Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.

The New Testament

Dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

IT OUGHT TO BE SAID at once that the New Testament is one of the sources of our faith, not the sole and exclusive source. This may appear to some persons, of traditional Protestant and especially Evangelical bringing-up, to be a very radical and revolutionary principle. But it is certainly no new principle: it is as old as Anglicanism, and older, for it is clearly involved in the outlook of Catholicism, and is presupposed in the tradition of the Great Church everywhere outside the circle of sixteenth to twentieth century Protestant biblicism.

The sources of our faith are manifold and various. (1) Scripture is one source--culminating in the New Testament. (2) Tradition is another--a vital, living, and life-conveying factor, by no means something dead and lifeless, but including, for example, the personal influence of men of faith who hand on the tradition. (3) Still another source is private religious experience--the reaction of the individual to the tradition or teaching of the Church, and to the personal handing-on of it by those who believe; his response to the knowledge and illumination conveyed by the Scriptures; and then on beyond these the creative inner life of the man himself in a progressive and increasingly close union with God, with the Will and the Wisdom, the Power and the Love of the Eternal. And there are still other sources, in the rich and ever renewed and inexhaustibly fresh, creative life of faith.

Thus Scripture, and as a part of Holy Scripture, the New Testament, is only one source among several. It is really truer to say that the New Testament is one of the sources for our faith, than the source of our faith--using the term "source" now in the historical sense. That is among the source materials for an account of the origin of Christianity, or of the Christian Church, or of the Christian faith; among the source records for the history of divine revelation, for an account of the ways of God with men, the New Testament holds a unique and insupplantable place. As we sometimes say, "the Bible contains the Word of God, rather than simply and exclusively is that Word. It contains a record of the divine revelation, rather than simply and directly is the revelation." And what is true of the Bible as a whole is certainly true of the New Testament part of it.

This view of the New Testament, and of the Bible generally, is remarkably consonant with the modern outlook upon all past history and literature. It does not require any different kind of literary or historical training to understand the Bible, and interpret it in the Christian sense, from that employed in the study of any other ancient literature or history--Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, or any other. Indeed, we have come to discover that it is only when one approaches the Bible as he would approach any other body of literature or collection of historical documents that he learns how distinctive it is, and how different from every other. The uniqueness of our sacred literature comes out, not as a result of treating it as unique, but, by a delicious surprise, as the result of approaching it just as we approach any other literature. In Coleridge's phrase, we do not so much find its inner meaning as that inner meaning "finds us," and suggests no end of applications and unfoldings against the background of our everyday life and thought. In the Barthian language, it "cuts across" our little world of aims and aspirations, desires and satisfactions, like a shaft of light. We ought properly, then, not try to set this literature off in a class by itself as sacred and therefore requiring special handling lest its fragile spiritual content be damaged or destroyed. Place it on the shelves with the other histories, the other philosophies, the other anthologies of religious poetry and hymnals, the other lives and letters, and let men freely compare them! Let it find us, and speak to us, as it will, in the midst of our busy days of toil, of our human hopes and yearnings, our cares and despairs and frustrated ambitions, our sacrifices and our sins. Let us apply to this literature the same canons of literary discrimination and of historical research that we apply to any and every other body of literature, ancient or modern. Then we shall really find for ourselves wherein it is distinctive and unique, and inspired--certainly in the sense that it is inspiring; for its inspiration is not merely some mysterious and external power that once called it into existence, but one which inheres within it still, and speaks to us in a language we can understand, out of the very midst of the divine and superhuman Reality therein disclosed for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The Christian religion does not require anyone to go contrary to his own experience, either in faith or in conduct: i.e., not contrary to what in popular language is called "reason," or the conclusions we draw, the outlook we derive, from our experience. This has ever been God's way with man; else what was "reason" for, which God implanted in us as a guide through the mazes of conflicting sense-impressions and of opinions--the latter but little removed, as Plato said, from the realm of sense-impression?

(1) In the Old Testament we have the record of an evolving religion, rising slowly but steadily out of the morass of primitive Semitic paganism, with many a detour and many a cul-de-sac, as divine truth gradually dawned upon the minds of spiritually gifted men and women. How did it come to them? Out of their own experience! And yet there was ever a sense of objectivity, of "other-ness," like the flashing intuitions of the poet and the seer, like the sudden rearrangement of the data and the resulting problem's solution for the inventor and the engineer, the laboratory scientist and the physician. Human experience provided the data and the problems; then came the moment of vision, with its new perspective, in which the facts fell into line and the prophet saw things in right relation, and in their unity and wholeness, in their subtle inter-relation of meaning and of divine purpose. In some such way as this dawned the truth of God's holiness, God's justice, God's changeless-ness, God's unceasing care for Israel, and His boundless wisdom and love. For these are the really essential characteristics of the Old Testament revelation of God--not his "wrath" or "jealousy" or vindictive "hate"; though there be some element of truth in them, much beclouded by human misconception, these latter qualities are really primitive, and go back to lower levels than the distinctive Hebraic contribution to emerging spiritual religion.

(2) And the same is true in principle of the New Testament. God does not crash in upon the scene in dumbfounding portents and displays of power. Rather, it is out of men's daily experience, in company with the Lord Jesus or in His unseen Presence, that there gradually emerges a new realization of the wisdom and goodness of God, of the greatness of His plan for human life, of the expectation that God Himself sets upon His children, of the infinite love, even unto sacrificial death, of the Divine One Himself, of the "grace" and gentleness of the infinite "Power of God," of the "unsearchable riches of Christ," of "the power of an endless life" begun here and now but reaching forward without limit or restriction in union with Him; these were matters of experience men had, either in company with Jesus during His earthly life, or in union with Him after His resurrection and ascension. Out of this experience grew the faith that led to the spread of the Gospel throughout the known world, to the concrete organization of the Church with its ministry, to the perpetuation of the Sacraments, to the writing of the books later gathered into the New Testament. Back of it all lies a faith rooted in experience. Enshrined within it, and streaming through it, is a self-perpetuating Life, derived from God Himself, the Holy Spirit; and both the experience and the faith, and likewise the process of faith deriving from experience, are as available to men and women today as they were in the first century.

This is essentially the Catholic view: Faith is no starkly supernatural gift, coming outside all relation to ordinary experience, conferred either upon the elect (as in Calvinism) or as the condition of individual justification (the older Evangelical view); nor is it somehow tied and bound within the covers of some strange book, full of mysterious hieroglyphs, to be deciphered only by a professional group of interpreters or by the aid of some extra gift of insight conferred upon the favored individual here and there.

No, faith is supernatural enough; but it comes to us, grows within us, emerges out of our own experience, along the channels of the natural, and in ways any normal person can perceive. And so has it been, in the large, and upon the social scale of the great historic world faith which we call Christianity. The New Testament did not produce the Christian faith; it is only its earliest written record. Back of the New Testament, back of the earliest movement of the Christian Church upon its long course of history, back of its organization and worship, back of its first impacts upon the surrounding world, was a faith born of experience--the human experience of the divine. Its continuity is not the continuity of a tradition, merely, say the traditional interpretation of a sacred book (examples of which may be found in many religions), or of a creed--an intellectual formulation of the faith in terms of the philosophy of a particular age, often in terms of particular heresies or perversions of the true doctrine, which were thus to be ruled out by authority; the continuity of the Christian faith is the continuity of a divine-human Life, in contact with which men in the first century, or in the tenth, or the twentieth, have found, as they may still find, the unveiling of the heart of God and the revelation of the meaning and significance of human life in union with the divine.

When we call this the "Catholic" view, it is with no invidious motive, but, first of all, with the wish to use an accurate historical term in the most strictly accurate way. As a matter of simple fact, this view has dominated the thought and theology of the historic Catholic Church. But in the next place, as a Liberal Catholic would hold it, this view is by no means limited exclusively to members of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox Churches! There was a time, perhaps, when sixteenth century theological formulae were taken in full earnest, and when the ordinary European or American Christian knew perfectly well what he meant by faith, creed, sacraments, and other Christian theological terms. But the theological dykes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation periods have long since seeped through; and today one may find many a mystic among the Calvinists, many a sacramentalist among the Puritans and Independents, many a Catholic (in his essential outlooks) in other folds than the Roman and Anglican.

In fact, as some of us view the history of these hectic four centuries just past in Western Christendom, Protestantism and Catholicism do not seem mutually exclusive terms altogether, so that one must be either one or the other. Both modern Protestantism and modern Catholicism have their roots in the past; while as for the older Protestantism, it is simply meaningless apart from the Scholasticism which it presupposed. Rather, as some of us view it, Protestantism itself, with all its varieties and sub-variations, is destined to turn out in the end to be but one episode in the long life of the Catholic Church, partly within it, perhaps partly outside it--just as other movements, some of them avowedly "Catholic" and never questioned in their time, have proved to be partly within, partly without, the main central stream of historic Catholicism. What is positive and fruitful in Protestantism will contribute, eventually, and is already contributing now, to the enrichment and strengthening of the Catholic Church. What is negative and harmful will be overcome and forgotten eventually--is, indeed, already losing its force: e.g., the purely and divisively individualistic interpretation of religion, for which Protestantism has generally stood since the days of Luther. Similarly, what is false in the interpretations and emphases of the historic "Catholic" Churches will be done away; only what is true will survive, in the long annals of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. It is too early to predict the eventual form the Protestant contribution will take, as a movement within the broad circle of the Catholic Church; and we need really to remind ourselves that the Church's history is only begun; its primitive age is far from ended, even now; we are still "in the morning of the times," and "we know not what we shall be," in the long course of the working out of God's wise purposes. We may be sure that "Protestantism," despite its etymology and its historical origin, as a term of controversy, and its too generally negative connotations--points naturally seized upon, and made far too much of, by our controversialists--has stood for too long a time for something positive and really noble in the religious life, to be recklessly discarded; while the movement it represents has a genuine contribution to make to the life of the Catholic Church that is to be--a present reality in the spiritual world, and partly realized in time and space, but still far from the full realization of its divine and ideal reality. As certain old Greeks would have put it, the Catholic Church is a paradox and a mystery: already a divine and super-substantial reality, it is at the same time in process of becoming, as it is "realized," ever more and more perfectly in the midst of time and upon the level of this "natural" universe.

It is quite true a greater reliance was placed upon Scripture in times past than is placed there today. This was especially true in the period following the Reformation, though its beginnings may be traced in Scholasticism. As a result, modern Christianity (i.e., since the fifteenth century) has been more largely a "religion of the Book" than was the religion of the ancient Church. One important reason for this has been, no doubt, the invention of printing, and the consequent circulation of the Bible in vastly larger numbers. Once, the argument ran: (1) Holy Scripture is the infallible record of the divine Revelation; (2) its authority is amply buttressed and supported by the miracles it records; (3) its contents must accordingly be accepted by everyone. One might suspect that an ecclesiastical-political motive was at work here--e.g., in Protestant controversy with Rome; but the fact is, the tendency was as clearly at work in Roman circles as in Protestant, and goes back to pre-Reformation times. There is a fascinating passage in Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Prose illustrating the attitude of post-Reformation controversialists, both their theology and their pugnacity; one in which a doughty Protestant tried to force Protestant theology upon a group of Jews, by appeal to the biblical miracles; such efforts failing, he resorted to force, with only a little more success! But today, biblical criticism, and the newer historical and psychological approach to the study of religion generally, have changed all this; and the logic of appeal to biblical authority, or to the miracles, is about as antiquated, in most circles, as the appeal to physical compulsion. The question arises, for those who have relied exclusively hitherto upon scriptural authority: What is to take the place of the Bible, now that biblical criticism has weakened the foundations of its authority?

For the person who shares the Catholic view, even in a measure, the question is by no means as baffling as it is for the traditional Protestant. For the Bible has never occupied, for him, the supremely authoritative place it has held in Protestant theology and religious thought. The real authority for him is to be sought and found in the life of the Christian Society; in the experience of the Fellowship; in the long-continued and vitally continuous, and manifoldly various, and all-embracing, and patiently thought-out, experience of the whole Church of Christ, reaching back in its origins to the very beginning of the Christian Movement in history; back even behind the New Testament and its earliest sources; and reaching out to embrace all men everywhere in its universal appeal, drawing them ever closer to the heart of the Eternal. For him, the New Testament is "the Church's Book" in a profoundly real sense. The Church produced it, wrote it, gathered it into a volume, sanctioned it as canonical and inspired and on a level with the Scriptures of the Old Testament, God's Revelation to the Jews; and throughout its pages it presupposes the faith and activity of the Church, which brought it into existence.

Now the astonishing thing--not so astonishing, though, grant it be true--is that this old and soundly Anglican and Catholic traditional view of the New Testament is the one to which more and more of the New Testament scholarship of our day is steadily turning. To mention only one tendency of present-day critical scholarship, students of the Form-historical School (what the Germans call Formge-schichte) find the sources of the Gospels quite inexplicable apart from the growing faith of the Church. Not only the Epistles and Apocalypse--obviously, they spring out of a Church environment, and presuppose the activities and problems of the Christian faith in every line--but even the Gospels are now seen to be inexplicable on the older lines of purely individual literary authorship. As Professor Ernest Burch has remarked: "The Gospels are primary documents for the early Church; they are only secondary sources for the Life of Jesus." That is, the Gospels are sources for the Life and Teaching of the Lord as the Church conceived and believed in Him. They show us Jesus as seen through the eyes of the Church's faith. The truth of this is steadily coming home to New Testament students. We simply haven't the data for a Life of Jesus in the modern sense of a biography; on the chronology, for example, we are wholly at sea, since Mark's order is now recognized to be a subject sequence for the most part. But we are not wholly at a loss, and scepticism of the "Christ myth" sort has no longer a leg to stand on. For we are back once more about where the writers of the New Testament themselves stood, say in 68, or 85, or 110 A.D. What they give us is no fanciful picture, but the tradition as they knew it, handed down in their churches, in Rome, in Antioch, in Csesarea, perhaps in Jerusalem itself. St. Luke had taken particular pains to gather and sift these traditions; fortunately, he was a historically-minded conservative with a deep sympathy for the Jewish Christians whose traditions he collected. We are not likely ever to get behind the sources he used in writing his Gospel, or behind those used in Mark. But it does not greatly matter, from the religious point of view.

For purely historical purposes, it is different--the chapter in ancient history devoted to the life and teaching of Jesus and the rise of the Christian Church could be vastly enlarged had we the materials; the articles in historical or biographical encyclopedias could be greatly enlarged and improved. But it is extremely doubtful if either the general impression or the fundamental interpretation of the Life of our Lord would be much altered by the recovery of any sources such as might conceivably have been written down or have survived from that far-off time.

"This is all ye know . . .
And all ye need to know."

For the Gospels give us, not bare historical facts, about journeys, and incidental personalities, or the background, about Pilate and Caiaphas, and the fishing industry in Galilee; they convey to us "the words of eternal life," and they confront us with Him who, as man, "spake as never man spake," and whose life and character was the manifestation of God in human flesh.

But it is at least surprising that modern scholarship finds it impossible to interpret the New Testament except along the lines of the Church's oldest and most widely accepted view of her own sacred literature. Though details of interpretation widely differ, the main, general position now seems securely established; and that is certainly a real gain.

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