Copyright
Percy Gardner.

Evolution in Christian ethics online

. (page 9 of 15)
Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 9 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the people is an affair of the Church ; but
that so long as Christians behave with
outward decency their maxims of conduct
are their own affair, and not the business of
the Church. The ethical ideas, the urging
of which is the main purpose of the synoptic
gospels and the Pauline epistles, are too
seldom mentioned in the pulpit or in the
discussions of Convocation and the Church
Societies.

I cannot think that the standing aside of
the churches in ethical matters is a satisfactory
phenomenon, or one destined to be permanent.
I fully agree with the preface to the Com-
mination Service in our Prayer Book, that it
is greatly to be desired that more ethical
discipline should be exercised by modern
churches. But the Commination Service,
with its strongly Hebraic and archaic char-
acter, is sadly out of date. Nor is it likely



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF CHARITY 143

that the Western world will, as things stand,
agree to place such discipline in the hands
of the clergy. John Wesley, with his usual
insight into things spiritual, introduced into
his society the discipline of the class-meeting,
to be a kind of democratic confessional. But
the class-meeting, I understand, is in these
days sadly diminished in dignity and useful-
ness ; and it may be doubted whether it can
be revived.

But setting aside the question of the possi-
bility of any external and authoritative dis-
cipline, surely in all Christian societies in
which the spirit of the Founder still bears
sway, the relations of the members one to
another ought not to fall to the low and
unspiritual level which ordinarily holds in
worldly society. Every Christian who wor-
ships Christ and sometimes partakes of the
Christian Communion must feel a spiritual
tie binding him to his fellow-Christians of a
different and a more sacred character than
that of civil society. On this subject, how-
ever, it is impossible here to enlarge.



VII

THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF
FORGIVENESS

THE weak-kneed and sentimental view of
Christianity, which accepts the divine kindness
but not the divine justice, which believes in
heaven but neither in purgatory nor hell, was
lately very rife in England. It cannot but
have been severely checked by the terrible
experiences of late years. I propose in the
present chapter to consider it in reference to
the Christian law of forgiveness, forgiveness
both divine and human.



In rude and stern ages, 1 such as our race has
passed through, when barbarian passions were
hard to restrain, and men were ready to perse-
cute and even put to death those whom they

1 Parts of the following pages are taken from an article
in the Modern Churchman, vol. iv. (1915).

144



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 145

regarded as having done them some kind of
harm, it might well be the duty of Christian
leaders to urge upon their followers beyond all
other virtues, gentleness, mildness, slowness to
take offence. When St Paul preached those
virtues, the Christians were a small band in the
midst of a great heathen population, and the
exercise of the gentler virtues was almost a
necessity of their existence. By such virtues
the Church diminished the hostility of its foes,
and bound its members together in close union.
By such virtues the Christian missionaries
fascinated the fierce barbarians of the north,
and the clergy built up a new and stable form
of polity in the countries where Roman civilisa-
tion was decaying. But the opposite vice to
that of barbarous fierceness is in England now
more perilous to us. Moral anaemia, the lack
of fixed principles of conduct, conformity to
fashions which cut across the paths of right
and wrong ; these are our besetting sins, and
perhaps the same Christian religion which
quelled the vices of barbarism may furnish a
remedy against those of over-civilisation.

I may perhaps best illustrate the difference
between humanity and indifference if 1 discuss
in more detail the working of the two in the
matter of the forgiveness of injuries. Here
perhaps as much as anywhere we may discern

10



146 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

how the spread of moral laxity and intellectual
indolence wars against real Christian ethics.
We often hear a man say, " So and so did me
an injury ; but I did not resent it ; I practised
the Christian virtue of forgiveness." Here we
reach the root of the matter. What then is
the Christian teaching in regard to forgiveness ?
There is in the Gospel no more clear and de-
cided teaching than is recorded in regard to
this matter.

In the Sermon on the Mount there is
certainly preached the way of non-resistance
to evil. And if a man or a society consistently
and literally follows that teaching, that man
or society will be in closer relation to the
Founder of Christianity than other people.
If a man turns the left cheek to one who
smites him on the right, gives his cloak to one
who has robbed him of his coat, bestows with-
out inquiry his goods upon all who ask of him,
takes no thought whatever for the morrow,
such a man may be one of the great spiritual
heroes of the world. In history we know of
some who have thus acted consistently ; in the
history of Christianity St Francis is perhaps
the nearest. For such the question of forgive-
ness of injuries could not arise ; for, not op-
posing or resenting injuries, they could have
nothing to forgive.



PHE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 147

But in various parts of the synoptic teaching
;he doctrine of forgiveness, as it applies to the
>rdinary Christian living in the world, and not
practising the doctrine of non-resistance, is set
brth in the clearest way possible. That it
ihould have been, in the course of Christian
ristory, so often and so bitterly misunderstood,
ind so little practised, may well seem a marvel.
Fo begin with, in the Lord's Prayer, and the
verses which follow in Matthew, the great
jrinciple of it is distinctly formulated. It is
)laced on a lofty and thoroughly theological
msis. Men can only hope for or expect the
brgiveness of God for their sins, so far as they
brgive their brethren's trespasses against them-
;elves. To anyone who at all reflects on what
le is saying, the repetition of this petition
nust needs be accompanied with some search-
ng and even sinking of the heart. It is one
)f the most terribly severe passages in the
Gospel. The spirit of it is quite different
? rom that in which Mohammedans, for ex-
imple, appeal to a Deity so merciful and
)enevolent that he will easily absolve them.
Christian experience shows the way of God's
brgiveness, and that is the way which we
)ught to follow in our forgiveness of our
? ellow-men.

How then does God forgive ? Certainly not



148 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

by being lax and indifferent, and by looking
on sin as a light matter. And as certainly not
by wholly removing, in the case of those who
repent, the whole consequences of the mis-
doing. The man who ruins his health bjj
dissipation will certainly not find it suddenljj
restored when he repents and returns to bette^
courses. He has by pains and wisdom td
rebuild it if he can. The man who is tempted
into crime will be punished by divine as well
as by human law, even if he be penitent. God
removes the guilt and blots out the transgres]
sion ; he may restore peace of mind and rene"vi
the relation of spirit with spirit. But thd
consequences of the crime go on working in
the world ; and so long as anyone is suffering
as a result of the crime, the man who corm
mitted it has no right to forget.

This distinction between forgiveness of siDJ
and remission of the punishment is what theotj
logians mean when they contrast nature witfl
grace. Nature never forgives, but inexorably
proceeds to develop the consequences, not
only of misdeeds but of neglect or ignorancd
of her laws. Divine grace comes in, not to
destroy the course of nature, but to lift thd
whole transaction into a higher and spiritual
sphere, until the punishment which comes in
the course of nature seems a small and evan-



DHE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 149

jscent thing. And more : since the whole
icheme of the universe shows spirit working
>ut into material manifestations, the change of
ipirit may even affect and temper the physical
esults of wrong-doing, not in a cataclysmic
ind miraculous but in a gradual and evolu-
ional way. Thus the process of the divine
brgiveness shows alike the mercy and the
ustice of God ; but the mercy as after all the
lominant factor from the higher or spiritual
>oint of view, though not in a merely secular
ispect.

It may be thought that a somewhat different
leaching as to the divine fprgiveness prevails
n the parable of the Prodigal Son. But a
:loser consideration shows that this is not the
;ase. In that beautiful tale the repentance is
especially emphasised. The real stress of the
vhole parable lies on the value of the spirit,
ind the delight with which alike angels and
rood men greet the human soul which turns
rom evil to good, which was dead and becomes
dive again. The humble repentance of the
ion and the loving and overflowing delight of
;he father are depicted : and there the narrative
itops. And of all the thousands to whom the
;ale has come as a shaft of heavenly light,
probably very few have felt that anything
nore was needed.



150 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

But, if such be the nature of divine forgive-
ness, it is clear that it takes a line too high for
man to follow, except at a humble distance.
" Who can forgive sins, but God only ? " If
a man forgives sins, it must be in a much less
sovereign fashion. No mere man has the right
to say, as Tennyson's King Arthur does, " Lo,j
I forgive thee as Almighty God forgives."]
The Church, as continuing the divine life of!
Christ on earth, may have the power to for-
give sins. In some branches of the Church!
that power is claimed ; but in the English
Church the minister does not in the ordinary
services absolve, but only claims the right to]
proclaim the divine absolution. Passing this
question, which cannot be here more fully!
discussed, we must turn to the ordinary for-
giveness of man by man. Shakespeare has
written, " Earthly power doth then show likes t
God's when mercy seasons justice." It is fully
explained in several passages in the synoptists
how nearly man can come to the divine example
in the forgiveness of sins.

The Gospels insist that because God is ever'
ready to forgive our sins, we should be ready,
if we have any sense of gratitude, to forgive
those who trespass against us. As St Paul
puts it, in what may be called a Pauline
translation of the words of Jesus, " Forgiving



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 151

one another, even as God also in Christ forgave
you." This passage has often been taken in
an unfortunate sense, as if all the sins we
might commit were already beforehand done
away with by the death of Christ. But this is
not the true meaning. I do not think that
St Paul would, any more than his Master,
teach that God will forgive sins unacknow-
ledged and unrepented of. Penitence in the
offender is a necessary part of the procedure
of forgiveness. And, as we shall see directly,
such confession and repentance is equally a
necessary part of any forgiveness of man
by man.

How little St Paul was inclined tamely to
submit to injury is shown by his memorable
answer, when the magistrates of Philippi sent
him word in the prison that he was at liberty
to depart. "They have beaten us publicly,
uncondemned, men that are Romans, and have
cast us into prison ; and now do they cast us
out privily? Nay, verily, but let them come
themselves and bring us out." The Apostle
demanded of those who had wronged him a
public apology and reparation. Then he would
forgive, but not until then.

The teaching of Jesus and of Paul in regard
to forgiveness is not, of course, altogether
original. It is a fine flower of Jewish ethics



152 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

baptised into Christianity. In a paper read
at the Oxford Congress of the History of
Religions, 1 Dr Charles shows how through the
history of the Jewish Church the teaching on
this subject changes from barbarous retaliation
to kindliness. When we reach in Ecclesiasti-
cus 2 such sayings as " Admonish thy friend, it
may be he hath not done it ; and if he have
done it, that he do it no more " ; " admonish
thy neighbour before thou threaten him : and
not being angry, give place to the law of the
Most High," we feel that there is not much
more to discover in regard to the theory of
forgiveness. What Christianity does, is not
to find a new rule, but to put the duty on a
high pedestal of love to God and to man as
the child of God. By a new enthusiasm it
transforms ethics into religion.

II

In the passage above cited, there is no exact
statement as to what our procedure towards
our fellows should be. That is more clearly
explained in two remarkable subsequent pas-
sages. In Luke (xviii. 3) we read: "Take
heed to yourselves : if thy brother sin, rebuke
him ; and if he repent, forgive him." Nothing
could be more opposed to this precept than an

1 Transactions, i. 305. 2 xix. 13.



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 153

easy and good-natured taking no notice of
wrongs done to us. We are to go to the
wrong-doer and point out the injury, and not
to forgive it, unless our brother repents. In
some verses in Matthew (xviii. 15-17) this
appeal to the erring brother is described at
much greater length : "If thy brother sin
against thee, go show him his fault between
thee and him alone : if he hear thee, thou hast
gained thy brother. But if he hear thee not,
take with thee one or two witnesses, that at
the mouth of two witnesses or three, every
word may be established. And if he refuse to
hear them, tell it unto the church : and if he
refuse to hear the church also, let him be to
thee as the Gentile and the publican."

There is an obvious difficulty in this passage,
which must not be shirked. The word church
(eKK\ri<ria) surprises us : for if these be the actual
words of Jesus, church can only mean the
synagogue to which any of the disciples may
have usually resorted. It cannot have meant
a Christian assembly, for in the lifetime of
the Founder there were none such. There
was only one society : and in that there was
a present master and ruler, so that an appeal
could be referred to him only. It may be that
the words, in their present form, belong rather
to the time when Christian communities were



154 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

forming in various places, some far from
Jerusalem, and when each of the little societies
was a self-governing unit, like that Church of
Corinth, which could meet in full assembly to
deliver over one of its members to Satan, in
the hope of his final repentance. 1

The phrase, "a Gentile and a publican,"
also, though it has the air of belonging to
the earliest history of Christianity, can
scarcely have come from "the friend of
publicans and sinners." Yet in all probability
some genuine saying of the Saviour lies
behind the words of the Evangelist^

The process to be followed in regard to an
injury is set forth with an exactness which
is seldom met with in the new legislation.
When one member of the little society does
an injury to another, the aggrieved person is
first to go to the injurer, and to point out
the fault, and if he will not allow that he
was wrong, the aggrieved person is to refer
the matter to common friends or persons
trusted for impartiality. If these agree with
him, but the injurer remains obstinate, then
the dispute must be taken on to the social
and spiritual unit to which both belong. And
he who will not hear the decision of this little
commonwealth, must be treated as a trans-

1 1 Cor. v. 5.



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 155

gressor of the law of Christian charity, as no
longer bound by the common bond of the
society, which has the right to expel him.

It is quite clear that, according to the
teaching of the Saviour, an injury done by
one Christian to another is no light matter,
nor one which the injured person has a right
to overlook. That would be not to take sin
seriously. An injury is an offence against
the bond which unites all one to another
and to the Father in Heaven. To overlook
it would be to show contempt for that bond,
and to do harm to the transgressor. The
transgressor has a moral claim that his action
shall be taken seriously, that his sin shall be
shown him so that he may have an oppor-
tunity of correcting it. The actual harm
done may be but slight ; that is not the
important thing ; the mischief lies in a wrong
attitude of one spirit towards another, which
is a matter of infinite moment.

It must also be remembered that the person
who supposes himself to have been wronged
may be mistaken. If he decides simply to
pass the matter by, he may be doing wrong
by harbouring an unjust suspicion against a
neighbour. If he says, "I know the deed
was wrong, but I forgive it," he assumes a
position of intolerable superiority. The other



156 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

has a right to say, " I ask no forgiveness ;
it is not proved that I was wrong." The
only way of untying the knot is by first
seeking a personal explanation, and if that
leads to no reconcilement, by referring the
matter to a few friends. I think that anyone
who reflects will see how right is the precept
of Jesus, how thoroughly wise as well as
Christian is the procedure which he sanctions.
It is impossible to forgive any man until he
acknowledges that he has done wrong. If he
persists in his action, the society may rightly
make him feel that he thus cuts himself off
from the common life.

With the formation of a separate society,
or separate societies, clearly marked off from
the surrounding Jewish and Greek population,
the circumstances would be changed. With
St Paul charity, Christian love, belongs to
the members of the society only. And in
his view, the Christian doctrine of forgive-
ness, as a means of restoring charity, would
also be confined to the Church. He advocates
in all his epistles a kind and gentle and long-
suffering behaviour towards all men. But
the relation of Christians towards one another
being based on the relation to Christ, is quite
different from the relation of a believer to
an unbeliever. Hence he is horrified at the



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 157

notion of referring a dispute between Chris-
tians to a pagan tribunal. Only a Christian
can discern what sorts of conduct are really
in disaccord with the law of charity. And
a Christian must needs regard an injury done
to him by a fellow-believer as an infinitely
more serious thing than an injury received
from one outside the society. St Paul's
advice that, in the last resort, a harmer of
the society shall be formally expelled from
it is in close accord with the principles laid
down in the Gospels. Even the theological
motive so prominent in the Gospels is ap-
pealed to, "forgiving each other, even as
God also in Christ forgave you." 1

St Paul does indeed, in one passage, speak
of the patient endurance of a wrong from a
Christian brother. Rather than appeal to
heathen tribunals, the Christian, he says,
should endure wrong, should suffer himself
to be defrauded. 2 But it is clear from the
context that he regards this as an extreme
case. A disciple should rather suffer an
injury than drag a brother before a heathen
tribunal. As so often happens in the Pauline
epistles, the writer is led on to say what he
would scarcely have uttered in cold blood.
He is, as it were, out of breath with indig-

1 Eph. iv. 32. 2 1 Cor. vi. 7.



158 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

nation at disregard of the sacred bond of
Christian love. He does not say or imply
that the Christian should take no action when
he is wronged, but only that when he fails of
all redress by the recognised means, he should
desist. The community is urged to see to it
that no occasion should arise for this abandon-
ment of just claim. There is in the whole
passage no real dereliction of principle.

In modern days we have again a marked
change of conditions. The Christian society
is no longer a small band of wandering mission-
aries, nor is it a constellation of small com-
munities rigidly cut off from the outer world.
Europe and America are at least in a measure
Christian, 1 and only fanaticism can decide
rigidly which men are Christians, and which
are not. The change tells more against the
precepts of St Paul than against those of his
Master, since in his writings the temporary
element is more prominent. But in this
matter of forgiveness, it is impossible to find
any loftier principle or any practical course
more satisfactory than those laid down in the
Gospel of St Matthew. They combine in the
highest degree worldly wisdom and practical
warm-heartedness with a lofty doctrine of
God and man.

1 Now, alas ! we feel bitterly in how small a measure.



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 159

It is clearly the duty of those who think
that a neighbour has done them an injury, first
to be sure of their facts. And if such investi-
gation does not alter the sinister aspect of the
action inquired into, the only humane and
manly, as well as Christian, course is to ask
an explanation from the person supposed to
have done the injury. If he confesses that he
has done wrongly, all the force of Christian
teaching bids and compels us to forgive. If
he maintains that his action was justified, or
only in retaliation for injuries received, then
the reference of the matter to one or two
impartial and trusted friends is the natural
next move, if under the circumstances it be
possible. Beyond this in modern days it is
not easy to go, because the various churches
do not, as a rule, attempt to be judges and
dividers in such matters. But it is quite
contrary to the Christian teaching to think
that between injurer and injured things should
go on as before. Men should be very unwill-
ing to take offence, should be gentle and
charitable, and ready to meet advances half
way ; but moral indifferentism is a mere dis-
ease, and we have no right to regard as still
existing a bond which another has by de-
liberate action broken. Above all, we have
no right to be sure that a man has acted



160 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

wrongly towards us, and yet not to think the
worse of him for it.

It may perhaps be thought that this serious
way of regarding offences would make the
world a difficult place, would fill it with dis-
sension and strife. As I have before observed,
it requires as a supplement a gentle and quiet
spirit, not anxious to take umbrage, and not
devoid of tact. But if thus modified, I would
submit that it would tend not to the severance,
but to the refinement and strengthening of
friendships. To pass by an injury necessarily
hardens the heart and makes one callous.
But if a man could take the line of being very
loth to believe that a friend wished him evil,
and when he was obliged to believe it, of going
in sorrow to the friend to remonstrate with
him, surely in most cases the end would be
the knitting up of a closer friendship than
before. Love which has never known a dis-
pute is commonly far less warm than love
which has known disputes and has also known
reconcilement after quarrel. A typical example
in literature is the dispute of Brutus and Cassius
in Shakespeare's Julius Ccesar, which begins
with recrimination, and ends in brotherhood.

And perhaps human forgiveness may follow
the ways of divine forgiveness in the matter of
the modification of consequences. We have



THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF FORGIVENESS 161

seen that divine grace does in a measure
modify the severe rigidity of nature by work-
ing within the spirit in such a way as to
temper the painful consequences of wrong-
doing. It may sometimes be possible, when
a man forgives one who has injured him, to
make use of the occasion to do the injurer a
kindness ; and this would certainly be a modest
and human imitation of the ways of God.

If the above interpretation is correct, it will
be evident how far removed are laxity and
indifference from the Christian teaching about
forgiveness. We have oscillated from the one
extreme to the other. In hard and primitive
societies, men find it very hard to forgive.
They long to take revenge for injuries, and to
forbear to take it when an opportunity offers
requires a hard inward struggle. In such
societies, indeed, revenge for injuries is usually
regarded as a duty ; and the man who takes


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 9 of 15)