The idolatrous and polytheistic universe described by Homer and Hesiod was not the original world-picture of humankind. Nevertheless, this is an impression often gained from books on science and philosophy (including The Grand Design) that start with the ancient Greeks and rightly emphasize the importance of the de-deification of the universe, yet singularly fail to point out that the Hebrews had vigorously protested against idolatrous interpretations of the universe long before the time of the Greeks. This obscures the fact that polytheism arguably constitutes a perversion of an original belief in the One Creator God. It was this perversion that needed to be corrected, by recovering belief in the Creator and not by jettisoning it. The same is true today.
Yet in a work dealing with apologetic matters such as this volume discusses, I cannot pass by this fundamental idea of an early fall of man without bringing to the attention of my readers the verdict of one of the greatest scholars and humanists of the last half century, Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, probably the greatest authority on the life of St. Paul, and the writings of St. Luke, in modern times. Sir William Ramsay held the highest scholastic positions his country could offer him, was honored by degrees from universities throughout Europe and in our own country, and wrote books that changed the whole tendency of Pauline literature. His volumes were consulted by every important New Testament scholar in the Western world. After a lifetime spent in the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially the religions of those times, together with an uninterrupted devotion to the writings of St. Luke, and the historical aspects of the work of St. Paul, this is his verdict concerning the necessity for believing in an original departure of man from the truth which once had been given to him:
“Nowadays we are all devotees of the theory of development. It is no longer a theory. It has become the basis and guiding principle of our thought and mind. We must see development everywhere. But it is necessary to be very sure first of all that we have got hold of the right law of development in history; and we are sometimes too hasty. We can easily arrange religions in a series from the lowest to the highest, and we are wont to assume that this series represents the historical development of religion from the most primitive to the most advanced. The fetish, the totem and the sacred animals, and so up step by step to Jehovah and the Ark of the Covenant. Is that the true line? You observe that the assumptions here are very serious. Is the modern savage really primitive? Paul would have said that he represents the last stage of degeneration, that he is the end and not the beginning, that he has lost almost everything that is really primitive, that he has fallen so completely from the ancient harmony with the order of nature and sympathy with the Divine as to be on the verge of death, and an outrage on the world and on human nature. Who is right, Paul or the moderns? For my own part, I confess that my experience and reading show nothing to confirm the modern assumptions in religious history, and a great deal to confirm Paul. Whatever evidence exists, with the rarest exceptions, the history of religion among men is a history of degeneration; and the development of a few Western nations in invention and in civilization during recent centuries should not blind us to the fact that among the vast majority of the nations the history of manners and civilization is a story of degeneration. Wherever you find a religion that grows purer and loftier, you find the prophet, the thinker, the teacher, who is in sympathy with the Divine, and he tells you that he is speaking the message of God, not his own message. Are these prophets all impostors and deceivers? Or are they speaking the truth? Is it not the fact of human history that man, standing alone, degenerates; and that he progresses only where there is in him so much sympathy with and devotion to the Divine life as to keep the social body pure and sweet and healthy?
To quote Professor Ramsay from another volume. “We hold that revelation of the divine to the human is a necessary part of the order of nature, and therefore is, in the strictest sense, ‘natural’; and also that all revelation of the divine to the human nature must necessarily be ‘superhuman.’ The nations had one by one rejected that revelation, or, as we might say, in modern phraseology, their history had become a process of degeneration. After the beginning of learning, of comprehension, and of improvement, their will and desire soon became degraded. The result was a steady process of degradation, folly, vice, crime, which St. Paul pens in terrible colors. History justifies this picture of the nations over which St. Paul’s view extended. Where we can trace the outlines of their history over a sufficient time, we find that in the earlier stage and up to a certain point, their religious ideas and rites were simpler, higher, and purer. Sometimes we can trace a considerable period of development in advance. But in every case, the development turns to degeneration, and throughout the Graeco-Roman world the belief was general and thoroughly justified, that the state of immorality in the first century was much more degraded than it had been several centuries earlier. In religion the number of gods had been multiplied, but its hold on the belief of men had been weakened, and its worst characteristics had been strengthened while any good features in it had almost wholly disappeared”.
Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand, σελ. 144-146.