Enter Modernism | Philip Trower | From "Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the
Enter Modernism | Philip Trower | From
Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the
The Bible, the Word of God in human speech, is not like a manual of instructions
- though it has often been treated like that. While most of it is straightforward
enough, there are also many passages whose meaning is far from immediately
self-evident. This is why Bible study has a history going back to Old Testament
The obscurities are basically of three kinds.
The first are due to mistakes by copyists. In the transmission of the manuscripts
down the ages, the attention of the copyists sometimes wandered, or they
added comments in the margin which later became incorporated in the text.
As a result, the surviving manuscripts contain numbers of variant readings.
The kind of scholarship that tries to determine which of these different
readings comes nearest to the original is called textual criticism. It is
largely a matter of comparing manuscripts to determine which seems most
It is not difficult, I think, to see why God, in his providence, allowed
the texts to become corrupted in this way. Had he prevented it, had he ensured
that the thousands of copyists working over two to three millennia had never
made a mistake, the Bible would so obviously be a work of divine origin
that faith would no longer be a free act. The variant readings are never
sufficient to make the main substance of the biblical books uncertain. They
only affect particular sentences or phrases.
Obscurities of the second kind flow from the human limitations and character
traits of the inspired human authors. While ensuring that they wrote what
he wanted, God did so through the medium of their particular personalities
and styles of writing and the kinds of literary composition characteristic
of their age. Since they were writing a long time ago, they, not surprisingly,
used modes of expression or referred to events and things some-times beyond
the comprehension of later readers.
Difficulties arising from this second class of causes are resolved, in so
far as they can be, by the study of ancient languages, history, archaeology,
and literary forms or genres (not to be confused with "form criticism").
Are some words to be taken literally or metaphorically? Is a certain book
or passage intended to be history in the strict sense, or an allegory or
parable, or is it some combination of the two? The search is for what the
human author intended to say and how. This is called "the literal sense".
These first two forms of Bible study simply prepare the ground for what
in the Church's eyes has always been the most important branch; the study
of the religious significance or theological meaning of the texts.
Obscurities in this field are due to the mysterious nature of the subject
matter, or, according to St. Augustine, are deliberately put there by the
divine author himself. "The Sacred Books inspired by God were purposely
interspersed by him with difficulties both to stimulate us to study and
examine them with close attention, and also to give us a salutary experience
of the limitations of our minds and thus exercise us in proper humility".
 God does not disclose the full meaning of what he is saying to
mere cleverness or sharp wits.
Most of the problems connected with these three branches of Bible study
were familiar to the scholars of the ancient world, with the school of Antioch
concentrating on the literal meaning and those of Alexandria on possible
symbolic or "spiritual" meanings. The critical approach was not
unknown either Origen and St. Jerome, for instance, on the basis of internal
evidence, doubted whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was really by St. Paul.
 But whatever the problems, down to 200 years ago the end in view
was always the same: to strengthen belief, deepen understanding and increase
love of God.
Since around 1800, on the other hand, "advanced" biblical scholarship
has followed a markedly different course with the precisely opposite results.
The critical method has been given pride of place over every other approach;
attention has focused on technical rather than spiritual questions (when
and in what circumstances were the books written), with a high percentage
of those trying to answer the questions losing most of their beliefs in
the process. This is a plain historical fact which receives surprisingly
little attention. Does it mean that the Bible cannot stand up to close examination?
No. We have to distinguish between the method and the spirit in which it
is used, or between the critical method and the critical movement.
That the critical method, once formulated, would be applied to the Bible
was more or less bound to happen, but it was clearly a much more sensitive
business than applying it to other historical documents, seeing that implicit
in its use was the assumption that the origin of at least some of the books
would turn out not to be what had hitherto been thought.
The method also carries with it a number of temptations. Experts like to
exercise their skills. But if a text is the work of a single author, without
additions or interpolations and written when it was thought to have been,
there is nothing for the critic to do. The method, of its nature, therefore
carries within it a kind of bias against single authorship. There will be
a tendency to see any ancient text as necessarily a patchwork of literary
fragments put together by groups of editors at some considerable time after
the events described which is different from recognizing, as has always
been done, that the biblical authors, like other writers about past events,
when not writing about events they had themselves taken part in, depended
on external sources. We can see the tendency at work in 19th-century Homeric
studies, where it came to be more or less taken for granted that any work
before the fifth or sixth century A.D. must be of composite authorship.
Homer's very existence was doubted, and the authorship of the Iliad and
Odyssey assigned to a mob of Greek poets spanning several centuries. Since
then Homeric studies have changed course. A real Homer is credited with
the bulk of the epics.  But there has been no such change of course
in advanced biblical scholarship.
Another temptation will be to try to ape the exact sciences by assigning
a certainty to conclusions, which, because of the nature of the subject
matter, can only be conjectural.  Nevertheless, as we have already
said, there is nothing objectionable about the method itself. The Church
has approved it, and its use by biblical scholars with faith and a sense
of proportion has thrown light on numbers of incidental scriptural obscurities.
The critical movement is another matter. Although forerunners like the 17th-century
French Oratorian priest Richard Simon and the 18th-century French physician
Jean Astruc were Catholics, we can take as the movement's starting point
the publication of The Wo!ffenbuttel Fragments (1774-1778) by the
German Lutheran dramatist and writer Lessing. The "fragments"
were actually extracts from an unpublished manuscript by the rationalist
scholar Reimarus, which Lessing pretended he had found in the royal Hanoverian
library at Wolffenbuttel. A few years later, Gottfried Eichorn, the Lutheran
professor of oriental languages at Jena (and subsequently Gottingen) published
his Introductions to the Old and New Testaments (1780-1783 and 1804-1812),
and from then on the movement was dominated by scholars whose conclusions
about the time and the way the biblical books were written were influenced
as much by philosophical assumptions and cultural prejudices as by concrete
Their principal assumption was that supernatural phenomena like miracles
and prophecy are impossible, and therefore a large part of the Bible must
be folklore. They also tended to see people in the past as necessarily inferior,
uninterested in objective truth and incapable of transmitting facts accurately,
while regarding priests as by nature deceitful and only interested in the
maintenance of their collective authority. Evidence that the art of writing
was practised by the Hebrews at least by the time of the Exodus, and of
the capacity of non-literate peoples to orally transmit religious traditions
faithfully over long periods of time was either downplayed or ignored. 
These assumptions had in most cases already been made before they set to
The Pentateuch and Gospels were the main objects of attention. The crucial
question about the composition of the Pentateuch is not "When were
the books written or put together in the form we now have them?" but
"Was the information they contain, whether recorded by Moses or others,
transmitted accurately down the centuries?"
The crucial question about the composition of the Gospels is "Were
they, or were they not, written by eye-witnesses, or by men with more or
less direct access to eye-witnesses?"
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. 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
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
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
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.  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
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".
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
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.
In The Christian Faith, in spite of its title, Schleiermacher does
not retreat from his previous position. Christianity remains only one of
many expressions of the feeling of dependence or "God-consciousness".
But he tries to show why it is the best expression so far: Christ was the
man in whom God-consciousness reached the highest intensity. Christ was
not God. He did not found a Church. But the followers who naturally gathered
round so remarkable a man received the impress of his personality, his special
way of feeling dependence on God, and later, by forming themselves into
a permanent community were able to transmit his special way of feeling or
personhood down the ages. We do not know how many, if any, of the words
attributed to Christ by the Gospels actually come from him. But each Christian
receives the impress of Christ's way of feeling, by living and experiencing
the sense of absolute dependence within the Christian community.
What differentiates the Christian religious consciousness from other forms
of religious consciousness, and makes it superior to them, is the sense
of having been redeemed from sin by Christ. This does not mean that Christ
paid the debt for mankind's sins by his death on Calvary. Such a notion
borders on magic. Redemption means that by receiving the impress of Christ's
personhood, the Christian is better able to overcome sin (or whatever is
an obstacle to the feeling of absolute dependence) and reach the highest
level of God-consciousness of which he is capable.
One is inclined to agree with Karl Barth a century later that a characteristic
note of Schleiermacher is an astonishing self-assurance. Schleiermacher
is the real founding father of modernism. With Schleiermacher, everything
essential to modernism has arrived. Radical biblical scholarship destroys
belief. There follows a desperate attempt to construct a gimcrack religious
shelter out of the ruins with the help of some form of modern philosophical
subjectivism. This in turn leads to the positing of the two fundamental
modernist theses. First, since there is no reliable external source of religious
knowledge, it can only be found in personal experience (early modernists
inclined to stress individual experience, today's modernists communal experience).
Secondly, doctrines - those at least which are found "difficult",
or, as would be said today, "lacking in credibility" - should
not be regarded as statements of fact, but symbolic expressions of personal
experience. Supernatural happenings, like the parting of waters at the Red
Sea or the Resurrection, take place in people's minds or imaginations, never
in the real world.
Personal experience is therefore the judge before which every objective
statement of belief, whether in the Bible, the creeds, or any other source,
will have to justify itself. If a teaching finds an echo in personal experience
it can be accepted, if not, it should be left on one side or rejected. That
is why, in The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher relegates the Trinity to
an appendix: "What is not directly given in Christian consciousness",
as a contemporary admirer of Schleiermacher puts it, "is of no primary
concern to faith". We can have a feeling of sinfulness (concupiscence),
or of having had our sins forgiven (redemption). These ideas are therefore
"meaningful", but we no more feel that there are three persons
in the One God, than that there are four, five or six.
Schleiermacher stands at the turning point in the history of Protestantism
where the fierce certainties of Luther, Calvin and the other reformation
patriarchs start to crumble, and doctrine or any clear statement of belief
comes to be seen as something repulsive, something that, instead of giving
light to the mind, weighs on it like a sack of cement which the mind wants
to throw off.
As the 19th century proceeds, this turning away from doctrine will become
first a flight, then a stampede, and finally a Gadarene rush, until in the
mid-20th century it hits the rocks at the bottom of the cliff in the patronising
agnosticism of Bultmann and the barely disguised unbelief of Tillich. Catholics
swept into the stampede usually express their dislike of religious certainty
with the lament "Oh, no! Not another infallible doctrine".
The one interesting feature of Schleiermacher's theology, from the Catholic
standpoint, is his shift of attention away from the Bible to the "Christian
community". What Schleiermacher meant by that term is not what Catholics
mean. Nevertheless he reintroduced into Protestantism as a whole an awareness
of the Church as a factor in Christianity of at least equal importance with
the Bible. The Bible might be untrustworthy. But the Christian community
with its personal experiences was an indisputable past and present fact.
 The term "higher criticism" was reserved for analysing texts,
whether biblical or profane, in order to elucidate their authorship, date
and meaning. The higher critics regarded textual criticism as a lower branch
 Quoted by Pius XII, Divino Afante Spiritu, 47.
 For Origen's doubts, see Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., 6.25, 11-13.
For St. Jerome's: Eph. 129. C.S.E.L. 55169.
 See Geschichte der Griechischen Literatur, Franke Verlag, Bern,
1963 (English translation 1966) by Albin Lesky, professor of Greek, University
 Some examples will help to illustrate the difficulty of assessing the
significance of stylistic differences. (a) Dr Johnson's two accounts of
his journey to the Western Isles - one in letters written on the spot, the
other in book form published after his return - are so unalike in style
that, in Macaulay's opinion, if we did not know otherwise, we should find
it hard to credit that they were written by the same man. (b) The 17th-
century mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was ordered by her superiors to
write her memoirs. The result was found too unpolished for the intended
readership, so they were rewritten in a style suited to the Grand Siècle.
Should we infer from this that St. Margaret Mary had nothing to do with
them? (c) There are versions of Chaucer in contemporary English. If these
alone were to survive, what conclusions would be drawn about their authorship?
The style of a text can belong to a period later than that of the author,
with the content remaining essentially his product.
 See Ricciotti, History of Israel, Vol. 1, Milwaukee 1955, who
cites a succession of cases where texts of enormous length have been handed
down orally, with apparently little if any alteration, for centuries. See
also William Dalrymple, City of Djinns, HarperCollins, 1996. According
to this author, in India today there are still "bards" who can
recite from memory the whole of the Mahabharata, an epic longer than the
 In taking this line, the critics were making, even by their own standards,
an illegitimate inference; namely that the books of the New Testament were
necessarily formed in the same way as those of the Old Testament as though
literary composition and culture had remained unchanged between the period
of Sennacherib or Cyrus and the age of the early Caesars. In fact, after
two centuries of debate, there seems to be no compelling reason not to accept
the already ancient tradition enshrined in the History of Eusebius of Caesarea
(264-340), that the Gospels were written by the four Evangelists at roughly
the time and in the way always believed. Justin Martyr (100-165) calls them
the "Memoirs of the Apostles". Vatican II affirms both their "apostolic
origin" and "historicity". (Dei Verbum 18 & 19).
How could St. John have recalled lengthy speeches like Our Lord's at the
Last Supper? We have only to recall similar feats of memory on the part
of Macaulay and Mozart to realise it is entirely possible even without special
 It is now common, in Catholic Bible study groups and popular commentaries,
to hear the Exodus miracles described as merely literary devices used by
the author to convey the idea of God's power. See, for example, A Catholic
Guide to the Bible, Oscar Lukefahr C.M., Liguori Publications, Liguori,
 Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Macmillan, New York, 1971,
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Philip Trower is a British writer and journalist
who covered five episcopal synods in Rome from 1980 to 1990. Born in 1923,
Trower was educated in English private schools and attended Eton from 1936-40.
He earned a B.A. in modern history from Oxford University 1941-2. He worked
in literary journalism for the Times Literary Supplement and Spectator;
in 1951 he published the novel Tillotson. He is also the author of the novel,
Danger to the State (Ignatius Press), about the 19th century suppression
of the Jesuits.
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