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The Early Reception of the Vie de Jésus (1863) by Ernest Renan in Belgium and the Netherlands I. Introduction


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The Early Reception of the Vie de Jésus (1863) by Ernest Renan

in Belgium and the Netherlands

I. Introduction
The publication of the Vie de Jésus of Ernest Renan on June 24, 1863 was one of the great events of the nineteenth century. The book was the most controversial work ever to appear in French religious circles. First, it was written by a “fugitive of the seminary” who publicly opposed the official religion of France. Second, for the first time the life of Christ was written by an historian, not in a technical language accessible to the learned only, but in a language understandable to a large public. Vie de Jésus directly concerned the Catholic Church, for the negation of the supernatural and of the divinity of Christ meant also the negation of the Church as a divine institution1. But there was more at stake for the Church than just a case of blasphemy. Renan’s book was judged a significant sample of the scientific spirit which had recently prompted Charles Darwin - whom Renan greatly admired by the way – to publish the obvious facts of evolution and thus to deny the separate creation of species which the Bible taught. The critical tendency, allied to liberalism, favoured political regimes that challenged the Church’s power and, in philosophy, encouraged rationalism and a sceptical attitude2. For the Church, Renan’s book thus exemplified a widespread menace. Two months after the publication, on August 24, 1863, the Vie de Jésus was put on the Index. And when, on December 8, 1864, the Holy See issued its Syllabus errorum, it was clear, although no book or author was specifically mentioned, that the Vie de Jésus and Renan were included in the condemnation3.

It is not surprising then that Vie de Jésus met with a torrent of polemical disapproval, first of all from Catholic France. In the first three months after its publication 321 brochures against Vie de Jésus came out. Since the first centuries of Christianity and the Reformation there has not been such a massive effort to defend religion The initial Catholic criticism of Renan reflects the official attitude of the Church: it is very authoritative, harsh, and dogmatic in tone. For the most part it was an argument ad hominem4. Historical and philological arguments were answered by theological arguments, biblical quotations and mockery. It is only from the modernist crisis onwards that Catholics like Loisy and Lagrange began to combat Renan with his own arms, that is scientific criticism.



Vie de Jésus was already translated into Dutch by 1863. Even in the year of the publication of Vie de Jésus (1863) commentaries were published of Dutch theologians, historians, philosophers and men of letters like Johannes Jacobus Van Oosterzee, Bernard ter Haar, Otto Antonius Spitzen, Jan Hendrik Scholten, Cornelis Willem Opzoomer and Conrad Busken Huet. This is in contrast with Belgium, where the Vie de Jésus elicited only one extensive refutation from the pen of the Louvain exegete and orientalist Thomas Lamy. Apart from that, there were of course some minor reviews and tracts5.

As Lamy’s refutation dates from the early reception of the Vie de Jésus, it seems most fair to compare it with equally early comments of Dutch theologians (specifically from the year 1863-64) This comparative analysis enables us to gain a first insight into the impact of the context of reception, both confessional as national, on the evaluation of the figure of Ernest Renan and his most known work. The research on the reception of Renan in Belgium is scarcely out of the egg, in contrast with the Netherlands where Johannes Tielrooy6 and more recently Jan De Vet7 have made valuable contributions.



II. The reception of the Vie de Jésus in Belgium
The Belgian context of reception of Vie de Jésus was in many aspects comparable to the French. In both countries Catholicism enjoyed as good as a monopoly in religious affairs. The clergy was used to have the exclusive right on the truth and was not accustomed to a pluralism of ideas. In France the scientific level of theology and exegesis around the middle of the 19th century was deplorably low. Even the intellectual elite of the clergy didn’t receive an academic training and was thus not introduced to modern scientific methods. In Belgium the scientific training of the clergy was better guaranteed thanks to the theological faculty of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The development of auxiliary sciences like archeology, paleography and orientalism in this faculty assured that Leuven could keep up with scientific requirements in the field of exegesis and patrology in a more satisfactory way. Nevertheless the teaching at the faculty in this period was marked by – in the words of Roger Aubert - “une grande timidité intellectuelle”8.

The exegetic research and teaching in the second half of the nineteenth century was conducted mainly by Thomas Joseph Lamy, professor H. Scripture in de Schola minor from 1859 and in the Schola Maior from 1875 to 19009. Lamy seems to have had a special interest in the figure of Renan. Before 1863 he had already devoted two articles on him10. Then, in 1863 he wrote his refutation of Vie de Jésus which was first published as a series of articles in the Revue catholique and then collected in a booklet that appeared in three editions and two translations11. He received very laudatory felicitations for it, especially from Mgr Dupanloup, the bishop of Orleans who had once been tutor of the young Renan but later vigorously combated him. Lamy wrote another two commentaries in 186712 and in 189013 and refuted also the subsequent parts of Vie de Jésus in the collection Histoire des Origins du Christianisme : Les Apôtres14 and L’Antechrist15.

Generally speaking, the exegetical work of Lamy is known as outspokenly conservative16. For him the task of exegesis consisted in nailing down the literal sense (the sensus literalis) of the text by rigorously applying the philological rules on the original texts. A bible critic can make the true sense of a text accessible, by showing the truths, the dogma’s, that are contained in the text. These truths are based on the literal sense17. It was taken for granted that this literal sense referred to actual historical events.

In the period Lamy started his scientific career as an exegete, the methodological innovations of modern biblical criticism were in the centre of interest in Germany and the Netherlands. Yet, Lamy undeniably showed a lack of interest in the latest developments. Regularly he commented unfavourably on modern biblical criticism. “Ce travail de démolition, auquel le rationalisme travaille depuis le commencement de ce siècle, c’est ce qu’on appelle la Critique biblique”18. What he imputes modern biblical criticism is that it lets itself be seduced by the false principle of Reformation that submits the Bible to the free research of everyone and thus takes away from the Church the right she alone, as instituted by Christ, possesses to interpret the sacred text with a sovereign authority. By disregarding the difference between sacred and profane literature in applying exegetical methods, modern criticism harms the inspiration by the Holy Spirit and the revealed dogmas. By doing so she can never end up in a solid science. In other words, biblical criticism should limit itself to the care for correct editions of the biblical texts. The interpretation of the texts has to be handed over to the Church, to theologians.

Let’s have a closer look now to Lamy’s concrete criticism on Vie de Jésus. He starts his commentary with a downright attack on Renan as a person and as a scholar. Lamy takes these argumenta ad hominem to great lenghts, even in comparison with his catholic colleagues. By lowering Christ at the level of ordinary mortals, Renan has placed himself in line with Celsus, Porphyrius, Arius, Julian the Apostate and Voltaire. Lamy doesn’t hesitate to speak of heresy19. But just like Christ has defeated all heresies in the past, he will also defeat the rationalists, both those with science (like Strauss)20 as those without science (like Renan)21. Indeed, according to Lamy, Renan is “the least savant” of all rationalists. He has only “a borrowed science”22. Strauss is his true master. This was a typical kind of argument in catholic refutations: Renan is denied all originality by presenting him to the readers as a faithful disciple and a bad copyist of German scholars, particularly Strauss, who in the end rejected their own pupil. Yet, Lamy knows quite well that Strauss considered the Gospels as myths whereas Renan approached them as more historical valuable ‘biographical legends’, but the distinction is considered irrelevant: “Au fond, qu’on appelle l’Evangile un Mythe ou une Légende; que le Dr. Strauss fasse du Christ un personnage mythique, ou que M. Renan en fasse un être légendaire, pour les catholiques c’est la même chose. […] La vie du Christ est dénaturée par la légende comme par le mythe”23. By attributing the resurrection of Christ to the love of a hallucinating Mary Magdalene, Renan has even surpassed Strauss.

Lamy aims at completely undermining the credibility of Vie de Jésus. To this end, he does not depict the book as a novel, as is mostly done by catholic critics, but employs a stinging mockery. He ridicules Renan’s methodological options24 and with regard to Renan himself, Lamy speaks sarcastically of his “génie explorateur” or of his “idées lumineuses”. The refutation bulges out with short acclamations as “Quel amas d’absurdités”! “Quelle dérision”! or “Quelle folie”! Elsewhere Lamy suggests that Vie de Jésus is simply ludicrous with phrases like “Nous prions le lecteur de ne pas sourire”.

These attempts to ridicule Vie de Jésus are alternated with very emotional passages of a clearly scandalized and emotionally affected Lamy. For instance he reacts very emotional on Renan’s hypothesis that Jesus had brothers and sisters, which implies the negation of the lasting virginity of Mary: “N’était-ce donc pas assez d’enlever l’auréole de la divinité qui ceignait le front de Jésus naissant, fallait-il encore arracher du diadème de notre Mère le limpide diamant d’une pureté sans tache? Ne suffisait-il pas de blesser notre foi sans nous déchirer le coeur? O Vierge immaculée, lis d’innocence et de purété!”25.

The clash between Lamy’s traditional exegesis and modern biblical criticism is strikingly present in Examen critique de la vie de Jésus. For Lamy an exegete has to believe in the reality of prophesies. The habit of modern criticism to date books of the bible on the basis of intrinsic arguments, is considered as “vicious”26. He rejects the hypothesis that the book of Daniel cannot have been written before the reign of Antiochus Epiphanus or that the synoptic gospels cannot have been written before the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the Dispersion of the Jews, only because these events have been predicted in the synoptic gospels. This leads an irritated Lamy to wonder whether criticism will once relegate the gospels to the afterlife, as they contain also the description of the end of times27. He also remarks sarcastically that the prophets five centuries before the coming of Christ had known him better than Renan eighteen centuries after28. Lamy’s argumentation for the early dating of the Gospels consisted in stating that God in his goodness has wished that the first monuments of the Christian faith were written almost simultaneously with the events, by them who had taken part in these events29.

Lamy’s way of proceeding in countering positions of Renan always follows the same pattern. First he removes every doubt regarding the authenticity of the Gospels on the basis of pure extrinsic arguments30. Once the absolute authenticity of the Gospels is established, there can no longer be any reasonable doubt about the historicity of the narrated events and so Lamy can refute every hypothesis of Renan only by quoting the relevant bible text. Lamy is convinced that he has adequately refuted Renan’s thesis that Jesus was born in Nazareth by quoting the Gospel of Mathew and Luke, stating that he was born in Betlehem31. Renan’s denial of Jesus’ provenance of the family of David, is refuted by referring to the genealogies in Matthew and Luc that ascertain this provenance32. End of discussion. Other examples abound. Proceeding from this approach of the sacred books, nothing can impede Lamy to conclude his book with the following equation: “Voilà le Jésus de l’Evangile, voilà le Jésus de l’histoire, voilà notre Jésus”33.

This steadfast trust in the historical reliability of the Gospels is shared by all early Catholic commentators of the Vie de Jésus. When Renan put the Gospels to question, Catholics, accustomed for centuries to take their authenticity for granted, were sincerely surprised with Renan’s blindness. Science, affirmed Catholics for centuries, could do no harm in any way to the Bible, miracles and the divinity of Christ. On the contrary, Catholics held that those very truths were based on science34.



III. The reception of the Vie de Jésus in the Netherlands


  1. Introduction: the Dutch context of reception

Whereas the Belgian context is comparable to the French, the Dutch context is more similar to the German one. Germany and the Netherlands were religiously pluralistic countries with a protestant majority, in the midst of which biblical criticism could easier arise and develop. A milestone for both German and Dutch criticism was the publication of David Friedrich Strauss’ Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1835). After an initial reticence, Dutch scholars like Jan Hendrik Scholten (1811-1885) or Cornelis Willem Opzoomer (1821-1892) were undoubtedly influenced by Strauss’ method and the underlying idealistic philosophy.

To understand the Dutch modernists reception of Renan’s Vie de Jesus it is important to emphasize that Renan was – just like them - deeply influenced by Hegelian Idealism and that his life work can be seen as the attempt to expand the boundaries of scientific rationalism by incorporating into it what he judged as valid in idealistic philosophy. He was particularly drawn by the historical dimension of Hegel’s philosophy and claimed that modern idealism had taken the place of Christian spiritualism35. So Renan and the Dutch modernists shared some fundamental principles, the anti-supranaturalism, the monism (whether or not pantheistic), the immanent conception of God, the theme of evolution, and finally an outspoken apologetic concern to reform Christianity, to restore it in its purity, as it was originally intended by Christ. K.H. Roessingh writes of Scholten that it was evident for him that Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Calvin had been monistic and anti-supranaturalistic like he himself. The true Christian for Scholten was the modern monist of the nineteenth century36. From Renan, it is known that he saw himself as a religious reformer in the line of Luther37. Men’s devotion to Jesus would increase, Renan thought, once the scientific facts of his life on earth were known. Jesus should be shown to Christians as the great man he was, and many moderns, now indifferent, would be brought to admire, if not adore him38. In this way he hoped to provide an intelligent apologetic for Christianity.

Another resemblance between Renan and the Dutch modernists regards their effort to make the results of biblical criticism known to a large public. In 1857 Conrad Busken Huet (1826-1886) wrote an epistolary novel Brieven over den bijbel. As a theology student in Leiden, Busken Huet had been introduced to modern theology by the teaching of Scholten. Particularly controversial was the fact that he had formulated in a plain and highly understandable language the new insights on the field of biblical criticism, especially the theses of Strauss, which were now accessible to anyone. The parallels with Renan’s Vie de Jesus that as a masterpiece of historical romance brought at the same time historical criticism into mainstraim French intellectual life, are quite obvious. In 1864 Renan even published a shorter and easier version of his Vie de Jesus, titled simply Jésus, geared towards the common man.

The context of reception in the Netherlands thus differed greatly from the one in Belgium. Around 1860 biblical criticism was flourishing in Dutch theological faculties. There was a development from theology towards religious studies. At the same time biblical criticism had already been made accessible to a larger public. The ‘moderne richting’ had been widely spread by means of books and brochures, lectures and courses39. It’s not surprising then that Vie de Jesus didn’t cause a shock wave anymore as it had already done in France. Cornelis Willem Opzoomer observed this remarkebly well. Already in 1863 he stated that Renan’s utterance that the gospels give us a fabulous, but no historical Christ had to “make a deep impression on the French people of the nineteenth century. Our scholars, even our cultivated people – not even to mention Germany – are used to such judgements for quite some years and have learned to separate the matter of religion and virtue from a historical research of what has happened in Palestine eighteen centuries ago. So the book of Renan cannot hit us by any means”40.

On the other hand it certainly wasn’t the case that modernists had an open field within Dutch Protestantism, not even within academic milieus. Modernism was widely supported at the theological faculty of Leiden by Scholten and Abraham Kuenen (1828-1898), but was combated at the theological faculty of Utrecht, where the orthodox theology was dominant, with Johannes Jacobus Van Oosterzee (1817-1882) as an indefatigable opponent of modernism. Van Oosterzee wanted to redirect biblical research to historical criticism in stead of the philosophical approach of the early modernists. The full weight of the argumentation had to be shifted from philosophical to historical arguments. Applied to the most controversial theme in the discussion between orthodox and modernist, namely miracles, orthodox scholars like Van Oosterzee rejected philosophical apriori’s about the impossibility of the miracle, and demanded thorough historical research of the sources to assess whether or not Jesus had performed miracles.

So one can say that Vie de Jésus arrived in the Netherlands at a time when a series of exegetical conflicts (philosophical versus a historical criticism) and ideological conflicts (liberal Protestantism versus orthodox Protestantism) had reached a high point. As a consequence the book fulfilled a function in the theological debate in the Netherlands41. The reviews of the Vie de Jesus were not rarely seized as an opportunity by Dutch theologians to ventilate their criticism on their opponents within the national context, and this goes as well for Dutch Catholics, orthodox-protestants and modernists. Among other elements42 this explains the abundance of Dutch – mostly protestant - commentaries on Vie de Jésus when compared to the very limited number in Belgium.



  1. The catholic reception

There is one substantial Dutch Catholic commentary of the Vie de Jésus, namely Vijfde evangelie of evangelie volgens Ernst [sic!] Renan en volgens J. H Scholten of Otto Antonius Spitzen43 (1823-1889), professor in the seminar of Warmond (1851-1857) and later parish priest at Heinoo (1858-1866) and Zwolle (1866-1889). Spitzen was also honorary chaplain of pope Pius IX.

As is already evident from the title (Vijfde evangelie of evangelie volgens Ernst Renan en volgens J. H Scholten), Spitzen writes with a double polemical objective which is so typical for the Dutch reception of Vie de Jésus: he refutes at the same time Renan and Scholten and the whole school of Leiden with him. According to Spitzen it may be so that there are minor differences between Scholten and Renan, the fact remains that the school of Leiden endorses the principal theses of the Vie de Jésus, and those theses which she does not explicitly acknowledges, she cannot denounce either. The unbelieving Catholics and the so-called enlightened protestants have come to terms over their image of Christ: a Christ who has had something divine, though not by the grace of God, but by the strength of the human nature. The liberal-protestants with Scholten as their leader are criticized repeatedly44. Spitzen considers them as the ‘realest’ protestants, because they apply the principle of the Reformers in its utmost consequence: the autonomy of reason, free independent research and knowledge of the divine truth by inner experience. It is a typical Dutch catholic argument to consider modernism as the logical outcome of protestantism, but at the same time also its downfall45.

In the refutation of Spitzen we recognize a lot of elements that are very characteristic for early catholic criticism of the Vie de Jésus. Above all the personal attacks on Renan46. Typical is the denial of his scientific credentials: despite his reputation Renan would not have had a firm grasp of Eastern languages. Spitzen is proud to say that he found out from a reliable source that Renan is not even capable to translate a page from a Hebrew book. Yet the people gaze at his “appearance of scholarship”. In addition, the stinging mockery47 and the emotional utterances of indignation48 are not lacking.

The discussion of the figure of Renan is followed by analysis of his work, the Vie de Jésus. Spitzen brings in two fundamental objections to the book: it is not original – typical argument that Renan has copied the ideas of Strauss49 – and it is not scientific. Just like Lamy, Spitzen distrusts internal historical criticism; a healthy criticism must give precedence to external criticism, the examination of witnesses. Faith in the authenticity of the Gospels must be based on the authority of public opinion of that time and on the authority of the apostolic Catholic Church, that has received the gospels from the hands of Matthew, Marc, Luc and John. It is incomprehensible to Spitzen (just as it was to Lamy) that in the biblical criticism of Renan and Scholten the connection between the authenticity of the Gospels and the historicity of the narrated events is broken50. The resulting Jesus image of Renan is, according to Spitzen, an absurdity, a preposterous myth, an enigmatic and inconsistent creature. That Jesus cannot explain for Christianity.

What goes for Renan, is valid for Scholten too: he neither is original nor scientific, his exegesis is just as arbitrary and his image of Jesus just as enigmatic. Spitzen concludes that Scholten too has exchanged Christianity in a very antichristian paganism51.





  1. The orthodox-protestant reception

With regard to the Dutch orthodox-protestants commentators of Vie de Jésus, we discuss two professors theology of the university of Utrecht: Johannes Jacobus Van Oosterzee (1817-1882) and Bernard ter Haar (1806-1880). According to ter Haar, Van Oosterzee was the leader of Renan’s opponents in the Netherlands. His refutation of the Vie de Jésus, titled Historie of roman? Het leven van Jezus door Ernest Renan52 is indeed probably the best known Dutch commentary. In every way it is the only Dutch commentary A. Schweitzer refers to in his overview of international commentaries to Vie de Jesus53.

Van Oosterzee divides his book in two clearly separated parts: a scientific (historical-critical) assessment of Vie de Jésus and a religious assessment of it.

Van Oosterzee severely criticizes the historical methodology of Renan as being by no means scientific. Renan departs from the basic philosophical principle that one can never admit as such a narrative that displays some supernatural element. This implies that he does not describe history, but construes her a priori. No historical evidence at all could convince Renan of the existence of miracles. Moreover Van Oosterzee denounces Renan’ s contradictory source criticism54, the inaccurate and confusing arrangement of the facts in Jesus’life and the tendency to pass his own concoctions for historical truth.

The historical result of Renan’s research (in other words the facts on Jesus’life he maintains) is marked by an unbridled arbitrariness. What Renan had left intact of the gospels could have been pulled down according to the same principles, it only owed its survival to the benevolence of the author55. So Vie de Jésus is no historical study, but a novel and a declaration of war against the historical foundation of the whole Christian Church. Van Oosterzee concludes the scientific section of his commentary by emphasizing that one must not consider his criticism as an impediment of any kind to free research of biblical narratives. He wants to uphold the independence of scientific criticism untouched. Van Oosterzee realised remarkably well that the importance of the book should not be minimised and that its opponents would be confronted with the reproach not to be in touch with modern science56.

In his analysis of Vie de Jésus “from the perspective of faith” Van Oosterzee discusses the philosophical principles that have guided Renan in his research. He places Renan within the naturalistic-empiristic school of thought, close to positivism. The success of the Vie de Jésus unequivocally reveals that Renan has expressed the spirit of the time, reveals that a deep discord has manifested itself between Christian and modern consciousness. This opinion of Van Oosterzee was certainly shared by modernists like Scholten, Opzoomer or Busken Huet, but the proposed means to remedy the discord go in opposite directions. Van Oosterzee sees no good in trying to compromize with modern thinking. “The modern naturalism can only be defeated by a Christian-philosophical faith of revelation, by a powerful development of modern supranaturalism. More than ever the miracle must be conceived, not only as an extrinsic proof, but as a substantial part of revelation in Christ”57. Yet, Van Oosterzee realizes very well that – in order to fulfil the needs of modern man - his call for supranaturalism in faith and theology has to be supplemented with “a renewed, but unprejudiced research of the origin, the content and the value of the Gospels”58. It becomes clear then that the orthodox protestants wanted to fight their battle with modernism on the grounds of historical research. This was inspired by their deep-rooted conviction that Gods intervention in the course of things had to be an historical observable fact.

Apart from the acceptance of independent historical research – at least in principle – the most striking difference with catholic critics is Van Oosterzee’s appeal to orthodox-protestant theologians, combating the spirit of the time in general and Renan in particular, to bear no grudge “against them who confess such a way of thinking from honest conviction. No inquisition trial on persons, who are maybe ten times better than their system, and twenty times better than us”59. Argumenta ad hominem are thus altogether wrong. The more neutral and scientific tone of Van Oosterzee is also shown by the absence of mockery.

The other professor of Utrecht, Bernard ter Haar60 is known as a moderate figure, declining both strict orthodoxy as modernism. Even more than Van Oosterzee, ter Haar in his extensive book Wie was Jezus? Tiental voorlezingen over het leven van Jezus door Ernest Renan61 wants to reorient the debate from the philosophical to the historical level. He rejects the attempts to refute the underlying philosophical principles of Vie de Jésus. In evaluating this work, the critic must have only one question in mind: “Can the image of Jesus drawn by Renan be called absolutely historical”62? The answer is (of course) negative: “Renan has promised us history, but in stead burdens us with the product of his imagination”63. The methodological comment on the Vie de Jésus of ter Haar is quite similar to that of Van Oosterzee. He denounces the many contradictions, inconsistencies and unrestrained arbitrariness in the source criticism, the unjustified faith in the intuition of the historian, the inaccurate chronology and the enigmatic image of Jesus.

Particularly interesting is the last (tenth) chapter of ter Haar’s book that provides already with a survey and discussion of the French and Dutch commentaries on Vie the Jesus, written in the first four months after its publication. The receptionary studies of Vie de Jésus thus started very quickly. Ter Haar specifically criticises the catholic commentaries that in most cases not even reached an average level. Against Catholics, ter Haar defends the right to free research and the duty to maintain the most negative results, even if they contradict our personal convictions. “The catholic who considers with a laughter of contentment and triumph the denying results of historical criticism as the punishment and the curse of Reformation, as the suicide of Protestantism, is mistaken”64. In this context it is interesting to know that ter Haar considered Leopold Von Ranke as a shining example in the field of historiography. The typical catholic theme of a gallery of major heretics with Renan as a newcomer who exceeds them all in wickedness, is reversed by ter Haar in favour of Renan: compared with Celsus, Julian the Apostate or Voltaire, Renan is definitely not the worst opponent of Christianity. The most important conclusion of ter Haar’s comparative study of the reception of Vie de Jésus comes down to the observation that just about everybody, protestants and Catholics, orthodoxs and modernists alike, agree that Renan has failed in his attempt to portray Jesus. This means that for ter Haar the Dutch modernists cannot be aligned with Renan, because their image of Christ is much superior to his.


  1. The ‘modernist’ reception

So let’s finally focus our attention to the reception of Vie de Jésus among Dutch modernists. Jan Hendrik Scholten, professor in Leiden from 1843 to 1881, opened his curriculum in 1863 with a discourse on Vie de Jésus titled Het leven van Jezus door Ernest Renan65. Aim of the discourse is “to show how one evaluates in Leiden the controversial book of the famous French scholar according to the principles of modern theology”66. Scholten doesn’t hesitate to label the book outstanding in many respects. As ter Haar, Scholten also lashes out at the critics of Renan, but whereas ter Haar focused on Catholic detractors, Scholten rebuts the orthodox-protestants, labelled as supranaturalists, who take the accuracy of the evangelic accounts for granted. Although he doesn’t mention him, Scholten especially seems to aim at Van Oosterzee. So, again we see that Vie de Jésus is called in to run down the confessional opponents within the national context.

Nonetheless Scholten’s discourse is certainly no laudation on Renan. From an exegetical point of view he objects to the fact that Renan took words from Jesus out of context and interpreted them as utterances of general validity. From a methodological point of view Scholten denounces Renan’s inconsistency and arbitrariness in historical criticism, especially in his use of the Fourth Gospel. The result is a corrupted image of Jesus, who has been turned into a psychological enigma.

Cornelis Willem Opzoomer, professor of philosophy at Utrecht University from 1846 to1889, is much more radical in his critic of Renan than Scholten67. Opzoomer places Renan in line with naturalist exegesis, that claims to write history on the basis of sources which she has first rejected for the most part. The inevitable product of such a method of working is a novel, not history. Yet, the failure of Renan and his naturalism does not mean that supranaturalism can triumph over its enemy. Just like Scholten, Opzoomer is far more harsh against orthodox protestants than against Renan: “Naturalism certainly got on the wrong track, but the saddest figure is certainly the supranaturalist who gloats upon this aberration, while he himself has lost the scent”68.

According to Opzoomer Renan employs a superficial and arbitrary criticism of the Gospels and makes use of his imagination. As a consequence the Christ of Renan is a monstrosity of imagination, not a historical figure. “The development of the character of Christ is full of contradictions, enigmatic transitions, completely incomprehensible”69. But Opzoomer emphasizes that Renan’s project was doomed to fail, simply because there are no reliable sources of the life of Christ. Nobody can write the life of Jesus in an accurate and elaborate way. But in the end this is no tragedy: although we cannot know Jesus’ course of life, the fact remains that his spirit is certainly not concealed for us. As a tree is known by its fruit, so the spirit of Christ is known by investigating the spirit of Christianity. According to Opzoomer this spirit of Christianity consists in worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth and in the love of the neighbour that reveals the love of God. Accordingly, the spirit of Christ is the spirit of true religion and true virtue. Opzoomer is proud to say that by thus deducing the spirit of Christ from the spirit of Christianity he has reached a much more dignified presentation of Jesus than Renan. What is striking here is first that Opzoomer’s conception of the spirit of Christianity and true religion is in fact quite similar to that of Renan. Second, that his way of retrieving his image of Christ is outspokenly a- and even anti -historical. For Opzoomer, and this is in opposition to Renan, the historical Jesus is irrelevant. “The only thing we need to know is what Christianity and Christ is at present and for us, which can never be dependent of what he has been centuries ago”70. So Opzoomer confronts us very clearly with a spiritualising of christianity and the consequent devalorisation of historical facts, a prominent characteristic of the first phase of Dutch modernism71.

One can say that the Dutch modernists were in this regard much more close to German idealism of Strauss or Hegel, than Renan. In the German idealist approach of Christ, metaphysical explanations were far more important than historical facts. In contrast, Renan’s typical “French sense for concrete realities”72 as Marie- Joseph Lagrange has called it, together with a psychological need for a concrete “Jésus ami” who he can love and who can love him73, prevented him to reduce Christ to an idea. For him, the concrete existence of the historical Jesus is of crucial importance. Renan portrayed Jesus as a young idealist facing reaction and becoming revolutionary; a great moralist assuming the title of the “Son of God” and becoming an involuntary imposter. Both Scholten as Opzoomer in particular criticised the psychological enigma that Renan’s Jesus had become by contrasting the early Jesus in Galilee (“le délicieux moraliste”) and the later Jesus in Jerusalem (the fanatic and insane “révolutionnaire apocalyptique”). Especially this image of the later Jesus dissatisfied Dutch modernists. They didn’t want to see or to preach him as – in Opzoomer’s own words – “a fanatic, a disturber of the finest and noblest pleasures of life”74. It is certainly so that Renan as well preferred the early Jesus, but as he acknowledged the Gospels as historical sources, he felt himself obliged to account for Jesus’ miracles, his faith in being the Messiah and his apocalyptic ideas. In this sense one can say that Renan gives evidence of more compunction as a historian than Scholten and Opzoomer, who get rid of Jesus’ annoying characteristics (his apocalyptic ideas and ascetism) by ascribing them to later distortions75.


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