Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


(March 26, 1893.)

Thirty-eight clergymen, a year or two ago, gave the Bible a fresh certificate of inspiration and infallibility. They signed a "round robin," if we may apply such a vulgar description to their holy document. But somehow the Bible is in as bad a position as ever. It seems, indeed, in deadly peril; and if something strong and decisive be not done for its protection, it will soon be doomed. Such, at any rate, seems the view of a large number of clergymen, who have signed a Petition, prepared by the Rev. E. S. Ffoulkes, of St. Mary's, Oxford, and addressed to "the Most Reverend the Archbishop, and the Right Reverend the Bishops, of the Church of England, in the House of the Convocation of Canterbury assembled." The petitioners call upon the Archbishops and Bishops to use "their sacred office and authority," and either to purge the Church of heresy or to "authoritatively and publicly" recommend certain "orthodox and admirable works," which are calculated to "arrest the spread" of "disastrous errors in the midst of Our Beloved Church."

In order to show the precise nature of these "disastrous errors," we print the following paragraphs from the petition:

"Whereas it is generally known that certain clergymen of the Church of England, in positions of influence and authority, are deliberately and altogether undermining, by their teachings and public writings, the faith of this Church and country in the trustworthiness of the Holy Scriptures, and are altogether repudiating the common faith of Christendom, that the said Holy Scriptures, as received by this Church of England, are the infallible and inspired Word of God.

"Also, that by what is known as the 'New Criticism,' these clergymen do attempt entirely to rob the people of God of the Holy Scriptures and altogether falsify the teachings respecting them of our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Holy Apostles-declaring some parts to be 'myths,' some 'fables,' some 'the work of dramatists,' etc."

Ah then, the enemy is within the camp! It is no-longer a question of "infidel" publications. Church professors, and doctors of divinity, are sapping the very foundations of "the faith." Orthodox clergymen cry out—in the language of this petition—for salvation from "the dangers of Rationalism and unbelief within the Church."

What does all this mean? It means that Free-thought is triumphing by the permeation of the Churches; that "advanced" ministers are now doing, in a sober, steady, scholarly way, the very work so brilliantly inaugurated by Voltaire and Thomas Paine; that the Bible is being subjected to rigorous criticism, in England as well as in France, Holland, and Germany; that its documents are being shifted like the pieces in a kaleidoscope, and every turn of the instrument makes them differ more and more from the orthodox pattern. At present, it is true, the process is almost confined to the Old Testament. There, however, it is nearly completed. Presently it will extend in earnest to the New Testament; and when it is completed there, the Bible will be something worse than Luther's "wax nose," it will be a thing of "shreds and patches."

Old Testament criticism by men like Driver, Cheyne, Ryle, and Gore, is indeed—as the petitioners assert—destroying faith in "the Holy Scriptures" as the "infallible and inspired Word of God." They still pretend it is inspired, but not infallible. "Infallible," at this time of day, is a very "large order." Professor Bruce, himself a Christian minister, is obliged to tell his orthodox brethren that "the errorless autograph for which some so zealously contend is a theological figment." "The Bible," he reminds them, "was produced piecemeal, and by the time the later portions were produced the earlier had lost their supposed immaculate-ness." And he warns the "infallible" gentlemen that their position is really "perilous" when it is considered "in what state we possess the Scriptures now." Yes, it is only country curates who can stand up now for an "infallible" Word of God; even Mr. Gladstone is obliged to admit "errors"—that is, errors in general, for he will not confess any in particular.

The reference in the petition to "myths," "fables," and "the work of dramatists," seem to be specially aimed at the Rev. Charles Gore, the Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, and editor of Lux Mundi. His essay in that volume on "The Holy Spirit and Inspiration" is horribly distasteful to orthodox parsons. They cannot refute him, but they say "he ought to know better," or "he shouldn't write such things"—in other words, he is guilty of the shocking crime of letting the cat out of the bag. He discards the Creation Story, just like Professor Bruce, who calls the fall of Adam a "quaint" embodiment of the theological conception of sin. He dismisses all the patriarchs before Abraham as "mythical." He admits the late origin of the Pentateuch, and only claims for Moses the probable authorship of the Decalogue. He says the Song of Solomon is "of the nature of a drama." The Book of Job is "mainly dramatic." Deuteronomy is the publication of the law "put dramatically" into the mouth of Moses. Jonah and Daniel are "dramatic compositions." Jesus Christ, it is true, cited both as historical; but he only "accommodated" himself to the prevalent belief. He knew better, but he did not choose to say so; or, rather, the moment was inopportune; so he left us to find out the truth in this matter, as he left us to find it out in everything else.

Canon Driver is perhaps glanced at in "fables," and perhaps also Canon Cheyne. The former has publicly argued against the "reconciliations" of Genesis and Science. He has likewise written very strongly against the "historical" character of Jonah, which he treats as a story with "a moral." Canon Cheyne regards it as "an allegory." Jonah is Israel, swallowed up by Babylon; but, seeking the Lord in exile, the captive is at last disgorged uninjured.

These clerical apostles of the "New Criticism" are accused of attempting "entirely to rob the people of God of the Holy Scriptures." Poor people of God! How anxious the petitioners are for their welfare! Some persons, however, will be apt to regard the solicitude of these gentlemen as professional. Robbing the people of the Holy Scriptures, in their mouths, may simply mean rendering the clergyman's trade more difficult, or perhaps altogether impossible; and therefore the bitter cry of these "grievously beset" parsons (to use their own words) may be only a parallel to the famous old shout of "Great is Diana of the Ephesians."

Why indeed do not the petitioners refute the apostles of the "New Criticism," instead of appealing to the authority of Convocation? They plainly declare that the "New Criticis" rests on "utterly baseless foundations"—which is a curious pleonasm or tautology for a body of "educated" gentlemen. But if the substance of the declaration be true, apart from its logic or grammar, the orthodox parsons may scatter the heretical parsons like chaff before the wind. Principles which are "utterly baseless" may surely be refuted. To quote from Hamlet, "it is as easy as lying." Now that is a practice in which the clergy of all ages have shown great dexterity. We therefore hope the orthodox parsons will refute the "New Criticism." Let them try to save the Bible by argument. If they cannot it is lost, and lost for ever.

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