Lessing’s Philosophy Of Religion -- By: James Lindsay

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 063:252 (Oct 1906)
Article: Lessing’s Philosophy Of Religion
Author: James Lindsay


Lessing’s Philosophy Of Religion

Rev. James Lindsay

Lessing is a figure of quite surpassing interest, if it were only for the fact that in him that great modern outgrowth known as German literature took its rise. He laid the foundations of Germany’s intellectual life, freeing its culture from the fetters of theology. But our interest here centers in Lessing as one who may be fairly regarded as, in some sense, the founder of Philosophy of Religion in modern times. No doubt the natural theology of his age still held him in some ways, but he first applied the notion of a progressive historical development to the interpretation of positive religions. The evolutional character of religion, the idea of revelation as a progressive training of the human race, and the conception of Christianity as but marking one great stage in the Divine education of mankind, such was Lessing’s discovery. No doubt his originality has been often exaggerated, many of his ideas having been anticipated by—amongst others—Origen, Nicholas of Cusa, and Leibnitz. Spinoza he deeply studied, not, however, attaching himself strictly to his system. But never before Lessing had this great progressive idea of the Divine education of the race been advanced with such strength of thought and charm of style. Much indeed it was to have it in days when men were driven to Deism for lack of any more spiritual theology. The conception of Lessing is, that in God’s great schoolbook of Time, each of the historic religions is a lesson set for humanity’s learning. This involves the non-finality of any one of them.

Lessing not only held that “what we call education in the individual is revelation in the race,” but, after working out his thesis that “education is revelation” and “revelation education,” asks whether there is not for this purpose eternity before us (“1st nicht die ganze Ewigkeit mein?”).

Lessing works out his conception with a tendency too intellectual; his thought is too circumscribed, moving within Judaism and Christianity; what he aimed at is still our need, but on more comprehensive range. In his “Nathan the Wise” Lessing really seeks to inveigh against the bigoted adherence to a dominant religion, and against religious creed without correspondent life, going so far even as to identify religion with morality. This too exclusive stress on morality, to the neglect of truly religious world-view, is a defect or one-sided-ness found not only in Lessing, but also in Kant and the prevailing thought of the time. But his aim, no doubt, was to insist on right doing for its own sake, as a counteractive to undue theological insistence on the doctrine of reward and punishment. Lessing’s acceptance of revelation yet left him i...

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