The Proof of the Spirit and of Power

On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power (Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft, 1777) was published during an early stage of the fragments controversy. It was a flat rebuttal of On the Evidence of the Proof for the Truth of the Christian Religion,9 a treatise by Johann Daniel Schumann, director of a lyceum in Hanover, intended to refute the Fragments from an Unnamed Author. Purporting to represent Lutheran orthodoxy, Schumann denied the unnamed author's bold assertion as to "the impossibility of a revelation which all men can believe on rational grounds." Instead, he attempted to give a conventional "historical proof of Christian truth," asserting that the truth of Christianity could be demonstrated by the fulfillment of prophecies and by miracles. In this regard he appealed to Origen's Contra Celsum, book 1, chapter 2, which mentions the proof of the spirit and of power.10 But in Lessing's eyes, the use that Schumann made of Origen's text was erroneous. So Lessing published his confutation, incisively indicating the difficulties in the apologetics of this representative of Lutheran orthodoxy. The title of the tract arises directly out of these circumstances, but can be traced as far back as Paul's dictum in 1 Cor. 2:4: "fiÄ™to «UW* oo** My««. Ä«; ¿v (RSV; "my speech and my message were not in plausibf^worä^oT^is^oni^uTin demonstration of the Spirit and power").

What argument, then, does Lessing present in this tract? First of all, he distinguishes sharply between direct experience of prophecies and miracles and their indirect mediation. He says:

Fulfilled prophecies, which I myself experience, are one thing; fulfilled prophecies, of which I know only from history that others say they have experienced them, are another.

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have the opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen and verified them, are another.11

Having made this sharp distinction, he continues:

If I had lived at the time of Christ, then of course the prophecies fulfilled in his person would have made me pay great attention to him. If I had actually seen him perform miracles, if I had had no cause to doubt that true miracles existed, then in a worker of miracles who had been marked out so long before, I would have gained so much confidence that I would willingly have submitted my intellect to his, and I would have believed him in all things in which equally indisputable experience did not tell against him.

Or: if even now I experienced that prophecies referring to Christ or the Christian religion . . . were fulfilled in a manner admitting of no dispute, if even now believing Christians performed miracles that I had to recognize as true miracles, what could prevent me from accepting this proof of the spirit and of power, as the apostle calls it?12

But Lessing insists that he cannot unconditionally accept the "proof of the spirit and of power" to which Origen, and through him Schumann, appealed. The reason is that Lessing is no longer in the same position as Origen who, living in an age when miracles still occurred, experienced them so assuredly that he could appeal to what the apostle called the proof of the spirit and of power. In contrast, Lessing lives "in the eighteenth century, when miracles no longer happen. "13 Between the early days of Christianity, when believers felt vividly the power of the spirit to do miraculous things, and the century of the Enlightenment in which Lessing lives, there is a temporal distance of over a thousand years. This vast temporal distance causes a serious problem for modern believers, since miracles, once frequent, have ceased to occur. As Lessing puts it:

The problem is that reports of fulfilled prophecies are not fulfilled prophecies, that reports of miracles are not miracles. These, the prophecies fulfilled before my eyes, the miracles that occur before my eyes, are immediate in their effect. But those—the reports of fulfilled prophecies and miracles—have to work through a medium that takes away all their force.14

So far, Lessing's argument is thoroughly consistent and coherent. The point he makes is that historical knowledge, because it is transmitted through some medium to those of us living at the present time, is incapable of conveying the absolute certainty that immediate experience can claim. Hence he asserts that historical knowledge, because of its indirectness, is unable to provide grounds for faith. To be sure, he does not deny that the evangelists' reports of prophecies and miracles are as reliable as historical truths can ever be. But if they are only as reliable as other historical documents, is there any justification for giving them special treatment "as if they were infinitely more reliable"?15 How is it possible to regard the narrative of the evangelists as something "of great, permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable"?16 This stance, says Lessing, is utterly impossible. Nothing can justify such treatment. It is impermissible, therefore, to promote historical truths, which are by nature only probable and relatively credible, to the status of eternal truths. In short, to use an impressive phrase from his Rejoinder,; what Lessing denies is "the wish to hang nothing less than the whole of eternity on a spider's thread" (an den

Faden einer Spinne nichts weniger als die ganze Ewigkeit hängen zu wollen)}1 According to him, historical truths cannot be demonstrated in the same way that mathematical truths are demonstrated. But "if no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths. That is to say, accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason."

To discuss this issue is the primary task of this chapter. We begin by noting that there is a subtle, but very significant displacement or shift in Lessing's argument. In order to make this clear, we propose to continue listening to his statements for a time.

Even if it is historically true that Christ raised the dead, or that he himself rose from the dead, how is it possible to draw the conclusion, Lessing asks, that God has a Son of the same essence as himself, or that the resurrected Christ is the Son of God? If a person cannot object to the statement about the resurrection of Christ on historical grounds, must one therefore accept the doctrine of the Trinity as true? What is the connection between "my inability" (mein Unvermögen) to raise any significant objection to the former and "my obligation" (meine Verbindlichkeit) to believe something against which my reason rebels?18 Hence he boldly asserts:

But to jump, with that historical truth, to a quite different class of truths, and to demand of me that I should form all my metaphysical and moral ideas accordingly; to expect me to alter all my fundamental ideas of the nature of the God-head because I cannot see any credible testimony against the resurrection of Christ: if that is not a ^£TÖßaCTlZ dlZ äAAo Y^VOZ, then I do not know what Aristotle meant by this phrase.19

This statement is followed in short order by another that we have already encountered: "That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap. If anyone can help me over it, let him do it, I beg him, I adjure him. He will deserve a divine reward from me."20

The foregoing paragraphs indicate the main thrust of Lessing's argument in On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power. Analysis suggests that in the early part of the tract his argument points to the temporal distance between historical events attested in the biblical narrative and present-day believers, to the probable character of historical knowledge, and to the absolute certainty of immediate experience. At issue here is what Michalson calls the "temporal ditch." What is at stake in the latter part of the tract, however, is the issue of what Michalson calls the "metaphysical ditch" between time and eternity, between the accidental and the necessary.21 The subjects under discussion are thus changed in a deft and clever manner.

In this secret shift from the "temporal ditch" to the "metaphysical ditch" certain problems are hidden—as well as Lessing's real strength. To be sure, his strength as a master of tactics with a special genius for rhetoric exhibits itself perfectly in his argument of the ditch. But the ultimate cause for what critics have called "so palpable a miss," "logical ambiguity," or "serious confusion"

also lie in this surreptitious and, as it were, "deceptive" change of subjects. For at first Lessing concedes that he would willingly have submitted his intellect to Christ's and would have believed in all his miraculous deeds if he had actually seen them with his own eyes, if he had had the opportunity to verify them for himself. That is to say, he declares that he is willing to accept historical truths as eternal ones so long as they are rooted in his own immediate experience. Afterward however, he insists that historical "events," because historical knowledge is merely probable and is incapable of attaining absolute certainty, cannot serve as a basis for eternal truths. Thus his argument in the early part seems to contradict that in the latter part.

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