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ART. 1.- EDUCATION AND LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY.
An Essay read at the Annual Meeting of the Western Unitarian Con
ference, in October, 1866. By CHARLES H. BRIGHAM.
I have been requested in this essay to speak of the relation of Education to Liberal Christianity, and to its progress, with special reference to the training of ministers in the liberal body. It would seem that in these last years this topic has been sufficiently discussed, and that more words upon it would only weary the hearers. The leading articles and the standing advertisements in our religious journals have made the subject of clerical education unpleasantly prominent; until many have come to 'wish that we had no ministry at all, and could trust, like the Quakers, the instant motion of the Spirit. We tire of listening to this unending tale of blame and lack and need in the matter of pulpit supply, and we dread, in all our gatherings, the coming up of that vexed question, the "wants of our Divinity School.”'
But, tiresome as this discussion is, it cannot be adjourned or silenced. It is vital to the welfare — not to say to the existence - of our churches. It involves the future of our body,- what kind of a body it is to be, or whether it is to continue at all. Are we to hold the position that we formerly held, or to resign it finally, and change places with the sects VOL. LXXXIV. — NEW SERIES, VOL. V. NO. I.
which have had no care for learning? Already the wise among us see signs of such a change, and lament that we submit so meekly to that sad doom. They tell how the glory of learning is departing from our ranks; how few of the younger preachers take interest in theological studies, or are competent to speak on questions of religious science. They hold wistfully to that frail life of the Cambridge Professor of Hebrew, lest, when its thin thread breaks, the place must remain vacant for want of a man to fill it, or we must be mortified in seeking the man beyond our sect. They look in vain in our periodicals for the solid essays and arguments on Biblical and ecclesiastical questions which once gave these periodicals renown: there is vigorous writing, but of the secular more than the theological kind. They are vexed to see that Methodist and Baptist Quarterlies must guide the liberal inquirers to the results of theological study. They mourn, that, while educated men are so slow to come into our ministry, uneducated men seem to have no such reluctance, confident in their ability to instruct and edify. They observe, in the lists of the younger clergy, that less than half, hardly a third, have had the advantage of a regular college training; and that most of those who pretend to interpret, have but slight knowledge of the tongues that must be dealt with. And they hear with amazement, that, for those who so lack in previous training, it is even proposed to shorten the course of study, so that a few months of desultory and hasty reading shall fit men to fill the pulpits of the learned fathers. These are signs of ill-omen to many of the elders, which find voice in frequent conversation, if they are suppressed from public utterance. At the very time when there seems to be an awakened zeal, when conferences are formed, and meetings are multiplied, and gifts of money come liberally in, we seem to see the ranks of our ministry invaded by a new class, who push aside the worthy men, and assume to speak as oracles, and boast that the new day has come, when study may be dispensed with. The churches, too, are becoming almost desperate in the quality of the material that they have to choose from, and often take their pastors, not because they are satisfied, but because they can do no better. Not only the elders among the clergy, but the elders among the laity even more, complain of the evident degeneracy of learning in the liberal body.
There is some justice in these fears of the elders, though, doubtless, they are too great, and the evil is not so serious as it seems. While we admit that the proportion of educated men in the ministry is much smaller than it was in the last generation, and that skill in some branches of theological study has ceased to be a praise of the Unitarian body, we cannot allow that it has been seized, or that it is as yet ruled by unlettered men. In proportion to its numbers, the Unitarian body probably still stands as well in scholarship as any religious sect. In some branches it fails, especially in the critical study of the Biblical text; but in other branches it has gained, rather than lost. Some of the ablest works of theological science have been produced in the last years, works which apply reason and logic to theology with admirable acuteness, and make the best part of what we call “ our literature."
It must be admitted, however, that these come from men who have passed the prime of their days, and were trained by the former methods. Shall we expect any works of this kind from the new generation ? Allowing, nevertheless, that much of this complaint is well-founded, it may suggest an inquiry into the claim of the liberal religion to be peculiarly a religion of culture and refinement, - a religion which has vested rights in the arts of scholarship. Perhaps we err in supposing learning to be necessary to this faith, or favorable to this faith. Perhaps it is true that a rational religion is properly the religion of unlettered men, while the faith of the schools is naturally of another kind. Possibly we mistake an accident of our history for an essential condition of our faith. Possibly we have misread our history, in finding that the growth of liberal opinion is due to the superior scholarship of its teachers. At any rate, we are now forward to claim, that the liberal faith is just as fit for unlearned as for learned men, just as congenial to their
temper, just as adequate to their needs, just as good for their use.
Let us consider first, for a moment, this question of the history of liberal opinion in this country. Where did it come from? Not specially from theological studies or inquiries; not specially from diligent search in the Scripture. It is just as true of liberal as of orthodox arguments from Scripture, that they were resorts to sustain a foregone conclusion. It is easy for us now to see how intelligent knowledge of the Divine word justifies a liberal scheme of opinion; but it is not safe to infer, that such knowledge brought, in the beginning, that scheme of opinion. The fact is, that the free-thinking outside of the Church, the spirit of the age in the last century, the teachings of French philosophers, the influence of revolutions and of democratic ideas, did a great deal more to bring defections from the ancient faith than any zeal of Biblical studies. Our rational theology began in abstract ideas, in theories more secular than religious; and its Biblical support was an after-thought. Indeed, we may as well confess, however shapely the buttresses which Biblical study builds around the rational faith, that this study, in the letter at least, is not the corner-stone and foundation of the rational faith. A liberal Christian will not give up his ideas, even if the word of Scripture shall seem to deny them. The word may go, but the truth must stay.
The most learned Biblical scholars of New England found no reason to waver in their orthodoxy in studying the text, even when it was illustrated by all sorts of heathen learning. They knew much more than their successors, yet they were stern in their defence of the ancient formulas. The masters of Biblical divinity, both in this land and in the Old World, have been usually eminent for their orthodoxy. It is free study, more than Biblical study, which makes men liberal; and the liberal theology comes from the influence of secular science upon religious ideas. The Bible may seem to a Unitarian or a Universalist a very clear witness for his own articles of faith ; but he cannot show that these were first suggested by the teaching of that book, or that the witness of