Thoughts on the Life and Character of Jesus of Nazareth
By Phillips, Sampson, & Co. 1859., Minister of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. Boston :
HERE is a book, written, not for “orthodox believers,” but for those whom the orthodox creeds have wholly repelled from its subject. It is quite distinct from three other books on the same general theme, by the same author. It has, indeed, some objects in view, at which neither of those books directly aimed.
It will overwhelm with horror such readers as may stumble upon it, who do not know, till they meet it, that there is any view of Jesus Christ but that which is presented in the widely circulated issues of the Tract Society and similar institutions. Our attention has already been called to one very absurd and unjust attack upon it, in a Philadelphia paper, intended to catch the prejudices of such persons. But the views by which we found this attack accompanied, in the same journal, led us to suspect that some political prejudice against the author’s antislavery had more to do with the onslaught than any deeply seated love of Orthodox Christianity. To another class of readers, who have been wholly repelled from any interest in Jesus Christ, by whatever misfortune of temperament or training, the careful study of these “ Thoughts ” would be of incalculable value. We suppose this class of readers, through the whole extent of our country, to be quite as large as the first class we have named. To a third class, which is probably as large as both the others put together, who are neither repelled nor attracted by the received ecclesiastical statements regarding the Saviour, but are willing to pass, without any real inquiry or any firm opinion, his presence in the world, and his influence at this moment on every event in modern life, the book might also have an immense value,—if it could be conceived that any thunder-clap could wake them from that selfish and comfortable indifference as to the central point of all the history, philosophy, life, and religion, in which they live.
We have no intention of entering into a discussion of the remarkable and very clear views presented in this volume. We have only to say that the author does not do himself justice when he asserts that there is no system in its arrangement. It is a systematic work, leading carefully along from point to point in the demonstration attempted. One may read it through in an afternoon, and he will then have a very clear idea of what the author thinks, which does not always happen when one has read a book through. If he be one of the class of readers for whom it was written, he will have, at the very least, a deeper interest in the study of the life of Jesus of Nazaretli than he had when he began. He will have read a reply to Dr. Strauss, Mr. Parker, Dr. Feuerbach, and Mr. Hittel, which, he will confess, is written in an appreciative and candid spirit, quite different from that of some of the ex-cathedra works of controversy, which have failed to annihilate these writers, although they have taken so arrogant a tone. As we have said, we do not attempt to analyze the argument or the statement of which we thus speak. We have only to say that it is positive, and not negative, — constructive, and not destructive, — reverent, and not flippant,—courteous to opponents, and never denunciatory. These are characteristics of a work of theology of which those can judge who do not affect to be technical theologians. Had we to give our own views of the matters presented in so interesting a form, we should not, of course, attempt to condense our assent or our dissent with the author into these columns; but where we differed or where we agreed, we should gladly recognize his eagerness to be understood, his earnest hope to find the truth, and his sympathy with all persons seeking it,— qualities which we have not always found in our study of theologians by profession.
In making the suggestion, however, that these “Thoughts'’ would be of special value to those who have fallen into the habit of disbelieving the Gospels, they hardly know why, we know that there is no more probability that they will read a book with this title than there is that young men should read “ Letters to Young Men,” or young women should read “Letters to Young Women." We-suppose that the unconverted seldom read “Hints to the Unconverted,” and that undecided fools never read “Foster on Decision of Character.” Recurring, then, to Mr. Everett’s story of the Guava jelly, which was recommended to invalids, but would “ not materially injure those who are well,” we may add to what we have said, that all readers of this volume will find valuable suggestions in it for the enlightenment of the gospel narratives. 'Theologians who differed fundamentally from Dr. Furness have been eager to express their sense of the value of his “Jesus and his Biographers,” as affording some of the most vivid and scenic representations in all literature of that life which he has devoted all his studies to illustrating. It does not fall in the way of this book to attempt many such illustrations ; but it is full of hints which all readers will value as lightening up and making fresh their notion of Scripture.
Critically speaking, the most prominent fault in the book is the occasional interpolation of matter not connected directly with its argument. That argument is simply laid out. In the first part is the direct plea of the author for the gospel narrative as a whole, earnestly and effectively sustained. The second part examines Mr. Theodore Parker’s arguments against the truth of parts of it. The third book discusses other objections. So far as this is done from the author’s leading point of view, the book is coherent and effective. But occasionally there comes in a little piece of fanciful criticism on the text, or a comment on some side-view or transaction, or the suggestion of a probability or a possibility, which remind one of the thin puerilities of the commentators whom Dr. Furnesa despises more than of the general drift of his own discussion.