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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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This term, which signifies new doctrine, has been used to designate a species of theology and Biblical criticism which has of late years much prevailed among the Protestant divines of Germany, and the professors of their universities, it is now, however, more frequently termed rationalism, and is supposed to occupy a sort of middle place between the orthodox system and pure deism. The German divines themselves speak of naturalism, rationalism, and supernaturalism. The term naturalism arose first in the sixteenth century, and was spread in the seventeenth. It was understood to be the system of those who allowed no other knowledge of religion than the natural, which man could shape out by his own strength, and, consequently, excluded all supernatural revelation. As to the different forms of naturalism, theologians say there are three: the first, which they call Pelagianism, and which considers human dispositions and notions as perfectly pure, and the religious knowledge derived from them as sufficiently explicit. A grosser kind denies all particular revelation; and the grossest of all considers the world as God. Rationalism has been thus explained: "Those who are generally termed rationalists," says Dr. Bretschneider, "admit universally in Christianity, a divine, benevolent, and positive appointment for the good of mankind, and Jesus as a messenger of Divine Providence, believing that the true and everlasting word of God is contained in the Holy Scripture, and that by the same the welfare of mankind will be obtained and extended. But they deny therein a supernatural and miraculous working of God, and consider the object of Christianity to be that of introducing into the world such a religion as reason can comprehend; and they distinguish the essential from the unessential, and what is local and temporary from that which is universal and permanent in Christianity." There is, however, a third class of divines who in fact differ very little from this, though very widely in profession. They affect to allow a revealing operation of God, but establish on internal proofs rather than on miracles the divine nature of Christianity. They allow that revelation may contain much out of the power of reason to explain, but say that it should assert nothing contrary to reason, but rather what may be proved by it. Supernaturalism consists in general in the conviction that God has revealed himself supernaturally and immediately. The notion of a miracle cannot well be separated from such a revelation, whether it happens out of, on, or in men. What is revealed may belong to the order of nature, but an order higher and unknown to us, which we could never have known without miracles, and cannot bring under the laws of nature.

The difference between the naturalists and the rationalists, as Mr. Rose justly remarks, is not quite so wide either as it would appear to be at first sight, or as one of them assuredly wishes it to appear. For if I receive a system, be it of religion, of morals, or of politics, only so far as it approves itself to my reason, whatever be the authority that presents it to me, it is idle to say that I receive the system out of any respect to that authority. I receive it only because my reason approves it; and I should, of course, do so if an authority of far inferior value were to present the system to me. This is what that division of rationalists, which professes to receive Christianity, and at the same time to make reason the supreme arbiter in matters of faith, has done. Their system, in a word, is this: They assume certain general principles, which they maintain to be the necessary deductions of reason from an extended and unprejudiced contemplation of the natural and moral order of things, and to be in themselves immutable and universal. Consequently, any thing which, on however good authority, may be advanced in apparent opposition to them, must either be rejected as unworthy of rational belief, or, at least, explained away till it is made to accord with the assumed principles; and the truth or falsehood of all doctrines proposed is to be decided according to their agreement or disagreement with those principles.

It is easy, then, to anticipate how, with such principles, the Biblical critics of Germany, distinguished as many of them have been for learning, would proceed to interpret the Scriptures. Many of the sacred books and parts of others have, of course, been rejected by them as spurious, the strongest external evidence being thought by them insufficient to prove the truth of what was determined to be contradictory to their reason; and the inspiration of the rest was understood in no higher a sense, to use the language of one of their professors, than the expressions of Cicero as to the inspiration of the poets, or those of Quintilian respecting Plato. It would be disgusting, says Rose, to go through all the strange fancies which were set afloat, and which tended only to set Scripture on the same footing as an ingenious but improbable romance. They all proceeded from the determination that whatever was not intelligible was incredible, that only what was of familiar and easy explanation deserved belief, and that all which was miraculous and mysterious in Scripture must be rejected; and they rested perpetually on notions and reasonings which were in themselves miracles of incredibility. But there are many of the German divines of this rationalist period who went much farther, and who imputed a deception to our Lord and his disciples, not for evil but for good purposes. In reading or in hearing of these wretched productions, the mind is divided between disgust at folly, and indignation at wickedness. What can be said for the heart which could suppose that the founders of Christianity could have taught the sublime and holy doctrines of the Gospel with a lie in their hearts and on their lips? or for the intellect which could believe that ambitious and designing men would encounter years of poverty, and shame, and danger, with no prospect but that of an ignominious death? But where the supernatural and miraculous accounts were not rejected, they were, by many of the most eminent of these writers, explained away by a monstrous ingenuity, which, on any other subject, and applied to any ancient classic or other writer, would provoke the most contemptuous ridicule. When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were swallowed up, Moses had previously "secretly undermined the earth." Jacob wrestled with the angel "in a dream;" and a rheumatic pain in his thigh during sleep suggested the incident, in his dream of the angel touching the sinew of his thigh. Professor Paulus gravely explains the miracle of the tribute money thus: That Christ only meant to give a moral lesson, that is, that we are not, if we can avoid it by trifling sacrifices, to give offence to our brethren; that he probably reasoned thus with St. Peter: "Though there is no real occasion for us to pay the tribute, yet, as we may be reckoned as enemies of the temple, and not attended to when we wish to teach what is good, why should not you who are a fisherman," a remark which might very properly be made at a place where St. Peter had been engaged in a fishery for two years, "and can easily do it; go and get enough to pay the demand? Go, then, to the sea, cast your hook, and take up πρωτον ιχθυν , the first and best fish." St. Peter was not to stay longer at his work this time than to gain the required money: πρωτος , often refers not to number but to time; and ιχθυν may undoubtedly be taken as a collective. St. Peter must either have caught so many fish as would be reckoned worth a stater at Capernaum, (so near to a sea rich in fish,) or one so large and fine as would have been valued at that sum. As it was uncertain whether one or more would be necessary, the expression is indefinite, τον α ναβαντα πρωτον ιχθυν; [the fish first coming up:] but it would not be ambiguous to St. Peter, as the necessity and the event would give it a fixed meaning.

‘Ανοιξας το στομα , [Opening the mouth.] This opening of the mouth might have different objects, which must be fixed by the context. If the fisherman opens the mouth of a fish caught with a hook, he does it first to release him from the hook; for if he hangs long he is less saleable: he soon decays. The circumstantiality in the account is picturesque. "Take the hook out his mouth!" ‘Ευρησεις ευρισκειν is used in Greek in a more extended sense than the German finden, as in Xenophon, where it is "to get by selling." When such a word is used of saleable articles, like fish, and in a connection which requires the getting a piece of money, it is clear that getting by sale and not by finding is referred to. "And this from a professor's chair!" In like manner the miracle of feeding the five thousand in the desert is resolved into the opportune passing by of a caravan with provisions, of which the hungry multitude were allowed to partake, according to eastern hospitality; and the Apostles were merely employed in conveying it out in baskets. Christ's walking upon the sea is explained by his walking upon the sea shore, and St. Peter's walking on the sea is resolved into swimming. The miracles of healing were the effect of fancy operating favourably upon the disorders; and Ananias and Sapphira died of a fright; with many other absurdities, half dreams and half blasphemies; and of which the above are given but as a specimen.

The first step in this sorrowful gradation down to a depth of falsehood and blasphemy, into which certainly no body of Christian ministers, so large, so learned, and influential, in any age or period of the church ever before fell, was, contempt for the authority of the divines of the Reformation, and of the subsequent age. They were about to set out on a voyage of discovery; and it was necessary to assume that truth still inhabited some terra incognita, [unknown region,] to which neither Luther, Melancthon, nor their early disciples, had ever found access. One of this school is pleased, indeed, to denominate the whole even of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century, the age of theological barbarism; an age, notwithstanding, which produced in the Lutheran church alone Calovius, Schmidt, Hackspan, Walther, Glass, and the Carpzoffs, and others, as many and as great writers as any church can boast in an equal space of time; writers whose works are, or ought to be, in the hands of the theological student. The general statements of the innovators amount to this, that the divines of the age of which we speak had neither the inclination nor the power to do any thing but fortify their own systems, which were dogmatical, and not to search out truth for themselves from Scripture; that theology, as a science, was left from the epoch of the Reformation as it had been received from the schoolmen; that the interpretation of the Bible was made the slave, not the mistress, of dogmatical theology, as it ought to be.

The vain conceit that the doctrines of religion were capable of philosophic demonstration, which obtained among the followers of Wolf, is considered by Mr. Rose as having hastened onward the progress of error. We find some of them not content with applying demonstration to the truth of the system, but endeavouring to establish each separate dogma, the Trinity, the nature of the Redeemer, the incarnation, the eternity of punishment, on philosophical and, strange as it may appear, some of these truths on mathematical, grounds. We have had instances of this in our own country; and the reason why they have done little injury is, that none of those who thus presumed, whether learned or half learned, had success enough to form a school. So far as such a theory does obtain influence, it must necessarily be mischievous. The first authors may hold the mysteries of Christianity sacred; they may fancy that they can render faith in them more easy by affecting demonstrative evidence, which, indeed, were the subjects capable of it, would render faith unnecessary; but they are equally guilty of a vain presumption in their own powers, and of a want of real reverence to God, and to his revelation. With them, this boast of demonstration generally ends in the rejection of some truth, or the adoption of some positive error; while their followers fail not to bound over the limits at which they have stopped. The fallacy of the whole, lies in assuming that divine things are on the same level with those which the human mind can grasp, and may therefore be compared with them. One of these consequences must therefore follow: either that the mind is exalted above its own sphere, or that divine things are brought down below theirs. In the former case, a dogmatical pride is the result; in the latter, the scheme of revelation is stripped of its divinity, and sinks gradually into a system of human philosophy, with the empty name of a revelation still appended to it to save appearances. What can bear the test of the philosophical standard is retained, and what cannot be thus proved is, by degrees, rejected; so that the Scripture is no longer the ground of religious truth; but a sort of witness to be compelled to assent to any conclusions at which this philosophy may arrive.

The effect in Germany was speedily developed, though Wolf, the founder of this school, and most of his followers, were pious and faithful Christians. By carrying demonstrative evidence beyond its own province, they had nurtured in their followers a vain confidence in human reason; and the next and still more fatal step was, that it was the province of human reason in an enlightened and intellectual age to perfect Christianity, which, it was contended, had hitherto existed in a low and degraded state, and to perfect that system of which the elements only were contained in the Scripture. All restraint was broken by this principle. Philosophy, good and bad, was left to build up these "elements" according to its own views; and as, after all, many of these elements were found to be too untractable and too rudely shaped to accord with the plans of these manifold constructions, formed according to every "pattern," except that "in the mount;" when the stone could not be squared and framed by any art which these builders possessed, it was "rejected," even to the "head stone of the corner." Semler appears to have been the author of that famous theory of accommodation, which, in the hands of his followers, says M. Rose, became "the most formidable weapon ever devised for the destruction of Christianity." As far as Germany is concerned, this language is not too strong; and we may add, that it was the most impudent theory ever advocated by men professing still to be Christians, and one, the avowal of which can scarcely be accounted for, except on the ground, that as, because of their interests, it was not convenient for these teachers of theology and ministers of the German churches to disavow Christianity altogether; it was devised and maintained, in order to connect the profits of the Christian profession with substantial and almost undisguised deism. This theory was, that we are not to take all the declarations of Scripture as addressed to us; but to consider them as, in many points, purposely adapted to the feelings and dispositions of the age when they originated: but by no means to be received by another and more enlightened period; that, in fact, Jesus himself and his Apostles had accommodated themselves in their doctrines to the barbarism, ignorance, and prejudices of the Jews; and that it was therefore our duty to reject the whole of this temporary part of Christianity, and retain only what is substantial and eternal. In plain words they assumed, as the very basis of their Scriptural interpretations, the blasphemous principle, that our Lord and his Apostles taught, or, at least, connived at doctrines absolutely false, rather than they would consent to shock the prejudices of their hearers! This principle is shown at length by Mr. Rose, to run through the whole maze of error into which this body of Protestant divines themselves wandered, and led their flocks. Thus the chairs of theology and the very pulpits were turned into "the seats of the scornful;" and where doctrines were at all preached, they were too frequently of this daring and infidel character. It became even, at least, a negative good, that the sermons delivered were often discourses on the best modes of cultivating corn and wine, and the preachers employed the Sabbath and the church in instructing their flocks how to choose the best kinds of potatoes, or to enforce upon them the benefits of vaccination. Undisguised infidelity has in no country treated the grand evidences of the truth of Christianity with greater contumely, or been more offensive in its attacks upon the prophets, or more ridiculous in its attempts to account, on natural principles, for the miracles. Extremes of every kind were produced, philosophic mysticism, pantheism, and atheism.

We have hitherto referred chiefly to Mr. Rose's work on this awful declension in the Lutheran and other continental churches. In a work on the same subject by Mr. Pusey, the stages of the apostasy are more carefully marked, and more copiously and deeply investigated. Our limits will, however, but allow us to advert to two or three points. In Mr. Pusey's account of the state of German theology in the seventeenth century, he opens to us the sources of the evil. Francke, he observes, assigns as a reason for attaching the more value to the opportunities provided at Halle for the study of Scripture, that "in former times, and in those which are scarcely past, one generally found at universities opportunities for every thing rather than a solid study of God's word." "In all my university years,"

says Knapp, "I was not happy enough to hear a lecture upon the whole of Scripture; we should have regarded it as a great blessing which came down from heaven." It is said to be one only of many instances, that at Leipzig, Carpzoff, having in his lectures for one half year completed the first chapter of Isaiah, did not again lecture on the Bible for twenty years, while Olearius suspended his for ten. Yet Olearius, as well as Alberti, Spener says, "were diligent theologians, but that most pains were employed on doctrinal theology and controversy." It is, moreover, a painful speaking fact, which is mentioned by Francke, (1709,) that in Leipzig, the great mart of literature as well as of trade, "twenty years ago, in no bookseller's shop was either Bible or Testament to be found." Of the passages in Francke, which prove the same state of things, I will select one or two only: "Youth are sent to the universities with a moderate knowledge of Latin; but of Greek, and especially of Hebrew, next to none. And it would even then have been well, if what had been neglected before had been made up in the universities. There, however, most are borne, as by a torrent, with the multitude; they flock to logical, metaphysical, ethical, polemical, physical, pneumatical lectures, and what not; treating least of all those things whose benefit is most permanent in their future office, especially deferring, and at last neglecting, the study of the sacred languages." "To this is added, that, they comfort themselves, that in examinations for orders these things are not generally much attended to. Hence most who are anxious about a maintenance, hurry to those things which may hasten their promotion, attend above all things a lecture on the art of preaching, and if they can remain so long at the university, one on doctrinal theology, (would that all were anxious about a salutary knowledge of the sacred doctrines,) and having committed these things to paper and memory, return home, as if excellently armed against Satan, are examined, preach, are promoted, provide for their families." And having spoken farther on the superficial knowledge, pedantry, and other faults of those few who acquired knowledge of these subjects, he sums up: "As the vernacular Scriptures are ordinarily neglected or ill employed by the illiterate, so are the original by the lettered: whence there cannot but arise either ignorance in matters of faith, or an unfruitful and vain knowledge; a pleasurable fancy is substituted for the substance of the faith; impiety daily increases. In a word, from the neglect of Scripture all impiety is derived; and so again from the impiety or unbelief of men, there is derived a contempt of Scripture, or at all events an abuse, and an absurd and perverted employment of it; and hence follows either a neglect of the original languages, or a senseless method, or an unfitting employment of them; which evils, since they are continued from the teachers to the disciples, the corrupted state of the schools and universities continually increases: and these we cannot remedy, unless we can prevail upon ourselves to make the word of God our first object, to look for Christ in it, and to embrace him, when found, with genuine faith, and perseveringly to follow him." Pfaff thus describes the previous state of doctrinal theology: "All the compendia of holy doctrines, which have hitherto appeared, are of such a character, that, though their excellence has been hitherto extolled by the common praise of our countrymen, and they still enjoy considerable reputation, ( sua utique luce niteat, ) they can even on this ground not be satisfactory to our age,—that since one system was extracted and worked out of the other, with a very few variations, they dwell uniformly on the same string; and that metaphysical clang of causes, which sounds somewhat harshly and unpleasantly to well cultivated ears, constantly reverberates in them, the same terms uniformly recurring in all. To this is added, that a certain coldness appears to prevail in the common mode of treating these subjects, especially in the practical topics of theology; these being set forth as theoretical propositions, so that scarcely any life or any religious influence finds its way into the minds of readers; and the edification of mind, (though it should be the principal object in sacred theology,) derived from them is very slight. Nor does it appear less a subject of blame, that various theological τοποι , and those the very chief, are here altogether omitted; that every thing is choked with the thorns of scholasticism; and that divine truths are often made secondary to the zeal for authority: nor is there sufficient reference to the language of the symbolical books, to the promotion of the peace of the church, to the exhibition of what is of real importance in controverted points, and of the unreality of the mere logomachies, with which all theology abounds; nor again, to destroy theological pedantry and a sectarian spirit, or to treat the subjects themselves in a style becoming to them: but most of all, sufficient pains are not bestowed upon that which is of chief importance, the building up the kingdom of God in the hearts of men, and the influencing their hearts more thoroughly with vivid conceptions of true Christianity."

Yet these were but effects of a still higher cause,—the rapid decay of piety in this century, of which the statements of Mr. Pusey, and the authorities he quotes, present a melancholy picture. Speaking of J. V. Andrea, he says, the want of practical religious instruction in the early schools, the perverted state of all education, the extravagance and dissoluteness of the universities, the total unfitness of the teachers whom they sent forth and authorized, the degraded state of general as well as of theological science, the interested motives for entering into holy orders, the canvassing for benefices, the simony in obtaining them, the especial neglect of the poorer, the bad lives, the carelessness and bitter controversies of the preachers, and the general corruption of manners in all ranks, are again and again the subjects of his deep regrets or of his censure. "After the evangelic church," he says, in an energetic comparison of the evils which reigned in the beginning of this period with those which had occasioned the yoke of Rome to be broken, "after the evangelic church had thrown off the yoke of human inventions, they should have bowed their neck under the easy yoke of the Lord. But now one set of human inventions are but exchanged for another, equally, or indeed very little, human; and these are called the word of God, though in reality things are nothing milder than before. Idols were cast out, but the idols of sins are worshipped. The primacy of the pope is denied, but we constitute lesser popes. The bishops are abrogated, but ministers are still introduced or cast out at will; simony came into ill repute, but who now rejects a hand laden with gold? the monks were reproached for indolence,—as if there were too much study at our universities; the monasteries were dissolved,—to stand empty, or to be stalls for cattle; the regularly recurring prayers are abolished, yet so that now most pray not at all; the public fasts were laid aside, now the command of Christ is held to be but useless words; not to say any thing of blasphemers, adulterers, extortioners," &c. After many testimonies of a similar and even stronger kind from other pious divines, who lifted up their voice strongly but almost ineffectually against the growing corruption of the universities, the following passages from Francke: "The works of the flesh are done openly and unrestrainedly, with so little shame, that one who does not approve of many things not consistent with the truth which is in Jesus, would almost be enrolled among heretics. Ambition, pride, love of pleasure, luxury, impurity, wantonness, and all the crop of foulest wickednesses which spring from these; injustice also, avarice, and a species of rivalry among all vices every where sensibly increases, atheism joining itself with epicurism and libertinism. Thus while Christ is held to, while orthodoxy is presented as a shield, all imitation of Christ, all anxiety for true and spiritual holiness, ‘without which no one shall see the Lord,' nay, all the decorum befitting a Christian, is banished, is exterminated, that it may not disturb the societies of perverse men." Into the state of the clergy he enters more fully in another work. "I remember," he says, "that a theologian of no common learning, piety, and practical knowledge, νυν εν αγιοις , told me, that a certain monarch, at his suggestion, applied to a university, where there was a large concourse of students of theology, for two candidates for holy orders, who, by the excellence and purity of their doctrine, and by holiness of life, might serve as an example to the congregation committed to their charge; the professors candidly answered that there was no such student of theology among them. Nor is this surprising. I remember that Kortholt used to say with pain, that in the disgraceful strifes, disturbances, and tumults in the universities, which were, alas, but too frequent, it scarcely ever happened that theological students were not found to be accomplices, nay, the chiefs. I remember that another theologian often lamented, that there was such a dearth in the church of such persons as the Apostle would alone think worthy of the ministerial functions, that it was to be regarded as a happiness if, of many applicants, some one of outwardly decent life could at length be found."

With several happy exceptions, and the raising up of a few pious people in some places, and a partial revival of evangelical doctrines, which, however, often ran at length into mysticism and antinomianism, the evil, both doctrinally and morally, continued to increase to our own day; for if any ask what has been the moral effect of the appalling apostasy of the teachers of religion, above described, upon the people of Germany, the answer may be given from one of these rationalizing divines themselves, whose statement is not therefore likely to be too highly coloured. It is from a pamphlet of Bretschneider, published in 1822, and the substance is, "Indifference to religion among all classes; that formerly the Bible used to be in every house, but now the people either do not possess it, or, as formerly, read it; that few attend the churches, which are now too large, though fifty years ago they were too small; that few honour the Sabbath; that there are now few students of theology, compared with those in law and medicine; that if things go on, there will shortly not be persons to supply the various ecclesiastical offices; that preaching had fallen into contempt; and that distrust and suspicion of the doctrines of Christianity prevailed among all classes." Melancholy as this picture is, nothing in it can surprise any one, except that the very persons who have created the evil should themselves be astonished at its existence, or even affect to be so.

But the mercy of God has begun to answer the prayers of the few faithful who are left as the gleanings of grapes after the vintage; and to revive, in some active, learned, and influential men, the spirit of primitive faith and zeal. The effect of the exertions of these excellent men, both from the professor's chair, the pulpit, and the press, has been considerable; and it is remarked by Mr. Rose, that no small degree of disgust at the past follies of the rationalists prevails; that the cold and comfortless nature of their system has been perceived; that a party of truly Christian views has arisen; and that there is a disposition alike in the people, the better part of the divines, and the philosophers, to return, to that revealed religion which alone can give them comfort and peace. It is equally clear that some at least of the governments perceive the dangerous tendency of the rationalist opinions, and that they are sincerely desirous of promoting a better state of religious feeling.

We close this article with the excellent remarks of Dr. Tittman of Dresden, on the neological interpreters: "What is the interpretation of the Scriptures, if it relies not on words, but things, not on the assistance of languages, but on the decrees of reason, that is, of modern philosophy? What is all religion, what the knowledge of divine things, what are faith and hope placed in Christ, what is all Christianity, if human reason and philosophy is the only fountain of divine wisdom, and the supreme judge in the matter of religion? What is the doctrine of Christ and the Apostles more than some philosophical system? But what, then, I pray you, is, to deny, to blaspheme Jesus the Lord, to render his divine mission doubtful, nay, vain and useless, to impugn his doctrine, to disfigure it shamefully, to attack it, to expose it to ridicule, and, if possible, to suppress it, to remove all Christianity out of religion, and to bound religion within the narrow limits of reason alone, to deride miracles, and hold them up to derision, to accuse them as vain, to bring them into disrepute, to torture sacred Scripture into seeming agreement with the fancies of human wisdom, to alloy it with human conjectures, to bring it into contempt, and to break down its divine authority, to undermine, to shake, to overthrow utterly the foundations of Christian faith? What else can be the event than this, as all history, a most weighty witness in this matter, informs us, namely, that when sacred Scripture, its grammatical interpretation and a sound knowledge of languages are, as it were, despised and banished, all religion should be contemned, shaken, corrupted, troubled, undermined, utterly overturned, and should be entirely removed and reduced to natural religion; or that it should end in a mystical theology, than which nothing was ever more pernicious to the Christian doctrine, and be converted into an empty μυχιλαγε , or even into a poetical system, hiding every thing in figures and fictions, to which latter system not a few of the sacred orators and theologians of our time seem chiefly inclined."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Neology'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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