Extracts from William Robinson Smith

Smith, W.R. 1889 Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. First series. The Fundamental Institutions. Edinburgh, 1889.

Lecture 11: Theological Metaphors


On the whole it is apparent, from the somewhat tedious discussion which I have now brought to a close, that the various aspects in which atoning rites presented themselves to ancient worshippers have supplied a variety of religious images which passed into Christianity, and still have currency. Redemption, substitution, purification, atoning blood, the garment of righteousness, are all terms which in some sense go back to antique ritual. But in ancient religion all these terms are very vaguely defined ; they indicate impressions produced on the mind of the worshipper by features of the ritual, rather than formulated ethico-dogmatical ideas; and the attempt to find in them anything as precise and definite as the notions attached to the same words by Christian theologians is altogether illegitimate.

The one point that comes out clear and strong is that the fundamental idea of ancient sacrifice is sacramental communion, and that all atoning rites are ultimately to be regarded as owing their efficacy to a communication of divine life to the worshippers, and to the establishment or confirmation of a living bond between them and their god.

In primitive ritual this conception is grasped in a merely physical and mechanical shape, as indeed, in primitive life, all spiritual and ethical ideas are still wrapped up in the husk of a material embodiment. To free the spiritual truth from the husk was the great task that lay before the ancient religions, if they were to maintain the right to continue to rule the minds of men. That some progress in this direction was made, especialIy in Israel, appears from our examination. But on the whole it is manifest that none of the ritual systems of antiquity was able by mere natural development to [440] shake itself free from the congenital defect inherent in every attempt to embody spiritual truth in material forms. A ritual system must always remain materialistic, even if its materialism is disgtised under the cloak of mysticism.

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