JMC : Witness of the Gospels / by A.S. Barnes

The Witness of the Gospels

Ultimate Grounds of Belief

IT is generally felt nowadays that it is not a sufficient reason for belief that a man's parents should have been believers before him, and that, therefore, each man is more or less bound to make some kind of an independent examination into the grounds upon which his belief ultimately rests. A good many, no doubt, are too indolent, or too much occupied with other affairs, to undertake an inquiry of this kind, and the consequence is that their faith falls somewhat into abeyance, and is paralysed as a source of action, through want of certainty as to the soundness of the basis upon which it is built. To others this feeling of uncertainty is intolerable, and these are impelled to begin the inquiry with such means and time as may be at their disposal, in the hope of attaining a securer position on one side or the other. To such men the question of the credibility of the Gospel narratives appeals as one which is of real importance, and at the same time more within their reach than the more fundamental and metaphysical questions about the "Existence of God" and the "Freedom of the Human Will." All that we know about Jesus Christ, they say to themselves, is derived from the Gospels, except a few passages in the Epistles of St Paul and in one or two other books of the New Testament. If, then, the Gospel narratives are themselves untrustworthy -- and there are men who are loudly asserting that this is the case -- then it follows, as a matter of necessity, that we have no trustworthy information about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and, therefore, that there is no satisfactory basis on which the Christian religion can be made to rest.

Foundation of Faith

Now, here it is necessary at once to point out that such an argument as this, which assumes the Holy Scriptures as the sole basis upon which the Faith is built, cannot be accepted by any Catholic, or indeed, if we come to think of it, by any reasonable man. Our beliefs about Jesus Christ, His Person and His work, are identically the same as those which were held by the Apostles and by that first generation of Christians who had themselves known the Lord during His life upon earth. The only change since then is that our beliefs have gained in accuracy of detail and formal statement; but nothing has been added to them, nor have we any further sources of knowledge beyond those which were possessed by the men of the first generation. It follows, therefore, that the foundation on which our faith is built is the same as that upon which their faith then rested; and to say this is to say that it is not built upon the records of the New Testament, since those records were not then as yet in existence. The Faith rests upon the facts of the life of Christ and upon the witness borne to those facts by those whom He chose to be His companions and disciples during His earthly life.

The Written Testimony

One portion of that witness was written down at a later time, in part by the Apostles themselves, in part by those who had been taught by the Apostles. This written testimony remains to this day, and is the most valuable source to which we can go for information about the life of Christ. But it is not the only possible source, and still less is it the foundation of the Christian Faith. It was written down by those who had already learnt the Faith, and who would certainly have been astonished to hear that their faith rested upon what they were writing, and had no other foundation.

All this is clear enough when once it is pointed out, but it is obscured in many minds because of the action of the Reformers in the sixteenth century. These men, in their revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church, found themselves confronted, if they would not destroy Christianity altogether, by the necessity of discovering some foundation for their religion other than that which they were endeavouring to overthrow. They found it in the Bible; and the main result of the Reformation was the undue exaltation of the Bible to take, in addition to its own, the place properly occupied by the Church, so as to be at once the foundation of the Christian Faith and the arbiter of all questions which might arise thereon. This undue exaltation of the Bible, coupled with the destruction of the idea of the Church, is bringing its own revenge in the consequent unsettlement of mind which is being caused among thinking Protestants by the writings of the Higher Criticism.

And the Oral Witness of Tradition

To the Catholic, on the other hand, these writings have caused but little concern. For him the ultimate foundation of faith is not the Bible, but the Church. Catholics believed as they do now before a line of the New Testament was written, and the Gospels are records of events which Catholics themselves have compiled. Certainly they are concerned to prove that these records are worthy of the position they have always occupied in the estimation of believers, as being compiled with the direct assistance and inspiration of God Himself -- so that they are rightly said to have God as their principal Author -- but they know well that their faith is not wholly dependent on these documents, and consequently they are able to look on at the attacks made by unbelieving critics without experiencing that sense of the ground giving way under their feet which is just now the lot of so many Protestants.

The Church's Witness

The point is an important one, and I should like, before going on further with my subject, to quote in illustration of it two passages from a striking book which was published four or five years ago --"Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption" -- by Mr W. H. Mallock, whose words on this subject gain in force from the fact that he is not himself a Catholic.

"The net result of the Roman theory of the Church regarded as a witness and teacher of Christian doctrine is to endow that vast body with a single undying personality -- an unbroken personal consciousness. Accordingly, when in this character of a single undying individual it vouches for the reality of such events as the Virgin birth of Christ, His descent into Hell, or His Ascension, or again for the constant reappearance of His body on the Christian altars, the Church may be compared to a traveller speaking of things that took place long ago, or that are still taking place in some country that has never been visited by any of those addressed by him. Being thus endowed with a single brain, the Church is endowed also with a continuous historic memory, is constantly able to explain and to restate doctrine, and to attest, as though from personal experience, the facts of its earliest history." "Is doubt thrown on the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ? The Church of Rome replies: 'I was at the door of the Sepulchre myself. My eyes saw the Lord come forth. My eyes saw the cloud receive Him.' Is doubt thrown on the miraculous Birth of Christ? The Church of Rome replies: 'I can attest the fact, even if no other can; for the angel said Hail! in my ear as well as in Mary's.' "

This, then, is the first preliminary point with which I wished to deal -- that whereas the faith of the Protestant is built solely and exclusively on the Bible, that of the Catholic rests primarily on the Church, and only in a secondary degree on the Bible, as being one part of the witness of the Church, and as being in a very real way vouched for by her.

Church encourages Biblical Research

The second is the attitude of Catholics and of the Catholic Church with regard to science. We have no fear, and can have no fear, of real science, for truth cannot contradict truth. The more we can find out about the way in which the Gospels came to be written the more clearly shall we be able to understand the message that God desires to convey by their means to our souls. The attitude of the Church would, therefore, be one of encouragement towards all unbiassed and genuine endeavours to discover the true history of the Gospels and their relations to one another.

Spurious "Criticism"

Unfortunately, the difficulty in the past has been that a great deal of the criticism of the New Testament has been neither unbiassed nor genuine, but has been based on preconceived ideas which are inconsistent with the authority and authenticity of any supernatural revelation. Such criticism has no right to the name of science, though it is generally most eager to claim it, and the hostility which it inevitably evokes from the adherents of the religion it decries is not in any sense hostility to science, or to scientific investigations, properly so-called, but rather to the unproved and unscientific assumptions which are masquerading under that name.


It may be well to say one word also, before definitely beginning the consideration of our subject, on the proper function of Authority in such questions as this of Bible criticism. Some Catholics are apt to feel that the possession of an infallible authority in the Church relieves the individual members from any necessity to make up their minds on such questions at all. They are inclined to wait for the judgement of the Church, and to suspend their own judgement altogether until the voice of Authority makes itself heard. Such an attitude is intelligible enough for those who lack either the capacity or the opportunity for making themselves acquainted with the questions at issue, but at the same time it should not be forgotten that we have no right to expect a revelation to inform us on matters that are within the cognisance of our own intellects. It is only after the matter has been fully gone into by those who are competent to do so that the Church will eventually decide with authority which conclusions are to be accepted and which to be rejected. It is the province of the individual scholar, not of the central authority, to investigate new theories and to sift the evidence for and against their acceptance, and it is only after this has been done that authority steps in to give the final decision in the matter. Hence Authority must always seem, to those who do not thoroughly understand its functions, to be lagging behind, and to be insufficiently acquainted with the details of the problem to be solved. It is "that other disciple" who must always be the first to arrive at the object that is sought; but he may not always enter in forthwith into the enjoyment of his labours, for Peter follows surely not far behind, and it is his to decide finally how the matter really stands.

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