Revelation and Reason 1 The Old Testament

In order to gain a firm grasp of the relation between divine revelation and human reason in The Education of the Human Race, we propose to extract the essence or outline of Lessing's arguments from the text, setting to one side merely rhetorical statements and unimportant details. We begin by summarizing paragraphs 6 through 53.

Human reason was at first immature and imperfect. "Even though the first man was furnished at once with a conception of the One God; yet it was not possible that this conception, freely imparted and not won by experience, should subsist long in its clearness. As soon as human reason, left to itself, began to elaborate it, it broke up the one immeasurable into many measurables" (§6) and treated each of them as divine. "Hence naturally arose polytheism and idolatry." Accordingly, "for . . . many millions of years human reason would have been lost in these errors, . . . had it not pleased God to afford it a better direction by means of a new impulse" (§7). So God "selected an individual people for his special education; and that the most rude and the most ferocious, in order to begin with it from the very beginning" (§8). "This was the Hebrew people" (§9). "To this rude people God caused himself to be announced at first simply as 'the God of their fathers' " (§11). With miracles God "led them out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan" (§12). "Demonstrating himself to be the mightiest of all, . . . he gradually accustomed them to the idea of the One"

But "this conception of the One" was far inferior to "the true transcendental conception of the One" (§14). This accounts for the fact that the Hebrew people "so often abandoned their one God, and expected to find the One . . . in some other god belonging to another people" (§15). "But of what kind of moral education was a people so raw, so incapable of abstract thoughts, and so entirely in their childhood, capable?" They were capable of "none other but such as is adapted to the age of children, an education by rewards and punishments addressed to the senses" (§16).

Because the Israelite as yet "envisaged nothing beyond this life," "as yet God could give to his people no other religion, no other law than one through obedience to which they might hope to be happy, or through disobedience to which they must fear to be unhappy." Therefore, they "knew of no immortality of the soul; they yearned after no life to come. " Nevertheless, had God revealed these things "when their reason was so little prepared for them," it would have been "the same fault in the divine rule as is committed by the vain schoolmaster who chooses to hurry his pupil too rapidly and boast of his progress, rather than thoroughly to ground him" (§17).

But "to what purpose," then, was this education of the Jewish people? Lessing replies: it was "that in the process of time he might all the better employ particular members of this nation as the teachers of all other peoples." God was "bringing up in them the future teachers of the human race." "These were Jews, these could only be Jews, only men from a people which had been educated in this way" (§18).

"When the child by dint of blows and caresses had grown and was now come to years of understanding, the Father sent it of a sudden into foreign lands: and here it recognized at once the good which in its Father's house it had possessed, and not been conscious of" (§19). "While God guided his chosen people through all the degrees of a child's education, the other nations of the earth had gone on by the light of reason. The most part had remained far behind the chosen people. Only a few had got in front of them" (§20). But the fact that a few heathen nations "hitherto seemed to be ahead of the chosen people even in the knowledge of God" serves to "prove nothing against a revelation." "The child of education begins with slow but sure footsteps; it is late in overtaking many a more happily placed child of nature; but it does overtake it; and thenceforth can never be overtaken by it again" (§21).

Likewise, "the fact that the doctrine of immortality... is not to be found in [the Old Testament], but is wholly foreign to it, and all the related doctrine of reward and punishment in a future life" proves "just as little against the divine origin" (§22) of the books of the Old Testament. For "a primer for children may fairly pass over in silence this or that important piece of the science or art which it expounds, when the teacher considers that it is not yet suitable for the capabilities of the children for whom he was writing." But even such a primer "must contain absolutely nothing which bars the way to the knowledge which is held back, or which misleads the children away from it. Rather, all the approaches towards it must be carefully left open" (§26). In the same way, "the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, and future recompense, might be fairly left out" of "the writings of the Old Testament, those primers for the Israelitish people" (§27).

As yet the Israelite people as a whole did not entertain the slightest thought of the immortality of the soul or of a life to come. "It was impossible that daily experience should confirm" these doctrines, "or else it would have been all over, for ever, with the people who had this experience, so far as all recognition and reception were concerned of the truth as yet unfamiliar to them" (§30). Rather, "an Israelite here and there [may] directly and expressly have denied the immortality of the soul and future recompense, on the grounds that the law had no reference to it." The denial of these doctrines by an individual Israelite, however, "did not arrest the progress of the common reason, and was in itself, even, a proof that the nation had now taken a great step nearer to the truth." For "to think over an idea about which before no one troubled himself in the least, is half-way to knowledge" (§31).

Furthermore, "it is a heroic obedience to obey the laws of God simply because they are God's laws . . . even though there be an entire despair of future recompense, and uncertainty respecting a temporal one" (§32). "A people educated in this heroic obedience towards God" must be "destined" and be "capable beyond all others of executing divine purposes of quite a special character" (§33).

As yet the conceptions that the Jewish people held of their God "were not exactly the right conceptions" of the one, eternal God. "However, now the time was come for these conceptions of theirs to be expanded, ennobled, rectified, to accomplish which God availed himself of a perfectly natural means" (§34). They "began, in captivity under the wise Persians, to measure him against the 'Being of all Beings,' such as a more disciplined reason recognized and worshipped" (§35). "Revelation had guided their reason, and now, all at once, reason gave clearness to their revelation" (§36). "This was the first reciprocal influence which these two (reason and revelation) exercised on one another." And for God "such a mutual influence" was "far from unbecoming" (§37).

The Jewish people, sent into foreign lands, saw other peoples who were better off both intellectually and morally, and asked themselves, in confusion, "Why do I not know that too? Why do I not live so too? Ought I not to have learnt and acquired all this in my Father's house?" Thereupon they again "sought out its primer, which had long been thrown into a corner, in order to push the blame on to the primer." But they discovered that "the blame [did] not rest upon books, but the blame [was] solely [their] own, for not having long ago known this very thing, and lived in this very way" (§38). "The Jews, by this time, through the medium of the pure Persian doctrine, recognized in their Jehovah not simply the greatest of all national deities, but God" (§39).

"Thus enlightened respecting the treasures which they had possessed without knowing it, they returned, and became quite another people" (§40). "The theologians have tried to explain this complete change in the Jewish people in different ways." But it is only explicable when one "presupposes the exalted ideas of God as they now are" (§41). No doubt, "the Jews became better acquainted with the doctrine of immortality among the Chaldeans and Persians. They became more familiar with it, too, in the schools of the Greek philosophers in Egypt" (§42). Since the doctrine of the immortality of the soul did not correspond to their scriptures, however, "previous exercising was necessary, and as yet there had been only hints and allusions" (§43) in their scriptures. "Such exercises, allusions, hints" constitute "thepositive perfection of a primer," while the quality of "not putting difficulties or hindrances in the way to the truths that have been withheld" comprises "its negative perfection" (§47).

"But every primer is only for a certain age. To delay the child, that has outgrown it, longer at it than was intended, is harmful." For the only profitable way "to be able to do this" would be to "insert into it more than there is really in it, and extract from it more than it can contain." One "must look for and make too much of allusions and hints; squeeze allegories too closely; interpret examples too circumstantially; press too much upon words." Yet this "gives the child a petty, crooked, hairsplitting understanding: it makes him full of mysteries, superstitions, full of contempt for all that is comprehensible and easy" (§51). These were "the very way in which the Rabbis handled their sacred books" and "the very character" that "they thereby imparted to the spirit of their people!" (§52). "A better instructor must come and tear the exhausted primer from the child's hands—Christ came!" (§53).

The arguments outlined above contain nothing in particular to cavil at from a Christian standpoint, but represent, rather, an excellent "apologetic of revelation." This apologetic offers a formidable refutation to Reimarus's caustic criticism of the Christian understanding of revelation.

To recapitulate, "human reason, left to itself" (die sich selbst überlassene menschliche Vernunft) (§6), lapsed into the errors (Irrwege) of polytheism and idolatry quite "naturally." "Had it not pleased God to afford it a better direction by means of a new impulse," it "would have been lost in these errors" for some millions of years (§7). God selected "the most rude and the most ferocious" people for his special education, "in order to begin with it from the very beginning" (§8). This was the deliberate decision of a wise schoolmaster who knew how important it was "thoroughly to ground" (§17) his pupil. God did not commit the folly of imparting everything at once (§5). "To reveal . . . things, when [human] reason was so little prepared for them," would have been to commit the same fault as that committed by "the vain schoolmaster who chooses to hurry his pupil too rapidly and boast of his progress" (§17). God chose to guide human reason to higher truths "gradually" (allmählig) (§13). When the Jewish people "by dint of blows and caresses had grown and was come to years of understanding," he sent them "of a sudden" (auf einmal) into foreign lands. There they recognized "at once" (auf einmal) the good which they had possessed in their homeland, but had not been aware of (§19). While God guided the Jewish people "through all the degrees of a child's education," the other nations of the earth had gone on "by the light of reason." Though most of these nations had remained "far behind" the chosen people, a few nations had got "in front" of them (§20). But these few nations, if more advanced even in the knowledge of God, "prove nothing against a revelation." "The child of education begins with slow but sure footsteps; it is late in overtaking many a more happily placed child of nature; but it does overtake it; and thenceforth can never be overtaken by it again" (§21).

The conception of God that the Jewish people had hitherto entertained was not as yet "the true transcendental conception of the One" (der wahre transzendentale Begriff des Einigen). But now the time had come for their conception of God to "be expanded, ennobled, rectified" (§34). During the Babylonian captivity, they began to measure God against the "Being of all Beings" (das Wesen aller Wesen) that "a more disciplined reason" (einegeübtere Vernunft) recognized and worshiped (§35). "Revelation had guided their reason, and now, all at once, reason gave clearness to their revelation" (§36). This was "the first reciprocal influence" (der erste wechselseitige Dienst) that reason and revelation exercised on one another. Such "a mutual influence" (eingegenseitiger Einfluß) between the two was, in God's eyes, "becoming" (§37). The Jewish people "became better acquainted with the doctrine of immortality among the Chaldeans and Persians," and also "in the schools of the Greek philosophers in Egypt" (§42). Though the immortality of the soul had not been expressly taught in the Old Testament, there was some "previous exercising," there were some "allusions" and "hints" to this doctrine in the Old Testament books (§ §43—47). The Old Testament had "all the good qualities of a primer both for children and for a childlike people" (§50). But because every "primer" (Elementarbuch^) is only for a certain age, it would do harm if the child who had outgrown it were kept at it longer than was intended (§51). So Christ came as "a better instructor" (ein bearer Padagog) in order to "tear the exhausted primer from the child's hand" (§53).

Thus far, the arguments in The Education of the Human Race seem far from offensive to Christian theology. The essential qualities of divine revelation, its precedence, preeminence, and generating power over against human reason, are firmly maintained. That is to say, divine revelation guides, educates, stimulates, and energizes human reason. Of the two, it is divine revelation that takes the initiative. Guided, inculcated, and motivated by revelation, human reason continues to grow and develop until it eventually begins, "all at once" (auf einmal), to "give clearness" (erhellen) to what revelation has alluded to or hinted at. This final "clearness" that human reason gives to revelation, however, is not accomplished by human reason alone; it is a cooperative achievement, brought about through the "reciprocal influence" of human reason and divine revelation. This is the "synergism" pointed out in the preceding chapter. So if Lessing had stopped with §53, not a few Christian theologians, including the ancient church fathers who suggested the idea of the education of the human race, would have agreed with him, perhaps even applauded him. But he did not stop here. We turn, in the next three sections, to the more controversial arguments he presents in paragraphs 54 through 100.

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