The Proof Of The Centuries

Paraphrasing a statement attributed to the German romantic philosopher Jean Paul (1763-1825) to the effect that 'if all demonstrations of the truth of Christianity were abandoned or disproved, one demonstration would nevertheless remain, namely, that it has survived for eighteen hundred years', Climacus also takes aim at the so-called 'proof of the centuries' advanced by orthodoxy (CUP i. 47n.; cf. BA 36-50). In his estimation, attempts to demonstrate the truth of Christianity on the basis of its survival for 1,800 (now 2,000) years are likewise hypothetical and approximate, since no matter how much probability of truth may be gained through such evidence it would never amount to 'an eternal truth that can be decisive for a person's eternal happiness' (47). In making this claim Climacus relies upon a thesis put forth by the distinguished German dramatist, philosopher, and literary critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81). Building on Leibniz's distinction between truths of fact and truths of reason, Lessing claimed that 'contingent truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason'.6 That is so, Lessing contends, because historical truths belong to a different class of truths than rational truths and do not provide the absolute certainty that is required for establishing necessary or eternal truths. 'We all believe that someone called Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost the whole of Asia. But who, on the strength of this belief, would risk anything of great and lasting importance whose loss would be irreplaceable?' Lessing asks, for it is possible that the exploits of Alexander could turn out to be just as mythical as the siege of Troy in the poems of Homer.7 Climacus wholeheartedly agrees that eternal happiness, which for him is equivalent to the 'anything of great and lasting importance whose loss would be irreplaceable' of which Lessing spoke, cannot be based on the contingency of historical truths, which are only probable and always subject to modification and refutation by further investigation. Lessing further held that the transition from historical truths to eternal truth takes place by way of a leap, which for Climacus means that there is no 'direct transition from historical reliability to a decision on an eternal happiness' (CUP i. 95-6).8 For Lessing, the lack of a direct transition created a 'broad and ugly ditch' that he as an eighteenth-century

rationalist could not get across. For Climacus, however, the leap constitutes the 'category of decision' that is 'decisive for what is Christian and for every dogmatic category', even though he, like Lessing, has not yet been able to make that jump (99, 105).9

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