(Website editor’s comment: In the new millennium one might have the impression that biblical scholarship has yielded either to some form of literalism or to the assumption that the Bible is mere commentary or mythology. Archbishop Carrington’s lecture is a reminder of alternative directions.)

[from the Berkeley Divinity School Bulletin, Number 170, December, 1959 - text with British usages]


The Most Reverend Philip Carrington, M.A., D.D., Litt.D., D.C.L. Scholar, Metropolitan of Canada and Anglican Archbishop of Quebec

(Archbishop Carrington died in Malmesbury, Wilts, England, on Saturday, October 3, 1975)

The Mary Fitch Page Lecture – November 17, 1959 – Berkeley Divinity School

1. Victorian Pedigree

     The writer of this survey is a Victorian with a Victorian pedigree; and that is relevant since the subject-matter of the survey may loosely be described as Victorian. The strange condition of Biblical criticism in the protestant world today cannot be understood without tracing back its pedigree into Victorian and pre-Victorian times, when its present lines of development were laid down.

     The survey is undertaken from this point of view.

2. A Forgotten Book

     The consideration of Biblical criticism began for me when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, an age at which I had abandoned belief in God. I found in a library an impressive-looking Victorian volume called Supernatural Religion, written in the eighteen-seventies by an anonymous writer, (whose name, I believe, was W. R. Cassels), which created quite a sensation when it appeared. It was composed in a learned manner, and furnished with formidable footnotes, and it announced that recent criticism had completely disposed of the historical character of the gospels as generally understood. It quoted great German names of which I had never heard, and it refuted various early Christian authors who were equally strange to me: - Irenaeus, Justin, Papias, and so forth. It was all most impressive. It did not occur to me at that tender age to doubt it; and I was grieved, because I was in favour of Jesus of Nazareth.

     And then a miracle occurred. I walked home rather sadly, and happened to go into my father's study, where I found him arranging his books. He had in his hand a copy of Lightfoot's famous criticism of the book which I had just been looking at; he had never before addressed me on the subject of theology, but something moved him to do so now; and he told me the story of Lightfoot's scientific examination of this notorious book, and his painstaking demolition of its pretences to learning. He had been a pupil of Lightfoot himself in the eighties, and was speaking out of personal knowledge. I was being admitted into what is called an 'oral tradition', which is always so much more illuminating than a purely literary study. I went up to bed much relieved in my heart.

     I never told my father that I had come to him fresh from a reading of the book; youth has peculiar reticences. But I have since observed that odd coincidences do play their part in the lives of men; and, to tell the truth, I do not believe that they can all be accounted for by a theory of mere coincidence. It amuses me, too, to think that my father may first have read the book which interested me so much, at the same age that I did myself; when it first came out, that is to say, and made such a stir, something like eighty-five years ago; not a very long leap for an oral tradition.

3. A Realistic Approach

     As the tide of faith once more took hold of me, I had already learned that one must make a distinction between two different methods of Bible criticism which are commonly confused. The first method begins by taking it for granted that the central features of historical Christianity are mythical, and then proceeds to manipulate the evidence so as to support this assumption. It is the method of the Queen of Hearts in the Adventures of Alice, a book by a leading Oxford intellectual, which often reads like a satire on academic methods and types. You remember what the Queen said: "Sentence first: Verdict afterwards". The second method is different. It occurred to me, in my innocence, that it might be possible to investigate the evidence first, and then make up one's mind, on the basis of this investigation, what one thought about historical Christianity; an attitude which was strongly reinforced in me when I went up to Cambridge, and became a pupil of J. O. F. Murray, the friend and executor and editor of Dr. Hort, who taught me to reverence the facts, and constantly test one's theories and interpretations by them.

     I had naturally made up my mind to take very seriously the great ‘critical' movement in Biblical scholarship which had risen into prominence in the Victorian period, and was widely regarded as a scientific and objective investigation into the origins of the historic faith. I accordingly applied myself to these studies. I found, however, that I had to make a further distinction; on the one hand there was the learned 'critical' research into the evidence, for its own sake, with the object of evaluating it and interpreting it; on the other there was the use of learned and 'critical' methods to build up and support special theories, even at the expense of the evidence. I was eager to distinguish the first of these methods from the second, and to use it for my own understanding of the Bible; but I found them so confused in the dominant schools of modern Biblical criticism as to make it a very dubious guide.

     A little history will illustrate this point.

4. The Tübingen School of Criticism

     As everyone knows, a position of leadership in this movement was exercised by a succession of brilliant German scholars whose work began in the latter half of the eighteenth century. These men, however, so far as I can see, had little intention of investigating the origins of Christianity with the object of discovering whether the historical evidence was satisfactory, or in what direction it pointed. They began with the assumption that the traditional views about Christian origins were false, and in particular, that the traditional Christian philosophies were false; they aimed at the creation of such theories as would enable them to substitute their own philosophies, and they were prepared to manipulate the evidence accordingly.

     First, of course, came the common eighteenth-century rationalism, which ruled out miracle and dogma, (man's mental and physical faculties, as then understood, being the measure of all things); and then came the more profound philosophies of Kant and Hegel, to which the story of Christian origins must be assimilated at all costs. It pains me to say so, but there was also a tendency to rule out of consideration the more churchly or sacramental or apostolic elements in the evidence, since they tend to support a catholic estimate of Christian origins. The task of the critic was to reconstruct a pure and undefiled ‘primitive’ Christianity according to his own heart's desire, which would be free from these objectionable features.

     The old Tübingen school of criticism developed a fantastic theoretical reconstruction of Christian origins which was taken seriously for a generation. St. Peter and St. Paul (it was maintained) were the leaders of hostile factions which divided the church in the primitive period; St. Peter supporting a more Jewish and legalistic form of the faith, and St. Paul a more gentile and individualistic form. The early catholic form of Christianity, which was admitted to have been established in the second century, was a synthesis or fusion of these two opposing forces; and many of the New Testament books were fabrications of the late second century, which were written to establish a false picture of an apostolic harmony which had never existed. Only a few epistles of St. Paul, and the Revelation of St. John, were permitted to have existed in the first century.

     This learned perversion of history enjoyed a high reputation among the intellectuals, and exercised a powerful influence at the time, but could not, of course, maintain itself against a genuinely scholarly and critical examination of the historical and literary evidence, under which it completely collapsed; but in spite of that, many of its general principles have passed into the modern Protestant tradition, and in extreme cases what we may call the general pattern of thought reappears without much change.

     To take an example: the labours of the more realistic scholars, have amply vindicated the first-century date and historical character of the Acts of the Apostles, and yet we still find it treated with undue scepticism or even suspicion by the more advanced protestant scholars. In particular the account of the council of apostles and elders in Acts 15, is quite often treated as a falsification of history; and yet there is still no actual evidence to support this hostile attitude; it is a hang-over from the Tübingen period, and is maintained because the chapter in question tends to support a catholic view of Christian origins.

     Learned scholars who have inherited the Tübingen attitude continue to work on the basis of supposed ‘significant’ contradictions between St. Paul in Galatians and St. Luke in the Acts, a theory which can be supplied with apparent support by the expedient of dating the writing of Galatians after the council instead of before it; and further support can be mustered for it by a microscopic examination of the various minor discrepancies in order or emphasis between the two documents, which are magnified into ‘grave’ or ‘significant’ inconsistencies, but are, as a matter of fact, natural occurrences in honest and independent evidence.

     The same irrational persistence of unrealistic theory meets us in the prevailing treatment of the fourth gospel. There are problems in connection with the fourth gospel, of course, but it happens that the external historical evidence for its connection with the apostle John is overwhelmingly strong. But the successors of the Tübingen school, like their predecessors, have little realistic feeling for history or for personalities, and so the excellent historical evidence of Papias and Justin and Irenaeus is not given the consideration which it should rightly have.

     The time has come for a robust protestant criticism to rid itself of the outworn theories which necessitate this rejection or manipulation of solid evidence.

5. The Old Testament too

     This survey deals mainly with the New Testament, but we may pause to note a similar attitude to the Old Testament. When I arrived at Cambridge, I was inoculated with the theory of a fundamental antagonism between the prophetic and priestly elements in the religion of Israel; a view which I do not hesitate to describe as a myth. It is a fact, of course, that some prophets criticised some priests1 (just as St. Paul once criticized St. Peter), and that one or two magnificent texts extol the value of pure spiritual worship over against a multiplication of mere sacrifices without any real devotion; but the religion of Israel is inconceivable without priesthood, sacrifice, and temple; spiritual religion and sacrificial worship are indissolubly wedded in the historic tradition. Neither priest nor prophet can be dispensed with.

     It will be noted that the same philosophical pattern emerges in this false estimate of the Old Testament; two antagonistic types of religion fight one another, and then coalesce in a compromise situation. This pattern was dictated by the philosophy of Hegel to which the Tübingen school endeavored to assimilate the history of our religion; ‘thesis’ and ‘anti-thesis, must always be followed by ‘syn-thesis’; a formula which supplies the true nature of historical reality for the Hegelian.

     I am not at all sure that there is not a touch of anti-semitism too (as well as a half-submerged anti-catholicism) in this hostile attitude to the temple of Israel and its priesthood and liturgy; an attitude which may colour the approach to the New Testament as well; for it still suffers from the failure of modern scholars to affiliate primitive Christianity intimately and realistically with the existent Jewish religion within which it took form. Enoch and Esdras are false lights in this respect.

6. Albert Schweitzer and his Survey

     A survey of the progress of German criticism, so far as it concerns the gospels, will be found in the book called the Quest of the Historical Jesus, by Albert Schweitzer, which had recently appeared in my Cambridge days. It is interesting to review it after something like half a century. It tells the story of the conflicts and rivalries between the German schools, critic against critic and theory against theory, extending as it did into the realms of personal ambition, academic preferment, and even political affiliation. ‘Thesis’ and ‘anti-thesis’ certainly ruled the day in this arena of academic controversy.

     The book which Schweitzer wrote was not, however, really called the Quest of the Historical Jesus. This romantic name was given to it, doubtless with his consent, in its English translation; what he called it himself was From Reimarus to Wrede. It is a detailed survey of the course of German criticism. With the exception of three French imitators, Schweitzer confined his survey to the German schools; these were the original authorities, for him, to which we must go for the true interpretation of Jesus. We see one after another of them manipulate the gospel texts till they conform with his particular theory; last of all Schweitzer himself, with consummate genius and insight.

     It is a record of indefatigable research on the one hand, and of free theorization on the other. The world owes to the German scholars an immense debt of gratitude for their laborious and detailed studies in the linguistic and literary and historical fields, though some credit might have been given by Schweitzer to the scientific and objective studies of English scholars in the same period, even if only in the field of textual criticism for instance. Out of this research came genuine results in the form of literary techniques and discoveries such as the priority of St. Mark, and the recognition of the use by the synoptics of a lost document called ‘Q’. And, more than this, the patient work of these various schools of criticism, has made it possible for us to approach the scriptures with a free and open mind, and interpret them in the light of accepted literary and historical method of study, as we would in the case of other literary and historical documents.

     We cannot say that this was done, however, in the schools of protestant criticism which we are studying; for the promotion of new theories was still the ruling passion. Out of this theorization came the emergence of two principal schools of thought; the old ‘liberal’ protestantism represented by the name of Adolf Harnack, and the thorough-going ‘eschatology’ represented by the name of Johannes Weiss; neither of them adequate or satisfactory; the ‘thesis’ and ‘anti-thesis’ of the movement. Schweitzer himself, of course, promotes the eschatological interpretation, advancing upon the evidence with frightful energy and genius, and hewing down whatever stands in the way of his theory, and making many an illuminating comment as he goes.

     Never was so much superstructure erected with such high imagination and profound learning upon so small a foundation. Even in my student days, I could see how heavily he relied on a few fortunate texts, which, however, could not sustain the weight of the edifice which he imposed upon them: on St. Paul's offhand remark, for instance, about the value of having known the Lord ‘in the flesh’, as if it were a weighty theological pronouncement defining his considered theology about the earthly life of Jesus; or the Matthaean phrase ‘You will not have gone round the cities of Israel until the Son of Man is come’; an ironic saying which may be compared with others in the same gospel: ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, or ‘After all these things do the gentiles seek’.

      But here we arrive at an irremediable difference of opinion between those who find in the grand utterances of Jesus (or St. Paul) bricks and mortar for the construction of systematic theologies, and those who regard them as immediate human reactions to specific human situations.

     But what amazed me even more in my student days was that Schweitzer could build so much on a text of this character which was found in Matthew only, a proceeding which was certainly not in line with the established methods of the hard-boiled criticism of the day. Had such a text from Matthew only, as for instance, ‘On this rock’, been brought forward in defence of the catholic position, it would have been regarded with a very dubious eye.

7. Arbitrary Techniques

     When I first applied myself to these studies, I was impressed by the manner in which the Biblical critics distinguished between different strata or strands in Bible narrative, accepting some texts as genuine and rejecting others. Such and such text, I would read, is probably a genuine word of Jesus; such other text is an interpolation. I set myself very seriously to discover the scientific and objective methods by which such distinctions could be made. I even cherished the hope that one day I might learn the technique, and be able to do it for myself.

     The divergences in the synoptic tradition, and in similar areas in the Old Testament, do, of course, supply material on which to base speculations of this kind; and still more the divergences between the synoptists and St. John; but I am not referring to this kind of comparative documentary criticism; I am referring to ex cathedra pronouncements based on the study of some one particular text.

     It was long before I found out the facts. There is often very little scientific basis for pronouncement of this nature. The text in question is only too often rejected because it contradicts the theory which the critic is trying to prove, or has accepted in the school of criticism to which he belongs. If the text were genuine, the theory would have to be abandoned; and that, of course, would be unthinkable.

     One method of giving authority to opinions of this kind was to invoke the authority of some great name, generally a German name of course. I found myself reacting rather strongly against this procedure; my view was that however great the man might be, I was still entitled to be given the evidence on which he based his opinions, and examine it for myself, apart from the theory involved, and draw my own conclusions, however weakly I might do so.

     It is true, however, that from time to time, literary canons are devised which appear to provide an objective criterion. A case in point is the established method of dealing with parables. By comparing one with another, and lopping off the distinctive features of each, an average minimum ‘form’ or pattern for a parable has been worked out; and then every parable can be cut and trimmed to conform to this general minimum average. It is further laid down that each parable can have only one point or application, whereas, of course, it is a poor parable that has only one point; and parables that are at all complex can be rejected altogether as fundamentally untrue to type.

     No room is allowed for the exuberance or poetry or sheer imagination of the maker of the parables. He is not permitted to indulge his genius as he will. There is no vision, no mystery, no second and third dimensions of meaning; all such ideas are deleted from these pages of the gospels under the authority of a great name: Adolf Jülicher. We are left with tolerable sermon illustrations.

     Other artificial techniques for rejecting unwanted texts have been devised. The greatest of these is ‘form criticism’, which is, in part, an extension of the Jülicher method of reducing everything to a standardized minimum average, acceptable to the critical mind.

8. Form Criticism

     The development of ‘form-criticism’ is the principal new development in critical technique since Schweitzer's 'Quest.' Its basic principles are sound, but they are not new. They are founded on the assumption that there was a period of oral transmission prior to the writing down of the gospel material; a fact which may be regarded as self-evident since this was the normal Jewish method of transmitting religious knowledge or teaching; it was taken for granted by many of the older scholars, such as Westcott and Wright.

     This period of oral transmission, short as it is, was eagerly welcomed by the advanced school, as the period when the false elements of mythology and miracle and sacrament and apostolic ministry took the place of the pure and original Christianity, whatever it was.

     Unfortunately, however, the ‘form-critics’ seem to have little idea what the Jewish method of oral instruction and transmission was like. They treat it as if it was a casual flow of gossip or conversation or speech-making, or preaching or theological discussion, passing from one person to another, and one community to another, without any control. Oral tradition, however, in actual fact, was an exact academic discipline of a catechetical type, carried on in organized schools under the control of recognized teachers who had receive the tradition in an official manner, and were regarded, in consequence, with awe and respect as masters in their own schools. Such men might be described as the reference books of their times. An oral tradition without the authority of such a name would have no chance of acceptance.

     Among the ‘form-critics’ however, the oral material is thought of as being anonymous and subject to no control, and therefore in a constant state of flux and change.2 Various average forms have been worked out to which it is believed that such casual material would naturally conform. A ‘pronouncement story’, for instance (or Apophthegm) is a short story which is told because it contains a single utterance of Jesus which was valued only because of its relevance to some special interest in the church; if it contains two sayings of Jesus, the one that does not fit your theory may safely be struck out.

     Similarly, the miracle or ‘wonder story’, has an average minimum form.

     Such stories, it is often alleged, have no ordinary human interest in them; there is no interest in the character or personality of Jesus, or of any other person who may be introduced. The only interest is in the ‘pronouncement’, or in the element of wonder, or whatever the one point of significance in the literary unit may be.

     Far be it from us to deny that popular stories do take artistic form according to the principles which are inherent in good story-telling; but those principles are flexible and creative and compatible with an infinite variety of expression; indeed they demand it; and in actual fact the robust variety and realism of the gospel narrative puts up a strenuous resistance, at almost every point, to the application of the form-critical techniques.

9. The Biographical Interest

     It has become a commonplace now in the critical schools to say that the gospels are not biographies; and even that there was no interest in the character and personality of Jesus. Never was there a less realistic appraisal. It is obviously true that the gospels are no biographies according to our modern academic standards of biography. They do not give dates, or establish the chronology of events, or work out a logical sequence of narrative. They are not much concerned with the question just when an incident occurred, and they preserve a number of minor disagreements in order and detail and emphasis and expression, which cannot always be resolved. They are contented to supply a succession of dramatic stories, with records of prophecies and parables and teaching inserted here and there, where they may be effective, and yet the central figure does move through these successive scenes to his appointed destiny; there is more motion and continuity than one might think. And it is always the same figure; the same glorious personality. What well-constructed ‘biography’ of the modern western type has ever presented its central figure with such colour and animation and consistency?

     The problem for the critic of the gospels, if he believes in a diffused and casual origin for these stories and paragraphs of teaching, is to explain how it is that the same recognisable figure does appear in each. If the stories were composed or even invented, in independent circumstances, by different people, merely to propagate some theological pronouncement or act of wonder, how comes it that they have presented to mankind the most appealing figure in all world-history, and, in company with him, a quantity of human characters who come to life in the realistic situation by their association with him? Such stories were not made in the pedantic a way which is sometimes suggested. They were told and loved because ordinary Christians were delighted with the power and courage and wisdom and grace of the central figure, which moreover gives unity, life and motion to them as they appear in series.

     When you turn from a modern commentary of the theological or scholastic type to the pages of the gospels themselves, you find yourself in a different world; you are walking in the sunlight of Galilee, or sailing on the lake, or making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the disciples. That is the character of the books, and it is well understood by the evangelical teacher who knows how to use them.

10. The Available Evidence

     This brings us to another extraordinary generalization which seems to be put forward by many of these critics as a self-evident proposition. It is assumed that all accurate memory of what Jesus said and did, had perished from the minds of those who heard and saw him; and that too in spite of the fact that there was an organised oral tradition which existed to perpetuate these memories.

     This looks like another hang-over from the Tübingen period. When the gospels were regarded as products of the late second century, there was sufficient length of time to make such a suggestion look plausible; but now that a more realistic criticism has restored them to their places in the first century, such a suggestion is ridiculous. As Kenyon used to say, there is not sufficient time for the various processes which are called for by form-critical theory, to work themselves out; ‘myth’ or ‘theology’ cannot have superseded the actual facts in the lifetime of those who had seen him and known him, and accompanied him to his death in Jerusalem. How could they ever forget?

     When St. Mark wrote his gospel about 70 A.D. it was only forty years after the events which he records. In a few days I shall be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my marriage, and I assure you that I distinctly remember whom I married; and, of course, I remember events and persons of still earlier times with perfect accuracy. St. Mark could do the same in his day; the facts were all available; and if he did not know something, he could go and ask somebody who did. The period of the first auditors and witnesses was not over; some of them would survive for several years yet.

     We are dealing, too, with people whose memories were trained, a factor which is fading out of modern education. When I was young, we still did some learning by heart, for which I thank God. It is more than fifty years since I learned the Morte d'Arthur, and I am surprised how much of it I can repeat. How very much more would they, who were immersed in a continuous tradition of vocal repetition?

     A learned exponent of form-criticism3 tells how he once made the experiment of repeating a story to a member of his class, and then getting that member to repeat it to another, and so on through a number of stages, with the idea of demonstrating how much it changed in the process. Nothing more unlike the Jewish system of oral tradition could very well be imagined; but actually, in the case of the gospels, we are not dealing with a number of stages in the transmission; we are dealing with one stage, the generation which had received the tradition in the first place, and remembered Jesus of Nazareth personally.

     And it was a public tradition too, in which the ’traditions’ were continuously repeated, and all deviations would be noticed and checked. Everybody knew what had happened.

11. The Apostolate of the Lord

     This subject has to be taken further. St. Mark often begins a story with an introductory sentence or two, or even gives a little summary of the historical background by way of introduction; a thing he would not have done, by the bye, if there was no historical interest or available information. A recent learned commentator4 refers to these introductions or summaries as ‘Marcan constructions’; meaning, of course, that the stories came to St. Mark without them, and that he made them up himself, which may or not be the case. In a special article, he deals with the choice, training, and mission of the twelve apostles, and points out that most of the references to them in this gospel, occur in the verses which he has classified as ‘Marcan constructions’. He, therefore, decides not to take them into account; they are not evidence.

     This is a very extreme case of the arbitrary rejection of evidence. The fact is that in the dominant Protestant schools, there is a tendency (continuous with Tübingen days) to ignore the twelve apostles, or even to deny their existence, at least as a controlling factor in the life of the church, and in the origin and transmission of the gospel. The reason for this dissociation is obvious. If we accept the apostolate as it appears in the evidence, it tells in favour of a catholic estimate of the gospel movement; and yet it is a fact that the formation of the apostolate by the Lord as his organised authoritative ministry in the gospel movement, is the theme which gives historical continuity, not only to the Marcan record, but to the New Testament evidence as a whole, and the Christian literature which follows it.

     In this instance, St. Mark is recording what was well within his range of knowledge; what was common knowledge indeed, since the apostles were well-known figures in the life of the church for which he wrote. He was dealing with them as the primary authority for the oral tradition which he was handling, and he could not have made so serious an error.

     When I read Schweitzer's great book over again, I look in vain for any treatment of the apostolate. He was not interested in persons; he was interested in theories and theologies; but that is not the way with ordinary human beings, or with great movements in history; great leaders play an important part in such movements, which is fully recognized by the rank and file. This interest grows with the advance of the movement. The ordinary Christians, in the church for which St. Mark wrote, would be profoundly interested in the great leaders through whose witness and sufferings the gospel had come to them; and particularly in St. Peter, whose character is so realistically portrayed in the Marcan gospel; the apostle whose tradition it represents.

     They were even more important to them than Reimarus and Wrede are to Schweitzer.

12. Eschatology

     And what about the modern passion for eschatology?

     When the principal features of the historic gospel had been rejected as so much mythology, some other adequate explanation had to be invented to account for existence and special character of that stupendous spiritual force which organized itself in the apostolic church, and shook the Roman Empire, and extended itself through the world down to the present day; and that explanation must be found in Jesus himself. ‘Liberal’ protestantism of the school of Harnack represented him as a teacher of righteousness; the ‘fatherhood of God’ and the ‘brotherhood of man’, were the watchwords of this theory. This was obviously not adequate. Something more dynamic was required.

     Reimarus in the eighteenth century had provided the explanation that the content of the gospel of Jesus was the announcement of the Day of Judgement and of the End of the World. Schweitzer, following Johannes Weiss, took up this explanation; and that is what is meant by ‘eschatology’, though the word has been refined and philosophised in a number of ways. It has been the blessed word-of-all-work which explains everything; the magical formula which opens every door. And it is an illusion.

     Jesus nowhere says that the Last Judgement or End o f the World is shortly to come. He speaks of the ‘kingdom of God’ coming; but he also says that it is amongst men now, and those who have faith and vision ‘enter’ it or ‘see’ it now. In how much greater power will it come in God's good time! The keyword of the phrase is not the word ‘kingdom’, important as that is; it is the word ‘God’, the heavenly Father whose reign becomes effective on earth by faith in the gospel movement of Jesus Christ among his elect.5

     The ‘escahatological’ school has done valuable service in pointing out to what an extent the primitive Christian church had its eyes fixed on the future; or shall we say on the ‘glory of God and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ as a vision which dominated their view of the future; and on an ‘advent’ of the Son o f Man within the lifetime of that generation.

     This expectation was inseparably connected with certain contemporary historical realities as they saw them; (a) the rejection of the Son of Man himself in Jerusalem by his people, and the consequent destruction of the city and temple, which were to be replaced by a 'temple not made with hands’; and (b) the preaching of the gospel by the apostles throughout the world under continued persecutions.6

     The triumph of the gospel in the ‘advent’ of the Son of Man is envisaged by the eschatological school, not of course by violent war as we see it in Esdras or in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but by a visible celestial intervention as we see it in Enoch, and, of course, in Esdras too.7 But the way which is envisaged in the gospels is not that of these anonymous apocalyptic writings; it is that which we can trace through the prophets of Israel, and is continued in the gospels themselves by the habitual use of the old prophetic texts; it is the invisible power of Almighty God overruling and working through the events of human history. In accordance with this tradition, we find a warning that the future will be marked by calamities of various kinds within the orders of nature and history; there will be continued conflict with the evil powers; the preachers of the gospel will undergo persecution and even martyrdom; the conflict will come to a head in Judea; the day of darkness for the nation will follow; and then the Son of Man will be seen to coming in his glory.

     This coming is treated, however, in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is to the individual, who must make an accounting of his life; sometimes it is in the bosom of the church; sometimes it is to the guilty nation; sometimes, here and there, it is to the world at large.

     The gospels do not point forward to, or predict, some one way, at some one moment of time, in which the advent will occur once and for all, for all men, though the attention is focussed, in certain well-known passages, on the doom of Jerusalem, as the turning point in history which intervenes between the old order and the new. On the contrary, they express in symbolic form the evangelical assurance that, while there will be dark days to pass through, and dreadful conflict to undergo, and even persecution to the death for believers, nevertheless the Kingdom of God will be established on earth in greater power, and the day of Jesus Christ as heavenly lord will come in consequence. It is a conviction about God which extends the gospel faith onward into future history without any break, and confers on it a certainty o f triumph and power over its foes in this present world; a triumph over all the forces, spiritual and earthly, which are ranged against it. But the use of the old prophetic imagery in the old prophetic manner, means that it does not say just how, or when, this triumph will take place; it says that God and his Christ will triumph; the future belongs to the elect; and the variety in the prophetic and parabolical material, suggests that it will come to pass at many points in human life, and in more ways than one.8

     A further thought which is strongly suggested in this material, is that a new era or ‘aeon’ will thus begin, or is, in fact, beginning. The gospels make use of the word ‘end’; but it would be folly to suppose that wherever it is used, it implies the ‘end of the world’. It is not uncommon in the prophets, where it may mean the end of the historical events which are under consideration by the prophet at the time; or the end of the present political or social or religious order. In the gospels however there is a distinct application to the old religious order of Judaism which was embodied in the people of Israel, and the worship of the Jerusalem temple. This old order by which God had dealt so long with men on earth, was passing away, and a new order in and through Jesus Christ was to take its place: the new temple ‘not made with hands’.

     There is this much truth, therefore, in the more philosophical type of eschatological theory; there is the end of an old age in human history; there is the beginning of a new; and in a sense, this new age of Jesus Christ may be regarded as the final age and as the appointed end of history. In that sense it may be claimed that we are living in the last times; and, in that sense, the claim was sometimes made in the New Testament.9 An old age or world was coming to an end; a new one was being created.

     Of course, if you prefer to take these mysteries in a material sense, and combine them into a closed apocalyptic system with material taken from Enoch or Esdras and other quarters, you can construct an impressive eschatology; but the gospels themselves do not do this.10 Is it a legitimate procedure?

13. The Basic Facts

     Where, then, are we led, when we have spent fifty years of our life with the theories and fantasies and textual manipulations of modern Biblical criticism?

     I find myself returning to the basic historical facts from which there is no escape. Of a certainty Jesus died on the cross; and on the third day,11 he rose again from the dead; or, at any rate, those who knew him best believed that they had seen him risen from the dead; a historical statement which admits of no doubt whatever. They were his apostles. They went out into all the world proclaiming him as Lord and Christ, and looking for his heavenly advent in the glory of his Father. This nuclear apostolic gospel of the death and resurrection, together with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, constituted the core of the church's baptismal faith, and of its fellowship with him in prayer and sacrament.

     Scientifically, historically, and realistically, I am brought to this core or nucleus of the historic gospel as the obvious starting point for any objective research. The bearers of this gospel were the apostles, the disciples of Jesus himself; they had received their mission and mandate from him; they were utterly convinced of their gospel; they had an invincible Spirit in them which overcame all obstacles; they died for their faith; and no man can do more than that. I do not believe that they died for eschatology. This is the foundation of fact with which the student of history must begin. This is what actually occurred.

14. The Present Task

     Exponents of the old ‘liberal’ Protestantism (fortified now with greater or lesser amounts of ‘eschatology’), have bitterly complained of the renascence of what is called ‘fundamentalism’ in certain quarters in recent years. I am not surprised. Indeed I think they are responsible for it. God has sent his pentecostals to redress the balance, and to remind them of factors in the study of the Bible which they have neglected. Neither ‘liberalism’ nor ‘eschatology’ are identical with the gospel of Christ, though both have served the church by emphasizing important elements in Christian life and thought.

     I would like to make two simple observations. One is that the time has come to forget Enoch and Esdras for a while, and interpret the more imaginative passages in the New Testament in their true context as the continuation and climax of the poems and visions of the old prophets of Israel, the worship of the temple and synagogue, and even the rabbinic and domestic piety which determined the character of the Judaism in which the gospel took form.l2 The other is that due weight might at last be given to those elements in the New Testament which have been excluded from consideration because they tend to support catholic interpretations. I know there is a great deal to expect from a professedly protestant criticism; but, after all, we have entered into what is called an ‘ecumenical’ period, and perhaps protestant criticism, with all its learning and genius, could attempt this assignment now, and present us with a review of the total evidence which will be free from the theoretical prepossessions of the past, and resist the temptation to impose new ones.

     For the work of subduing the historical and literary evidence into conformity with the framework and pattern of the latest modern intellectualism is still going on, though the great names may be those of Kierkegaard and Heidegger and Sartre, instead of Kant and Hegel; and new German intellectuals are being pointed out to us as the infallible interpreters. Does it seem too much to ask that we may try the experiment of interpreting the literature of the New Testament in the light of the common normative Judaism which preceded it, and the actual historical Christianity which followed it, and loved the books, and preserved them in its Sunday worship, and lived by them, and handed them down to us as what we call the Bible?

     The Cambridge student of forty years ago has added to his rather simple approaches to this subject the simple thought that perhaps the apostles and evangelists of the first century knew more about the Lord and his gospel than even the most brilliant intellectuals of the nineteenth or twentieth; and that the successors of these apostles and apostolic men knew more about what they had taught and established than we can arrive at today out of our inner consciousness. He sees no reason to assume that the apostles and their successors were deceived by new mythologies, which they then substituted for that original word of truth, which they had seen and heard and even touched, and to which they had dedicated their lives.13 It does not make sense.

     The child of more than fifty years ago, whose attention was arrested by the Victorian volume on the dominant criticism of that day, is still in favor of Jesus of Nazareth. He is even in favor of the primitive church. He would still like to see an objective unbiased study of the evidence, which does not subject it to modern theories and demythologisations. He thinks, indeed, that one great need of the present day is the remythologisation of Professor Bultmann; or even the dephilosophisation of modern criticisms. Pending that day, however, it is his considered opinion that the simple believer who reads the gospel with a prayer, and opens his heart to the glory of the central figure, has the best of it. He has, therefore, a certain sympathy with the fundamentalist; but he is still in love with a humble, sober, objective, scholarly criticism of the Bible, where it is to be found.


1They even criticised some prophets.

2For a realistic reaction to this unrealistic mode of speculation, see H. Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings: Mowbray, Oxford, 1957.

3E. B. Redlich, in Form Criticism; Duckworth, London, reprinted 1948.

4V. Taylor, in The Gospel according to St. Mark, MacMillan, London, 1952.

5The natural understanding of the phrase as our Lord uses it; I cannot resist transcribing a passage from John Wesley's Notes on the New Testament, 1754: “The kingdom of the God of heaven. It properly signifies here (Matt. iii. 2) the gospel dispensation, in which subjects were to be gathered to God by his Son, and a society to be formed, which was to subsist first on earth, and afterwards with God in glory. In some places of scripture, the phrase more particularly denotes the state of it on earth; in others, it signifies only the state of glory: but generally includes both.”

6See especially Mark xiii and derivatives.

7See, for instance Primitive Christianity by R. Bultmann, in which long passages from Enoch and Esdras are presented to the reader as background material for the gospels.

8For a more detailed treatment of this material, and its elaboration by later prophets in the apostolic church, see my forthcoming book According to Mark (Cambridge): also my Meaning of the Revelation (S.P.C.K.) and Early Christian Church (Cambridge).

9For instance, 1 Peter iv. 7, 12, 17:1 John ii. 17, 18.

10It is not possible in this lecture to mention the Revelation of St. John: but see my books listed above under 8.

11The ‘third day’ must be accepted, of course, as an authentic part of the basic evidence; critical attempts to dislodge it from that position have been pathetically ineffectual.

12There are signs that the interest of leading scholars is moving in this direction: see G. Dix, Jew and Greek, Dacre Press, London, 1953: and F. C. Grant, Ancient Judaism and the New Testament, MacMillan, New York, 1959.

13See John i. 1, etc.