Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Secularisation of Christianity - some quotes from Eric Mascall

Eric Lionel Mascall OGS (1905 -1993), a priest of the Church of England, a theologian, formidible scholar, Thomist philosopher, staunch Anglo-Catholic, and prolific writer, was known for his brilliance at mathematics from an early age, winning a scholarship to Pembroke College Cambridge where he took the Mathematical Tripos. 

In 1931, after three unhappy years as a schoolmaster, Mascall entered Ely Theological College and was ordained two years later. He served in London parishes until his appointment as Sub-Warden of Lincoln Theological College in 1937. He taught at Christ Church Oxford from 1945 until he became Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College London in 1962. 

Upon his retirement in 1973 he became Canon Theologian of Truro Cathedral and continued to live in the clergy house of St Mary’s Bourne Street, London, where he was Honorary Assistant Priest. He spent part of 1976 in Rome as a Visiting Professor at the Gregorian University. He was awarded a DD by Oxford in 1948 and by Cambridge in 1958. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1974. 

Mascall travelled extensively abroad, especially in the USA, Rome, and Romania, for the purpose of meeting and addressing a variety of Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox individuals and groups. 

One of the most significant books written by Mascall is THE SECULARISATION OF CHRISTIANITY: AN ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966). It is a systematic and methodological study of the arguments used by J.A.T. Robinson in Honest to God, and Paul van Buren in The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. Here are some passages from Mascall’s book, which, although out of print, is not difficult to find second-hand. I hope that at least some of my readers will be inspired by these passages to try and find a copy for themselves.

There are, of course, interesting questions that can be asked about the nature of the transformation which our Lord’s body underwent in his resurrection, and if we know anything about physics and biology we are quite likely to ask them. But, since we are concerned with an occurrence which is [by hypothesis] unique in certain relevant aspects, we are most unlikely to be able to give confident answers to them. [Paul M.] van Buren’s remarks about biology and the twentieth century are nothing more than rhetoric or, at best, are simply empirical statements about his own psychology. The first century knew as well as the twentieth that dead bodies do not naturally come to life again, and no amount of twentieth-century knowledge about natural processes can tell us what may happen by supernatural means. (p. 79-80)

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It has been a frequent trait in Christian theologians down the ages to commit themselves whole-heartedly to the fashionable philosophies of their day, while passing severe judgments on their predecessors for adopting precisely the same attitude. (p. 103)

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Even the most traditional theologian will be anxious to point out that the classical images which have been used, with more or less success, to depict different aspects of Redemption—the winning of a battle, the liberation of captives, the payment of a fine or a debt, the curing of a disease, and so on—are not to be interpreted literally, any more than, when we say that the eternal Word “came down from Heaven,” we are describing a process of spatial translation. For here we are dealing with processes and events which, by the nature of the case, cannot be precisely described in everyday language . . . The matter is quite different with such a statement as that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary; for, whatever aspects of the Incarnation outstrip the descriptive power of ordinary language, this at least is plainly statable in it. It means that Jesus was conceived in his mother’s womb without previous sexual intercourse on her part with any male human being, and this is a straightforward statement which is either true or false. To say that the birth... of Jesus Christ cannot simply be thought of as a biological event and to add that this is what the Virgin Birth means is a plain misuse of language; and no amount of talk about the appealing character of the “Christmas myth” can validly gloss this over. (p. 157)

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If we are prepared to admit, even as a possibility, that Jesus was divine, or even that without being divine he was unique, then we must, as a matter of logic, discard any attempt to discredit the Gospel accounts on the ground that they record abnormal occurrences [i.e. miracles]. (p. 211-212).

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I do not wish to imply that God the Son could not, absolutely speaking, have become incarnate by a non-virginal conception, any more than I should wish to deny that God might, absolutely speaking, have redeemed mankind without becoming incarnate at all; it is always unwise to place limits to the power of God. What we can see is that both an incarnation and a virginal conception were thoroughly appropriate to the needs and circumstances of the case and were more “natural,” in the sense of more appropriate, than the alternatives . . . In practice, denial of the virginal conception or inability to see its relevance almost always goes with an inadequate understanding of the Incarnation and of the Christian religion in general. (p. 270-271)

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The critical scholar is not committed, within the area of his research, to accepting the Church’s presuppositions about Jesus, but he should not be committed to accepting naturalistic presuppositions either. If he does accept the latter, then the results of his research will in all probability contradict the beliefs of the Church, but this is because he has begged the question from the start. In examining, for instance, the evidence for the virginal conception [of Jesus], if he begins with the presupposition that such an event is impossible he will end with the same conclusion; if he begins with the presupposition that it is possible he may end with the conclusion that the evidence for it is good or that it is bad or that it is inconclusive. This is as far as scholarship can take him. The Christian will accept the virginal conception as part of the Church’s faith. In the rare cases where faith appears to be contradicted by scholarship whose conclusions have not been prescribed from the start, [the critical scholar] may be cast down but will not be destroyed. For he will know how temporary and mutable the conclusions of scholarship essentially are, and he will also be conscious that he himself may not have perfectly comprehended the Church’s faith. (p. 276)

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Enough has . . . been said to show that the impoverished secularised versions of Christianity which are being urged upon us for our acceptance today rest not upon the rigid application of the methods of scientific scholarship nor upon a serious intuitive appreciation of the Gospels as a whole in their natural context, but upon a radical distaste for the supernatural.  (p. 282)


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