Philosophical Concerns In The Nineteenth Century

The next scholar to be considered was taught by both Gabler and Herder, and combined something of the spirit of both. He is W.M.L.de Wette (17801849) and two works of his will be considered; his 'Beytrag zur Charakteristik des Hebraismus' (de Wette 1807) and his book Uber die Religion (de Wette 1828). De Wette had gained from Herder a love of literature and from the philosophy of his colleague in Heidelberg, J.F.Fries (1773-1843), a way of understanding types of literature as means of grappling with the tragedies and vicissitudes of life. His sensitivity to the tragic dimension of life had been greatly sharpened by the death of his wife in childbirth in 1806. When de Wette studied the Old Testament Psalms, on which he was to publish a remarkable commentary in 1811, he noticed that a large proportion of them were laments expressing the despair of the psalmists over their sufferings or the injustices that they saw in the world. In spite of his recent personal loss, de Wette believed that reality was ultimately harmonious and purposeful, and that the task of religion was to enable people to grasp this essential goodness at the heart of things. Literature was one of the ways in which the apparent contradictions between the ultimate goodness of reality and the sufferings experienced by individuals could be explored and resolved. This was one of the functions of the Psalms. The same was true of the book of Job which, together with Psalms and Ecclesiastes, were the main Old Testament books discussed in the 'Beytrag' (Rogerson 1992a: 66-9). There is no rational explanation of why the innocent suffer and Job does not attempt to give one. But the matter is explored at great length, and, at the end of the book, Job has an experience of the majesty of God that resolves the problem. Job does not find an intellectual answer but, by discovering his weakness and frailty, accepts that God does not need to justify himself nor to be justified in the matter of why innocent people suffer. The third text discussed by de Wette, Ecclesiastes, is a book which is outspoken in proclaiming that much of life seems to be without purpose, and that human endeavour is often futile. Yet, according to de Wette, the writer of Ecclesiastes does not abandon faith in God; and the value of the book lies in its honest expression of doubt as the writer perceives a contradiction between a sensed harmony at the heart of reality and his experience of frustration.

De Wette's task in his article was to sketch the characteristic features of Hebrew religion, and this he did by comparing the Hebrew nation to a child that had never been young, and that reflected much on its inner life. Because it sensed that reality was ultimately free from injustice and disorder, it longed for a coming messianic age of justice and truth. Meanwhile, through its literature it explored, and came to terms with, the disorder of the world that it perceived so clearly. This was the soil in which Christianity was planted, Christ being the fulfilment of Old Testament hopes for a new order. Thus de Wette saw the Old Testament as preparatory to the New Testament, and in his treatment of the Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes was engaging in historical-critical exegesis. But it is clear that he did not limit the value of these texts to their historical setting. They could help modern readers to explore their own perplexities in the face of injustice and suffering, and embolden them to have faith in the goodness of the world.

At first sight, de Wette's position might seem to be anti-rational; but this is not the case. His friend Fries, a follower and, as he believed, an improver of the philosophy of Kant, was trying to develop a philosophy that did justice to the aesthetic and moral experience of the human race as well as to its scientific experience. He linked religion to aesthetics, and held that through art, architecture, music, literature and experiences of the sublime in nature, the human spirit could grasp and imperfectly express the ultimate harmony and purposefulness of reality. De Wette's position tried to do justice to a philosophy that could only regard the attitude of someone like Gabler as dealing with a single part of human reason, while ignoring the rest.

De Wette's treatment of the Old Testament in his mature work Über die Religion also builds upon the philosophy of Fries; but it is noteworthy in that it considers the Old Testament in the context of a historical study of the development of religion, including the major world religions (Rogerson 1992a: 217-25). For de Wette, one of the major achievements of the philosophy of his day was the distinction between reason (Vernunft) and understanding (Verstand), together with an analysis of the part played by each of these in religion. Understanding (Verstand) was concerned with the empirical experience of human beings, with their response to the world as mediated by sense impressions. Reason (Vernunft) was knowledge that humans gained independently of sense impressions by reflection on inner experience. The knowledge gained included moral imperatives such as duty; and religion was also knowledge gained by inner reflection. In the case of religion, (as well as moral imperatives) the knowledge gained was a revelation from God, and all human beings were capable of receiving this revelation.

The history of religion was the history of the development of human self-understanding, guided by the divine revelation granted to the reason (Vernunft) of each human being. Thus, all religions contained some truth in as much as they were responses to an intuition of the divine granted to reason (Vernunft). But religions were not all equally true, and it was only in Christian (German) Protestantism that religion had reached its fullest expression. The task of a history of religion was to discover what was true and what was false in religion; and it was here that understanding played its part. If religion was sensed by reason, it had to be expressed and lived out in the world as people understood it; and if a people's understanding of the world was deficient, then their religious expression would be deficient. For example, the Greeks had a highly developed sense of moral virtue, disclosed to them by reason. But in their religion they identified the virtues with different gods. Understanding made it clear to modern humanity that the Greek gods had never existed. Thus reason was able to identify what was true in religion, while understanding indicated what was false in its articulation.

The distinction between reason and understanding enabled de Wette to be a radical biblical critic (such criticism belonged to the sphere of understanding) while at the same time recognizing through reason what was true in biblical religion. In the context of his view of religion as a whole, de Wette was able to praise Hebrew religion for its belief in the transcendence and yet approachability of God, for its cult freed from idolatry, nature worship or superstition, for its theocratic state based upon moral principles, and for its personal piety as exhibited in the Psalms and prophetic writings. No doubt we can detect in de Wette's agenda the persistence of the 'ugly ditch' between necessary truths of reason and contingent truths of history. In his case, it is reason that provides necessary truths, and understanding that shows how the expressions of these truths in particular circumstances are inadequate. But what is important about de Wette's contribution is that it addresses fundamental questions about what it means to be human, and how religion functions in human society. Few thinkers reflecting on how to use the Old Testament theologically have addressed these questions as directly as de Wette, and most have largely ignored them.

One of the thinkers who emulated de Wette's concern to place the Old Testament within a general theory of religion, and who were indebted in many ways to de Wette, was (Johann Karl) Wilhelm Vatke (1806-82) whose Biblical Theology was published in 1835 (Vatke 1835; see Rogerson 1984:6978). It is usually asserted that Vatke's work was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Hegel, and implicit in this assertion is a criticism. Vatke did indeed study under Hegel among others in Berlin, and his work certainly owes something to Hegel. Whether this was a bad thing is arguable. This chapter has indicated so far that, in the post-Enlightenment period, after the Old Testament was freed from its subservience to a New Testament or Christian dogmatic agenda, it was handled in the light of various philosophical agendas. In this regard, Vatke was no different from those who preceded or followed him, and his treatment of the Old Testament wrestled with questions that were genuinely raised by the text. He did not simply impose Hegelian philosophy upon the text.

Vatke's view of the history of religion was that it was the story of gradual development from religion that found the divine immanent in nature to religion in which the spirituality of the individual acknowledged the transcendence of God. This development from lower to higher religion was the work of God through natural and historical processes. These enlarged the capacity of the people to receive new ideas and insights, and hence to move to higher forms of religion. In one respect, Vatke's view of Israelite religion differed from that of de Wette. The latter saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE and the subsequent Babylonian exile as a turning point after which Hebrew religion declined into the legalism of Judaism. Vatke could admit of no such degeneration; the history was one of continuing progress. In other respects, Vatke followed de Wette in seeing Old Testament religion in the context of the religions of the world, especially of those of the ancient Near East. Vatke paid particular attention to the ways in which outside religious influences had affected the development of Israelite religion. These influences included the following: the religion of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, the sun worship introduced when a Phoenician architect built Solomon's temple, the religions of Assyria and Babylon during the ascendancy of those empires over Israel and Judah in the eighth to the sixth centuries, the idolatry of the non-Israelite population of Israel and the Persian religion mediated by Judah's absorption into the Persian empire from 539-333 BCE. Vatke saw the Persian period as the high point of Old Testament religion, with the disappearance of idolatry, the introduction of detailed laws to regulate the cultic and civic life of the community, and the development of personal prayer and piety. Thus, God had been at work in multifarious ways, guiding the people towards their maturest understanding and practice of their religion.

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