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Confessions Of An Inquiring Spirit Etc by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

LETTER III. Having in the former two Letters defined the doctrine which I rejectà

My dear friend,

Having in the former two Letters defined the doctrine which I reject, I am now to communicate the views that I would propose to substitute in its place.

Before, however, I attempt to lay down on the theological chart the road-place to which my bark has drifted, and to mark the spot and circumscribe the space within which I swing at anchor, let me first thank you for, and then attempt to answer, the objections -- or at least the questions -- which you have urged upon me.

|The present Bible is the Canon to which Christ and the Apostles referred?|

Doubtless.

|And in terms which a Christian must tremble to tamper with?|

Yea. The expressions are as direct as strong; and a true believer will neither attempt to divert nor dilute their strength.

|The doctrine which is considered as the orthodox view seems the obvious and most natural interpretation of the text in question?|

Yea, and nay. To those whose minds are prepossessed by the doctrine itself -- who from earliest childhood have always meant this doctrine by the very word Bible -- the doctrine being but its exposition and paraphrase -- Yea. In such minds the words of our Lord and the declarations of St. Paul can awaken no other sense. To those on the other hand who find the doctrine senseless and self-confuting, and who take up the Bible as they do other books, and apply to it the same rules of interpretation -- Nay.

And, lastly, he who, like myself, recognises in neither of the two the state of his own mind -- who cannot rest in the former, and feels, or fears, a presumptuous spirit in the negative dogmatism of the latter -- he has his answer to seek. But so far I dare hazard a reply to the question -- In what other sense can the words be interpreted? -- beseeching you, however, to take what I am about to offer but as an attempt to delineate an arc of oscillation -- that the eulogy of St. Paul is in nowise contravened by the opinion to which I incline, who fully believe the Old Testament collectively, both in the composition and in its preservation, a great and precious gift of Providence; -- who find in it all that the Apostle describes, and who more than believe that all which the Apostle spoke of was of Divine inspiration, and a blessing intended for as many as are in communion with the Spirit through all ages. And I freely confess that my whole heart would turn away with an angry impatience from the cold and captious mortal who, the moment I had been pouring out the love and gladness of my soul -- while book after book, law, and truth, and example, oracle, and lovely hymn, and choral song of ten thousand thousands, and accepted prayers of saints and prophets, sent back, as it were, from heaven, like doves, to be let loose again with a new freight of spiritual joys and griefs and necessities, were passing across my memory -- at the first pause of my voice, and whilst my countenance was still speaking -- should ask me whether I was thinking of the Book of Esther, or meant particularly to include the first six chapters of Daniel, or verses 6-20 of the 109th Psalm, or the last verse of the 137th Psalm? Would any conclusion of this sort be drawn in any other analogous case? In the course of my lectures on Dramatic Poetry, I, in half a score instances, referred my auditors to the precious volume before me -- Shakespeare -- and spoke enthusiastically, both in general and with detail of particular beauties, of the plays of Shakespeare, as in all their kinds, and in relation to the purposes of the writer, excellent. Would it have been fair, or according to the common usage and understanding of men, to have inferred an intention on my part to decide the question respecting Titus Andronicus, or the larger portion of the three parts of Henry VI.? Would not every genial mind understand by Shakespeare that unity or total impression comprising and resulting from the thousandfold several and particular emotions of delight, admiration, gratitude excited by his works? But if it be answered, |Aye! but we must not interpret St. Paul as we may and should interpret any other honest and intelligent writer or speaker,| -- then, I say, this is the very petitio principii of which I complain.

Still less do the words of our Lord apply against my view. Have I not declared -- do I not begin by declaring -- that whatever is referred by the sacred penman to a direct communication from God, and wherever it is recorded that the subject of the history had asserted himself to have received this or that command, this or that information or assurance, from a superhuman Intelligence, or where the writer in his own person, and in the character of an historian, relates that the WORD OF THE LORD CAME unto priest, prophet, chieftain, or other individual -- have I not declared that I receive the same with full belief, and admit its inappellable authority? Who more convinced than I am -- who more anxious to impress that conviction on the minds of others -- that the Law and the Prophets speak throughout of Christ? That all the intermediate applications and realisations of the words are but types and repetitions -- translations, as it were, from the language of letters and articulate sounds into the language of events and symbolical persons?

And here again let me recur to the aid of analogy. Suppose a life of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law, or a life of Lord Bacon by his chaplain; that a part of the records of the Court of Chancery belonging to these periods were lost; that in Roper's or in Rawley's biographical work there were preserved a series of dicta and judgments attributed to these illustrious Chancellors, many and important specimens of their table discourses, with large extracts from works written by them, and from some that are no longer extant. Let it be supposed, too, that there are no grounds, internal or external, to doubt either the moral, intellectual, or circumstantial competence of the biographers. Suppose, moreover, that wherever the opportunity existed of collating their documents and quotations with the records and works still preserved, the former were found substantially correct and faithful, the few differences in nowise altering or disturbing the spirit and purpose of the paragraphs in which they were found; and that of what was not collatable, and to which no test ab extra could be applied, the far larger part bore witness in itself of the same spirit and origin; and that not only by its characteristic features, but by its surpassing excellence, it rendered the chances of its having had any other author than the giant-mind, to whom the biographer ascribes it, small indeed! Now, from the nature and objects of my pursuits, I have, we will suppose, frequent occasion to refer to one or other of these works; for example, to Rawley's Dicta et Facta Francisci de Verulam. At one time I might refer to the work in some such words as -- |Remember what Francis of Verulam said or judged;| or, |If you believe not me, yet believe Lord Bacon.| At another time I might take the running title of the volume, and at another the name of the biographer; -- |Turn to your Rawley! HE will set you right;| or, |THERE you will find a depth which no research will ever exhaust;| or whatever other strong expression my sense of Bacon's greatness and of the intrinsic worth and the value of the proofs and specimens of that greatness, contained and preserved in that volume, would excite and justify. But let my expressions be as vivid and unqualified as the most sanguine temperament ever inspired, would any man of sense conclude from them that I meant -- and meant to make others believe -- that not only each and all of these anecdotes, adages, decisions, extracts, incidents, had been dictated, word by word, by Lord Bacon; and that all Rawley's own observations and inferences, all the connectives and disjunctives, all the recollections of time, place, and circumstance, together with the order and succession of the narrative, were in like manner dictated and revised by the spirit of the deceased Chancellor? The answer will be -- must be -- No man in his senses! |No man in his senses -- in THIS instance; but in that of the Bible it is quite otherwise; for (I take it as an admitted point that) it IS quite otherwise!|

And here I renounce any advantage I might obtain for my argument by restricting the application of our Lord's and the Apostle's words to the Hebrew Canon. I admit the justice -- I have long felt the full force -- of the remark -- |We have all that the occasion allowed.| And if the same awful authority does not apply so directly to the Evangelical and Apostolical writings as to the Hebrew Canon, yet the analogy of faith justifies the transfer. If the doctrine be less decisively Scriptural in its application to the New Testament or the Christian Canon, the temptation to doubt it is likewise less. So at least we are led to infer; since in point of fact it is the apparent or imagined contrast, the diversity of spirit which sundry individuals have believed themselves to find in the Old Testament and in the Gospel, that has given occasion to the doubt; -- and, in the heart of thousands who yield a faith of acquiescence to the contrary, and find rest in their humility -- supplies fuel to a fearful wish that it were permitted to make a distinction.

But, lastly, you object that -- even granting that no coercive, positive reasons for the belief -- no direct and not inferred assertions -- of the plenary inspiration of the Old and New Testament, in the generally received import of the term, could be adduced, yet -- in behalf of a doctrine so catholic, and during so long a succession of ages affirmed and acted on by Jew and Christian, Greek, Romish, and Protestant, you need no other answer than:- |Tell me, first, why it should not be received! Why should I not believe the Scriptures throughout dictated, in word and thought, by an infallible Intelligence?| I admit the fairness of the retort; and eagerly and earnestly do I answer: For every reason that makes me prize and revere these Scriptures; -- prize them, love them, revere them, beyond all other books! WHY should I not? Because the doctrine in question petrifies at once the whole body of Holy Writ with all its harmonies and symmetrical gradations -- the flexile and the rigid -- the supporting hard and the clothing soft -- the blood WHICH IS THE LIFE -- the intelligencing nerves, and the rudely woven, but soft and springy, cellular substance, in which all are imbedded and lightly bound together. This breathing organism, this glorious panharmonicon which I had seen stand on its feet as a man, and with a man's voice given to it, the doctrine in question turns at once into a colossal Memnon's head, a hollow passage for a voice, a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their names, and yet is but one voice, and the same; and no man uttered it, and never in a human heart was it conceived. WHY should I not? -- Because the doctrine evacuates of all sense and efficacy the sure and constant tradition, that all the several books bound up together in our precious family Bible were composed in different and widely-distant ages, under the greatest diversity of circumstances, and degrees of light and information, and yet that the composers, whether as uttering or as recording what was uttered and what was done, were all actuated by a pure and holy Spirit, one and the same -- (for is there any spirit pure and holy, and yet not proceeding from God -- and yet not proceeding in and with the Holy Spirit?) -- one Spirit, working diversely, now awakening strength, and now glorifying itself in weakness, now giving power and direction to knowledge, and now taking away the sting from error! Ere the summer and the months of ripening had arrived for the heart of the race; while the whole sap of the tree was crude, and each and every fruit lived in the harsh and bitter principle; even then this Spirit withdrew its chosen ministers from the false and guilt-making centre of Self. It converted the wrath into a form and an organ of love, and on the passing storm-cloud impressed the fair rainbow of promise to all generations. Put the lust of Self in the forked lightning, and would it not be a Spirit of Moloch? But God maketh the lightnings His ministers, fire and hail, vapours and stormy winds fulfilling His word.

CURSE YE MEROZ, SAID THE ANGEL OF THE LORD; CURSE YE BITTERLY THE INHABITANTS THEREOF -- sang Deborah. Was it that she called to mind any personal wrongs -- rapine or insult -- that she or the house of Lapidoth had received from Jabin or Sisera? No; she had dwelt under her palm tree in the depth of the mountain. But she was a MOTHER IN ISRAEL; and with a mother's heart, and with the vehemency of a mother's and a patriot's love, she had shot the light of love from her eyes, and poured the blessings of love from her lips, on the people that had JEOPARDED THEIR LIVES UNTO THE DEATH against the oppressors; and the bitterness, awakened and borne aloft by the same love, she precipitated in curses on the selfish and coward recreants who CAME NOT TO THE HELP OF THE LORD, TO THE HELP OF THE LORD, AGAINST THE MIGHTY. As long as I have the image of Deborah before my eyes, and while I throw myself back into the age, country, circumstances, of this Hebrew Bonduca in the not yet tamed chaos of the spiritual creation; -- as long as I contemplate the impassioned, high-souled, heroic woman in all the prominence and individuality of will and character, -- I feel as if I were among the first ferments of the great affections -- the proplastic waves of the microcosmic chaos, swelling up against -- and yet towards -- the outspread wings of the dove that lies brooding on the troubled waters. So long all is well, -- all replete with instruction and example. In the fierce and inordinate I am made to know and be grateful for the clearer and purer radiance which shines on a Christian's paths, neither blunted by the preparatory veil, nor crimsoned in its struggle through the all- enwrapping mist of the world's ignorance: whilst in the self- oblivion of these heroes of the Old Testament, their elevation above all low and individual interests, -- above all, in the entire and vehement devotion of their total being to the service of their divine Master, I find a lesson of humility, a ground of humiliation, and a shaming, yet rousing, example of faith and fealty. But let me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening utterances of human hearts -- of men of like faculties and passions with myself, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing -- are but as a Divina Commedia of a superhuman -- O bear with me, if I say -- Ventriloquist; -- that the royal harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as a MANY-STRINGED INSTRUMENT for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse, while every several nerve of emotion, passion, thought, that thrids the flesh-and-blood of our common humanity, responded to the touch, -- that this SWEET PSALMIST OF ISRAEL was himself as mere an instrument as his harp, an AUTOMATON poet, mourner, and supplicant; -- all is gone, -- all sympathy, at least, and all example. I listen in awe and fear, but likewise in perplexity and confusion of spirit.

Yet one other instance, and let this be the crucial test of the doctrine. Say that the Book of Job throughout was dictated by an infallible intelligence. Then re-peruse the book, and still, as you proceed, try to apply the tenet; try if you can even attach any sense or semblance of meaning to the speeches which you are reading. What! were the hollow truisms, the unsufficing half-truths, the false assumptions and malignant insinuations of the supercilious bigots, who corruptly defended the truth:- were the impressive facts, the piercing outcries, the pathetic appeals, and the close and powerful reasoning with which the poor sufferer -- smarting at once from his wounds, and from the oil of vitriol which the orthodox LIARS FOR GOD were dropping into them -- impatiently, but uprightly and holily, controverted this truth, while in will and in spirit he clung to it;- -were both dictated by an infallible intelligence? -- Alas! if I may judge from the manner in which both indiscriminately are recited, quoted, appealed to, preached upon by the routiniers of desk and pulpit, I cannot doubt that they think so -- or rather, without thinking, take for granted that so they are to think; -- the more readily, perhaps, because the so thinking supersedes the necessity of all afterthought. Farewell.

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