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§ 68 Idea of the Parable.—Distinction between Parable, Fable, and Mythus.

Without doubt the form of Christ’s communications was in some degree determined by the mental peculiarities of the people among whom he laboured, viz., the Jews and Orientals. We may find in this one reason for his use of parables; and we must esteem it as a mark of his freedom of mind and creative originality, that he so adapted to his own purposes a form of instruction that was especially current among the Jews. But yet his whole method of teaching, as we have already set it forth, would have led him, independently of his relations to the people around him, to adopt this mode of communicating truth. Not inaptly has one of the old writers compared the parables of Christ’s discourses to the parabolic character of his whole manifestation, representing, as it did, the supernatural in a natural form.169169   Διότε καὶ ὁ κύριος οὐκ ὢν κοσμκὸς, ὡς κοσμικὸς εἱς ἀνθρώ;πους ἦλθεν. Strom., vi., 677.

We may define the parables as representations through which the truths pertaining to the kingdom of God are vividly exhibited by means of special relations of common life, taken either from nature or the world of mankind. A general truth is set forth under the likeness of a particular fact, or a continuous narrative, commonly derived from the lower sphere of life; the operations of nature, and the qualities of inferior animals, or the acts of men in their mutual relations with each other, being assumed as the basis of the representation. Those parables which are derived entirely from the sphere of nature are grounded on the typical relations that exist170170   “It can readily be shown that the parables, as used by Christ, had the significance of their types. Nature, as she has disclosed herself to the mind of man, must in them bear witness of Spirit.” Steffens (Religionsphilosophie, i., 146). And so Schelling, on the relation between Nature and History, “They are to each other parable and interpretation.” Philos. Schriften, 1809, 457.) between Nature and Spirit. So, in the vine and its branches, Christ finds a type of the relation between himself and those who are members of his body. He is the true Vine The law whose reality finds place in the spiritual life is only imaged and typified in nature.

Even though the fable be so defined as to be included in the parable, as the species is comprehended in the genus, still the latter, especially as Christ employs it, has always its own distinctive characteristics. The parable is allied to the fable, as used by Æsop, so far forth as both differ from the Mythus (an unconscious invention), by employing statements of fact, not pretended to be historical, merely as coverings for the exhibition of a general truth; the latter only being presented to the mind of the hearer or reader as real. But the parable is distinguished from the fable by this, that in the latter, qualities or acts of 108a higher class of beings may be attributed to a lower (e.g., those of men to brutes); while in the former, the lower sphere is kept perfectly distinct from the higher one which it serves to illustrate. The beings and powers thus introduced always follow the law of their nature, but their acts, according to this law, are used to figure those of a higher race. The fable cannot be true according to its form, e. g., when brutes are introduced thinking, speaking, and acting like men; but the representations of the parable always correspond to the facts of nature, or the occurrences of civil and domestic life, and remind the hearer of events and phenomena within his own experience. The mere introduction of brutes, as personal agents, in the fable, is not sufficient to distinguish it from the parable, which may make use of the same contrivance; as, for instance, indeed, Christ employs the sheep in one of his parables. The great distinction here, also, lies in what has already been remarked; brutes introduced in the parable act according to the law of their nature, and the two spheres of nature and the kingdom of God are carefully separated from each other. Hence the reciprocal relations of brutes to each other are not made use of, as these could furnish no appropriate image of the relation between man and the kingdom of God. And as the lower animals are, by an impulse of their nature, attached to man as a being of a higher order, Divine, as it were, in comparison to themselves, and destined to rule over them, the relations between man and this inferior race may serve very well to illustrate the still higher relations of the former to the kingdom of God and the Saviour. Thus, for instance, Christ employs the connexion of sheep and the shepherd to give a vivid image of the relations of human souls to their Divine guide.

There is ground for this distinction between parable and fable, both in the form and in the substance. In the form, because the parable in tends that the objects of nature and the occurrences of every-day life shall be associated with higher truths, and thus not only illustrate them, but preserve them constantly in the memory. In the substance, because, although single acts of domestic or social virtue might find points of likeness in the qualities of the lower animals (not morality in general, for this, like religion, is too lofty to be thus illustrated), the dignity of the sphere of Divine life would be essentially lowered by transferring it to a class of beings entirely destitute of corresponding qualities.


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