The following are “Concluding Reflections” from Volume 1 of Phillip Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church.” I found it so encouraging I thought I’d share it, unedited, with you. There are phrases and expressions I wouldn’t use, but get the drift of Schaff’s reflections. Enjoy
There is no necessary conflict between faith and criticism any more than between revelation and reason or between faith and philosophy. God is the author of both, and he cannot contradict himself. There is an uncritical faith and a faithless criticism as there is a genuine philosophy and a philosophy falsely so called; but this is no argument either against faith or criticism; for the best gifts are liable to abuse and perversion; and the noblest works of art may be caricatured. The apostle of faith directs us to “prove all things,” and to “hold fast that which is good.” We believe in order to understand, and true faith is the mother of knowledge. A rational faith in Christianity, as the best and final religion which God gave to mankind, owes it to itself to examine the foundation on which it rests; and it is urged by an irresistible impulse to vindicate the truth against every form of error. Christianity needs no apology. Conscious of its supernatural strength, it can boldly meet every foe and convert him into an ally.
Looking back upon the history of the apostolic age, it appears to us as a vast battle-field of opposite tendencies and schools. Every inch of ground is disputed and has to be reconquered; every fact, as well as every doctrine of revelation, is called in question; every hypothesis is tried; all the resources of learning, acumen, and ingenuity are arrayed against the citadel of the Christian faith. The citadel is impregnable, and victory is certain, but not to those who ignorantly or superciliously underrate the strength of the besieging army. In the sixteenth century the contest was between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism; in the nineteenth century the question is Christianity or infidelity. Then both parties believed in the inspiration of the New Testament and the extent of the canon, differing only in the interpretation; now inspiration is denied, and the apostolicity of all but four or five books is assailed. Then the Word of God, with or without tradition, was the final arbiter of religious controversies; now human reason is the ultimate tribunal.
We live in an age of discovery, invention, research, and doubt. Scepticism is well nigh omnipresent in the thinking world. It impregnates the atmosphere. We can no more ignore it than the ancient Fathers could ignore the Gnostic speculations of their day. Nothing is taken for granted; nothing believed on mere authority; everything must be supported by adequate proof, everything explained in its natural growth from the seed to the fruit. Roman Catholics believe in an infallible oracle in the Vatican; but whatever the oracle may decree, the earth moves and will continue to move around the sun. Protestants, having safely crossed the Red Sea, cannot go back to the flesh-pots of the land of bondage, but must look forward to the land of promise. In the night, says a proverb, all cattle are black, but the daylight reveals the different colors.
Why did Christ not write the New Testament, as Mohammed wrote the Koran? Writing was not beneath his dignity; he did write once in the sand, though we know not what. God himself wrote the Ten Commandments on two tables of stone. But Moses broke them to pieces when he saw that the people of Israel worshipped the golden calf before the thunders from Sinai had ceased to reverberate in their ears. They might have turned those tables into idols. God buried the great law-giver out of sight and out of the reach of idolatry. The gospel was still less intended to be a dumb idol than the law. It is not a killing letter but a life-giving spirit. It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words of Christ “are spirit and are life.” A book written by his own unerring hand, unless protected by a perpetual miracle, would have been subject to the same changes and corruptions in the hands of fallible transcribers and printers as the books of his disciples, and the original autograph would have perished with the brittle papyrus. Nor would it have escaped the unmerciful assaults of sceptical and infidel critics, and misinterpretations of commentators and preachers. He himself was crucified by the hierarchy of his own people, whom he came to save. What better fate could have awaited his book? Of course, it would have risen from the dead, in spite of the doubts and conjectures and falsehoods of unbelieving men; but the same is true of the writings of the apostles, though thousands of copies have been burned by heathens and false Christians. Thomas might put his hand into the wound-prints of his risen Lord; but “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.”
We must believe in the Holy Spirit who lives and moves in the Church and is the invisible power behind the written and printed word.
The form in which the authentic records of Christianity have come down to us, with their variations and difficulties, is a constant stimulus to study and research and calls into exercise all the intellectual and moral faculties of men. Every one must strive after the best understanding of the truth with a faithful use of his opportunities and privileges, which are multiplying with every generation.
The New Testament is a revelation of spiritual and eternal truth to faith, and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, though rooted in the deepest wants and aspirations of man. It has to fight its way through an unbelieving world, and the conflict waxes hotter and hotter as the victory comes nearer. For the last half century the apostolic writings have been passing through the purgatory of the most scorching criticism to which a book can be subjected. The opposition is itself a powerful testimony to their vitality and importance.
There are two kinds of scepticism: one represented by Thomas, honest, earnest, seeking and at last finding the truth; the other represented by Sadducees and Pontius Pilate, superficial, worldly, frivolous, indifferent to truth and ending in despair. With the latter “even the gods reason in vain.” When it takes the trouble to assail the Bible, it deals in sneers and ridicule which admit of no serious answer. The roots of infidelity he in the heart and will rather than in the reason and intellect, and wilful opposition to the truth is deaf to any argument. But honest, truth-loving scepticism always deserves regard and sympathy and demands a patient investigation of the real or imaginary difficulties which are involved in the problem of the origin of Christianity. It may be more useful to the church than an unthinking and unreasoning orthodoxy. One of the ablest and purest sceptical critics of the century (DeWette) made the sad, but honorable confession:
“I lived in times of doubt and strife,
When childlike faith was forced to yield;
I struggled to the end of life,
Alas! I did not gain the field.”
But he did gain the field, after all, at last; for a few months before his death he wrote and published this significant sentence: “I know that in no other name can salvation be found, than in the name of Jesus Christ the Crucified, and there is nothing higher for mankind than the divine humanity (Gottmenschheit) realized in him, and the kingdom of God planted by him.” Blessed are those that seek the truth, for they shall find it.
The critical and historical rationalism which was born and matured in this century in the land of Luther, and has spread in Switzerland, France, Holland, England, Scotland, and America, surpasses in depth and breadth of learning, as well as in earnestness of spirit, all older forms of infidelity and heresy. It is not superficial and frivolous, as the rationalism of the eighteenth century; it is not indifferent to truth, but intensely interested in ascertaining the real facts, and tracing the origin and development of Christianity, as a great historical phenomenon. But it arrogantly claims to be the criticism par excellence, as the Gnosticism of the ancient church pretended to have the monopoly of knowledge. There is a historical, conservative, and constructive criticism, as well as an unhistorical, radical, and destructive criticism; and the former must win the fight as sure as God’s truth will outlast all error. So there is a believing and Christian Gnosticism as well as an unbelieving and anti- (or pseudo-) Christian Gnosticism.
The negative criticism of the present generation has concentrated its forces upon the life of Christ and the apostolic age, and spent an astonishing amount of patient research upon the minutest details of its history. And its labors have not been in vain; on the contrary, it has done a vast amount of good, as well as evil. Its strength lies in the investigation of the human and literary aspect of the Bible; its weakness in the ignoring of its divine and spiritual character. It forms thus the very antipode of the older orthodoxy, which so overstrained the theory of inspiration as to reduce the human agency to the mechanism of the pen. We must look at both aspects. The Bible is the Word of God and the word of holy men of old. It is a revelation of man, as well as of God. It reveals man in all his phases of development—innocence, fall, redemption—in all the varieties of character, from heavenly purity to satanic wickedness, with all his virtues and vices, in all his states of experience, and is an ever-flowing spring of inspiration to the poet, the artist, the historian, and divine. It reflects and perpetuates the mystery of the incarnation. It is the word of him who proclaimed himself the Son of Man, as well as the Son of God. “Men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Here all is divine and all is human.
No doubt the New Testament is the result of a gradual growth and conflict of different forces, which were included in the original idea of Christianity and were drawn out as it passed from Christ to his disciples, from the Jews to the Gentiles, from Jerusalem to Antioch and Rome, and as it matured in the mind of the leading apostles. No doubt the Gospels and Epistles were written by certain men, at a certain time, in a certain place, under certain surroundings, and for definite ends; and all these questions are legitimate objects of inquiry and eminently deserving of ever-renewed investigation. Many obscure points have been cleared up, thanks, in part, to these very critics, who intended to destroy, and helped to build up.
The literary history of the apostolic age, like its missionary progress, was guided by a special providence. Christ only finished a part of his work while on earth. He pointed his disciples to greater works, which they would accomplish in his name and by his power, after his resurrection. He promised them his unbroken presence, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, who, as the other Advocate, should lead them into the whole truth and open to them the understanding of all his words. The Acts of the Apostles are a history of the Holy Spirit, or of the post-resurrection work of Christ in establishing his kingdom on earth. Filled with that Spirit, the apostles and evangelists went forth into a hostile world and converted it to Christ by their living word, and they continue their conquering march by their written word.
Unbelieving criticism sees only the outside surface of the greatest movement in history, and is blind to the spiritual forces working from within or refuses to acknowledge them as truly divine. In like manner, the materialistic and atheistic scientists of the age conceive of nature’s laws without a lawgiver; of a creature without a creator; and stop with the effect, without rising to the cause, which alone affords a rational explanation of the effect.
And here we touch upon the deepest spring of all forms of rationalism, and upon the gulf which inseparably divides it from supernaturalism. It is the opposition to the supernatural and the miraculous. It denies God in nature and God in history, and, in its ultimate consequences, it denies the very existence of God. Deism and atheism have no place for a miracle; but belief in the existence of an Almighty Maker of all things visible and invisible, as the ultimate and all-sufficient cause of all phenomena in nature and in history, implies the possibility of miracle at any time; not, indeed, as a violation of his own laws, but as a manifestation of his law-giving and creative power over and above (not against) the regular order of events. The reality of the miracle, in any particular case, then, becomes a matter of historical investigation. It cannot be disposed of by a simple denial from à priori philosophical prejudice; but must be fairly examined, and, if sufficiently corroborated by external and internal evidence, it must be admitted.
Now, the miracles of Christ cannot be separated from his person and his teachings. His words are as marvellous as his deeds; both form a harmonious whole, and they stand or fall together. His person is the great miracle, and his miracles are simply his natural works. He is as much elevated above other men as his words and deeds are above ordinary words and deeds. He is separated from all mortals by his absolute freedom from sin. He, himself, claims superhuman origin and supernatural powers; and to deny them is to make him a liar and impostor. It is impossible to maintain his human perfection, which all respectable rationalists admit and even emphasize, and yet to refuse his testimony concerning himself. The Christ of Strauss and of Renan is the most contradictory of all characters; the most incredible of all enigmas. There is no possible scientific mediation between a purely humanitarian conception of Christ, no matter how high he may be raised in the scale of beings, and the faith in Christ as the Son of God, whom Christendom has adored from the beginning and still adores as the Lord and Saviour of the world.
Nor can we eliminate the supernatural element from the Apostolic Church without destroying its very life and resolving it into a gigantic illusion. What becomes of Paul if we deny his conversion, and how shall we account for his conversion without the Resurrection and Ascension? The greatest of modern sceptics paused at the problem, and felt almost forced to admit an actual miracle, as the only rational solution of that conversion. The Holy Spirit was the inspiring and propelling power of the apostolic age, and made the fishers of Galilee fishers of men.
A Christian, who has experienced the power of the gospel in his heart, can have no difficulty with the supernatural. He is as sure of the regenerating and converting agency of the Spirit of God and the saving efficacy of Christ as he is of his own natural existence. He has tasted the medicine and has been healed. He may say with the man who was born blind and made to see: “One thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” This is a short creed; but stronger than any argument. The fortress of personal experience is impregnable; the logic of stubborn facts is more cogent than the logic of reason. Every genuine conversion from sin to holiness is a psychological miracle, as much so as the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
The secret or open hostility to the supernatural is the moving spring of infidel criticism. We may freely admit that certain difficulties about the time and place of composition and other minor details of the Gospels and Epistles are not, and perhaps never can be, satisfactorily solved; but it is, nevertheless, true that they are far better authenticated by internal and external evidence than any books of the great Greek and Roman classics, or of Philo and Josephus, which are accepted by scholars without a doubt. As early as the middle of the second century, that is, fifty years after the death of the Apostle John, when yet many of his personal pupils and friends must have been living, the four Canonical Gospels, no more and no less, were recognized and read in public worship as sacred books, in the churches of Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Italy, and Gaul; and such universal acceptance and authority in the face of Jewish and heathen hostility and heretical perversion can only be explained on the ground that they were known and used long before. Some of them, Matthew and John, were quoted and used in the first quarter of the second century by Orthodox and Gnostic writers. Every new discovery, as the last book of the pseudo-“Clementine Homilies,” the “Philosophumena” of Hippolytus, the “Diatessaron” of Tatian, and every deeper investigation of the “Gospel Memoirs” of Justin Martyr, and the “Gospel” of Marcion in its relation to Luke, have strengthened the cause of historical and conservative criticism and inflicted bleeding wounds on destructive criticism. If quotations from the end of the first and the beginning of the second century are very rare, we must remember that we have only a handful of literary documents from that period, and that the second generation of Christians was not a race of scholars and scribes and critics, but of humble, illiterate confessors and martyrs, who still breathed the bracing air of the living teaching, and personal reminiscences of the apostles and evangelists.
But the Synoptical Gospels bear the strongest internal marks of having been composed before the destruction of Jerusalem (a.d. 70), which is therein prophesied by Christ as a future event and as the sign of the fast approaching judgment of the world, in a manner that is consistent only with such early composition. The Epistle to the Hebrews, likewise, was written when the Temple was still standing, and sacrifices were offered from day to day. Yet, as this early date is not conceded by all, we will leave the Epistle out of view. The Apocalypse of John is very confidently assigned to the year 68 or 69 by Baur, Renan, and others, who would put the Gospels down to a much later date. They also concede the Pauline authorship of the great anti-Judaic Epistles to the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians, and make them the very basis of their assaults upon the minor Pauline Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, on the ground of exaggerated or purely imaginary differences. Those Epistles of Paul were written twelve or fourteen years before the destruction of Jerusalem. This brings us within less than thirty years of the resurrection of Christ and the birthday of the church.
Now, if we confine ourselves to these five books, which the most exacting and rigorous criticism admits to be apostolic—the four Pauline Epistles and the Apocalypse—they alone are sufficient to establish the foundation of historical faith; for they confirm by direct statement or allusion every important fact and doctrine in the gospel history, without referring to the written Gospels. The memory and personal experience of the writers—Paul and John—goes back to the vision of Damascus, to the scenes of the Resurrection and Crucifixion, and the first call of the disciples on the banks of the Jordan and the shores of the Lake of Galilee. Criticism must first reason Paul and John out of history, or deny that they ever wrote a line, before it can expect sensible men to surrender a single chapter of the Gospels.
Strong as the external evidence is, the internal evidence of the truth and credibility of the apostolic writings is still stronger, and may be felt to this day by the unlearned as well as the scholar. They widely differ in style and spirit from all post-apostolic productions, and occupy a conspicuous isolation even among the best of books. This position they have occupied for eighteen centuries among the most civilized nations of the globe; and from this position they are not likely to be deposed.
We must interpret persons and events not only by themselves, but also in the light of subsequent history. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Christianity can stand this test better than any other religion, and better than any system of philosophy.
Taking our position at the close of the apostolic age, and looking back to its fountain-head and forward to succeeding generations, we cannot but be amazed at the magnitude of the effects produced by the brief public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, which sends its blessings through centuries as an unbroken and ever-expanding river of life. There is absolutely nothing like it in the annals of the race. The Roman empire embraced, at the birth of Christ, over one hundred millions of men, conquered by force, and, after having persecuted his religion for three hundred years, it died away without the possibility of a resurrection. The Christian church now numbers four hundred millions, conquered by the love of Christ, and is constantly increasing. The first century is the life and light of history and the turning point of the ages. If ever God revealed himself to man, if ever heaven appeared on earth, it was in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. He is, beyond any shadow of doubt, and by the reluctant consent of sceptics and infidels, the wisest of the wise, the purest of the pure, and the mightiest of the mighty. His Cross has become the tree of life to all nations; his teaching is still the highest standard of religious truth; his example the unsurpassed ideal of holiness; the Gospels and Epistles of his Galilean disciples are still the book of books, more powerful than all the classics of human wisdom and genius. No book has attracted so much attention, provoked so much opposition, outlived so many persecutions, called forth so much reverence and gratitude, inspired so many noble thoughts and deeds, administered so much comfort and peace from the cradle to the grave to all classes and conditions of men. It is more than a book; it is an institution, an all-pervading omnipresent force, a converting, sanctifying, transforming agency; it rules from the pulpit and the chair; it presides at the family altar; it is the sacred ark of every household, the written conscience of every Christian man, the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of light by night in the pilgrimage of life. Mankind is bad enough, and human life dark enough with it; but how much worse and how much darker would they be without it? Christianity might live without the letter of the New Testament, but not without the facts and truths which it records and teaches. Were it possible to banish them from the world, the sun of our civilization would be extinguished, and mankind left to midnight darkness, with the dreary prospect of a dreamless and endless Nirvana.
But no power on earth or in hell can extinguish that sun. There it shines on the horizon, the king of day, obscured at times by clouds great or small, but breaking through again and again, and shedding light and life from east to west, until the darkest corners of the globe shall be illuminated. The past is secure; God will take care of the future.
Magna est veritas et praevalebit.