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Bible was made not a single channel, but the only certain rule of
religious faith and practise. To disbelieve any of its statements,
or even the common interpretation put upon those statements by
the particular age or church in which the man belonged, was held
to be infidelity, if not atheism. In the name of Him who forbids
us to judge our brother, good men and pious men have applied these
terms to others, good and pious as themselves. That state of things
has by no means passed away. Men who cry down the absurdities of
paganism in the worst spirit of the French "free thinkers" call
others infidels and atheists, who point out, tho reverently, other
absurdities which men have piled upon Christianity. So the world
goes. An idolatrous regard for the imperfect scripture of God's word
is the apple of Atalanta, which defeats theologians running for the
hand of divine truth.

But the current notions respecting the infallible inspiration of
the Bible have no foundation in the Bible itself. Which evangelist,
which apostle of the New Testament, what prophet or psalmist of the
Old Testament, ever claims infallible authority for himself or for
others? Which of them does not in his own writings show that he was
finite, and, with all his zeal and piety, possest but a limited
inspiration, the bound whereof we can sometimes discover? Did Christ
ever demand that men should assent to the doctrines of the Old
Testament, credit its stories, and take its poems for histories, and
believe equally two accounts that contradict one another? Has He
ever told you that all the truths of His religion, all the beauty
of a Christian life should be contained in the writings of those
men who, even after His resurrection, expected Him to be a Jewish
king; of men who were sometimes at variance with one another, and
misunderstood His divine teachings? Would not those modest writers
themselves be confounded at the idolatry we pay them? Opinions may
change on these points, as they have often changed - changed greatly
and for the worse since the days of Paul. They are changing now, and
we may hope for the better; for God makes man's folly as well his
wrath to praise Him, and continually brings good out of evil.

Another instance of the transitoriness of doctrines taught as
Christian is found in those which relate to the nature and authority
of Christ. One ancient party has told us that He is the infinite
God; another, that He is both God and man; a third, that He was
a man, the son of Joseph and Mary, born as we are; tempted like
ourselves; inspired as we may be, if we will pay the price. Each of
the former parties believed its doctrine on this head was infallibly
true, and formed the very substance of Christianity, and was one
of the essential conditions of salvation, tho scarce any two
distinguished teachers, of ancient or modern times, agree in their
expression of this truth.

Almost every sect that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on
the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the
doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent Him into
the world. Yet it seems difficult to conceive any reason why moral
and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal
authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on
that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard
to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal
authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the
personal authority of Euclid or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus
as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the
truth of His words, and not their truth on His authority.

Opinions respecting the nature of Christ seem to be constantly
changing. In the three first centuries after Christ, it appears,
great latitude of speculation prevailed. Some said He was God, with
nothing of human nature, His body only an illusion; others that He
was man, with nothing of the divine nature, His miraculous birth
having no foundation in fact. In a few centuries it was decreed by
councils that He was God, thus honoring the divine element; next,
that He was man also, thus admitting the human side. For some ages
the Catholic Church seems to have dwelt chiefly on the divine
nature that was in Him, leaving the human element to mystics and
other heretical persons, whose bodies served to flesh the swords of
orthodox believers. The stream of Christianity has come to us in two
channels, - one within the Church, the other without the Church, - and
it is not hazarding too much to say that since the fourth century
the true Christian life has been out of the established Church,
and not in it, but rather in the ranks of dissenters. From the
Reformation till the latter part of the last century, we are told,
the Protestant Church dwelt chiefly on the human side of Christ,
and since that time many works have been written to show how
the two - perfect Deity and perfect manhood - were united in His
character. But, all this time, scarce any two eminent teachers
agree on these points, however orthodox they may be called. What a
difference between the Christ of John Gerson and John Calvin, - yet
were both accepted teachers and pious men. What a difference between
the Christ of the Unitarians and the Methodists, - yet may men of
both sects be true Christians and acceptable with God. What a
difference between the Christ of Matthew and John, - yet both were
disciples, and their influence is wide as Christendom and deep as
the heart of man. But on this there is not time to enlarge.

Now, it seems clear that the notions men form about the origin and
nature of the Scriptures, respecting the nature and authority of
Christ, have nothing to do with Christianity except as its aids or
its adversaries; they are not the foundation of its truths. These
are theological questions, not religious questions. Their connection
with Christianity appears accidental; for if Jesus had taught at
Athens, and not at Jerusalem; if He had wrought no miracle, and
none but the human nature had ever been ascribed to them; if the
Old Testament had forever perished at His birth, - Christianity
would still have been the word of God; it would have lost none of
its truths. It would be just as true, just as beautiful, just as
lasting, as now it is; tho we should have lost so many a blessed
word, and the work of Christianity itself would have been, perhaps,
a long time retarded.

To judge the future by the past, the former authority of the Old
Testament can never return. Its present authority can not stand. It
must be taken for what it is worth. The occasional folly and impiety
of its authors must pass for no more than their value; while the
religion, the wisdom, the love, which make fragrant its leaves, will
still speak to the best hearts as hitherto, and in accents even more
divine when reason is allowed her rights. The ancient belief in the
infallible inspiration of each sentence of the New Testament is fast
changing, very fast. One writer, not a skeptic, but a Christian of
unquestioned piety, sweeps off the beginning of Matthew; another,
of a different church and equally religious, the end of John.
Numerous critics strike off several epistles. The Apocalypse itself
is not spared, notwithstanding its concluding curse. Who shall
tell us the work of retrenchment is to stop here; that others will
not demonstrate what some pious hearts have long felt, that errors
of doctrine and errors of fact may be found in many parts of the
record, here and there, from the beginning of Matthew to the end
of Acts? We see how opinions have changed ever since the apostles'
time; and who shall assure us that they were not sometimes mistaken
in historical as well as doctrinal matters; did not sometimes
confound the actual with the imaginary; and that the fancy of these
pious writers never stood in the place of their recollection?

But what if this should take place? Is Christianity then to perish
out of the heart of the nations, and vanish from the memory of the
world, like the religions that were before Abraham? It must be so,
if it rest on a foundation which a scoffer may shake, and a score of
pious critics shake down. But this is the foundation of a theology,
not of Christianity. That does not rest on the decision of councils.
It is not to stand or fall with the infallible inspiration of a
few Jewish fishermen, who have writ their names in characters of
light all over the world. It does not continue to stand through
the forbearance of some critic, who can cut when he will the
thread on which its life depends. Christianity does not rest on
the infallible authority of the New Testament. It depends on this
collection of books for the historical statement of its facts. In
this we do not require infallible inspiration on the part of the
writers, more than in the record of other historical facts. To me it
seems as presumptuous, on the one hand, for the believer to claim
this evidence for the truth of Christianity, as it is absurd, on
the other hand, for the skeptic to demand such evidence to support
these historical statements. I can not see that it depends on the
personal authority of Jesus. He was the organ through which the
Infinite spoke. It is God that was manifested in the flesh by Him,
on whom rests the truth which Jesus brought to light, and made clear
and beautiful in His life; and if Christianity be true, it seems
useless to look for any other authority to uphold it, as for some
one to support Almighty God. So if it could be proved - as it can
not - in opposition to the greatest amount of historical evidence
ever collected on any similar point, that the Gospels were the
fabrication of designing and artful men, that Jesus of Nazareth had
never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil.
None of the doctrines of that religion would fall to the ground;
for, if true, they stand by themselves. But we should lose - oh,
irreparable loss! - the example of that character, so beautiful, so
divine, that no human genius could have conceived it, as none, after
all the progress and refinement of eighteen centuries, seems fully
to have comprehended its lustrous life. If Christianity were true,
we should still think it was so, not because its record was written
by infallible pens, nor because it was lived out by an infallible
teacher; but that it is true, like the axioms of geometry, because
it is true and is to be tried, by the oracle God places in the
breast. If it rest on the personal authority of Jesus alone, then
there is no certainty of its truth if He were ever mistaken in
the smallest matter, - as some Christians have thought He was in
predicting His second coming.

These doctrines respecting the Scriptures have often changed, and
are but fleeting. Yet men lay much stress on them. Some cling to
these notions as if they were Christianity itself. It is about
these and similar points that theological battles are fought from
age to age. Men sometimes use worst the choicest treasure which God
bestows. This is especially true of the use men make of the Bible.
Some men have regarded it as the heathen their idol, or the savage
his fetish. They have subordinated reason, conscience, and religion
to this. Thus have they lost half the treasure it bears in its
bosom. No doubt the time will come when its true character shall be
felt. Then it will be seen that, amid all the contradictions of the
Old Testament, - its legends, so beautiful as fictions, so appalling
as facts; amid its predictions that have never been fulfilled; amid
the puerile conceptions of God which sometimes occur, and the cruel
denunciations that disfigure both psalm and prophecy, - there is a
reverence for man's nature, a sublime trust in God, and a depth of
piety, rarely felt in these cold northern hearts of ours. Then the
devotion of its authors, the loftiness of their aim, and the majesty
of their life, will appear doubly fair, and prophet and psalmist
will warm our hearts as never before. Their voice will cheer the
young, and sanctify the gray-headed; will charm us in the toil of
life, and sweeten the cup death gives us when he comes to shake
off this mantle of flesh. Then will it be seen that the words of
Jesus are the music of heaven sung in an earthly voice, and that
the echo of these words in John and Paul owe their efficacy to
their truth and their depth, and to no accidental matter connected
therewith. Then can the Word, which was in the beginning and now is,
find access to the innermost heart of man, and speak there as now
it seldom speaks. Then shall the Bible - which is a whole library
of the deepest and most earnest thoughts and feelings, and piety,
and love, ever recorded in human speech - be read oftener than ever
before, - not with superstition, but with reason, conscience, and
faith, fully active. Then shall it sustain men bowed down with many
sorrows; rebuke sin, encourage virtue, sow the world broadcast and
quick with the seed of love, that man may reap a harvest for life

With all the obstacles men have thrown in its path, how much has
the Bible done for mankind! No abuse has deprived us of all its
blessings. You trace its path across the world from the day of
Pentecost to this day. As a river springs up in the heart of a
sandy continent, having its father in the skies, and its birthplace
in distant unknown mountains; as the stream rolls on, enlarging
itself, making in that arid waste a belt of verdure wherever it
turns its way; creating palm groves and fertile plains, where the
smoke of the cottager curls up at eventide, and marble cities send
the gleam of their splendor far into the sky, - such has been the
course of the Bible on the earth. Despite of idolaters bowing to
the dust before it, it has made a deeper mark on the world than the
rich and beautiful literature of all the heathen. The first book
of the Old Testament tells man he is made in the image of God; the
first of the New Testament gives us the motto, Be perfect as your
Father in heaven. Higher words were never spoken. How the truths of
the Bible have blest us! There is not a boy on all the hills of New
England; not a girl born in the filthiest cellar which disgraces a
capital in Europe, and cries to God against the barbarism of modern
civilization; not a boy nor a girl all Christendom through, but
their lot is made better by that great book.

Doubtless the time will come when men shall see Christ also as He
is. Well might He still say, "Have I been so long with you, and yet
hast thou not known me?" No! we have made Him an idol, have bowed
the knee before Him, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" called Him
"Lord, Lord!" but done not the things which He said. The history
of the Christian world might well be summed up in one word of the
evangelist - "and there they crucified him"; for there has never
been an age when the men did not crucify the Son of God afresh.
But if error prevail for a time and grow old in the world, truth
will triumph at the last, and then we shall see the Son of God as
He is. Lifted up, He shall draw all nations unto Him. Then will
men understand the word of Jesus, which shall not pass away. Then
shall we see and love the divine life that He lived. How vast has
His influence been! How His spirit wrought in the hearts of His
disciples, rude, selfish, bigoted, as at first they were! How it
has wrought in the world! His words judge the nations. The wisest
son of man has not measured their height. They speak to what is
deepest in profound men, what is holiest in good men, what is
divinest in religious men. They kindle anew the flame of devotion
in hearts long cold. They are spirit and life. His truth was not
derived from Moses and Solomon; but the light of God shone through
Him, not colored, not bent aside. His life is the perpetual rebuke
of all time since. It condemns ancient civilization; it condemns
modern civilization. Wise men we have since had, and good men;
but this Galilean youth strode before the whole world thousands
of years, so much of divinity was in Him. His words solve the
question of this present age. In Him the Godlike and the human
met and embraced, and a divine life was born. Measure Him by the
world's greatest sons - how poor they are! Try Him by the best of
men - how little and low they appear! Exalt Him as much as we may,
we shall yet perhaps come short of the mark. But still was He
not our brother; the son of man, as we are; the son of God, like
ourselves? His excellence - was it not human excellence? His wisdom,
love, piety, - sweet and celestial as they were, - are they not what
we also may attain? In Him, as in a mirror, we may see the image of
God, and go on from glory to glory, till we are changed into the
same image, led by the spirit which enlightens the humble. Viewed
in this way, how beautiful is the life of Jesus! Heaven has come
down to earth, or rather, earth has become heaven. The Son of God,
come of age, has taken possession of His birthright. The brightest
revelation is this of what is possible for all men, - if not now, at
least hereafter. How pure is His spirit, and how encouraging its
words! "Lowly sufferer," he seems to say, "see how I bore the cross.
Patient laborer, be strong; see how I toiled for the unthankful and
the merciless. Mistaken sinner, see of what thou art capable. Rise
up, and be blest."

But if, as some early Christians began to do, you take a heathen
view, and make Him a God, the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive
sense, much of the significance of His character is gone. His virtue
has no merit, His love no feeling, His cross no burthen, His agony
no pain. His death is an illusion, His resurrection but a show. For
if He were not a man, but a god, what are all these things? What His
words, His life, His excellence of achievement? It is all nothing,
weighed against the illimitable greatness of Him who created the
worlds and fills up all time and space! Then His resignation is no
lesson, His life no model, His death no triumph to you or me, who
are not gods, but mortal men, that know not what a day shall bring
forth, and walk by faith "dim sounding on our perilous way." Alas!
we have despaired of man, and so cut off his brightest hope.

In respect of doctrines as well as forms, we see all is transitory.
"Everywhere is instability and insecurity." Opinions have changed
most on points deemed most vital. Could we bring up a Christian
teacher of any age, from the sixth to the fourteenth century, for
example, tho a teacher of undoubted soundness of faith, whose word
filled the churches of Christendom, clergymen would scarce allow
him to kneel at their altar, or sit down with them at the Lord's
table. His notions of Christianity could not be exprest in our
forms, nor could our notions be made intelligible to his ears.
The questions of his age, those on which Christianity was thought
to depend, - questions which perplexed and divided the subtle
doctors, - are no questions to us. The quarrels which then drove
wise men mad now only excite a smile or a tear, as we are disposed
to laugh or weep at the frailty of man. We have other straws of our
own to quarrel for. Their ancient books of devotion do not speak
to us; their theology is a vain word. To look back but a short
period, - the theological speculations of our fathers during the last
two centuries, their "practical divinity," even the sermons written
by genius and piety are, with rare exceptions, found unreadable;
such a change is there in the doctrines.

Now who shall tell us that the change is to stop here; that this
sect or that, or even all sects united, have exhausted the river of
life, and received it all in their canonized urns, so that we need
draw no more out of the eternal well, but get refreshment nearer
at hand? Who shall tell us that another age will not smile at our
doctrines, disputes, and unchristian quarrels about Christianity,
and make wide the mouth at men who walked brave in orthodox raiment,
delighting to blacken the names of heretics, and repeat again the
old charge, "He hath blasphemed"? Who shall tell us they will not
weep at the folly of all such as fancied truth shone only into the
contracted nook of their school, or sect, or coterie? Men of other
times may look down equally on the heresy-hunters, and men hunted
for heresy, and wonder at both. The men of all ages before us
were quite as confident as we, that their opinion was truth, that
their notion was Christianity and the whole thereof. The men who
lit the fires of persecution, from the first martyr to Christian
bigotry down to the last murder of the innocents, had no doubt their
opinion was divine. The contest about transubstantiation and the
immaculate purity of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Scriptures
was waged with bitterness unequaled in these days. The Protestant
smiles at one, the Catholic at the other, and men of sense wonder
at both. It might teach us all a lesson, at least of forbearance.
No doubt an age will come in which ours shall be reckoned a period
of darkness, like the sixth century, - when men groped for the wall,
but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion,
not an eternal truth; an age when temples were full of idols,
set up by human folly; an age in which Christian light had scarce
begun to shine into men's hearts. But while this change goes on,
while one generation of opinions passes away, and another rises up,
Christianity itself, that pure religion, which exists eternal in the
constitution of the soul and the mind of God, is always the same.
The Word that was before Abraham, in the very beginning, will not
change, for that Word is truth. From this Jesus subtracted nothing;
to this He added nothing. But He came to reveal it as the secret of
God, that cunning men could not understand, but which filled the
souls of men meek and lowly of heart. This truth we owe to God; the
revelation thereof to Jesus, our elder brother, God's chosen son.

To turn away from the disputes of the Catholics and the Protestants,
of the Unitarian and the Trinitarian, of old school and new school,
and come to the plain words of Jesus of Nazareth, - Christianity is a
simple thing, very simple. It is absolute, pure morality; absolute,
pure religion, - the love of man; the love of God acting without let
or hindrance. The only creed it lays down is the great truth which
springs up spontaneous in the holy heart, - there is a God. Its
watchword is, Be perfect as your Father in heaven. The only form it
demands is a divine life, - doing the best thing in the best way,
from the highest motives; perfect obedience to the great law of
God. Its sanction is the voice of God in your heart; the perpetual
presence of Him who made us and the stars over our head; Christ and
the Father abiding within us. All this is very simple - a little
child can understand it; very beautiful - the loftiest mind can find
nothing so lovely. Try it by reason, conscience, and faith, - things
highest in man's nature, - we see no redundance, we feel no
deficiency. Examine the particular duties it enjoins, - humility,
reverence, sobriety, gentleness, charity, forgiveness, fortitude,
resignation, faith, and active love; try the whole extent of
Christianity, so well summed up in the command, "Thou shalt love
the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and
with all thy mind; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"; and is
there anything therein that can perish? No, the very opponents of
Christianity have rarely found fault with the teachings of Jesus.
The end of Christianity seems to be to make all men one with God as
Christ was one with Him; to bring them to such a state of obedience
and goodness that we shall think divine thoughts and feel divine
sentiments, and so keep the law of God by living a life of truth
and love. Its means are purity and prayer; getting strength from
God, and using it for our fellow-men as well as ourselves. It allows
perfect freedom. It does not demand all men to think alike, but to
think uprightly, and get as near as possible at truth; not all men
to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a
life perfectly divine. Christ set up no Pillars of Hercules, beyond
which men must not sail the sea in quest of truth. He says, "I have
many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.... Greater
works than these shall ye do." Christianity lays no rude hand on the
sacred peculiarity of individual genius and character. But there is
no Christian sect which does not fetter a man. It would make all
men think alike, or smother their conviction in silence. Were all

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Online LibraryVariousThe World's Great Sermons, Volume 5: Guthrie to Mozley → online text (page 9 of 13)