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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Protestant Dagon

The Protestant Dagon.

We can believe that the Rev. Colin M'Culloch counted himself happy in his illustration, when, at the recent annual meeting of the Bible Society, he likened that "despised and blasphemed book," the Bible, to the Ark of the Covenant when it fell into the hands of the brave and patriotic people who so sturdily, and for a long time successfully, resisted the swarms of Hebrew filibusters, who, under the pretence of taking possession of a land promised to them by the Lord, had the impudence to invade their territory. Our readers will remember that the Ark, on the occasion referred to, was quite equal to the task of vindicating its sanctity; afflicting as it did its sacrilegious custodians with a painful and obstinate disease which eventually forced them to relinquish their troublesome war-prize; and slaughtering as it did more than fifty thousand of the inhabitants of Beth-Shemish, because some of their number had impiously dared to glance at it contents. Over these wonderful occurrencies, the Rev. Colin M 'Culloch, in his anxiety to defend the Bible, or rather his theory of the Bible, from the aggressions of modern religious thought, is, as we have intimated, exceedingly jubilant; though whether modern unbelievers are in danger of the emerods (lemorroids) which the Hebrew Jehovah, as patron of the Ark, so profusely distributed among the inhabitants of Ashdod, Gath and Ekron, or of the still more terrible calamity which befell the people of Beth-Shemish, he does not undertake to say. Assuming Mr. M'Culloch's view of the Bible to be the true view, and that those who cannot see with him are consequently amenable, in page 75 some way or other, to the divine displeasure, it certainly is not easy to understand why the unbeliever should, as a rule, be superior to the believer in grasp of intellect and the amount of his information; unless, indeed, it be that, as divines assure us, the simple and sublime verities of the Christian faith are inappreciable by the "wise and prudent" of this world, and that God, whose "word" the Bible is affirmed to be, punishes those who reject or cavil at the authority of his revealed will, not by afflicting them with "hemorroids in their secret parts," but by the much humaner method of endowing them with larger and more penetrating minds. We are unwilling, however, to lose sight of this little discrepancy, and to admit that our friend's illustration, in spite of its connection with an absurd and disgusting fiction which he unpardonably treats as a piece of genuine history, is not at all a bad one. Truth and goodness, oppose and defame them as men may, arc, in the long run, self-vindicating; nor can any force of error, prejudice, or superstition withstand their ultimate enthronement in the affections of an enlightened and elevated humanity. As Mr. J. S. Mill, in his work on Liberty, concisely illustrates by a number of memorable instances, truth may, and frequently does, fight a losing battle for centuries : yet the present, with its manifold triumphs of moral and intellectual progress, is but the accumulation of victories thus slowly but surely won in the past; as the future, in turn, will prove to be the unfolding and popularisation of truths—the truth, for example, that the Bible is not an idol to be worshipped but a treasure to be prized—which, despite the fanatical clamours of some and the selfish indifference of others, are in our own clay silently but visibly pushing ahead. We rejoice, then, to believe, with Mr. M'Culloch, that every truth, or system of doctrine founded on truth, is inherently and, in the fulness of time, inevitably self-protecting; and believing, as we further do, that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—due allowance being made for their many serious defects—are incomparably the richest literary inheritance the world possesses, or is likely to possess, we can confidently anticipate the final verdict of mankind respecting these writings, and, for that very reason, be willing that they should be submitted to the freest critical scrutiny. But by Mr. M'Culloch, as by every bibliolater, the application of any such criticism to the Scriptures, especially when it leads to results that conflict with the popular notion of their origin and character, is, unfortunately, regarded as a sin. His doctrine—a doctrine in support of which neither he nor any man living can advance the shadow of a valid argument, it being based on the merest ecclesiastical assumption—is, that, during the period of the world's history dating from the time of Moses to that of John the Apostle, certain persons were specially and exceptionably qualified to produce writings divested of every description of error; that the canonical books page 76 of the Old and New Testaments are in substance, if not in detail, the same as those thus supernaturally vouchsafed and authoritatively handed down; and that to find fault with the Scriptures is, therefore, to find fault with Him under whose inspiration they were given, and to involve ourselves in the approach of repudiating the only authentic revelation he has made of himself to man. To increasing multitudes of earnest and independent thinkers in the present day, the monstrously illogical character of this method of procedure has become startlingly apparent; nor can it be doubted that in years to come an enlightened Christendom will deem it incredible that rational beings should ever have erected the dogma of biblical infallibility on the assumption that the Almighty selected a few individuals of the human race to receive from him an infallible communication, and that the Bible, as being the record of this communication, is, in very truth, his "Word." By the many, in those coining days, as in our own day by the comparatively few, it will be clearly seen that for determining the truth or falsity of doctrines, whether religious or otherwise, there never has been, and never will be, any higher court of appeal accessible to us than that of Reason and Conscience; and that to their tribunal, therefore, every human belief must be bought for final adjudication. We are aware that in occupying this position we expose ourselves to the charge—a charge that his on several occasions during the last few weeks been publicly hurled against us—of hating the Bible, and of aiming to undermine the sanctities of religious faith. But the real difference between ourselves and our opponents, as the authors of this self-refuting caumny must secretly be aware, is, that we are labouring, with such influence as we have, to liberate the wheat of truth from its traditional husk of error, while our opponents, the defenders of orthodox Christianity, are, to their great detriment, persistently beat on swallowing both.

We submit, then, that Mr. M'Culloch's Ark-of-the-Covenant illustration is rendered pointless, forceless, and therefore of none effect, by his assuming the Bible to be what it clearly is not—namely, a body of moral and religious truth unadulterated by the slightest infusion of error. It so happens, however, that a portion of the very narrative from which his illustration is taken so exactly indicates the relation of the Bible, or rather of the dogma of biblical infallibility, to the highest religious philosophy of the age, that we gladly avail ourselves of it on the chance of throwing a little "more light" on a subject that has hitherto been shrouded in an almost impenetrable darkness. We find, then, on referring to the fifth chapter of the first book of Samuel, that, pror to its hemorroid-distributing and death-dealing peregrinations, the Ark was temporarily located in the temple of one of their deities—the celebrated Dagon. Dagon, as might have been expected, was much annoyed at this proceeding, and, taking the first opportunity, remonstrated with the audacious parallelopiped page 77 on its unseemly invasion of his fane. The parallelopiped, resenting Dagon's impertinence, appears to have answered him sharply; and a something more than verbal contest ensuing between the august disputants, the famous fish-god, getting decidedly the worst of it, was found next morning—not, we suspect, without a stout leverage from behind, some zealous partisan of the Ark having slily so managed it—flat upon his nose. Dismayed and indignant at this signal and undignified discomfiture of their deity by a contemptible wooden box which the chances of war had thrown into their hands, the Philistines, in the full belief that a continuation of the contest would sooner or later yield better results, lost no time in restoring Dagon from the prone to the perpendicular position. To their unspeakable disgust, how-ever, "when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him." Poor old Dagon! He, then, it was clear, with the maimed trunk of him prostrate on the floor of his own temple, was no match for the God of his people's filibustering enemies. In his first nocturnal encounter with the Ark, the latter, exhibiting a decisive superiority, had thrown Dagon upon his nose; in their second combat, it had both levelled Dagon and deprived him of his head and hands; what might the Ark do to Dagon if the struggle were allowed to go on? What but pulverise him outright; grind him to powder; and, perchance, scatter his dust to the winds! Dagon's position, therefore, was critical in the extreme. The national faith, too, was imperilled; for, with the Ark of the Hebrew Jehovah confronting him in his own temple, there was no keeping Dagon perpendicular to the plane of the horizon. Down, do what they would to bolster him up, on his face he would go. So to save their deity and the national faith from any further humiliation, the Philistines wisely determine to remove the Ark from Dagon's temple, and subsequently, by the aid of their priests, to restore what, from their experience of the hemorroids, they had come to regard as an intolerable nuisance, to its original proprietors. Our readers will, we think, find no difficulty in noting the resemblance between the Dagon of this singular story and the Dagon we have placed at the head of our article—the Protestant Dagon of Biblical Infallibility. A few sentences anent this wide and important subject are as much as, on the present occasion, we can undertake to pen.

For a period extending over fifty generations the Bible has been regarded by the ablest and wisest portion of the human race as a book sui generis : as a book, that is, distinguished from all other books, not only by the illimitable and essential superiority of its contents, but also, and chiefly, by the purely exceptional modus operandi of its preparation. Every subscriber to page 78 the dogma of Biblical Inspiration is supposed to believe, not merely that the Bible, as the noblest collection of writings in existence, meritoriously occupies the summit of the world's pyramid of literature, but that in its service, and on its behalf, the mysteries of providence and the secrets of destiny were graciously disclosed, God thus breaking the eternal silence with the only utterance of His voice that has been, or ever will be, heard. And so, as we have said, the Old and New Testament Scriptures have, for a period of seventeen hundred years, been read, consulted, studied, and worshipped, as the ipsissima verba of the Almighty. If we ask for the evidence on which this incredible doctrine is based, we are referred either to the authority of the Church and the decrees of the Councils, or to the assertions of the biblical writers themselves : to the assertion, for example, that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;" to the statement, again, affirming that "Holy Men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;" or to numerous expressing in the Old Testament—" The Lord spake unto Moses," "Thus saith Jehovah," etc.—which appear to indicate the writer's conviction that the persons alluded to had had direct and veritable converse with God. We pause not to comment on the gross misunderstanding and misapplication of these statements; and would merely observe, that, supposing them to affirm the dogma under consideration, their testimony, as being that of a winess to himself, is simply inadmissible, as, on the other hand, more ecclesiastical testimony, unsupported by reason and historic probability, is simply nil.

Marvellous to think that this utterly incredible dogma of Biblical Inspiration should have domineered for centuries over the human mind and conscience without one stalwart and independent soul starting up to smite at and demolish it. Receiving it from the Fathers, the churchmen of the Middle Ages did but confuse and mystify the patristic idea of Inspiration by enveloping; it in a cloud of metaphysical distinctions and definitions; no; when a brighter age began to dawn, did it occur to the minds of the pre-Lutheran reformers that their defence of the rights and privileges of the soul against the encroachments of ecclesiastical power was but a phase of the great struggle they hal so nobly initiated. As for Luther himself, preeminent as Were his services in the cause of religious freedom, it must be admitted, that, by delivering the souls of men from the keeping of a corrupt ecclesiasticism, and by fixing their faith on the Scriptures as a supreme and unerring authority on all questions of doctrine and discipline, he confirmed rather than relaxed their stultifying bondage to the mere letter of a book, which was thenceforth to be the religion, and the sole religion, of Protest-ant. Luther, however, if not that light, was, at any rate, sent to bear witness of that light which, in the fulness of time, was to cone into the world, and which did come into the world in the page 79 century which gave birth to Spinoza and Locke. Neither Spinoza nor Locke, it is true, was a disbeliever in the Inspiration of the Scriptures. Yet the former, in his celebrated Tractatus, explains the doctrine away; while "the Father of English nationalism," annihilating at a stroke the crowd of assumptions in which theology is in the habit of taking refuge from the attacks of reason, prepared the way for the fearless and uncompromising school of biblical criticism represented by the English Freethinkers and French Encyclopedists of the following century. By Blount, in his "Oracles of Reason;" Toland, in his "Christianity not Mysterious;" Collins, in his "Discourse of Freethinking;" Shaftesbury, in "The Characteristics;" by Tindal, Morgan, Leland, Chubb, Bolingbroke and Woolston; by these and other powerful writers of the school of English Free-thinking, the Protestant Dagon of Biblical Infallibility was more or less unsparingly assailed, and, in spite of the frenzical efforts of his votaries to keep him steady, unmistakeably shaken on his traditionary pedestal. Later on, under the blows of Hume, Gibbon and Paine, this oscillatory movement became truly alarming; thousands upon thousands inclining to the conviction—so strong had the sceptical spirit become towards the close of the eighteenth century—that the Author of the "Age of Reason" had administered the coup de grace. Possibly, he did so. The influence of the work with which he belaboured the Protestant Dagon at any rate was, and still is, at least in certain circles, very great. Yet, with the mass of educated persons, the Age of Reason, considered as a refutation of the Inspiration theory, has been long since superseded by the writings of men who, while wishing to purge the Bible of its manifold errors, are as anxious to recognise its inestimable and imperishable truths as Paine, under the influence of strong reactionary feelings, seemed anxious to ignore them. It is, there can be little doubt, this feature of modern religious thought—this considerate and discriminating treatment of the prostrate Protestant idol—which so disturbs the equanimity, or arouses the consternation, of his votaries, under the ill-disguised suspicion that the glory, the false glory, of the Dagon of Protestantism has, no less surely than that of Ephesian Diana, been doomed to an irrevocable Ichabod.

A hundred times, if once, during the last quarter of a century, has the dogma of the Inspiration of the Scriptures been assailed and, in the opinion of all unbiassed persons, demolished, by writers identifying themselves with one or another of the Christian denominations. A deplorable fact, in the eyes of all true believers, no doubt; and one, too, with which, as we have intimated, they scarcely know how to cope. Your modern preacher, melting away under the influence of a real or affected pity, or "shivering with horror," as did Judge Simpson when passing sentence on W. L. Jones, can no longer confine the attention of his hearers, when descanting on the fearful sin of page 80 [unclear: unbelief], to the "ribald blasphemies of Paine and Voltaire"—of which he in all probability knows little if anything whatever—but must also drag through the mire of his silly utterances such [unclear: men] as Colenso, Davidson, Cranbrook, Voysey, Martineau, and [unclear: the] authors of Essays and Reviews : men, be it remembered, [unclear: entertaining] a profound admiration for the noble portions of the Old Testament and for the still nobler portions of the New: [unclear: men], too, imbued with a profound reverence for the person and [unclear: work] of Jesus of Nazareth : irreproachably good men, moreover, [unclear: and] occasionally, as in the case of James Martineau, without an [unclear: equal] in the field of intellectual research. We say nothing of [unclear: the] legion of German heterodox religious inquirers; nothing of [unclear: the] multitudes of educated laymen both in England and in Germany, and in every country, who, secretly or openly, disbelieve [unclear: the] Bible to be what all orthodox churches declare it to be; as [unclear: our] particular object is to fix the attention of our readers on the [unclear: fact] that the irreparable overthrow of the Protestant Dagon has been accomplished, not by the avowed foes, but by the avowed friends of the Bible and of Christianity.

For an able and accurate statement of the now virtually [unclear: concluded] controversy concerning the Inspiration of the [unclear: Scriptures] we gladly avail ourselves, in bringing our remarks to a [unclear: lose], of an admirable passage or two from Mr. W. R. Greg's Truth versus Edification." He says :

"Many of those doctrines of Christianity, as ordinarily preached, which [unclear: lost] perplex and try the faith of sincere believers, and most effectually repel [unclear: from] the threshold of belief thoughtful, pure, and earnest minds of all classes, [unclear: depend] for their authority mainly or solely on special texts and passages, [unclear: which] are often at variance with the general tone and tenor of the book, [unclear: these] special texts and passages are considered conclusive, and all men have [unclear: been] required to fall prostrate before them, and submissively accept their [unclear: reaching] merely on the strength of that dogma of verbal inspiration which [unclear: Dr]. Colenso so effectually overthrows. It cannot be too strongly stated that [unclear: nearly] all the difficulties which have stood in the way of the cordial reception [unclear: of] the pure-religion of Christ, whether by foreign heathens or by native [unclear: aceptics], have been gratuitous, artificial, and the creation of Christian [unclear: ministers] and divines. Thousands upon thousands would have accepted the [unclear: Rich] essentials of the New Testament readily and joyously, who could not [unclear: accept] the legends, the dogmas, or the speculative propositions which were [unclear: affirmed] to form part and parcel of Christianity, to be inextricably bound up [unclear: on] its nature, and to be inferentially involved in its reception. It is not the [unclear: noble] poetry, and the sublime devotion, and the unfailing trust of Job, and [unclear: David], and Isaiah; it is not the fascinating character, the solemn grandeur, [unclear: the] elevating, enriching, guiding, glorious career of the Saviour while on [unclear: earth]; it is not the satisfying, comforting, strengthening, convincing views of [unclear: our] relations to God our Father, which he first taught and made us [unclear: compretend]; it is not those grand and far-reaching hopes, nor those grave, sad [unclear: earnings], nor those ineffable and inspiring consolations, which we may gather [unclear: from] every page of the New Testament and from many pages of the Old :—it [unclear: is] none of these things that have deterred the thoughtful and the good, or [unclear: even] the careless and the critical, from accepting Christianity on their knees [unclear: with] gratitude and with submission as the greatest boon ever offered to, [unclear: struggling] and aspiring man. All these things would have been attractive— page 81 not repellant; and these things are the essence of the faith which Jesus taught, and for which he lived and died. But the angel that has stood with flaming sword at the gate, and has driven men away from the Eden of Truth and Hope, in which they might have found rest for their troubled souls, strength for their feeble knees, and a lamp for the dark and thorny path, has been this very doctrine of verbal inspiration and textual correctness .... It is on the authority of this dogma, and on this alone, that educated and rational men are required—as the very condition, as it were, of their admission into the Temple—to accept as true the six days Creation, with all their rude errors and singular misconceptions; the tree of knowledge, the apple and the fall; two statements as to Noah's Ark and the animals that entered it, utterly contradictory, and both incredible; the ingenious legend of the Tower of Babel; the literal version of the plagues of Egypt, and the crowded miracles of the Exodus, the passage of the Red Sea, the sojourn in the Desert, and the establishment in Canaan; the strange and more than strange stories about the Patriarchs; and, to crown the whole, the directly divine origin of Levitical instructions. No one, of course, would dream of accepting these as [sacred] history, if not constrained to it by the dogma of verbal inspiration; nor, were it not for this dogma, would any one feel them a serious obstacle to the reception of all that the Old Testament contains of noble, and elevating, and true, in its teachings of the ways of God to man."

And again :

"An ordinary believer—pious, sincere, not knowing Colenso, and having not been 'insensibly' inoculated by the subtle emanations of the Zeit-Geist (or 'spirit of the time'), but trained in the common doctrine of biblical inspiration—is often put to sore suffering and trial. A man in sacerdotal robes, brought up at the feet of the most accredited Gamaliel, stamped as sterling by the image and superscription of the National Church, addresses him thus:—'You are bound to believe—for it is all written in the Inspired Books and endorsed by the Church—not only that God created man; called Abraham; led the Israelites out of bondage, and set them apart and trained them as a peculiar people; revealed His true character and relations through a succession of prophets; and finally completed the purification and redemption of man through Jesus Christ;—but also that He directed the construction of Noah's Ark, and sent all living beast therein; aided Jacob in a filthy fraud; sanctioned the basest treachery; commanded fearful cruelties and unmerited penalties; permitted the flogging of slaves to death, provided only they did not die upon the spot; showed His back but not His face to Moses; and dictated the veracious narrative of Balaam and his ass. You must accept the one set of statements as not only equally true, but as equally valuable and instructive, with the other; for what are you, that you should dare to choose between one and another deed or word of the Most High, or place one on a higher level than another? You must receive all these things, on peril of damnation; for they are all written in the Word of God; everything written there is inspired; and to reject or doubt the true sayings of God is damnation.'—An ordinary Christian, thus addressed, either succumbs or resists. If he succumbs, his reason is outraged and bewildered, and his moral sense is shocked and injured. If he resists, he is made miser-able by doubts, misgivings, and tormenting fears. The same man, in sacerdotal garments, comes to Mr. Matthew Arnold, and addresses him in the same words. But the Professor, serene and unassailable in his double armour of natural intelligence and perfect culture, waives him aside with a gesture of supreme and ineffable disdain, saying, "Pooh, pooh, man! don't talk that stuff to me."

Here, for fear of diminishing the force of these unanswerable arguments, we finish. They precisely indicate the aim and work page 82 of our journal with regard to the doctrine of the Inspiration of the Scriptures; and it is to be hoped that those who, like Mr. M'Culloch and other speakers at the Bible Society's meeting, denounce us as "sneerers" at, and "revilers" of the Bible, will not permanently remain in ignorance of the distinction between a reckless and unwholesome trampling upon things for ever sacred, and the "removing of those things that are shaken, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain."

J. P.