Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/I/IV

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


40. Subject of the Chapter. — Having shown the futility of the grounds that are sometimes alleged as proving the impossibility of miracles, we may hope that the reasons which we shall now proceed to give for believing that they have actually occurred will be received without prejudice. We shall maintain in successive chapters that the Divine Mission of Christ is attested by miracles of the physical order, by the fulfilment of ancient prophecies and by moral miracles, some of which are going on at the present day before our eyes: from which it will follow that His words are to be received as the words of God, and that the work of Theology is to ascertain and explain His teaching and that of those who teach in His Name and with His authority.

In the two preceding chapters we were forced to assume that the reader admitted the Being and Attributes of God, which will be proved hereafter. In the argument of this and the following chapters no such assumption is necessary, for we shall be concerned with purely historical questions, and shall use the ordinary historical arguments, founded on documents, tradition, monuments, and institutions. We shall have nothing to do with any question whether the documents are of merely human origin, or whether they are of a different nature from other histories. All that will come in its place hereafter. (Treatise III.)

41. Early Existence of the Church. Pliny. — Before entering on our main subject it is well to point out that the existence of the Christian Church and of the mass of truths and moral precepts of which this Church is the depository and guardian, is altogether beyond dispute. This is a phenomenon which calls for some adequate explanation, but none such is forthcoming except that which alleges the miracles of Christ. The need of explanation is felt more pressingly when it is remembered how very short a time elapsed after the death of Christ before His religion had become the profession of a well-known organized body. This is not known from Christian sources alone, but can be proved from certain passages in heathen writers. For instance, the younger Pliny found Christians existing in great numbers in his province of Bithynia. It was about the year 112 that he wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan, explaining the difficulty he felt in dealing with the cases of Christians who were brought before him; and he received an answer from the Emperor. These letters are numbered 96 and 97 in some editions of the correspondence; in other editions they are 97 and 98. The whole is most interesting, and well repays careful study. What concerns us is to observe that in this remote province there existed a community of Christians, numerous and organized. Pliny is familiar with the name, and assumes that the Emperor is equally familiar. He notices the Christian practice of assembling on a particular day for religious worship, when the people sang a hymn to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a sacred sanction not to be guilty of theft or other sins; after which they parted, to meet again and share in a meal of ordinary food. They had among them female officials whom he calls Ministrae deaconesses whom he tortured without eliciting anything. He consults the Emperor as to the course to be adopted, because he had never been present at trials of Christians, showing us that he knew of such prosecutions being in use; and the matter seems to him to be of grave importance on account of the great number of those concerned. The contagion of the superstition prevailed not in the cities alone, but had penetrated to the villages and the open country: the temples were deserted, the regular sacrifices discontinued: there was no inducement to breed beasts to be sold as victims. There were some who avowed that they had been Christians for twenty years: and all astonished the enlightened Pagan by declaring that there was no evil in their religious practices, and by the constancy with which large numbers of them persevered in defiance of torture and death.

This passage certainly proves how widespread was the Christian profession at the very beginning of the second century; we may have to recur to it, as illustrating other points of our subject. The genuineness of the correspondence or at least of this part of it has been disputed, but on insufficient grounds. See a dissertation by F. Wilde (Leyden, 1889), De Plinii et Trajani Epistolis inutuis. This author discusses the whole subject, examining all the arguments that have been advanced on either side of the controversy. The phrase that at their meetings, the Christians partook of ordinary food, points at the report that was current which ascribed to them the eating of human flesh. This imputation of cannibalism arose doubtless from some indiscreet or malicious disclosure of the doctrine of the Real Presence.

42. Tacitus. — Pliny tells us nothing of the origin of Christianity, but the omission is supplied by a passage from the Annals of his contemporary, Tacitus: it is found in the forty-fourth chapter of the fifteenth Book. The historian has been giving an account of the great fire that happened at Rome in the year 64, three years after his own birth: and he relates that the Emperor Nero came under suspicion of having purposely caused the conflagration; to avert which suspicion, he tried to throw the blame on certain persons "whom the populace hated for their crimes and called by the name of Christians. This name is derived from Christus, Who was punished by the procurator, Pontius Pilatus, during the reign of Tiberius. The execrable superstition was suppressed for a time, but broke out again, and overran not Judæa alone, the country of its birth, but Rome itself." He then describes the cruel modes in which death was inflicted, on a sham charge of incendiarism, and speaks of the "vast multitude" of those that suffered, remarking that the true cause of their death was not the crime of fire-raising, but "hatred of men:" leaving it doubtful whether he means that the Christians hated mankind, or that mankind hated the Christians. The former meaning seems most probable, and it may be noticed that Tacitus, who perhaps was never brought in contact with Christians, speaks of them in harsher terms than Pliny, who had personally examined large numbers of them. At present, however, we are not concerned with the morals of the Christians, but with the proofs of the early prevalence of the religion.

The principal point to observe is that Tacitus speaks undoubtingly of the Christian religion as having originated in Judæa while Pontius Pilate was procurator there, and Tiberius Emperor; that is to say, somewhere between the years 25 and 34; the Founder came under the ban of the Roman law: and nevertheless within a space of between thirty and forty years, the religion had so spread as to count an immense number of followers in the city; and the historian tells all this without hesitation or doubt, showing that it was the story which was current in the mouths of men with whom he himself mixed, on whom the great conflagration had made a deep impression. This rapid spread of a religion, in spite of Government power and mob prejudice, requires explanation.

43. The Christian and other accounts. — Christians are prepared with an account which is, it will be admitted, a perfectly sufficient explanation, if only its historical character is established: a task to which we shall now address ourselves. Many other explanations have been suggested from time to time, which have had some vogue for a while and then have been laid aside as insufficient. Another place will be found for such account of these attempts as is necessary for our purpose. (See n. 68.) At present it is enough to notice that the Christian story as to the origin of the Christian religion stands alone in having been received by millions of men throughout a long succession of centuries.

44. Acknowledged Christian writings. — There has been and is considerable controversy about the date to which the earliest Christian writings are to be ascribed. But there are some which are acknowledged by writers the least inclined to admit that a revelation has been given: scarcely any writer of the least credit at the present day doubts that the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians and two to the Corinthians were actually written by a man named Paul, and were addressed to communities of Christians who had been recently converted by his preaching, or whom he proposed shortly to visit, (I Cor. i. 12-17; 2 Cor. x. 14; Galat. iv. 11; Romans xv. 22-24.) The authenticity of these four Epistles is admitted practically by every writer, as is attested by Davidson (Introduction to New Testament, vol. I. pp. 41, 62, 85, 116. Edit. 1882), who can be fully trusted on such a point, and who gives copious references to ancient authorities which leave no room for doubt upon the matter.

These four Letters contain much that is difficult to understand, even in regard to history, and still more on matters of doctrine. One chief reason of the difficulty is this: a person writing a letter always has in his mind the particular circumstances of his correspondent, and remembers what has occurred during their previous intercourse; he is apt therefore to use expressions and to make allusions which will be readily understood by those for whose reading the piece is primarily intended, but will be obscure and in danger of being totally misunderstood by others who know no more than they can gather from the writing before them. On the other hand, letters of this kind are peculiarly trustworthy as often as the stranger can gather what is the posture of affairs which the writer assumes to be familiarly known: there is little risk of being deceived, for it would be beyond the skill of the most skilful forger to insert references of this kind without detection. We may therefore feel confidence that we are correctly informed as to such parts of the career of St. Paul as are referred to in these four Letters, and that the substance of his preaching actually was such as we there find.

Now, it is impossible to read these Epistles without seeing that the writer preached a religion, the Founder of which was Jesus Christ (1 Cor. iii. 11), Who was crucified (1 Cor. i. 23), and Whom God raised from the dead. (Romans i. 4.) In the fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians he sketches the main features of his preaching, expressly saying that Christ died and was buried, and rose again on the third day and was seen by large numbers of persons, especially by the Apostles, (vv. 1-7.) His preaching, he says, is vain if Christ rise not (v. 14); and he even claims to have himself seen the risen Christ (v. 8, and 1 Cor. ix. 1), and to have received instructions direct from Him. (Galat. i. 12.) The references on these points, as well as on some that follow, might be multiplied almost indefinitely, as will be plain to any reader of the Epistles: we merely give a few to indicate the kind of evidence on which we insist.

Further, we learn that the writer of these Letters was a man of conspicuous ability, as their whole structure shows. He had formerly been a Jew, and most zealous in that religion, his zeal leading him to take an active part in persecuting the Church of Christ (Galat. i. 13); at present, instead of persecuting, he was persecuted, leading a life of hardship and danger (2 Cor. xi. 23-27), and incessantly harassed by the cares involved in the work he had undertaken. (2 Cor. xi. 28.) He made this boast unwillingly; it was forced from him by the necessity of asserting his authority against some who were inclined to dispute it. (2 Cor. xi. 21.) Such a boast would have ruined the boaster, had not the facts to which he appealed been acknowledged by all. From all this it follows that it is impossible to dispute his sincerity when he declared that he held a commission from One Who had been dead and Who rose again from the dead.

What were the grounds of his conviction? We have seen that he declares himself to have received his commission direct from Christ, or that he had seen his Master living: but as it does not appear from these Epistles that he had previously seen Him dead, we cannot show that he had personal knowledge of the fact of the resurrection from the dead on which he laid such stress. But he was contemporary of some who had this personal knowledge (I Cor. xv. 6), and of some whom he calls "great" Apostles (2 Cor. xi. 5), who were regarded by some as being entitled to the name of Apostles in a higher sense than that in which St. Paul could claim it, and who, as he acknowledges, were Apostles before him (Galat. i. 17), and there is no trace of his holding any doctrine as to the Resurrection different from that of the rest of Christians. St. Paul had therefore the opportunity of inquiring into the grounds on which this fundamental belief was held; and unless he was unwise beyond the possibility of human unwisdom, he must have used his opportunities, and satisfied himself that some of those around him had seen the Lord dead and had afterwards seen Him alive. Thus the reality of the great basic miracle of the Resurrection of Christ can be proved from those four of the Epistles which are recognized on all hands as genuine.

45. The Four Gospels. — These four Epistles are not rejected by any opponent of whom we need take account; but the same cannot be said of some others of what Christians maintain to be among the earliest documents relating to their religion; especially it cannot be said of those four sketches of parts of the life and teaching of Christ which we call the Gospels. But in spite of opposition we maintain that it can be proved with absolute certainty that these Gospels were written by persons who were contemporary with the events that they record, and who had full opportunities of ascertaining the truth of what they related, and who were not guilty of wilful deception. If these points be made out, the historic truth of the Gospel history follows, and this contains a number of undeniably miraculous events by which the authority of Christ as a Divine messenger is attested.

46. Gospel Miracles. — It will not be seriously denied that the writers of the Gospels ascribe to Christ the doing of some works that are above the power of nature. Thus, such cures as that of the Centurion's servant (St. Matt. viii. 5-13; St. Luke vii. 1-10), and of the Ruler's son (St. John iv. 46-54), admit of no natural explanation, it being remarked that the sick person was at a distance, so that confident expectation could have had nothing to do with the result; the multiplication of loaves and fishes, on two occasions, one related by all the Evangelists (St. Matt. xiv. 14-21; St. Mark vi. 34-44; St. Luke ix. 12-17; St. John vi. 1-13), the other by St. Matthew (xv. 32-38) and St. Mark (viii. 1-8), and the calming the tempest (St. Matt, viii. 23-27; St. Mark iv. 37-40; St. Luke viii. 22-25), certainly surpassed all natural power; still more is the same true of the restoration to life of the young man at Nairn (St. Luke vii. 11-17), where the suggestion of fraud is now rejected by all critics, as inconsistent with the whole life of the Worker of the miracle; and of Lazarus (St. John xi. 1-53), where we see that the wonder was accomplished under the eyes of unfriendly critics, as was very specially the case also in the instance of the miracle of the man born blind (St. John ix. 1-34); and the great miracle of all, the Resurrection of Christ, is eminently of the same character: it is attested in the closing chapters of all the Gospels.

47. Miracles as Credentials. — It is hardly necessary to quote passages to show that these wonderful works were regarded by the people who saw them, and by the writers of the Gospels, as proofs of the Divine Mission of Christ. This is seen in the narrative in St. Matt. xvi. 1, St. Mark viii. 11, and St. Luke xi. 16, where it seemed that a sign "from Heaven" was supposed to be beyond the power of evil spirits: we gather it also from St. Matt. xxi. 15, St. John vii. 3-5, and St. John ix. 31; and in St. John v. 36, the Worker expressly appeals to His works as His credentials. It remains to show that the Gospel history is trustworthy.

48. The Gospels when written. — We shall divide the proof into two parts: that the Gospels are the work of persons who lived at or about the time of the rise of the Christian religion, so that they professed to be recording events of their own time; and that these writers had and used the means of knowing the truth of these events and wrote according to their knowledge. The authenticity of a work which purports to contain contemporary history may be gathered from the judgment formed upon the matter by the generation which immediately succeeded that in which the work professes to be written; or even from the judgment of still later times, if the matter was sufficiently important in their eyes to assure us that they used the means that they possessed of ascertaining the truth. We shall apply this test to the case of the four Gospels by showing that within a few years after the events recorded, they were held in unique honour as containing trustworthy records of the life of Christ, in a sense which was not true of any other books. We shall show this by considering the multiplication of manuscripts, the production of versions, and the direct testimonies that are still accessible.

It will be observed that we do not here undertake to show that the Gospels were written by the persons whose names they bear, for in no case is the name of the author a part of the book; the names of the writers are known from other sources, but the Gospels themselves are anonymous, except so far as St. John indicates his own authorship in the last verse but one of his Gospel. (See Comely, Introductio, 3, 226.) It is enough for us to prove that the writers, whatever their names, were contemporaries. Also, we do not here claim for the Gospels an authority of a higher nature than that which belongs to other human histories. The proof of their inspiration will be given later. (Treatise III.)

49. Manuscripts. — The earliest extant manuscripts of the Gospels belong to the beginning of the fifth century, or perhaps to the end of the fourth; but from that time forward they exist in great numbers. These manuscripts are far from being identically alike; they exhibit a multitude of discrepancies, not such as to raise any doubt of the general integrity of the documents that they transmit to us, but such as to exclude the idea that they all rest upon one original of no great antiquity. The study of the various readings leads to the conclusion that the documents had been repeatedly transcribed long before the end of the fourth century, so that different "families" of manuscripts are distinguished, the common ancestor of each family being far more ancient than anything that now exists, while the progenitor from which all the families spring cannot be younger than the times of the Apostles. This argument proves not merely the antiquity of the Canonical Gospels, but also the peculiar esteem in which they were held. The transcribers, it is true, were careless, and by their errors gave rise to the bulk of the various readings which crowd the pages of critical editions, and sometimes they altered the text before them in accordance with their notions of what if ought to contain; nevertheless, it is clear that they would not have been at the trouble of making the transcript at all, had there not been a demand for copies; and it is to be observed that nothing of the kind can be asserted of any of the other narratives of the life and teaching of Christ which are extant, and pass under the name of Apocryphal Gospels: there is no evidence that these ever had a wide circulation comparable to that of the Four. Beyond the contents of the four Gospels, the Christian community preserved very few traditions concerning their Founder. A very few sayings and historical particulars have been preserved to us, which have the appearance of being ancient: they will be found collected in Appendix C to Dr. Westcott's Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, p. 457. Also, the case of the Gospels may profitably be contrasted with that of the most famous classical authors: particulars will be seen in Mr. Gow's Companion to School Classics, pp. 36, seq., where we read that our knowledge of the writings of Æschylus, Lysias, Plato, and Lucretius, and of large portions of Cicero and Tacitus, is due to single manuscripts of a date long subsequent to the author; yet no serious doubt is entertained that these writings are genuine. (See n. 130.)

50. Versions. — The manuscripts of which we are speaking are in Greek, the language in which far the greater part, if not the whole, of the New Testament was written, and through which the whole has come to us. But the Gospels were very soon translated into Syriac and into Latin, both versions being in existence in the early part of the second century: and what has been said of the wide spread of the originals applies also to these translations. Thus at latest in the third generation after the date of the events recorded, the Gospels were accessible and accepted throughout the Roman Empire and through a great part of the Persian: that is to say, in all parts of the civilized world.

51. Testimonies. — It remains to speak of the express testimonies that remain to us, showing that predominant authority was early ascribed to the four Gospels. The full treatment of this subject is far too long for our limits; it will be found in Father Cornely's Introductio, or more completely in Dr. Salmon's Introduction. We can do no more than quote a few passages of writers who lived in the second century. Clement of Alexandria, who ceased to be head of the Catechetical School of that city in the year 202, was contending with a heretic who quoted what purported to be a passage from the Gospel; but Clement rejects it, saying (Strom. 3, 13; P.G. 8, 11:93): "This passage is not found in the four Gospels that we have received, but in the Gospel of the Egyptians." We see there that Clement clearly distinguished between the traditional four Gospels and other narratives.

Tertullian, who began to write before the end of the second century, more than once gives the names of the four Evangelists, as we know them. (Advers. Marcion, 4, 2, and 5; P.L. 2, 363 and 368.)

St. Irenæus, who was probably born in 130, cites the same four familiar names (Adv. Hæreses, 3, 7; P.G. 7, 884.) The weight to be attached to these three testimonies will be seen to be the greater when it is remembered that they represent the belief of parts of the Christian world most remote one from another: Clement belonging to Egypt, Tertullian to Carthage, while St. Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor, and at the time of writing was Bishop of Lyons, thus witnessing for Gaul as well as his native country.

Next, we may cite the fragment preserved in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, and which goes by the name of the scholar Muratori, by whom it was first published. Its date, it is believed, cannot be later than 170, and it plainly recognizes the four Gospels, as may be seen in Salmon, p. 64 n, or in Migne. (P.L. 3, 173.) It seems to have been written at Rome.

St. Justin, who presented his Apology in the year 150, makes constant use of our Gospels. How slender are the grounds on which this is disputed may be seen in Comely, Introductio, 3, 222.

Tatian, who was born not far from the year 120, composed a Life of Christ, which was called Diatessaron. This word means "by four," and it was natural to suppose that it signified a work the materials of which were drawn from the four Evangelists. This explanation, however, was contested, and it was maintained that the word was a musical term, and denoted a full or perfect harmony. Recent discoveries, however, have set the question at rest; and a somewhat long but perfectly sure train of reasoning proves Tatian to be a witness that in his time our four Gospels were recognized as possessing paramount authority. The particulars of the argument may be read in Salmon, Introduction, pp. 95-104, in Mr. Maher's tract on the subject, and elsewhere. Space does not allow us to give them here; nor can we do more than mention Papias, whose remains are collected in the first volume of Routh's Reliquiæ Sacræ, and have important bearing upon the point before us, but give rise to many questions.

52. Credibility. — It being taken as established that our four Gospels are the works of contemporaries, it remains to consider whether the writers had the means of knowing the truth as to the matters they describe, and whether they can be trusted to have written according to their knowledge. The miracles in question were sensible facts, and in their own nature capable of being known, and one of the writers professes to have been an eyewitness (St. John xix. 35, xxi. 24); and as to all of them, if we are satisfied of their veracity, we must suppose that they did not write without having assured themselves of the truth of their narration. That they meant to tell the truth follows from this, that they had no inducement to propagate the Christian religion except on the supposition that they were persuaded of its Divine claim upon them. In proving that the early preachers embraced a life of toil and hardship, we are somewhat hampered, because we must draw our materials from the four Gospels, the four Epistles of St. Paul, and two heathen writers: we cannot use the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the authenticity of which we have not yet proved, and the discussion of which would lead us to a long and needless historical inquiry. But we learn from Tacitus that Christ was crucified, and His followers are not likely to have met with better treatment, nor indeed would they have reported the apparent failure of the Mission of Christ, had not truth compelled them. They report His prophecies, by which He warned them that those who undertook to carry on His work might look forward to scourging and death as their fate (St. Matt. x. 17; St. John xvi. 2); if these prophecies had not been fulfilled in the persons of the writers, they would have discredited their cause by reporting them. And we have direct testimony that these prophecies were fulfilled, not only in the passage of Tacitus already cited (n. 38), but in the description which St. Paul gives of his life (2 Cor. xi. 23-33), where he does not deny that other preachers of Christ, those whom he speaks of in verse 13 as false apostles, suffered similar hardships, but only asserts that his own sufferings exceeded those of the rest. This record of what he endured in the performance of the work to which he devoted himself abundantly justifies him in saying (1 Cor. xv. 19): "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."

53. Objections. — Such is then a very brief outline of the proof that Christ wrought physical miracles in attestation of His claim to be received as a Divine Messenger, from which it follows that we must look to His utterances as containing revelations from God. The sketch is most imperfect, the full development requiring much space, as is the case with all historical arguments: its full treatment must be sought elsewhere.

The question of the date of the Gospels being of vital importance to the opponents of the Christian Revelation, they leave no stone unturned in their endeavour to find objections to bring against our position. They elude some of the early testimony by denying that it applies to our Gospels, and by inventing certain primitive Gospels, which they say were once in esteem, but which for no assignable reason perished, making way to allow the present Gospels to take their place: to which theory it is enough to say that it has no producible basis. But they rest chiefly upon internal evidence, and point out what seem to be contradictions in the Gospels as indicating fiction; at the present stage of our argument we need say no more than that general agreement with minute discrepancies is the ordinary condition of historical narratives: the full discussion of the bearing of these alleged contradictions will find its proper place when we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, (n. 139) Also, they assume to know what the true Evangelist would have said or not have said under the particular circumstances in which he was placed ; a presumptuous pretension: and it is with them a fundamental position that every narrative involving a supernatural element cannot possibly be authentic, for miracles never happen: a position which, if proved, would render all further inquiry useless, but which never can be proved, as we tried to show in the last chapter.

54. Recapitulation. — In this chapter, after pointing out that the early existence of Christianity is an undeniable fact which imperatively calls for explanation, we showed that the Christian explanation is sufficient, and that this account was based upon certain physical miracles alleged to have been wrought by the Founder; these miracles are assumed to be familiar by St. Paul in four of his Letters, as to the genuineness of which there is no controversy; and the particulars of many are detailed in the four Gospels, which were received as authentic in the earliest times.

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