority either over their intellects or over their passions. No one can have followed the controversies upon these subjects which have filled the last thirty or forty years without feeling that the great attraction of the Church of Rome to intellectual men has hitherto been its proclamation, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’—rest by a word of command, potential as regards both the restless intellect and the no less restless passions. Strange as it seems to most of us, there are men who long to be taken command of, and this longing is felt, as often as not, by people of acute though not very weighty intellect. The power of satisfying such a longing obviously depends upon the belief of the person requiring such satisfaction in the power of the Church to give it. But how can it be given if, as Mr. Mivart teaches, the Church itself is an authority sadly liable to err, and which actually has erred again and again, just like all other human institutions in matters both of faith and morals, and if it has to be set right continually, in all the matters which interest it most, by appeals to science, to history, to criticism, any one of which may at any time set it right in a matter so important as the creation of the world or the historical truth of the Apostles' Creed? How can such an authority as this give peace or rest to anyone? It can give nothing whatever but a little sentimental play. It is asked for bread, and it gives a doll. Moreover, it would have only one doll to give amongst many. To say nothing of Mahommedan and Buddhist wares, which have their own attractions, there would be every opportunity for Greek and Protestant versions of the legend, which could easily be so arranged as to suit particular populations much better than the Romish one. The Church of England, even if disestablished, could adapt itself quite as easily to the various discoveries of history and science as the Church of Rome, and with an infinitely better grace.
If some very distinguished members of the Church of England, living or lately dead, could be or could have been put into a witness-box and closely cross-examined as to their real, deliberate opinions, it would probably be found that they not only acknowledged the truth of the principles advocated by Mr. Mivart—which indeed most of them notoriously, and even ostentatiously, did and do—but were well aware that they involved all the practical consequences which are pointed out above; yet some of them held, and others still hold, an honoured place in the Church of England, and, without giving any particular scandal, discharge in it duties of the highest importance, and give advice, and make exhortations, which are highly appreciated by a large number of important persons. To me I admit—probably to some others—their presence in the Church, their participation in all its services, is more or less a moral miracle—to use the phrase by which Dr. Pusey is said to have described certain matters recorded without blame, if not with applause, in the Old Testament; but their courtesy, their scholarship, their many accomplishments, their wholly unblemished personal characters, were and are usually regarded as making them ornaments and supports of the Church of England, and guides by whose advice its inevitable change, from being the spiritual ruler of the nation to being a guide into practical philosophy and philanthropy, might be effected cautiously and safely.
Far be it from me to presume to judge such men. Far be it from me to presume to judge Mr. Mivart, or the Roman Catholics in general, if they adopt his views, or even permit the expression of them to pass uncensured. If Mr. Mivart and others give up the point that the Roman Catholic religion is true, if they admit that it can and ought to be corrected by reason, at every point at which it makes an assertion within the range of reason, they may say, as well as others, Why may not we write our novel as we like? Is it not, after all, a matter of taste?
One reply only can be made to this, and that is, that every sort of conscious and voluntary romance is out of place in such a matter. If the romance is unconscious, the case is the common one of belief upon insufficient grounds; but romance or poetry, understood to be such, ought to be a servant and not a master. The greatest admirer of Milton or Dante would not set up their writings as an authoritative standard of faith or morals, though he might value them to any extent as a persuasive way of advocating views which he admired, but his admiration of the views of Dante or Milton on independent grounds would be the reason why he admired those poets. He would be wrong if he admired their views because he admired the men themselves or their literary style.
In precisely the same way it appears to me that the truth of the great doctrines of Christianity, assuming them to be true, is the only reasonable ground for wishing to propagate them by any means whatever whether mythical or not. If it is not wise to love or try to love your neighbour as yourself, why favour a parable or myth which teaches that it is? If it is not true that either here and now or at some other time and in another sphere, might and right are or will ultimately be found to be identical, why favour a fable which teaches that they are?
Doctrines ought to stand or fall according to their own intrinsic powers of persuasion and command; poetry and romance can at best only cheat. If they cheat in favour of the truth, they distort and so injure it. If they cheat in favour of what is not true, they do unqualified mischief.
A Rejoinder to Mr. Mivart (January 1888)
I have a very few words to say by way of rejoinder to the reply made by Mr. Mivart to some remarks of mine which appeared in the October number of this Review, upon an article of his published in July. I acknowledge with pleasure the kindly spirit in which he writes of me personally, and I am glad that I have succeeded in expressing my dissent from his views without giving him personal offence. I think, moreover, that he has shown both candour and courage in his articles, and the answers which he gives to the questions which I put to him fully explain his position to me, and leave me nothing more to ask, though they involve a state of mind which seems to me even stranger than the one which originally surprised me.
Omitting a variety of minor matters, on which I should have much to say if controversy were my object, I come at once to the main statements made by him. I will first, in a word, remind my readers of the question between us. In his article in July Mr. Mivart explained at length that in his opinion Biblical criticism had shown great part of the Old Testament to be 'unhistorical and untrustworthy,' and admitted that the ordinary methods of criticism were the proper methods for arriving at the truth in such matters, and were entitled to overrule all ecclesiastical authority and opinion about them.
The effect of my article was to discover whether he applied the same principle to the New Testament history, and, if so, what he thought of such criticisms as those of Renan and Strauss, of which I gave some illustrations? In other words, I wished to know whether he was content to hold or to give up the main articles of the Apostles' Creed relating to Jesus Christ, according to the result of ordinary historical investigations into their truth or falsehood?
His answer I understand to consist of two parts. The New Testament history may be criticised by ordinary means like the Old Testament, and if tried by those tests alone it cannot, in his judgment, be supported; but the truth of the articles of faith which it contains cannot reasonably be disbelieved, because they are asserted to be true by an infallible Church, and are neither contradictory in themselves nor contradicted by evidence which demonstrates their falsehood. In short, a Catholic who believes the dogmas enunciated in the Apostles' Creed is at liberty to disbelieve the narratives contained in the Gospels—just as a man might believe that Troy was besieged, and yet deny the truth of Homer's 'Iliad.' Mr. Mivart himself, as I understand him, does occupy this position, which, at all events, has the merit of being perfectly clear.
These are the words on which I found this inference: 'The New Testament has, as a matter of course, to undergo the ordeal of the sharpest and most exhaustive criticism; I have, then, not the least objection to add the names of Strauss and Renan to those of the Old Testament critics,' who, according to his previous article, showed by arguments similar to those of Strauss and Renan large parts of the Old Testament to be entirely 'unhistorical and untrustworthy,' though the narratives so characterised 'had God for their Author.' He also says:—
‘The principle that not everything contained in them (the Gospels) is free from error and historically true is admitted without dispute, and it is a fact that in some respects certain dogmas of the Christian religion would be freer from difficulty had they never been written.’[P.858]What this means may be inferred from the following passage:—
‘Let us for argument's sake make the very largest admissions as to New Testament criticism and investigations into the history of the Primitive Church . . . let us suppose it to have been unanswerably proved that St. John the Apostle and St. Luke had neither of them anything to do with the Gospels generally attributed to them; that the history of the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Our Lord presents various legendary features, and that the later accounts are fuller and more circumstantial than the earlier ones, resembling in so far the more or less similar legends which have arisen in past ages about other persons 'whose lives have deeply stirred the sympathies of men,' and that the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ has the appearance of having grown in such a way that earlier statements are most difficult to reconcile into Nicene views.’This language implies not, indeed, that all this is established, but that, as a lawyer would say, there is evidence of it, that it is the sort of thing which may be established by historical evidence, and on which such evidence is the proper test. Mr. Mivart, in a word, does admit that the New Testament must be criticised on the same principles as the Old. What, in his opinion, will be the result of such criticism? After many pages of argument upon other parts of the subject, he says [P. 865]:—
‘I do not, however, wish it to be understood that I could accept these doctrines as true, except inasmuch as acquiescence in them is a necessary condition for the acceptance of a revelation, the truth of which is evident to me on other grounds. Were I asked to believe in a virgin birth, a real resurrection from the dead, or an ascension into heaven, on only such evidence as that afforded by the written Word, I should find it utterly impossible to do so, and I can quite understand and sympathise with the impatience which many a man of science feels when asked to listen to any argument in their favour. Nevertheless, there are some most estimable men of science, and also men as eminent in law and jurisprudence as my critic, who do not feel this, and who are satisfied with such evidence. I have nothing to say as to their view, except that it is not and never (since I was seventeen years of age) was mine. I never did and never could so accept those doctrines, and it seems to me inevitable that they will sooner or later be rejected by the overwhelming majority of those who do receive them only on that evidence, and apart from any actual living authoritative and traditional revelation, the truth of which they have accepted on rational but independent grounds.’It is impossible to speak more plainly than this. The only remark upon it which appears to me to be necessary is that the phrase 'such evidence as is afforded by the written Word' obviously means critical and historical evidence, such arguments as those used by a series of writers on evidence from Grotius' De Veritate to Paley. The only other possible meaning of the phrase would be that Mr. Mivart has never been able, since he was seventeen, to take for granted the truth of the 'written Word' without any evidence at all—to regard it as self-evident. He can hardly mean this. I do not suppose any one worth mentioning ever held such a view in modern times.
We have here, then, a plain statement that if the question whether the Gospel history of Jesus Christ is true or not is to be decided by the ordinary canons of history and evidence, it appears to Mr. Mivart incredible, in so far as it is miraculous, for no one will assert that the historical and critical evidence for the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the raising of Lazarus, or the cure of the man born blind, is stronger than the evidence for the Resurrection. The necessary result is that Mr. Mivart thinks that the New Testament as it stands is unhistorical and untrustworthy, although the doctrines supposed to be recorded in it are shown to be true by other means.
This is emphasised and set in the clearest possible light by the care with which Mr. Mivart distinguishes between believing a dogma and believing in the facts stated about it in the New Testament. The following specimens of these statements are enough for my purpose:—
‘The dogma of the resurrection must mean something very different from what is ordinarily imagined, for, according to Catholic doctrine, had the body of our Lord been reduced by fire to its ultimate chemical elements, and had these elements entered into the most diverse and complex combinations with other kinds of matter, such a circumstance would not in the least have impeded the resurrection on the third day.’I do not appreciate this: a power able to restore life to a dead body might well be able to reconstitute a body burnt in the fire; but what follows is more important.
‘We must recollect it is the dogma of the resurrection, not the mental picture formed by our imagination from the Gospel narrative, that Catholics are bound to accept as expressing the truth. Similarly, the article of the Creed which declares 'He ascended into Heaven ' does not require the acceptance of any mental picture of the imagination, but the affirmation of the truth of an intellectual conception. Any person who believes that Christ really rose, in whatever true sense, from the dead, and was for a time manifest on earth afterwards, must (since no one denies that manifestation to have now ceased, since ' heaven' is the expression denoting supernal bliss, and since ' upward' is a symbol adopted as less inapplicable than downward) admit His ascension into heaven.’This illustrates perfectly Mr. Mivart's position. The account given of the Ascension in Acts i. 9 is in these words: 'While they' (the Apostles) 'beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.' A Catholic, it seems, may believe the doctrine of the Ascension, and yet disbelieve that the Apostles left Jerusalem with Jesus Christ, that he was taken up, and that a cloud received him out of their sight. All that he need hold is 'the truth of the intellectual conception.' We need not accept any 'mental picture of the imagination.'
In all common cases the question whether a statement is believed or not is tested by the question whether the hearer does or does not accept the 'mental picture of the imagination' which the words raise. If a man should say, 'I saw A. B. walking at such a place and on such a day,' those who accepted the mental picture which those words raise would believe them, and those who did not would disbelieve them. Mr. Mivart's language, therefore, justifies the belief that in this sense he disbelieves all the words of the New Testament which relate to the doctrines referred to, though he believes the doctrines themselves on the authority of the Church. This naturally raises the question, Why, then, do you believe in the infallibility of the Church?
The precise meaning of the phrase 'infallibility of the Church' is not stated by Mr. Mivart; but no doubt he means that the Pope and the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, or some of them, when they act in some special character and some particular way, have such a power of enunciating religious dogmas that a dogma so enunciated by them can be refuted only upon proof of the contradictory of what is enunciated. Mere intrinsic improbability or, as Mr. Mivart calls it, the 'hardness' of a dogma is not enough to invalidate it, however great the hardness may be. The negative must be established by appropriate and conclusive evidence. It is nothing to show 'that the history of the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Our Lord present various legendary features.' Nothing can justify disbelief in the dogmas as distinguished from the history of the facts except an accumulation of evidence disproving specifically every sense in which any of these 'intellectual conceptions' can be held. Considering Mr. Mivart's distinction between mental pictures of the imagination and the corresponding intellectual conceptions, it is obvious that this rule of evidence practically makes, and is intended to make, disproof of the doctrines of the Church impossible. I cannot help saying that my legal experience has led me greatly to distrust any one who appeals to artificial rules of evidence. It is said, I know not how truly, that by the Canon Law certain acts of immorality could not be proved except by a number of eye-witnesses proportioned to the rank of the alleged offender—I think four in the case of a bishop and seven in the case of a cardinal; I forget how many if the offender was a pope. Such rules have rather safety than truth for their object, and the practically impossible conditions of disproof under which Mr. Mivart wishes to shelter Church dogmas from refutation is a proof of the degree of protection which he thinks they require. Nor is this at all wonderful, as he admits in terms that the oldest and most venerable of all ecclesiastical documents—namely, the parts of the New Testament which relate to the history of the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the Ascension as distinguished from the dogmas—appear to him impossible to be proved by historical or critical evidence; whence it follows, as I suggest, that he does not believe them—that is, the histories as distinct from the dogmas—to be true.
The particular grounds on which Mr. Mivart founds this opinion about his Church are to some extent illustrated in the article under notice; but, passing them over for the moment, I may remark that he does not realise the difficulty of proving the rule of evidence which he requires in order to reach his desired conclusion. I will try to explain the insuperable difficulties of the task itself, and the extreme insufficiency of the evidence, if it deserves the name, on which he relies. First, as to the difficulty of the task. It must necessarily require stronger evidence to prove that a given authority is competent to enunciate infallibly a 'hard' or improbable doctrine than to prove the improbable doctrine itself, for everything which shows any improbability in the doctrine is an objection to the authority of the person who asserts it to be true, and there are, besides, all the difficulties which are inherent in proving the means of knowledge and the trustworthiness of the particular person who asserts its truth. The weight attached to the evidence of experts may at first sight appear to contradict this principle, but it is in truth the strongest illustration of it. It may be said the most abstruse statements about chemistry, astronomy, and the like may be proved by a single man of science to persons wholly ignorant of that science; therefore it is not necessarily more difficult to prove the competency of the witness than to prove the fact asserted—it is even in some cases less difficult. On examination this will be found to be a fallacy. No doubt, if the principles of the science which the expert professes; the eminence in the science of the expert himself; and his good faith; are admitted or proved, men unacquainted with the details of any science may accept with little doubt conclusions which they could not reach by their own exertions. I should feel no hesitation in accepting as correct a plan prepared by a competent surveyor, or a statement of the result of a set of voluminous accounts prepared by an accountant, or statements made in the Nautical Almanac by, or by the authority of, the Astronomer Royal,—but this is because every person of common education knows enough of surveying, arithmetic, and astronomy to know the methods employed and to be aware that they can be trusted to work out recondite and difficult inquiries. If, however, the principles of a science, or of the methods by which those who profess it proceed, are denied or are obscure, the principles must be proved to be true and the method to be legitimate before the conclusions of an expert are of any value at all. Before an expert on astrology can testify he must first prove that the principles of astrology are true, and then that the method by which his conclusions are reached will lead to legitimate conclusions from them. So of theology: before you can rely on any person or body of persons as authoritative exponents of it, you must first believe that the principles of theology are true and that the method by which the authoritative exponent of them proceeds is correct, and then that both their knowledge and good faith are such as to give their enunciations the weight claimed for them—such weight in this case, that it can be rebutted only by conclusive proof of the contradictory of what is alleged; and upon the proof of each of these matters, the improbability or ' hardness' of each and every one, and of all the doctrines enunciated, will be a relevant objection.
Three leading Catholic dogmas—the Resurrection, the Birth from a Virgin, and the Ascension—are admitted by Mr. Mivart to be 'utterly impossible' to be believed by him on mere historical and critical grounds. This is an argument to show that the principles of the so-called science of theology are false, or that if they are true its method is false, or that if that is true the expert is not skilful, or that if he is skilful he is not in good faith; and any one of these inferences is fatal to the value of the enunciation of doctrine. Who would believe a chemist or a medical man or a natural philosopher who was obliged to admit that some of his leading doctrines would but for his assertion of their truth be wholly incredible? Every one would say there must be a mistake somewhere. A crane requires a solid foundation, but if it is intended to lift a heavy weight, an additional degree of strength in the foundation must be added for every addition to the maximum weight to be lifted, for when the weight is lifted it must be supported as well as the crane and the tackle.
It is not easy to prove the appearance of ghosts, but it must be far more difficult to prove that any given man knows so much about them that, if he says a ghost appeared, the burden of proving that it did not is thrown on every one who denies it.
There are some particular difficulties about the proof of his rule of evidence which Mr. Mivart lies under, and of which he has taken no notice. He does not specifically define what he means by the infallibility of the Church. He does not say in whom it is vested, or how it is exercised, or how it is limited. It may be supposed, however, that he believes it to be vested in the Pope and the bishops and clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, or some of them when acting in some special capacity. Mr. Mivart will not say, of course, that it is a self-evident truth that Leo the Thirteenth is infallible when he acts in a certain capacity and on certain occasions. Such a statement would be as absurd as that any other person is infallible. It cannot conceivably be proved otherwise than by independent historical evidence, conclusive in its nature, that Leo the Thirteenth is the actual holder of powers of the sort claimed, given to some person or persons and their successors by God himself nearly nineteen hundred years ago. I will not be exacting. I will say nothing about the irrelevancy of the text 'Thou art Peter.' I will consent to sweep the New Testament out of existence if Mr. Mivart wishes it, but he must give us a πόν στώ of some kind; surely there must be some sort of historical foundation somewhere. Mr. Mivart surely believes that Jesus Christ founded the Church and gave it infallibility, being a Divine Person able to do so. He must believe this for some reason other than that Leo the Thirteenth and other living men say so, or he begs the question. What then is his reason? Ultimately it must be that history proves it. But where is any historical proof at all? and even if there were any such proof, what could it come to except that Jesus Christ said, or wrote, or did this or that? and even if that should be proved, what would it matter unless it were proved that Jesus Christ knew more about such things than others? and how could that be proved unless you could prove by historical evidence the doctrines of the Apostles' Creed which Mr. Mivart tells us are on such evidence alone to him absolutely incredible? His whole theory is thus nothing more or less than a petitio principii disguised. I believe the Church to be infallible because the infallible Church says it is infallible.
What makes the contrast between Mr. Mivart's rule of evidence and his admission of the common principles of science and criticism more startling, is that his rule of evidence requires a specially distinct proof of the infallibility of the Church as defined at the Vatican Council, whereas his scientific principles have led him to impute broadcast the grossest errors to all sorts of ecclesiastical and theological authorities on all sorts of religious questions not actually forming a part of the set of intellectual conceptions which he says are dogmas of the faith.
If this view of the results of Biblical criticism is true, all the works of all the most famous theologians must be discredited; for whatever may have been the doctrine of the Church, every page of their writings is written on the supposition that, so far from being unhistorical and untrustworthy, the whole of the Old and New Testaments, as interpreted by the Church, is absolutely true. It is impossible to open Aquinas without seeing that the Summa is a mixture of philosophy, as Aquinas understood it, with Scripture, interpreted according to certain rules and precedents. The same is true of Bellarmine, but a single instance from Bossuet is so instructive that I will say a word of it. I refer to his celebrated controversy with Pere Simon the Oratorian, one of the earliest forerunners of the modern school of criticism. Simon, a man of great learning, wanting ‘elbow-room,’ like Mr. Mivart, criticised the Bible as he would criticise other books—that is, he read the originals, or what claimed to be such, in Greek and Hebrew, and made out their meaning as well as he could in the ordinary way. He would not accept the interpretations of Augustine and others. Bossuet denounced him almost as a criminal, and declared in every form and repeatedly that to attack the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures was to attack both tradition and Scripture, and led straight to that religious indifference which he regarded as the height and consummation of all impiety. It is impossible to read Bossuet without feeling that he would have regarded Mr. Mivart's view about the criticism of the Scripture, and the results to which it has led, with equal horror and astonishment. It would have stultified all he wrote.
Mr. Mivart tells us himself that councils, doctors, Church tribunals, and ecclesiastical authorities of all sorts have grievously erred in morals and in doctrines not forming part of the actual dogmas of the Church. He says, 'In matters of morals, what could have been more unequivocal than the most authoritative and distinct decrees of popes and councils against usury, yet what ecclesiastic has now a word to say against it?' He gives a long account of the proceedings against Galileo, which he denounces, [July 1887, p. 46; July 1885, pp. 38-41] and he sums up a long passage thus: 'Authority can be justified only by reason, and it cannot therefore be justified if it opposes reason' [July 1885, p. 46] —as it did in the cases of usury and persecution. I mention this in order to show the strange position in which Mr. Mivart has placed himself about his rule of evidence. His fundamental proposition is that the authority, defined at the Vatican Council, is infallible. If this is not proved beyond all doubt by historical evidence, he either falls into a petitio principii, or fails to establish his rule of evidence. The evidence must also be adjusted with extraordinary delicacy. It must be exactly what is necessary to prove that the Church is infallible on those articles of faith which cannot be tested by reason, and not enough to show that it is infallible on matters which can be so tested; for on those matters he himself admits it has been shown to be wrong. To prove too much is as fatal to Mr. Mivart's views as to prove too little, for he expressly admits that the Church has repeatedly been proved to be wrong on matters which can be tested by reason, though it has, he says, been providentially restrained from erecting such errors into articles of faith. The evidence must prove clearly that the Church is entitled to belief, in the absence of a negative demonstration, when it asserts the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, but that all the Doctors of the Church, from the early Fathers down to the present day, may have been utterly wrong in their views about Biblical criticism; that tribunals and councils may have been wrong when they denounced usury, wrong when they practised persecution, wrong, in short, whenever they' opposed reason,' but that they were infallible when they pronounced upon the Monothelite controversy, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the like. In short, that they were always right when they could not be tested, and generally wrong when they could. It is as difficult to my mind to prove this as it would be to prove that a man's memory was so bad that he could never remember a letter accurately unless it had been burnt, in which case it was so good that he must be believed in whatever he said unless the contradictory of it could be proved by the production of the letter itself.
Mr. Mivart is the more bound to be precise upon this because of the language which he holds about the early Church.
‘Let us allow, for argument's sake, that evidence tends to show the Church of the first century to have differed profoundly in aspect from that of the third, which latter every competent person knows to be essentially the same as the Catholic Church of to-day. Let it also be similarly admitted that there was at first no distinction between bishops and priests. . . . Let us admit that primitive services were sometimes accompanied by the utterances of an irrational jargon claiming to be a gift of tongues, that epileptics were taken to be persons possessed of devils, and that, instead of the modern mass, there was a service consisting in part of a common meal, in partaking of which great abuses and excesses occurred. Would such admissions as these be destructive to Catholic faith or be fatal to the authoritative character of the Church as the exponent of a divine, supernatural revelation? Sir James Stephen of course thinks they would be thus fatal.’I think they certainly are the strongest evidence to show that the present Church and the primitive Church differed widely, both in doctrine and in discipline, and Mr. Mivart does not say how he means to avoid this conclusion, nor does he appear to me to understand the importance of it. To me it seems to cut at the root of the modern claim.
Before leaving this subject, I must observe that, when a matter depends upon the evidence of an expert or experts, the question of good faith is more important than in any other questions of evidence whatever. Engineers, surgeons, chemists, can always be found to swear to nearly anything. Theologians differ even more. From the days of St. Paul to those of Dr. Dollinger their disputes have filled the world. A decision by a number of theologians that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or the Infallibility of the Pope is true, is like a decision by Mr. Gladstone as an expert in politics that Home Rule is wise, or by Lord Salisbury that it is unwise. It is merely a passionate expression of personal opinion in the maintenance of which the person who expresses it has an overwhelming personal interest.
I now turn to the foundations on which Mr. Mivart builds his whole theory. He does not expressly tell us what they are, but he gives us a sketch (and it is all that could be expected in so short an essay) of the sort of way in which he believes in the existence of God and in the existence of the Infallible Church.
As to the existence of God, he says, with some impatience at my supposed ignorance of the opinions of Catholics, ' Of course the existence of God is a question to be settled by reason.' 'It is most true, as my critic says, that ordinary human reason in the last resort is the supreme judge of all controversies whatever. Sir James Stephen would have learnt this if he had only consulted the first priest he met in the street.' [p. 851] (I think the priest would have been a good deal surprised at being stopped with such a question, but let this pass.)
Let us see, then, what, according to Mr. Mivart, reason tells him of the existence of God. [Pp. 859-60] Though he asserts that the existence of God is a question to be determined by reason, he gives us no hint as to the reasons by which he is determined in deciding it in the affirmative. He says he ' approaches the examination of what professes to be revealed with a profound absolute conviction that the universe is ruled by a personal God.' Where he gets this belief he does not hint. He seems to connect it in some way with a belief about free will, which many, perhaps most, people do not share. He gives some information, however, as to what his belief about God is. 'Our reason makes God so far known to us as to appreciate His utter incomprehensibility, since it is only God who can know what the word God really means.' 'Existence in God and creatures is indescribably and incomprehensibly different.' The proposition 'God exists ' is thus reduced to an assertion that an unmeaning predicate may be attached to an unknown subject, that something unintelligible may be said of something unknown. Further, we are told that all words applied to God are 'utterly inadequate symbols.' 'The term goodness as applied to God is utterly inadequate, but is infinitely more true than badness.' These words convey to my mind no meaning at all. There is other language of this kind, of which I will quote only this: 'Though reason is enough to make Theism manifest, to us the θεός is vague, most unpractical, and reached after effectually but by very few without the aid of some more definite religion.'
Such being, according to Mr. Mivart, the God of reason, how can he found any inferences at all upon his existence? Mr. Mivart says: 'Thus it seems to be likely a priori that God either has vouchsafed, or when the proper hour arrives will vouchsafe, some revelation of himself to man.' How does this appear? The proper inference from this vague θεός appears to me to be silence, if that can be called an inference. Mr. Mivart seems to believe that there is some sort of analogy between God and man, though he does not say why he thinks so. 'If man has a certain amount of benevolence, what may we not expect from the analogous Divine attribute?' I reply, As far as I can see you can expect nothing. That there is such an analogy at all is, as far as appears from Mr. Mivart, an unproved assertion. Granting it for the sake of argument, no inference can be drawn from it. Can any one seriously profess to found upon a consideration of the attributes which he ascribes to God any sort of forecast of the course of human events? Has any one ever succeeded in doing so? Has any reasonable person ever tried to do so? Yet this is what Mr. Mivart tries to do retrospectively when he says that a revelation of the Divine Will is probable a priori.
He next goes to the Church. Here at least we are again in the region of facts and history. We have to do with living men and institutions which for nearly two thousand years have held the first place in the history and attention of the world. Mr. Mivart does not say that he relies upon any historical results, upon any book or books, upon anything at all capable of being definitely tested. After making his remarks about God he says, 'Animated by such convictions and anticipations, I survey the world to see what signs there are that any such Divine authoritative revelation has been vouchsafed,' and of course he finds what he wants in the Roman Catholic Church. ['December 1887, pp. 862-3] I will not go into what he says, beyond making one remark. He first describes those features in the Roman Catholic Church which attract him, and then says that the marks of a true revelation are found in the Roman Catholic Church. He compares the foot with the mark by pressing it down upon it, and then says, See how they fit. In precisely the same spirit Bishop Warburton discovered by a priori methods that the ideal of a Christian Church was a National Establishment tolerating Dissent, but protected by a test law. This he regarded as a powerful argument for the Church of England as he knew it.
For these reasons it appears to me that Mr. Mivart's whole system is an elaborately disguised and inconsistent begging of the question. Its special inconsistency lies in the fact, which I originally pointed out, that in reference to certain parts of it he applies a method which he does not carry through the whole. If you are to criticise the Bible on his principles, you must apply the same principles to the examination of the authority of the Church which you call in to support the doctrines which you maintain. This he does not do, and if he tried to do so he would fail. Putting aside all details, it is to my mind obvious that between scientific methods and religious belief there is a great gulf fixed. Bossuet, in reference to a closely allied though different matter, said, 'S'il faut mettre au large la raison humaine, et que ce soit la le grand ouvrage de la Reforme, pourquoi ne pas l'affranchir de tous les mysteres . . . puisque la raison n'est pas moins choquée de l'un que de l'autre?' The whole of the celebrated work in which this occurs turns upon a matter very like that of the discussion between Mr. Mivart and myself. [Sixieme avertissement aux Protestants, vol. xxii. Versailles edition of 1816.] How, says Bossuet in all sorts of forms, can you, Jurieu, refuse to submit to the Church, and yet hope to resist the Socinian? If you accept the Bible as interpreted by the Church, you must believe Transubstantiation. If you do not how will you be able to maintain that view of the Bible which asserts the doctrine of the Trinity against Socinians? Just in the same way I ask Mr. Mivart, If you allow ordinary human reason to overrule the Bible, how do you expect to impose upon it the authority of the Church, which its greatest doctors have always held to be the authorised interpreter of the Bible and of the traditions connected with it? It would in my opinion be much better and simpler to say at once, I do not argue, I merely affirm. I do beg the question of religion. I find certain moral and what I call spiritual advantages in it, and I say no more. This kind of faith no one could reasonably attack, either in Mr. Mivart or in any one else, whether a Catholic priest or a Baptist minister. I at all events would never do so. My only objection to Mr. Mivart's original article was that it appeared, as it still appears, to me to present great temptations to dishonesty, and involves a disguised inconsistency. I do not accuse Mr. Mivart of dishonesty, but I think that he is trying to mix up two inconsistent ways of thinking, and this tempts most men to be dishonest. We cannot serve two masters faithfully.
The Nineteenth Century, October 1887 and January 1888.