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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : § 11. The New Testament has hindered the natural impulse to give to the content of Religion a simple, clear, and logical expression, but, on the other hand, it has preserved Christian doctrine from becoming a mere philosophy of Religion.

The Origin Of The New Testament by Adolf Harnack

§ 11. The New Testament has hindered the natural impulse to give to the content of Religion a simple, clear, and logical expression, but, on the other hand, it has preserved Christian doctrine from becoming a mere philosophy of Religion.

Speaking exactly, we may say that Religion, when it has a sacred fundamental document, no longer requires Doctrine; for the content of the document is itself the Doctrine. But when the New Testament was created the Church already had a doctrine; indeed, as we have seen, this doctrine itself helped to create the New Testament. Doctrinal teaching could not be, nor ought it to have been, rendered superfluous and thrust aside by the new written work; and it continued to be carried on in the Church. But all doctrine, however supernatural it may be in its foundations, depends for its exposition upon reason, and with the help of reason necessarily aims at simple and clear expression. As soon, however, as a sacred document comes into existence, doctrine begins to depend less and less on reason for its development; for each rational element can now be replaced by an authoritative element. The consequence is that both rational and authoritative elements are intermingled in the development of doctrine, that everyone becomes accustomed to such intermingling, and that the sense and desire for clear and logical thinking gradually become dulled. All this is exemplified to full extent in the history of the development of Dogma in the Church. We may observe it already in Irenæus, in Tertullian with special clearness, and in Origen. They operate with ratio and with autoritas, i.e. with proofs from Scripture, and interchange the two elements at will. A text from the New Testament is for them as good a proof as a logical argument. The result for the dogmatist was a tremendous and increasing relief from logical responsibility, and a corresponding increase in the patchiness and incoherence of doctrine. If the dogmatist was at a loss for an argument, a passage of Scripture came to his help; if doubts arose in his mind, they were repressed by a word of Scripture; if a proof could not be found, it was supplied by a verse of Scripture; if discrepancies were met with, these need only be so in appearance, for Scripture contains discrepancies, and yet Scripture is absolutely consistent. This condition of things gradually affected Dogmatics, and with the narcotic of Scriptural authority paralysed the intellect in its restless search for truth. We can observe these evil effects in case of a great genius like Augustine; how much more quick and ready may lesser spirits have been to dispense with real consistency, perspicuity, and logical proof in their teaching of the Faith! In truth the Dogmatic of the Church is a creation that scorns logical stringency, and the dogmatist, if he only has given |the teaching of Scripture,| can feel dispensed from what is his chief task.

But also from another side the New Testament paralysed the intellectual instinct to give to the content of religion simple and consistent expression. If all that stood in the New Testament must count as sacred and |written for our instruction,| then indeed was it an absolutely hopeless undertaking to gather all this into a single system of doctrine. And if the whole varied content of the New Testament belonged to |Religion,| then it was now an impossible task here to introduce arrangement and system. Thus the whole idea of Religion as an objective and subjective unity was obscured. Religion is everything that stands in the New Testament: How then can a sound doctrine of religion exist at all? However, fortunately, the intellect found a base of action in the Rule of Faith, and intellectual effort based upon the Rule of Faith proved stronger than the paralysing influence of the varied matter of the New Testament upon Dogmatics; and yet in hundreds of instances, and, indeed, from the beginning, the New Testament has exercised a disturbing, paralysing, and disintegrating influence upon Dogmatics.

And yet -- here also there is another side to the account: The New Testament has again and again brought Dogmatics back to history, and has thereby preserved it from changing into mere Philosophy of Religion. We can observe the working of this influence from the first days, and even in the dogmatic developments of the nineteenth century it has continued to be fraught with blessing. What a different aspect the Dogmatic of Origen would have had -- and indeed to its disadvantage -- if he had not always kept himself in touch with the New Testament, if he had not felt obliged to speak in unison with that Book! If only separate works and not an already collected New Testament had been at his hand, his Dogmatic would have been much more neo-Platonic in its results than it already is. And what a debt Augustine, as a dogmatist, owes to the New Testament! Without the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles as canonical authorities, he would never have been delivered from the scepticism of the Academy nor would he have accomplished that deepening of the neo-Platonic philosophy by which he has transformed it in some of its speculations into pure religion. Thus though the Dogmatic of the Church be ever so patchy, incoherent, and self-discrepant in the form that it has taken, the fact that it has not completely lost contact with real life and history is due to the New Testament.

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