The History of Christianity in the Light of Modern Knowledge. A Collective Work
New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1929. 8vo. 750 pp. Illus. $6.50.
IT is a grateful task to welcome this comprehensive symposium on the history of Christianity for which the collaboration of many of the most eminent British historical and theological scholars has been secured. Beginning with the GræcoRoman and Jewish political and religions world in which Christianity had its rise, every period of Christian history is dealt with in terms of the reciprocal influence of the Church upon its environment and of the environment upon the Church. Among the renowned scholars who contribute to the history may be mentioned Sir Gilbert Murray, who writes a chapter on Religion and Philosophy; Professor Adam Fyfe Findlay, whose contribution deals with the Apocryphal Gospels; Professor Francis Crawford Burkitt of Cambridge, whose chapter on the Life of Jesus is a gem of brief biography; Sir Frederic George Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, who surveys the history of the English Bible; the Archbishop of York, who contributes the concluding chapter, on ‘Christianity To-day: Social and Christian Ethics’; and Professor Webb of Oxford, whose chapter on Christianity in the nineteenth century is an admirable record of a century in brief compass. A host of other equally competent scholars, such as Professor Main of Glasgow, Professor Moffatt of Union Seminary, Professor Milligan, Professor Dodd, and Professor Tucker of the University of Melbourne, contribute to the symposium.
Considering the number of contributors, the work reveals a remarkable unity of thought and approach. In comparing Christian conceptions of love and Græco-Roman standards of justice, Gilbert Murray, while appreciative of the Christian position, strikes a note which betrays the author as standing a little more outside the Christian tradition than do the authors of most of the other chapters. With few exceptions these are written by men who are definitely committed to the Christian point of view, though they have the scholar’s interest in objective historical facts and seek to evaluate them impartially.
Probably no other but a group of English scholars could have produced a work of such even temper and unified purpose. Theological opinion is less diverse in England than it is in either Germany or America. The English are less inclined to be absolutists in their positions than the Germans, and their theology emerges out of a more unified culture than in America. The result is that the main stream of theological thought is less muddied by controversy than in any other land. This History of Christianity is written from the standpoint of a modern evangelicalism which has either transcended controversy or knows how to obscure controversial issues by an emphasis upon main issues. That is both the virtue and the limitation of the history. While the whole historical matrix in which Christianity was moulded is pictured with scholarly accuracy, we are not told whether, in the light of modern knowledge, Christianity is founded upon a unique revelation or is the result of natural historical forces. Either because, that question cannot be answered from a strictly scientific point of view, or because he feels himself slightly at odds with some of his collaborators, Gilbert Murray dismisses it in these words: ‘Whether Christianity is to be explained as a natural development from existing factors or whether it is a miraculous revelation vouchsafed after long delay to a world that had been allowed to grow exactly ripe for it, is a problem which cannot be settled by historical research, and must be answered by each man according to his own bent.'
In the chapter on the theology of the New Testament no effort is made to emphasize the distinctions between the thought of Jesus and the thought of Paul. No violence is done to the thought of either; but the resulting picture of New Testament thought presents a harmony more complete than many theologians would be willing to concede. Controversies in regard to the Messianic consciousness of Jesus and in regard to the roots of early Christologies are not obscured, but the position arrived at is one which will arouse a minimum of controversy. Professor Burkitt deals with the question of the Resurrection in a manner which is really significant for the temper and the method of the whole history. ’The Gospel wonder-tales,’ he writes, ‘we are told, produced astonishment, but the effect was transitory; the “feeding of the five thousand” did not make the disciples less anxious when they were short of provisions in their boat. But neither Simon Peter nor Saul of Tarsus seems to have had any further doubts when once they were persuaded that Jesus had appeared to them alive.’ The nature of the Resurrection experience is implied by equating the experience of Paul and the experience of Peter, and the uniqueness of the experience is emphasized by comparing its effects with those of other miracles. How can one say more in so few words?
The history is the most adequate presentation of the record of Christian thought and life in the compass of one book done in our generation. It will be of great service not only to those who are engaged in Christian teaching, but to thoughtful laymen.