13 APRIL 1929, Page 25

Subdued Light

The History of Christianity in the Light of Modern Know- ledge ; A Collective Work. (Blackie and Sons. 25s.) l'aosEssoa Bumarr, in the important study of the life of Jesus which he contributes to this book, observes that it is not possible for any intelligent and interested reader to approach the Gospel narratives entirely without prejudice. The unprejudiced view is merely the colourless view. The same might be said of our attitude: to all the historical and other problems which surround the birth and development of Christianity. To some extent every author—indeed, every reviewer too—must see thein through a temperament ; and entineture with some personal feeling and conviction, either positive or negative, the findings of pure knowledge. If facts sometimes seem to dull the sharp outlines drawn by faith, faith no less surely will revenge itself on facts. This is just as true of those who believe very little as of those who believe very much. The lamp-shade may be golden, pink, or grey ; but a lamp-shade there is sure to be.

Thus we ought not to expect that the modern knowledge, in the light of which a band of eminent scholars have recon- sidered the History of Christianity, should yield absolute results ; or always be consistent in its findings. We need not be surprised that Professor Gilbert Murray and Dr. Edwyn lievan, both discussing the relations between Mithraism and the Church, are led to draw diverse conclusions from precisely the same series of fads ; or that the genial glow in which Dr. Milligan sees the New Testament writings fades from the Synoptic history as viewed by Professor Burkitt. The book, which is perhaps too ambitious in its scope, is divided into five sections ; covering the whole of Christian history from the mission of John the Baptist to the Student Christian Move- ment. Some of these sections are manifestly inadequate to their great subject-matter ; notably the highly compressed accounts of the Mediaeval Church—which receives less than lifty pages—and of seventeenth century religion. An astonish- ing amount of attention is paid to every variety of heraSy and dissent : in fact, these so much occupy the foreground of the picture that the force and consistency of the great main stream of Catholic Christianity is hardly perceived. Thus Mr. Ogg, who writes on the seventeenth century, gives the dreary opinions of Jansen detailed treatment ; whilst St. Francois de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, and Berulle are dismissed together in a single phrase.

The most valuable and interesting chapters, however; are those dealing with the environment of the Gospels, and with the contributions of modern archaeology to the history of the Early Church. Among these., Professor Garstang's description of Palestine in the time of Christ, Dr. Milligan's study of the New Testament writings, Dr. K W. Watson's brilliant recon- struction of primitive Church life, and Dr. Bevan's essay on the Mystery Religions are remarkable for the amount of expert inforthatien wkich:they .41104- in the simplest terms. Here modern knowledge does indeed cast a steady and reveal- ing light on Christian origins, greatly enhancing our under- standing of its texts. Especially should all students of primi- tive doctrine be grateful to Dr. Bevan for his clear presentation of the fundamental distinction between the Christian mysteries and pagan mystery cults ; and convincing refutation of thOte facile writers on comparative religion who " first put in the Christian elements, and then are staggered to find them there." His paper is one among several which indicate how far the pendulum has now swung away from the tendency to find Hellenistic origins for Christian Worship, and towards the reassertion of its Jewish affinities..

But But in other sections of the work the discipline administered to tradition by modern knowledge operates with less fortunate results. The lamp-shade seems to have got smoked, and refuses to transmit the heavenly radiance. yet a picture .4:?f Christian origins executed in the Medium. which Victorian drawing masters called " sepia wash " has historical as well as spiritual disadvantages. It simply refuses to- harnioniie with the vivid joy which inspires the early liturgies, with the triumphant courage of the martyrs and constantly renewed witness of the saints. Professor Burkitt's portrait of the obscure Galilean prophet who came to an ignominious end, and Professor Gilbert Murray's comparison of St. Paul preach- ing at Athens with a negro revivalist addressing a cultivated audience, really imply a position which creates more problems than it solves. The whole history of the Apostolic Church assures us that something strange happened in Palestine at the beginning of our era, even though it happened in what seems to the instructed Western mind a very queer way.; and that those who were caught by the Christian magic did really seem to themselves to be experiencing a new life. This is, to a certain extent, recognized by the majority Of the con- tributors. Professor Burkitt, at the close of his elaborate re- construction of the life of Jesus, which he sums up as " mar- vellously influential notwithstanding apparent failure'," compares Him to Prometheus ; and adds that the way His Fire was lit finds its justification in the history of the Fire. Bht on the whole, we are led to feel that the investigations of the highly cultured disclose much that is disappointing in the New Testament ; and little evidence of the more abundant life it brought into the world. The miraculous element, of course, recedes into the background.. " The evangelists and the public for whom they wrote had little conception of Natural Law." The strangeness, the sense of another world touching this, and revealed through it—in fact, the religious quality4-- goes too. A peculiar--Nemesis seems to await those who venture on the task of restating the words of Christ according to their own ideas of what He meant to say. ." Thou art not far from. the Kingdom of God " is a phrase which still carries for us its aura of suggestion. But this is hardly discoverable in the new and somewhat " donnish" version proposed by Dr. Burkitt: " You have a not inadequate idea of the prin- ciples that the Reign of God implies." So too the discovery that " But one thing is needful really means " I only want a simple meal " may relieve the domesticated conscience,.; brit incidentally it destroys one of the most beautiful and significant stories in the literature of the world. Not for the first time we are beset by a suspicion that the lamp Ugliness may sometimes