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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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sajangs about leaving father and mother to preach the
coming of the Kingdom require any apology. The saying
in which our Lord in a sense repudiates His earthly parent-
age (" Who is My mother and My brethren ? ")- was
provoked by an attempt on their part to keep Him back
from His mission on the ground that He was mad. There
are occasions when family ties must give way to wider
duties. No one would now blame such language in a
tatesman calling upon his countrymen to take up arms at
a supreme crisis in the history of his country. No Christian
ought to object to similar language in an advocate of
Missions calling upon men to become missionaries, provided
he does not suggest that this particular call is one which
comes to all men in all circumstances. Our Lord is not
responsible for the monastic abuse of this principle.

* Didache, ix., 5.

' Mark iii. 33=Matt. xii. 48. Matthew from mistaken reverence
omits the words about being " beside Himself." Luke omits even
the words " Who are My mother and My brethren ? " but retains the
characteristic saying " My mother and My brethren are these which
hear the word of God and do it " (Luke viii. 21).

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 179

Equally true is it that the spiritual union between the
true servants of God is closer than the ties of blood. If so,
" Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is My brother
and sister and mother" requires equally Httle apology.

(8) Let the dead bury their own dead. Another saying of
the same class is " Let the (spiritually) dead bury their own
dead " (Matt. viii. 22 ; Luke ix. 60). This also might well
be justified by the circumstances, even if taken literally :
but, considering the short interval which in the East
commonly elapses between death and burial, it is extremely
improbable that the father was actually lying dead at the
time. *' Suffer me first to go and bury my father " no
doubt means " let me wait till the old man dies." I have
met in some commentary with the remark of an Eastern
traveller who was always sceptical of this explanation till
similar language was actually used to him in Palestine of
a still living parent ; but I cannot find the reference.

(9) The denunciation of the Pharisees. Mr. Montefiore,
from the standpoint of Hberal Judaism, condemns severely
the attacks by Jesus on the Pharisees both as being un-
justified in themselves and as inconsistent with His own
teaching. To use the language of severe denunciation does
not appear to me ethically unjustified or inconsistent with
the spirit of the teaching which, in general, Mr. Montefiore
approves : and what Jesus denounces in the teaching and
conduct of the Pharisees certainly deserved such condemna-
tion. It does not appear to me at all self-evident that
Jesus, ** if he had loved his enemies, would not have called
them vipers, or enthusiastically predicted their arrival in
hell " (Syn. Gospels, II, p. 524). The adverb, of course, is
Mr. Montefiore's. That there was another side to the
teaching perhaps of those very Pharisees whom Jesus
denounced, and certainly of other Pharisees, Mr. Monte-
fiore is quite entitled to point out, and Christians ought

i8o Conscience and Christ

freely to admit the fact. But it is hardly fair to speak of
such denunciations as merely calling " religious enemies
hard names " {ib., II, p. 526). It was not the theological
doctrine of the Pharisees that Jesus denounced, but (i) the
immoraUty of their teaching and (2) their hypocrisy — the
contrast between their exacting teaching and their lives
of what seemed to Him easy, self-complacent religious
exclusiveness. In the very same page on which this
criticism occurs, Mr. Montefiore has some reflections — too
well deserved — on the intolerance shown by Christians
towards Jews which, though expressed in a more modern
dialect, mean much the same thing as the denunciations
of Jesus. That we have learned better to understand the
psychological causes of such aberrations as those of the
Pharisees may be admitted by any Christian who does not
assert that Jesus was omniscient. If some of the Pharisees
were not justly chargeable with all the bad motives which
Jesus attributed to them, or if there was more good in
them than He supposed, that is a question of fact. It may
be admitted that the historian's judgement about the
matter should not be based on these sayings alone.
But the important thing for us is whether He was right in
severely condemning certain elements in their teaching
and the state of mind from which He supposed it to spring.
I do not see in these denunciations any defect of ethical
principle. The denunciation of the Friars as a class by
men like Wycliffe and Luther seems to me a fairly parallel
case, and was equally justified, though, of course, there
were good Friars even in the worst periods of medieval
history. That there has been a further and fuller develop-
ment of that principle of Universal Love which Jesus
taught should be fully admitted. The principle of religious
toleration was not actually taught by Jesus, though He
taught nothing contrary to it. It is a further development

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ i8i

of the principle which He did lay down, and yet, after all,
this question is not much in point in this particular
connexion, for there was no question of persecuting the

I am not competent to discuss the question whether
Mr. Montefiore does not as much overrate the Pharisees
as some Christian Theologians (liberal as well as orthodox)
have unjustly depreciated them ; I will only say that he
himself in his indignant protests against the onesidedness
of Christian Theologians seems occasionally to forget the
admissions that he elsewhere makes. That there was much
in the teaching and conduct of the Pharisees which was
justly rebuked by our Lord, could be proved out of Mr.
Montefiore's own writings. Moreover, he is (if I may
venture to say so) too apt to assume that all that is best in
the rabbinic teaching of all ages must be supposed to have
been equally characteristic of these particular Rabbis and
Pharisees with whom our Lord had to deal. On the face of
it, it is probable that the Pharisees in the day of their
political ascendancy would show the characteristic vices
of a dominant clergy more frequently than in the days of
national humihation and persecution. It would be grossly
unjust to the French clergy of to-day to say of them what
might justly be said of their predecessors in the time of
Louis XIV. Nor can I discuss the question of reflex
Christian influence on the later rabbinic teaching. It is
improbable that the teaching of Christianity (however
little illustrated by average Christian practice) should have
produced no influence on their Jewish critics. It would be
equally absurd to assume that the views about toleration
or the relative unimportance of ritual now adopted by the
best Roman Catholics owe nothing to Protestantism.

This will be a convenient place to examine another of
Mr. Montefiore's reflections. " I thank thee, i^ofioXoyovfxai

i82 Conscience and Christ

[which may have its usual meaning of ' confess, acknow-
ledge '], O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou
didst hide these things from the wise and understanding,
and didst reveal them unto babes" (Matt, xi. 25=Luke

X. 2l).

Mr. Montefiore asks : "Is he not only glad that God has
revealed the truth about himself to the simple, but that
he has not revealed it to the wise and the clever ? Woe to
the unbeUeving Scribes, and yet thank God for their
unbelief ! It is not pleasing to have to believe that Jesus
said this."^ For once Mr. Montefiore, in his resentment at
Christ's language towards the Scribes, seems to me a httle
too prosaic and literal. If Jesus had been educated as
a Jewish scribe or a western philosopher, and had carefully
weighed His words before giving utterance to this sudden
access of emotion. He would perhaps have said " I thank
thee that thou hast revealed to the simple what those who
pride themselves on their knowledge and their insight
have failed, with all their education and their wisdom, to
understand." If He did think of this " withholding " as
a sort of penalty for the pride of learning, would such a point
of view be wholly unjustified ? There is such a thing as
the " pride of knowledge," though it seldom equals the
pride of half-educated ignorance. I don't think Mr.
Montefiore would have quarrelled much with this saj'ing
if he had found it in the Old Testament or the Talmud.
That not all the Rabbis of our Lord's time or any other
deserved such a censure, I have fully acknowledged.

Our Lord's denunciation of the cities which had rejected
Him (Matt. xi. 21 ; Luke x. 13) may be dealt with in
much the same way. The denunciation, according to
St. Matthew, was called forth " because they repented
not " : and this is implied in the words. There is nothing
^ Syn. Gospels, 11, 604.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 183

personal about the resentment. The strongest saying,
" Thou shalt be brought down to hell," clearly cannot be
taken Hterally to mean that every man, woman and child
in Capernaum would go to hell. In so far as they are
applied to the whole city collectively, the words are clearly
metaphorical — as much so as the previous words "which
art exalted to heaven" or (R.V.) "shalt thou be exalted
into heaven ? "

(10) Undue Self -exaltation? The much-disputed doc-
trinal passage " no man knoweth the Son but the
Father," etc.^ is followed by the words : " Come unto
Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I
will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn
of Me ; for I am meek and lowly in heart " (Matt. xi.
28-29). These last words have been thought to imply
undue self-approbation. Martineau, for instance, rejected
them as inconsistent with the character of Jesus.
Taken in their context — in connexion with the contrast
(which immediately follows) between the light yoke of
His teaching and the heavy burden laid on man by the
Pharisees, I do not see that Jesus — quite independently of
any claim to Divinity or even to Messiahship — should not
have endeavoured to attract men by saying in Wellhausen's
words " that He is not haughty, and does not, Hke the
Scribes, despise the people, which knows nothing of the
Law." But the passage is in Matthew only, and is of the
kind which might well be an ecclesiastical addition.
Beautiful as the words are, spiritually true as they have

1 It would be out of place to discuss the genuineness of this
passage here. The differences exhibited by Matthew and Luke and
by different MSS. and versions are considerable. Harnack {Sayings
of Jesus, p. 295) accepts them in their simplest and least elaborated
form. It is probable that they represent some genuine saying, but
it is difficult to be confident that even Hamack's reading is abso-
lutely primitive.

184 Conscience and Christ

abundantly been shown to be, they are not unlikely in
their present form to represent the experience of the
early Church, though it is quite conceivable that some
genuine saying of Jesus about the lightness of His yoke may
underlie them. The words are largely inspired by a passage
from Jeremiah and the praise of Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus.^
Loisy doubts their historicity in the mouth of Jesus, and
remarks that for the Evangelist they mean, " le joug de
Jesus est la loi chretienne, si douce et legere relativement a
la Loi mosaique interpret ee par les pharisiens " (Avan. Syn.,

I, 913-14)-

(11) Alleged admission of moral imperfection. " Why
callest thou Me good ? none is good save one " (Mark x.
18). These words are appealed to as a proof of our Lord's
consciousness of moral shortcoming. That they represent
the true version of the saying (which the true text of Matt.
xix. 17 waters down — " Why askest thou Me concerning
the good ? ") no one who takes criticism seriously can
doubt ; nor can I regard them as merely spoken ad hominem,
from the point of view of the questioner, ignorant of the
divine nature of Him who spake. They constitute, it seems
to me, a real disclaimer of such absolute goodness as He
ascribed to the Father. Yet I do not think that they
amount to the admission of actual sin. The only evidence
for the belief in the absolute sinlessness of Jesus that can
be produced is negative evidence — the marked absence of
that sense of sin which is so prominent a feature of the
religious consciousness in the men who have otherwise
most closely approximated to the goodness of Christ.
(I assume that our view of the fourth Gospel will not
permit of our appealing to John viii. 46.) He appears not
to have felt oppressed by any consciousness of sin or
sinfulness which would constitute an obstacle to complete
^ Jer. vi. 16 : Ecclus. li. 23 sq.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 185

communion with God. Still, it is so difficult to form a clear
conception of what we mean by absolute sinlessness, and
so impossible, considering the extreme imperfection of our
record, to prove such sinlessness, that it seems to me best
to avoid attempts at definition. The picture handed down
by the Gospels presents to us the character of one in whom
we can see no consciousness or evidence of sinfulness.
That is as far as we need go. Throughout this book I have
assumed that it is because it is confirmed by the moral
consciousness of the m.odern world that we accept the
moral teaching and character of Jesus as the highest
expression of absolute and permanent moral truth that we
possess. It is chiefly the essential principles of Christian
Morality that are of importance to us, and I have admitted
the need of development in the light of later knowledge,
thought, and experience. Still, I do not allow that any
particular precept is inconsistent with these general
principles, viewed in the light of existing social conditions
and of what was then known of social laws, or that on any
occasion whatever our Lord (so far as we know) acted in
a way, or exhibited a character and temper, which can be
pronounced inconsistent with them.

I have said nothing in this connexion about the saying
in the fourth Gospel : " Which of you convicteth Me of
sin ? " (John viii. 46), or other passages which involve
similar self-assertion. The self-assertion of the Johannine
Christ does strike us just occasionally as a Httle harsh, and
inconsistent with the moral ideal which we should recognize
as becoming in a thoroughly human consciousness, and
with the character actually exhibited by the Synoptic
narratives. It is not that the things which the Johannine
Christ says about Himself may not be regarded as having
truth in them ; but it is difficult to understand how Jesus
could have thought and said such things about Himself,

1 86 Conscience and Christ

and retained the limitations without which a human
consciousness ceases to be human. To my mind it is one
of the positive rehgious gains of Criticism that we can read
the statements of the Johannine Christ as expressing a
disciple's sense of the value of Christ and His revelation
of the Father, and not as assertions actually made about
himself by an historical person engaged in controversy with
his opponents. So considered, many of these statements
may be regarded as eternal truths of the highest rehgious
value. There is real truth in the statement that Christ
was the light of the world, and that no man can come to
the Father — in the fullest and completest degree — except
through the avenue of approach instituted by this historical
revelation. But it is difficult to think of a perfectly good
human being actually making such a declaration about
Himself ; and in the light of the Synoptic Gospels it is
extremely improbable that He did so. There are no doubt
many pieces of strong, though legitimate, self-assertion in
the Synoptists, but they are of a different kind — of a
kind intelligible enough in the hght of Jesus' belief in His
own Messianic calhng. There are, too, in the Synoptists
severe things said of the Pharisaic opponents, but they are
different in character from the tremendous denunciations
of the Johannine Christ. It is a rehef to be able to regard
these last, not for purely subjective reasons, but on the
strongest critical grounds, as the work of a disciple who
had in general marvellously entered into the spirit of his
Master's teaching, but who was consciously developing
rather than reporting that teaching, and who looked at it
in the light of a theological theory, which was itself part of
the development. I prefer to think of sayings like "All
who came before me were thieves and robbers " as a
disciple's impassioned tribute to his Master rather than
as the Master's words about Himself.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 187

(12) The Parable of the Marriage Feast : Humility for
the sake of Reward (Luke xiv. 7-1 1). " When thou art
bidden, go and sit down in the lowest place, that when he
that hath bidden thee cometh, he maysay unto thee, Friend,
go up higher : then shalt thou have glory in the presence of
all that sit at meat with thee." This has been objected to on
the ground that it makes the desire for honour the motive
for humility, and Jo. Weiss has suggested that it is a
certain section of the Christian community that is here
speaking rather than Jesus. I imagine that to win the
favour of God would have seemed to Jesus too pure a
motive to be identified with ordinary ambition or love of
honour. And no one could well demur to His thinking so, if
only the conception of God is kept high and pure enough.
There cannot be too much desire to be approved by One
whose judgements are absolutely just. It is the form
which the desire to obey the Categorical Imperative
necessarily assumes to the Theist, though, no doubt, the
desire to win favour with God may easily degenerate into
an ambition which is none the less selfish because the
reward is posthumous. Others have taken it merely as a
piece of practical advice. It is not bad or degrading advice
to say, " It is better to leave it to others to give you a high
place than to take it yourself." But this does not seem to
me much in the spirit of Jesus, though there is no reason
why the greatest of ethical teachers should not sometimes
have given homely, practical advice in matters of the
minor morals. It is quite possible that the Evangehst or
tradition may have given some genuine saying of Jesus
a turn which made it a warning against undue ambition
for ecclesiastical office.

(13) The discouragement of Prudence. It has often been
suggested that the teaching of Christ omits that whole side
of Morality which may be summed up in the word Prudence.

i88 Conscience and Christ

The command not to be anxious for the morrow (Matt. vi.
34) may be taken as a sufficient illustration of the teaching
which is objected to. Such an injunction, it may be said,
would, if generally acted upon, be in the highest degree
injurious to the interests of Society. It would tend to
destroy the commercial prosperity of a modern industrial
community, and would produce a population of Neapolitan
beggars. What are we to say to this suggestion ? In the
first place, I would submit that the objection probably
owes a good deal of its plausibility to the mistranslation
" Take no thought " instead of " Be not anxious." In the
second place, it must be remembered that the neglect of
material interests which was prescribed by Christ was only
comparative. It was in comparison with the Kingdom of
Heaven that the question of meat and drink was un-
important. And, thirdly, we must remember that in a
community which did systematically put the Kingdom of
God first, no socially injurious consequences could result
from the preference. In a community in which everyone
did systematically care for the things of others and not for
his own things, there could be no neglect of the general
welfare in material any more than in higher ways. If all its
members did systematically seek first the Kingdom of God
and His righteousness, the other things certainly would be
added to such a community. Unselfishness would be as
powerful a stimulus to industry and invention as selfishness.
That is a proposition which can be established from the
point of view of the most severe economic Science. When
anything like a sociahstic or communistic community has
been realized, it has often been attended by the highest
economic prosperity. Whatever difficulties may have
arisen, whatever objections there may be to such com-
munities from other points of view, want of sufficient food
and raiment has rarely been among them. The practical

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 189

difficulty lies in extending such systems from a com-
munity of carefully selected enthusiasts to communities in
which men of all characters have to be included. When
the teaching of Jesus comes to be taken as the working
rule of life for communities of average men, it undoubtedly
needs to be interpreted by much complementary teach-
ing. It can be easily shown that to earn one's own living
and not become burdensome to others is a duty which
results directly from the fundamental Christian principle of
love to one's neighbour ; but undoubtedly it is a deduction
or corollary which required to be pointed out and insisted
upon. St. Paul discovered that necessity, and supphed the
complementary teaching required.

Mr. Montefiore has some fine remarks on this text :
*' 'Not to be anxious' means to have a free heart, to be
courageous and active, to accept our life every day fresh
from God's hand and to trust in Him. But such com-
posure of mind is not only not a hindrance, but is even an
inexhaustible source of strength for a successful struggle
for existence. And how shall we attain such freedom from
anxiety ? Jesus says to us, ' Fill your soul with a great
purpose, endeavour after the kingdom of God, battle for
the victory of good in the world, strive after personal
perfection, and then what has hitherto oppressed you will
appear to you petty and insignificant ' " {Syn. Gospels,


(14) The alleged impossibility of Universal Love. It is
surprising to find intelligent persons finding a difficulty
in Christ's requirement of Universal Love on the ground
that it is impossible to love all men equally. It is not
Christ alone but almost all the higher Moralists who have
used the term " love " to indicate two things : (i) a state
of the desires, emotions, and will directed towards the good
of one's fellows, and (2) the spontaneous feehng of special

igo Conscience and Christ

attachment to particular persons — affection such as our
Lord is recorded to have expressed for the rich young man,
for Lazarus and his sisters, for the " disciple whom Jesus
loved." ^ This fact — I suspect a universal fact — of language
has obviousl}' a foundation in the facts of moral Psychology.
The ideal relation between human beings is one in which
the will of each is as steadily directed towards the good of
every other human being as it is towards his own good ^v
that of persons towards whom he feels the strongest
emotional attraction ; and in proportion as this attitude is
reahzed, an emotion is felt which is to some extent the same,
though to some extent different, from the feeling entertained
towards friends. The feeling entertained towards the per-
sonal friend is the feeling of good-will based upon personal
liking or attraction. Language can only express the ideal
feeling towards one's fellows as such by generalizing the
terms naturally used to indicate personal affection (dyaTr^,
(fnXia, amor, dilectio, caritas). A reasonable Ethic will
approve of this generalization without denying that the
feeling becomes in some waj's different by being extended
towards a large circle of persons, known and unknown.
When Aristotle said that one ought to be a greater friend
to truth than to beloved individuals, nobody takes him to
mean that one must feel towards truth exactly as one does
towards one's nearest friends or relations. There is a kind
of thoughtlessness which is possible in theological (or anti-
theological) discussion which cultivated men are never
guilty of in any other connexion.

Sometimes the same kind of objection is made to the
place which the love of God occupies in the Christian ideal.
The objector asks, for instance : " Did any man ever love

^ Mark x. 21 ; John xi. 5, xx. 2. Cf. Aristotle's use of

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