Lessing’s Ugly Ditch

G.E. Lessing (1729-1781) is famous for his “ugly ditch” that he drew between the events of the past and the present. We supposedly cannot have any certainty about whether events of the past occurred, because of the chronological distance between us and those events. The main implication of this for theology and philosophy is that, “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason” (see Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. H. Chadwick; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1956), 51-56, quoted in Murray Rae’s article, “Creation and Promise: Towards a Theology of History” in ‘Behind the Text’: History and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, 267-299, esp. p. 274). This would, of course, also rule out any kind of historical foundation for faith. If not even reason can be historically founded, then how much less faith and theology! There are several answers to this ugly ditch.

The first answer is that, on this argument, Lessing could never be sure that he had himself said these words, because the ugly ditch exists between the time of his writing those words and the time when he seeks to implement that position. Total skepticism about the past must inevitably result in skepticism of the skepticism.

Secondly, as Murray Rae points out, “May it not be that the contingent truths of history are reliably mediated to us through the faithful testimony of tradition?” (ibid.). In other words, can’t something fill in the ditch? Why does the ditch have to be complete discontinuity from the past to us? Isn’t there a trail of people and writings that connects us to the past?

Thirdly, again from Rae, having knowledge about a thing does not mean that we have to be absolutely certain about that thing. To require such a rigid absoluteness of certainty forgets that we are very limited creatures, and depend a great deal on other things and other people. We depend on testimony all the time.

Fourthly, Lessing’s formulation rules out revelation by definition. If, however, God did in fact reveal to us things that He has done in history, then God himself bridges the gap between the past and our own time with all the certitude that the Holy Spirit can give us.

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