Wednesday, 9 March 2016


The brilliant lectures delivered by M. Renan in London last summer attracted a great deal of notice on their delivery, and will no doubt attract more in the able English translation and book form in which they now appear. There is no one alive equally competent with M. Renan to illustrate the important question he has here discussed of the influence of Rome on the early development of Christianity. His polished, flexible style is eminently adapted to the discussion of a subject the most delicate nuances of which require careful discrimination. There is, perhaps, no English writer on theological history who would have ventured to give expression to all the dissolving scepticism which M. Renan reveals and, indeed, assumes to be the only way of regarding the subject. The eminently French  quality of Mr. Renan's mind, its cultivated, cold, slightly sarcastic spirit, allows him to treat a rather tender subject with less partisanship than our English thinkers are accustomed to display. And assuming that the object of the late Robert Hibbert was really, as M. Renan says, to secure the application of rational and scientific modes of treatment to religious subjects, then the trustees were, indeed, happy in their choice of M. Renan as a lecturer, and it is to be hoped that they will take further opportunities of enlisting the aid of eminent thinkers of France and Germany in elucidating other branches of the inquiry.

Referring to the objects of the founder, M. Renan said " Why—the promoters of this reform have rightly said—why should not the method which has approved itself in all other departments of intellectual culture be applicable in the domain of religion also? Why should the pursuit of truth, without care of consequences, be dangerous in theology, when it is accepted by all in the domain of the social and natural sciences? You have believed in truth, and you are right. There is but one truth ; and it is to show ourselves something less than respectful to revelation, to confess that, in regard to it, criticism is compelled to modify the severity of its methods." This is a good illustration of the adroitness of M. Renan in alluring his adversaries to accept principles to which they are essential hostile, but which he presents in so attractive a form as to make them accepted even by their foes. Of course M. Renan knows that there are a large number of the defenders of orthodoxy who strenuously maintain that it is sinful to dream of applying to theology the same methods which have been so successful in discovering truth in other spheres, and who refuse to admit of any critical inquiry save on the condition that they may beforehand determine its results. But still his graceful statement of the case is equally successful whether its assumptions be admitted or denied. In the one case it leads to an inquiry from which truth must profit, on the other it serves to shed the light of satire and irony on a system of belief which implicitly avows its consciousness that inquiry must be fatal to its existence.

M. Renan loses no time in defining very clearly to his hearers the ground on which he, and, as he assumes, they also, stand. We do not now hope, he says, to resolve the problems with which religions undertake to deal. "We justly suspect all dogmatism, simply because it is dogmatic. We are willing to admit that a religious or philosophical system may, and even must, contain a certain element of absolute truth; but we deny, even before we have examined its claims, that it can possibly contain absolute truth itself." We are to look on religions simply as so many tentatives to attain the unattainable—tentatives, however, which have by no means been in vain. This constantly renewed effort is not without fruit. " The faith which escapes me when I examine in detail each of the religious systems which divide the world among them, in part returns to me when I reflect upon them as a whole. All religions may be defective and partial, but religion is none the less a divine element in humanity, and the mark of a superior fate."

Proceeding to his subject, he maintains that the time of "the sweet Galilean vision" was a period when the religious consciousness was most eminently creative, and when it laid down with most absolute authority the law of the future. This extraordinary movement came out of the heart of Judaism, but it had to transfer itself to the Greek and Latin world to secure the conditions of its development. His task is to trace the contribution of Rome to this work. For it is Rome that has propagated religion in the world, as it propagated civilisation. But the civilisation which it propagated was not the petty, narrow, austere culture of ancient Latium, but the grand and large civilisation which Greece created ; "so the religion to which it finally lent its support was not the mean superstition which satisfied the rude and primitive settlers on the Palatine; it was Judaism—that is to say, precisely the religion which Rome most hated and despised." M. Renan gives a liberal statement of the moral progress that was working itself out in the Roman world before Christianity became a power in the world. It is usual to look on this period as one in which every form of human corruption and crime attained its climax, and it is therefore, of interest to note how good a case M. Renan makes out for it as one of great moral improvement. The amplitude of the empire had reduced the pressure of the old narrow governments on the individual. Large conceptions of universal fraternity, for the most part the issue of Stoicism, as well as a kind of general sentiment of humanity, were growing in men's minds. Strange ideals were asserting themselves, and as Virgil's Fourth Eclogue shows, men dreamed of a new era and of new worlds. In spite of the corruption of the great capital, we have evidence of the existence of a middle class in the provinces, among whom kindness, conjugal fidelity, domestic virtue, probity, were general. Woman was gaining rights and liberties, the condition of the slave was becoming much improved, and "almsgiving, the love of the poor, universal sympathy, came to be looked upon as virtues."

M. Renan traces the origin and growth of the Jewish colony in Rome, and dwells on the unknown Syrian Jews, who, about the year 50 of our era, carried to Rome the belief in Christianity to which they had been converted. Aquila, the tent-maker, and Priscilla, his wife, were the most distinguished of these, and are the two oldest members of the church of Rome known to us. "There they are hardly remembered. Legend, always unjust, because always moulded by reasons of policy, has expelled from the Christian Pantheon these two obscure artisans to award the honour of founding the Church of Rome to names more fully answering its proud pretensions." It was not till 61 that Paul was taken a prisoner to Rome to prosecute the appeal he had made to the tribunal of the Emperor. Peter did not come till afterwards, and the lecturer believes there is strong probability for holding that both the great apostles perished in the terrible persecutions of the Christians directed by Nero after the fire at Rome. Of these cruelties M. Renan gives a painfully vivid account. He strongly insists on the serious nature of the doctrinal differences which divided Peter and Paul, and holds that the desire afterwards to compromise and conceal this fundamental dispute was the cause of much remodelling of early Christian history. Thus he conjectures that Clement of Rome may have inspired St Luke to write his gospel with a view of showing : that "Peter and Paul were absolutely at one; the Christianity of the one is the Christianity of the other"—giving sometimes a new turn to the evangelical history for the purpose of effecting this posthumous reconciliation.

All influences tended to make Rome the head of the church. The statecraft which the Roman Church derived from the Empire was wonderfully seconded by events. Thus the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus proved of immense advantage to the growth of Christianity. As the original tree of Judaism was overthrown, the sucker from the tree assumed an independent existence. "If the temple had remained, Christianity would certainly have been arrested in its development. The temple, still standing, would have continued to be the centre of all Jewish activity." Christianity would have retained the narrowness, the tribal character of Judaism, had it not broken loose from the church of Jerusalem. It was only by fixing the centre of its activity at Rome, modelling its organisation on that of the empire, and imbibing the spirit of Roman competition, that it became fitted to be the religion of humanity. A bright sketch is given of the way in which the bishops contrived to take away all authority from the church and centre it in the clergy, and ultimately in themselves. Thus the early liberty became exchanged for a hierarchy. "Men felt that the free church, such as Jesus had conceived it (Matt xvii. 20), such as Paul still understood it to be (2 Cor. L 21), was an anarchic Utopia holding no promise of the future. With evangelical liberty, disorder went hand in hand ; they did not see that, in the long run, hierarchy meant uniformity and death." He touches with gentle satire on the beautiful legends that were devised to effect the full reconciliation of Peter and Paul at Rome. They were tender and beautiful, they "only wanted a narrator, a man at once of genius and a simple mind. But it was too late: the vein of the first Christian literature was exhausted: the serenity of the author of the Acts was lost: it was impossible to rise to a higher tone than that of legend and romance." We may quote the following passage, with which M. Renan closes his third lecture, as giving a good example of the charmingly suave style of the lecturer :—

"Almost all of you will some day go to Rome, or, if you have already been there, will return once more. Well, if you retain any recollection of these lectures, go, in memory of me, to the AquƦ SalviƦ, alle Tre Fontane, beyond St Paul without the Walls. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the Roman Campagna, solitary, moist, green, and sad. A deep depression in the soil, crowned by those grand horizontal lines which no sign of life disturbs, thither brings a spring of clear and cold water. Fever is in the air we breathe, the humidity of the grave. There the monks of La Trappe have established themselves, and conscientiously pursue their religious suicide. Sit there awhile—not too long-and while the Trappist gives you to drink of the water which rises from the three fountains that mark where Paul's head struck the earth, think of him who came to talk of these legends with you, and to whom you listened be courteously and with so kind an attention."

In his final lecture he traces the masterly process of management which made Rome the head of an organised church. All the rights and powers of the church were surrendered to the bishops, and gradually all or many of the powers of the bishops were concentrated in the Bishop of Rome. The democratic element in early Christianity had evolved from itself conservative and imperial institutions, which gave it order and permanence. While calling itself the Church of Peter, " by on unequalled tour de force, the Church of Rome had succeeded in giving itself the name of the Church of Paul also. A new and equally mythical duality replaced that of Romulus and Remus."

M. Renan ends by reverting to the tone of historic scepticism with which he began. Our only interest in these subjects is to understand them. "Our age is the age of history, for it is the age of doubt as to matters of dogma; it is the age in which the enlightened mind, refusing to enter upon the discussion of systems, says to itself 'If, ever since the birth of reason, so many thousand creeds have claimed to set forth the whole truth, and those claims have always been adjudged to be vain, is it likely that I should be more fortunate than so many others, and that this truth should have waited for my coming to make its final self-revelation?' There is no final revelation; there is only a pathetic attempt of that poor, disinterested creature, man, to make his fate tolerable." We could not end this notice in a way that would leave a fuller impression of the style and method of M. Renan on the ear and mind of the reader than by concluding it with the foregoing extract.

*The Hibbert Lectures, 1880: Lectures on the Influence of the Institutions, Thoughts, and Culture of Rome , on Christianity and the Development of the Catholic Church, by Ernest Renan. Translated by Chas. Beard. Williams and Norgate : London. 1880.
The Australasian 2 Oct. 1880

No comments: