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The Christ Myth by Arthur Drews was published early in 1909, and before the year was out its author was being requisitioned by dissidents from Christianity of the most incongruous types as a promising instrument for the general anti-christian propaganda. Few more remarkable spectacles have ever been witnessed than the exploitation throughout Germany in the opening months of 1910 of this hyper-idealistic metaphysician, disciple of von Hartmann and convinced adherent of the “Philosophy of the Unconscious,” by an Alliance the declared basis of whose organization is a determinate materialism. As, under the auspices of the Monistenbund, he made his progress from city to city, lecturing and debating, he drew a tidal-wave of sensation along with him. A violent literary war was inaugurated. It seemed as if all theological Germany were aroused.
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BENJAMIN B. WARFIELD
Princeton Theological Seminary.
Hope. Inspiration. Trust.
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The Christ Myth by Arthur Drews was published early in 1909,11 and before the year was out its author was being requisitioned by dissidents from Christianity of the most incongruous types as a promising instrument for the general anti-christian propaganda. Few more remarkable spectacles have ever been witnessed than the exploitation throughout Germany in the opening months of 1910 of this hyper-idealistic metaphysician, disciple of von Hartmann and convinced adherent of the “Philosophy of the Unconscious,” by an Alliance the declared basis of whose organization is a determinate materialism. As, under the auspices of the Monistenbund, he made his progress from city to city, lecturing and debating, he drew a tidal-wave of sensation along with him. A violent literary war was inaugurated. It seemed as if all theological Germany were aroused.
In one quarter there was an ominous silence. The “Conservative” theologians looked on at the whole performance with bitter contempt. When twitted22 with leaving to the “Liberals” the whole task of defending the historicity of Jesus against Drews, they replied with much justice that it was none of their fight. The Liberals had for two generations been proclaiming the only Jesus that ever existed a myth: why should it cause surprise if some at length were taking the proclamation seriously and drawing the inference—if such a simple recasting of the identical proposition can be called an inference—that therefore no Jesus ever existed? If the Christianity which flowed out from Palestine and overspread the world was not the creation of Jesus, but the spontaneous precipitation of old-world myths from a solution just now, as it happened, evaporated past the saturation point, why postulate behind it a shadowy figure, standing in no causal relation to it, without any effective historical connection with it, for whose existence there is therefore neither historical nor logical need? We may not think the language elegant, but we can scarcely pronounce the jibe unprovoked, when Herr Superintendent Doctor Matthes of Kolberg bursts forth in Hengstenberg’s old Evangelical Church-Journal:33 “That the wasted, colorless phantom which alone the Liberal theology leaves over of Jesus could not have transformed a world,—that is clear to all the world except the Liberal theologians themselves, who are still always hoping to see their homunculus come forth from the Gilgameshmishmash-mush-brine which alone is left in the pantry of the comparative-religionists and which Arthur Drews has served out afresh to the Berliners.” That the Liberal theology has travailed and brought forth a monstrous birth is not surprising; nor is it surprising that the fruit of its womb should turn and rend it. Let them fight it out; that is their concern; and if the issue is, as seems likely, the end of both, the world will be well rid of them. Why should sane people take part in such a “theological mill” in which “as-yet Christians” and “no-longer Christians” struggle together in the arena with nothing at stake,—for certainly the difference between the reduced Jesus of the one and the no Jesus of the other is not worth contending about? To deny the existence of Jesus is, of course, as Ernst Troeltsch puts it, “silly”;44 to be asked to defend the actual existence of Jesus is, as Adolf Harnack phrases it, “humiliating.”55 But the artillery which the Liberal theologians have hurriedly trained upon the denial shows how little they can really let it go at that. It is only the Conservative, secure in the possession of the real Jesus, who can look serenely upon this shameful folly and with undisturbed detachment watch the wretched comedy play itself out.
Only the Conservative,—and, we may add, the extreme Radical. For there is a Radicalism, still calling itself Christian, so thoroughgoing as to fall as much below concernment with the question whether Jesus ever lived as Conservatism rises above it. The Conservative looks with unconcern upon all the pother stirred up by the debate on the historicity of Jesus, because he clearly perceives that it is all (if we may combine Harnack’s and Troeltsch’s phraseology) scandalous nonsense, unworthy of the notice of anyone with an atom of historical understanding. The Radical looks upon it with unconcern because in his self-centred life Jesus has no essential place and no necessary part to play: the question whether Jesus ever lived is to him a merely academic one. An interesting episode in Drews’s lecture-tour through the Germanic cities brings this point of view before us with strong emphasis. A discussion was contemplated at Bremen also, and the Monistenbund there extended an invitation to the local Protestantenverein to take part in it. This invitation was decisively declined, and the Protestantenverein took a good deal of pains to make it perfectly plain why it was declined. The Protestantenverein was not quite clear in its own mind that the whole business was not merely an advertising scheme for the benefit of the Monistenbund; though, to be sure, it could not see what Monists as Monists have to do with the question whether Jesus ever lived, more than “whether Socrates ever lived, or Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.” The Protestantenverein, moreover, for itself felt entirely assured on good historical grounds of the historicity of Jesus, and had no interest in threshing out old straw. But it was on neither of these grounds that it declined to take part in the debate, but precisely because it was a matter of no importance to it whether Jesus ever lived or not. “All the theologians of the Bremen Protestantenverein,” they formally explain, “are agreed that the question whether Jesus lived is, as such, not a religious but a historico-scientific question. It would be sad for Christianity as a religion if its right of existence hung on the question whether anybody whatever ever lived, or anything whatever ever occurred, even though it be the greatest personalities and the most important events which are in question. Every true religion lives not because of ‘accidental truths of history,’ but because of ‘eternal truths of reason.’ It lives not because of its past, more or less verifiable and always subject to the critical scrutiny of historical science; but because of the vital forces which it every day disengages afresh into the soul from the depths of the unconditioned.” All the great religious forces of Christianity—trust in the Living God, elevated moral self-respect, sincere love of men—are quite independent today of all question of the historicity of Jesus, and therefore this question can without fear be left in the hands in which it belongs,—in the hands of untrammelled historical criticism. “Whether Jesus existed or not, is for our religious and Christian life, in the last analysis, a matter of indifference, if only this life be really religious and Christian, and preserve its vital power in our souls and in our conduct.”66
There is asserted here something more than that religion is independent of Jesus. That was being vigorously asserted by the adherents of the Monistenbund; and as for Drews, his Christ Myth—like the Christianity of the New Testament of his master, von Hartmann, before it—was written, he tells us, precisely in the interests of religion, and seeks to sweep Jesus out of the way that men may be truly religious. With the extremities of this view the members of the Bremen Protestantenverein express no sympathy: they are of the number of those who profess and call themselves Christians. What they assert, therefore, is not that religion merely, but distinctively that Christianity is independent of Jesus. They do not declare, indeed, that Christianity, as it has actually existed in the world, has had, in point of fact, nothing to do with Jesus; or that Christians of today—they themselves as Christians—have had or have no relations with Jesus. They are convinced on sound historical grounds of the historicity of Jesus; they recognize that he has played a part in setting the movement called Christianity going; they draw, no doubt, inspiration from his memory. What they cannot allow is that he is essential to Christianity. They are conscious of standing in some such relation to him as that in which an idealistic philosopher stands, say, to a Plato. In point of fact such a philosopher reverences Plato, and derives from him inspiration and impulse, perhaps even instruction. But had there been no Plato, he would be able to do very well without a Plato. So Christians may in point of fact owe not a little to Jesus, and they may be very willing to acknowledge their indebtedness. But Christianity cannot be dependent on Jesus. Though there had been no Jesus, Christianity would be; and were his figure eradicated from history—or even from the mind of man—tomorrow, Christianity would suffer no loss. The sources of its life, the springs of its vitality, lie in itself: it may owe much to a great personality, teaching it, embodying it; it cannot owe to him its being.
The Protestantenverein of the good city of Bremen is, of course, not the inventor of this christless Christianity. It is as old as Christianity itself; and has come to explicit assertion whenever and wherever men have thought of Christianity rather as universal human religion in more or less purity of expression—perhaps in the purest expression yet given to it, or even in its purest possible expression—than as a specific positive religion instituted among men in particular historical circumstances.77 The classical period of this point of view is, of course, the Enlightenment; and its classical expounder in that period, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; and the classical treatise in which Lessing propounds it, the tract written in response to Johann Daniel Schumann under the title, Concerning the Proof of Spirit and Power (1777); in which occurs accordingly its classical crystallization in a crisp proposition, the famous declaration (very naturally quoted by the theologians of the Bremen Protestantenverein) that “accidental truths of history can never be the proof of necessary truths of reason.”
In Lessing’s conception, as in that of some before him and of many after him,88 Christianity is in its essence simply what we have learned to know as altruism. He sums it up in what he calls “the Testament of John,”—“Little children, love one another”; and he refuses to believe that “dogmas,” whatever may be said of their probability, or even of their truth, can enter into its essence. The proximate purpose of the tract, Concerning the Proof of Spirit and Power,99 is to show that the “dogmas” of the “Christian religion” cannot be put forward as essential truthś, and so far as they are not intrinsically self-evidencing rest on evidence which is at best but probable. But the argument itself takes rather the form of an assault on the trustworthiness of historical testimony in general. Lessing does not deny, in this tract, that truths might conceivably be commended by authority. If a man actually witnessed miracles or fulfilments of prophecy, he might no doubt be brought to subject his understanding to that of him in whom the prophecies were visibly fulfilled and by whom the miracles were wrought. But this is not our case. We have no miracles or fulfilments to rest on; we have only accounts of miracles and fulfilments. And “accounts of the fulfilment of prophecies are not fulfilments of prophecies; accounts of miracles are not miracles.” “Prophecies fulfilled before my eyes, miracles worked before my eyes,” he explains, “work immediately. Accounts of fulfilments of prophecies and of miracles have to work through a medium which deprives them of all force.” “How,” he exclaims, “can it be asked of me to believe with the same energy, on infinitely less inducement, the very same incomprehensible truths which people from sixteen to eighteen hundred years ago believed on the strongest possible inducement?” “Or,” he demands, with a show of outrage, “is everything that I read in trustworthy history, without exception, just as certain for me as what I myself experience?”
The argumentative force of the representation resides, of course, largely in its exaggerations,—“deprived of all force,” “without exception.” But Lessing skilfully proceeds to cover these exaggerations up by assuming at once an air of the sweetest reasonableness. “I do not know,” he remarks, “that anyone ever maintained just that; what is maintained is only that the accounts which we have of these prophecies and miracles are just as trustworthy as any historical truths can be. And then it is added that no doubt historical truths cannot be demonstrated,—yet, nevertheless, we must believe them just as firmly as demonstrated truths.” Surely, however, exclaims Lessing, “if no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths, that is, accidental truths of history can never be the proof of necessary truths of reason.” “I do not deny at all,” he protests, “that prophecies were fulfilled in Christ; I do not deny at all that Christ wrought miracles: but I do deny that these miracles, since their truth has altogether ceased to be evinced by miracles which are still accessible today, since there exist nothing but accounts of miracles (no matter how undenied, how undeniable, they may be supposed to be), can or ought to bind me to the least faith in any other teachings of Christ.”
The whole procedure involves at any rate a μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος
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