DR.R. W. DALE ON RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY. D R. R. W. DALE,
in this month's Contemporary Review, discusses Dr. Martinean's book on "The Seat of Authority in Religion," and has no difficulty in showing the almost intolerable paradox of the assumption that the great revelation of God in Christ was conveyed to the world enveloped in a mass of fictitious doctrine, fabulous history, invented dialogue, and fabricated prayer, which not only dyed with prismatic colours that had no real existence the actual teaching and life of our Lord, but contrived to make his figure a great deal more impressive to the world than it otherwise would have been, and to connect with his name spiritual teaching that has seemed to the great majority of his followers even more wonderful, and bathed in a more subduing lustre, than that which Dr. Martineau regards as his own. If that assumption could be true, it would be a very difficult question whether the real Jesus, or the imaginary image of him which the pious thought of his followers had constructed, were more truly the saviour of the world. Dr. Dale, however, sees clearly that Christianity would never survive such an analysis of Christ into a real being surrounded by a nimbus of imaginary glory, as Dr. Marti- neau applies, and that so soon as the nimbus had been successfully dissipated by the higher criticism, the shrunken figure which remained would be gently ignored. The mere shock of discovering, if it could be discovered, that the fictitious Christ of the second century was a much more im- posing and life-giving conception than the being from whom this conception had taken its rise, would as completely shatter the spiritual might of Christianity, as the discovery that the shadow seen bowing to you from the summit of the Brocken is nothing but a magnified image of your own person, disposes, to those who recognise it, of the magic of the German super- stition. Dr. Dale finds it an easy task to show that a revelation which comes into the world thickly robed in veils of its own, does not effect its purpose of unveiling to man the mind and nature of God. But when Dr. Dale comes to the exposition of his own view of the seat of authority in Christianity, he is hardly so successful as he is in demonstrating that Dr. Mar- tineau has introduced us, not to true authority, but to a pallid ghost of authority which vanishes as we gaze.
Dr. Dale's view is that " the authority of the New Testa- ment comes from those parts of it in which I find God and God finds me ; but it does not follow that only in those parts is there any divine light and power." He compares the authority of revelation as it is contained in the New Testament, to the authority which time-honoured artistic triumphs exert over the minds of lovers of the beautiful. Men are only really touched by what stirs their own admiration ; but if they find that " a painting which has commanded the wonder and admiration of cultivated men of different countries for several generations, fails to move " them, then they only suppose that it is due to some want in themselves, not to any want in the painting, and they wait quietly till the time comes when they can see what others have seen, and do not rashly and pre- sumptuously deny the beauty of the picture only because they themselves are apparently too obtuse to perceive it. And this, as we understand Dr. Dale, is precisely the kind of authority which he attributes to those sayings of Christ or his Apostles which do not " find" him. As parts of a whole, many elements of which do " find " him, he puts them by till that which has hitherto not won its way to his heart, shall have time and opportunity to win its way to his heart ; but he does not, we presume, feel bound to obey a command even of our Lord's of which he cannot recognise the intrinsic claim to his will's obedi- ence, until the time comes when that claim makes itself clear to him, just as be does not feel bound to confess his own artistic deficiency in not admiring a picture which he cannot admire, only because the rest of the world has concurred in speaking of it with wonder and delight. He even goes so far as to say that he should not attach less spiritual authority to the Gospels even if they could be proved to have been written " by un- known persons belonging to the third or fourth generation of Christians,"—i.e., at least in the case of the fourth Gospel, which plainly indicates its own authorship as that of a direct witness of our Lord's life and death and resurrection, even if it could be proved to be a forgery,—surely a very strong assertion of the indefectibility of spiritual authority against plain evidence of moral recklessness and indifference to truth. This appears to us to carry the self-evidencing character of intrinsic divinity to a point which is quite suicidal, for if anything in the world should undermine spiritual authority, it is the evidence that the authority in question did not scruple at giving itself out to be that which it was not. And, to a very large extent, this indictment would apply
against the honesty of the third Gospel as well as that of the fourth, if it could be shown to have originated so late. Surely Dr. Dale's view of the intrinsic authority of the text of Scripture for every individual whom it "finds," in spite of external evidence, supposed demonstrative, that it finds us under false pretences, will not hold its ground as adequate. In the first place, it is a doctrine of provisional authority only for such parts of Scripture as have not " found " us ; and in the next place, it is an authority divided against itself, if it professes to overrule adequate evidence of the unscrupulous assertion of false claims. If the intrinsic authority of any given human being or any given human action is not sufficient to overrule, at -once and for ever, the suggestion of bad faith, it is, in our opinion at least, not sufficient to exert any practical authority at all. Possibly, however, Dr. Dale may think that none of the Gospels does make any direct claim to an authorship inconsistent with its late origin ; and in that case, of course, though we could not admit such a judgment as even plausible, this latter objection drops. But the first objection, the objection that its authority only goes so far as it awakens any echo in the human heart, and as to all other portions is purely provisional, hardly even as much as a working hypothesis, remains.
Surely it is obvious that authority is not authority at all unless it inspires us with a perfect willingness to trust it in regions where we cannot verify it. The analogy of the far- "famed picture fails here, because it does not inspire us with that willingness. There is such a thing as widespread bad taste. Have not many of Carlo Doles's sickly-sweet representations of our Lord, commanded widespread admiration without deserving it P If authority not only begins, but ends with the inward response of the spirit to its claims, it is not an authority as effective even as that of parents on whom children rely for all their training in the discipline of life; for how could a parent train a child who told him that for the present his com- mand to learn the alphabet did not " find him," and that he must put it by till he had reached a stage in experience which assured him that he should profit by a knowledge of the alphabet? Authority, to be worth anything, must not be simply provisional, must not be a sleeping authority at all points where the response of the individual mind is not clear and conscious. Christ assures his Apostles that he will be with them always, even to the end of the world; that they are not to perplex themselves with anxious consideration of the defence they should make when they are brought before Kings and Magistrates, but trust to the Holy Spirit which should be given them to show them what they should say ; that they are to expect per- secutions, and even to rejoice in them ; that they are to baptise in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy -Ghost,---and, indeed, he multiplies commands of this kind, which are either binding because they come from him and for -no other reason, or can never be proved binding at all, for how is the time ever to come when the individual conscience can verify the authority of such commands as these ? To our minds, even human authority, so long as it is useful at all, and divine authority always, must imply perfect -willingness, and even eagerness, to take on trust what cannot be verified by the individual conscience, though it begins, no doubt, in that which can be so verified. The Church was promised, and, as we believe, received from Christ, authority to develop its early institutions, and to guard its own doctrinal teaching against error ; and though Christians may fairly dispute when that authority was withdrawn,—as authority which is abused always will be withdrawn,—we do not think it can be questioned that it protected the Church for several centuries from the gravest perils, and gave to the world an inheritance of Christian character and Christian doctrine without which Christianity,—in other words, the Influence of Christ over disciples who never knew him,— could never have been solidly founded at all. It is and will remain a question at what point the special guidance granted to the Church as a whole was forfeited and when it first came to pass that the light which remained was the light which the ancient Church had diffused, but to which modern Churches have not been true. But it seems to us impossible to doubt that if Christ's claim be solid at all, it is -a solid claim to have laid the foundation of great institutions and to have started the development of great doctrines, slowly shaped through centuries of immature life, which we mist accept as of the very substance of his promises, and the very blossom and fruit of his divine career.