Revelation as the Education of the Human Race

The main section of the book begins with the seemingly innocuous proposition that "what education is to the individual man, revelation is to the whole human race" (§1). This is followed by the supplementary proposition that "education is revelation coming to the individual man; and revelation is education which has come, and is still coming, to the human race" (§2). Lessing then asserts the great advantage to theology of conceiving revelation as the educating of the human race. "Whether it can be of any advantage to the science of instruction to consider education from this point of view I will not here inquire; but in theology it may unquestionably be of great advantage, and may remove many difficulties, if revelation be conceived of as an education of the human race" (§3).

Lessing then sets forth the sensational proposition: "Education gives man nothing which he could not also get from within himself; it gives him that which he could get from within himself, only quicker and more easily. In the same way too, revelation gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own; only it has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things sooner" (§4). This categorical proposition is accompanied by the hypothetical assertion: "And just as in education, it is not a matter of indifference in what order the powers of a man are developed, as it cannot impart to a man everything at once; so also God had to maintain a certain order and a certain measure in his revelation" (§5).

It is not too much to say that the assertions of greatest importance in The Education of the Human Race are contained in these first five propositions. The question we must begin with is whether it is appropriate to conceive revelation in analogy to education as Lessing is doing. It should be noted, in this connection, that the idea of conceiving revelation in analogy to education is not original with Lessing. He is by no means the first to interpret God's salvation history as God's education of the human race. According to Karlmann Beyschlag, a historian of Christian doctrine, the expression "the education of the human race" originates with the phrase "humani generis recta eruditio," found in Augustine's De Civitate Dei, book 10, chapter 14.34 But the idea itself goes back to the New Testament, especially the apostle Paul. The most conspicuous example is Galatians 3:24: "»ate o vouo; jtaiSaywifoi nu<5v ye-yovev ei; xpiarov" (RSV: "So that the law was our custodian until Christ came"). Similar ideas or expression can be found here and there in the New Testament.35 Moreover, the idea of "the education of the human race" has been taken over by apostolic fathers, apologists, and eminent church fathers of antiquity such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.36 "Throughout the patristics," says Hans Liepmann, "this line of thought can be pursued further, of course, and especially beyond Augustine into the Scholastics."37 In the High Middle Ages, this idea came to be combined with the individual believer's personal development in faith and was generally accepted in this combined form. The reformer Martin Luther also referred to it. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, we can find this line of thought in Johannes Coccejus, the father of "federal theology," and in such Pietists as Bengel, Oetinger, and Zinzendorf. Piepmeier puts it more generally: "For the theology of the Enlightenment, the idea of the education of the human race combined with accommodation theory was fundamental."38 This being the case, Lessing, with his thorough knowledge of contemporary theology as well as of patristics, must have been quite familiar with the idea of the education of the human race.

Given this state of affairs, it appears that neither the conception of revelation as analogous to education nor the idea of the education of the human race is in itself unique to Lessing. If there is anything new in Lessing's adventure of ideas, it must be due to fresh content poured into the old vessel of the education of the human race. This novel content can be identified as the idea of the development of human reason, an idea already suggested in §5, where Lessing says, "just as in education, it is not a matter of indifference in what order the powers of a man are developed." The powers of a man, however, cannot be developed all at once (auf einmal), but must be developed step by step from the ground up. Yet once the gradual development of human powers (including human reason) is assumed, the idea of revelation as educating human reason is forced, in turn, to undergo substantial change. To reveal things that human reason is unprepared to receive would be "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). On this view, God would have to reveal himself slowly, and by degrees, in accordance with the degree of development in human reason. Accommodation theory, as Enlightenment theology employed it for biblical interpretation, might seem to imply a similar conclusion.39 Lessing is probably the first, however, to have conceived and given bold expression to the idea of divine revelation as "progressive revelation" (die fortschreitende Offenbarung).40

To conceive of the idea of revelation after the model of education would seem to involve a grave difficulty. For education can only bring out latent talent or capacity; it cannot develop what does not at least potentially exist. If revelation is viewed in this light, the question arises as to whether revelation can do anything more than to help human reason develop what it is already endowed with by nature. Furthermore, revelation modeled on education implies something else. In the case of education, the educator has to accommodate himself or herself to the level of those being educated. And when they have fully developed their latent talents or capacities, they will eventually do without their educator. This being the case, will not revelation modeled after education eventually become useless? As noted above, §4 audaciously declares, "Education gives man nothing which he could not also get from within himself; it gives him that which he could get from within himself, only quicker and more easily. In the same way too, revelation gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own; only it has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things sooner."

But is revelation that "gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own" worthy of the name? Lessing once asked, "What, then, is a revelation that reveals nothing?"41 The question implies that it is because it reveals something that the term "revelation" applies. And only that which transcends the bounds of human reason can reveal something. The suspicion arises, therefore, that the revelation Lessing advocates for the education of the human race in §4 is merely an exoteric expression by which to camouflage the immanent development of human reason. On the face of it, Karl Aner seems quite right when he declares that "in Lessing the supernaturalness of 'revelation' is mere appearance."42

The crucial question with regard to Lessing's concept of revelation is whether revelation in the Lessingian sense is worthy of divine, transcendent revelation, or whether it is merely another name for immanently developing human reason. Most Lessing scholars, in discussing The Education of the Human Race, concentrate on the question of the relationship between the transcendence of divine revelation and the immanence of human reason. As mentioned earlier, however, diametrically opposed interpretations are numerous. Most researchers have reached a conclusion similar to that proposed by Aner,43 whereas such scholars as Helmut Thielicke and Otto Mann maintain the transcendent nature of Lessing's concept of revelation.44 For our part, we wish to examine this question without prejudgment by meticulously reading the original text and interpreting it against the background of our survey in the preceding chapters.

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