A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 17 - From Babel to Comparative Philology

Breaking Down of the Theological View

We have now seen the steps by which the sacred theory of human language had been developed: how it had been strengthened in every land until it seemed to bid defiance forever to advancing thought; how it rested firmly upon the letter of Scripture, upon the explicit declarations of leading fathers of the Church, of the great doctors of the Middle Ages, of the most eminent theological scholars down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, and was guarded by the decrees of popes, kings, bishops, Catholic and Protestant, and the whole hierarchy of authorities in church and state.

And yet, as we now look back, it is easy to see that even in that hour of its triumph it was doomed.

The reason why the Church has so fully accepted the conclusions of science which have destroyed the sacred theory is instructive. The study of languages has been, since the Revival of Learning and the Reformation, a favourite study with the whole Western Church, Catholic and Protestant. The importance of understanding the ancient tongues in which our sacred books are preserved first stimulated the study, and Church missionary efforts have contributed nobly to supply the material for extending it, and for the application of that comparative method which, in philology as in other sciences, has been so fruitful. Hence it is that so many leading theologians have come to know at first hand the truths given by this science, and to recognise its fundamental principles. What the conclusions which they, as well as all other scholars in this field, have been absolutely forced to accept, I shall now endeavour to show.

The beginnings of a scientific theory seemed weak indeed, but they were none the less effective. As far back as 1661, Hottinger, professor at Heidelberg, came into the chorus of theologians like a great bell in a chime; but like a bell whose opening tone is harmonious and whose closing tone is discordant. For while, at the beginning, Hottinger cites a formidable list of great scholars who had held the sacred theory of the origin of language, he goes on to note a closer resemblance to the Hebrew in some languages than in others, and explains this by declaring that the confusion of tongues was of two sorts, total and partial: the Arabic and Chaldaic he thinks underwent only a partial confusion; the Egyptian, Persian, and all the European languages a total one. Here comes in the discord; here gently sounds forth from the great chorus a new note - that idea of grouping and classifying languages which at a later day was to destroy utterly the whole sacred theory.

But the great chorus resounded on, as we have seen, from shore to shore, until the closing years of the seventeenth century; then arose men who silenced it forever. The first leader who threw the weight of his knowledge, thought, and authority against it was Leibnitz. He declared, "There is as much reason for supposing Hebrew to have been the primitive language of mankind as there is for adopting the view of Goropius, who published a work at Antwerp in 1580 to prove that Dutch was the language spoken in paradise." In a letter to Tenzel, Leibnitz wrote, "To call Hebrew the primitive language is like calling the branches of a tree primitive branches, or like imagining that in some country hewn trunks could grow instead of trees." He also asked, "If the primeval language existed even up to the time of Moses, whence came the Egyptian language?"

But the efficiency of Leibnitz did not end with mere suggestions. He applied the inductive method to linguistic study, made great efforts to have vocabularies collected and grammars drawn up wherever missionaries and travellers came in contact with new races, and thus succeeded in giving the initial impulse to at least three notable collections - that of Catharine the Great, of Russia; that of the Spanish Jesuit, Lorenzo Hervas; and, at a later period, the Mithridates of Adelung. The interest of the Empress Catharine in her collection of linguistic materials was very strong, and her influence is seen in the fact that Washington, to please her, requested governors and generals to send in materials from various parts of the United States and the Territories. The work of Hervas extended over the period from 1735 to 1809: a missionary in America, he enlarged his catalogue of languages to six volumes, which were published in Spanish in 1800, and contained specimens of more than three hundred languages, with the grammars of more than forty. It should be said to his credit that Hervas dared point out with especial care the limits of the Semitic family of languages, and declared, as a result of his enormous studies, that the various languages of mankind could not have been derived from the Hebrew.

While such work was done in Catholic Spain, Protestant Germany was honoured by the work of Adelung. It contained the Lord's Prayer in nearly five hundred languages and dialects, and the comparison of these, early in the nineteenth century, helped to end the sway of theological philology.

But the period which intervened between Leibnitz and this modern development was a period of philological chaos. It began mainly with the doubts which Leibnitz had forced upon Europe, and ended only with the beginning of the study of Sanskrit in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and with the comparisons made by means of the collections of Catharine, Hervas, and Adelung at the beginning of the nineteenth. The old theory that Hebrew was the original language had gone to pieces; but nothing had taken its place as a finality. Great authorities, like Buddeus, were still cited in behalf of the narrower belief; but everywhere researches, unorganized though they were, tended to destroy it. The story of Babel continued indeed throughout the whole eighteenth century to hinder or warp scientific investigation, and a very curious illustration of this fact is seen in the book of Lord Nelme on The Origin and Elements of Language. He declares that connected with the confusion was the cleaving of America from Europe, and he regards the most terrible chapters in the book of Job as intended for a description of the Flood, which in all probability Job had from Noah himself. Again, Rowland Jones tried to prove that Celtic was the primitive tongue, and that it passed through Babel unharmed. Still another effect was made by a Breton to prove that all languages took their rise in the language of Brittany. All was chaos. There was much wrangling, but little earnest controversy. Here and there theologians were calling out frantically, beseeching the Church to save the old doctrine as "essential to the truth of Scripture"; here and there other divines began to foreshadow the inevitable compromise which has always been thus vainly attempted in the history of every science. But it was soon seen by thinking men that no concessions as yet spoken of by theologians were sufficient. In the latter half of the century came the bloom period of the French philosophers and encyclopedists, of the English deists, of such German thinkers as Herder, Kant, and Lessing; and while here and there some writer on the theological side, like Perrin, amused thinking men by his flounderings in this great chaos, all remained without form and void.

Nothing better reveals to us the darkness and duration of this chaos in England than a comparison of the articles on Philology given in the successive editions of the Encyclopæ dia Britannica. The first edition of that great mirror of British thought was printed in 1771: chaos reigns through the whole of its article on this subject. The writer divides languages into two classes, seems to indicate a mixture of divine inspiration with human invention, and finally escapes under a cloud. In the second edition, published in 1780, some progress has been made. The author states the sacred theory, and declares: "There are some divines who pretend that Hebrew was the language in which God talked with Adam in paradise, and that the saints will make use of it in heaven in those praises which they will eternally offer to the Almighty. These doctors seem to be as certain in regard to what is past as to what is to come."

This was evidently considered dangerous. It clearly outran the belief of the average British Philistine; and accordingly we find in the third edition, published seventeen years later, a new article, in which, while the author gives, as he says, "the best arguments on both sides," he takes pains to adhere to a fairly orthodox theory.

This soothing dose was repeated in the fourth and fifth editions. In 1824 appeared a supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions, which dealt with the facts so far as they were known; but there was scarcely a reference to the biblical theory throughout the article. Three years later came another supplement. While this chaos was fast becoming cosmos in Germany, such a change had evidently not gone far in England, for from this edition of the Encyclopæ dia the subject of philology was omitted. In fact, Babel and Philology made nearly as much trouble to encyclopedists as Noah's Deluge and Geology. Just as in the latter case they had been obliged to stave off a presentation of scientific truth, by the words "For Deluge, see Flood" and "For Flood, see Noah," so in the former they were obliged to take various provisional measures, some of them comical. In 1842 came the seventh edition. In this the first part of the old article on Philology which had appeared in the third, fourth, and fifth editions was printed, but the supernatural part was mainly cut out. Yet we find a curious evidence of the continued reign of chaos in a foot-note inserted by the publishers, disavowing any departure from orthodox views. In 1859 appeared the eighth edition. This abandoned the old article completely, and in its place gave a history of philology free from admixture of scriptural doctrines. Finally, in the year 1885, appeared the ninth edition, in which Professors Whitney of Yale and Sievers of Tubingen give admirably and in fair compass what is known of philology, making short work of the sacred theory - in fact, throwing it overboard entirely.

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