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The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church

Chapter Seventeen: Enter Modernism
(Part 2)

To both questions the critics' conclusions tended towards a negative answer.

If Moses existed, it was maintained, little could be known about him except that he was neither the Pentateuch's author nor Israel's lawgiver. The Pentateuch was put together after the Exile out of four collections of documents and oral traditions, the earliest written four or five hundred years after Moses' death, with the books of the Law coming last. Deuteronomy had been composed at the time of King Josiah's religious reform (640-609). The clergy responsible pretended they had found the book in a part of the temple undergoing reconstruction. Before that the Jews had no fixed laws. They lived by a shifting mass of customary rules and regulations. Most of Leviticus, also the work of priests, was written during and after the Exile. But in order to convince the Jewish people that these two codes of laws were not the innovations they must have appeared to be, the post-exilic clergy combined them with two sets of oral and written traditions ("Yahwistic" and "Elohistic") about the supposed early history of the world and the Jewish people, now found in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Joshua.

Most of these ideas are associated with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). But long before he was born, Eichorn had been suggesting that Leviticus, for which he invented the name "priestly code", had a different origin from the other four books of the Pentateuch, while between 1802 and 1805, J. S. Vater had introduced the "fragment theory" of the suspended Scottish Catholic priest, Alexander Geddes. According to Geddes, the Pentateuch had been put together at the time of the Exile from 39 separate sources. In 1833, E. Reuss was teaching that no traces of the law can be found in the early prophetical and historical writings, consequently the law could not have existed in the early period of Jewish history. In a book published at Gotha in 1850, Eduard Riehm attributed Deuteronomy to the reign of King Manasses.

It was less easy to dismiss the New Testament miracles as myths and the Gospels as patchworks of folklore. Between the death of Christ and the writing of the Gospels there were no long centuries during which myths could form and orally transmitted information become garbled. The best the critics could do was date the Gospels as long after the death of the last eye-witnesses as possible.[7] This in a sense is what a great part of New Testament scholarship outside the Catholic Church has ever since been about.

For Reimarus the New Testament miracles were due to conscious deception. In the case of the Resurrection, the apostles simply stole the body, then lied about it. (Reimarus also seems to have been the first modern scholar to present Christ as a political agitator.) Less crude were the theories of critics like Semler (d. 1791) and Paulus (d. 1803). They attributed the miracles to natural causes misunderstood by the witnesses. The apostles thought they saw Christ walking on the water when he was actually walking on the lake-shore. But if this was the way Christianity began (lies or poor eyesight), how do we explain its phenomenal expansion and later triumph? Efforts to answer this question took a more sophisticated philosophical form.

The leader of this new school of thought, Ferdinand Christian Baur, founder of the Tübingen school, side-stepped the question as to what prompted the apostles to invent the myths, or give them the form they did. He concentrated on the way the myths developed. The rise of Christianity was explained in terms of Hegel's theory that progress takes place through the clash of contradictory ideas.

According to Baur, a conservative Jewish party under St. Peter and St. James (thesis) came into conflict with the Gentile-oriented party under St. Paul (antithesis). The eventual result was a compromise (synthesis) from which sprang the Catholic Church. St. Matthew's and St. Mark's gospels represent the conservative view, St. Luke's gospel and St. Paul's epistles that of the innovators, and the "Johannine writings" (not from the pen of St. John) the standpoint of the party of compromise. Baur attributed the bulk of the New Testament to the late second century. He was also one of the first critics to regard the Gospels as primarily a record of the early Christians' collective thinking rather than a record of events and facts. However, he was at least honest enough to admit that if the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses or the friends of eye-witnesses, his theories fell to the ground.

But how, asked Bruno Bauer, another critic of the period, can a collective consciousness produce a connected narrative? A good question. However Bauer (with an "e") was even more radical than Baur (without an "e"). For Bruno Bauer, Christianity originated with the author of St. Mark's Gospel, an Italian living in the Emperor Hadrian's time, who never intended his book to be anything but a work of fiction. Nethertheless the idea got about that the hero was a real person, a sect of admirers formed, and the other New Testament books followed. Bauer eventually lost his teaching post.
Such, roughly, were the beginnings of the biblical critical movement. The Bible, it would seem, is like an atomic reactor. Anyone working on it without the protective coating of prayer and reverence rapidly has his faith burned to cinders.

This is not the place to consider to how many of the theories we have been describing contemporary scholarship still attaches weight. Here we are only concerned with the immediate results.

At first sight it may not seem to matter much when or by whom the biblical books were written, provided they are still believed to be inspired God, in the sense intended by him. It is true, however, that most men and women will, rightly or wrongly, assume that the greater the span of time between the occurrence of an event and its being recorded in writing, the less likely the record is to be true. [8] It was therefore not long before the readers of Reimarus, Eichorn and their successors were believing the Bible to be largely a work of fiction too, the critics' immense erudition being the principal factor enabling them to carry the day. Their readership included growing numbers of Lutheran pastors, who were simultaneously being exposed to Kant's idea that God's existence could no longer be proved from his works.

Seeing that, as Lutherans, they believed neither in an infallible Church nor a tradition complementary to Scripture, there seemed no longer to be any reliable basis for belief. Religion appeared to be at its last gasp, and for many it was in fact so. Most of the fathers of modern German atheism, like Feuerbach, the forerunner of Karl Marx, began life as Lutheran theological students.

However, men can rightly want to go on believing in God even when they are unable to answer the formal objections to belief, and so it often was in this case. The situation was saved for the poor victims of Reimarus' scepticism, Eichorn's doubts, and Kant's agnosticism - or they thought it had been - by the Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.

* * *

Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a leading figure in the German romantic movement, had likewise had his belief in the reliability of Scripture and the value of natural theology undermined by Eichorn and Kant, but he thought he had discovered a way out of his impasse.

His message was roughly this: "Take heart. All is not lost. Religion does not need outside evidence to justify its existence. Religion is not knowledge, whether in the form of creeds, doctrines or the content of sacred books. It does not need philosophical reflection either. The essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. If you have a feeling of dependence on God you have all that is necessary to make you a member of the worldwide 'communion of saints' or company of the truly religious. The separate beliefs and practices of the various religions scattered through time and space are simply different ways, all more or less valid, of cultivating and expressing this fundamental instinct or attitude, which by itself is sufficient". [9]

Such was the tenor of the book which first made Schleiermacher famous: On Religion - Addresses to its Cultured Despisers (1799).

Equating religion and feeling had of course long been a feature of certain kinds of Protestantism, not least with the Moravian brethren, one of whose schools Schleiermacher had attended as a boy. But no professor of theology had hitherto denied the Bible and creeds any objective value, or made feeling - even if it was a feeling of absolute dependence on God - the sole substance of Christianity.

In 1811, Schleiermacher, who had been teaching at Halle, was offered the chair of theology at the recently founded university of Berlin, a post he held until 1830, and in 1821 and 1822 he published in two parts the other book on which his fame chiefly rests, The Christian Faith.

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