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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 5: Is Christianity Divine?

By Robert Anderson


      Is Christianity a Divine revelation? This question must not be settled by the result of the preliminary inquiry here proposed. In rejecting sacerdotalism, we merely clear the ground for a discussion of the main question upon its merits. "The Reformation," says Mr. Goldwin Smith, "was a tremendous earthquake " which "shook down the fabric of medieval religion." " But," he goes on to say, "it left the authority of the Bible unshaken, and men might feel that the destructive process had its limit, and that adamant was still beneath their feet."

      To the Bible, then, we turn. But how is such an inquiry to be conducted? The unfairness of entrusting the defence of Christianity to any who are themselves the rejecters of Christianity will be palpable to every one. Here the right of audience is only to the Christian. But, in making this concession, the sceptic may fairly insist in maintaining the place of critic, if not of censor. Until convinced, he will continue to consider, reflect, hesitate, doubt.

      And it is a suspicious circumstance that so many who claim to be leaders of religious thought, and who are professional exponents of the Christian faith, seem eager not only to eliminate from Christianity everything that is distinctive, but also to divorce it from much with which, in its origin, it was inseparably associated. They are strangely anxious to separate it from the Judaism which it succeeded, and upon which it is so indisputably founded. As a corollary upon this, they struggle to separate the New Testament from the Old, treating the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially the Pentateuch, as persons who have risen in the world are prone to treat the quondam acquaintances of humbler days. As a further step, they betray unmistakable uneasiness when confronted with the miraculous in the Bible; and "the old evangelical doctrine" of inspiration they regard with undisguised dislike, if not contempt.

      No well-informed person will dispute that this is a fair statement of the position assumed by a school of religious thought which is in its own sphere both influential and popular. But it needs no more than a conventional knowledge of the New Testament to enable us to assert that the Christianity of Christ and His apostles was not a new religion, but rather an unfolding and fulfilment of the Judaism which preceded it. The Christ of Christendom was a crucified Jew-crucified because He declared Himself to be the Jew's Messiah; and His claims upon our homage and our faith are inseparably connected with that Messiahship.

      And what were the credentials of His Messiahship? To some extent the miracles which He wrought, but mainly the Hebrew Scriptures. And in His appeal to those Scriptures He implicitly asserted that they were in the strictest sense inspired. Ten times are those Scriptures quoted in the first four chapters of the New Testament as being the ipsissima verba of the Deity, and three of these quotations are from the Book of Deuteronomy, the very book which these theologians are most decided in rejecting.

      The language of the" Sermon on the Mount" is, if possible, more emphatic still. To understand its full significance we must bear in mind what Josephus asserts, that by all Jews the Scriptures "were justly believed to be Divine, so that, rather than speak against them, they were ready to suffer torture or even death." It was to a people saturated with this belief that such words as the following were spoken: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." "The 'jot' (we are told) is the Greek iota, the Hebrew yod, the smallest of all the letters of the alphabet. The 'tittle' was one of the smallest strokes or twists of other letters." What language, then, could possibly assert more plainly that, so far from coming to set up a new religion, as these Christian teachers would tell us, the Nazarene declared His mission to be the recognition and fulfilment of the old Hebrew Scriptures in every part, even to the minutest detail?

      And much that is distinctly miraculous in those Scriptures was specially adopted in His teaching; as, for example, Noah's deluge; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Jonah and the fish; Moses and the burning bush; the heaven-sent manna in the wilderness; Elijah and his mission to the widow of Sarepta; Elisha and the cure of Naaman's leprosy by bathing in the Jordan.

      But, we are told, though Christ was essentially Divine, He laid aside His Divinity with a view to His mediatorial work. And His ministry was marked by the imperfections of human knowledge. In proof of this, appeal is made to the Apostolic statement that He "emptied Himself." Strange it is that men who hold "verbal inspiration" in such contempt should lay such stress upon the words of Scripture! But let that pass. The subject will come up again: suffice it here to say that the Apostle's language will not support the heresy that is based upon it. True it is that no stronger term could be found to describe the great Renunciation by which the Son of God stripped Himself of all the insignia of Deity. But this involved no change of personality. When King Alfred became a drudge in the swineherd's cottage, he divested himself of all the externals of royalty, but he did not cease to be King Alfred. And the story of the burnt cakes loses its significance and charm if we forget that it was with full consciousness of who and what he was that he bore the peasant's reprimands. And the words of Christ give overwhelming proof that throughout His earthly ministry He bore His sufferings with full knowledge of His origin and glory, and that His teaching was not characterised by human ignorance, but by Divine authority.

      If this be forgotten, moreover, the Apostolic exhortation loses all its meaning. For it is based on this, that with full knowledge of His riches the Son of God came down to poverty; that with the fullest consciousness of His Deity "He emptied Himself and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men." The dilemma in which this places the Christian is inexorable. If Christ was Divine, the truth of everything adopted and accredited by His teaching is placed beyond question. To plead that, with a view to advance His Messianic claims, He pandered to Jewish ignorance and prejudice, is not only to admit that He was merely human, but to endanger our respect for Him even as a Rabbi. And yet Christian teachers have the temerity to suggest such an explanation of His words. Such a position is utterly untenable. The Christian is, to borrow a legal term, estopped from questioning the inspiration of the Old Testament, or the reality of the miracles recorded in it; and when teachers who profess to be Christians question both, they cannot be surprised if they are charged with being either dishonest or credulous.

      But," it may be urged, "it is not the teaching of Christ which is disparaged, but only the record of that teaching. It is here that allowance must be made for Jewish ignorance and prejudice. That the Jews believed their Scriptures to be inspired is admitted, and therefore it was that those who chronicled the words of Christ gave that colour to His doctrine. The New Testament is marked by the same imperfections as the Old. It is of priceless value as the record of Divine facts, but it is upon those facts themselves, and not upon the record of them, that Christianity is founded."

      This answer is plausible, but upon examination it will prove to be absolutely fatal. When we turn to the Gospels, we find that of necessity the whole fabric of Christianity stands or falls with our acceptance or rejection of their claims to be, in the strictest and fullest sense, authentic. Most true it is that the system rests on facts, and not on writings merely; and this it is, indeed, which distinguishes it from all other religions. But such is the character of the facts on which it is based, that if the record of them be disparaged, belief in these facts is sheer credulity. The public facts of the ministry and death of Christ are as well authenticated as any other events of ancient history. No one questions them. But the entire significance of those facts depends upon their relation to other facts behind them- facts of a transcendental character, and such as no amount of discredited or doubtful testimony would warrant our accepting.

      "But," it may perhaps be answered, "though the record was human, the Person of whom it speaks was more than human; the whole argument depends upon ignoring the great fundamental fact of Christianity, that Christ was Himself Divine." But what is the basis of our belief in the Deity of Christ? The founder of Rome was said to be the divinely begotten child of a vestal virgin. And in the old Babylonian mysteries a similar parentage was ascribed to the martyred son of Semiramis, gazetted Queen of Heaven. What grounds have we then for distinguishing the miraculous birth at Bethlehem from these and other kindred legends of the ancient world?

      At this point we are face to face with that to which, I repeat, no consensus of untrustworthy testimony could lend even an a priori probability. If, therefore, the Gospels be not authentic and authoritative records of the mission and teaching of Christ, we must admit that Christianity is founded on a Galilean legend. And if we accept the New Testament, we are excluded from rejecting the earlier Scriptures which were so unequivocally accredited by Christ Himself. If His authority as a teacher be rejected, or the authenticity of the records of His ministry be denied, there is no longer any foothold for faith, for the foundations of Christianity are thus destroyed. And while the superstitious may cling to an edifice built upon the sand, clear-headed and thoughtful men will take refuge in natural religion.

      Whatever may be said, therefore, of the theological school here under review, their religion is not Christianity, and their testimony must be rejected as of less value even than that of the sacerdotalists. Nor can any one justly take exception to the fairness of this argument. If we be urged to embark in a gold-mine, we naturally ask whether those who commend it to our confidence have themselves put their money in it. Nor will this avail to satisfy us if we find that they have also invested in other undertakings which we know to be worthless. And so here: we are entitled to put men upon proof, not only of the sincerity and consistency of their faith, but also of its reasonableness. And we find that the faith of Christians of the one school includes tenets the belief in which implies the degradation of reason, and that the unfaith of Christians of the other school under-mines Christianity altogether. The one school believes too much, the other believes too little. With the one, faith degenerates into superstition; with the other, it merges in a scepticism which is as real, though not as rational or con-sistent, as is that of. many who are commonly branded as infidels.

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