Faith and History

A Unitarian who is minister of the First Church in Boston, DUNCAN HOWLETT,in common with men of many other faiths, has been reflecting upon the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of Christian theology. Will they compel a revision? A graduate of the Harvard Law School and of the Harvard Divinity School, and the author of Man Against the Church (Beacon Press), Mr. Howlett served in Salem and New Bedford before being called to the oldest parish in Boston.



EDMUND WILSON, in his provocative article in the New Yorker on the Dead Sea Scrolls which has now been published in book form (Oxford University Press), raised the question of the impact of the Scrolls on Christian theology. He went so far as to suggest that the traditional account of the origin of Christianity might have to be given up. Describing the ruins of the community center of the Dead Sea sect which penned the Scrolls and hid them he said, “This monastery, this structure of stone that endures between the bitter waters and precipitous cliffs, with its oven and its inkwells, its mill and its cesspool, its constellation of sacred facets, and the unadorned graves of its dead, is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity.”

While few would go so far, the more general question asked by Mr. Wilson has been raised on every hand. Will some revision of Christian theology be necessary in the light of the information which the Scrolls have been found to contain? He hinted at the possibility of some anxiety among the scholars at work on the Scrolls, almost all of whom are of traditional theological persuasion. There might be some concern among them, he suggested, lest some presently known or later to be discovered manuscript should upset a long-cherished theological dogma.

The response of the theologians to this suggestion was both swift and clear. No discovery that had been made or that might be made could upset theological convictions, they said. Christian theology does not rest upon data such as manuscripts might contain, they insisted, however ancient and however authentic such manuscripts might be. They maintained that the beliefs of Christian theology are a matter of faith; and that while faith is ultimately derived from events deemed to be historical, such faith is not affected by findings in the world of fact. They went further. Even to ask whether these manuscripts affect Christian faith was, they argued, to revive a theological argument now dead. They pointed out that such a question reveals the fact that the questioner is not contemporary in his thinking, but is a generation behind the times, stuck fast in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s.

The theologians may be right. To ask what effect the Scrolls have upon Christian faith may be to show one’s self a “modernist.” But that a great many people are asking these questions may indicate that modernism is not quite as dead as the theologians think it is. At the least, the finding of the Scrolls has revived a set of theological questions that men were asking a generation ago in a movement that took the name “modernism.”

Modernism was, amongo other things, an attempt to cut through the theology of the ages, through the stories related in the Bible as well, and to get back to the events that really happened which were presumed to lie beneath the Bible stories. It was an attempt to find out how much of the Bible may be believed literally, and how much must be set aside as misinterpretation, later embellishment upon simpler stories, or reliance upon unworthy sources of information. The Dead Sea Scrolls promise to throw a vast amount of light on these questions.

Those who took up the defense of the old orthodoxy against the modernist approach to Christian teaching were known as “fundamentalists.” They took the position that every detail in each of the stories in the Bible is to be regarded as true exactly as recorded. They wanted to stick to what they regarded as the fundamentals of the Christian faith, particularly as derived from the Bible. If the mind of man cannot always understand how certain of the Bible events could have taken place, they said, we must not forget that with God all things are possible, and the Bible is the story of God’s activity in the world of men. Thus the fundamentalist-modernist fight, while it covered a wide range of topics, was essentially on the question, What are the facts? How much of the Bible is, and how much is not, to be regarded as literally true? It was upon this issue primarily that the battle with the modernists was joined.

When the controversy was at its height, it revolved around such questions as the authorship of the books of the Bible and the dates when they were written. The modernists, for example, basing their position on the findings of Biblical criticism and archaeology, held that the first five books of the Bible had been compiled out of several ancient sources, and were put in their present form perhaps around 400 B.C. The fundamentalists, on the contrary, held that these books were written by Moses as they purport to have been. The controversy. raged over every aspect and every detail of the Bible, including the miracles. It was a part of the impact of the scientific factual mood of the nineteenth century upon the whole of Western culture.

Oddly enough, the coup de grâce was administered to the modernist movement before it had ever really taken form. It came at the hands of Albert Schweitzer, who in the first decade of the twentieth century turned the full power of his youthful mind and heart to the effort to reach an accurate and dependable account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In 1906 he published his Von Reimarus zu Wrede, a volume in which he undertook to review all the attempts to write the life story of Jesus which had been made down to his time. There had been many such attempts, some of them very searching in the questions they posed. In a thoroughgoing and scholarly manner, Schweitzer analyzed the questions the scholars had directed to the Gospel stories in an attempt to get at the real story. He poured the bright light of his superb intellect upon the answers which earlier scholars had given to their questions; he showed how unsatisfactory these answers had proved to be, and he pointed out how they had almost invariably led to further questioning and further searching.

At the end of his inquiry Schweitzer asked his own questions, gave his own answers, and then concluded that the whole effort was vain. The mists of time lay too thickly about the Man of Nazareth, he said. Now in the twentieth century it was too late to recover the true story. Jesus remains, after all our efforts, the “One Unknown.”We find him only when we ourselves answer the moral and religious command which he lays upon us through the pages of the Gospel. We find out who he was, not by a scholarly analysis of Bible texts, but in the personal experience which results from following in his footsteps. It is not surprising that the young man who reached this conclusion before the First World War should have given up his theological studies and founded a medical mission of his own in the heart of equatorial Africa, and given up the remainder of his life to it.

Schweitzer’s Von Reimarus zu Wrede was soon translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and although it was widely read and greatly admired (it still is, half a century later), there was no lessening of the effort to get back to the real events presumed to lie behind the Bible narratives. Modernism came on apace and, with the conclusion of the First World War, burst into full flower in Protestant ism as a clearly defined movement with a name of its own, contending for the field openly and sharply against fundamentalism. Almost all the leading theologians of the time claimed to be “liberal" if not modernist, and were eager to show that they were willing to accept the results of Biblical criticism.

Even while the tide of modernism in the United States was at the flood, however, it had already begun to ebb in Europe. At the time when Harry Emerson Fosdick, the leading modernist preacher of the post-war period, was drawing overflow crowds to the great new Riverside Church in New York, Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was leading men back to the faith of their fathers. America soon followed suit. By the early 1930s, under the leadership of Reinhold Niebuhr, the ebb tide was running strong here too, and theologians on all sides were calling for a return to the orthodoxy of the ages. Today the scholars are quite right when they say that modernism as a movement is dead.

The modernists never found the answers to the questions they asked. What virtue the movement had lay in its readiness to inquire, its willingness to search for truth in areas which had formerlybeen thought too sacred to enter, and its uncompromising attitude as to what truth is. Modernism caught the imagination of men while it was cutting away the obscurities which the passing of time had heaped upon the Gospel story and the rest of the Bible as well. It was exciting and satisfying when the true answer seemed to lie just around the next bend in the road. But it failed because the answer never was just around the next bend. There was never more than half an answer. And always there were yet more questions. The facts that modernism set out to discover were not to be had.


THE new orthodoxy, often called “neo-orthodoxy,” which took the place of modernism gave a very old and time-hallowed answer to the problem the modernists had raised. The broad conclusions of Biblical scholarship were not rejected, they were accepted. This made the neo-orthodox in effect as modern as the modernists. But the new orthodox did not answer the questions of the modernists. They took the position Albert Schweitzer had taken: that the true story of Bible events cannot now be recovered. Many of them carried the argument one step further and held that the attempt to get at the true historical account ought itself to be given up. Both modernists and fundamentalists were wrong, they said. Both had set for themselves an impossible goal. The true answer to the questions they had been debating was to be found elsewhere. Thus they disposed of both modernism and fundamentalism with a single blow. At least they felt that they did. They divorced theology from a concern with facts, made faith a matter of theology, and so cut the Gordian knot.

The neo-orthodox found the formula for their answer in the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. Christianity had been confronted by fact-minded men before, and had long since worked out its answers to their questions. It was to these that the neo-orthodox turned. Paul’s teaching had been a stumbling block and foolishness to the fact-minded, and to all such people he had offered the answer of faith. Paul invited men to believe without proof, to accept without evidence. We are justified by faith, he assured men. We are not justified by what we do. In a word, Paul divorced his faith from the world of fact. In his hands Christian theology became a matter of conviction and commitment. It has continued to bear the stamp of his thought ever since.

Many of the monumental controversies among theologians which racked the Christian Church for the next few centuries were related to this issue. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo four centuries after the time of Paul, found himself at t he center of such a controversy at the hands of Pelagius, an English monk. Pelagius was quite shocked when he read in the Confessions Augustine’s prayer: “Give what thou biddest, and bid what thou wilt.” It seemed to give man nothing whatever to do, to remove religion entirely from the world of fact and to leave his salvation entirely to God. This, of course, had been Paul’s doctrine of grace. Here, in the hands of Augustine, it was worked out to the full extent of all its logical implications.

In modern terminology, Pelagius was a “modernist.” Yet he could also be called a fundamentalist because he laid his emphasis upon the facts of the Christian story as found in the Bible. In the prescientific age of Augustine, the lesser differences between the two approaches tend to become blurred unless the real issues are clearly kept in mind. Pelagius was a fundamentalist in that he wanted to start with Bible facts; but he assumed that all the necessary facts about Christianity are to be found in the Bible. On the basis of that assumption he argued that men must stick closely to them. Only in accepting the Bible as it is was he like the fundamentalists, however. There the similarity ends. He was the hardheaded realist of his time, asking the same kind of questions that the modernists asked in ours. For example, he strongly opposed the allegorical method of interpreting the Bible, which was employed by the theologians of his day in order to resolve inconsistencies and other difficulties in sacred texts. Pelagius held that to use allegory in interpreting Scripture was to distort Bible fact and this in turn allowed men to escape Bible precept.

Augustine met the questions of Pelagius as Paul had met the questions of Hellenistic culture — with the answer of faith. The church sided with the great African bishop. Pelagius’s ideas were officially condemned, and he himself was excommunicated as a heretic. When the controversy was over, the thought of the church, crystallized by the mind of St. Augustine, was clearer than it had ever been before. Faith was now declared to be the greatest gift, and to come to man from God by grace, quite independently of any aspect of this world. The divorce of fact and faith was complete.

During the next thousand years the Bible sank further and further into the background while the doctrines wrought out by the theologians took an increasingly prominent place. Christian thought and worship during this period was almost wholly divorced from the Bible — so much so that the Bible was not permitted to be read by the common people. It was thought to be too confusing. The theology of the church was regarded as the consistent logical explanation of the deeper meaning of the Bible. Hence the reading of it, except by trained experts, was deemed to be not merely unnecessary but actually dangerous.

The Reformation, which was among other things a back-to-the-Bible movement, revived the old argument in a new form. The Pauline and Augustinian doctrines of sin and grace and the primacy of faith were not abandoned. They were kept. Yet at the same time the Bible was put back into the hands of the people on the assumption that all true Christianity could be found there. The Reformers thought the Bible could speak plainly for itself and that it ought to be permitted to do so. What they failed to realize was the extent to which some fifteen hundred years of Christian thought had smoothed out the difficulties which lie upon the face of the Bible when it is regarded as a system of thought.

Consequently, once the rebellion against Rome was accomplished, there were almost as many interpretations of the “ plain meaning of Scripture” as there were Reformers. As a result the great churches were soon forced to draw up creeds or confessions of their own to which the faithful were required to subscribe. The doctrinal controversies that plagued the early Protestant Church could be settled in no other way. These two mutually inconsistent principles have stood side by side in Protestantism ever since: the belief, on the one hand, that the elements of Christian faith are to be derived from the Bible account itself; and, on the other, that the elements of our faith are to be derived from Christian theology which is presumed in its turn to have been derived from the Bible.

Down through the modernist movement, Prolestantism held to both points of view at the same time. It was able to do so because it proliferated into many churches and sects and because few Protestant churches became authoritarian in structure. The modernist movement represented the coming to full flower in Protestantism of the fact-minded point of view, the conviction that faith ought not to be based upon theology.


WITH the end of the modernist movement, however, and with the almost unanimous swing to Pauline and Augustinian theology, it began to look as if Protestantism had come full circle. Now, in the writings of the theologians on the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems to be clear beyond doubting. So far there has been hardly a dissenting voice to their assertion that nothing the Scrolls have been found to contain and nothing they could be found to contain can affect Christian theology. Thus Protestantism has now arrived at the point which Rome reached under St. Augustine. In both cases, oddly enough, it required about four hundred years of theological debate to accomplish unanimity of opinion. And in both cases the resolution of the problem was the same. Both in the end separated the world of fact from the world of theological dogma.

But this is not quite the end of the story. While the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has brought into sharper focus the remarkable unanimity among the theologians upon the status of Christian doctrine, it has also demonstrated that no such unanimity of opinion on this point is to be found in the minds of the lay people. The old questions of the modernists are still with us. How else are we to account for the great popular interest in the Scrolls? Some of the experts describe this interest as “morbid.” I think they are mistaken. Popular interest in the Scrolls is not derived from the iconoclast that lurks in all of us, although there are doubtless some who hope these ancient writings may be used to discredit Christianity. Nor is popular interest the result of idle curiosity, although there is doubtless some of that present too. Popular interest in the Scrolls is not merely curious; it is not merely intellectual; it is also spiritual.

The desire to know what the Scrolls contain and what these writings mean rises, I believe, from a deep-seated yearning on the part of people everywhere to learn more about the enigmatic figure known to men as Jesus Christ, a figure who is the center of the religion of most Americans and perhaps half the population of the earth as well. Most men know what is to be found in the Bible. But they also know what Schweitzer demonstrated in his thoroughgoing investigation of the matter: that what we know is not enough. We are not satisfied with a Christ of faith. We want also to know everything we can about the Jesus of history. It is Jesus Christ who lived and taught in Galilee about whom we want to know, and about whom we can never know enough to be satisfied.

Popular interest in the Scrolls rises from the fact that they are now known to have been written just before or during the life of Christ. They were penned within a very short distance of places where he is known to have been. He may well have visited the very scriptorium where the ink was set to the parchment. The Scrolls were written by a sect which shows very close affinity to John the Baptist by whom Jesus was baptized, a group with remarkable similarities in their structure, practices, and beliefs to the earliest Christian communities.

As a matter of fact, the scholars themselves, in spite of their apparent agreement that Christian theology cannot be affected by the Scrolls, have shown the greatest interest in them. They are currently engaged in examining the enormous mass of manuscript material which has come in, much of it in tiny fragments. They go about their work with the most painstaking care, and they debate every aspect of the texts in the light of the most exacting critical analysis. No assumption goes unexposed. No fact is asserted without being challenged and a thoroughgoing demonstration required. No dogma affects in the slightest the scientific detachment with which these men carry on their work. It is fascinating and it is exhilarating to see the caution and the exactitude with which they permit only the most thoroughly tested conclusions to be drawn from the evidence the Scrolls present.

There is excitement among the scholars over the Dead Sea Scrolls, great excitement — much greater than there is among the lay people. It may well be explained on the ground that a vast new store of information has suddenly been thrust into the midst of several scholarly fields in which not very much that is new has appeared in half a century. Yet the observer cannot escape the impression that this is not the whole explanation. In spite of their official theological positions, many of the scholars give the impression that they think of themselves as gathering and collating information which in itself may in fact make a difference to the Christian religion.

The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls will increase our knowledge of Christian origins. On this all are agreed. And in the end we find that the discovery does not affect our theology at all. But the discovery has also served to remind man once again that he cannot successfully divorce his theology from the world of fact. New facts have a way of turning up all the time and they have to be taken account of, even by theology. Official Protestantism may wish to come full circle, theologically speaking, but now it appears that the same thing cannot be said of Protestant laity. Judged by their interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, they appear to be ready to raise the modernist issue all over again.