Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Flowers of Freethought

ST. PAUL'S VERACITY.

A VERY pretty storm has been raised (and settled) by the Independent and Nonconformist. It raged around the Apostle Paul and Mr. Herbert Spencer, who both come out of it apparently not a penny the worse. Mr. Spencer has a chapter on Veracity in his recently published Principles of Ethics, wherein he cites Paul as a violator of this virtue, and remarks that "apparently piquing himself on his craft and guile," he "elsewhere defends his acts by contending that 'the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory.'" This roused the ire of the Independent, and Mr. Spencer was informed that his extraordinary aspersion on the Apostle's character was wholly without justification. Whereupon the great Evolutionist replied that two days before receiving the Independent he had "sent to the printer the copy of a cancel to be substituted for the page in which there occurs the error you point out." Mr. Spencer goes on to say that he had trusted to assistants, and been misled on this particular point as on a few others.

"The inductions contained in the Principles of Sociology and in Part II. of the Principles of Ethics are based mainly, though not wholly, upon the classified materials contained in The Descriptive Sociology, compiled between 1867 and 1881 by three University men I engaged for the purpose. When using this compilation of facts concerning sixty-eight different societies I have habitually trusted to the compilers. For even had I been in good health it would have been impossible for me to verify all their extracts from multitudinous books. In some cases, where the work was at hand, I have referred for verification; and have usually done so in the case of extracts from the Bible; now and then, as I remember, rejecting the extracts given to me as being not justified by the context. But in the case in point it seems that I had not been sufficiently careful. It is only after reading the preceding chapter that it becomes clear that the passage I quoted must be taken as part of an argument with an imaginary interlocutor, rather than as expressive of St. Paul's own sentiment. It must, I think, be admitted that the presentation of the thought is a good deal complicated, and, in the absence of the light thrown upon it by the preceding chapter, is liable to be misunderstood. I regret that I misunderstood it."

This explanation and apology are, of course, most satisfactory. Saint Paul is cleared by Mr. Spencer's certificate, and the Independent remarks that this is "a noble codicil to Mr. Spencer's chapter on Veracity." Nay, it professes high "admiration" for him as the "greatest living philosopher of the English-speaking race." Thus the "Comedy of Errors" is followed by "All's Well that Ends Well," and the curtain falls on compliments and embraces.

It really seems a shame to disturb this pleasant harmony, but we feel compelled to say something to the Independent and to Mr. Herbert Spencer about the Apostle Paul.

In the first place we must observe that Mr. Spencer's "erroneous" statement about the great apostle, while it may be an aspersion, is certainly not extraordinary. It has repeatedly been made by the apostle's adverse critics, and even by some of his admirers. Without citing a long list of them, we will give two -- both English, and both judicial. Jeremy Bentham, the great reformer of our jurisprudence, wrote a work entitled Not Paul, but Jesus, in which he contends through four hundred pages that Paul was mercenary, ambitious, and an unscrupulous liar. To cull a single passage from Bentham's book is like picking one raisin from a rich plum-pudding. Every sentence is an indictment. And surely after Bentham's trenchant performance it is idle for an English journal to pretend that there is anything "extraordinary" in Mr. Spencer's "erroneous" accusation. The other judicial writer, also belonging to the English race, is Sir Richard Davis Hanson, who was for some time Chief Justice of South Australia. In his able work on The Apostle Paul there is an admirable summing-up of the hero's character. After admitting Paul's ability, persistence, courage, and other virtues, he remarks -- "But these are accompanied by what in an uninspired man would be called pride, jealousy, disdain, invective, sophistry, time-serving and intolerance." This is pretty strong; and "sophistry" and "time-serving" are only euphemisms for lying in preaching and practice.

So much for the Independent, and now for Mr. Spencer. It must be observed that one part of his "erroneous" statement cannot be repudiated. The apostle distinctly says, "being crafty, I caught you with guile" (2 Cor. xii. 16), so that "piquing himself on his craft and guile" must stand while this text remains in the Epistle. Mr. Spencer allows that, in the third of Romans, the "presentation of the thought is a good deal complicated," and "liable to be misunderstood"; but, if read in the light of the preceding chapter, the passage about lying to the glory of God "must be taken as part of an argument with an imaginary interlocutor." Perhaps so; but which is speaking in the seventh verse? Paul or his opponent? Mr. Spencer does not say. Yet this is the real point. To us it seems that Paul is speaking. Of course it may be urged that he is speaking ironically. But this is not Mr. Spencer's contention. It is not clear what he does mean; in fact, he seems to have caught a little of Paul's confusion.

We have no objection to reading the seventh verse of the third of Romans in the light of the preceding chapter. But should it not also be read in the light of Christian history? Have honest openness and strict veracity been ever regarded as essential virtues in the propagation of the gospel? And why is it likely that Paul, of all men, escaped the contagion of fraud, which has always disgraced the Christian Church? The ordinary Protestant imagines, or pretends, that the Catholic Church has been the great impostor; but this is nonsense to the student of early Christianity. Mosheim remarks that the "pernicious maxim" that "those who make it their business to deceive with a view of promoting the cause of truth were deserving rather of commendation than of censure," was "very early recognised by the Christians." Bishop Ellicott similarly observes that "history forces upon us the recognition of pious fraud as a principle which was by no means inoperative in the earliest ages of Christianity." Middleton likewise reflects that the bold defiance of honesty and truth displayed by the Fathers of the fourth century "could not have been acquired, or become general at once, but must have been carried gradually to that height, by custom and the example of former times, and a long experience of what the credulity and superstition of the multitude would bear." So far, indeed, were the "earlier ages" from being remarkable for integrity, that Middleton says there never was "any period of time" in which fraud and forgery more abounded. The learned Casaubon also complains that it was in "the earliest times of the Church" that it was "considered a capital exploit to lend to heavenly truth the help of invention, in order that the new doctrine might be more readily allowed by the wise among the Gentiles." Mosheim even finds that the period of fraud began "not long after Christ's ascension." And it continued, without a blush of shame on Christian cheeks; not growing worse, for that was impossible; until Eusebius, in the fourth century, remarked as a matter of course that he had written what redounded to the glory, and suppressed whatever tended to the disgrace of religion.

Now if fraud was practised as a pious principle in the very earliest ages of Christianity; if it continued for as many centuries as it could pass with impunity; if it was so systematic and prolonged, and carried to such a height, that Herder declared "Christian veracity" fit to rank with "Punic Faith"; what right has anyone -- even a Christian editor -- to place Paul above suspicion, or to find a "monstrous" blunder in his being accused of lying, especially when the historic practice of his co-religionists seems to many persons to be more than half countenanced by his own language?

We are not concerned to press the charge of lying against St. Paul. There have been so many liars in the Christian Church that one more or less makes very little difference. On the other hand, we cannot accept Mr. Spencer's certificate without reservation. He admits that Paul's language is obscure; and perhaps a little obscurity is to be expected when a man is replying to an accusation which he is not wholly able to rebut.
 


< Previous Section      Contents      Home     Next Section >
HTML © 2002 -