One of the tragedies of modern biblical scholarship is the unnecessary loss of faith it has brought to many believers who have mistaken the frequently shifting declarations of scholars for the bedrock of truth. There’s much to say on this topic later, but for now I’d like to give a counterexample of a secular scholar whose exploration of the Bible brought him to a profound respect of scripture and of Christ. This story comes from Robert W. Yarbrough, “God’s Word in Human Words: Form-Critical Reflections” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeir and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), Kindle edition, Chapter 14, in the section “Shift Stories: Not a One-Way Street.”
Heinz Cassirer (1903–1979) is one those people about whom one wonders, How did he ever come to make a profession of personal faith in Jesus? His family was of European Jewish descent, from the part of Germany that is now in Poland. By the late nineteenth century, the family grew so secular that they abolished circumcision of their newborn boys. Heinz grew up in Germany, the son of perhaps the world’s foremost Kant scholar of the age, Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945).
Ronald Weitzman wrote of Heinz, “His Kantian upbringing made him scorn the idea that any kind of ‘supernatural’ help could be called on to assist a human being in solving a moral predicament.” Heinz Cassirer lived a thoroughly naturalistic existence, with no interest whatsoever in religion. He found it expedient to flee Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. He later learned of many relatives dead in the Reich’s death camps.
Heinz ended up lecturing in Oxford and then Glasgow. He had attained recognition as an authority on Aristotle while still a young man in Germany. At the University of Glasgow he taught philosophy for over a quarter century. He published commentaries on two of Kant’s critiques. He translated various Greek sources in addition to his studies on Aristotle. This is hardly a man to suspect of mean intellectual endowment.
Quite remarkably, as we survey his life as a whole, we note among his last published works a translation (into English) of the Greek New Testament, a feat he accomplished in just thirteen months (July 1972–August 1973). In addition, there is the intriguingly titled Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets. These works confirm his personal acceptance of the gospel call to faith in Jesus as Messiah and personal Savior.
What explains his move from secular Jew to baptized Christian? At about age fifty Cassirer conceived an interest in religion for the first time in his life. He was convinced that Kant was the greatest ethical analyst of all time. Kant brilliantly limned the scale and pathos of the human ethical dilemma, but he offered no compelling or even sufficient solution to the problem. The accomplished Greek scholar Cassirer, having read (he said) pretty much the whole of the Western philosophical corpus, picked up the Greek writings of another brilliant Jewish thinker. We know this thinker as the author of letters with titles like Romans, Galatians, and 1 Timothy. What happened when Cassirer encountered Paul and his epochal claims? Cassirer “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis,” says Weitzman.
For the second time in his life Cassirer felt he had encountered a thinker who truly saw into the depths of our inner dilemma: we know the ought, but we do not and we cannot do all that we ought (cf. Romans 7). But unlike Kant, Paul offered a remedy. Paul pointed to another Jewish man, a first-century Galilean no less, yet someone more than just a man. For the first time in his life, Cassirer began to feel the promise and hope of Christian salvation. In 1955, Cassirer was baptized into the Anglican Church. After twenty-five more years of study, he produced his remarkable New Testament translation. In Wood’s words, “Cassirer was summoned to the reality of faith by listening to the testimony of Paul.”
Some believers have “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis” when they encounter the pronouncements of scholars, often disguised as consensus when they rarely are, who delight in undermining the historicity of scripture and thereby the reality of God and of Jesus Christ as Savior. It’s important to see that intellectuals confronting the details of scriptural texts can be moved the other way as well. Indeed, there are important reasons to respect the power of the scriptures and to be skeptical about the claims of secular scholars whose critical theories of the moment are used to dismiss the message of the Gospel.
One of many related resources that might be helpful to some of you is James K. Hoffmeir’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). This book is also relevant to the Book of Mormon for several reasons, such as showing the limitations of archaeology and, most importantly, demonstrating that there is strong evidence for the historicity of a Hebrew exodus from Egypt, which is relied on heavily and subtly by Book of Mormon authors, especially Nephi in his account of his family’s exodus from Jerusalem.
A hearty thanks to the late Heinz Cassirer for his open-mindedness and willingness to confront the power of scripture. I’ll close with a verse froom the New Testament, as translated by Cassirer (provided in Wikipedia’s article about him):
What, then, is the nature of the person, whoever he may be, who
hears these words of mine and acts on them? He is like a man of prudence
who built his house on a rock. The rain descended, the floodwaters
rose, the winds blew and hurled themselves against that house. But it
did not fall because it was on rock that its foundations were laid. (Matthew 7:24-25)