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THE LIBERTY OF BIBLICAL CRITICISM.
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.—1 THESS. v. 21.
I am going to-day to speak of the third point in the late Privy Council judgment which affects, or seems to affect the position of a liberal clergyman in the Church of England.
Some years ago, in the judgment pronounced in the case of the Essays and Reviews, a large freedom of interpretation and of criticism of the Bible was granted, or appeared to be granted, to the Church. That freedom was gratefully accepted, and freely used. The results have been remarkable. The Bible, approached in the same manner as we approach any other book, has gained in reality, in interest, and in power. Its human and its spiritual sides have both been brought into greater prominence. Its literary and intellectual interest has been more widely recognised. It has become not less the book of religious circles, but more the book of Humanity. And these gains have been in proportion to the loss of those mystical and infallible qualities which have been imputed to it in the past, and which had relegated it to a region in which all exercise of the reason upon it was pronounced either impious or dangerous. No true book suffers from being removed out of the misty valley of superstition and placed in the mountain air of honest enquiry, and the Bible is not less reverenced or loved by us, but more, now that we have subjected it for some years to the ordinary critical tests. The pure gold of the book shines brighter, and is recognised more quickly, now that we try to separate it from the alloy; and the alloy itself has become interesting for its historical and human value. Formerly, when both were considered equally divine, both suffered from the confusion. It is easy to see what follows when alloy is maintained to be gold, and gold to be alloy.
Well, it has seemed to many, both within and without the liberal ranks, that the late judgment takes away from us this freedom. It appears to them to say, first, that no passage in the Scriptures may be subject to free criticism which relates to faith or morals; secondly, that no passage may be so interpreted as to contradict another; and thirdly, that no individual criticism is allowable at all, and that this last restriction is in fact a death-blow to criticism altogether.
I cannot think that the judgment means this, for it is openly and professedly based upon the judgment in the case of Essays and Reviews, which, as I have said, gave us a certain liberty of criticism. And again, some of its strongest statements seem to be deliberately modified. For example, it says that it is not consistent with the Sixth Article for any private clergyman of his own taste and judgment to assert that whole passages of the canonical books are without authority or spurious, and this seems to forbid any exercise of individual criticism. But the judgment adds these words, 'not founding himself on any critical enquiry,' which seems, on the other hand, to encourage criticism.
But whatever we may think of the intention of the judges, this at least is plain from the fact of the active discussion on the meaning of the judgment, that it is not clear. Men do not debate on the meaning of that which is not ambiguous.
I do not sympathise with those who take refuge in this ambiguity, and say, “We will pass by the judgment in silence, and go on as before.' That is a position which must before long become untenable. We ought to know where we are. The whole question is too vital to be shuffled out of sight. It involves the whole future of Liberal Theology; it is bound up with the interests of all the truths for which we have specially been contending. Nor is it fitting that men who hold to the freedom of criticism, and who have used that freedom as scholars, in or out of the Church, should not be able to decide whether they can enter into or remain in the Church or not. There are numbers, of whom I have met some already, who, reading this judgment, are in distressing doubt as to the course of action it imposes on them. I do not think they should be left in doubt. One does not complain of an ambiguity which leaves us a fair amount of liberty in interpreting a judicial document, but it is not only ambiguity which is here, it is ambiguous ambiguity. We ask for no hard and fast definition of the limits of Biblical criticism, but we should like to be sure that the liberty we thought was ours was still in our possession-whether this judgment leaves it as it was or narrows it-whether it accords with or contradicts the genius of the Church of England. We wish to obey the law; but we should like to know what the law means.
We suspend our action till we know whether freedom is narrowed or not; we take advantage of the ambiguity, but we do not wish to do so in silence. If, owing to the wording of a marriage law, a man did not know whether he were truly married or not, everyone would recognise that the position in which he was placed was unfair. He would himself do all he could to obtain a clear statement from the law, but he would
not separate from his wife and declare his position illegitimate. He would hold on till some clear decision settled the point of dispute. But he would not hold on in silence. Too much would be involved for that. He would state his position with clearness as his best protest against the ambiguity of the law.
I wish to state to-day my own position with regard to the criticism of the Bible, and what, I conceive, I may legally say within the limits of the Sixth Article.
The first statement of the Article is, that the Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.' Now, great stress was laid in a previous trial on the word "containeth.' All things necessary to salvation were contained in the Scriptures, but everything contained in the Scriptures was not necessary to salvation, to be believed. All things necessary for life are contained on the earth and in the air, but everything on earth and in the air is not to be considered as necessary to life. It became then a principle of interpretation, legal to use, as it seemed within the terms of the Article, to distinguish a human and a Divine element in the sacred Scriptures ; an element subject to human error, and an element of Divine truth, revealed by God through inspired men.
On this principle of interpretation, then, we considered ourselves permitted—I use the word 'we' speaking solely of my own opinion—first, to freely criticise all passages relating to subjects which belong to the sphere of physics, such as the history of the creation of the world and man, the universality of the flood, the movement of the earth and the like. They were to be subjected to precisely the same strict enquiry as any physical hypothesis is subjected to by a natural philosopher, and as they answered the enquiry they were to be accepted as true or rejected as erroneous.
Many of the Biblical statements have not stood that test, and at once we came to the conclusion that, whatever inspiration might mean, it did not include infallibility on these points. We deny that the writers knew more on these subjects than any other men of the time at which they wrote. The discovery of Galileo, in fact, settled this point.
Unfortunately, the idea of a Biblical infallibility still lingers among men, and the spiritual power of the Bible is still involved with its accuracy on physical questions. Whether the question be one of geology, or a new theory of species, or the descent and age of man, there is still a battle to save this book from being pronounced in error ; a series of reconciliations are still proposed.
These attempted reconciliations only serve to bring the Bible into discredit, partly because, as science goes on, they are one by one proved inadequate, partly because they contradict and disprove one another, and wholly because they all try to make the words of Scripture mean something else than a common-sense interpretation, such as we would give to the same statements in any other book, would lead us to adopt. They seem to me waste of time and labour in support of a wrong notion. I do not say that it is a matter of indifference to me whether the Bible be proved in accordance with modern science or not, for I should feel, if it were in accordance with modern science, that the wisdom of Inspiration might be fairly challenged. To link modern knowledge to a spiritual revelation given to men who had no modern knowledge would have injured their reception of that revelation. If Moses had told the people of Israel that the earth went round the sun in the same breath as he told them that the Lord their God was one Lord, the total