"The Scope and Powers of the New Criticism"
George Edward Ellis, Harvard Church, Charlestown, MA and Harvard Divinity School
Berry Street Essay, 1864
Read before the Ministerial Conference
May 25, 1864
It is our privilege and duty as a body of Christian Scholars to recognize and to intermingle with the most advanced criticisms and speculations applied to the Holy Scriptures and to religion. Supposing at least a general familiarity with them on the part of those whom I address, I would ask this question: How do these most recent criticisms and speculations affect for us the contents or substance of our creed as Christians, and the grounds or reasons for our faith in it? I was prompted by a momentary suggestion to put the question in another form, thus: What is there left to us, to-day as the foundation and substance of a Christian Creed? But in that form the question would, at the start, have implied an admission, which I am not disposed to grant, that the criticism and speculation of our age have reduced or diminished the substance or the grounds of our Christian belief. The same question which I at first put has been asked by many generations that have preceded us in the Church and School of Christianity. It comes to us perhaps under a more severe and exacting aspect, because of the vitality and restlessness of our age.
There are two very different views to be taken of what stands for or constitutes the religion of any civilized community in each successive age, and under changing circumstances. These two views are applicable to all religions, but peculiarly so to our own. One view of it is as a Tradition; the other is as a matter of Inquiry or Discussion. Circumstances will modify the relation in which either of these views may stand to each other, and will decide the preponderance of influence or interest which either of them may engage. In an age in which the intellectual and moral life of a community is moderately active, without any special activity of the inquisitive or scientific spirit, the two answering methods of dealing with religion may hold each other in healthful balance, a condition generally supposed to be most favorable for a community. Of course, also, the Character and essence of the religion itself will decide largely as to whether it depends upon tradition for its sway or whether it provides and can endure discussion. The severest of all tests to be applied to a religion is that of subjecting it to the process of a Reformation – a reversion to its own first principles and simple substance. No religion in the world has ever stood that test save the religion which bears the name of our Lord and Master.
The difference between the two contrasted views and methods of treating our religion is this. Religion regarded as a Tradition is accepted as an entail for faith and piety – as an assured deposit, attested, digested, formulated, represented in unchanging symbols, articles and institutions. It is the heirloom of families and fellowships, of a nationality, it may be, of a race. The teachers of it dispense, and the pupils of it expect to receive, a defined, completed, authoritative system, inherited from the past, to be taken for granted, implicitly believed, needing not to be proved anew, or reasoned upon, or readjusted by any change of opinion, or advance in knowledge on other subjects. It is understood that the first disciples or receivers of the religion, who lived when the faith first established itself in belief and in the habit of life, had the best means for certifying it and used them thoroughly, that its credentials were by them examined and approved; that its doctrinal and institutional development was very soon put into the best possible working form; so it comes to us traditionally, by inheritance the faith once delivered, and once for all, to the Saints; our duty and wisdom alike being to accept it gratefully, confidingly, while it educates, renews, blesses and saves us.
The other view and method of treating religion is as a subject of unending debate, inquiry speculation; a law-case forever in Chancery; a matter to be certified and sifted anew by each generation, especially by the brightest and boldest minds; to be subjected to the keenest scrutiny, the sharpest and closest analysis, all its prestige and traditionary sway passing for nothing, all reserve or dread in dealing with it being reproached as cowardice or visited with disdain.
It makes an immense difference in a community as to which of these two views and methods about religion, for the time being, prevails. Christendom now in many of its centres presents us these two methods in open and intense antagonism. Each of our Christian sects illustrates and is working out some phase of the issue. The English Church makes an almost ludicrous exhibition of it. Many of its clerical and lay disciples must sensibly realize the difference between these two methods of Tradition and Inquiry for religion is as great as that between the sensations of dozing placidly in the cushioned pew while the comfortable Proper Lesson for the day is read, or holding on to the weather-cock high in air, as the fresh wind is blowing.
It is certainly as a subject of Discussion and Inquiry and not as a Tradition that religion, Christianity, engages the vitality of our age and fellowship. The faith which Christendom has held, and essentially the same grounds, for 18 centuries, is supposed to have been discredited within its own fold. Those who might naturally have been looked to as its best, confirmed disciples, its foremost champions for extending its sway and perfecting its achievements, are charged with treachery or with abated loyalty to it. They plead that they are seeking only to separate eternal truths from discredited assumptions; that they are searching for sure foundations as a substitute for those which have been shaken or proved inadequate as untenable or unreal. Ours is therefore an age of marked transition from facile ways and grounds of believing to an inquiring and unsettled state of mind. Grave enough in itself, the issue is even exaggerated in popular, superficial opinion, which interprets it as testing whether a moral idealization is to be substituted for faith in a Supernatural Biblical Revelation. The inquiries and speculations which have unsettled the traditional religious belief of Christendom engage our fear or interest just at a crisis in the general development of humanity when we most deeply realize the need and value of a strong religious sway over man. We have mighty causes at stake: transcendent interests to maintain and guide; fearful complications and turbulencies to overrule. We have learned too, that, as the Earth does not furnish its own motive powers, nor the light, nor the renewing influences on which it depends, so those who live on the earth as its intelligent creatures, cannot trust to their own wisdom and resources. They too, we too, depend upon super-earthly, super-human guardianship and control. Our human virtue, and our confidence in virtue, our hope, and all that we entrust to hope, or rest upon what we call our beliefs. We are examining our own foundations. The restless, inquisitive spirit roused among us asks whether we have any foundations. How surely do we feel the need of them as vital to society. How tenderly do we appreciate their value to ourselves. Who can exaggerate the responsibility of those who are raising doubts about the old foundations who are proposing new – worse or better?
Our Great Teacher tells us that whoever builds on the everlasting truths announced by him, builds on a rock, secure from all violence and harm; and he contrasts with these, sandy and shaky foundations. In its real scope and essence, the great discussion of our age may find the whole matter of debate in those closing sentences of his Sermon from the Mount. He is reported as saying: Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and The Sayings refer to distinctive and general truths independent of any personality in their utterance or warrant, their value and authority being equal from whosoever will lips they may come, from whatever source they are heard. But Jesus attaches his own personality and authority to them – "these sayings of mine” – as if they must be heard from him, accredited to him, and believed because he spoke them; indeed as if they owed their power to some additional value, which they derived from his announcing or confirming them. And so substantially, the great religious debate of our time engages with the question whether our foundations are those of abstract universal truth, accredited by nature and the human faculty, or are laid in the authority of a personal and a special Teacher.
The face of Christendom is challenged as insecure because its foundations are of mixed materials, composed in as yet an undetermined part of assumptions, of traditional and fictitious elements. All the discussions and inquiries of our time reach down to primary and fundamental principles – to root truths, to the original elements of all constituted and organized, or secondary growths. This is the general and marked characteristic of our age. It was not so save in exceptional cases of individuals of marked peculiarity of genius or spirit in any former age. We marvel over, sometimes we almost envy, the acquiescent and undisturbed confidence of even the giant-minded thinkers and scholars of earlier generations, in opinions and beliefs which we have discredited. We stand amazed at the engrossment and full occupation and absorption of their intellects in what appears to us superficial work. The subtlety and skill of the Scholastics is in strange contrast with the trivial dialectics which exercised them. The earnest toil and severe erudition of the Reformers, makes us wonder that not one of them worked down to the primary materials of their dogmatics. With what an innocent unconsciousness do they all take for granted traditions and postulates. How intently were they engaged upon adjusting and developing details, while blind to fatal defects in the premises from which they started. A false bottom was interposed between their deepest soundings and the abysses of truth. The labor that had been so devotedly spent upon the outworks of the Christian faith, its accredited Scriptures, its doctrinal elements, and its knitting-in with the habits of thought, the customs, and the religious institutions of Christendom, had given them the full capital of unimpaired confidence for working foreword, never backward. It is melancholy to think that mountain piles of ancient theological and biblical literature have become utterly, utterly valueless. Bodies of divinity, schemes of prophecy, critical digests, voluminous commentaries which engaged the toil and zeal and piety of scholars whose learning and libraries were purchased at infinitely higher cost than is known in our day – these all are but the tombs of their authors there in the shadows which haunt the cloisters of ancient and antiquated piety. And why have they no share in the thoughts and discussions of these times? Because their inferences and theories and elaborate details were all wrought from surface thoughts and assumptions. The labor spent upon the letter of Scripture and all the ingenuity of toil given to the digesting of its verbal contents were all justified, exactly as we approve the laborers of the lapidary at work upon his gems. The scholar believed that he was polishing and setting the actual words of God – divine oracles. No doubt crossed his mind as to the transcendent authority of the record or as to his duty to dispose every sentence and word in it to the proper place which belong to it in his preconceived system of truth. You could not get one of our theological students to-day, to accept a whole library of these old books.
Yet the opinions deduced from the flawed and untested premises of the old faith were deeply rooted in the popular mind, and endeared to the hearts of believers. They formed the staple capital of faith and piety. The more painful, therefore, is the shock upon religious sensibilities of such believers as they learn of the shattering blows dealt by our modern radical criticism. When the critical, questioning process found a legitimate starting point, in a natural craving to certify the foundations, it went on step by step exactly as a shaft is wrought downwards. A favoring coincidence furnished for this new kind of work steadily improving tools in intellects and in the process of investigation and analysis tried upon secular and scientific subjects. The ministers share this work of radical investigation with all their compeers in all the provinces of human interests with men of science, physicists, economists and statesmen in their several spheres – for each and all are in search of their own root-truths. And all their several and joint labors are mutually helpful, as they have found similar rectifications and adjustments needed in their primary principles. The antagonistic and destructive work of criticism in our day has been about equally spread over the whole field of science divided among all the departments of human interest and inquiry. We have new comparative critical and generalizing processes, and we suppose ourselves to be working towards an entirely new philosophy of things.
We have been brought naturally and legitimately to the religious radicalism of our age. It lay in the direct line of scholarly and scientific Progress. The aberrations and eccentricities of individuals who have been justly reproached for their offenses or follies, their vaporings or extravagances, are to be charged upon them, not upon the stage of development, of which there are worthier exponents. The round of the ladder – whether in ascent or descent – on which we find ourselves, is an equal measurement of distance, in the continuous series of the stages which the successive exercises of the human mind have reached and occupied. The foremost thinkers have pioneered the way, and hold the advanced position. They at least hold it honestly to themselves; and they offer to maintain that they hold it rightfully towards others: that it is tenable and sure, marking a real advance, and is not to be yielded for any backward position. Indeed, much of the strength and earnestness engaged in the critical and scientific challenging of the traditional creed accrue to the advanced school through force of the rigidly progressive character claimed for it. The logic of growth has matured it. Our modern speculations were provided for potentially in the earliest assertion of mental liberty – within the province of religion. Every previous stage in the process of critical inquiry has vindicated itself while the next stage was having its assertion. How can the continuous effort be arrested or interdicted where it finds us today? The fact we have to recognize, and the more frankly and cheerfully, the better – is this: That by a class of well-trained and healthful minds, are arrived certain convictions, deliberately reached and ably maintained, which discredit some of the elements and some of the foundations of the creed of Christendom. These convictions are the fruitage of sound scholarship, of high culture, and earnest purpose. No evidence has as yet appeared that those who have announced them lack or part with a single grace of virtue, a single trait of piety.
But the last round of the ladder, in ascent or descent, marks a critical transition for one who, as he touches it, prepares to commit himself to another reliance, another exercise of his own powers than that to which he has heretofore been trusting. And then all depends upon whether he has been ascending or descending: whether he has reached a substantial foothold, or has come among the clouds to a place where there is nothing above him or around him conditioned to his needs and faculties. It is here that we are to note the distinctive and the anxious quality in the position of our advanced party. All the previous stages of development, progress, reform and reconstruction in connection with the Christian faith had definite objects and aims. The stage to be reached, proposed in advance, was as visible, tangible, distinct in real and positive conditions as was the one which was to be left. The organizers, reformers and critics of every era or crisis before our own, knew and could exactly state what they wished for. The question with them always was as to the right—and the best—use of the materials which they had and meant to retain for redisposal, reconstruction: what was the true purpose of an accepted system? What was the true meaning of a falsified or perverted divine oracle? The first object to which the organizing minds of the early church gave their concentrated zeal of effort, was to reduce Christian ideas to a system, and to gather from the scattered fragmentary materials of doctrine, the structure bony elements of a creed and formula. Then, after an extra-Scriptural authority, by help of traditional and hierarchical impositions, had flowered into a full despotism, there was an assertion of the sole prerogative of the Bible. And successively onword, each schism and sect within the fold when starting forth with some defined protest and antagonism against some parasitical growth in the church – recognized as distinctly some substitute object of faith, reverence and championship. Resistance to ecclesiastical legislation and oppression for the sake of a higher allegiance to the Soul’s Master; loyalty to the inspired Word; doctrinal purity; a Sanctified fellowship among believers; a Christian Commonwealth, mark the successive aims of Protestantism, Puritanism, Non-Conformity and Dissent—as the stream parts into all the rills of sects and individualism. Positiveness of purpose, definiteness of aim, and the anticipated confidence of security in the new position attended all the disaffection with an old position. All who have preceded us in this progressive work could see the way before them. They could offset the Egypt they were to leave behind them by the Canaan before them. They had an assertion to balance against every negation. They had a new house in which to dwell and rest and pray, even while they were pulling down the old one. A vigorous substitute or claim in the holy and honored name of truth was recognized by them in place of decayed or discredited error. It was this vision of positive and precious truth, with a working power in it and within easy reach, within their actual hold, that gave vitality and devoutness of purpose to all our predecessors in works of progress and reformation. This served as a rallying point for zeal to the masses of common people led on by their scholarly or heroic champions.
But how different is it with what is for this reason called "the destructive school” of our time. We lift up our axes upon the fig trees with no idea that when they are felled they will serve as durable building materials. Very much of the anxiety and distraction caused by our modern religious radicalism is directly and justly to be ascribed to its own inconclusive and unsatisfactory arrivals – its disappointing results from great promises. It seems to be aimless in any positive direction. It lacks definiteness of object. There is no vision before its eye, no distant shrine for its pilgrims. It is a houseless, peripatetic school; accepts old churches only for transient uses, and feels freer in spirit in secular hales. The most which any even of our most intelligible progressives can say of their expectations or purposes is, what so many of the inhabitants of this city will say, as they are now planning for a summer change – they go "for air.” A most commendable object indeed, offering a wide range for search and choice—but after all, a thin diet by itself.
We must recognize in sum and detail the consequences, the results, of the stupendous change proposed for the contents and basis of the modern creed; and we must recognize them too as the consequences, the inevitable, the natural, and the threatening effects of that change – even before it is really made. This unsettling of the old foundations is felt in every part of the superstructure. Most of the experiences which perplex and trouble us are to be traced to it. Extreme individualism of opinion are the alternative for the discrediting of what previously formed a bond of common accord in one or several accepted tenets. How embarrassed are the relations once so orderly, – almost mechanically orderly – in the constitution of religious societies, local churches, clerical councils, the maintenance of the Christian ordinances, the ministrations of the pulpit, the support and conduct of Sunday Schools. Infinite in number, overly distracting in effect, are the direct and the indirect changes and annoyances involved in the attempt to readjust or affiliate our modern religious freedom with our old usages and institutions, and traditions and conventional inheritance of the Church. Shall we find enough persons in any one place out of the great cities so far in accord in opinion, as to unite in sustaining religious institutions through professional men or women? Shall preaching hope to edify when it becomes mainly speculative and secular in its spirit and themes? Who shall we find willing and qualified to be teachers in Sunday Schools, and what shall be the method and sanction of their teaching? The re-editing of hymnbooks is a familiar experiment. Shall we by and bye grow as familiar with the re-edited Bible?
Again: the charge overstated and palpably unjust as it was urged against Liberal Christianity a generation ago – yet not without a measure of reason from experience – was, that it was not adapted for a religion of the common people. The plea was that that construction of the Christian religion through document and doctrine demanded too much of keen, clear, discriminating intelligence, too much of confidence in the strength and sufficiency of one’s own reason, ever to commend itself to the average mental ability of men and women – still less to warm them with pious zeal and earnest evangelical life. All of this sort that was true in theory, and actually realized in fact, will be, of course, vastly more applicable as an objection to the system which the speculative criticism is aiming to work out. Can we hope to popularize the new creed, and make it the basis of an organized religious life and zeal for common people?
Experience has illustrated – what common sense explains to us, that two prime conditions must be met by any view or system of truth presented as a religion. First, it must be certified and approved by some foremost minds as the fruit of their culture and knowledge, and second, it must admit of being communicated by them to the masses whom they wish to instruct and influence – to children, to women, to earnest and untutored souls, to ordinary man – and communicated too in a way to engage their understanding, their love, their hearts and craving, and their earnest, active zeal. Failing either of these conditions we have not a religion. The wise may have a philosophy – an esoteric system, and the people may have a superstition or a fanaticism. But these combined will not make a religion – which that it may have a God-ward gaze, must be the vision drawing all sorts of human eyes, and drawing all hearts.
Our modern speculative creed, developed by criticism, must subject itself to this test. It is undergoing the trial now. We can understand, because we see and know that highly-cultivated, self-poised minds, refined, elevated, high-toned, with leisure and opportunities and many privileges – can nourish their religious convictions and aspirations on ethereal and sublimated elements. If a positive philosophy is positive enough, it may serve an individual as a religion. But it remains to be tried whether the vague and undetermined materials of a simply subjective faith will serve not only as the basis, but as the organization of a popular religion, and afford the stern elements for moral restraint and the training of character. Our advanced critical and speculative innovators have been, in the main, men of high moral excellence, of rigid virtue, of fixed and elevated principle. But they were trained in the old ways, and in the marrow of their bones and in the juices of their hearts is deposited the nutriment which they are apt scoffingly to call Pap. We have not as yet trained a new generation in the new school. We have had the best growth of the old to constitute the fresh and hopeful material of that new one. The oldest members of this fellowship of ours will doubtless accord in affirming that the best and most lovable people, of the highest and most winning Christian pattern they have known, were those, clerical and lay, men and women, who were trained under the reverential and rigid discipline of the old literal orthodoxy – and then outgrew it—within the fond embrace of Christianity. We certainly have grown no better fruit on our own stock than came from those grafts.
To my mind there is nothing more depressing, more heart-saddening than the attempts at assertion, the proffered substitutes for spiritual nutriment and reliance made by some of those who have discredited all the old stays of faith. When we consider in what form the knowledge of the workings and the consequences of the destructive criticism reaches the unscholarly classes, and especially those who may be called "simple believers” – we shall hardly be surprised at the dismay or the odium which follow. They feel that they are threatened with a deprivation of what is most sacred and precious to them, while only a mocking substitute is offered to them. They observe too that the new speculations are often advanced in a defiant and contemptuous tone towards old beliefs; and that those who advance them, while flouting old usages fragrant and helpful of piety, devised no new costumes of a tender devotional influence. The new speculations have not as yet wedded themselves to any heart-tendrils, to any new altar rites; they have no symbols or ceremonials for which men and women bow the knee and bend with closed eyes. The Bible is made to them as great a perplexity as was the Ark when it fell into the hands of the Philistines. From being the Holy Book, it becomes a species of literature. Its Unity and Homogeneity are gone. Once, in every household, in the sailor’s chest, in the sick room, among bridal gifts, it had a simple established character and the basis of a specific use; a prestige and repute and assigned value, which helped it immeasurably to effect the sacred work expected of it. It supplied the bread of life – all leavened and inexhaustible. From its first to its last verse, each sentence or half sentence was equally a portion of the same Divine food, like a slice or a fragment from either end or the middle, the top or the bottom of a family loaf – the bread of the household. Such a view and use of the Bible – however credulous, traditional and merely fond, – carried with them the convenience and facility of a formulated system for a creed, a devotional scheme. A certain set of words became technical, had a limited currency of common value. They stood as representatives of what all agreed should be the dogmas and doctrines of the broadest fellowship of believers. By the help of them, the humblest chimney corner readers could follow or rectify the recipes of heart religion or salvation, knowing precisely on what terms they could "feel the joys of pardoned sin” or "read their title clear to mansions in the skies.”
But all this is now of the past. There never was much real truth in the whole of it. People believe or were taught that it was all of the essence and vitality of truth – and they identified its literalism with the fundamentals and substance of faith and piety. How affecting to a sensitive nature is the fact, illustrated so richly and on so vast a field – that for the sake of a religious solace or joy which human hearts craved with such a yearning love as such a clinging tenderness, millions of our fellow Christians have been willing to accept what was offered to them in the shape of thistles and chaff. This facile and docile faith in literalism and formalism, when credited with all the edification and comfort it imparted, is to be subjected, however, to an immense abatement of positive good, and it is chargeable with much mischief. Superstitions, delusions and outrages as gross as any which heathenism fostered found tolerance and countenance under it. Indeed, in very many of the tokens and effects of what we call our modern decay of faith we discern but fair retribution and penalties visited upon the whole cause of religion by the revolt and protests of those who have been trifled with in its name.
The honest and earnest believing instinct of men and women seems almost to be revenging the slight put upon it and the folly with which its confidence was trifled with in times past. We often marvel at the credulity and the easy faith of our ancestors. Our prevailing skepticism is, in large measure, the penalty of it.
Still, we must, as I have said, recognize in all candor, how the common mind comes to the knowledge of our critical and speculative novelties – and how astounding and shocking they are to the multitudes who have so implicitly received the training, the literalism and the dogmas of the traditional system. They certainly were grievously imposed upon. They had received to a great extent chaff for wheat, and stones for bread. But the falsities and fictions which had made religion easy to them, simply intensify the pain and horror under which they get their first and, of course, very inadequate reports of what critics and scholars are aiming after. It is always a helpful reminder and restraint to those whose tendencies prompt them to eccentric or individual speculations on high themes, to ask themselves whether their views are likely to be intelligible or adapted to the average capacity of human beings. Can they believe that the common men and women around them are likely to comprehend their views, to draw a life nutriment from them, to engage the love and zeal of their hearts in them? In depriving the mass of men of the falsities and materials of a religion resting on external authorities, and furnished from a sacred volume, with a defined system of doctrines, truths and sanctions of its own, we, of course, throw them back upon their own private, internal resources – such as they may happen to have. Long ago it was found necessary within the realm of English thought and utterance upon religion for ends of common popular use, to put in a plea that all the teaching and argument should the strictly in the words and phrases of the mother tongue, in forms level to the apprehension of the common people. Sir Thomas More had occasion to affirm "that English is plenteous enoughe to expresse our myndes in any thing whereof one man hath used to speke with another.” And one of the good old poets pleads in behalf of simplicity and intelligibleness
"for the love of simple men
That strange English cannot hear.”
But to say nothing of the technical and abstruse terms introduced into our critical and speculative religious discussions, the elements and materials of the problems dealt with and the elaborate processes requiring erudition and philosophical acumen are something worse than bugbears to common people. Even with all the helps which ecclesiastical and scriptural sanctions yielded for such high service, it was found difficult enough to keep alive in the popular heart the power of what may be called in the best sense of the phrase – a vital piety – and to organize the materials of vigorous religious institutions. Now to all the risks, allurements and unwelcome responsibilities which make the task-work of human life – it is proposed to throw upon the common people the exacting toil of ratifying religion each to himself, through his own efforts of thought and powers of discernment. We offer to each man and woman the Bible as still the surest witness and expounder of things divine, yet only so far as they are able to exercise upon it a skill which will accurately distinguish between God’s truth and man’s misunderstandings and misstatements of it. The very reminder that they must depend henceforward on themselves in a matter on which for all ages men have relied the most on the pronouncement rather than on the exercise of their own resources – is enough of itself to disable large numbers from the exercise of their own faculties.
Of course it would be most unfair to judge the radical theology of our own day on its antagonistic or negative side, as it stands in opposition or hostility to the previous traditional system. Yet, enough is known and observed by us to explain if not to justify the epithet "destructive” which is attached to it. We see around us a steady disintegration of old religious fellowships, a wasting away of old parish organizations, a substitution for fixed and long continued pastorates, of a peripatetic style of transient ministrations, semi-secular and semi-religious, and an extraordinary development of individualism with its congenial eccentricities, conceits and angularities.
I have thus sought to bring out the religious radicalism of our time as the legitimate development, the last attained stage of the progressive series of activities in free thought and critical inquiry. I have indicated its most striking point of difference from previous preparatory stages in the same direction in its lack of a substitute for what it takes away – of an assertion in place of its negation – and I have recognized its immense influence over the interests of popular religion. Legitimate processes and methods have led it on to inevitable results. This is a truth which utters itself most emphatically in the hearing and to the consciences of Christian ministers. Professional interests are always most honorably realized and pursued in those directions in which the special honor and advantage accruing to the individual are only a larger share in the common blessing of all bestowed by truth. It would seem to be the first dictate of a common healthful wisdom that every reconstructing or readjusting effort proved to be necessary in the interests of religion should be prompted and directed by the professional champions of religion. If modification of opinion, surrender of cherished error or conception to new truth be demanded, we are the ones to announce it and to make it. Ministers should not mistake their guardianship of the faith for a commission to withstand the fair ordeal to which it may rightfully be subjected before it can be devoutly accepted.
The subjects and grounds of Christian belief – as indeed of all religious belief for the whole world and for all time – maybe simply distributed under three divisions: First, those which were once accepted, but which are now obsolete, outgrown, discredited, lost to faith. Second, those which have been brought under discussion and question and which as now under debate are rejected by some and cherished by others on the same level of sincerity and intelligence. Third, those which remain unchallenged, not invalidated even by distrust or suspicion, the great august verities of mystery and divinity. Of course in such a classification we have in view the average standard of a common culture throughout Christendom, and the views or positions of the majority of the well-informed and right-minded – not recognizing on the one hand the lingering superstitions of the credulous, nor, on the other, the recklessness of the scoffing or the faithless. There are matters and grounds of old belief and reverence which Christendom, at least, has outgrown and discredited. A traditionary and fond regard for some of these may still linger around us, but as they have faded away from the grasp of faith, they have dropped out of the creeds. But, it may be asked, by what authority can any matter of human belief be decided against, discredited and consigned to neglect? A ready answer meets the question. The same authority which first introduced or accepted now rejects, viz., the human mind and spirit. By the human mind and spirit in one stage of their exercise or development it was decided, "This we will believe, or revere.” In another stage of their training they decide: "We will longer believe or revere it. We drop it from our creed or worship. We have outgrown it; let it pass into oblivion.” Anything which man has ever believed with or without a reason, he may disbelieve and reject for a reason. So have some matters of former faith and reverence been outgrown and discredited. Yet there are champions and teachers of the Christian religion who with a traditional, fond and plausible heart-yearning plead that all which was ever in the creed be retained, and the tenets whose claims to truth are disputable, be honored for their age. Some, of less excusable motives, insist upon identifying the essentials of Christian truth with what are proved to be unessential or foreign elements incorporated with it, or even inconsistent and hostile accretions to it. There are those who for the sake of holding a class of weak and credulous persons in an easy discipleship will try to keep life in exposed error. They do a fearful harm to the cause of true religion by thus making it too puerile and offensive to the strong, in order that it may be attractive and partial to the weak. The grandeur and glory and amplitude of Christianity’s Gospel have been dismally trifled with for the sake of winning or holding the least-appreciative or creditable sects of its disciples. How monstrous, the inconsistency between the exposition of the divine love in engaging all the resources of heaven, the angels of the skies as well as the shepherds of the earth, to flood the world with the blessings of the gospel, and asserting that when the healing tide reaches the Earth, it is commissioned to flow only through the sluice way of an ecclesiastical canal. How discordant the relation between the vast, inspiring, illuminating truths which the gospel speaks to the soul of man, and the tricks and crotchets of dogma designed to humble his pride of reason. Considering that by the laws of our constitution, as inquiry and knowledge advance, the sum and aspect of the Unknown and the Imagined are changed to us, it is evident that the compass, contents and grounds of our creed must all be modified. Some modes and reasons, some matters and shapings of faith, even for Christian sects of the longest sectarian lineage, and whose antiquity is a part of their legitimacy, must become discredited. The word antiquated is itself one of the synonyms for disused – done with. Doubtless a considerable number of scholars or thinkers gathered from all Christendom, if equals in skill, knowledge and sincerity would agree upon a certain list of items of old faith for which belief is no longer to be demanded. But perhaps that statement is questionable. I had no sooner written it that I began to doubt it. The list would really be very short and of but little significance, which would be agreed upon by members of different communions as containing old, but now repudiated articles of belief. Errors and fictions and fancies are most readily left out of the creed when they drop off quietly and unobservedly as by general consent, without having been voted out or challenged to show reasons and claims for retaining their place in it. The moment a question or a debate is raised against any article or opinion endeared to faith and piety, it will find defenders, be it what it will. And very naturally so. So delicately and tenderly is the traditional and the acquired religious faith of the human heart knit in and affiliated with the fancies and affections which twine about it, that all which we love and believe and all it helps us to believe shares a degree of our trust. The tendrils of the vine are neither leaves, nor fruit, nor sap vessels, but they helped to form a natural trellis for it. At any rate, after agreeing grudgingly to a few items on the list of discredited beliefs, those who were in a council upon the creed would very soon find themselves engaging with the second class of articles and contents of it, viz., those which have been challenged, but not discredited. There are subjects now under keen examination and discussion with a view of deciding whether for the future they are to engage or to forfeit religious faith and veneration. Doubts have been raised about them. They have been hard-pressed. Philosophy, skepticism, criticism, in their changing phases —and sometimes ridicule —have been brought to bear upon them. Some of them have already been pronounced against by individuals or a school. But they have also rallied their defenders and champions. Individuals or a school of equal intelligence, ability and candor still stand for them. When they are assailed, they are vindicated. They are still in court, and are likely to be for time to come. Very many persons must be spectators and listeners who can take no active part in the issue. The force of prejudice and the habit of piety engaged on the conservative side are balanced by popular restlessness and the love of novelty in unsettled minds on the other side. The fact that transpires and is known abroad is simply this, that some matters once accounted sure and vital to the belief and reverence of all Christian men and women are under question, whether they deserve and may, to-day, claim such regard. Of this class, it is enough to hint at such matters of gravest significance as these: the possibility, credibility and religious value of miraculous or special providential interpositions in connection with the disclosure or the attesting of truth, or the instituting of a new disputation; the relation of the Bible to faith; the prime authority and authenticity of the evangelic and apostolic Scriptures; the Infallibility of Jesus Christ as a religious teacher and exemplar; the attitude of Christianity towards absolute religion. These and others like them are the subjects which are engaging the critics and inquirers of our time. As we found that a purpose to agree as to which of our first class of the matters and grounds of old faith were by general consent to be dropped from the creed, would very soon bring the discussion on to the second class, viz., those matters and grounds of faith, which are to-day under searching trial – so we must all observe that these points on which faith is in suspense, will be likely to be pronounced against or defended, yielded or retained in the creed, according to the relation in which they are found to stand toward the ultimate verities of religion – the third class of the materials and reasons of faith – its august and still unchallenged objects – in which it is to find its everlasting sanctions while knowledge advances and free thought speculates at will on all things. And this is indeed the whole significance and scope of the great religious issue before us: – it is to try, and to decide, whether the matters and grounds of faith which are now under debate are, or are not, knit-in by organic vitalities with the essential substance of religion. This is why we call the whole inquiry –Radicalism. The question is proposed whether we shall have any thing left for religious belief, or any reason or ground for believing if we yield what is now challenged in the common creed. It is the fear of some, the intelligent and calm conviction of others – both of untold numbers – that the processes and theories of the radical criticism strike at the vitalities of all faith; it is this fear, this conviction, which makes the struggle around us so intense in itself, so anxious to those concerned in it. An honest man who as critic, scholar, or philosopher intends so to deal with the incidental or substantial matter of religion as the discredit it altogether and to destroy all faith in it, will frankly avow his purpose. If such a purpose is not avowed, it is not to be imputed. The critic or reformer then, however daringly he may challenge some of the matters and grounds of faith, will be supposed still other, real and to him valid reasons and tenets of religion. If the benefit of this confidence is henceforward to be yielded to the religious radicalism of our time, it will probably be held to the obligation of explicit assertion of the remnant of its creed and of its reasons for holding to it – of its quantity and quality. The elements of the old creed which are now under the ordeal of Radicalism will not be disposed of – to be yielded or retained – with reference solely to their own independent merits. They will be pronounced upon according as they are adjudged to stand related to the primary and ultimate essentials of religion. These essentials will be held to with unyielding tenacity. Men will insist upon having religion left to them. If what of old faith, or old grounds of faith, they are challenged to surrender can be shown not to peril the soul’s shrine or its sanctities – they may be indifferent or reconciled to the demand. But that shrine and its sanctities are parts of our own hearts. We hold them as we do our life. If the bold curiosity of man has stared out of countenance some of the old traditionary and secondary matters of Faith, there are solemn and mysterious things still left in the Universe to abash us. Let us bear in mind this fact, and take it in all its positive re-assuring comfort, that a religious faith cannot be discredited, till life with all its elements and mysteries has been explained – accounted for – without it. That mystery of life still holds us all by a thrall of power. We must have offered to us some other account than a religious one – given to us and accepted by us – before we have dispensed with religion. All facts and phenomena, all profoundly perplexing, teasing, and baffling questions, which now engage us and lead us to believe in some on search, or unsearchable cause of them – Divine, spiritual, superphysical – and so furnish religion with its foundations – all these must have been on spiritualized, brought fully within the range of sense, and the human understanding, cleared of all marvel. We shall never cease to look to God for explanations, till the time and occasion have come which give us such explanations through man. We shall refer all mysteries to heaven, as brooding sanctities, pressing upon us on all sides with problems too deep for our own solution, till the earth has cleared them all up. That time will come only when a part swells to the dimensions and comprehends the whole of things.
Now there are many – and in all frankness I confess to be one of the number – who in the exercise of their best intelligence believe that some of the matter and grounds of faith challenged by radicalism, or the reasons for disputing them, or the methods pursued in assailing them, do, directly or indirectly, involve the ultimate sanctions as well as the primary elements of all religion. The reasons given for discrediting some beliefs are equally good against some other asserted beliefs. The reasons given for retaining, for sparing, for legitimating some beliefs – are equally good in favor of some rejected beliefs. Our radicalism goes beyond the sure, sound principles of rigid criticism. It overstates its triumphs. It has mixed conceits and artifices with its ingenuity. Some of its principles and methods are Pyrrhonistic and consistent only with universal skepticism. It is too content with an unsettling work. It considered its ends achieved by half way processes – by arguments which cover only a part of the matter with which it deals. It discharges itself from the demand that it should offer reasonable explanations of facts and phenomena the accepted views of which it disputes.
I will not advance this charge without intimating some of the specifications by which I would justify it. The primary religious beliefs give us a God of Infinite attributes; a spiritual nature in man with functions and capacities of soul bringing him into relationship and communion with the Divine author of his being, and they leave possible and open ways for any manifestation or method of intercourse by which God may make known his will and purposes to men. That may be a shrunken, or a fully expanded creed – but it gives us the vitals of religion. God may be constitutional, and yet not a limited Sovereign: or if limited, the limitation may not be identical with that which human science and reason proposed for it. We cannot therefore assign the conditions for the manifestation of the Divine. The spirit in man must have its own instincts, cravings, means of discerning and appropriating Divine influences and vouchsafings. Now some of the principles and proceedings of our modern Radicalism strike at these primary beliefs, these ultimate elements of religion. The argument against the possibility, the credibility or the religious to value of miracle, if it is consistent, as is more than doubtful, with a belief in a Supreme Personal God, utterly precludes the allowance to him of full freedom in his methods of Self-Manifestation. Not Christianity alone, but all religion dissolves under that notion. Over and over again, as I read these arguings against miracle, the simple question rises to my mind – "Where then is God? And what is He as God?” The God whom this philosophy recognizes is one who cannot devise or furnish what will satisfy the demands of men. The tests which criticism and science set up answer in fact to certain Divine disabilities. The champion of faith sets forth the means and methods alleged to have been put to high service by God in renewing the religious life of the world and adding to the compass or sanctions of religious truth. He is met by the plea that God has no such means or methods – or that if he had them and used them they would not answer the purpose assigned to them as men could not certify them, nor turn them to a religious account. Here we have Divine disabilities, to say nothing of human disabilities – either of which would preclude religion – while both together negative it.
Again, if I mistake not, a rigid discussion would show that the terms and tests under which the claims of Christianity to be an actual Revelation are discredited, would include the denial of the possibility of any Revelation. An argument or demonstration which sets aside the substance or the evidence of Christianity as a disclosure and authentication of God’s will and truth to man, will be equally valid to prove that all special methods of Divine communication to man are precluded by the constitution of things. If we have not had any Revelation we never shall have one. If the evidence on which we relied to ratify the claims of a Revelation is found wanting or inadequate, no Revelation can be certified so, as such, to man. Christianity exhausts, it makes the best – but still, it would seem, an ineffective use of all the materials and methods by which the silence of nature can be broken to us, or the elements and credentials could be increased or assured to us. This is a pregnant conclusion, which is insinuated and made to loom before us as a logical and inevitable consequence, rather than directly or obliquely forced upon our notice. How acquiescingly do those who have discredited Christianity to themselves as a miraculous addition to the world’s religious resources, fall back upon philosophy, upon nature, upon the old submission under an iron sky. Yet they differ from such as Plato and Cicero, who without a Revelation still believed in the resources of a heaven for furnishing one and in the ability of man to receive one – keeping fresh the yearnings of their hearts with the hope that the fullness of time would ensure it. But those among us who have reached the conviction that Jesus Christ was not the One who was to come are not looking for another. Not a single writer or essayist who has either defiantly or in the sober dignity of a sad and orphaned spirit, yielded his Christian faith, has dropped the slightest intimation that he is looking for, expecting, or is even ready to receive a message or messenger of a supra-mundane character. His God is disabled from that method of working, and he is disabled from being benefited by it.
So if time and space allowed, I would further illustrate the point before me by alleging specific points in which the radical criticism but half completes its assigned task, covers only a part of its own claimed field and leaves us with half-argued positions. The Christian church as an institution which had a beginning, and the Character and Letters of St. Paul, are phenomena for which the radical criticism offers us no explanation. Supposing that a mind of the average culture can appreciate the argument denying to St. John the authorship of the fourth Gospel, how would the argument be crowned and completed by intimating to us: Who did write it? As a simple fact of experience it appears that the sum of the influences of a positive, special, and peculiar kind which the Christian religion has had on and in the world – present the matter for raising and debating the question – Whether it is of heaven or of man? Is that religion in parallelism, conformed with mundane influences, or is it of a counter-character, unlike, independent, protesting, antagonistic, working in a different place and direction, with another motive power. Is Christianity leaven, or a part of the world’s dough? Again, it seems to be assumed, as a matter of course, by the disciples of the radical school of criticism, that if their rigid tests detect phenomena in the Gospel records not fully conformed to historic features, the error must necessarily be on the side of exaggeration, and that the correction must be made on the side of abatement or reduction, of extraordinary elements incorporated with them. But why so? Who can be sure of that? May it not be that Jesus Christ was a more, instead of a less extraordinary manifestation in himself, and in the phenomenon of his life, than the records succeed in reporting to us? Why assume that the Evangelists err on the side of overstatement, of legendary and fond decoration? May not Christ and his manifestation have presented more august and exalted and inappreciable facts and circumstances than they were competent to seize upon and portray? Why may not an ideal Christ – with more of the special and the wondrous in him and about him – help us all the better to apprehend the reality that he was – in exact proportion as we gather from the record that he was not conditioned by ordinary humanity? The real Christ, it is judged, must needs have been – not exactly what the historic record presents – but either something short of it, or something beyond it. But may not history have reduced him, rather than magnified him? May he not have said more, have done more, have been more, than human witness and reporters, however loving and revering, have known how to tell of him? Certain it is that the encomium lavished upon him by some who seek to reduce his historic features, sounds insincere, and is offensive. If the superlatives of admiration attached to him by some of our moral idealists are consistent with truth, he must have had a more solid, substantial reality of nature and manifestation than they assigned to him. At any rate, as M. Renan has painfully proved to us, Christ is not suited for the hero of a French novel, with a duplex nature and a cross current of purposes, with moods and flights of melancholia and rhapsody, combining rural simplicity, and city ambitions, with the denouement of suicide.
There has been a high and noble service performed for us by the speculative and critical Radicalism of our time. It has wrought most effectively where there was most need for it to have worked – a necessity, which was becoming vital to the existence of a religious faith – in rectifying the falsity of the relations between the foundations and the external and conditional helps, guides and confirmations of such a faith. By the traditions of piety the Bible, and not man’s soul, had become the ultimate basis and sanction of religion. And in order that the Bible might serve that fictitious use, it received a fictitious character and authority, and a consequently superstitious prestige, which it must now yield up. In the exercise of the best thought which I can bring to bear on this immense subject, it seems to me that the reconciling work demanded indicates this simple method of readjustment: we must invert the order of the past. Holding still to all the old essentials, whether of the ground, reasons, materials or helps of faith – we must make them interchange places and uses. The Bible instead of being the foundation, basis or authority, must be a helping guide and confirmation of a religious faith, a treasury of lessons, illustrations and nurturing influences for it; while the spirit of man, the witness in himself, and the discipline and method of God’s rule over his Heart and life must henceforward furnish us with our real and ultimate grounds – instead of merely as heretofore the incidentals and adjuncts of faith.
The resource to which the whole tendency of critical, scientific, and scholarly speculation – as well as the whole restless current of practical common sense, drives us, is to find the grounds and the primary elements of a religious faith in our own nature, giving us what is technically called a subjective instead of an objective basis for our creed – finding what helps, guidance and strength for it we may in external existences or facts. New to the world only in its full, emphatic statement, and from the transcendent and paramount reliance henceforward to be placed upon it – we are now learning to maintain this truth, as really the old internal basis of religion – though up to this age obscured by false substitutes for it. Man is by nature and endowment a religious being – if he is not, no oracle addressed to him can make him so. Certainly when we seek the ultimate foundations of religion, we must find them in the instincts and needs of man’s soul. If man has relations beyond those of time and earth, they must be sustained through the vitality of his own spirit. If man can intelligently entertain the dear hope of a life beyond the grave, he must entrust the realizing of that hope to his spirit – whose root capacity is to draw in the sap of the true life and turn it to fruitfulness. If man is capable of receiving Divine influences, and messages, it must be through a quality in himself which is akin to them. If an inscribed leaf were to be seen by our eyes, and caught in our hands descending from the skies – as a message from God – we should need first to understand its characters, its language – and then to comprehend its contents – that our own ideas, thoughts and feelings might answer to the matter of it. These needful conditions all imply in us resources corresponding to what may be in the message and the method of its conveyance – and to the certification of its Divine Source.
The ministerial office and service then, for the time before us, will be addressed to the assuring and reinterpreting of the testimony which religion receives from human nature and human life. All holy books will then come to our help; and the holiest of them all, and that One, which now for ages and in so many tongues and for so many generations has best waked the spell divine in human souls – will prove the Inspiration that is in it by the Inspiration which it imparts. The great hope of the human heart educating itself on through conflicts, struggles, victories over its own unworthy shapings, and through aspirations rising toward higher and more real possibilities of fulfillment – may trace a parallelism with its own history – in the messianic promise running through that sacred book. For law and psalm and prophecy and Gospel cover the tablets of every human heart. The most religious of all beings ever manifested on earth as being the best-beloved of the Father, will forever be through his Grace and Fullness the Light and Guide of men. The only being on earth, who when he bowed before God in prayer, could pray without confession of sin or petition for forgiveness.
 Massachusetts Historical Society, George E. Ellis Papers, Box 5, Folder 4, Ms. N1172.