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THE Dissertations which are here reprinted turn principally on the Author’s method of interpreting Scripture. They indicate the point of view from which he looked upon the sacred writings, both in themselves, and in their possible applications to human life in its religious aspect. With the exception of the first Essay, which is of general significance, they formed part of his edition of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans (1855-1859). The Essay on Interpretation, though it appeared afterwards (I860) as a contribution to the volume known as Essays and Reviews, consists of a series of observations which had occurred to the writer in the course of the same long-continued labour. This Essay contains the noble sentences—to print them twice within the limits of the same volume can hardly be superfluous:—
‘When interpreted like any other book, by the same rules of evidence and the same canons of criticism, the Bible will still remain unlike any other book; its beauty will be freshly seen, as of a picture which is restored after many ages to its original state; it will create a new interest and make for itself a new kind of authority by the life which is in it. . . . No one can form any notion from what we see viaround us, of the power which Christianity might have if it were at one with the conscience of man, and not at variance with his intellectual convictions. There, a world weary of the heat and dust of controversy—of speculations about God and man—weary too of the rapidity of its own motion, would return home and find rest.’11Vide infra, pp. 50, 51.
Though separated from their original context, and republished after so long an interval, it is believed that these writings will be found to have a lasting value. Much has since been thought and written in theology, and discoveries have been made, through which Biblical Criticism has been placed on more secure foundations. Perhaps, also, the errors of Bibliolatry, against which some of these Essays were directed, are less current, in the present day, than sacerdotal tendencies which equally make for obscurantism. But the spirit of Jowett’s work, in which the purest love of truth was transfused with deep religious feeling, may still give encouragement to inquirers and comfort to doubtful minds. Learned treatises abound among us and devotional manuals and incitements are not infrequent. But the combination of learning with wisdom and of both with piety, of fearlessness with sobriety, of enthusiasm with clear judgement, of considerateness with openness of mind, has not been common in any age, and is rare in our own. Not the matter conveyed so much as the personality behind it, and ‘the style viiwhich is the man’, give permanence to compositions, which may in some ways come short of our present horizon of knowledge, or be not directly applicable to the mental requirements of our time.
The late Lord Bowen, between whom and Jowett there was a life-long attachment, once said of him, ‘The Master taught us not what to think, but how to think.’ The former method has an immediate fascination for many minds, and has often led to the formation of a school. The results of the latter mode of instruction are less obvious, but they are more far-reaching and permanent, supplying stimulus and guidance for all subsequent activities, theoretical and practical.
In an appreciative notice of the former volume,22Theological Essays. By the late Benjamin Jowett. Oxford, 1906. one critic has remarked on the ‘serenity’ which is characteristic of Jowett as a writer on theology; and has quoted in illustration the concluding paragraph of the Essay on the Atonement. The justice of this remark would be still more evident, if the atmosphere of theological agitation and excitement, in the midst of which Jowett thought and wrote, could be realized by the present generation. The passage in question appeared for the first time in the second edition of the work on the Epistles, published in 1859. And it was the only answer given to numberless attacks. Moreover, as readers of the Life of Benjamin Jowett are aware, it was written under the stress not only of viii controversy and denunciation, but of ignoble treatment which impartial bystanders regarded as a species of persecution. That circumstance greatly enhances the impressiveness of a beautiful page:—
‘In the heat of the struggle, let us at least pause to imagine polemical disputes as they will appear a year, two years, three years hence; it may be, dead and gone,—certainly more truly seen than in the hour of controversy. For the truths about which we are disputing cannot partake of the passing stir; they do not change even with the greater revolutions of human things. They are in eternity; and the image of them on earth is not the movement on the surface of the waters, but the depths of the silent sea. Lastly, as a measure of the value of such disputes, which above all other interests seem to have for a time the power of absorbing men’s minds and rousing their passions, we only carry our thoughts onwards to the invisible world, and there behold, as in a glass, the great theological teachers of past ages, who have anathematized each other in their lives, resting together in the communion of the same Lord.’
The Sermon on Richard Baxter, which is appended to this volume, has already appeared amongst the author’s Biographical Sermons,33Sermons, Biographical and Miscellaneous. By the late Benjamin Jowett. Edited by the Very Rev. the Hon. W. H. Fremantle. Murray, 1899: pp. 65-85. and thanks are due to the authorities of Balliol College for their permission to reprint it here. It was one of the last of those which Jowett preached in Westminster Abbey, and I believe it to have been actually the last which ixhe specially designed for delivery there. For of the other two sermons which he preached there after 1890, that on John Wesley was one of a series which he prepared for Balliol College Chapel, and the discourse on Bunyan and Spinoza was, at least in substance, the same which he had delivered in Grey friars Church, Edinburgh, at a time when it was found possible for a clergyman of the Church of England occasionally to occupy a Presbyterian pulpit in Scotland.
In the Congregation which from 1866 to 1893 assembled in the Abbey to hear Professor Jowett each July, there was always more than a sprinkling of personal friends,—former pupils with their wives and families,—who heard him gladly. To them it was at once pathetic and inspiriting to listen to that silvery familiar voice in the evening of life expatiating cheerfully on the solemn experiences of Old Age. That impression was not soon to fade. But the preacher’s purpose had a larger scope. It is observable that in the three sermons just mentioned the Englishmen whom he chose to celebrate had all in their lifetime been estranged from the Communion of the Church of England. ‘They followed not with us.’ And he desired to enforce the divine precept, ‘Forbid them not.’
For in his latest years he increasingly lamented the ‘Schism’ which so long had separated the loyal Churchman from the pious Dissenter, and he strove in various ways to soften the asperity of the misunderstanding which held them apart.x
In the Autumn of the same year (1891) in which the ‘Baxter’ Sermon was preached at Westminster,—during a distressing illness which he himself expected to have a fatal result,—he wrote or dictated as follows to his former pupil, the Rev. J. C. Edwards, who had been appointed to succeed his father as Principal of the Nonconformist Theological College at Bala in Wales:—
‘I dare say that you remember the often quoted .saying of Lessing, that “the Christian religion had been tried for eighteen centuries, and that the religion of Christ remained to be tried”. It seems rather boastful and extravagant, but it expresses the spirit in which any new movement for the improvement of theology must be carried on. It means that Christians should no longer be divided into Churchmen and Nonconformists, or even into Christians and non-Christians, but that the best men everywhere should know themselves to be partakers of the Spirit of God, as He imparts Himself to them in various degrees. It means that the old foolish quarrels of science with religion, or of criticism with religion, should for ever cease, and that we should recognize all truth, based on fact, to be acceptable to the God of truth. It means that goodness and knowledge should be inseparably united in every Christian word or work, that the school should not be divorced from the Church, or the sermon from the lesson, or preaching from visiting, or secular duties from religious ones, except so far as convenience may require. It means that we should regard all persons as Christians, even if they come before us with other names, if they are doing the works of Christ.xi
‘These arc the principles by which the founders or restorers of a theological College may hope to be guided. They have not been often acted upon in the history of the Christian Church. But the best men and the best part of men have borne witness to them in the silence of their hearts.’44Life of Benjamin Jowett. Vol. ii. pp. 362-3.
And in the summer of the following year (1892), little more than a twelvemonth before his death, he assisted at the formal inauguration of Mansfield College, which had recently been opened in Oxford under Principal Fairbairn, for the training of Non conformist Protestant Ministers. His speech on that occasion, which has been recorded, bears evidence of the same deeply seated desire. He said:—
‘This is a great festival of union and reconciliation. I might go back into the past and speak of the time when, 230 years ago, a few words introduced into a formula divided the whole people of England against itself. Every sensible man knows that there were things done in the olden time that no good and wise man will now defend; and every sensible man knows, too, that it is better to forget them, and not to think too much of what happened to one’s ancestors 230 years ago.
‘Now let me draw your attention to points of agreement amongst us, not points of difference. . . . Do we not use the same version of the Scriptures? Are not many of the hymns, in which we worship God, of Nonconformist origin? Is there any one who is unwilling to join with others in any philanthropic work? However different may have been our education, xiiare our ideas of truth and right and goodness materially different? . . . The great names of English literature, at least a great part of them, although they may be strictly claimed by Nonconformists, do not really belong to any caste or party. The names of Milton, of Bunyan, of Baxter, of Watts, and Wesley, are the property of the whole English nation. This again is a tie between us. We may be divided into different sects—I would rather say different families—but it does not follow that there is anything wrong in our division, or that there should be any feeling of enmity entertained by different bodies towards one another. These divisions arise from many causes—from the accidents of past history, from differences of individual character, from the circumstance that one body is more suited to deal with one class, and another with another. Nor do I think that much is to be hoped or desired from the attempt to fuse these different bodies into one. Persons have entertained schemes of comprehension that look well on paper, but they are perfectly impracticable, and they really mean very little. But what does mean a great deal is that there should be a common spirit among us, a spirit which recognizes a great common principle of religious truth and morality. And as we begin to understand one another better, we also see the points of agreement among us grow larger and larger, and the points of disagreement grow less and less.’55The Nationalization of the Old English Universities. Chapman & Hall, 1901: p. 149.
Between 1891 and the Essay on Interpretation there had been an interval of thirty-one years. But Jowett was the same man still. The love of truth xiiiand goodness in him overbore the limits of tradition and convention. Reality and not appearance was his persistent aim. And he sought on every opportunity to impart to others something of the spirit which had animated his own long and fruitful career.
Fifteen years have passed since then. But his words have not lost their power. And the need for them is not less to-day.
When the wave of mediaevalism and reaction that has submerged so many of our clergy shall have spent its force, the serene wisdom of this Interpreter may yet be audible in quarters where he would have loved to find a hearing. ‘Being dead’ he yet may ‘speak,’ and call his countrymen away from barren controversy and idle speculation to the calm consideration of Bible truths and to the words of Him who ‘spake as never man spake’.
Since writing the above, I have received from Professor Allan Menzies66Author of National Religion (1888), and of The Earliest Gospel (1901): Editor of the Review of Theology and Philosophy. of St. Andrews the following valuable estimate of Jowett’s position in relation to the present state of Biblical criticism:—
‘No doubt things are very much changed since he wrote. The greatest change of all is that derived from the new light thrown on the Old Testament by the discoveries of Wellhausen, Reuss, &c. In his Essay on Prophecy Jowett calls for a more satisfactory xivaccount of the development of thought in the Old Testament, and shows that he felt the difficulties which have caused the new position to be thought out. Surely he lived to know that the prophets were found to be anterior to the law, and felt his earlier gropings satisfied.
‘On the New Testament, the synoptic question has been wrought out statistically since Jowett wrote, and there is not much doubt about the main lines of the solution. But the solution, as he truly anticipated, does not solve every difficulty. In other parts of the field his words are remarkably true forecasts of the course of study since his time. What he says about the Greek of the New Testament agrees remarkably with the position held by Deissmann, Moulton, &c., that it belongs to the fusible spoken language of its day, and that to study words and grammatical forms too closely often leads to losing the meaning. The study of Aramaic as the language spoken by Christ is post-Jowett, and I scarcely think Jowett anticipates it. It is true the method remains largely a method, but a valid one, though the results are uncertain. On Hebraisms and the LXX., Jowett is quite in line with the latest writers.
‘His great distinction as a Bible scholar is that he cares for the ideas and thought of the books. The attempt to build up the truth of Scripture by external methods, antiquities, travels, classical analogies, &c., has its uses, but is apt to take the place of what is vital. On the other hand the Classical revival has penetrated into New Testament Studies very powerfully since Jowett in the way of making the life and the problems of the New Testament Churches more real to us, and throwing on them the light of the religious ideas and practices which were general in those times. The History of Religion had hardly xvbegun in his day to illustrate the New Testament. But, suppose this done, the central work of appreciating the thought of the writers remains very much what it was; and here Jowett has very much to teach us still. I know no writer who has seized the essential Christian spirit in the books so purely and subtly.’
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