Professor Fisher's Discussions

THE recent debate occasioned by the call for an added endowment to the theological school connected with Harvard University turned in part upon the possibility of a scientific study of theology. To those whose notion of science is limited by the perceptions of the senses, nothing can be said; but if there are any who still regard theology as a mere field for unlimited speculation, outside of scientific methods, we commend to them Professor G. P. Fisher’s recent collection of essays and reviews,1 as an excellent illustration of a treatment of theological subjects which is eminently scientific. The method which Professor Fisher employs in dealing with questions of history, belief, government and development in the religious domain, is

in no respect different from that which any candid student in natural science would employ. He postulates God and a divine order, but so does a student in nature postulate an origin and an order ; if the facts with which he deals are facts in history and consciousness, they are no less facts than stones and bugs are facts. He may have his predilections for one order of church government over another, but we doubt if a reader unacquainted with his ecclesiastical connection would readily discover what they were beyond the fact that, in any case, they were in favor of an inclusive rather than an exclusive order. That he has a reverent attitude toward religious subjects only renders him a more competent historian and critic. When was it discovered that the naturalist was a surer guide who felt a contempt for the world he was surveying, or eyed every object presented to him with a doubt as to its right to exist ?

We are saying that Professor Fisher treats his subjects impersonally and judicially, but it must not be inferred that his manner is indifferent, or, what is worse, patronizing. In a previous volume,2 more strictly historical in its method, there was even better opportunity than is given here to mark the temper of the Christian scholar. He was called upon to display the historic connection between Christianity at its inception and the world of humanity which it has been reorganizing ever since. His task was no new one, and he did not attempt a novelty of treatment. Yet he gave to this familiar subject a freshness and value by the fairness with which he stated, it and the interest which as a student he took in so mighty a matter. There have been discussions of the planting of Christianity which would seem to imply that an order which has changed the current of the world’s history was to be measured very much as the Mormon delusion or Shaker eccentricity might properly be measured. A scholarship which treats a great subject in a petty way shows itself incompetent to record, much less to judge in history. It professes to be impartial, but in reality has divested itself of the means of forming a judgment; it is like an attempt to judge Christianity as Celsus judged it, and reminds one of the school-master who, when the world was ringing with the sound of Frederick’s victories, doubted if his majesty could conjugate a Greek verb in mi.

It is not the school-master who speaks in Professor Fisher. Everywhere there are the caution and prudence of the accurate scholar, but there is also the generosity of a catholic mind. His Discussions, bringing together studies in various fields, include mainly three classes of topics : there is a group relating to the history, polity, and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church; another of New England Theology ; a third relating to Theism and Christian Evidences. These groups, though pointed out by the author in his preface, rather follow from the lines of his general study and interest than appear as the occasion of the volume. They do not, indeed, quite include all the papers, but it is of little moment that the book should have a specific unity; as the collected papers, on generally related subjects, of a wise student, they have sufficient justification. They range in point of original publication from 1867 to 1880, and, while the subjects discussed are none of temporary interest, it is a pity that in reprinting the author has not in some cases brought the discussion to date. In the paper, for example, on the Temporal Kingdom of the Popes, which was tolerably complete in 1867, we miss a full treatment of the very interesting movements since that date; in the same paper, by the way, we see scarcely any reference to the political recantation of Pius IX., whose short-lived liberalism gave rise to lively hopes.

The essays forming the first group are perhaps the most interesting, and as giving a Protestant examination of certain phases of Roman Catholicism are free from bitterness or unkindness. His interest in contemporary questions will quickly be perceived by the reader. Unlike many polemical writers of his own bias, he is capable of seeing that Romanism is not a fixed, immovable system, and he searches eagerly for signs of change from within it. His catholic spirit and his sagacity are both shown in the admirable words with which he closes his paper on the Old Roman Spirit and Religion in Latin Christianity. We should be glad if we could quote more than these few passages : —

“ Starting with these principles respecting the nature and use of symbolism, we are prepared to allow to Protestantism the liberty of conforming its ritual to the temperament, taste, and national peculiarities of the several peoples among whom it may be planted. ... A rigid adhesion to a particular method of worship, when there are reasons for varying from it, is itself formalism, one of the principal evils against which Puritanism contended. A certain elasticity must be allowed in things external. The criterion is to ascertain what conduces to the edification of the flock, not in some foreign latitude, but in the place with respect to which the question is raised. Should the Protestant doctrines spread extensively in Latin countries, it is not impossible that forms of worship may arise specially consonant with the native characteristics of the inhabitants of those lands. There may arise a Latin Protestantism, different in its external features from Germanic Protestantism.” He shows more than once the abortive character of Old Catholicism in its reluctance to abandon the theory of a mediatorial priesthood. Again, in The Temporal Kingdom of the Popes, he says well: “ It is on a believing, and not on a free-thinking, Protestantism that we must depend for a success that is to be enduring. It is requisite that deep and enlightened convictions of Christian truth, and a true love of the gospel as understood by Protestants, should spread among the people of Catholic countries. The church is founded not on Peter as an individual, but on Peter as a warm and sincere confessor of the faith that Jesus is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. With the progress of this faith, unencumbered by the traditions of men, the decline and fall of the papal system are linked. Political changes may be valuable auxiliaries, but it is easy to overestimate their importance. . . . Every blow struck at one of the great churches is a blow struck at all, and at Christianity itself. The Roman Catholic and the Protestant have adversaries in common, who are far more distant from both than the Catholic and Protestant are from one another. The Catholic and Protestant profess the same Christian faith, important as the points of disagreement are between them. The adversaries attack this faith, and their attacks at the present day are mischievous and formidable. It is, therefore, suicidal as well as wrong for Protestants to join hands with indifferentism and irreligion, for the sake of weakening their ancient theological antagonist.”

In his papers on New England Theology, Professor Fisher writes with a freedom which personal knowledge, unhampered by partisanship, gives; and, while some of the discussions have rather a local than a general interest, his consideration of Channing’s position appeals to all readers, and will carry force by its acuteness and judicious tone. His statement of what he calls the clew to the explanation of Clianning’s dissent from catholic theology is an admirable example of his breadth and decision. “ The catholic theology,” he declares, “ if I may venture to interpret its verdict, does not find in him and in his teaching, as a whole, that discernment of the guilt of sin, of that particular quality of evil-doing which may blanch the cheek and strike terror to the heart of even the prosperous criminal; which moved the publican to beat upon his breast ; which makes the strong man bow his head in shame and trembling ; and which pierced as a sharp arrow the souls of Augustine, Luther, Edwards, and the Apostle Paul. I have no wish to bring an accusation against Channing, or to magnify a defect. I simply seek to account for an antagonism which he himself and everybody else admits to exist. The catholic theology, once more, fails to discover in Channing a sufficiently strong grasp of sin as a principle, revealing itself in multiform expressions or phenomena, entering into numberless phases of manifestation, exercising sway in mankind, and holding fast the will in a kind of bondage. . . . The moral malady is not explored to its sources; and hence the tendency is to treat it with palliatives. He is too much inclined to rely on education to do the work of regeneration.”

It would be easy to cite many instances of Professor Fisher’s catholicity and acumen. He proves in these two volumes, as in his other works, better than any theoretical argument could, the possibility of a science of theology, catholic, scholarly, and unsectarian. Here and there among our students there are such men, and as a practical matter we are disposed to think they are of more service in the various divinity schools than if they could all be brought together under the walls of a single university. No school of theology can be hopelessly devoted to party which gives residence and occupation to such men as the author of these Discussions.

  1. Discussions in History and Theology. By GEORGE P. FISHER, D.D., LL.D., Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History in Yale College. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.
  2. The Beginnings of Christianity. With a View of the State of the Roman World at the Birth of Christ. By GEORGE P. FISHER, D. D. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co. 1877.