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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10 Comments

  1. Steve Drake said,

    June 23, 2018 at 8:47 am

    I find this quote from John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P&R Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2015, p. 222) quite informative in his discussion of Lessing.

    Christians have always claimed that their faith is rooted in history. In this respect…, Christianity is different from all other religions. The substance of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam is not found in their historical claims. What is important about these religions is certain general truths about what they propose for belief. These truths do not depend on any historical events, even though they were supposedly discovered or revealed in historical situations. If these religions are true, they are true in all times and places, indeed timelessly. But Christianity is different. It is essentially about certain things that happened in geographic places and historic times: creation, fall, the history of Israel, the incarnation of Christ through the virgin birth, his miracles, his atonement, his resurrection, ascension, and return. One may be skeptical about the Buddha’s reported enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree and still be a good Buddhist. But one may not be skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection and be a good Christian. Indeed, Paul says that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor.15:14). In orthodox Christianity, our entire salvation comes through acts of God in history.

  2. roberty bob said,

    June 25, 2018 at 8:19 am

    Right you are, Steve Drake. The fact that the New Testament records that there were many eye-witnesses of our risen Lord and Savior cannot be understated. These very witnesses were sent into all the world to proclaim the Gospel of the crucified and risen One, prosecuting the case against those who denied and opposed His Lordship. How firm a foundation!

  3. Steve Drake said,

    June 26, 2018 at 8:15 am

    Bob @ #2,

    Thanks for your reply. Got a question for you as it relates to Lessing’s ‘ugly, broad ditch’; this ditch that says that faith cannot be based on historical events.

    I can see where Lessing’s blank-verse play Nathan the Wise would appeal to the unregenerate. In this play, Lessing (from Frame, see post #1 above) presents three main characters: Saladin, a Muslim; Nathan, a Jew; and “Knight Templar”, a Christian. At one point, Nathan presents the story of three sons (from Boccaccio’s Decameron) whose father possesses a ring that will bring untold blessings from God upon the wearer of the ring. At the distribution, the father actually gives each son a ring, one of which is the blessing ring, the other two indistinguishable from the first. The sons argue among themselves as to who has the authentic ring. The only way to prove which ring is authentic, however, is to live in a way that befits one who is in favor with God.

    Lessing’s point (from Frame, see post #1 above) is that there is no way to establish which of the great religions is God’s truth, and the only way to establish the truth of a religion is by the character of its adherents This freed Lessing, in his view, from the necessity of historical apologetics, and thus ‘the ditch’.

    So, here’s the question. Why is it important to establish the truth of Christianity, (in speaking with a non-believer, for example) from historical evidence? Or is it?

  4. roberty bob said,

    June 26, 2018 at 10:36 am

    Christ’s apostles proclaimed the same Kingdom of our Lord which Jesus proclaimed during the days of his ministry, and which was shown to be established through his sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection. The total overthrow of the old order [temple and city destroyed (AD 70] evoked the Hallelujah Chorus from the heavenly hosts surrounding Christ’s throne: our Lord’s everlasting rule is now demonstrably true!

    The truth of Christendom is the ultimate truth in all of creation, in all the universe. We do not need to establish that truth, as God in Christ has established it. The historical evidence substantiates it. Paul testified that the Kingdom authenticating events wrought by God in Christ were not done in a corner [outside the realm of history]. The final judgment against the old order [the old has passed away, the new has come!] decisively established the reality of Christ’s everlasting rule. There is nothing that you or I must do in order to establish this truth.

    However, any efforts to win others over to the side of truth will be enhanced by those whose lives reveal a true allegiance to the King of kings in public profession and Christian character.

  5. roberty bob said,

    June 26, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    Steve Drake [#3] asks, “Why is it important to establish the truth of Christianity from historical evidence? Or is it?”

    Let me trade Christianity for Christendom because the New Testament is all about the coming and establishment of the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ; it is this Kingdom which was proclaimed and taught by Christ and His apostles.

    Why would people like you and me pledge their allegiance to the King above all kings if they could not be sure that the King was a real person who had accomplished particular acts to inaugurate his rule? If such a King has witnesses to the actuality of his acts, then an historical record can be put forth as proof. Thus there is a basis for believing.

  6. Steve Drake said,

    June 27, 2018 at 8:34 am

    Bob @ #4,

    The truth of Christendom is the ultimate truth in all of creation, in all the universe. We do not need to establish that truth, as God in Christ has established it.

    As a system of truth, I agree with the first part, Bob, but the second part should be qualified, right? Why would Peter write “…always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you…”(1 Pet. 3:15), if we weren’t ‘commanded’ to speak an apologia?

    You seem to be agreeing with Lessing and with his ‘ditch’?

  7. roberty bob said,

    June 27, 2018 at 10:08 am

    If the “acts” of God wrought in Christ by the Holy Spirits power are historically verifiable [and they are!], then there is no such ditch of which Lessing speaks. Of course we speak an apologia as we account for the hope that we have, but we do so with absolute confidence that our hope is established in the witnessed acts of God. These facts do not fade with the passage of time.

  8. roberty bob said,

    June 27, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    A prime example of Peter giving an account of our Christian hope is his sermon from Solomon’s portico [Acts 3]. He brought the charge against the Men of Israel who killed the Author of Life, and then proclaimed that God, in faithfulness to His ancient promises, raised Jesus from the dead. By this same resurrection power the apostles had raised a lame man to his feet; by this “act” they authenticated the resurrection of our Lord. On this basis [the risen and ruling Christ] Peter called the people to repentance.

  9. Steve Drake said,

    June 27, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    Bob @ #8,
    Some high-falutin’ theological repertoire right there Bob, but I’m not sure you’re addressing the question. I”m gonna take it that you are obfuscating, have no desire to engage in dialog with me, and leave you to your lofty but meaningless repartee.

  10. roberty bob said,

    June 27, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    I answered your question to the best of my knowledge, Steve Drake. I would not know that the Christian religion were true had God not acted in history through His Son to establish His everlasting kingdom. No other religion offers such historical acts as evidence for its truthfulness. No other religion gives us a cross and a resurrection.


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