Perhaps this should be no surprise; before Coleridge had even met Wordsworth, he had lectured on "Politics and Religion,"80 and in 1816 he had published his first Lay Sermon, The Statesman's Manual, or: The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight.81 His mature views on the Bible, contained in the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit,82 are of interest, as he both is one of the earliest mediators of German higher criticism to Anglophone society, and offers a carefully constructed defense of the religious authority of the Bible in the face of it.
Very simply, Coleridge will not believe that every word of the Scriptures was "dictated by an Infallible Intelligence; that the writers, each and all, were divinely informed as well as inspired." That there is great wisdom and inspiration in Scripture, he will allow; that those parts in which the writer records words that are specifically claimed to be spoken by God, prophecy, and the like are genuinely dictated, he will also accept; but that the whole has a similar origin he cannot. Some of his most persuasive prose is to be found in this short work:
[L]et me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening Utterances of human hearts - Men of like faculties and passions with my own, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing, are but as a "Comedia Divina" of a superhuman - O bear with me, if I say - Ventriloquist - that the Royal Harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as a "many-stringed Instrument" for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse, while every several nerve of emotion, passion, thought, that thrids the flesh-and-blood of our common Humanity, responds to the Touch, - that this sweet Psalmist of Israel was himself as mere an instrument as his Harp, an automaton Poet, Mourner, & Supplicant - all is gone! all sympathy, at least, all example!83
Persuasive prose is not the issue, however. Coleridge knew the work of Reimarus, Lessing, and Schleiermacher; he foresaw the gathering storm that finally broke with the publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860, and was foreshadowed by George Eliot's translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus in 1846. Probably he did not guess just how skeptical Biblical criticism would become, but he saw that a naive Protestantism, believing the Bible to be the Word of God and believing all else "because the Bible tells me so," was not going to be an adequate defense. Moreover, he had an alternative account of the location of religious authority already in place in his concept of Reason.
When, in the first of the letters that make up the Confessions, Coleridge asserted the possibility of finding "a discrepance" between the Scriptures and the Logos, who is the Truth, he did so because he believed that Reason provided him with access to the Logos: not as sure access as was offered by the Scriptures ("the dim and reflected light of the moon beside the sun"), but genuinely independent access nonetheless. Coleridge had less to fear from the results of the higher critics than almost any British theologian of his day; in a sense, the aim of the Confessions is to undermine a false faith so that true faith will not be shaken by criticism.
Coleridge draws a sharp distinction between inspiration, an effect of the Holy Spirit, assisting natural capacities, which all Christians experience to some degree, but which was experienced pre-eminently by the biblical authors, and revelation, an act of the Divine Word, which involves the communication of new truth to the recipient. This distinction clearly relies once again on some measure of "natural" access to eternal truth: no amount of inspiration, thus defined, will produce writings of the character that Coleridge ascribes to the Scriptures unless this is the case. This access once allowed, however, Coleridge may construct a doctrine of Scripture that places the Bible at the center of Christian faith and theology without needing to defend it against the coming critical challenges.
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