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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

The Derivation From "Religare."

The Derivation From "Religare."

Lactantius, the distinguished convert to Christianity who in the first quarter of the fourth century taught and wrote at Nicomedia, in Bithynia, was the first [Divin. Instil., iv, 28.], so far as I know, to derive the word religion from religare, referring to "the bond of piety by which we are attached and bound to God [a vinculo pietatis quo Deo obstricti et religati sumus]." Augustine, one of the most influential of the early Church Fathers, who flourished about a hundred years later, adopted the derivation of Lactantius. ["Uni Deo religantes animas nostras, unde religio dicta creditor." Retract., i, 13.] It was also adopted by Servius, in the fifth century, in his annotations on Virgil [ad Æn., viii, 349]; and it has been sanctioned by later writers who, in my judgment have either given too little attention to the subject, or have been biassed page 8 by theological preconceptions to acquiesce in what chimed in with their own dogmatic systems. For instance, J. A. Hartung [Die Religion der Römer nach den Quellen dargestellt: Iter Theil, S. 140. Leipzig: 1836] assumes it apparently without investigation as the true derivation; as do also the Rev. Samuel Real [Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese: p. 152. London: 1871] and other writers. But the secret of the predilection for this derivation shown by many scholars is very aptly exposed by Bretschneider, who says: "Lactantius rejected Cicero's etymology, not on philological, but on dogmatic grounds. Religion was to him dependence upon God, unconditioned subjection under his law and revelation; therefore he hunted up the derivation from religare, which for similar reasons suited Augustine also." [Handbuch der Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherische Kirche: Prolegomena, p. i. footnote. Leipzig: 1838]. This judgment by Bretschneider I consider as just as it is penetrating. The derivation from religare at once assumes that belief in God, and explicit recognition of a supernatural Revelation as the rightful Law of the human soul, constitute the very essence of religion. It has therefore been espoused by the vast majority of Christian theologians, and defended as important testimony, rendered by philology itself, to the truth of their system. They argue, and in my opinion justly, that, if the very word religion expresses the submission of mankind to the will of a personal God, the scientific spirit which refuses to submit to anything but the intrinsic truth of things, and claims the right to decide for itself whether there is a personal God whose will must be accepted as the law of the human mind as well as of the human heart, is wholly outside the sphere of religion, and hostile to it.' They declare, and rightly, that this idea of religion is incompatible with freedom; and they thus indissolubly bind up the destinies of religion with the destinies of their own supernaturalism. Whether the word religion, consequently, is to be the banner under which the great battle of free page 9 thought against superstition is to be fought and won, or whether it too, like the word Christianity, must be surrendered to the devotees of a dying faith, will depend mainly on the truth or untruth of the claims by which they seek to capture it for their own uses. Let us, then, inquire further into the etymology of the word.