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OCR'd text of "The study of Christian Evidences" by Rev. Professor Baden Powell and published in "The Edinburgh Review", October 1847, No. CLXXIV

ART. V. l. The Doctrine of Development and conscience considered in relation to the Evidences of Christianity, &c. By the Rev. W. PALMER, M.A. of Worcester College, Oxford. London: Rivington: 1846. 8vo.

2. An Essay on the Miracles recorded in Ecclesiastical History. By the Rev. J. H. NEWMAN. Oxford: Palmer: 1843. 8vo.

3. A Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion. By THEODORE PARKER. London: Chapman: 1846.

ON a former occasion (No. CLXIX. Art. 8), we adverted to the close connexion which we believe subsists, however little it may be generally acknowledged, between the spirit of unbelief and the principles really involved in the mystical pretensions of a prevalent theological system, apparently of the most opposite kind. We dwelt also on some of the difficulties which the study of Christian antiquity presents, when viewed in connexion with that system; and which were seen to bear directly on the evidences upon which the proof of Christianity itself ultimately rests. These difficulties can only be removed by a stricter examination into the actual nature of the Christian evidences, than many are willing, or than some even think it right, to bestow. The study of them, however, is always obligatory on us: While at the present day, to be at all commensurate with the gravity of the subject, it must be conducted with special reference to the views and the objections which characterise our times. Every age has its own points of view.

It is characteristic of a theological system like that which now assumes the title of ‘Anglo Catholicism,’ that it bases the whole of Christian belief, and the authority of the New Testament itself, on the traditions and legends of the early church; and that it derives its principal doctrines from accumulated precedents, the prescriptive teachings, and successive developments, of Fathers and Councils. Such a system of necessity reduces the evidences of the Gospel, as a Divine revelation, to the lowest standard. And, whatever may be its name and outward profession, it must end in one or other of the opposite extremes - pass onward into the schools of modern rationalism, or take refuge under time ancient mantle of infallibility, spread out for mankind at Rome.

Such was our argument. If it needed confirmation, confirmation will be found in the publication by Mr Palmer, whelm we have named at the head of the present’ article. Its author is attached to that section of the Anglo-Catholic school, which, having at first adopted the principle of church authority in its utmost extent, became suddenly alarmed on discovering the fearful consequences to which their principle was inevitably tending. As soon as their eyes were opened by the ‘Developments’ of Mr Newman and others, they set to work to find some sort of safe midway position, where they could stop, or appear to stop.

The authority of the church,’ it is now ascertained, contains within itself tendencies subversive of true belief: and the very stewardship and developing office’ confided to it (once not to be impugned without heresy) are seen to have betrayed their trust. ‘[he right .‘of private judgment (once so decried) is therefore now asserted. No other barrier can be relied upon as capable of stemming the current which they had let loose, but could not guide; and which was setting so fast towards the dark unfathomable abyss, in which both Reason and Revelation disappear.

With Mr. Palmer himself, such an attempt was particularly hazardous. Having, as we pointed out before, (No. CLXIX. p. 212,) formerly upheld church authority and tradition, to the extent of staking the whole credit of Christianity and its evidences upon that principle, it could not but be a difficult and delicate undertaking to contradict or modify it. Yet we have the satisfaction of seeing him, in the present publication, adducing all his stores of theological erudition in support of the very same conclusion which we before indicated. A considerable portion of the work is devoted to the formal establishment of the newly-discovered inference, that the systems of development and of rationalism are one; and that, in discarding all rational evidence, the various forms of mysticism are in reality undistinguishable from scepticism. Grateful for Mr Palmer’s assistance in our general argument, we must decline, however, always accepting his application of particulars. He is a writer of unwearied theological research; but his philosophical studies have not pro-eminently qualified him to sit in judgment on systems professedly based upon philosophical principles. He is accordingly too prone to condemn them in the mass, under the obnoxious name of rationalism. But, to justify the use of the term Rationalism in any obnoxious sense, it must be confined to speculations which, when treating of religion, dispense with those securities which, according to all principle and all reason, are our only certain means of arriving at the truth, in any case whatever. We are no advocates for unreasonableness of any kind; and rational religion, we willingly admit, may have as much to fear from hypotheses which involve the Gospel in one universal cloud of

myth and fable, or which seek no further ground for belief than sentiment and feelings, as from the ‘developing office,’ or arrogant infallibility of any church.

In our former article, we made some remarks on the close connexion subsisting between the scheme of Catholic authority, and that (at first sight apparently so little connected with it) which refers every thing to internal emotions and spiritual impressions; while both agree in superseding and discarding rational evidence.* This kind of religion, consisting of internal and spiritual emotions, takes, with many, the form of referring every thing to the direct and irresistible influence of the Divine Spirit imparted to the faithful. But, with others of a professedly more philosophical turn, ideas of a very similar kind are traced to internal persuasions, natural impulses, or implanted aspirations, supposed to belong intimately to the very constitution of man. in a word, while, according to the former class, Christianity is viewed as the gift of grace to God’s elect, according to the latter it is accepted by man, merely as the best exponent of his moral nature: And a certain school of theological writers at the present day has been characterised by attempts to draw out the same leading ideas into a recondite system; and to establish, on metaphysical and psychological grounds, a formal theory, pretending to embrace nothing less than the entire compass of religious belief, in all its forms, and traced up to all its original sources, which are considered to be certain common elements universally present to all mankind. This was the spirit of Blanco White. But as perhaps the most complete specimen of this kind of speculation which has hitherto appeared in our language, we have named the work of Mr Parker of Boston, U. S. Into so very wide a field as this, however, we cannot now pretend to enter in detail, but we must content ourselves with recommending the work to our readers’ notice, as one of a remarkable kind, which cannot be fairly judged of by detached extracts. A remark or two, however, may be interposed on its main principle.

On an analysis of human nature, all religion, it is supposed, may be traced to certain ultimate principles in our constitution, of which, objective faith, or formal belief, are but the outward and occasional manifestations. Thus the first germ of all religion is represented to reside in a sort of intuitive sense of infirmity, helplessness, and dependence: to this is superadded a natural feeling of awe and veneration for the vast and the unknown, which of course directly leads to the sentiment and practice of adoration.

The conception of a Deity, and the sense of his perfections, are in like manner elaborated out of similar rudiments, existing or implanted in the human faculties. The elevated emotions of faith, devotion, duty, beneficence, and the like, may be equally traced to their elements; and in their true form and essence are purely internal, influential, practical sensations taking a great variety of external forms, according to diversities of circumstances and individual conditions.

Out of these principles, existing in the constitution of man, Mr Parker conceives that he has elicited one simple combination, which constitutes the highest and purest kind of religious sentiment. In this consists his notion of an absolute and elementary religion: which, resting on necessary philosophical grounds, must properly claim a superiority over all others; or rather, it is that which really pervades all forms of faith, thought in some it is almost completely hidden in the mass of external adjuncts, while in others it stands out less obscured. In all cases, however, its degree of disclosure, more or less perfect, is the test by which the merits of all particular or outward religious systems must be judged. This apparently is the sense in. which Mr Parker, in his third book, explains the relations of his principle to Christianity, which is shown to be nearly identical in its essence with his pure and absolute standard. In right of this identity it appeals at once to the internal principle in the hearts of all men, is irresistible with all really possessed of that principle, and in their case supersedes the necessity of all external evidence.

Mr Parker is a very original writer but, on such a subject, it is impossible not to be in the track of former speculations. In some particulars he has reminded us of Lord Herbert of Chierbury, of De Wette, and Schleiermacher; and, much more so, of a once celebrated work, 'Christianity as old as the Creation;' though we think he has been more immediately indebted to a well-known publication by the late Benjamin Constant.

Whatever Christianity has in common with Natural Theology, must of course be reproduced in a system which professes to be based on a conformity to human nature. On the other hand, all that has been called ‘the peculiarities of Christianity’ must, almost as necessarily, be left out of it, and will remain to be accounted for upon other grounds. A highly poetical religion, no doubt, ~ here set before us, and is described with fearless and glowing eloquence. But, instead of recognising in it the religion of the New Testament, we feel that we are looking at a series of dissolving views, which, even while we are gazing on them, make themselves air. It is in vain that we are handed over to metaphorical interpretation that universal solvent. Christianity is a historical religion, with supernatural attestations. Its external facts have to be verified, as well as our spiritual nature to be lifted up. and set at rest. The questions still recur what was the actual origin of Christianity ? what its actual claims? and how upheld ? questions, which no mere Theory of human nature or mental impressions can possibly dispose of.

The scope and character of what have been called treatises on ‘the Evidences of Christianity,’ have varied extremely in different ages following the nature of the objections which for the time seemed most prominent, or most necessary to be combated. Thus, the primitive writers of this class were ‘apologists’ pleading in defence of the believers against their heathen opponents and oppressors, rather than calm investigators of questions of abstract evidence. In later ages, as the authority of tradition and pretensions to infallibility gained ground, to discuss evidence became superfluous; and, accordingly, of this branch of theological literature the mediaeval church presents hardly any specimens. At the Reformation, Roman Catholics and Protestants were agreed, or rather were compelled to take their ground of quarrel lower down the stream. The general truth of a system must be assumed by both parties, before they can be eager to take away each other’s lives on differences of interpretation. If burning zeal is above reason, offensive profaneness and polite indifference are below it. And all of these had their turn. Sceptical controversies came last. Their memorials still remain upon our book-shelves, in the form of metaphysics, at once ponderous and subtle ; but they remain only as memorials, representing the singular contentions of former times strange in their subject-matter, and strangely carried on.

If we look to those who, in our schools and colleges, have been regarded as the standard authorities on ‘the Evidences’ for the last two centuries, how great has been the change, and how indicative of the progress of opinion! From the erudite folios of Jackson and Stillingfleet, or the more condensed arguments of

Clarke on the Attributes,’ and’ Grotius De Veritate ‘ the universal text-books of the last century how entire was the transition in the present to Butler and Paley! and, notwithstanding the aid furnished by the writings of Douglas and Watson of Horseley and Porteous not to mention a host of other powerful champions how general is the admission at present of their insufficiency, and of the want of a standard work suited to our times!* New polemical schools have recently risen up, and require to be met on their own grounds. In this state of things, it is but a poor policy in English writers to keep aloof from the fear, apparently, of doing more harm, by bringing a new class of religious difficulties before the public, than good, by resolving or refuting them. But discussion can not and ought not to be avoided; and any future manual will fall short of our reasonable expectations, in case the young student of divinity shall not find in it the whole argument displayed, in all its strength and with all its weakness, in a manner worthy of the subject and the age.

On proceeding to examine into the reality of. the claims of Christianity as a Divine revelation, the primary subject of inquiry must necessarily be that of the authenticity and authority of those written records, to which at least the majority of Protestant advocates appeal, as the sole depositary of the Gospel. This is a question which is unavoidably mixed up, as well with reference to Christian antiquity, and to the necessity for drawing a line of demarcation between the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, on the one hand, as with the establishment of the intrinsic claims and historical evidences of these sacred records, on the other.

Now, nothing can be more injurious to the cause of truth, than the disposition, which has been far too common, to overstate the testimony; and to strain beyond all rational bounds the argument derived from it. We must be content to accept the evidence such as we find it; and so far only as we are guided by its strict tenor, shall we succeed in finding substantial grounds for a belief in the authority of the New Testament, or be able to form a distinct and rational idea of its nature. The transmission of the New Testament to the present times, is a question of precisely the same kind as that of any other ancient writings which have come down to us. The evidence is manifestly of such a nature as cannot be stated in any summary manner. It comes from almost every quarter. It depends on accumulated arguments. furnished both by external facts and internal confirmations on the labour of archeologists and interpreters the resources of criticism and philology and, above all, on the moral judgment, trained and exercised to discover the stamp of genuineness, and appreciate the marks which distinguish reality from fable, or truth from imposture.

Our critical difficulties in this case are the same as necessarily recur in all appeals to antiquity neither more nor less. We have to rely, of course, on the presumed ability and honesty of an unknown series of transcribers. But, after this reliance is granted or assumed, there will remain occasional deficiencies and exceptions in the critical evidence for the received text. The best critics are found to differ in opinion, both as to the general state of the text, and the reception of particular passages. There are sometimes variations, sometimes suspicions, concerning existing readings and, in some instances, doubts as to larger portions, too serious to be overlooked in a dispassionate inquiry.

The testimony to the books of the New Testament, derived, whether from the quotations of a long series of early Christian writers, or from the attacks of the adversaries of the faith, or fiom the common appeal of controversial disputants, collected by the industry of modern research, undoubtedly proves the authority attributed to them in the conspiring opinion of those ages. That opinion, however, must itself be amenable to the critical judgment of modern times; and documentary evidence has been too often found fallacious, not to justify modern criticism in relying mainly on the internal evidence in the case of the Scriptures evidence at once so abundant and so decisive.

Indisputable, though slight peculiarities of style, manners,, allusion, opinions, habits of thought, afford indications which mark the age and country of the writers, and cannot be mistaken by the critical scholar. Minute circumstances, undesigned coincidences, even trivial contradictions, the visible influence of national prejudices and popular belief, all carry back the reader into the immediate presence of the writers.

It is now, indeed, admitted, nearly on all hands, that the preponderating mass of attestation, external and internal combined, affords a satisfactory authentication of the New Testament as the production of the Apostolic age. The more the case is examined into, the more strongly does it appear that the record it contains, though perhaps imperfect in its details, and in some parts uncertain in its origin, is the only ground on which we can form our conclusions respecting the nature and design of the original institution of Christianity the more irresistible is our impression of their distinct pre-eminence in character and authority over the other remains of Christian antiquity, sometimes so imprudently advanced to almost a level with them.

And it is only on the same critical grounds on which the general authenticity of the New Testament rests, that we can establish the exclusiveness of its authority; or maintain that no other authentic records of the Apostles or first founders of Christianity have come down to us. For, to say nothing of such acknowledged forgeries as the Apostolic constitutions and liturgies, and the several spurious gospels, the question of the genuineness of the alleged remains of the Apostolic Fathers, though often overlooked, is very material. Any genuine remains of the Apostle’ Barnabas (Acts xiv. 14, ix. 24, xiii. 1), of Hermas, the contemporary (Rom. xvi. 14), and Clement, the highly commended and gifted fellow labourer of St Paul (Phil. iv. 3), could scarcely be regarded as less sacred than those of Mark and Luke, of whom personally we know less. It is purely a question of criticism. At the present day, the critics best competent to determine it, have agreed in opinion, that theextant writings ascribed to Barnabas and Hernias are wholly spurious the frauds of a later age.* How much suspicion attaches to the 1st Epistle of Clement (for the fragment of the second is also generally rejected), is manifest from the fact, that in modern times it has never been allowed the place expressly assigned to it among the canonical books prefixed to the celebrated Alexandrian MS., in which the only known copy of it i~ included. The remains of Ignatius and Polycarp are perhaps better attested; but, though called Apostolic Fathers, they have no claim to rank among the first founders of Christianity.

The importance of the question of the genuineness of the remains of the Apostolic Fathers, is often strangely overlooked nevertheless, as regards the actual companions of the Apostles, the least consideration shows, that even those writers who have been most anxious to draw a line, do so with a very feeble hand. Take, for example, the statement of the strenuous advocate of Scripture, Dr Stillingfleet

‘Well might Scaliger complain, that the interval from the last of the Acts to the middle of Trajan, in which time Quadratus and lgnatius began to flourish, was a ‘tempus αδηλον,’ as Varro speaks a mere chaos of time filled with the rude conceptions of Papias, Hernias, and others, who, like Hannibal, when they could not find a way through, would make one either by force or fraud.’ (Irenicum, p. 297.)

These expressions, strong as they are, are scarcely sufficiently significant of the real distinction. So, though somewhat more definite, the assertion of a later writer :

‘The remarkable difference,’ observes Dr Neander, ‘between the writings of the Apostles and those of the Apostolic Fathers, who are yet so close upon the former in point of time, is a remarkable phenomenon of its kind. While in other cases such a transition is usually quite gradual, in this case we find a sudden one. Here, then, is no gradual transition, but a sudden spring a.remark which is calculated to lead us to a recognition of the peculiar activity of the Divine Spirit in the souls of the Apostles.’ (Hist. of Church, ii. 329, transl.)

If we desiderate a stouter protest against the Apostolic Fathers, it is because of the height of their pretensions. For, it must not be forgotten that Ignatius expressly lays claim to inspiration (Ep. ad Eph. xx. and ad Tull. iv. v.) that Irenæus quotes Hermas as Scripture, and Origen speaks of him as inspired (in. Ep. ad Rom. lib. x.); while Polycarp, in modestly disclaiming to be put on a level with the Apostles, clearly implies there would have been no essential distinction in the way of his being ranked in the same order (ad Phil. § 3.) But the question is, how are these pretensions substantiated?

Our divines do not appear to have been sufficiently aware of the importance of the question. In fact, it is only in later times that criticism has been at all exercised on the subject. Catholic editors, like Cotelerius, were of course precluded from these embarrassing discussions; but it is difficult to understand the state of mind of a Protestant, as in the instance of Archbishop Wake, who, in his ‘Apostolic Fathers,’ includes the ‘Shepherd’ of Hermas, and the ‘Epistle’ of Barnabas, apparently entertaining no question as to their authenticity, while yet he does not regard them as a part of the New Testament. We are tempted to ask, in such cases, what is the notion held of Scripture? The only adequate announcement of the distinction with which we are acquainted in any English divine, is that so forcibly expressed by Jortin. He is referring, indeed, immediately to the case of the so-called Apostolic constitutions; but his words are equally applicable to the parallel case of the Apostolic Fathers, supposing that we profess to believe that there is any peculiar claim to divinity in the New Testament:---

‘If genuine, they are a sacred treatise, and of equal authority with the New Testament; if they are not genuine, they are an infamous imposture; for which the forger well deserved the punishment inflicted by the Roman laws on Falsarii.’ (Remarks on Eccl. Hist. i. 229.)

When we pass to examine the contents of the Scriptures themselves, and analyse the nature of our convictions, we must remember, that the very notion of evidence offered in support of any thing, implies that it is of a nature cognisable to our faculties. Whatever is adduced as a proof, must be amenable to the laws of rational belief, and to the analogies with which we are conversant. If not, it fails in its object. A mystery proved by another mystery, is the old cosmogony of the elephant standing on the tortoise. A witness who is not to be cross-examined, does more harm than good to the cause in which he is produced. By the same great principles, all inductive knowledge is acquired, by means of which we learn the laws of belief, and how to estimate the credibility of testimonies, and to proportion our conviction according to the amount and quality of the evidence, and the nature of the facts which are to be proved. The Christian religion is an historical religion. But all historical testimony challenges a critical examination of its object and character; and after the general credit of any historical record has been established, the credit due to any supernatural statements which they may contain, will not only justify, but demand, a distinct examination.

Few questions have been more debated, than the place which properly belongs to supernatural events among the general proofs of a revelation; and more especially, what is the place assigned to them among the general proofs of Christianity? A change in this respect appears to have come over our own writers in later times. We think that it is now generally acknowledged, that Paley took too exclusive a view, in insisting on Miracles as the sole, or even the principal evidence of a Divine revelation. The difficulty of the question may be conceived, when we find a professed advocate for miracles, even to the extent of those of the ecclesiastical legends, no less a person than Mr Newman, expressly contending that very few of the Scripture miracles fulfil the precise tests laid down by Leslie, Lyttleton, Douglas, and other writers, whose arguments he discards as altogether unsatisfactory. (Essay, 107, &c.)

But in all these discussions, there is a fundamental question What was the general antecedent credibility of supernatural interposition? Among the older writers, that point was but little thought of. The most philosophical confine themselves to estimating the value of testimony, and. the general laws of the probability of its failure, in some instances drawn out into mathematical computation of chances, while, for the most part, they enter immediately on the details of evidence. On the other hand, the recent rationalistic speculators begin, by assuming, with equally little notice or examination, the incredibility of any proper supernatural interposition, at least in external events, and to the extent of superseding the ordinary laws of nature. Thus Strauss* speaks of the ‘impossibility’ of miracles, as a point almost admitted; yet, in any really philosophical discussion of the subject, this fundamental question must take precedence; while it can only be investigated to any useful purpose, by writers thoroughly acquainted with both metaphysical and physical philosophy. In applying their philosophy to the special case of Christianity, its own learning will be also required; that is, a critical knowledge of the New Testament, and of the speculations by which, on whatever principles, the nature of the interposition represented by it, has been attempted to be explained.

Another ground of antecedent improbability has been relied on, from the supposed imbecility of human nature. When all other objections are overcome, it may still be suggested, that our faculties, which are strong enough to justify a belief in natural religion, are not strong enough to bear us out in the belief of a revealed. It will be mortifying, indeed, to be obliged to fall from our aspirations, after a more close communion with a higher nature than our own, upon this sort of objection; and to be kept out of possession of this great inheritance, only in consequence of being incapable of understanding the evidence by which our title to it is supported.

This last consideration has been treated with great ability by Mr Bentham, in his work on Evidence, and by Mr John Mill in his work on Logic: And modern divines have become aware of the necessity of anticipating the difficulties which belong to it. Hence the principle adopted by Dean Lyall (Propædia Prophetica), of distinguishing between the occurrence of an extraordinary or unaccountable event, and the opinion that it was occasioned by Divine interposition ; hence Döederlein’s remarks (Inst. Theol. Christ., § 9, 10) on the difficulty of determining what is a supernatural event ; hence Mr Penrose’s argument, concerning such acts as are understood to be the effects of superhuman power, which yet are not necessarily or directly shown to be Divine. (The Use Qf Miracles in Proving a Revelation, &c.) The necessity of these distinctions will appear, when we recollect that the Jews and early opponents of Christianity did not deny the fact of the Christian miracles, but ascribed then universally to magic and evil spirits. Henry Martin was met in the same way by the Persian Mahommedans. A people is proof against miracles, when it once believes that its own sheiks have the power of raising from the dead.

In all cases of moral evidence; the importance of a due philosophical discussion of the question of antecedent credibility, is more clearly seen, the more we reflect on the actual grounds of belief. In ordinary affairs, and even in scientific conclusions, our convictions, to a much greater extent than is commonly thought of, depend more on our impressions as to antecedent credibility, than on the actual details of testimony, or an examination of the assemblage of facts. Such examination is often very slight just enough to give some exemplification, or little more, of the truth; which we embrace at first, under a previous general impression of its probability, or from its accordance with established analogies.

In order to obtain any satisfactory view of the probability of a revelation, or of the proof of it which we are entitled to expect, we must have recourse to an enlarged apprehension of the general evidences of the Divine perfections, especially as manifested in the providential and moral government of the world. It must be upon a due appreciation of the comprehensiveness of the Divine operations in the guidance of the moral as wel1 as the physical creation, that we can alone form such worthy conceptions of the modes and means of interposition in the regulation of human affairs in general, and of God’s spiritual manifestations in particular, as are more immediately implied in the disclosure of a revelation of the Divine will and purposes, for the salvation of the human race. The evidences of natural theology rest on the proofs of unity of design, derived from the harmony and order of the natural world; and the reasoning mind cannot doubt, that the moral world is in reality governed by laws of equal uniformity and universal adaptation, though comparatively little open to our examination.

On such general principles on the same broad basis as that on which the evidences of natural Theology repose on the ground of there being no real breach of some great laws of uniformity, however unknown to us the most philosophic defence of Revelation has been supplied; and views of the case nearly similar, in principle at least, have been adopted by some of the most approved advocates of Christianity, even of very opposite schools ; formerly recognised by Bishop Watson (Third Letter to Gibbon), it has been in different degrees upheld by Dr Arnold (Modern Hist. 137), and by Dean Lyall (Prop. Proph. 392) advocated by a learned dissenting divine, Dr Pye Smith (Scrip. Geol. 88, and note, 161, 1st ed) illustrated by mathematical analogies by Mr Babbage (Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, p. 99) and, moreover, apparently admitted by Mr Newman.

Such a view disencumbers the subject, not only of the question of antecedent credibility of miracles, but of many other difficulties, which have been made matter of cavil and objection. In a coincidence with the pre-established order of events, appealed to as concurring with the disclosure of a moral and religious revelation, and as combined with, and corroborating, the testimony of a multitude of other proofs, external and internal, we trace design, and thence evidence of a common origin; and are led to acknowledge Divine manifestations, accrediting the Divine word, to those to whom it is addressed, according to their moral capacities to receive it.

Granting its possibility, supernatural agency, it may be suggested, might be interposed in a variety of ways, by providences as special as the providential government of the Jews, without the world at large, or even the parties principally concerned, whether nations or private persons, being made aware that it is taking place. For instance, God has promised to keep open communications between the Holy Spirit and the soul of man: But we have no promise that the communications shall be made in such a manner as to be capable of proof. On the contrary, in the instance of a revelation, adequate proof of the Divine authority under which it issues, is an indispensable condition. In what a dilemma would any other supposition leave the human race! Responsible, on the one hand, for receiving a false message on the other, for rejecting a true one yet no sufficient means provided for discerning which was true, and which was false! Now, when with this view we examine the evidence adduced in behalf of the Christian dispensation, it will be seen, that miracles are only partially relied on, and that many things are to be attended to, to enable us to set a proper estimate on their value.

A long list of precautionary rules has been provided for us by many eminent writers, not so much, perhaps, in the character of criteria of truth, as of guards against fraud and error. We must take care, in our investigation of the Scripture miracles, not to lose sight of the distinction between signs and wonders; that is, between the intrinsically marvellous nature of an event, and its being made the symbol or attestation of an inspired announcement. Another distinction, that according to which the Jew and Gentile are respectively appealed to, by the particular signs and evidences best suited to their apprehensions and condition, involves a principle of equal importance in its application. But the rule of rules, which approaches as nearly to a test as the nature of the subject seems to allow, is the rule which makes the force of evidence from miracles, depend on their conjunction with internal evidence, and on their conspiring with a high and worthy object.

Dean Lyall has entered largely into this important qualification of the evidence, in connexion with his general argument. He also commends the answer given by Origen and Tertullian to the pretended miracles of Apollonius not directly denying them, but pointing out that they had no object, or connexion with other evidence (Prop. Proph. 441). We must fall back on Dr Johnson’s limitations : ‘Why, sir, Hume, taking the proposition simply, is right; but the Christian Revelation is not proved by miracles alone; but as connected with prophecies, and with the doctrines, in confirmation of which miracles were wrought!

Dr Arnold indeed carries this view of the question still further: he not only contends for the combination of the different branches of evidence, but places miracles altogether in quite a secondary position. ‘Miracles,’ he says, ‘are the natural accompaniment of the Christian Revelation.’ .. .. . .‘But miracles must not be allowed to overrule the Gospel; for it is only through our belief in the Gospel that we accord our belief to them.’ (Lect. on Mod. Hist. 133, 137.) It is difficult to perceive any grave distinction between these views and the argument of Döederlein, that ‘the truth of the doctrine does not depend on the miracles; but we must first be convinced of the doctrine by its internal evidence.’ A similar conviction must have been at the bottom of Pascal’s declaration ‘Je ne pane pas ici des miracles de Moise, de Jesus Christ, et des Apôtres, parcequ’ils ne paraissent pas d’abord convainçans, et que je ne veux -mettre ici en evidence que tous les fondemens de cette religion Chrétienne, qui sont indubitables, et qui ne peuvent ètre mis en doute par quelque personne qui ce soit.’ (Pensées, Par. ii. Art. xvii. § ix.)

The necessity for a combination of the evidence of miracles with that of the doctrine, was admitted even under the Jewish dispensation. We read there of false prophets who might ‘give signs and wonders’ which might ‘come to pass;’ but this was still to be subjected to the test of their doctrine (Deut. xiii. 1), and was to be rejected if they led their hearers ‘after other Gods.’ In like manner, St Paul warns the Galatians against ‘another gospel,’ if preached even ‘by an angel from heaven;’ (Gal. 1. 8), and, even according to Christ’s admonition, ‘false Christs and false prophets should show signs and wonders, such as might deceive, if possible, the very elect’ (Matt. xxiv. 24.) The strength of the battle in behalf of a Revelation must be centred, therefore, in its internal evidence; from which it necessarily follows, that, as the main ground of the admissibility of such attestations is the worthiness of the object the doctrine, to receive them, its unworthiness will discredit even the most distinctly alleged apparent miracles: and such worthiness or unworthiness depends solely on our moral judgment of the consistency of the doctrine with other acknowledged truths. Thus Archbishop Whately, in relation to the character of Christ, as conspiring with the external attestations of his mission, strongly remarks (speaking of some who would ascribe a double doctrine to him), ‘If I could believe Jesus to have been guilty of such subterfuges . . . . I not only could not acknowledge him as sent from God, but should reject him with the deepest moral indignation.’ (Kingdom of Christ, Essay i. § 12.)

We have said above that it was necessary (and it was fortunately by no means difficult) to draw a line between the canonical Scriptures, and all other writings of the Apostolical age. For the same reasons, it is equally fitting to separate ecclesiastical miracles from Scripture miracles, and, perhaps, equally important.

The continued existence of supernatural powers, however occasionally dormant, in the Christian Church, it is well known, has been a belief upheld not only (as a matter of course) by Catholic writers, but even by some of the most eminent Protestant divines, as Grotius (Comm. on Mark, xvi. 17), Barrow, Dodwell, and others. Yet they do not seem to have observed how obviously this admission might recoil on the received views of the evidence of Revelation. But, from the time of Middleton’s celebrated publication, the difficulties of the question have been better appreciated. And on the received views of the evidence, Campbell and others have contended, that these miracles, if admitted, must be received as the attestation of continued new revelations further developments, in short, of Christianity; and, by necessary consequence, setting aside the finality of the New Testament: which is precisely the light in which they are now so much upheld by the traditionists. Mr Newman’s Essay on the Miracles recorded in ecclesiastical history will not restore the thaumaturgical credit of the early Church with any who feel themselves at liberty to dispute it. The danger is, lest, by pressing too hard on our credulity, he should bring the Scripture miracles themselves into question also. Accordingly, Mr Newman himself suggests the inquiry, why the supposition of craft and enthusiasm, if it be applied to the miracles of ecclesiastical history, should not be equally applicable to those of the New Testament? (Essay, p. 86, 7.)

But the miracles most insisted on belong to an age when they were altogether in the hands of a dominant body, and favoured its pretensions, among the willing and ignorant votaries of increasing credulity and superstition. They are derived from the circumstantial legends of Gregory and Eusebius (see Newman’s Essay, 102, 44); while those of an ear1ier age depend only on the more vague, general, and indirect statements of Origen (Cont. Cels. iii. 24. xiii. 420); Tertullian (Apol. 23); Justin (Apol. ii.. 6 i. 45); and Irenæus, (Adv. Hær. ii. 32, 22), indefinite in their tenor, and in no case reported on the credit of eye-witnesses. While, going back still earlier, more remarkable is the fact (which has not been enough dwelt on) that not one of the Apostolic Fathers neither Ignatius, nor Polycarp the disciple of St John, nor Clement the fellow-labourer of St Paul, make the smallest reference to miracles as existing in their age. For, that Ignatius puts hypothetically the case of working miracles (Frag. ix), that the ‘Martyrology of Polycarp’ (whose author and date are quite uncertain) details some prodigies attending his death, and that Clement appeals to the miracle, as he believed it to be, of the Phoenix (παζαδοξον σημειον, I. Ad. Cor. § 25), we suppose will hardly be regarded as exceptions. That the stream should thus be most defective nearest its source the chain broken at its very commencement remains to be accounted for.

The Scripture narratives, on the other hand, present an obvious meaning to the ordinary reader. Nevertheless, considerable difference of opinion has always prevailed respecting the interpretation not only of particular passages, but of the whole account of the Scripture miracles, and even of the narrative itself which includes the record of them.

In the case of the Scripture miracles, some have been ]ed to adopt the principle of endeavouring, in each particular instance, to seek for an explanation derived from the operation of known natural causes. Such a mode of interpretation had indeed been carried on with reference to detached portions of the sacred narrative, by some of the German theologians of earlier date. But Semler (about the middle of the last century), who may perhaps justly claim the honours of the founder of the Rationalistic school, attempted a more connected application of it, especially as to the case of the demoniacs. His views were taken up by numerous coadjutors and disciples, until they received at last their most fully systematised development in the labours of Paulus, the yet surviving patriarch of the older Rationalism.

Polemical divines, both in England and on the Continent, have been too prone to ascribe an irreligious spirit to all such speculators; which, in some cases at least, is quite unfounded. The ‘Autobiographic Sketches’ of Paulus, for instance, present a very different picture of the spirit in which his inquiries were carried on. He appears to have been throughout animated by the most sincere desire of vindicating the truth of the New Testament, whatever may be thought of the wisdom or prudence of the mode in which it was attempted.

The publication of the celebrated Wolfenbuttle Fragments, under the name of Reimarus (1773-8), ascribed to Lessing, was perhaps not unjustly considered as one of the most formidable attacks which the cause of Christianity had sustained; since it directly impugned, on critical grounds, the entire credit and authenticity of its records, especially the miraculous portions of them. There can be no reasonable doubt of the sincerity with which Paulus presented himself as the champion of Christianity. He grounded his argument upon the broad principle (in itself so readily admissible), that those portions of the New Testament which have a special reference to the age and the parties among whom it was written, may, and ought to be, carefully distinguished from those which are of a more general and permanent import. But in following out this idea, Paulus included miracles under the former class. According to his view of them, they were events which were regarded as miraculous in that age and country; but which ought to be regarded in a very different light by the more advanced intelligence of our times. We ought, therefore, to construe them into extraordinary natural events; or into results whose causes have been simply omitted in the narrative; or into the mere effects of superior skill and knowledge, which the Evangelist has described, in the popular language of his day, as supernatural inter-positions. Or, we may suppose them to have really been nothing more than those ‘symbolic actions,’ or ‘acted parables,’ which were familiar to the Jews, as merely illustrative of some doctrines, though the nature of them was afterwards misconceived. No wonder the Christian world was a little startled, when Paulus first set before it a complete system of Gospel history composed upon these principles, in his Commentary on the Gospel (1800), and his Life of Jesus (1828).

But, on examining in any detail the various explanations, distinctions, and assumptions advanced, for the purpose of reducing every miraculous incident to the standard of known natural causes, most readers must have felt that there is something extravagantly forced and puerile in the character of many of these interpretations; even where the attempts may not be justly open to the graver charge of wilfully distorting the obvious sense of the narrative. The objections become more serious, when it is perceived that the system is carried out to the length of an universal theory, with the professed object of affording a rational view of the whole series of Christian miracles.

Under the generic name of Rationalism, many systems have been included; but it would be difficult to find any two sections of the same nominal school more entirely opposed to each other, even in their first principles, than those of the older and later rationalist’s; the disciples of Paulus and of Strauss; the advocates of the ‘Natural’ and of the ‘Mythic’ system; the interpreters of the Evangelic narrative regarded as historical, but explained in its miraculous events, by natural causes; and the philologists, who on critical grounds deny the historical character of the incidents, and represent the narratives as intrinsically fictitious; and as a mere mythical invention for exalting the Messianic character of Jesus. Of the last school, the most distinguished supporter, if not the originator, is Strauss. No other writer has approached him, in the clearness with which he has laid down his principles, the acuteness with which he has argued out the critical data, and the uncompromising boldness with which he has applied to every part of the Gospel narrative, his universal solution of all its difficulties, the hypothesis of its mythic origin. This idea had confessedly been applied by some earlier writers, as Rosenmuller and Anton, to certain portions of the Gospel; and, so limited, was even alleged to possess the sanction of some of the Fathers. But Strauss was the first to apply it generally; and to justify it on the strength of general considerations, derived from the probable circumstances under which the Gospel narratives were produced, and from the absence of direct evidence of their origin. The argument in behalf of this singular hypothesis is supported by a searching examination of each successive portion of the history. The most vexatious resources of criticism and hypercriticism are employed to bring out, in their strongest contrast, every circumstance of discrepancy between the different narratives, and the different parts of the same Evangelist. Having exaggerated every difficulty, he proceeds to account for them on the supposition of divers versions having been formed out of a collection of traditions. On these were engrafted ‘myths,’ originating in the character and attributes which the Jews expected to find in the Messiah; all of which, accordingly, the followers of Jesus persuaded themselves were to be found united in his person.

We need not enter into details with the English public, and scarcely with any description of English scholars, on an hypothesis of this kind. Whatever plausibility may be given by learning and ingenuity to some of its details, the first impression of the improbability of the hypothesis will only deepen more and more into an insurmountable conviction, with every reasonable person, that, as a whole, it can never be a true representation of the actual state of the case, of the real design of the Gospel, or of the sense in which its records are to be interpreted.

To declare that the whole Evangelical narrative is but one continued fable, that the writers of the Gospels intended them to be received as avowedly fictitious compositions, is much more like a caricature of the audacities sometimes attributed to German speculation, than a possible example of the degree to which a scholar, overmastered by an idea, can ever have bewildered himself, or sought to bewilder others.

While German literature has become of late much more familiar to us though not yet quite naturalised German theology, one of its-most important branches, has never had justice done to it. A work like the present will increase the prejudice against it. For, whether Strauss’s Life of Jesus be presented to us as the triumphant exercitation of a scholar, bent on trying what can be made by sufficient learning out of the most hopeless hypothesis, or as a grave philosophical dissertation set down in sad and sober earnest, we are satisfied, that, in either case, it lies as far beyond the visible diurnal sphere of English comprehension as the philosophy of Hegel. The wide circulation of a French translation, and the more recent appearance of an English one, prove only our curiosity about a book which has naturally been much talked about, and our wonder at a people among whom it is understood to have assembled a following, and almost raised a school. We are, on principle, averse to treating with scorn, or even with indifference, any man’s serious convictions on such a subject. Nevertheless, in this instance, we are stopped on the threshold by a preliminary objection, which must be first removed, or we can have no serious object in proceeding further. We shall state our objection in the words of Dr Arnold:-

‘What a strange work Strauss’s Leben Jesu appears to me, judging of it from the notices in the Studien und Kritiken ! It seems to me to show the ill effects of that division of labour which prevails so much amongst the learned men of Germany.

Strauss writes about history and myths without appearing to have studied the question; but having heard that some pretended histories are mythical, he borrows this notion, as an engine to help him out of Christianity! But the idea of men writing mythic histories, between the time of Livy and Tacitus, and of St Paul mistaking such for realities!’*

Yet, of all our theologians, Dr Arnold was perhaps the least timid the least sensitive to the peril of loosening old associations, or of laying bare the walls of our Zion, by taking away the venerable ivy which, in the course of centuries, may have overgrown them. Witness his views on the kindred question of inspiration, and his expectations of what Coleridge a prophet whom, we confess, we should be slow to trust in might bring to pass

‘Have you seen your uncle’s ‘Letters on Inspiration,’ (he asks Mr Justice Coleridge), which I believe are to be published? They are well fitted to break ground in the approaches to that momentous question, which involves in it so great a shock to existing notions the greatest, probably, that has ever been given since the discovery of the falsehood of the doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility. Yet it must come; and will end, in spite of the fears and clamours of the weak and bigoted, in the higher exalting, and more sure establishing of Christian truth.’

Of the mystery of speculations truly there is no end. But meanwhile, and above all, let us be tolerant and gentle in judging each other’s faith. As it is the acknowledged distinction between moral evidence and demonstrative, that the former admits of degrees, so it is also a further characteristic, that the same moral argument is of different degrees of force to different minds.

The Christian evidences are not only of various kinds and degrees in themselves, but each particular class of proofs may present its peculiar claims, as well as its peculiar difficulties, with very different force to different apprehensions. Thus, the external evidences, the nature of miracles, the application of prophecy, the circumstances of the promulgation and preservation of the faith, are one and all open to a variety, of judgment. The proofs on the one hand, and the objections stated on the other, will weigh very unequally on different minds. This is still more true with regard to internal evidence. The reasonableness and sublimity of the Christian doctrines their practical excellence, their consistency with the Divine perfections, and with the moral relations of man, and the power with which they come borne to the conscience, will undoubtedly be felt in extremely unequal measure, and be regarded in very various lights, according to the feelings, views, and attainments of those who examine them.

Neither let Christianity be made more difficult than it really is, by insisting upon unnecessary particulars. We are told, that concessions had been made to the Jews, in consequence of the hardness of their hearts; and Christianity itself may be found to have been brought into the world, in some respects, under the shelter of existing prejudices, and clothed in the peculiarities of established systems, which might be necessary for its sucessful introduction, under the actual circumstances of the case. Again, the strength of Christianity consists in the multiplicity of its evidences, there are some a child may handle some which will task a giant. Among the controversies which the weaker parts of our nature are constantly maintaining with our reason, we must recognise the propensity, of which we are all more or less sensible, to struggle after an infallible assurance for our faith. Some seek to find it in a Church which cannot err; others, in spiritual impressions, which must not be resisted. But infallibility is not for man. Rational belief does not require it. And, while the votaries of superstition and fanaticism may, with some sort of consistency, join in persecuting all who believe either more or less than they do, sævant illi: More humble Christians, who pretend to no higher warrant than evidence and reason, are well aware, not only what reverence is due to the rights of charity and conscience, but that, wide as we may rove under unbounded freedom of inquiry, knocking at each and all of the hundred gates of error, yet it, and it alone, can lead us to the truth. There are three kinds of religion: The religion of the intellect, the religion of the imagination, and the religion of the heart. We are far from thinking that the first, by itself, is entitled to the highest place; but it is invaluable as a security to the others, and is plainly the only one with which the study of the Evidences can have any close connexion or concern.




-----[ End ]-----


Transcriber’s note:

This paper was written by my great grandfather, Rev. Professor Baden Powell, and published in The Edinburgh Review, VOL. LXXXVI. No. CLXXIV. October 1847.

I have corrected a few typographical errors, but have endeavoured to retain most of the original formatting. I have reduced the font for quotations and for footnotes, and quotations I have inset from both margins. Because I have included the header at the start, the pagination after the first page no longer corresponds directly with the original.

Robin Baden Clay, 2002









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