Friday, 16 January 2009

Elliots Teaching on Evangelicals

I thought I would pick up the Portable Atheist again. The next chapter that I am up to is by George Eliot (or Mary Anne Evans) and an essay called Evangelical Teachings. This was written in 1855 and even though there were women writer around then she wrote under a pen name to be taken even more seriously and also she might have been avoiding a backlash regarding her relationship with George Henery Lewis. In Hitchens introduction to this essay he mentions her marriage to the freethinking Lewis, but over looks how Eliot was his second wife and before that they were living together while Lewis was still married to Agnes Jervis (wikipedia says its was an open marriage, so I guess that makes it alright). Hitchens says that this essay may remind you of some preachers today, and he is probably right. 

Eliots' paper is specifically about a Dr John Cumming. Even though Eliots plan is to “concern ourselves less with what he holds to be Christian truth than with his manner of enforcing that truth, less with the doctrines he teaches than with the moral spirit and tendencies of his teaching.” (not included in this reprint) And that:

There are some particular characteristics which we shall consider more closely, but in doing so we must be understood as altogether declining any doctrinal discussion. We have no intention to consider the grounds of Dr. Cumming's dogmatic system, to examine the principles of his prophetic exegesis… (not included in this reprint)

But Eliot goes on to say how she doesn’t like his treatment of catholics; the fact that he is a Calvinist; his idea of an eternal hell and his idea of human depravity. In short it seems she doesn’t like this Protestant preacher because he is a Protestant.

She doesn’t like sermons as “the preacher is completely master of the situation : no one may hiss, no one may depart Like the writer of imaginary conversations, he may put what imbecilities he pleases into the mouths of his antagonists, and swell with triumph when he has refuted them.” (page 76), but Eliot fails to see that also the author of any essay steers the conversation and argument to how they want. No one can talk back to it. But with a sermon and an essay both can be reflected and discussed upon. A sermon might be 30-40mins a week, leaving plenty of the during the rest of the week for rebuttal and reflection.

Now I don’t know much of Dr Cumming, except for what Elliot says of him. From what she writes, he does seem to have some funny ideas on Revelations and the end times, as well as maybe some funny ideas about the earth before the flood. He does sound quite reformed: “He insists on good works as the sign of justifying faith, as labors to be achieved to the glory of God" (not included in this reprint). This might be one of the reason why she doesn’t like him as she seems to be upset about what he says about Rome:

the great majority of his published sermons are occupied with argument or philippic against Romanists and unbelievers, with "Vindications" of the Bible, (not included in this reprint)

Dr. Cumming is fond of showing up the teaching of Romanism, and accusing it of undermining true morality (page 90)

Roman Catholics fare worse with him even than infidels. Infidels are the small vermin the mice to be bagged en passant. The main object of his chase - the rats which are to be nailed up as trophies - are the Roman Catholics. Romanism is the masterpiece of Satan. But reassure yourselves! Dr. Cumming has been created. Antichrist is enthroned in the Vatican; but he is stoutly withstood by the Boanerges of Crown court. (page 85)

She also doesn’t like his romanticism and exaggeration (unlike her last quote above):

Like all preachers of his class, he is more fertile in imaginative paraphrase than in close exposition, and in this way he gives us some remarkable fragments of what we may call the romance of Scripture, filling up the outline of the record with an elaborate coloring quite undreamed of by more literal minds. (not included in this reprint)

[Dr Cumming said:] "There is a thousand times more proof that the gospel of John was written by him than there is that the "Anabasis" was written by Xenophon, or the "Ars Poetica" by Horace." If Dr. Cumming had chosen Plato's Epistles or Anacreon's Poems instead of the Anabasis or the Ars Poetica, he would have reduced the extent of the falsehood (page 83)

(She makes an interesting point and if Dr Cumming did refer to Plato he could have said that they have 7 copies of his works that were written 1300 years after he died, while the New Testament has over 14,000 copies that were written no more than 100 years after the event. To be fair the gospel of John has the oldest of these manuscripts which has John 18:31-33, 37-38 on it)

Eliot offers the idea of annihilation over Eternal Punishment and says that Christianity is bigger than Calvinism. She tells us what scripture means and how Dr Cummings has misinterpreted it. She also tells us that a Christian is "to dwell in Christ by spiritual communion with His nature, not to fix the date when He shall appear in the sky." (page 87) All this seems like she does have an issue with the doctrine he teaches (and I might agree with her on some points). 

It is a sad but true fact that preachers throughout the years have indeed watered down or misinterpreted the bible while others have acted quite contrary to what they preach. I don't know much else about Dr Cumming so am not specifically aiming this at him, but it is true that Christians have felt morally superior and caused an us-vs-them mentality within their own team. 

It would be great if every Christian, (including preachers) took the message of the gospel to heart - for them to realise that they are a sinner saved by grace. That they are a moral failure and don't live up to their own standards, but Jesus came in weakness and died for people who admit it. That whole idea, the basis of the gospel, takes away any moral superiority a Christian has over anyone else.

You can read it all online here (it has been poorly converted to text, meaning that some characters are wrong. Search for "Dr. Gumming" to see what I mean).

1 comment:

  1. Today I stumbled across a different view of Dr Cumming and his preaching (the citation is from their footnote not mine):

    "Invariably he preached for over an hour, sometimes for an hour and a half, and yet I never felt bored or wearied by his long discourses, but really looked forward to them. This was because his sermons, instead of consisting of a string of pious platitudes interspersed with trite ejaculations and irrelevant quotations, were one long chain of closely reasoned argument..." - Lord Hamilton Frederic, The Days Before Yesterday, page 44.

    Sounds like he had quite a different view of Dr Cumming than Eliot.

    In fact in his The Days Before Yesterday you can read of another take about Dr Cumming. (just do a search on the book here). Dr. Cumming predicted (wrongly of cause) the end of the world and apparently knew a lot about bees.