G E Lessing (1729-81)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was the son of a Lutheran minister. He went on to study
theology at the University of Leipzig. Students there at the time were strongly
influenced by the rising tide of the Enlightenment thought throughout Europe.
The works of English deists were being translated into German and widely read.
His first loves were literature and art. His natural bent was towards
liberating both from the then stifling dominance of traditional forms of
criticism - particularly, as he saw it, from the restrictive influence of
French literary traditions as against the free creativity of German writing.
H Chadwick notes that ,"He was above all a critic, and his attitude may be
described as one of passionate detachment. His nonconformity made him appear to
be perennially restless; he was never permanently satisfied to adopt the
conventional opinions of society, always preferring to be a minority of one"
Chadwick thinks that Lessing's life was transformed when,
in 1754, he was appointed Librarian for the Duke of Brunswick. Lessing was
given a manuscript entitled Apology for Rational Worshippers of God,
written by Herman Reimarus whom he had met some years previously. Between
1774 and 1778 Lessing published fragments of this work anonymously,
presenting them as having been "discovered" in the Duke's Wolfenbuttel
Library although they had in fact been given to him by Reimarus' daughter.
Reimarus was sceptical about the validity of the Christian claim to possess the
revelation of divine truth. Revelation independent of history was rejected by
Lessing (though it is not always easy, writes Chadwick, to be certain exactly
what stand Lessing is taking). Like many of his time, Lessing tended to regard
morality as the fundamental concern of Christianity, intended to bring people to
more rationally enlightened tolerance, kindness and generosity.
The publication of the Reimarus manuscripts caused a resounding controversy with
traditional Lutheran theologians. Like all such controversies it eventually died
a natural death. Nevertheless, it can be said to have stimulated a debate which
very soon turned into what we now know as the quest for the historical Jesus or,
as Chadwick puts it, the search for a "Jesus of history behind the Christ of
It was Lessing who first began the quest through the texts of the New Testament
with an essay entitled New Hypothesis Concerning the Evangelists As Merely
Human Historians. In it he called into question the reliability of the
Synoptic sources. When his employer objected to his theology, Lessing put it
into a play, Nathan the Wise. He asserted that our task in life is a
moral one, not merely assent to religious doctrines. This is, he thought, the
essence of Christianity.
Chadwick remarks that Lessing "... spent his life hoping that Christianity was
true and arguing that it was not" and that "... his basic attitude ... took the
form of an impassioned question".
Lessing laid the foundation for what we now call "liberal theology", which
prevailed in Germany in the 1800s. But in the final event he rejected
Christianity on the grounds that the nature of knowledge is such that
no conclusion is likely ever to be absolute in the way that
was claimed by Christians.
Both he and Reimarus thought (as did the British philosopher Hume) that human
witness alone is insufficient evidence for past events which cannot now be
experienced. That is, an event of the past which has no analogy in the
present can only be regarded as extremely improbable.
This came to a head when considering miracles, in particular the
resurrection. Newtonian physics had recently proposed that the universe is
highly ordered at the level of normal experience. Biblical events which
contradict these laws, said Lessing, could not happen now and therefore are
extremely unlikely ever to have happened (the principle of analogy again).
Enlightenment thinkers in general tended to be sceptical about the value of
history as a basis for absolute truth. In contrast, the Church has always held
that Christians have been able to preserve "the faith once and for always
delivered to the saints". That is, a continuous substrate of absolute truth
persists beneath the changing fabric which clothes the Church as institution
The absoluteness of this truth is assured, they would claim, because it is
revealed to humans direct by God, either through holy writings in the Bible or
through Church authority. Revelation cannot by definition be incomplete,
misguided or false because God is perfect.
Lessing thought that there is an unbridgeable gap between rationality
and history. The latter can't provide data for the former. He wrote,
"Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths
of reason". Historical events and truths established by reason belong to
different categories within the overall class of what we call knowledge.
There is no logical connection between them. Indeed, to move from
history to any sort of religious statement of truth is to move away from
reason and into faith (which he equated with affirmation of religious
This is the ""ugly great ditch" between faith and history for which
Lessing is justly remembered. Not only don't we have access to a complete
set of facts upon which to base absolute conclusions, but what we call
history is a subjective interpretation of those facts rather than an
objective description of "what really happened".
The only way we can "know" that Jesus came alive again after death, for
example, is through the witness of others. Such witness isn't reliable enough
to establish the truth about anything. Not even contemporary witness is
reliable in that way. What we call history is unable to deliver the kind of
certainty we need to know anything as true. Christians are bound only by the
teachings of Jesus. Lessing asks:
So what does bind me [when history can't]? Nothing but the teachings [of
Jesus] themselves. Eighteen hundred years ago, they were so new, so strange,
and so foreign ... But what does it matter to me whether this story is false
or true? Its fruits are excellent.
The so-called "scandal of particularity" which Lessing held up against
orthodoxy asked why any one historical event such as the life of Jesus
should have momentous significance. History is a complex pattern of many
events and people, some momentous and some not. On what grounds should Jesus
be selected as specially important? Certainly not
just because some witnesses say certain impressive things about him!
Reason on the other hand, he said, has always been available to everyone
and must therefore be more significant than faith. We all have our daily
experience to go on. It is on this that we base what we know. Historical
conclusions are speculative. The a priori knowledge that 1+1=2 is
obviously true and it is from this sort of truth that knowledge of God
should be based. Chadwick puts it in typically philosophical jargon when he
writes that Lessing's position was about "... the intellectually impossible
leap from the contingent truths of history to the necessary truths of divine
His final objection to traditional Christianity as absolutely true regardless
of rational thought was that he and others found it impossible to enter into the
primitive minds and backward world of the New Testament.
This assertion is now more broadly known as "cultural relativism" and has
been developed considerably in the 20th century. We are seen as locked into
our cultural world view or dominant paradigms. T E Hulme puts it as follows:
There are certain doctrines which for a particular period seem not
doctrines, but inevitable categories of the human mind. Men do not look at
them merely as correct opinion, for they have become so much part of the
mind, and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at
We cannot enter into these "inevitable categories" of the past because
[a] they are too strange and [b] because we are bound into our own
inevitable, unconscious categories. Even if a person does succeed in
entering into a previous category, the resulting consciousness is only
partial and is gained only through prodigious effort.
The same point has since been made by many. We are blind to our own
presuppositions on the one hand. On the other, separated as we are by a
broad sea of time from the Palestine of the first century, we are largely
unable to do more than glimpse the far shore of those unexamined assumptions
which governed the life of Jesus and his followers. Our conclusions about
him and his perceptions are correspondingly fragile.
To draw absolute truths from so imperfect a well of knowledge can be no
more than presumption. Compounding our historical myopia is the
uncomfortable suspicion - voiced, though not clearly, by Lessing - that
humans in the West have begun to think in ways almost totally incompatible
with anything that has gone before.
Having said all this, the impression shouldn't remain that Lessing was an
inveterate sceptic, determined to rubbish all tradition, to throw out the
baby with the bathwater as 21st century believers complain. Rather, he was
inveterately committed to the search itself. He wrote:
The worth of man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks
he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth ...
Possession [of truth] makes him lazy, indolent, and proud ...
If pride and indolence come before a fall, then it's perhaps hardly
surprising that Christian institutions in the present century show signs of
Reimarus held back from publishing out of fear of persecution by the
reigning Lutheran powers of his day. Lessing braved the inquisitor and
survived. In so doing, and despite many shortcomings (only hindsight has
20/20 vision), he can rightly be described as having started something
In essence he heralded an abiding movement away from the medieval
paradigm or world view into the modern one. Christianity would never again
recover its absolutist position in society.
 Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. P
 Speculations, 1949