January, 2006 Letter from Aelred

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Intellectual Freedom


There has been a controversy recently about who should govern universities when they receive quite a substantial amount of money from taxpayers. A letter in the Times has pointed out that universities must remain self-governing rather than be controlled by a majority of businessmen -

'(Because of) the tradition of unparalleled intellectual freedom that flourishes at Oxbridge and which buttresses the great scholarly achievements.'[Professor Christopher Forsyth, Times On Line, Letters, December 30th, 2006.]

I quote this because it highlights the immense change that has happened in all countries in the West since the 17th century. Erasmus (1466-1536), the great Greek scholar is thought, traditionally, to have made the first Greek translation of the New Testament while he resided at Queens' in 1516. In the photograph above, the small tower, known as 'the Erasmus tower' is supposed to be where he had his lodgings in the college. The portrait on the right is of Desiderius Erasmus,by Hans Holbein the younger.
[Source: http://www.wga.hu/art/h/holbein/hans_y/1525/08erasmu.jpg]

Before the Reformation the Western Church held the reins of all that was spoken of in the name of Christianity. Erasmus was an early radical, critical of the papacy. But it was not until the 17th-18th century rise of a new philosophical tradition led by Descartes, and known as the era of the Enlightenment, and the consequent foundation of modern science initiated by Newton and others, that the yoke of 'religion' was beginning to be loosed on what one might, or might not, be allowed to think. A recent historical scholar, Jonathan I. Israel, .has written -

'[The Enlightenment] not only attacked and severed the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship and hierarchy, secularising all institutions and ideas, but (intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman's subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality and democracy.'

[Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Oxford University Press, 2001[2002] page vi]

But the Reformation churches were held in thrall by newer bonds than the papacy in the 16th century definitions of what one might believe about Scripture. the creeds, the death of Christ, of heaven and hell, amongst other matters. Undoubtedly, the release from a slavery to mediaeval thinking by the great men of the Enlightenment era also heralded ideas which cannot today be accepted as rational. But it gave freedom for the immense work of biblical scholars in the past two centuries to revolutionize our understanding of the classical biblical texts on their own merits.

What is very worrying today is that in some parts of the church, both Roman and Protestant, these norms of biblical understanding have been all but rejected for the past 100 years. It is this refusal to recognize the freedom of intellectual enquiry which has tried to secure for Scripture a pre-Enlightenment understanding of revelation in the claim that the Bible is the inerrant and literal word of God.

There is of course no going back to the old religion whether catholic or protestant. But it is essential that those of us who have been trained in the theological excellence of the university faculties of divinity, to speak of the truth as we have learned it. We have been too careful to avoid causing a crisis of faith in those who have not had the advantage of a theological training.

Paul was passionately aware of the danger of dissimulation in the controversies over the conservative Jewish demand for circumcision of Gentile converts to Christ - 'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.' (Galatians 5:1) Faith in Christ should release us from intellectual bondage to the past into the freedom of the present.

© Aelred Arnesen

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