Three New Theological Works
THE late Professor Diman, in his posthumous work The Theistic Argument as Affected by Recent Theories,1 handles an old theme and reaches the old conclusion, but by no means in the old way. The book fulfills the promise of its title-page. The argument is throughout conducted with honest and appreciative reference to the facts and theories of modern scientific and speculative thought, especially as represented
by such writers as Mill, Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall. Whether the reasoning be absolutely flawless or not, we know of no book that within the same compass furnishes an equally complete, calm, intelligible, and candid survey of the issues now in debate between the representatives of religion and physical science, respectively. As such, it must prove of inestimable value to many thoughtful readers of both classes, very few of whom have as clear an apprehension of each other’s attitudes and positions as might be desired. The book is especially to be commended to the young theologians of the day, who find themselves in the thick of a conflict begun before their entrance on the field of action, of which, for that very reason, it is difficult for them to master the bearing and significance.
It is of course impossible to condense in a few lines the thought of a book of nearly four hundred pages, which, though written for oral delivery (as lectures at the Lowell Institute, Boston), is singularly compact in style and expression. Its salient points, however, may be indicated. After a statement of the present aspects of the theistic problem, the legitimacy of the inquiry, as falling within the limits of human thought, is discussed with reference to the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, which, so far from excluding, is shown logically to involve, the affirmation of absolute existence. The right to a standing in the dialectic form being thus vindicated, the scope of the argument is limited by the rejection of all a priori methods as practically obsolete and logically indefensible. The first onward step toward the theistic conclusion is based on the notion of a first cause. The idea of cause, no matter how obtained, is never satisfied short of a first cause, itself uncaused. Hence, the objection that it only leads to an endless succession of causes falls to the ground. The scientific objection, founded on the theory of the indestructibility of matter and the persistence of force, really concedes what is essential in the old doctrine of a first cause. For the theory “ is after all but a method of accounting for change. And in accounting for change, it not only concedes that every change in nature had a cause, but that back of all change lies something persistent and unchangeable.” “ The most refined conception of the universe that science has yet reached is a conception that leads us back to an absolute and eternal source of all the phenomena of existence.” And this conception “ is not a result of experience, or of any scientific experiment, but a purely abstract and metaphysical conception,” — as truly so as the old idea of a first cause.
But “in the bare idea of a first cause we do not have the idea of God.” The nature of this first cause must next be inquired into. From the order and harmony pervading the universe, the author infers that it must have had its origin in mind ; and from the manifold adjustments in organic structures, he claims the right to clothe this originating mind with the attributes of purpose and finality. These arguments are not only strongly stated, but are defended against objections, both old and new, with great acuteness. Of special interest and value in this respect is the consideration of the bearing of the theory of evolution on the idea of final cause. One entire lecture of the twelve is devoted to this topic ; and the conclusion at which the author arrives is that the theory of evolution, instead of detracting from the force of the teleological argument, “really supplies it with a more complex and elaborate basis.” Another lecture, scarcely less interesting, on Immanent Finality, completes the justification of the argument from design by defending it against the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza and his followers, on the one hand, and certain scientific theories which more or less obliterate the distinction between mind and matter, on the other; and thus the conclusion is reached “ that the finality shown in nature is the operation of a conscious intelligence distinct from and above nature.” Two more steps end the argument. so far as it bases itself on the accepted facts of external nature and human consciousness. The first infers a moral order from the phenomena of conscience, the second a moral purpose from the facts of history; and both are held to indicate that the first cause has the attributes of a moral as well as intelligent being. All this, however, the author admits, does not prove the existence of a being answering to our idea of God. None of these arguments, nor all together, prove the first cause to be infinite, eternal, and absolute in being and perfection. he proceeds, therefore, to connect this first cause with our intuitive conviction of the infinite. " We have intuitions,” says the author, " which are the very frame-work of all our thought of infinity and eternity.” “We irresistibly connect these intuitions with the first cause. The author of the universe must be the being of whom these are predicable.” Thus the argument has reached its goal. The lecture that follows, on Alternative Theories, simply supplies strengthening buttresses, while the closing one, on Inferences from Theism, presents an impressive and very sug1gestive statement of how natural religion finds its fuller development in Christianity.
The weak point of the book, considered as a chain of reasoning, lies, it strikes us, in the use made of the intuitional idea of the infinite to raise the conception of an intelligent and moral first cause to the height of the idea of God. To say that we “ irresistibly ” connect these conceptions, and that the first “ must ” be predicable of the second, is certainly not convincing, so long at least as the the intuition of the infinite has not been shown to include the personality of the infinite. It seems, after all, a matter of doubt whether the grand theistic conclusion can be logically reached without a larger use of intuition — though not necessarily of intuition direct and immediate, prior to all knowledge and reflection — than the author is willing to admit. And of this he himself appears conscious when the exigencies of logic are for the moment in abeyance. For while he expressly disallows the reasoning of those who hold that belief in the existence of God is “a primary instinct of the soul, which we can neither justify nor go behind,” he nevertheless concedes that, historically, “ belief in God is a great fact in human nature, — a fact which individual consciousness establishes, and to which the experience of the vdiole race bears witness. It is older and deeper than any arguments about it.”
Dr. Mulford’s work, The Republic of God,2 is beyond all question one of the most remarkable of recent publications. Yet it is quite as likely to form the subject of confidential discourse and familiar letters between friends as to figure largely in public reviews and discussions. The thought is fresh and suggestive, but the style, or rather the linking of the thought, is more or less obscure. Many will learn from him, but few will dare to assert that they thoroughly understand him. The work is, in fact, as nearly as possible a series of dogmatic definitions or statements : sometimes hinting at, sometimes silently passing over, but rarely distinctly stating, the previous logical processes on which they rest. Moreover, it unconsciously assumes a knowledge of philosophical thought and language, and demands throughout a philosophical habit of mind, such as in many cases its readers will not be able to bring to it. Nevertheless the book is instinct with light and life throughout. Its very obscurities sparkle and glow, and whole pages are filled with an impassioned and yet perfectly sober eloquence, of which we can cite no parallel instance in modern theological literature. It is a book to grow up to, to keep on the library table, to read again and again, to brood over and reason out for one’s self.
The sub-title, an Institute of Theology, is likely to give a very erroneous conception of the book to persons reminded thereby of Calvin’s Institutes, or other less famous works, of similar structure and method. The material which it has in common with such works is arranged under new and few rubrics (the whole book contains only ten brief chapters) ; and many topics usually treated of in dogmatic systems — for example, creation, angelology, decrees, the Adamic fall — are wholly passed over. The omissions may in most cases be readily supplied from the thought taken as a whole ; but their occurrence is the natural consequence of the author’s purpose, which is evidently to give an Institute of what may be properly called Catholic theology. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which occupies the last page of the book, is not only the expression of the author’s personal faith, but has also given method and direction to his thinking. Indeed, the work is to be regarded as Dr. Mulford’s justification to thought of that ancient symbol.
But the great significance of the book, that which bids fair to give it wide and far-reaching influence in English theological literature, is the point of view from which it approaches the subject to be dealt with. The older theology suffered from a mechanical conception of the relations of God to the world and human history. It placed God and the universe so far apart that nothing but the most immediately supernatural could bridge the gulf. It avoided pantheism, that vice of noble minds, but always carried in it the seeds of the dreariest deism. And although this conception has been rendered more and more untenable by every advance of historical criticism and scientific discovery, it still dominates current theology to a large extent, and gives rise to such ecclesiastical prosecutions as that lately instituted against Professor Robertson Smith, of Scotland. Mr. Mulford stands on wholly different ground. To him, God is not only the transcendent, but also the immanent, One. Revelation, accordingly, is not only to man, but also in man ; it is not only supernatural, but also historical, and subject to the laws of historical life and growth. It is not uttered in speech alone, but preëminently in acts of divine self-manifestation. This of course involves a great modification of the old idea of inspiration and of the relation of the sacred books to Christian thought. These books are still authority ; but they are this as the historical records of revelation, not as primarily designed to convey doctrinal instruction. One of the author’s fundamental conceptions is that the revelation of Christ is not a religion, as Buddhism or Mohammedanism is a religion, that is, a system of doctrine or a cultus, but a life, — the life of the spirit. The greater part of the third chapter is devoted to a powerful setting forth of this thesis. Now, a religion can be laid down in the forms of logic, and hence can be gathered from books ; but a life can be known only from its manifestations. Hence, Dr. Mulford, if we have not entirely failed to understand him, would find the grounds of natural theology — confessedly the logical substratum of any system of revelational theology — in the religious consciousness of man as man ; and those of the specifically Christian doctrines in the attested history of revelation, of which the Bible presents the record, and in the consciousness of man as the subject of redemption, of which, again, the Bible, especially the New Testament, furnishes the clearest and most universal representation.
The book is an honest, earnest, and able endeavor to construct a system of Christian dogmatics in consonance with the best and surest results of modern thought. As such it is full of cheer and promise. It is a pledge that the crisis of the danger to religious life from the wide breach between the old views of the universe and the new will be safely passed. How far its endeavor is successful and self-consistent at all points, each one must judge for himself. The work no doubt has faults. We cannot but think, for instance, that in its citation of Scripture it sometimes neglects the just requirements of historical interpretation. But the sun itself has dark spots. It would be an evil omen, portentous of a coming day of wrath to the churches of America, if such a book should fail of grateful welcome and serious consideration.
Dr. Whiton, in his Gospel of the Resurrection,3 proposes to replace the hitherto current doctrine of the Christian church concerning the resurrection of the dead by conceptions more tenable by the modern mind. The view presented is simple, clear, and rational: the resurrection of the dead does not take place simultaneously, nor is it to be looked for in an indefinitely distant future ; each individual “ rises ”— that is, is rehabilitated with a spiritual body — immediately after death. The resurrection has nothing to do with the body that is buried, which decomposes and is left behind forever, but is a process of evolution, by which a new body is produced. The effective force in this evolution is the spirit, in which, because of its life, there inheres, as in all life, a body-building power. But the kind of body thus built up, whether glorious and fit for unending life, in the pregnant sense of that term, or only endowed with mere existence, the mean and empty semblance of life, — to name only the extremes, between which there lie many intermediate gradations, — depends upon the kind of life that evolves it, whether it be life in Christ or apart from him. This is the substance of the book ; but necessarily connected with it is the incidental discussion, first, of the second coming of Christ, which, according to our author, “ took place in the destruction of Jerusalem (A. D. 70), the demolition of the temple, the extinction of the luminaries — sun, moon, and stars — of the Jewish firmament, the sweeping away of the nation ; ” and, secondly, of the “last judgment,” which we are to think of “ not as an event, limited to a specific ‘ day,’ but as a process which runs its course throughout the whole existence of the responsible subjects of law.”
That the church doctrine on this subject no longer enjoys full and cordial assent, even on the part of many earnest believers in Christianity, cannot be denied. The purpose of the book, therefore, is a timely one. But many readers will find it easier to accept the conclusions above outlined than to approve the exegesis by which they are defended. The author apparently starts with an ultra-orthodox view of inspiration. In reply to the position “ that the language of the sacred books should be used in its own sense, the sense which it is manifestly designed to convey,” he says, “ Yes, but by whom intended, — by the human seer, or by the spirit from whom the human seer derived his message? The limitation of the teaching of the spirit of prophecy by the conceptions of the prophet ... is as absurd as to limit the ideas of a statesman by the ideas of the school-boy who declaims the statesman’s oration.” (Page 21.) The natural inference from this language is that the author holds what is justly called the mechanical theory of inspiration ; and this inference is justified by many instances of otherwise motiveless forced interpretation. At the same time, however, he does not, on occasion, hesitate to impute “ Jewish notions ” to the apostles. Sometimes these Jewish notions only color the language, but do not extend to the thought ; at other times, as when St. Peter supposed David to be still in Sheol, they amount to ignorance. (Page 221.) All this suggests, and should have suggested to the author, the great difficulty of distinguishing between the “ teaching of the spirit of prophecy ” and the “ conceptions of the prophet,” — between “ the facts which a prophet [like St. Panl] reports to us ” and “his views of them or opinions about them.” In fact, here lies the capital defect of the work, which deprives it of any claim to scientific value; it rests on no well-defined and consistentlyheld theory of the nature of revelation, and of the Bible as related to revelation. This leads, on the one hand, to fanciful interpretations, violently dissevering the text in hand from contemporary opinions, and to absurd literalism, forcing the letter beyond all bounds; and, on the other, to a freedom in treating “ inspired ” words which would be refreshing to the most naturalistic of theologians. And meanwhile the argument of the book seems to hang in empty air.
The literary merits of the performance are not high. There is considerable repetition and redundancy of expression. Once or twice the author descends to phraseology and illustrations beneath the dignity of print, not to say of his subject, as when he speaks of “ his doxy ” and “ any other doxy ; ” cites an anecdote from Mr. Murray’s lecture on Deacons; and illustrates the different senses which literally equivalent combinations of words may have in different languages, by reference to the American who “electrified” a Sunday-school in France by asserting that in heaven there was “ a pure river of eau de vie.” It is but fair to add, however, that, as the preface intimates, the larger part of the book is made up of material originally prepared for the pulpit. It would have been well if the author had given these discourses careful revision.
- The Theistic Argument as Affected by Recent Theories. By J. LEWIS DIMAN, D. D. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.↩
- The Republic of God: An Institute of Theology. By ELISHA MULFORD, LL. D. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Go. 1881.↩
- The Gospel of the Resurrection. By JAMES MORRIS WHITON, Ph. D. Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1881.↩