Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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intended to promote in the community the spirit and
teachings of Jesus Christ. But I do not think that
any creed or combination of creeds can adequately
define Christian thought, or that any forms of
worship constitute an adequate expression of Chris-
tian experience, or that any church or all churches
united can be an adequate instrument of Christian

There lies before me as I write the creed of
Plymouth Church (Brooklyn) adopted in 1848. It
is no longer subscribed by its membe'rs, but in i860
assent was still required, and it fairly represents
the theological opinions of liberal orthodoxy at that
time. It affirms belief in one true God, Sovereign,
Infinite in Power, Wisdom and Goodness, in the
Bible as an authoritative rule of faith and practice,
in the Trinity, in the Fall of Adam and in the


vicarious atonement. I had been commissioned as
a Congregational minister, part of whose duties it
was to teach a system of theology of which these
articles were an essential part. But when I came
to study the teachings of Jesus with my fellow
students in this Congregational Bible Class, I found
that he never mentioned vicarious atonement or the
Fall of Adam or the Trinity, and while he often
quoted the Old Testament and always with a respect
if not with a reverence which he never paid to the
traditional teaching of the synagogue, he never
apparently relied upon it as an authoritative rule of
faith and practice. He said little or nothing about
the Power or Sovereignty of God, but much about
his Fatherly care and forgiving kindness; nothing
about a Trinity, though much about his own spiritual
oneness with his Father; he condemned in no un-
certain terms the sins of his time but never traced
them back to Adam; he said much about self-sacri-
fice, but nothing about priestly sacrifice to atone for
sin. He never offered sacrifice himself and never
counseled his disciples to do so; and never required
or referred to any sacrifice as a condition of the


forgiveness which he freely offered in his Father's
name to those who wished to abandon their sin and
escape from their bondage to it. 1

It was not, however, merely a Congregational
polity and a Congregational creed which I failed to
find in the teachings of Jesus; I found there no
system of ecclesiasticism and no system of theology.
Ecclesiasticism is defined by the Century Dictionary
as " devotion to the interests of the church and the
extension of its influence in its external relations."
I did not find in the life and teachings of Jesus
Christ any devotion to the interests of the church
or the extension of its influence in its external rela-
tions. Theology is defined by the Century Dic-
tionary as " the science concerned with ascertaining,
classifying and systematizing all attainable truth
concerning God and his relation to the universe.' ,
I did not find in the teachings of Jesus Christ any
endeavor to classify or systematically define all
attainable truth concerning God and his relations to
the universe. He was neither a priest nor a rabbi,

1 His direction to the leper in Mark i : 44 was to fulfill a
sanitary regulation which required a leper to get a health cer-
tificate from the priest before the ban was removed and he
could again mingle with people.


and it wa9 brought against him as an accusation
by his critics that he had never received a theological
education. He did not choose the companions of
his ministry from either priests or Rabbis ; he and his
companions were lay preachers and neither he nor
they performed priestly functions. He urged upon
his disciples the privilege of prayer and he attended
the synagogue services on the Sabbath day, but he
never urged public worship as a duty on others, and
he was as ready to preach in the private houses, in
the fields, or from the prow of a fishing boat as in a
house dedicated to the worship of God. Apparently
all places were equally sacred to him.

Nor did I find in Christ's teaching any provision
of a new theology or a new ecclesiastical system to
take the place of the old. He made no attack on
the religious forms or institutions of his time
though he evidently did not regard them of vital
importance. Born a Jew, he remained a Jew to the
day of his death, yet he commended a Roman cen-
turion as possessing greater spiritual faith than any
orthodox Israelite he had ever seen, and told his
hearers that there were pagans who would go into
the Kingdom of God and there were Israelites who


would be cast out. His teaching was not theological
but vital. He taught men, says one of his earliest
disciples, how to live — soberly, righteously and
godly, looking for the appearing of God. It has
grown increasingly clear to me with the passing
years that the most radical difference between the
teaching of Jesus Christ and that of the churches
is this : Jesus taught men how to live ; the churches
have taught men what to think: Jesus tested men
by their lives; the churches have tested them by
their beliefs.

The notion that Jesus organized a Christian
church to take the place of the decaying Jewish
church has very little evidence to support it. The
word church occurs only twice in the Gospels, and
the Greek word means assembly or mass-meeting.
It would not be inapt to translate it " town-meet-
ing". 1 In Galilee, rinding the time too short and
the work too large for his own unaided ministry,
Jesus selected twelve from among his followers and
commissioned them to preach in the villages while
he preached in the cities. 2 Later, in the larger

a See next chapter.

2 Compare Matthew 9 : 35, II : I, Luke g : 6.


region beyond Jordan, he selected seventy itinerant
ministers for a similar work. 1 The commission
was essentially the same in both cases. In neither
case was there a hint in the appointment that it
was permanent, or that the ministers were to appoint
successors, or were to continue their work after the
designated service had been rendered. In neither
case were the directions which he gave of a kind
that are applicable to our time, and no church of
our time endeavors to conform to them.

That he prescribed baptism and the Lord's Sup-
per as permanent ordinances appears to me to rest
on an equally slight foundation. Almost the sole
evidence to support this opinion is the fact that
they early became church ordinances, and the as-
sumption that he must have foreseen and intended
what in fact came to pass.

The history of baptism, as it is related to the
teaching and preaching of Jesus Christ is very
simple. Among the ceremonial washings common
among the Jews, probably the one to which they
attached the greatest importance was the baptism
of proselytes. When a pagan desired to become a
1 Luke 10 : 1-17.


Jew, he was immersed in water as a sign that he
washed away his old sins and his old superstitions
and emerged a new man. He was said to be born
again. He ceased to be a pagan ; he became a Jew.
When John the Baptizer began his ministry, it was
with the declaration that the Jew needed cleansing
no less than the pagan. You call yourselves, he
said, children of Abraham. God could make out
of the stones at your feet as good children as you
are. To emphasize his teaching he called on them
to be baptized and reenter the Church of God as
though they had been pagans. So in our own time
a civic reformer, denouncing the corruption of the
people, might call on native Americans to take out
naturalization papers and so renew their vows of
loyalty to their country. Jesus at the very begin-
ning of his ministry insisted that John should bap-
tize him; not — this is clear from their dialogue —
because he needed to be purified, nor because he
thought there was any purifying value in the water,
but because he wished to identify himself in the
public mind with the one moral reform of his time.
In spirit and purpose he was one with John the
Baptizer, though not, as he afterward explained, in


doctrine and method. While he remained at the
ford of the river Jordan, preaching with John the
Baptizer the necessity for a national repentance,
his disciples, who had themselves been the disciples
of John and had been baptized by him, adopted his
symbol, though Jesus himself did not, and they do
not appear to have employed it after they left the
Jordan — at least there is no record of their having
done so. After his resurrectioA he gave them their
commission, Go ye therefore and teach all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of
the Son and of the Holy Ghost. But this was not a
direction to baptize with water and use a prescribed
formula. In fact the disciples apparently did not
ordinarily use this formula. They baptized in the
name of Jesus. 1 It was a direction to bring all
peoples into personal relations with the universal
Father as he is interpreted by the life of his son
and by fellowship with his spirit. He required not
a sign but the life signified by that sign; and to
the existing symbol, with which they were familiar,
he gave a new significance. That this new signifi-
cance imposes that symbol and a particular method
iActs 7'38, 8: 15, 10:48, 19:5; Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27.


of its use upon the church for all time does not seem
to me a tenable proposition. The sacredness of
baptism rests upon its antiquity as a rite and its
fitness for its purpose. Certainly since it was
never administered by Jesus Christ himself, it can
hardly be called a part of the ecclesiasticism of
Jesus Christ.

Nor can the Lord's Supper be so regarded.

The passage of the Red Sea by the Children of
Israel was celebrated by a supper. This paschal
supper was a family, not a church, festivity. The
father administered it and originally himself killed
the lamb for the table. No priest had any official
part in it. Just before his death, Jesus Christ
arranged to sit down with his especial friends at this
paschal supper. He, who was not a priest, presided
at the table as the father of the household. He took
the occasion to give his friends some last words of
counsel, of inspiration, and of affection. And he
asked his disciples that thereafter, when they sat
down to the paschal supper, they should make him,
as it were, their guest; and that they should not
merely recall the deliverance of Israel at the Red
Sea, but should remember him — his life, his love,


his sacrifice. Did his words mean anything more?
Perhaps. Perhaps they meant a request that for all
time his disciples should make him their guest ; that
for all time they should break bread with him and
renew their pledge of loyalty and love; that every
household meal should be a sacred meal. But
surely this request for love is despoiled of its
highest meaning when it is transformed into a com-
mand for a ceremonial observance. Surely,
whether it be complied with in a meeting-house or
a cathedral, kneeling before an altar or sitting in a
pew, in a sacred church or in the more sacred home,
administered by a priest or, as the Last Supper was
administered, by a layman, it is not a church ordi-
nance but a family festival, truly called a " Com-
munion " because it is a feast of sacred fellowship,
truly called a " Eucharist " because it is a thanks-
giving of sacred love. It cannot be counted a part
of the ecclesiasticism of Jesus Christ.

The institutions of Christianity, however im-
portant they may be, were not framed by Christ
and imposed on his followers. They were gradu-
ally developed by his followers after his death.

The story of the life and teachings of Jesus


Christ carried out into the pagan world by his
disciples appealed to universal instincts of humanity.
That story inspired aspirations before unknown and
showed that they could be realized ; it created a new
ideal of life by portraying it as a realized ideal; it
awoke slumbering desires and transformed them
into a resolute purpose. It did more; it came to
the poor, the slave, the outcast and the despairing
as- Jesus had come to Lazarus and, like Lazarus,
they came forth from their tombs, but still bound
hand and foot with grave clothes. Christianity
converted paganism, but paganism changed Chris-
tianity. The new life took on the forms of the old.
Statues of pagan gods were renamed for the Bible
heroes and Christian saints; pagan temples were
converted into Christian churches; pagan festival
days were retained as Christian holy days; pagan
ceremonies were preserved but rechristened and
given a new significance. The Christian Brother-
hoods took on the form of organizations with which
people were familiar. In Greek communities,
where the democratic town meeting was not un-
known, the churches were democratic or Congre-
gational. In Jewish communities the converted


synagogue became a Christian church, but adopted
the form of the synagogue, which was Presbyterian.
As soon — and it was very early — as two or more
churches in a city or moderately sized district came
to coexist side by side, cooperation was desired
in the interest of both fellowship and efficiency, and
the minister of one of these churches became either
by natural preeminence in character or by the
choice of the others, an overseer over all the
churches, and so the bishopric grew up. As the
Christian religion became the official religion of
Rome, it adopted the Roman form of government;
the bishop of Rome became the head of an imperial
church and bishops and archbishops became its
provincial governors.

The teaching of the church inevitably felt the
same influence. Christian thought could not affect
pagan thought without being in turn affected.
Paul warned his disciples against mistaking phil-
osophy for religion, loyalty to opinion for loyalty
to a Person, conversion of the intellect for the con-
version of the will: — but his meaning was uttered
in vain. In the Apostolic times the one condition
of joining the Christian Brotherhood was loyalty to


Jesus and baptism as a symbol of enlistment in his
cause. By the sixth century the imperial church
had substituted for this simple expression of fidelity
to a Person the Athanasian creed with its incompre-
hensible definition o.f the Trinity " which except a
man believe faithfully he cannot be saved." Chris-
tianity had not wholly ceased to be a life, but it had
become a system, and acceptance of the system was
accounted essential to salvation. More importance
was attached to baptism than to dedication to
Christ's service. More importance was attached to
the proper celebration of the Lord's Supper than
to that fellowship of all Christian disciples with
each other and with their Master of which the
Lord's Supper had been a symbol. More im-
portance was attached to a correct understanding
of the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice than to the
practice of self-sacrifice. More importance was
attached to belief in the Trinity than to a divine
life of faith and hope and love, that is, to a life
of vision, aspiration and service. The apostle
James had said that pure religion and undefiled is
" to visit the fatherless and widows in their afflic-
tion and to keep himself unspotted from the


world." But there are even to-day many Protestant
churches and many Protestant pastors who regard
regular attendance on church services on Sunday
and on prayer meetings during the week as better
evidence of Christian piety than either keeping
oneself free from the spirit of worldliness or visiting
the fatherless and widows in their affliction. The
Christian church has provided itself with theological
meat and ecclesiastical raiment and has too often
regarded the raiment as more than the body and
the meat as more than the life. Paul defined the
church as the body of Christ through which Christ
has to carry to its completion his divine mission.
The church has defined itself as a " congregation of
faithful men in which the Word of God is preached
and the Sacraments be duly administered," and it
has now proposed to attempt a union of all the
churches of Christ on four foundations — the
Bible; two historic creeds; the two Sacraments,
Baptism and the Lord's Supper; and the Episcopate.
The notion that this would open the door to all
believers can hardly be entertained by any thought-
ful Christian. There were Old Testament saints
before the Old Testament and New Testament


saints before the New Testament; the glorious
company of the apostles and the noble army of the
martyrs existed for many years before any creed
was formulated; the church has produced no more
devoted followers of Jesus Christ than such saintly
Quakers as John Woolman and John G. Whittier;
and the Episcopate has furnished no greater
preachers of the Gospel than those of the Puritan,
the Moravian and the Methodist churches.

Jesus gave to his disciples no creed; but he in-
spires them with an ambition to study the invisible
world to which they belong and of which they are a
part and their beliefs respecting this world they have
expressed in creeds. He prescribed for them no
ritual; but he inspires in them the experiences of
penitence, reverence, gratitude, and consecration,
and these experiences they have expressed in
rituals. He organized no church; but he gave
them work to do which they could do only by
united effort, and the organizations which they
have created for that purpose are the church.

Are we then to consider the church as a human
or a divine institution? I reply, divine in its mis-
sion, divine in the spirit of life with which its


master endows it; but human in its forms of belief,
of worship, and of organization. This two-fold
character of the church has given to it a strangely
contradictory character and career, and to that
aspect of its character and career and the causes
which have produced it I next direct the attention
of the reader.



Only twice in the four gospels does the word
church occur, and in only one of those instances do
the words of Jesus throw any light on what the
nature of that church should be. But before turn-
ing to these passages it is necessary to guard against
a common error in reading the New Testament.
We naturally give to the words there the meaning
which they now bear; but this is often quite dif-
ferent from the meaning which they originally
bore. Thus the word church calls up to our mind
a picture either of the Protestant Church with its
pulpits and its preachers or of the Catholic Church
with its altars and its priests. But to suggest an
idea analogous to either picture Jesus would have
used the word synagogue or the word temple. The
word ecclesia, rendered in our English version
" Church," was in earlier versions rendered Con-
gregation, and when used in the Greek version of the



Old Testament it is still rendered Congregation.
In the Old Testament, as in classical Greek, it signi-
fied either a mass meeting of the people or a popular
assembly representing them, somewhat resembling
the American House of Representatives or the
English House of Commons. Bearing this fact in
mind, we may now turn to the passage in Christ's
Teaching in which he indicates the foundation of
his Church or Congregation.

Jesus had been preaching for about a year, and
the twelve disciples had been accompanying him,
listening to his preaching, doing a little preaching
themselves, and gradually learning the truth which
he had come to proclaim. He had taken them
apart by themselves, partly for rest, partly for per-
sonal religious instruction, — the first of those
" Retreats " which have been not any too fre-
quently held by his followers since. He pursued
the Socratic method. He asked them, " Who do
men say that lam?" " Some that thou art John
the Baptizer; some Elijah; others Jeremiah or one
of the prophets." " But who do ye say that I
am?" To this question one of the disciples
answered, "Thou art the Messiah, the son of


the living God." This answer Jesus accepted.
" Blessed," he said, " art thou, Simon, son of
Jonah, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it
unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven. And
I say also unto thee that thou art a rock, and upon
this rock I will build my Israel, 1 and the gates of
Death shall not prevail against it."

fTo this somewhat enigmatic utterance three dif-
ferent interpretations have been given. Catholics
have said that Christ founded his church upon
Peter, or at least upon the Apostles, and that to
them he gave supreme authority and conferred upon
them the right to transmit their authority to others ;
and they define the Church of Christ as a body of
disciples whose leaders have received this apostolic
ordination transmitted from generation to genera-
tion. The difficulty about this interpretation is that
Christ says nothing here or elsewhere about any
successors to Peter or the Apostles, and that there
is no indication in the New Testament that they

1 " If we may venture for a moment to substitute the phrase,
Israel, and read the words as "on this rock I will build my
Israel" we gain an impression which supplies at least an ap-
proximation to the probable sense." — F. J. A. Hort, D.D.,
" The Christian Ecclesia."


ever exercised the authority claimed by the modern

Protestants have interpreted Christ as meaning
that Peter's confession of faith in Jesus as the
Messiah and the son of God is the foundation of
the Christian Church, and that any church which
accepts this doctrine is sound and any church which
repudiates it is unsound. The foundation then is
not a person but a doctrine. The difficulty about
this interpretation is that it does not interpret. It
rubs off the slate that which Christ had put upon
it and puts something else in its place.

The third interpretation of this passage is that
the foundation of Christ's church is not Peter's
doctrine of Christ, nor Peter and the twelve as
officers in an organization not yet formed, but Peter
as a type of humanity transformed by the inspira-
tion which he had received from a year of intimate
companionship with Jesus.

Simon, the son of Jonah, was of all the apostles
the one who had the least stability of character. He
was not a rock ; he was a wave of the sea. It was
he who said, " Lord, bid me come out to thee upon
the water," but who, making the venture and begin-


ning to sink, cried, " Lord, save me." It was he
who said, " I will never deny thee ; I am ready to
go with thee to prison and to death " ; and then
rushed into the Court of Caiaphas with audacity,
only to deny his Master with oaths at the first
temptation. It was he who was the first to preach
the Glad Tidings to the Gentiles and yet, when the
hierarchy came from Jerusalem, was frightened
and refused even to eat with the Gentiles. To this
vacillating man Jesus says, " I will make a rock
of you, even of you." If he could make a rock of
Simon — and Simon's subsequent life shows that
Jesus did so — he could make a rock of any one.

What Christ says then is, not I will build my
church on you and your successors, nor, on what
you have said, but, on you as a man transformed
by the power of an indwelling Christ ; on you as a
type of a long line of humanity changed by com-
panionship with me through the coming ages.

This is the interpretation of Christ's saying
afforded by its setting. This is also Peter's own
interpretation. Writing years after to his contem-
poraries, he says,

You have had a taste of the kindness of the Lord:
come to him then — come to that living Stone which men


have rejected and God holds choice and precious, come
and, like living stones yourselves, be built into a spiritual
house, to form a consecrated priesthood for the offering
of those spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God
through Jesus Christ. 1

This is a very mixed metaphor, but these apostles
were so full of the new life that in giving expres-
sion to it they paid little attention to the rules of
rhetoric. In Peter's thought the Church is both a

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