The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Intellectual Position of Christians

by E. M. Caillard
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 443-450

[Emma Marie Caillard, 1852-1927, was a writer of novels, science, religion, essays, and poetry. Some of her books are online and can be accessed from The Online Books Page.]


It is not possible in an attempt to define and illustrate the intellectual position of Christians, to pass over in silence the subject proposed in the title of the present essay, for it is one which all must feel to be of special and peculiar importance. In approaching its consideration, we must be careful not to confuse the Christian Scriptures with the Christian Revelation. That has not been made in a book, but in a life--the life of Christ. The real subject of our enquiry is, therefore, the relation of the inspired writings to the life and person of Christ; and bearing this in mind, it will seem most appropriate to begin with the four Gospels, which contain the only records we have of that life.

Over the meaning of inspiration we need not linger. It has already been defined in Article V. [of this series] as the enlarging and informing of existent faculties, "by a secondary operation of the same power by which they were first given and quickened." This being so, a human element must unquestionably enter into inspiration. The Divine message which has to be delivered must not only be couched in human language, but it must be grasped by human intelligence, and learned through human experience. In a word, it has to be spoken by men to men, and cannot therefore do other than bear marks of human limitation. It is here that such fatal mistakes have been made. Rightly apprehending that a Divine message must be Divinely safeguarded from human error, we have wrongly supposed, not that the safeguarding would consist in the Divine use of human limitations, but in the superseding of them altogether. Consequently the reproduction of the local colouring, the characteristic environment, the special features of the age in which the message was delivered, has proved a difficulty and a stumbling-block, instead of being thankfully accepted as a token that God could use the living intelligence, aspirations and experience of living men to speak to their brother men.

Turning to the Gospels, it is easy at once to mark the human limitations, and the Divine purpose fulfilled not in spite of,--that would be a wholly inadequate explanation of the impression produced,--but through them. What we may regard as the Divine Purpose was such a presentation of the Divine-human Personality of our Lord as should be true for all ages, all circumstances, all degrees of intellectual culture and ignorance; but this presentation had to be put forth in a special age to meet special requirements, and to suit, in the first place, a special and narrowly-circumscribed intellectual outlook. The very limitations of the Evangelists became weapons to fit them for this difficult, and from an a priori point of view, impossible achievement. We may safely say that it would have been impossible to a biographer or historian of the nineteenth century, occupied as he would necessarily have been, to preserve an exact chronological sequence, a due proportion of narrative, a balanced judgment as to the bearing of this or that event, person or society, upon the character or movement he was endeavouring to describe. The Evangelists did not approach their subject from this point of view. They were not concerned to present the world with a formal historical narrative, but only to reproduce, for the benefit of their fellow-Christians and converts, the impression made upon themselves by that unique life. We know the result. It is as unique as the life itself. The central figure of that fragmentary and imperfect fourfold record * stands out with a majesty and simplicity unapproachable in all the annals of mankind. Its lustre is not dimmed by the lapse of time, nor its lineaments marred by the most searching historical criticism of the most critical age the world has known, so that "whatever may be obscure or doubtful in the narrative of the Gospels, the nature of Christ's faith and the purport of His teaching [and we may add the constraining power of His personality] are clear and unmistakeable." [T. Bailey Saunders, Preface to Translation of Adolph Harnack's "Christianity and History."] We, no less than our fathers, can bear witness to the truth of the words,--"Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever."

* [More accurately twofold, since it appears beyond doubt that the Synoptic Gospels are derived to a great extent from a common source or sources. Yet the points of divergence which they present are full of interest as exemplifying the varying human element above referred to, the same materials being differently selected and arranged according to the way in which the idiosyncracies of the different writers (or compilers) enabled them to apprehend the character and person of our Lord.]

It is not difficult to perceive that the very fragmentariness,--from the point of view of formal history,--incompleteness of the Gospel records, has been conducive to this result. There is enough detail to convince us of the historical reality of the life, and of its relation to the time in which, and the surroundings among which it was lived;--there is too little to impede our apprehension of the fact that no single age, and no special surroundings, could exhaust its significance. The universal aspect of the life of Christ is no doubt chiefly characteristic (at any rate in its deeper, spiritual sense,) of the Gospel of St. John, but it is also continually and unmistakeably present in the Synoptics [Matthew, Mark, Luke, which contain many overlapping stories]. Perhaps there is no more significant instance of it than the way in which the writer of the second Gospel (regarded by critics as being in all probability one of the common sources from which the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke were derived,) strikes immediately into the adult life and opening ministry of the Lord, ignoring entirely those details of His birth and infancy with which the first and third Gospels supply us. The second and fourth Gospels alike commence the historical narrative with the preaching of John the Baptist, and their great dissimilarity, in most respects, only serves to emphasize the fact that their writers (in common with all earliest Christians,) accounted the earthly details of the earthly life, the date and manner of birth, the national descent, the human parentage, of very minor importance in comparison with that higher and more penetrating conception of their Lord, which represents Him as having neither "beginning of life nor end of days." In the language of St. Paul, "though they had known Christ after the flesh, now knew they Him so no more." [2 Cor. v. 16.] To men thus possessed with the realization of their Master's continual and ever present life, it would have seemed an impossible absurdity to throw any doubt upon His Divine personality and mission because of the existence of two (possibly more) entirely discrepant genealogies, or because the accounts of His birth and parentage presented some points of divergence and difficulty, or the testimony to His resurrection was such that even among the earliest disciples "some doubted." [Matt. xxviii. 16.] To them, the historical aspect of His life was not that of primary importance, but the door through which they had passed in order to attain that deeper, truer apprehension of Him which rendered their witness so powerful and convincing. If we want to share in their faith, and to partake in their vision, we must do as they did,--pass beyond the historical to the eternal and universal aspect of the living Lord, and experience for ourselves His abiding and constraining presence; then we shall look back upon the history, so much as we possess of it, with wholly different feelings. It will be to us the justification, not the basis of our faith; so that we shall be without fear of being robbed by critical results of that which no criticism can touch, or doubt obscure: "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." [2 Cor. iv. 6.] It is this to which the Gospels were intended to lead us, not to rest in the record which they have preserved for us, but to rise above and beyond that record to Him of Whom it tells, and the true testimony to Whom is not that of man, but of the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit. ["The witness which I receive is not from man, . . . . the Father which sent Me, He hath borne witness of Me."--John 5 v. 34 and 37.]

If we have attained this position, it will not appear to us an anomaly, but full of deep and hopeful meaning, that the historical aspect of our Lord's life is just now beset to so many minds with difficulty and perplexity. We have thought too exclusively of it. We have been inclined to rest in the past,--to think more of what Christ was, or was thought to be, during the brief period of His earthly ministry and suffering, than of what He is eternally. These doubts and questionings are to bring us back to a truer and more adequate apprehension of that Divine, indissoluble bond between Him and ourselves, which is what gives to His life on earth its whole validity. We shall not prize its records the less, but the more, because we have been led to appreciate them at their true worth, as not themselves the foundation of our faith, but as guides and incentives to the personal knowledge of God in Christ, which is alone sufficient for that foundation. With this conviction in our minds, the testimony of the Gospels themselves to the universal rather than the historical aspect of our Lord's life, becomes strikingly apparent. The narratives are not vague; in all that they tell us, they are full of precise, vivid, characteristic detail, but how much they do not tell, and how suggestive is their silence. The uncertainty of authorship, the complete absence of information on periods (such as those of the youth and early manhood of our Lord,) about which we have a natural desire to know, the slender evidence on which some of the principal events in the life rests; more than all, perhaps, the absence of particular maxims which so emphasizes the world-embracing application of our Lord's teaching even in the fragmentary condition in which it has come down to us, these facts all point to the same conclusion, viz.: that not Christ "after the flesh," but Christ in that unchangeable relation which is independent of time and circumstance is He in Whose power we are to live and die.

That His immediate disciples, and their successors in the first days of the Christian Church realized this, and felt the necessity of realizing it, even a cursory study of the epistles is sufficient to show. The facts of the life are almost invariably taken for granted, and the whole stress laid on their spiritual meaning. The eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, and the third chapter of the first epistle of St. John, are, in their different ways, magnificent examples of the manner in which the early Christians were taught to exercise their faith, and no word of what is there said, but is applicable to us now, and will be so to every succeeding generation. If the subordination of the special to the universal aspect is so conspicuous in the records of and comments on the life of Christ, which make up the bulk of the New Testament writings, we shall naturally expect the same kind of treatment of eternal truth in the older books of the Bible;--not only in the works of the Prophets, whose special mission it was to reason of "righteousness, temperance and judgment to come," but also in the historical books of the Old Testament; and in this we shall not be disappointed. A word of caution seems, however, necessary. There is a way of interpreting the Scriptures, and especially the prophetic Scriptures, which, though it does not confine their meaning to the exact age in which they were written, narrows it even more than this would do, by making it through some forced and artificial method of interpretation, refer merely to a special period or set of circumstances yet to come, or to some esoteric meaning capable of appreciation only by a few illuminati. We shall not in this manner free ourselves from the bondage of the letter. The universal application is to be reached through, not in defiance of the particular, as the Gospel records abundantly testify; and therefore the more we are able to realize the age, the society, the intellectual, and moral environment in which any of the sacred writings were produced, the better we shall understand in its broader aspect the lesson to be conveyed. An excellent illustration of this method of studying the Old Testament Scriptures is given in chapter V. of the most suggestive little work, "Inspiration and the Bible." [By R. F. Horton. The writer ventures to recommend the perusal of this volume to those of her readers who are not already acquainted with it.] Again, F. D. Maurice's interpretation of what is often regarded as more difficult to understand than any of the prophetic books of the Old Testament,--the Apocalypse,--is a striking example of the practical truths for all time which are contained in the visions of the seers, if we do but allow them to be guides to their own meaning. One further observation appears to be called for. It is very painful to some minds to admit the existence of any legendary element in the inspired writings, even in those of the Old Testament. Yet a candid study of them can lead to no other conclusion. In many instances, this is a great trial to faith, and one which is not unfrequently avoided by a refusal to consider the question. But in matters thus fundamental, it is never wise to blench facts or turn our back on difficulties. They are sure to revenge themselves by assuming distorted and unduly formidable proportions; whereas if we meet them with courage and calmness, we often find that the trouble is chiefly of our own making. The whole crux of the matter lies in the spirit in which we approach the study of the Bible. If it is with foregone conclusions as to what a collection of inspired writings ought to be, and what, therefore, we are determined to find it, we are sure to fall either into perplexity or dishonesty, because we are sure to find many passages which no amount of coercing will induce to fit in with our theory. If, on the contrary, we are content (as we should be in any other branch of study) not to come to conclusions until we have acquainted ourselves thoroughly with that about which we desire to form them, we shall find our way far clearer and more straightforward.

Are the Scriptures inspired or are they not? In other words, are we brought by them into closer touch with eternal spiritual truth, with the mind and will of God, than we are by any other literature? This is a question which can only be answered by a close and painstaking study of the Scriptures themselves. If they do not convince us of their own inspiration, it is certain that nothing else ever will; but if they do so convince us, it will not be because we have not treated them as we should the sacred books of other religions, but because we have, because we have let in on them all the light which modern critical and historical methods can supply, and accepted all the consequences which really follow (not which are merely supposed to follow,) from the application of such methods. When the Bible is thus treated as any other book, "with an unprejudiced mind, then, and not till then, its astounding intrinsic difference from all other sacred literatures begins to appear, and . . . we rise from our study more convinced than ever that the Bible is God's Book, and that it is inspired, not in the mean, mechanical sense which is alone recognized in most infidel writings, but in a wide and deep sense, which it is difficult to define just because it is God's way instead of man's way, and therefore like God's way in nature, inscrutable and high, 'we cannot attain unto it.'" [Preface to 1st edition of "Inspiration and the Bible" by R. F. Horton.]

If this is our conception of inspiration, the presence of an unquestionable legendary element in the Pentateuch and in other portions of the Scriptures will cause us no shock. We shall simply realize that God has used all literary means--legendary, historical, poetical,--as He uses every phase of human life and experience,--to bring home to us His eternal truths, and open our eyes to the presence of His informing, upraising Spirit through the whole range of knowledge, in its early and tentative, as well as in its more developed, exact, and certain forms. It is the more necessary that parents and teachers should realize this, because the question of how to teach the Bible to children is a difficult and pressing one. To a great extent, it must be decided according to the exigencies of each individual case; but one or two broad rules must always hold good. Christian parents who themselves feel the value of the Scriptures, and who are deeply sensible of the important place which a study of them should take in their children's education, will be careful, and rightly careful, to impress upon the young minds entrusted to their care, that the Bible is indeed God's Book, to be thought of and reverenced as such; but they must also be careful not to make this fact appear to depend upon any of those narrow and cramped theories of inspiration to which reference has above been made, and which have often been so fatal in their effects. Children must not be made to suppose that, because the Bible is God's Book, therefore everything contained in it is literally true; but rather that because it is God's Book, everything it contains is meant to teach us some truth which, if we take pains to understand, will help us to know more of God and of the way in which He deals with men, than we could do if these things had not been written "for our learning." It is not, of course, intended to suggest that the critical spirit should be encouraged in young children; far from this, but the enquiring mind is very early awake, and "Is it really true?" is quite as likely to be asked of Bible stories as any others. It is this question which parents and teachers must be prepared to answer without injuring in the mind of the little ones either the veracity or the sacredness of the Scriptures. They cannot do so unless they have first themselves asked and answered the enquiry, in what sense the things they are teaching are in fact true.

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