Salient Features of Lessings Theological Thought

We have sought to explain the characteristics of Lessing's theological thought mainly in formal terms. Now let us try to elucidate its salient features in material terms. Since more detailed analysis will be attempted in the chapters that follow, our concern here is to characterize the general aspects of Lessing's theological thought. For this task, we give special attention to the "Editor's Counterpropositions" that Lessing appended to Reimarus's fragments when he published them as the work of an unnamed author.

In order to cushion the general reader, who was likely to be shocked by the unnamed author's rationalistic criticism of the biblical accounts, Lessing says:

And now enough of these fragments. A reader who would have preferred me to spare him altogether is surely more timid than well instructed. He may be a very devout Christian, but he is certainly not a very enlightened one. He may be wholehearted in upholding his religion; but he should also have greater confidence in it. For how much could be said in reply to all these objections and difficulties! And even if absolutely no answer were forthcoming, what then? The learned theologian might in the last resort be embarrassed, but certainly not the Christian. To the former it might at most cause confusion to see the supports with which he would uphold religion shattered in this way, to find cast down the buttresses by which, God willing, he would have made it safe and sound. But how do this man's hypotheses, explanations, and proofs affect the Christian? For him it is simply a fact, this Christianity which he feels to be true and in which he feels blessed. When the paralytic experiences the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, does it worry him whether Nollet or Franklin or neither is right?

In short, the letter is not the spirit, and the Bible is not religion. Consequently, objections to the letter and to the Bible are not by the same token objections to the spirit and to religion. For the Bible obviously contains more than is essential to religion, and it is a mere hypothesis to assert of this superfluity that it must be infallible throughout. Moreover, religion was there before a Bible existed. Christianity was there before the evangelists and apostles wrote. A long period elapsed before the first of them wrote, and a considerable time before the entire canon was complete. Therefore, while much may depend on these writings, it is impossible to suppose that the entire truth of the religion depends on them. If there had been a period in which it had already spread abroad and in which it had gained many souls, and if, nevertheless, not a single letter of what has come down to us had yet been written down, then it must also be possible that everything which the evangelists and apostles wrote could have been lost—and yet that the religion which they taught would have continued. The religion is not true because the evangelists and apostles taught it. They taught it, rather, because it is true. The written traditions must be interpreted by their inner truth, and no written traditions can give a religion inner truth if it has none.

This, therefore, would be, in the worst case as I have said, the general answer to a large part of these fragments.38

The words cited above constitute the material at which Goeze leveled his most caustic criticism. In fact, they contain the gist of Lessing's own theological thought, which is distinct not only from Reimarus's deistic-rationalistic biblical criticism but also from the Lutheran biblicism represented by Goeze. Here we focus attention on four points: (1) the relationship between "piety" and "enlightenment" in Lessing; (2) his emphasis on experience; (3) his sharp distinction between the letter and the spirit, between the Bible and religion; and (4) his concept of the inner truth of religion.

First of all, Lessing says that any reader who would be frightened by the unnamed author's radical criticism of the biblical accounts "may be a very devout Christian, but he is certainly not a very enlightened one." He admonishes the reader not only to "be wholehearted in upholding his religion" but also "to have greater confidence in it." Needless to say, the Christian commended by Lessing is both "very devout" and "very enlightened." Such a Christian, however, need not be disturbed, says Lessing, by the unnamed author's "hypotheses, explanations, and proofs," but can trust wholeheartedly in the gospel. For such "hypotheses, explanations, and proofs" have to do only with the letter, not with the spirit of the Christian religion.

What is implied here is that a Lessingian understanding of the Enlightenment does not annul piety as such. It is true that Lessing is critical of "simple" or "inferior" piety that is utterly incompatible with rational thinking. But he affirms a "higher" piety that is compatible with such thought. True piety, according to him, unifies pietas and scientia in a higher synthesis.

Secondly, and closely related to true piety in this sense, is Lessing's assertion that evidence for the Christian faith is based on inner experience. According to him, what is important is "simply a fact, this Christianity which he feels to be true and in which he feels blessed." The fact that one feels the Christian religion to be true and feels blessed in it suffices. No further proof or explanation is necessary. To demonstrate this assertion, he introduces the example of a patient suffering from paralysis. "When the paralytic experiences the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, does it worry him whether Nollet or Franklin or neither is right?" That is to say, once the paralytic experiences the benefits of the electric spark, it makes no difference to him who first discovered the law of electricity, or which theory best explains electrical phenomena. It is worth noticing that Lessing italicizes the words "feel" fühlen) and "experience" (efahren). For him religion is a matter of the "heart" (Herz), not of the "brain" (Kopf). What is important, therefore, is not a theory about religion, but to actually "feel" or "experience" it.39

It may be this emphasis that leads Lessing, in his Some Thoughts about the Moravians, to stress "practical Christianity" (das ausübende Christentum) in contrast to "contemplative Christianity" (das beschauende Christentum)4 In this significant early fragment, he defends the simple and devout faith of the Moravians against the criticism leveled at it by orthodox theologians who cling to a sophisticated dogmatic system. He declares, "Man was created for action and not for speculation";41 "what is the use of believing correctly, if one does not live correctly?"; "in knowledge we are angels and in living [we are] devils" (der Erkenntnis nach sind wir Engel, und dem Leben nach Teufel).42 In any event, it is one of the basic characteristics of Lessing's thought that greater value attaches to praxis than to theory, to experience than to teaching, and to ethics than to dogmatics. In each pair, the former predominates, though his ideal is their synthesis.

Thirdly, by his sharp distinction between the letter and the spirit, between the Bible and religion, Lessing not only defends the Christian religion against Reimarus's radically deistic criticism of the biblical accounts but also devastates Lutheran orthodoxy's adherence to the letter of the Bible. "In short, the letter is not the spirit, and the Bible is not religion. Consequently, objections to the letter and to the Bible are not by the same token objections to the spirit and to religion." For the same reason, Lutheran orthodoxy's position that each and every letter of the Bible is infallible can no longer be supported. "For the Bible obviously contains more than is essential to religion, and it is a mere hypothesis to assert of this superfluity that it must be infallible throughout." What is of great importance, though, is that Lessing supports his assertion by appealing to the Reformer Luther on this point, where it is precisely the Protestant "scriptural principle" that is at stake.

Oh, that he could do it, he whom I should most like to have as my judge!—Thou, Luther!—Great, misunderstood man! And by none less understood than by the shortsighted, obstinate people who, with your slippers in their hand and an affected noisy zeal, saunter along the road which thou hast prepared!—Thou hast released us from the yoke of tradition. Who will release us from the more intolerable yoke of the letter? Who will finally bring us a Christianity such as thou wouldst now teach, as Christ himself wouldst teach?43

Heinrich Heine has great appreciation for Lessing's struggle with Lutheran orthodoxy and for his efforts to emancipate the German people from the tyranny of "the letter of the Bible." He regards Lessing as "the heir to Luther."

This interpretation of Lessing as the legitimate successor to the Lutheran Reformation may well be questionable, but the adequacy of such an interpretation is not our concern here. What interests us here, rather, is that Lessing, while interpreting the spirit of the Reformation in an utterly new, modern direction in his theological controversy with Lutheran orthodoxy, has recourse to Luther's spirit., not to Luther's writings.

The true Lutheran does not wish to be defended by Luther's writings but by Luther's spirit; and Luther's spirit absolutely requires that no man may be prevented from advancing in knowledge of the truth according to his own judgment.44

Lessing's interpretation of "Luther's spirit" may well be open to censure as a one-sided subjectification of the Reformation principle. But it must not be taken as an arbitrary subjectivization of Protestant Christianity or an unqualified elevation of private religion. For Lessing advocates autonomy in pursuing not only knowledge of the truth but also the "inner truth" of the Christian religion.

It follows, fourthly, that Lessing's concept of the "inner truth" (die innere Wahrheit) of the Christian religion deserves special attention. One may well suspect that this concept too agrees with "subjective religion." For one may easily associate it with a mystically or spiritualistically grounded theology.

Lessing's adversary, Goeze, who regards Lessing's sharp distinction between the inner truth of Christianity and the written traditions of the Bible as an "empty word," criticizes him on precisely this point.

Where does he wish to obtain the knowledge of the inner truth of the Christian religion if not from the scriptual traditions, or from the writings of the evangelists and apostles, in proper connection with the writings of the Old Testament?45

Goeze evidently fears that Lessing's advocacy of the inner truth of Christianity, when separated from the historically given, objective foundation of the scriptural traditions, can easily lead to the enthronement of arbitrary subjectivity. Lessing's answer to his Lutheran reviler is worth special consideration.

This inner truth is not a kind of wax nose that every knave can mold as he likes to fit his own face. Where [do I] get the inner truth? From the Christian religion itself. That is why it is called inner truth, the truth that requires no authentication from outside.46

An account of this concept of inner truth will be given in chapters 3 and 4. Suffice it here to say that the inner truth of the Christian religion as Lessing affirms it is neither proved nor disproved by historical facts attested in the Bible. It is meant, rather, to be a truth intrinsic to the Christian religion as such. Though human participation may play an important role, this truth is by no means a sheerly subjective truth grasped in the inwardness of the believer. It is a truth for which evidence becomes manifest when the believer participates in "the reality of revelation" (die Wirklichkeit der Offenbarung).4 To illustrate it by means of the foregoing example of the paralytic, the inner truth of the Christian religion is something like the truth that the paralytic personally experiences when he feels "the beneficial shocks of the electric spark," or when he encounters the "beneficial effectiveness" (wohltätige Wirksamkeit) of electricity.

Thus far we have observed, prior to a detailed analysis of particulars, the general characteristics of Lessing's theological and/or religious-philosophical thought from a macroscopic point of view. Changing the lens for a microscopic one, we shall consider various aspects of his thought in greater detail in the chapters that follow. Inevitably, there will be some overlapping with what has just been outlined in this chapter. Such will be the case especially in chapters 2 and 3, where the description is mainly historical. Accordingly, I wish to beg the reader's indulgence in advance for these overlappings.

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