28 OCTOBER 1876, Page 9


THE Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol has been delivering this week a series of thoughtful addresses on the prevalent unbelief of the day, in which he describes that unbelief as rather a vague and driftless tendency than a fixed state of mind ; nay, the unbelievers, he says, have so completely succeeded in sus- pending their judgments, that they hardly believe even in their own unbelief. He traces this condition of things chiefly to three causes,—to the impression, produced by the historical criticism of modern times, of the vast uncertainty attending all ancient history, and especially all history involving stories of miracles ; to the advance of scientific notions which seem to dispense with the creative energy of God ; and to the new intensity with which the enigmas of life, the moral and metaphysical difficulties involved in the origin of evil, are urged upon the imagination of all of us. So far as regards the last two heads, we very much agree with the general drift of the Bishop's remarks. So far as we have yet seen them, they seem to be both acute and fair. But on the subject of historical criticism we cannot at all concur with the Bishop, who seems to us to do injustice to his op- ponents and to miss the point of the difficulty with which he has to deal. The leading position of the recent historical criticism "has always been the same," says the Bishop, that any narrative of facts which involves the miraculous element in it must, for this very reason, be regarded with the greatest suspicion. It is urged that early history in its earliest forms is found to involve nearly always the miraculous, but that investigation and close examination have never failed to show that the evidence on which the alleged miracles rest is totally un- trustworthy. If this be so with all ancient history, why, it is said, is the ancient history of the Jewish people to be supposed to form any exception to the general principle ? Why, too, it is added, is the same miraculous element in the history of the New Testa- ment to be regarded otherwise than as marking a prima facie reason why the narrative should not be regarded as historically

credible ? The answer to these objections is happily clear and reasonable, and has of late been set forth with con-

siderable force and cogency The answer, roughly stated, is this :—The narrative of the Old Testament, and still more that of the New Testament, is so essentially different in nature and character from that of the early and legendary narra- tives with which they have been compared, that the presence of the miraculous element in the one suggests rio just ground for concluding, merely because that element is present in the other, that the associated narrative is consequently mythical and un- trustworthy. If the narratives are essentially different in char- acter, then the very utmost that can be said is this, that the presence of the miraculous may raise a presumption against the credibility of the narrative, antecedent to any investigation of the nature of the narrative, but that it is on the results of a fair investigation of the document itself that the decision must ultimately be formed. Now, without entering further into the nature of the Holy Scriptures, as contrasted with other narratives in which the miraculous holds a place, this at least may be said, that in the Old Testament we have these unique characteristics,—first, a demonstrable continuity in the component portions, though these portions are numerous, diversified in character, and range over a period of a thousand years ; secondly, not only the presence of prophecies which can be shown to have been prior to the events to which they refer, and to have been verified in detail by those events, but a distinct continuity in the method of these prophecies, as well as convergence in their scope."

Now, in that passage we do not think that Dr. Ellicott has accurately stated either the difficulty felt about the Scriptures by those who have studied the methods of historical criticism, or the

kind of answer which, if they accepted that answer as true in fact, they would think adequate. We should state it thus :—' The more we learn of history, both ancient and modern, the more we learn to accept with the greatest possible reserve the evidence of a single authority—uncorroborated by independent testimony —for any event whatever, but still more for any event handed down by tradition and not first recorded on contemporary evi- dence ; and most of all, for any event of a very marvellous character which, even if recorded by contemporary evidence and by more than one separate authority, would be received with hesitation, unless we could be sure not only that the writers who recorded it had a firm faith in what they wrote, but that they had the means of discriminating fully between illusion and fact.' We should deny that the modern school of historical criticism would draw so broad a distinction as the Bishop intimates between the kind of evidence requisite for miraculous events, and the kind of evidence requisite for any other events. They would say that all belief should be governed by evidence, and that even a very ordinary and probable event ought not to be unhesitatingly accepted as true on anonymous evidence of which we do not know the value,—that the more unlikely the event, the weightier should be the evidence by which it is authenticated ; and that in the case of a mere tradition conveyed for many generations by the oral testimony of fathers to their children, it is hardly possible to expect that more than very broad features indeed of the national history should be faithfully handed down, while the individual character of the critical events is almost sure to be greatly altered in the course of transmission, even through the most loyal memories and the most faithful hearts. They would say, further, that in the case of the Old Testament, the older narratives are demonstrably not contemporary, but by their frequent allusions to events of a much later date prove that they assumed their present form, at all events, in a very much later age ; that even of those narratives which may be contemporary, the evidence is very seldom confirmed from any independent source, and sometimes considerably weakened by narratives of a decidedly different complexion (as, for instance, in the case of the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles) from an independent source. Lastly, they would say that this condition of the evidence, so far from being adequate to sustain our confidence in their testimony to very extraordinary events, is hardly enough to warrant complete belief in any but the most broad and popular aspects of ordinary events; and that this view is confirmed by observing that in proportion as the Old-Testament history approaches times in which it relies on contemporary records, the number of the marvels dwindles, and with the ex- ception of a few predictions which may or may not be of the kind whose accurate fulfilment can be adequately tested, there is no great marvel to record. Now to the force of the difficulty thus raised by historical criticism, Dr. Ellicott's reply seems to he quite insufficient. It is true, we think, that the early history of the Scripture narratives is very distinct in character from all other early history. It is true that a most unique, character- istic, complete, and graphic realism in its pictures of human character and life, with a permanent confidence in the hidden guidance of a divine hand,—runs all through it. It is true also that there is " continuity in the component portions," if we mean by continuity, continuity of faith, continuity in the attitude of mind with which calamity and prosperity are alike regarded, con- tinuity of expectation in looking towards a still more glorious future. All this is true, and is, as Dr. Ellicott says, very remark- able. But all this is very insufficient to remove the doubts which historical criticism casts over the trustworthiness of all tradition, and in a less degree over all unverified historical chronicles ex- cept in relation to the very broadest features of the national life, —which doubts are as clearly legitimate in relation to Hebrew his- tory as to any other. Do the unique features of that history, for instance, prevent much of its chronology from being confused, not to say impossible? many of its statistics from being incon- sistent with the facts narrated? a considerable portion of its poli- tics from being coloured by party feeling, and written from antago- nistic points of view ? How are we to rely on a history so full of these incidental defects as is the account of the Exodus, for example, for the historical accuracy of miracles of the most unique kind? How are we to take an authority that comes into conflict with itself,—per- haps as often as even the history of Herodotus,—for marvels which, though much less puerile, and more worthy of the occasion, than the marvels of Herodotus, would yet need as great a consensus of testimony as any which the conditions of modem history could supply in order to win belief from a modern historian? What, for instance, to take a practical illustration, can we say of the evidence for the sweetening of the waters of Jericho

by Elisha ? Can the brief narrative, in which no contem- porary evidence is even alleged, and which bears on its very face the proof of being recorded long after the incident was sup- posed to have taken place, pretend for a moment to take its place among the events of authentic history? Unless the documents in which it is contained can be proved by any a priori proof to be inspired,—and Dr. Ellicott does not even suggest this,—the most that can be said is that it is similar in character to many other traditions in the same history, and not more marvellous than they. But is that a ground on which even a remarkable non-miraculous event would be accepted as historical, if it appeared in any other history than a book of the Old Testa- ment?

For our own parts, while we accept what Bishop Ellicott says of the unique character of the Old-Testament history, while we cordially believe that its continuous and indelible realism in painting man, and its constant and deep belief in the Providence of God, affords a testimony at once to the honesty of the narra- tives, and the deep foundation of Hebrew history in a genuine revelation, we cannot recognise anyfeature in it which should assure us against those great mistakes of detail which occur in all other history,—especially as we do find here and there those remarkable inconsistencies between one part of the history and another which are characteristic of all human authorship, and especially of the authorship of an unpractised and easily believing age. It seems to us that historical criticism makes an unanswerable case against the habit of assigning anything like very high authority as to detail to such histories as the earlier narratives of the Old Testa- ment, and that no one can reasonably believe in any very high authority for them except on some such ground as the infalli- bility of the Church whose canonical Scriptures they form. But as we cannot see any proof of such infallibility, and, indeed, find in the Old-Testament histories much which is quite incon- sistent with it, we should say that, on the whole, the kind of hesitation which historical criticism has taught us in accepting the details of Old-Testament history—especially the early his- tory— is well justified. Not the less we should maintain that the coherent belief of the prophets and historians in the divine purpose which formed Israel into a distinct people, and moulded it for a special function in the life of the world, —a belief which shines through all the early traditions, the early records, and the early poems of the people as clearly as through its latest prophecies,—is good and striking evidence that they were a people chosen by God to understand His character and declare it to the rest of the earth ; and that their national character had been formed,—if not exactly by the experience de- scribed, yet by experience more or less closely resembling it in the confidence it had given them in the mighty band and outstretched arm of Jehovah,—for the very purpose for which it was ultimately used by the divine power. It is quite one thing to say that all these curious old books, full of the evidence of human imperfection, not only in the subjects treated, but in the persons who treated them, are to be implicitly trusted as accurate records, though they neither claim inspiration for themselves, nor show any trace of completeness and exceptional accuracy, and quite another, and a very different thing indeed, to accept them heartily as the reflec- tion of a true faith, extending'through many ages, in the guiding hand of a God who was not only teaching the people whose history they embody the lesson of righteousness, but filling them with the expectation of a destiny which would, through their race, bring life, and light, and hope in a broad stream of regenerating power into the world.