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EARLY EVANGELIC HISTORY.
INFLUENCE OF THE MORE IMAGINATIVE INCIDENTS OF THE EARLY EVANGELIC HISTORY ON THE PROPAGATION AND MAINTENANCE OF
A CURIOUS fact occurs to those who trace the progress of religious opinion, not merely in the popular theology, but in the works of those, chiefly foreign writers, who indulge in bolder speculations on these subjects. Many of these are men of the profoundest learning, and it would be the worst insolence of uncharitableness to doubt, with the most sincere and ardent aspirations after truth. The fact is this:-Certain parts of the evangelic history, the angelic appearances, the revelations of the Deity addressed to the senses. of man (the Angelo-phaniai and Theophaniai, as they have been called)— with some, though not with all this class of writers, everything miraculous, appears totally inconsistent with historic truth. These incidents, being irreconcileable with our actual experience, and rendered suspicious by a multitude of later fictions, which are rejected in the mass by most Protestant Christians, cannot accord with the more subtle and fastidious intelligence of the present times. Some writers go so far as to assert that it is impossible that an inquiring and reasoning age should receive these supernatural facts as historical verities. But if we look back, we find that precisely these same parts of the sacred narrative were dearest to the believers of a more imaginative age; and they are still dwelt upon by the general mass of Christians, with that kind of ardent faith, which refuses to break its old alliance with the imagination. It was by this very supernatural agency, if I may so speak, that the doctrines, the sentiments, the moral and religious influence of Christianity, were implanted in the mind, on the first promulgation of the Gospel, and the reverential feeling thus excited, most powerfully contributed to maintain the efficacy of the religion for at least seventeen centuries. That which is now to many incredible, not merely commanded the belief, but made the purely moral and spiritual part of Christianity, to which few of these writers now refuse their assent, credible.
LANGUAGE OF REVELATION.
An argument which appears to me of considerable weight arises out of these considerations. Admit, as even the rationalist and mythic interpreters seem to do, though in vague and metaphysical terms, the divine interposition, or at least the prearrangement, and effective though remote agency of the Deity, in the introduction of Christianity into the world. These passages in general are not the vital and essential truths of Christianity, but the vehicle by which these truths were communicated; a kind of language by which opinions were conveyed, and sentiments infused, and the general belief in Christianity implanted, confirmed, and strengthened. As we cannot but suppose that the state of the world, as well during, as subsequent to the introduction of Christianity, the comparative rebarbarisation of the human race, the long centuries in which mankind was governed by imagination, rather than by severe reason, were within the design, or at least the foreknowledge, of all-seeing Providence; so from the fact that this mode of communication with mankind was for so long a period so effective, we may not unreasonably infer its original adoption by Divine Wisdom. This language of poetic incident, and, if I may so speak, of imagery, interwoven as it was with the popular belief, infused into the hymns, the services, the ceremonial of the Church, embodied in material representation by painting or sculpture, was the vernacular tongue of Christianity, universally intelligible, and responded to by the human heart, throughout these many centuries. Revelation thus spoke the language, not merely of its own, but of succeeding times; because its design was the perpetuation as well as the first propagation of the Christian religion.
Whether then these were actual appearances or impressions produced on the mind of those who witnessed them, is of slight importance. In either case they are real historical facts; they partake of poetry in their form, and, in a certain sense, in their groundwork, but they are imaginative, not fictitious; true, as relating that which appeared to the minds of the relators exactly as it did appear."
This, of course, does not apply to facts which must have been either historical events or direct fictions, such as the resurrection of Jesus. The reappearance of an actual and well-known bodily form, cannot be refined into
one of those airy and unsubstantial appearances which may be represented to, or may exist solely through, the imaginative faculty. I would strictly maintain this important distinction.
THE "ACCOMMODATION" THEORY.
Poetry, meaning by poetry such an imaginative form, and not merely the form, but the subject-matter of the narrative, as, for instance, in the first chapters of St. Matthew and St. Luke, was the appropriate and perhaps necessary intelligible dialect; the vehicle for the more important truths of the Gospel to later generations. The incidents, therefore, were so ordered, that they should thus live in the thoughts of men; the revelation itself was so adjusted and arranged in order that it might insure its continued existence throughout this period. Could, it may be inquired, a purely rational or metaphysical creed have survived for any length of time during such stages of human civilisation?
I am aware that this may be considered as carrying out what is called accommodation to an unprecedented extent; and that the whole system of what is called accommodation is looked upon with great jealousy. It is supposed to compromise, as it were, the truth of the Deity, or at least of the revelation; a deception, it is said, or at least an illusion, is practised upon the belief of man.
I cannot assent to this view.
From the necessity of the case there must be some departure from the pure and essential spirituality of the Deity, in order to communicate with the human race,-some kind of condescension from the infinite and inconceivable state of Godhead, to become cognisable, or to enter into any kind of relation with material and dimly-mental man. All this is in fact accommodation; and the adaptation of any appropriate means of addressing, for his benefit, man in any peculiar state of intelligence, is but the wise contrivance, the indispensable condition, which renders that communication either possible,
b By all those who consider the knowledge of these circumstances to have reached the Evangelists (by whatever notion of inspiration they may be guaranteed) through the ordinary sources of information, from the reminiscences of Mary herself, or from those of other contemporaries, it would be expected that these remote incidents would be related with the greatest indistinctness, without mutual connexion or chronological arrangement, and different incidents be pre
served by different Evangelists. This is precisely the case: the very marvellousness of the few circumstances thus preserved accounts in some degree for their preservation, and at the same time for the kind of dimness and poetic character with which they are clothed. They are too slight and wanting in particularity to give the idea of invention: they seem like a few scattered fragments preserved from oral tradition.
CHRISTIANITY A PERFECT SYSTEM.
or at least effective to its manifest end. Religion is one great system of accommodation to the wants, to the moral and spiritual advancement of mankind; and I cannot but think that as it has so efficaciously adapted itself to one state of the human mind, so it will to that mind during all its progress; and it is of all things the most remarkable in Christianity, that it has, as it were, its proper mode of addressing with effect every age and every conceivable state of Even if (though I conceive it impossible) the imagination should entirely wither from the human soul, and a severer faith enter into an exclusive alliance with pure reason, Christianity would still have its moral perfection, its rational promise of immortalityits approximation to the one pure, spiritual, incomprehensible Deity, to satisfy that reason, and to infuse those sentiments of dependence, of gratitude, of love to God, without which human society must fall to ruin, and the human mind, in humiliating desperation, suspend all its noble activity, and care not to put forth its sublime and eternal energica.
PUBLIC LIFE OF JESUS.
Commencement of the Public Life of Jesus.
NEARLY thirty years had passed away since the birth in Bethlehem, during which period there is but Period to the one incident recorded, which could direct the assumption public attention to the Son of Mary.a All character. religious Jews made their periodical visits to the capital at the three great festivals, especially at the Passover. The more pious women, though exempt by the law from regular attendance, usually accompanied their husbands or kindred. It is probable that, at the age of twelve, the children, who were then said to have assumed the rank of "Sons of the Law," and were considered responsible for their obedience to the civil and religious institutes of the nation, were first permitted to appear with their parents in the metropolis, to be present, and, as it were, to be initiated in the religious ceremonies. Accordingly,
There is no likelihood that the extant apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy contains any traditional truth. This work, in my opinion, was evidently composed with a controversial design, to refute the sects which asserted that Jesus was no more than an ordinary child, and that the divine nature descended upon him at his baptism. Hence his childhood is represented as fertile in miracles as his manhood; miracles which are certainly puerile enough for that age.
But it is a curious proof of the vitality of popular legends, that many of these stories are still current, even in England, in our Christmas carols, and in this form are disseminated among our cottages.
b A child was free from presenting himself in the Temple at the three feasts until (according to the school of Hillel) he was able, his father taking him by the hand, to go up with him into the mount of the Temple." Lightfoot. x. 71. See also Wetstein, in loc.