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The Doubters and the Dogmatists

by Prof. James T. Bixby, PH.D.


An eminent ecclesiastic of the Church of England not long ago characterized the present age as pre-eminently the age of doubt, and lamented that whether he took up book, or magazine, or sermon, he was confronted with some form of it.

This picture of our age is not an unjust one. The modern mind is thoroughly wide awake and has quite thrown off the leading-strings of ancient timidity. It looks all questions in the face and demands to be shown the real facts in every realm. All the traditions of history, the laws of science, the principles of morals are overhauled, and the foundations on which they rest relentlessly probed. And our modern curiosity can see no reason why it should cease its investigations when it comes to the frontiers of religion. It deems no dogma too old to be summoned before its bar; no council nor conclave too sacred to be asked for its credentials; no pope or Scripture too venerable to be put in the witness-box and cross-examined as to its accuracy or authority. In all the churches there is a spirit of inquiry abroad; almost every morning breeze brings us some new report of heresy, or the baying of the sleuth-hounds of orthodoxy, as they scent some new trail of infidelity; and the slogan of dogmatic controversy echoes from shore to shore.

As we look around the ecclesiastical horizon, we find agitation and controversy on all sides. In one denomination, it is the question of the salvation of the heathen; in another, that of the virgin birth of Christ and the apostolic succession; in a third, it is the invasion of doubt as to the eternal torment of the wicked; in a fourth, the evidential value of the miracles; in a fifth, the grand questions included under the higher criticism of the Scriptures and the relative authority of reason and the Bible. In Congregational, Episcopalian, Baptist, Universalist, and Presbyterian folds, it is the same, everywhere some heresy to be disciplined, some doubt to be suppressed, some doctrinal battle hotly waged.

To the greater part of the Church, this epidemic of scepticism is a subject of grave alarm. Unbelief seems to them, as to Mr. Moody, the worst of sins; and they consider the only proper thing to do with it, is to follow the advice of the Bishop of London, some years ago, and fling doubt away as you would a loaded shell. They apparently look upon Christianity as a huge powder magazine, which is likely to explode if a spark of candid inquiry comes near it.

Others, on the contrary, fold their arms indifferently and regard this new spirit of investigation as only an evanescent breeze, which can produce no serious result upon the citadel of faith. A third party hail it with exultation as the first trumpet blast of the theological Götterdæmerung, the downfall of all divine powers and the destruction of the Christian superstition, to give place to the naked facts of scientific materialism.

What estimate, then, shall we put on this tendency?

In the first place we must recognize that it is a serious condition; that it is no momentary eddy, but a permanent turn in the current of the human mind. Humanity is looking religion square in the face, without any band over its eyes, in a way it never has before; and when humanity once gets its eyes open to such questions,—it is in vain to try to close them, before the questions have been thoroughly examined. Certainly, Protestantism cannot call a halt upon this march. For it was Protestantism itself, proclaiming at the beginning of her struggle with Rome the right of private judgment, which started the modern mind upon this high quest; and Protestantism is therefore bound in logic and honor to see it through to the end, whatever that end may be.

And in the next place, I believe that quest will end in good. Why the champions of faith should regard doubt as devil-born, rather than a providential instrument in God’s hand, is something I do not understand. If doubt humbles the Church and acts as a thorn in its flesh, may not such chastening be providential, quite as much as the things which puff it up? As Luther well expressed it, “We say to our Lord, that if he will have his church, he must keep it, for we cannot. And if we could, we should be the proudest asses under heaven.” As Attila was the scourge of God to the Roman world, when God needed to clear that empire out of the way, as he built his new Christendom, so may not doubt be the scourge of God to the easy-going, sleepy, too credulous piety of to-day, which gulps down all the husks of faith so fast that it never gets a taste of the kernel?

Yes, doubt is often the needed preparation for obtaining truth. We must clear out the thorny thicket of superstition before we can begin to raise the sweet fruit of true religion.

There are times when careful investigation is rightly called for. When doubting Thomas demanded to see the print of the nails, and touch and handle the flesh of the risen Christ, before he would believe in the resurrection of his Lord, his demand for the most solid proof of the great marvel was a wise and commendable one; one for which all subsequent generations of Christians are deeply indebted to him. To believe without evidence, or to suppress doubt where it legitimately arises, is both fostering superstition and exposing ourselves to error and danger. What shall we say of the merchant who refuses to entertain any question about the seaworthiness of his vessel, but sends her off across the Atlantic undocked and unexamined, piously trusting her to the Lord? Shall we commend him? or not rather charge him with culpable negligence? And what we say of such a merchant seems to me just what we should say of the Christian who refuses to investigate the seaworthiness of that ship of faith which his ancestors have left him. In astronomy, in politics, in law, we demand what business the dead hand of the past has on our lip, our brain, our purse? Why should the dead hand of an Augustine or Calvin be exempt from giving its authority? Why should these mediæval glimpses of truth be given the right to close our eyes to-day from seeing what we ourselves can see and speaking forth what we can hear of heavenly truth?

In all other departments of knowledge, investigation has brought us up to a higher outlook, where we see the true relations of things better than before. In all other branches, God has given us new light, so that we discern things more as they really are. Science has risen by making a ladder of its earlier errors and by treading them under foot, reaching to higher truths. The Bible itself is the growth of ages; and Christian doctrine and Christian creeds have been the evolution of a still longer period. The dogmas of the churches are most manifold and conflicting. Is it not rather immodest and absurd for each church to claim infallibility for its present creed, and that wisdom died when the book of Revelation closed the Bible, or the Council of Trent or the Westminster Assembly adjourned its sitting? It seems to me that the churches ought, instead, to be willing and anxious to receive whatever new light God may grant them to-day, and with the potent clarifying processes of reason, separate the pure gold of religion from the dross and alloys of olden superstition and misguided judgment.

But to the modern devotees of dogma, any subjection of it to the cleansing of the reason seems shocking. The forefront of Dr. Briggs’ recent offending, for which he is about to be formally tried as a heretic, is that he admits errors in the Bible and gives reason (by which he means, as he explains, not merely the understanding, but also the conscience and the religious instinct in man), a conjoint place with the Bible and the Church in the work of salvation and the attainment of divine truth. To the modern dogmatist, these positions seem sceptical and pernicious. But to the philosopher, who knows the laws of human nature, to every scholar who knows the actual history of the Bible, these positions seem only self-evident. That in the Scriptures there are innumerable errors in science, mistakes in history, prophecies that were never fulfilled, contradictions and inconsistencies between different books and chapters,—these are facts of observation which every Biblical student knows full well. Granting, for the sake of the argument, that the Bible was given originally by infallible divine dictation, yet the men who wrote down the message were fallible; the men who copied it were fallible; the men who translated it (some of it twice over, first from Hebrew to Greek, and then from Greek to English) were fallible; and the editors, who from the scores of manuscripts, by their personal comparison and decisions between the conflicting readings, patched together our present text, were most fallible. And when thus a Bible reader has got his text before him, how can he understand it, except by using his own reason and judgment? Instruments, again, most fallible.

How is it possible, then, to get Bible-truth independently of the reason or in entire exemption from error? The only way would be to say, that not only was the Bible verbally inspired, but all its authors, copyists, editors, and pious readers were also infallibly inspired. As in the old Hindoo account of how the world was supported, the earth was said to be held up on pillars, and the pillars on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and when the defender of the faith was asked what, then, did the tortoise rest on, he sought to save himself in his quandary, by roundly asserting that “it was tortoise all the way down”;—so the defender of the infallibility of the Scripture has to take refuge in “inspiration all the way down.” But if this be so, ought not the modern scripture editors and revisers, translators and Biblical professors also to be inspired, as much as those of King James’ day or the printers at the Bible house? And thus we reach, as the reductio ad absurdum of this argument, this result: that Tischendorff, and Koenen, and the Hebrew professors, among whom Doctor Briggs is a foremost authority, while accused of heresy are really themselves the very channels of infallible inspiration.

The sincere investigators into the character of the Bible and the nature of Christ are charged with exalting human reason above the word of God. But as soon as the subject is investigated and a Professor Swing or a Mr. MacQueary corroborates his interpretation by the Scripture itself, or Doctor Briggs shows his views to be sustained by history, by philosophy, by a profounder study of both nature and the Bible, then the ground is shifted, and it is maintained that it is not a question whether the views are true, but whether they conform to the creed; that the Catechism is not to be judged by the Bible or the facts in the case, but Bible and facts are to be interpreted by the words of the Confession; and if they do not agree with this, then heresy and infidelity are made manifest. The question is not whether the water of truth be found, but whether it is drunk out of an orthodox bottle, with the Church’s label glued firmly upon it. The pretext for the charge of heresy against these eminent Biblical scholars is that they are undermining the Bible; but in conducting the trial, prosecutors themselves refuse to abide by the testimony of the Scriptures to decide the matter and erect above them soul creed or catechism.

But let us stop for a moment and ask whence came these creeds and catechisms themselves? What else was their origin than out of the reason of man; out of the brains of scholars, as they in former years criticised and interpreted the same Scripture, and nature, and laws of God? And these scholars of the past were quite as fallible, quite as partisan, and far less well informed than our scholars to-day. Thus it is the dogmatists themselves who exalt the reason of man above the word of God, forbidding us to listen to the more direct voice of God in our own soul; forbidding us to decipher the revelations which the Divine Hand has written on the rocks, and tree, and animal structure, and even frowning upon that profounder study of the Scripture called the higher criticism, but bidding us accept, in its stead, the man-made substitute of some council or assembly of former generations.

There have undoubtedly been periods when the doubt with which the Church had to deal was mainly frivolous or carnal; a passionate rebellion of the worldly nature, attacking the essential truths of religion. But such is not the nature of the doubt which is at present occupying the public eye; such is not the doubt most characteristic of our generation. It proceeds from serious motives. It is a doubt marked by essential reverence and loyalty to truth. It is a desire for more solid foundations; for the attainment of the naked realities of existence. It is a necessary incident of the great intellectual awakening of our century. As the modern intellect comes back on Sunday from its week-day explorations of the history of Rome, or the myths of Greece, or the religious ideas of Buddha or Zoroaster, it must return to the contemplation of the Christian dogmas under new influences. It will necessarily demand what better evidence the law of Moses or the creed of Nicea has than the law of Mana or the text of the Zendavesta? The scepticism of our age is not so much directed against the great truths of religion as against the man-made dogmas that have usurped the sacred seat. If irreverent, scoffing scepticism were to be found anywhere to-day, it would most likely be found manifested among the throng of young men gathered at our most progressive University,—Harvard. But Dr. Lyman Abbot, after several weeks’ association with the students there, and a careful study of their states of mind, not long ago testified, that “if they are sceptical, it is because they are too serious-minded and too true to accept convictions ready made, traditional creeds for personal beliefs, or church formularies for a life of devotion.” Now to call such a state of mind irreligious or infidel is most unjust. The irreligion lies rather with those who make a fetish of the Bible and substitute a few pet texts from it; that sustain their own private opinions, in place of that divine light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. The real infidels are they who reject the revelation which God is making us continually in the widening light of modern knowledge, and by a species of ecclesiastical lynching, condemn, before trial, the sincere, painstaking, and careful scholars and reverent disciples of Christ, who are so earnestly seeking after truth, because the results of their learned researches do not agree with the prejudices of their anathematizers. It is with no less cogency of argument than nobility of feeling that Dr. Briggs replied to his assailants: “If it be heresy to say that rationalists, like Martineau, have found God in the reason, and Roman Catholics, like Newman, have found God in the Church, I rejoice in such heresy, and I do not hesitate to say that I have less doubt of the salvation of Martineau and Newman than I have of the modern Pharisees who would exclude such noble men,—so pure, so grand, the ornaments of Great Britain and the prophets of the age,—from the kingdom of God.”

Scepticism and religious questioning are, then, no sins; they are not irreligious. But surely they do vex the Church. What shall the Church do about them? In the first place, we should not try to suppress them. Nor should we tell religious inquirers to shut their eyes and put the poppy pillow of faith beneath their heads and go to sleep again, and dream. They have got their eyes wide open and they are determined to know whether those sweet visions which they had on faith’s pillow are any more than illusions. Nor will they be satisfied and cease to think, by having a creed of three hundred or fifteen hundred year’s antiquity recited to them. The modern intellects that have taken Homer to pieces, and excavated Agamemnon’s tomb, and unwound the mummy wrappings of the Pharaohs, that have weighed the stars and chained the lightnings, are not to be awed by any old-time sheepskin or any council of bishops. They demand the facts in the case; fresh manna to satisfy their heart hunger; the solid realities of personal experience. No. It is too late to-day for the churchmen to play the part of Mrs. Partington, and sweep back the Atlantic tide of modern thought with their little ecclesiastical broom. The old ramparts are broken through and we must give the flood its course. The only spirit to meet it in is that of frankness and friendliness. Let us not foster in these questioning minds the suspicion that there is any part of religion that we are afraid to have examined. We smile at the bigoted Buddhist who, when the European attempted to prove by the microscope that the monk’s scruples against eating animal food were futile (inasmuch as in every glass of water he drank he swallowed millions of little living creatures), smashed the microscope for answer, as if that altered at all the facts. But are not many of the heresy-hunters in Christendom quite as foolish in their efforts to smash the microscope of higher criticism, or the telescope of evolution, and suppress the testimony which nature, and reason, and scholarship every day present afresh?

Let us, therefore, give liberty, yes, even sympathy, to these perplexed souls who are struggling with the great problems of religion.

And secondly, let us be honest with them, and not claim more certainty for religious doctrines or more precise and absolute knowledge about divine and heavenly things than we have. One of the great causes of modern doubt is, unquestionably, the excessive claims that theology has made. It has not been content with preaching the simple truths necessary to a good life; that we have a Maker to whom we are responsible,—a divine Friend to help us, a divine voice within to teach us right and wrong; that in the life that is to follow this, each shall be judged according to his deeds, and that in the apostles and prophets, especially the spotless life of Jesus, we have the noble patterns of the holy life set up before us for our imitation; a revelation of moral and religious truth all sufficient for salvation. The Church has not been content with these almost self-evident truths; but it must go on, to make most absolute assertions about God’s foreknowledge, and foreordination, and triune personality; and the eternal punishment of the wicked, and the double nature and pre-existence of Christ,—things not only vague and inconsistent, but contradictory to our sense of justice and right. It must go on to make manifold assertions about the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible and the details of the future life and the fall of human nature, which are utterly incredible to rational minds. And the worst of it is, that all these things are bound up in one great theological system, and poor, anxious inquirers are told that they must either take all or none; and so (soon coming face to face with some palpable inconsistency or incredibility) they not unnaturally give up the whole. Trace out the religious history of the great sceptics,—the Voltaires, the Bradlaughs, the Ingersolls, the Tom Paines,—and you will see that the origin of their scepticism has almost always been in a reaction from the excessive assumptions of the ecclesiastics themselves. It is too fine spun and arrogant orthodoxy that is itself responsible for half of the heterodoxy of which it complains.

Let the Church, then, be honest, and claim no more than it ought. Let it respect and encourage honesty in every man in these sacred matters. The Church itself should say to the inquirer: You are unfaithful to your God if you go not where He, by the candle of the Lord (i. e., the reason and conscience he has placed within you), leads you. And when a man in this reverent and sincere spirit pursues the path of doubt, how often does he find it circling around again toward faith and conducting him to the Mount of Zion! The true remedy for scepticism is deeper investigation. As all sincere doubt is at bottom a cry of the deeper faith that only that which is true and righteous is divine, so all earnest doubt, thought through to the end, pierces the dark cloud and comes out in the light and joy of higher convictions. It lays in the dust our philosophic and materialistic idols and brings us to the one Eternal Power, the ever-living Spirit, manifested in all, that Spirit whose name is truth, whose word is love.

You remember, perhaps, the story of the climber among the Alps, who, having stepped off a precipice, as he thought, frantically grasped, as he fell, a projecting root and held on in an agony of anticipated death, for hours, until, utterly exhausted, he at last resigned himself to destruction, and let go of his support, to fall gently on the grassy ledge beneath, only a few inches below his feet. So when we resign ourselves to God’s hand, our fall, be it little or be it great, lands us gently in the everlasting arms that are ever underneath.

Do not fear, then, to wrestle with doubt, or to follow its leadings. Out of every sincere soul-struggle, your faith shall come forth stronger and calmer. And do not hesitate to proclaim your new convictions when they have become convictions. Such is the encouragement and sympathy that the Church should give the candid questioner.

On the other hand, it may wisely caution him, not to be precipitate in publishing his doubt. Let him wait till it has become more than a doubt; till it has become a settled and well-considered conclusion, before he inflicts it upon his neighbor. The very justification for doubting the accepted opinion, the sacredness of truth, commands caution and firm conviction that our new view is something more than a passing caprice of the mind, before we publish it. But when the doubter is sure of this, then let him no longer silence his highest thoughts.

Again, the Church is justified in cautioning the doubter not to be proud of his doubt as a doubt. There is no more merit, it is well to remember, in disbelieving than in believing; and if your opinions have, as yet, only got to the negative state and you have no new positive faith or philosophy to substitute for the old, you are doing your neighbor a poor service in taking away from him any superstition, however illogical, that sustains his heart and strengthens his virtue.

And further, let me say, I would dislike very much to have you contented with doubt. Doubt makes a very good spade to turn up the ground, but a very poor kind of spiritual food for a daily diet. It is a useful, often an indispensable half-way shelter in the journey of life; but a very cold home in which to settle down as the end of that journey.

In all our deepest hours, when our heart is truly touched, or our mind satisfied, we believe. It is each soul’s positive faith, however unconventional or perhaps unconscious that faith may be, that sustains its hope, that incites its effort, that supports it through the trials of life. Any doubt, even, that is earnest and to be respected, is really an act of faith, faith in a higher law than that of human creeds; in a more direct revelation, within ourselves, in our own sense of justice and consistency, than in any manuscript or print.

The very atheist, who in the name of truth repudiates the word God, is really manifesting (in his own different way) the belief which he cannot escape, in the divine righteousness and its lawful claim on every human soul.

She is right who sings:—

“There is no unbelief;

And day by day, and night by night, unconsciously

The heart lives by that faith the lips deny,—

God knows the why.”

Finally, and most important of all, let us not worry ourselves so much about the intellectual opinions of men; but look rather to their spiritual condition. The church ought to think less of creed and more of character. The essence of faith lies not in correct conclusions upon doctrinal points; but in righteousness, and love, and trustful submission to God’s will. No scepticism concerning dogmas touches the heart of religion. If that seems at all heretical, let me cite good orthodox authority. I might quote Bishop Thirlwall, of the Church of England, in his judgment concerning Colenso’s attack upon the accuracy of the history of the Exodus in the Pentateuch, that “this story, nay, the whole history of the Jewish people, has no more to do with our faith as Christians, than the extraction of the cube or the rule of three.” Or I might quote Canon Farrar’s weighty words, in a recent article in the Christian World, upon the true test of religion. “The real question,” he declares, “to ask about any form of religious belief, is: Does it kindle the fire of love? Does it make the life stronger, sweeter, purer, nobler? Does it run through the whole society like a cleansing flame, burning up that which is mean and base, selfish and impure? If it stands that test it is no heresy.” That answers the question as aptly as it does manfully. And to the same effect is the noble sermon of Dr. Heber Newton a few weeks ago, in which he subordinated the question of the denominational fold to the higher interests of the Christian flock; and that notable saying of Dr. MacIlvaine’s at the Presbyterian Presbytery the other day, when, quoting the admission of one evangelical minister, that it was the Unitarian Martineau who had saved his soul and kept his Christian faith from shipwreck, he added significantly, “You must first find God in your soul before you can find Him elsewhere.” Yes, the prime and essential thing is to find God in the soul; to worship him in spirit, by a pure conscience, a loyal will, a heart full of devotion to God’s righteousness and love to all our kind. This is to worship God in truth. And what have Calvin’s five points, or the composite origin of the Pentateuch, or the virgin birth of Christ to do with such worship? If a man likes to believe them, very well. But if he cannot honestly credit them, why should we shut the doors of the church against him and threaten him with excommunication? Were these the requirements that Jesus Christ laid on his disciples? Not at all. Look all through the Sermon on the Mount, study the Golden Rule, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the conditions Jesus lays down in his picture of the last judgment as the conditions of approval by the heavenly Judge, and see if you find anything there about the infallibility of Scripture, or the Apostolic succession, or the Deity of Christ, or any other of the dogmas on account of which the ecclesiastical disciplinarians would drive out the men whom they are pursuing as heretics. How grimly we may fancy Satan (if there be any Satan) smiling to himself as he sees great Christian denominations wrought up to a white heat over such dogmas and definitions, while the practical atheism, and pauperism, and immorality of our great metropolis is passed over with indifference.

Sunday after Sunday, the Christian pulpit complains that the great masses of the people keep away from their communion tables and do not even darken their doors.

Does not the fault really lie in the folly—I may almost say sin,—of demanding of men to believe so many things that neither reason nor enlightened moral sense can accept, and making of these dogmas five-barred gates through which alone there is any admission to heaven?

If we wish the Church to regain its hold on thinking men it must simplify and curtail its creeds; it must recognize that the love of God is not measured by the narrowness of human prejudice, and that God’s arms are open to receive every honest searcher after truth. Let him come with all his doubts, provided he comes with a pure heart and brings forth the fruits of righteousness. Let us no longer pretend that it is necessary for a Christian life to know all the mysteries of God. Let it no longer be thought a mark of wickedness for a man honestly to hold a conviction different from the conventional standard; but let us respect one another’s independent search and judgment of truth. True faith consists not in any special theory of God or His ways, but in the uplifting of our spirit to touch His spirit, and the diffusing of whatever grace or gift we have received from Him in generous good-will amongst our fellows.

If the Christian Church is to go forward successfully again in the power and spirit of that Master whom it constantly invokes as “the way, the truth, and the life,” it must make that way and life its guiding truth. It must aim constantly at greater simplicity in its teaching, and a broader, more fraternal co-operation in Christian work. Its motto should be the motto of the early Church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Then shall a new and grander career open before its upward footsteps.