C. S. Lewis on Revisionism

All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by His followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. Now long before I became interested in theology I had met this kind of theory elsewhere. The tradition of Jowett still dominated the study of ancient philosophy when I was reading Greats. One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and widely travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian, rather like T. H. Green. I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every quarter a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakesperian play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution in thought and sentiment which has occurred in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare’s world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see – I feel it in my bones – I know beyond argument – that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.

Source: C. S. Lewis, ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’ in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), ed. Walter Hooper, pp. 157-158.

I was pleased to read the above passage in Lewis’s essay on biblical scholarship, as the same thought occurred to me when I was first reading about the various historians of philosophy who thought Aristotle had gotten Plato wrong. How was I to believe modern scholars working on the basis of a limited set of texts over the one who was actually Plato’s pupil for many years? Likewise, how am I to hold (as some scholars maintain) that a single verse, Mark 10:18, shows that Jesus did not think of himself as God when St. Paul, who knew the disciples first-hand, clearly did not interpret Jesus’s teachings this way? In any case, Lewis’s essay is excellent throughout and, in my opinion, should be required reading for seminarians.


Review of the Fathers on Christ’s Knowledge


  • Science de Jésus-Christ in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (1941), vol. XIV, part 2, cols. 1633-49.
  • Bernard Lonergan, The Incarnate Word, eds. Robert M. Doran and Jeremy D. Wilkins, trans. Charles C. Hefling Jr, vol. 8 in Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, pp. 613-661. This is a more comprehensive (and in English) collection of patristic passages on the topic than the DTC article, but with a bit less commentary.
  • Raymond Moloney, Knowledge of Christ. London: Continuum, 1999. Chapter 4. Both this and the DTC article contain material from Scripture and later writers (e.g., medieval theologians, Protestants, and modern authors) on the problem of Christ’s knowledge.
  • Edward J. Hanna, ‘The Human Knowledge of Christ. I.’, The New York Review, I, 3 (Oct-Nov 1905); greater focus on the fathers can be found in the third (ibid., I, 5 (Feb-Mar 1906)) and fourth (ibid., III, 4-5 (Jan-Apr 1908)) installments of the series.

The general patristic pattern on this thorny question is that at least some fathers generally allow ignorance in Christ’s humanity (though not in his divinity!) until, it seems, this hardened perhaps around the 6th century into not allowing any ignorance in Christ’s humanity. Bernard Lonergan provides an excellent summary: “And yet, little by little, the fathers reached a universal consensus. From the beginning of the seventh century, in East and West alike, common opinion insisted that Christ, even as man, was not ignorant.” (The Incarnate Word, p. 603). The hardening was likely helped (but not initiated) by the Agnoete heresy, founded by the Alexandrian monophysite Themistius, which claimed some sort of true ignorance in Christ. This was combated by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius, and also attacked by Pope Gregory I (for specifics, see the DTC entry Agnoètes).

Note, though, that despite my distinction between ‘apparent ignorance’ and ‘real ignorance,’ the problem is more complicated. Denying ignorance in Christ’s humanity (i.e., holding ‘apparent ignorance’) does not necessarily mean believing that all of the divine knowledge was immediately present to Christ’s human soul, so that any show of increase in knowledge was merely ‘for show’. Aquinas, for instance, denies ignorance in Christ’s humanity but says, “if there had been no other knowledge in the soul of Christ [than the divine knowledge], it would have known nothing” (ST III.9.1, ad. 1), so Christ can truly be said to gain knowledge through his human faculties. I think something like this is also present in Bede (see his entry in the table below). Conversely, saying that Christ gained knowledge (‘real ignorance’), as do the author of De Sectis and Euthymius Zigabenus (who interestingly wrote in the 12th c., long after the mainstream position had been set), does not necessarily mean denying that the fullness of Christ’s divine knowledge was present to his human soul.

Organization-wise, the table is arranged in approximately chronological order and in general focuses on the positions of the fathers on two scriptural texts: Mark 13:32 (“of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”) and Luke 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man”). Finally, for more detail on each father (for I could not include every one of their texts!), see the DTC articles above and please read the sources yourselves to verify my summaries! Where I was unable to find an English translation of a source, I have given a link to it in Migne. I have no better way to introduce the review than the words of Lonergan: “we do not want the students to hear only summaries without reading anything of the original authors, and we hope that once they start reading, they will keep reading in other books and above all in the sources themselves” (p. 613).

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In Search of a Quote’s Origin

There is a famous quote in physiology that goes like this: “Teleology is a lady without whom no biologist can live. Yet he is ashamed to show himself with her in public.” It is attributed to various authors, such as Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke, J. B. S. Haldane, and Asa Gray. And yet no one currently seems to know its exact origin. Here I will review what I found when looking for its source.

It seems to have first been made popular through famous American physiologist W. B. Cannon’s book The Way of an Investigator (1945), where he cites “the German physiologist E. von Brücke” without giving an exact reference. The same is true of W. I. B. Beveridge’s 1950 book Art of Scientific Investigation. Most citations of the quote do not get much further than pointing to these two books, although you might also find references to H.A. Krebs’s article ‘Excursion into the Borderland of Biochemistry and Philosophy’ in a 1954 issue of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin. Yet Krebs’s article merely cites the aforementioned Cannon and Beveridge books, along with an article that gives no further source.

If we look a little deeper, though, we find a closer citation. The pharmacologist Otto Loewi (1873-1961) writes: “I myself fully agree with an old friend of mine, the late physiologist E. von Bruecke, who once said in a lecture, ‘Teleology is a lady without whom no biologist can live. Yet he is ashamed to show himself with her in public'” (on p. 8 of this booklet). So it is simply a quote made by Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke in a lecture and which passed around? Considering that Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke died in 1892 (which would’ve made Loewi 18 years old at his death), it is safe to say that the “old friend” whom Loewi cites is a different E. von Brücke than the one the quote is usually attributed to. He must be referring to Ernst Theodor von Brücke (1880-1941), the grandson of Ernst W. von Brücke, who knew Loewi and nominated him for a Nobel Prize. At this point I began to strongly think that the quote was originally from Ernst Theodor, not Ernst Wilhelm, and that the people just got them confused. However, note that Cannon cites “German physiologist E. von Brücke” – only Ernst Wilhelm was German; Ernst Theodor was Austrian. However, it is possible that Cannon simply got the two confused. However, the British pharmacologist Henry H. Dale, in a 1954 paper, makes reference to the remark as something said by “v. Bruecke long ago” – which would be surprising if it were said by v. Brücke the younger.

At this point it is important to note that all of the above – Cannon, Loewi, E. Theodor von Brücke, and Dale – knew each other. The first three all had affiliations with Harvard Medical School, while Dale knew Loewi from their time together in London. This suggests to me that the quote does go back in some way to Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. That the quote was so popular among physiologists of the 30s and 40s and widely attributed among them to the same man makes it seem like it does in fact go back to E. W. von Brücke, especially considering that they were in the presence of men such as Ernst Theodor von Brücke and Loewi who due to their German heritage would’ve had close familiarity with the works of the great German physiologist.

Unfortunately, though, finding the quote in Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke’s work remains frustratingly elusive. The vascular surgeon Gaza de Takats, in two separate articles, the first in Surgery, the second in JAMA, cites “E. von Brücke, 1896” – but in neither one does he actually give the name of the work! This does give me confidence, though, that it is made somewhere in his books. I cannot read German, but searching for key words (e.g., Teleologie, Dame, Öffentlichkeit) in the works of Ernst W. von Brücke does not seem to bring anything up. This might be an effort for someone more fluent in German (though, of course, even if it isn’t there, it could’ve been a remark made in a speech or lecture and which was then circulated orally).

In summary, I found a use of the quote earlier than the widely-cited 1945 Cannon book in Loewi’s recollection that his friend Ernst Theodor von Brücke (1880-1941) once made the remark in a lecture. I think it is likely that the quote ultimately goes back to Ernst Theodor’s grandfather Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. On the other hand, I have been unable to prove this by finding the passage in one of his works (admittedly, though, my search was very superficial). Someone in the comments on John Wilkins’s blog post above says he found a part of the quote in an Asa Gray letter, but he also said Gray might have been citing Ernst W. von Brücke (though he didn’t say which letter). In addition to a comprehensive search of Ernst W. von Brücke’s works, Gray’s role in the quote might be something to look at further, along with a biography which E. Th. von Brücke wrote of E. W. von Brücke (Ernst Brücke, Vienna: Springer, 1928).