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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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remark that in this matter the extremer eschato-
logical critics have shown no superiority to the
old-fashioned Liberal Protestant Theologians whom
they affect to despise.

I proceed then to ask how far the eschatological
expectations of Jesus — whether those which I admit
He entertained or those more detailed expectations
which He may have entertained if we suppose all the
eschatological utterances attributed to Him to be
genuine — have actually coloured His ethical teaching,
and diminished the value of it for ourselves. There
is, I believe, only one way in which the character of
our Lord's ethical teaching may have been affected by
His belief in the coming end. In the face of the ap-
proaching Judgement all other occupations, interests,
aims in life seemed comparatively unimportant beside
that of announcing that the Judgement was at hand
and calling upon men to prepare themselves for it. And
therefore He did sometimes emphasize the unim-
portance of worldly goods, and encourage His dis-
ciples to take no thought for the morrow to an extent
which would require some correction before it could
be literally applied to the case of those who do not
believe that the world is just coming to an end. The
essential principle even of such sayings does, however,

64 Conscience and Christ

remain eternally true. " Seek ye first the King-
dom of God and His righteousness." The Kingdom
of God first, all else afterwards. If we refuse to accept
that principle, it will be because we do not care
for righteousness as much as Christ, not because our
eschatological ideas are different from His. Here,
as elsewhere, we must distinguish between eternal
principles and particular applications. It is true that
to some men He did address the invitation, as the
supreme thing to be done for the moment, to leave
their ordinary occupations and join His missionary
band. He did not, it would appear, impose that
task upon all His hearers : the call which He addressed
to the Twelve and to some others was a call (as M. Paul
Sabatier has remarked) not to a new religion, but to a
new apostolate. The call was addressed to those
whom He judged fit for it. And, as we look back upon
the work of Jesus and His Apostles in the Ught of
history, was He after all so very much mistaken as to
the supreme importance of this task ? He was en-
gaged, according to the Eschatologists, in trying to
save a small section of one Jewish generation from a
terrible calamity which awaited the unrepentant in a
few months or a few years' time, after which the
eftects of His preaching would end. In the light of
history we see that He was really sowing the seeds
of a vast spiritual revolution, founding a new religion
instead of regenerating an old one — a religion which
was to convert the whole Roman Empire within some

Ethics and Eschatology 65

few centuries, which has now after nearly two thousand
years spread to the remotest corners of the world, and
has so far proved itself to be the only one of the ancient
historical religions which can hold its own in the light
of modern Science and modern Culture. Surely the
task of preaching what Jesus called the Kingdom of
God really was the most important task to which any
human being could then and there have addressed
himself. Doubtless the task was conceived by Himself
and His followers under the limitations of Jewish
thought : but that did not affect its essential import-
ance. If Jesus was not the Messiah as Jewish thought
conceived Him, it was only because He was so much
more : if the ideal of a Messianic Kingdom, as He and
His disciples expected it, was not to be realized, the
Kingdom that they really did set up was something
much greater than they contemplated. Like all the
world's greatest spiritual builders, they builded much
better than they knew. Jesus was not wrong then in the
advice which He gave to the best men of His own
generation. With all our fuller knowledge and larger
experience, we could not wish that He should have
taught, or that they should have acted, differently.

But what of the appHcation of that call to ourselves ?
No doubt in order to apply it to the conditions of
modern life, we must to some extent translate the
conception of the Kingdom into terms of modem Ufe.
For us the light of Science and the course of History
have dispelled the dream of a speedy return of Jesus

66 Conscience and Christ

upon the clouds of Heaven. But how far need that
modify our conception of the Kingdom ? It is neces-
sary that we should face this question, because so
much of Christ's ethical teaching was conveyed under
the form of parables about the Kingdom. If we can-
not make the Kingdom mean something modem, there
is a large part of Jesus' teaching which will mean
nothing at all for us. I have endeavoured to show you
that, though the original conception was that of a
future, catastrophic Kingdom, Jesus did also in all
probability speak of a Kingdom which should come
gradually, which was actually coming gradually in
a quiet, unobtrusive, uncatastrophic development, as
individual souls listened to His message, and as a Uttle
society formed around Him in which God's will was
being already done. If this meaning of the King-
dom was for Him, in a sense, a secondary meaning, it
is clear that to us it must be the primary one. The
Kingdom of God, after all, means only the reign of
God. To bring about a reign of God in human society
is surely the true conception of the supreme end of
human life. And then there is a sense in which the
futurist interpretation of the Kingdom will always be
the right one. Of course, if we think that the idea of
a future life better than the present was a baseless
or even a demoralizing dream, then, indeed, we should
have arrived at an ethical ideal which would be
fundamentally irreconcilable with the deepest ideas
of Jesus. But if we share the hope of Immortality,

Ethics and Eschatology 67

then it makes little difference, from an ethical and
religious point of view, whether the entrance upon
this future life was to be effected by a sudden catas-
trophe or by the departure of individual souls from
the present scene and their reawakening in some other

And there is no real incompatibility between these
two aspects of the Kingdom of God — the present
ethical aspect of it, and the future or " transcendental "
aspect. The late Father Tyrrell in one of his last
books, Christianity at the Cross-roads, adopted a
curious attitude towards this eschatological question
which has attained a certain popularity in England,
He agrees with the extreme Eschatologists that the
teaching of Jesus was Eschatology and very little else,
and that the eschatological hopes which He cherished
are a delusion. But, instead of drawing the inference
" Christianity cannot be the Religion of the Modern
World," he infers on the contrary that the Christianity
of the modern world must be equally eschatological.
For him the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God has
absolutely nothing in common with that hope of a
gradual improvement in the social and spiritual con-
dition of Humanity in which Protestant Liberal
Theology has been disposed to find its deepest meaning.
Tyrrell pours ridicule upon the modern idea of indefi-
nite progress, moral advance, social improvement. His
view of the present condition of the world is pro-
foundly pessimistic, and he treats the hope of any

68 Conscience and Christ

serious improvement in it as absolutely baseless. The
only hope for the future that there is must be concen-
trated upon another world than this. The essence
of Christianity must always lie in the dream of a new
heaven and r. new earth. By the vulgar, it seems to be
suggested, that expectation will always be accepted
in some rather literal and materiaUstic sense : more
cultivated Christians will treat it as a symbol of a
somewhat vague hope for a better world beyond the
grave which will supply a sort of spiritual anodyne for
the irremediable badness of life, even if it is actually
doomed to eventual disappointment. ^

I venture to think that this attempt to combine a
pessimistic contempt for the present life with
optimistic hopes for the future is profoundly illogical
and self-contradictory. For upon what in the last resort
are our hopes of Immortality founded ? For those at
least who are not prepared to base them entirely upon
the historical evidence for a bodily Resurrection of
Christ, it must rest chiefly upon our conception of the
character of God. It is no doubt just because the
present life does not seem good enough to be the sole
end of creation for a just and a loving God that we
feel constrained to regard it as the educational prepara-
tion for — or the introductory stage of — something
better. To deny altogether the existence of real evil

* A much more sober and intelligible account of Father Tyrrell's
position is given in the last of his Essays on Faith and Immortality.
There is much in this volume with which I feel great sympathy.

Ethics and Eschatology 69

in this life does no doubt destroy all logical basis
for the belief in Immortality, unless indeed the position
be taken that the sole real evil in this present life is its
brevity and its sudden termination. And as a matter
of fact most of those philosophers who do take an
optimistic view of the present, or explain away the
existence of real evil under cover of a belief in a super-
moral Absolute, are avowed disbelievers in anything
like a personal Immortality. We may admit the
radical incompatibility between such Optimism as
this and the religion founded by Jesus. Christianity
treats the evil in the world as real evil. But because
we admit the existence of some evil in the world, that
is no reason why we should believe that the evil is
dominant, and always destined to remain so. If we
get rid of the popular notion of Omnipotence as a
power to do anything or any combination of things
which we take it into our heads to imagine, we must
regard God as really contending against a real evil, and
ourselves as called upon to become in the most literal
sense fellow-workers with Him. But this is scarcely
a possible position for those who hold that all their
efforts are by some divine decree or some impersonal
fate doomed to utter disappointment so far as the
present life is concerned, though there is a bare off-
chance of some better life beyond the grave. The very
same considerations which make us hopeful for the future
of the individual soul hereafter should forbid our alto-
gether despairing of the present Ufe. A Theology which

yo Conscience and Christ

bids men love and serve one another because God works
with them cannot despair of a brighter future — though
not necessarily an actual extinction of evil and of
struggle — for Humanity on earth. And therefore for
us, as for Jesus, there is no essential incompatibility
between that sense of the Kingdom of Heaven in
which it means the hope of a better world beyond for
the individuals who pass away from this life and that
sense of it in which it means a better social state to
be gradually set up on this earth by the progressive
penetration of human society with the principles
which Jesus taught. The Kingdom of God must be
for us an ideal to be realized in part here, more com-
pletely hereafter. The fact that we no longer anticipate
the sudden winding up of the imperfect Kingdom and
the sudden appearance of a perfect one by a catas-
trophic world-] udgement is, ethically speaking, an
unimportant detail. We can accept Jesus' funda-
mental idea that the supreme object of human life
should be the promotion of the Kingdom in the sense
of an ideal social state. That conception already
implicitly involves the notion which, we shall see, is
developed in the actual teaching of Jesus — that the
duty of mutual love is the best summary of human
duty. The conception of the Kingdom of God may
be regarded as expressing fundamentally the same
idea as Kant's notion of the Categorical Imperative,
with this additional advantage — that it expresses not
merely the bare " form " of the Moral Law, but also,

Ethics and Eschatology 71

when it is read in the light of the rest of Christ's
teaching, the most essential element in its true con-
tent. ^

Of course it is a priori conceivable that, though there
is no necessary incompatibility between eschatological
hopes and an Ethic of eternal significance, the teach-
ing of Jesus might have been so far affected in detail
by these eschatological notions as to render it incapable
of becoming the concrete expression of the moral ideal
for a modem civilized community or rather for a
universal, world-wide, *' absolute " ReUgion. I shall
endeavour in future lectures to establish the two
following propositions : (i) that even in detail this
was not to any considerable degree the case — that
the teaching of Jesus was not affected by His eschato-
logical expectations even to the same extent for instance
as that of St. Paul, whose advice about marriage really
was dominated and seriously distorted by this expecta-
tion ; (2) that this was so just because the teaching
of Jesus was so much confined to fundamental, eternal,
truly ethical principles that in point of fact there can
hardly be said to be any detailed injunctions. The
details are mere illustrations — often paradoxical illus-
trations — which have, indeed, a certain colouring
which is local and temporary, but this colouring can

^ No doubt Kant's conception of Kingdom of Ends does to some
extent supply the desired content, and the conception is of course
only a philosophical interpretation of Christ's " Kingdom of God "
with the disadvantage that it leaves out the religious aspect of the

^2 Conscience and Christ

easily be distinguished from the principle which they
illustrate. Once again, everything depends upon
what conclusions we arrive at as to the actual, con-
crete character of the teaching. All I have aimed at in
this lecture is to show you that there is nothing in the
eschatological teaching of Jesus — even if we accept
the views of the extremer Eschatologists as to the
merely critical and historical questions — which would
necessarily affect the value of His ethical, and more
generally of His spiritual, teaching. The subject must
be approached with an open mind. It would be as
absurd to reject or to disparage the ethical ideal of
Jesus a priori because He entertained eschatological
hopes which we cannot share, as it would be to reject
a priori the metaphysical conceptions of Plato because
we have outgrown his physics, or to scrap-heap all
the metaphysical systems which came before the
Darwinian revolution in Biology. The parallel is
not, indeed, adequate ; for Ethics can much more
easily be separated from Apocalyptic Eschatology than
a metaphysical conception of the Universe can be
abstracted from its author's conceptions of natural law.
There is no reason then why the Ethic of Jesus should
not be an Ethic of universal, paramount, and eternal
value because He may have thought that the physical
Universe was on the eve of a vast catastrophe.

It may be suggested that, though the eschatological
ideas do not affect the truth of the moral ideal, they
do most materially affect our conception of Christ's

Ethics and Eschatology 73

Person, and so the authority of His teaching. We
are not now directly concerned with the doctrine of
Christ's Person or even with the theological aspect of
His teaching. That is not my subject. But I am
unwilling to have suggested a difficulty which it is
quite reasonable for religious minds to feel without
saying a word which may tend to meet it. In the
first place I have endeavoured to suggest that the
extent to which Jesus shared the eschatological ideas
of His time has been exaggerated, and that some of
the more definite eschatological sayings are probably
distorted or coloured by the ideas of His immediate
disciples or of the early Church. But we shall do well
to prepare ourselves for the possibility that the more
advanced Eschatologists are right on the purely
critical questions, or at least that some quite Christian
minds may think them to be right, and to ask ourselves
what we should say if it could be shown that all the
eschatological sayings were uttered and were meant in
a sense not very different from that of current expecta-
tion. I should venture to ask whether even such an
admission would demand more than a slight extension
of that doctrine of the limited knowledge of Christ
which has now, I suppose, been accepted by all serious
Theologians and by most thoughtful Christians. We
have most of us come to recognize that the theory of
the unique Divine Sonship of Jesus is not incom-
patible with the admission that He knew no more
about the date and authorship of Old Testament

74 Conscience and Christ

books or the causation of mental disease than other
men of His time. Need our Christ ology be much more
affected by the discovery that He also shared their
conceptions as to the way and the time in which God
would judge the world, and set up the Messianic
Kingdom ? We gather from one of the most gener-
ally accepted ^ of His own sayings that He did not
claim to know the exact date of the Parousia :
need it affect the fullness of His spiritual insight that
He knew — perhaps would have admitted that He
knew — almost as little about its mode ? The fact
that He accepted traditional language and even
traditional ideas on the subject which were in point
of fact mistakes, is no reason why the God who reveals
Himself in some mode and in some measure through
every human conscience, who dwells to some extent
in every human soul, should not have made His fullest
revelation of Himself in one conscience, one character,
one life.

If what we want in a doctrine of Christ's Divinity is
a supernatural guarantee for an externally communi-
cated moral code, then, indeed, our conception of
that doctrine will be profoundly modified by the dis-
covery that He could make mistakes. If, on the
other hand, belief in His Divinity is based upon the
appeal which His teaching and His character make

^ Some doubt the genuineness of "neither the Son," but this
omission does not affect the disclaimer of such knowledge for

Ethics and Eschatology 75

to heart and Conscience, the force of that appeal will
be in no way weakened by the discovery that it has
survived so many changes in men's conceptions of the
material Universe. That the ethical ideal presented
us by the teaching of Christ does still appeal to us in
its essential principles as the highest that we know
is the thesis which I shall endeavour to establish in
the following lectures. ^

^ The following passages from Mr. Montefiore seem to me to go
to the root of the matter in spite of his not being willing to assign to
Jesus that absolutely supreme and unique position which Christians
claim for Him : ' ' We may reasonably argue that Jesus, as a great and
original religious and ethical thinker, could hardly not have
allowed his religious and ethical views to affect his conception of
the Messiah. It is not right to call his ethical doctrine a mere
' Interimsethik.' Righteousness was to be the keynote of the new
Kingdom, as well as the passport of admission within its gates, . . .

"And among those virtues upon which he laid stress may we not
safely assume that the virtue of self-sacrifice, of service for the sake
of others, was undoubtedly one ? Is it not reasonable then to
suppose that he looked upon his own life as a service, and that
this thought may even have developed into the idea that he might
have to die in order to complete his service ? Death would not be
the end ; death was to no man the end ; certainly not to the
righteous ; least of all to the Messiah. Was the glory and was the
triumph perhaps only to come after the life of service had been
ended by a death of sacrifice ? If the principle of non-resistance
was adopted by him in his ethics for daily life, it is not unnatural
that it should have been adopted by him as regards his own special
life and his position as Messiah. Hence we see how it may have
come about that his conception of the Messiah may have been
modified. The Messiah was no more the conqueror and the warrior-
prince : what destruction there was to do would be done by God .
The Messiah would, indeed, rule in the perfected Kingdom, but this
rule was hardly looked upon in the ordinary way, and the stress was
not habitually laid upon it. The stress was rather often laid upon
the Messiah's work in the present and the near future, a work of
service, even of lowly service, and a work which was, perhaps, to
culminate in death. This, then, may have been the special develop-
ment made by Jesus to the conception of the IMessiah ; and such a

76 Conscience and Christ

view would fit in with the supposition that Jesus identified the
Messiah with the mysterious Man (Daniel vii. 13) who was to be
sent by God at the great crisis to superintend the final consumma-
tion, and that he beUeved that this Man was himself — himself
as he was to be in his glory, rather than himself as he then was "
{Syn. Gospels, I, 53-4).

" The real greatness of Jesus consisted in that side of his teaching
which was independent of these old watchwords and battle-cries.
Though the more original and beautiful parts of his teaching are,
as it were, set in the framework of the conception of the coming
Messianic era, and were partly produced by this dominant idea, they
are yet independent of the framework, and they can be detached
from it and can survive it " {I.e., I, 58).

For a further discussion of the subject from a Christian point
I may refer to The Eschatological Question in the Gospels by the
Rev. C. VV. Emmet, and an excellent article by the same writer on
" Is the Teaching of Jesus an Interimsethik ? " in The Expositor
(Nov., 1912) ; also to The Eschatology of Jesus by Dr. Latimer
Jackson. No recent writer has done more to reduce the
eschatological element in Christ's teaching to its proper place
than Prof. B. W. Bacon (of Yale) in The Beginnings of the
Gospel Story. On the critical side of the question see Canon
Streeter's Appendix to Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem.
His general conclusion is that "in the series Q, Mark, Matthew,
there is a steady development in the direction of emphasizing,
making more definite, and even creating, sayings of our Lord of
the catastrophic Apocalyptic type, and of thrusting more and more
into the background the sayings of a contrary tenor" (p. 433).
This is, of course, quite consistent with the possibility that St. Luke
may have somewhat attenuated the eschatological element.


IN my last two lectures I have tried to remove
some a priori objections to the principle — usually
accepted alike by the most orthodox and the most
liberal forms of Christianity — that the ethical teaching
of an historical person who lived nineteen hundred years
ago can still be regarded as representing in its essentials
the highest ideal of the modern world. I admitted —
or rather strongly contended — that the authority
which can rightly be claimed for the historical Christ
must base itself upon the fact that the moral con-
sciousness of the present still recognizes its truth, and
finds its highest aspirations satisfied by the picture
which the Gospels present us of His character and His
teaching. I tried to show that, in spite of the differ-
ence between His circumstances and ours — in spite of
the eschatological medium, so to speak, through which
His teaching was given — there was no a priori reason why
such a teacher should not have taught an ethical ideal
which, in its fundamental principles, later ages might
recognize as eternally true. To-day I want to enquire
what in its fundamental principles this ideal actually
is, and whether it does as a matter of fact commend


78 Conscience and Christ

itself to the moral consciousness of the modem world
at its highest. It is needless to say that the Christian
Ethic is not presented to us in the New Testament
as a philosophical system. ^ But that does not make
it incapable of being reduced to a system which may
harmonize with the results of the deepest philosophical
reflection. By reflection on the actual practice of
great Artists we may build up Canons of Criticism, a
system of ^Esthetics, a Philosophy of taste : but the
Artist himself, as a rule, has no such system. The

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Online LibraryHastings RashdallConscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics → online text (page 6 of 23)