The Impact Of The Natural Sciences In The Late Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, until around 1870, it was possible for scholars to use the Old Testament as a resource for theological insights that applied to their contemporary situation. From around 1870 the picture changed radically. There were several reasons for this. First, the rise of the natural sciences as subjects in their own right, and backed by professional associations, led to the demise in Germany of idealistic and speculative philosophy. Further, the new social sciences such as economics and sociology looked for material explanations of how societies worked and had developed. In Britain in the late nineteenth century there was a flourishing of a neo-Hegelian idealist philosophy; but this, in alliance with social Darwinism, saw the history of humanity as one of progress brought about by human achievement. The Old Testament was fitted into a developmental theory of the history of religion, and became little more than evidence for the religion of an ancient people.

Within this context it was still possible for people to have a high regard for the Old Testament; but this high regard was for an achievement in the past rather than something that could inspire the present. Thus, the German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1927), who pioneered the comparative study of Israelite and ancient Near Eastern creation and other myths, could defend the way in which the distinctive faith of Israel had shaped their version and use of these stories; but this was still an admiration for a past achievement.

A particularly interesting figure of this period is William Robertson Smith (1846-94), who became professor of Arabic in Cambridge after a career that saw him dismissed from his chair of Old Testament at the Free Church College in Aberdeen. He also worked as editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Scotland was much more open to influences from the continent of Europe than England was in the 1860s, and thus it was that Smith studied philosophy under Hermann Lotze in Gottingen in 1869. Lotze is an almost totally neglected figure today; but in his day he was regarded as one of Germany's greatest philosophers, and his particular contribution was the way in which he combined idealist and materialist perspectives in accounting for the history and development of the human race (Lotze 1892).

By adopting Lotze's philosophy, Smith was able to study the Old Testament sociologically. He emphasized that, in the ancient world, religion was a corporate thing first and an individual thing second. Religion was an element in all aspects of life. It bound kinship groups together, and found communal expression at local and national festivals. Its sacrifices were occasions of rejoicing, when groups believed themselves to be in communion with God through the eating of a sacrificial animal or plant. Smith is often regarded as one of the founders of the sociological study of religion; and in Britain he championed the controversial theory of the history of Israelite religion given classical expression in Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1883). Wellhausen's position owed much (as he readily admitted) to de Wette, and maintained that the high point of Hebrew religion was that of the prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries. Josiah's reformation in 622 BCE began a process of degeneration which culminated in the priestly religion of the post-exilic period with its emphasis on sacrifice as atonement.

Unlike de Wette, Wellhausen was mainly interested in reconstructing what had happened. He had no philosophical theological interest in applying his results to his own day. Robertson Smith, on the other hand, was able to combine his sociological interests and his championship of Wellhausen's position with the sincere and fervent evangelical faith that he owed to the Free Church of Scotland. He saw the history of Israelite religion as reconstructed by modern scholarship as a history of grace. It was the story of God dealing graciously with his people; and it could inspire modern readers to trust and hope in that same gracious God. In order to maintain his position, Smith not only reconstructed the sacred history; he privileged that part of it that was most congenial to his own theology. Thus he argued that the high point of Israelite religion had been that time before and during the early monarchy when families and villages had enjoyed easy access to God in their own celebrations and at local sanctuaries. The reform of Josiah, which resulted in Jerusalem becoming the only place where God could legitimately be worshipped, was a betrayal of all that had been spontaneous and joyous in Israel's religion (Smith 1892).

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