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practice which prevail in the world - as expressed by such names as
Catholic and Protestant, Greek Church and Latin Church, Church of
England and Church of Scotland, Episcopalian, Presbyterian,
Congregational - prove conclusively that nothing imperative has been
transmitted to us. The great Christian brotherhood, in its various
sections and diverse conditions, has manifestly been left, in these
things, to its own sense of what it is good and right to follow. Thus,
too, if we will not close our eyes to the plainest lessons of His
Providence, the Almighty Father gives us to understand that He only asks
from us the service of heart and life that is "in spirit and in truth;"
and, consequently, that we may each give utterance to our thoughts of
praise and thanksgiving, to penitence for sin, to our prayer for the
divine help and blessing, in whatever form of words, through whatever
personal agency, and with whatever accompaniment of outward rite and
ceremony we may ourselves deem it most becoming to employ.

The second, or dogmatic, conception of the Gospel has been less
generally prevalent than that of which I have been speaking. Yet, ever
since the days of Luther, not to recall the older times of Nicene or
Athanasian controversy, it has been possessed of great influence in some
of the most important Christian nations. Protestant Christianity is
predominantly dogmatic. Under various forms of expression, it makes the
Gospel to consist in a very definite system of _doctrines_ to be
believed; or, if not actually to consist in this, at least to include
it, as its most prominent and indispensable element. We are informed,
accordingly, that a man is not a Christian, cannot be a Christian, and
perhaps it will be added, cannot be "saved," unless he receives certain
long established doctrines, or reputed doctrines, of Christian faith.

What these are, it is not necessary here minutely to inquire. It is
well, however, to note with care that there would be considerable
differences of opinion in regard to them, among those who would yet be
agreed as to the necessity of holding firmly to the dogmatic idea
referred to. A Roman Catholic, of competent intelligence, would not by
any means agree with an ordinary member of the Anglican church equally
qualified. Both of these would differ in essential points from a member
of the Greek church; and the three would be almost equally at variance
with an average representative of Scotch Presbyterian Calvinism, as also
with one whose standard of orthodoxy is contained in the Sermons, and
the notes on the New Testament, of the founder of Methodism. Nay, it is
well known, even within the limits of the same ecclesiastical communion,
differences so serious may be found as are denoted, in common phrase, by
the terms _ritualistic_ and _evangelical_, and by other familiar words
of kindred import.

Among the great Protestant sects the want of harmony under notice is,
doubtless, confined within comparatively narrow limits. But there is
diversity, not to say discord, even here. No one will dispute the fact
who has any knowledge of the history of Protestant theology, or who is
even acquainted with certain discussions, a few years ago, among
well-known members of the English Episcopal Church, or with others, of
more recent date, among English Independents, - in both cases on so
weighty a subject as the nature of the Atonement.[17] Moreover, in the
same quarters, varieties of opinion are notorious on such topics as
Baptismal regeneration, the authority of the Priesthood, the inspiration
of Scripture, eternal punishment, - all of them questions of the most
vital importance, in one or other of the popular schemes of the
doctrine.

[Footnote 17: Between Archbishop Thomson, in _Aids to Faith_, and some
of the writers of _Tracts for Priests and People_; also between several
eminent Independent Ministers, in the _English Independent_ newspaper
(August, 1871).]

Now the indisputable fact referred to - the existence of this most
serious diversity and opposition of opinion and statement - affords the
strongest reason for considering it an error of the first magnitude to
regard Christianity as essentially consisting in a definite system of
theological dogmas. For is it possible to believe that a divine
revelation of doctrine, such as the Gospel has been so commonly supposed
to be, would have been left to be a matter of doubt and debate to its
recipients? Admitting, for a moment, the idea that the Almighty
Providence had designed to offer to men a scheme of Faith, the right
reception of which should, in some way, be necessary for their
"salvation," must we not also hold that this would have been clearly
made known to them? so clearly, plainly stated as to preclude the
differences just alluded to, as to what it _is_ that has been revealed?
It is impossible, in short, on such an assumption, to conceive of
Christianity, as having been left in so doubtful a position that its
disciples should have found occasion, from age to age, in councils and
assemblies and conferences, in books and in newspapers, to discuss and
dispute among themselves, often amidst anger and bitterness of spirit,
upon the question of the nature or the number of its most essential
doctrines. Of all possible suppositions, surely this is the least
admissible, the most extravagantly inconsistent with the nature of the
case.

To this consideration must be added another, of even greater weight. We
gain our knowledge of Christianity, and of the Author of Christianity,
from the New Testament. And, in this collection of Gospels and Epistles,
it nowhere appears that it was the intention of Christ or of the early
disciples, to offer to the acceptance of the future ages of the world a
new and peculiar Creed, a Confession of faith, a series of Articles of
belief in facts or in dogmas, such as the speculative theologian of
ancient and of modern times has usually delighted to deal with. This is
nowhere to be seen in the New Testament, although it speedily made its
appearance when the Gospel had passed from the keeping of the primitive
church into that of Greek and Hellenistic converts.

The only thing that can be supposed to approach this character, within
the sacred books themselves, occurs in such phrases as speak of faith in
Jesus Christ, or also of "believing" in the abstract, without any
expressed object. But in none of these instances can a dogmatic creed be
reasonably held to be the object implied or intended. What is meant, is
simply belief in Jesus as the Christ,[18] as may be at once understood
from the circumstances of the case, and may easily be gathered from a
comparison of passages. In the early days of the Gospel, the great
question between the Christians and their opponents was simply this,
whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ or not. One who admitted this,
and received him in this character, had _faith_ in him, and might be an
accepted disciple. One who denied and rejected him, as the multitudes
did, was not, and could not be, so accepted. A man could not, in a word,
be a Christian disciple, without recognizing and believing in the
Founder of Christianity.

[Footnote 18: Comp. Matt. xvi. 14-16; Acts ix. 22, xvi. 31; Rom. iii.
22, viii. 6, 9.]

This explanation of the nature of the Faith of the Gospel will be found
to apply throughout the New Testament books. An illustration may be seen
in one of the most remarkable passages, the last twelve verses of St.
Mark's Gospel, - a passage, it should be noted, usually admitted to be of
later origin than the rest of the book. Here (v. 16) we read, "He that
believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not
shall be damned" (condemned). The meaning is explained by a reference to
the related passage, in chapter xxv. of the first Gospel. Here we learn
that at the second Advent, shortly to come to pass, those who, having
received Jesus as Lord, had approved themselves by their works obedient
and faithful disciples, would by him be recognized as his, and admitted
to share in the blessings of the promised kingdom of heaven: those who
had not done so should be rejected and driven from his presence. It is
clear that there is, in such ideas, no sufficient ground for supposing
faith or belief in a creed or a dogma to have been intended by the
writer of either Gospel.

Let me further illustrate my meaning by a brief reference to an ancient
and, by many persons, still accepted formula of orthodox doctrine. This
professes to tell us very precisely what is the true Christian faith. In
plain terms it says, Believe this, and this, and this: believe it and
keep it "whole and undefiled;" unless you do so, "without doubt" you
shall "perish everlastingly."

Now my proposition is, that this kind of statement, or any thing like
it, is not to be met with in the teaching of Christ, or in any other
part of the New Testament. Had it been otherwise, - had he plainly said
that the form of doctrine now referred to, or any other, was so
essential, there could have been no room for hesitation among those who
acknowledged him as Teacher and Lord. But he has manifestly not done
this, or any thing like this. Hence, as before, we are not justified in
thinking that the religion which takes its name from him, and professes
to represent his teaching, consists, in any essential degree, in the
acceptance, or the profession, of any such creed or system of doctrine,
exactly defined in words, after the manner of the churches, - whether it
may have come down to us from the remotest times of ante-Nicene
speculation, or only from the days of Protestant dictators like Calvin
or Wesley; whether it may have been sanctioned by the authority of an
[oe]cumenical council, so called, or by that of an imperial Parliament,
or only by some little body of nonconformist chapel-builders, who, by
putting their creed into a schedule at the foot of a trust-deed, show
their distrust of the Spirit of Truth, and their readiness to bind their
own personal belief, if possible, upon their successors and descendants
of future generations.

We may then be very sure that, if the Christian Master had intended to
make the "salvation" of his followers dependent upon the reception of
dogmas, whether about himself or about Him who is "to us invisible or
dimly seen" in His "lower works," he would not have left it to be a
question for debate, a fertile source of angry contention or of
heartless persecutions, as it has often virtually been, _what_ the true
creed, the distinctive element of his religion, really is. The very fact
that this _has_ been so much disputed, that such differences do now so
largely exist before our eyes, forms the strongest possible testimony to
the non-dogmatic character of the primitive or genuine Christianity. The
same fact ought to rebuke and warn us against the narrow sectarian
spirit in which existing divisions originate, and which is so manifestly
out of harmony with "the spirit of Christ."


II.

This absence from the Christian records of all express instruction, on
the subjects above noticed, clearly warrants us in turning away from any
merely dogmatic or ecclesiastical system, if it be urged upon us as
constituting the substance, or the distinctive element of Christianity.
We are thus of necessity led to look for this in something else. But to
what else shall we turn? In what shall we find an answer to our inquiry,
as to the true idea of the Christian Gospel?

The reply to this question is not difficult. The true idea of Christ's
religion can only be found in the life and words of the Master himself.
And these it may well be believed, in their simple, rational, spiritual,
practical form, are destined to assume a commanding position among
Christian men which they have never yet held, and, in short, to suppress
and supersede the extravagancies alike of ritualism and its related
dogmatism, whatever the form in which these may now prevail among the
churches and sects of Christendom.

This conclusion is readily suggested, or it is imperatively dictated, by
various expressions in the New Testament itself. "Lord, to whom shall we
go? Thou hast the words of eternal life:" - such is the sentiment
attributed to the Apostle Peter by the fourth Evangelist. Paul has more
than one instance in which he is equally explicit: "Other foundation
can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ;" while in
another place he writes, "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he
is none of his." Jesus himself speaks in terms which are even more
decided, when he declares, "_I_ am the Way, the Truth, and the
Life."[19]

[Footnote 19: John vi. 68; 1 Cor. iii. 11; Rom. viii. 9; John xiv. 6.]

In such expressions as these we may, at the least, plainly see the
surpassing importance, to the judgment of the earliest Christian
authorities, of the personal Christ, of his teaching and example. We are
thus emphatically taught, in effect, that we must look to CHRIST, and
take HIM, in his life, his words, his devout and holy spirit, as the
impersonation of his religion. When it is asked, then, What is the true
idea of Christianity, no better answer can be given than by saying, it
is Christ himself; that it is _in_ Christ himself, in what he was and
says and does, in all that made him well pleasing in the sight of God,
as the beloved Son of the Almighty Father.

What Jesus was, in his visible life among men, we learn from the Gospel
records. We learn it from them alone; for nowhere else have we
information respecting him that deserves to be compared with theirs in
originality or fulness of detail. It is not necessary to our present
purpose to enter at length into the particulars which they have
preserved for us, or into the differences between the three synoptical
Gospels and the Fourth, in regard to the idea which they respectively
convey of the ministry of Christ. The latter Gospel, it may, however, be
observed, is usually admitted to be the last of the four in order of
time. It is also, without doubt, the production of a single mind; and
cannot be supposed, like the others, simply to incorporate, with little
change, the traditions handed down among the disciples, for perhaps a
long series of years before being committed to writing. But whatever
accidental characteristics of this kind may be thought to belong to the
respective Gospels, they all agree in the resulting impression which
they convey, as to the high character of Jesus. And, it will be
observed, they do this very artlessly, without any thing of the nature
of intentional effort or elaborate description. They state facts, and
report words, in the most simple manner, often with extreme vagueness
and want of detail. It thus, however, results, that the image of Christ
which the Evangelists, and especially the first three, unite to give us
is, above all things, a moral image only; in other words, it has been
providentially ordered that the impression left upon the reader is
almost entirely one of moral qualities and of character.

It may even be true, as some will tell us, that we have in each of the
first three Gospels, not simply the productions of as many individual
writers, but rather a growth or a compilation of incidents, discourses
and sayings from various sources, and drawn especially from the oral
accounts which had long circulated among the people, before they were
put together in their present form. But even so, the result is all the
more striking. The identity and self-consistency of the central object,
the person of Christ, is the more remarkable. Such qualities lead us
safely to the conclusion that one and the same Original, one great and
commanding personality, was the true source from which all were more or
less remotely derived. Hence, even the imperfect or fragmentary
character of the Gospel history becomes of itself a positive evidence
for the reality of the life, and the peculiar nature of the influence,
of him whose career it so rapidly, and it may be inadequately, places
before us.

It is, however, to be distinctly remembered that we reach the mind of
Christ only through the medium of other minds. So far as can now be
known, no words of his writing have been transmitted to our time, or
were ever in the possession of his disciples. To some extent, therefore,
it would appear, the thoughts of the Teacher[20] may have been affected,
colored and modified, by the peculiar medium through which they have
come down to us. Under all the circumstances of the case, this inference
is natural and justifiable. It is one too of some importance, inasmuch
as it directly suggests that, in all probability, the actual Person
whose portraiture is preserved for us by the Evangelists must have
surpassed, in his characteristic excellences, the impression which the
narratives in fact convey. The first generation of disciples were
evidently men who were by no means exempt from the influence of the
national feelings of their people, or of the peculiar modes of thought
belonging to their class. In the same degree in which this is true, they
would be unable rightly to understand, and worthily to appreciate the
teaching and the mind of Christ. This remark applies perhaps more
especially to the first three Gospels, but it is not wholly inapplicable
to the Fourth. Indeed, the fact referred to comes prominently out to
view at several points in the Evangelical narrative, - as in the case of
Peter rebuking his Master for saying that he must suffer and die at
Jerusalem; in that of the request made by the mother of Zebedee's
children; and in the anticipations ascribed by the first three
Evangelists to Jesus himself, of his own speedy return to the
earth, - anticipations which are recorded very simply, and without any
corrective observation on the part of the writer.[21]

[Footnote 20: The term _Teacher_ is constantly used of Christ in the
Gospels, though usually disguised in our English version under the
rendering "Master." Comp. e.g. Mark ix. 17, 38; Luke x. 25.]

[Footnote 21: Matt. xvi. 22, xx. 20, xxiv. 24-36; Mark viii. 31-33, x.
35-45, xiii. 24-30; Luke xviii. 31-34.]

But, whatever the hindrances of this kind in the way of a perfectly just
estimation by the modern disciple, the portrait of Christ preserved for
us by the Evangelists is, in a remarkable degree, that of a great
Religious Character. The Christ of the Gospels is, before all things, a
Spiritual Being, unpossessed, it may even be said, of the personal
qualities which might mark him off as the product of a particular age or
people. He is, in large measure, the opposite of what the disciples were
themselves, free from the feelings and prejudices of his Jewish birth
and religion. This he evidently is, without any express design of
theirs, and by the mere force of his own individuality. He is thus, in
effect, the Christ[22] not merely of his immediate adherents, or his own
nation, but of all devout men for all ages. He stands before us, in
short, so wise, and just, and elevated in his teaching, so upright and
pure in the spirit of his life, so engaging in his own more positive
example of submission to the overruling will, and touching forbearance
towards sinful men, that innumerable generations of disciples, since his
death, have been drawn to him and led to look up to him even as their
best and highest human representative of the Invisible God Himself.

[Footnote 22: That is to say, "anointed," or _King_, - in other words,
Leader, Teacher, Saviour from sin, as the Gospels also expressly term
him.]

It is very probable, however, that all this was not so fully seen by
those who stood nearest to Jesus during his brief and rapid career, as
it has been since. At least many, even the vast majority of his day,
failed to perceive it. And yet, to a Hebrew reader of the Gospels, the
greatness of his character could be summed up in no more expressive
terms than by claiming for him that he was the Christ; that he embodied
in himself the moral and intellectual pre-eminence associated with that
office. In this light he is especially represented in the first three
Gospels. In John, too, we have substantially the same thing, though very
differently expressed. In that Gospel, he is also the Christ, but he is
so by the indwelling of the divine Word. "The Word became flesh and
dwelt among us," and the glory which had been seen among men, "full of
grace and truth," was the glory even "as of the only-begotten of the
Father." Probably no language could have been used that would have
conveyed to a reader of the time a higher idea of the moral and
spiritual qualities of any human being. And this corresponds entirely
with the impression given by other writers of the New Testament, to some
of whom Jesus was personally known, - by Peter, for example, by James, by
Paul, and by the writer to the Hebrews. They evidently looked back to
their departed Master, and up to the risen Christ, as a person of
commanding dignity and spiritual power, and this not merely on account
of the official title of Messiah which, rightly or wrongly, they applied
to him, but for the lofty moral virtues with which his name was to them
synonymous.[23] He "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his
mouth," was, without doubt, the most perfect example which they could
cite of all that was acceptable in the sight of God. "The spirit of
Christ," without which we are "none of his," could be nothing else, and
nothing less, than a participation in Christ-like goodness; nor can it
therefore possibly be wrong, if we too lay the main emphasis of the
Christian profession precisely _here_, where it is laid by the apostles;
if, in other words, we pass over, or leave out of sight, as altogether
of secondary importance, or of none, those various and often conflicting
dogmas and forms and "diversities of administration," about which the
Christian world is so sorely, and for the present, so irreparably
divided.

[Footnote 23: 1 Pet. ii. 21, seq.; iv. 1-5, 13-16; James ii. 1, seq.;
Gal. vi. 22-24; Eph. iv. 13-15 and _passim_; Phil. i. 27, seq.; ii.
1-11; Rom. xiii. 14; 2 Cor. iv.]

The character of Christ stands in very intimate relations with the
miraculous powers attributed to him by the Gospels. Those powers, it is
needless to say, have been seriously called in question, as actual facts
of history, by the critical investigations of recent times. Many
persons, it may be, cannot see, and will not admit, that their value has
been affected by the inquiries alluded to. To such persons the miracles
will naturally retain whatever efficacy they may be conceived to possess
as evidence of the divine, that is, supernatural, claims of him who is
recorded to have wrought them. They are entitled to their own judgment
in the case, as well as to whatever support to Christian faith they
think they can derive from such a quarter. At the same time other
inquirers may be permitted to think differently. If the lapse of time
and the increasing grasp and penetration of critical knowledge
necessarily tend to lessen the certainty of the miraculous element of
the Evangelical history, may not this too be a part of the providential
plan - contemplated and brought about for great and wise ends? May it
not be that now the spiritual man shall be left more entirely free to
discern for himself the simple excellence of the Christian teaching and
example? left increasingly without that support from the witness of
outward miracle which has usually been deemed so important, and which is
unquestionably found to be the more commonly thus estimated, in
proportion as we descend into the lower grades of intelligence and moral
sensibility.[24]

[Footnote 24: In illustration of this remark, it is scarcely necessary
to mention the "miracles" of the Roman Catholic Church in all ages.]

But, on the other hand, if this be true, one who may thus think need not
of necessity also hold that the miracles of the Gospels did not take
place, but that the history relating to them is the mere product of weak
and credulous exaggeration. For, in truth, the ends which might be
subserved by such manifestations are easily understood. Occurrences so
unwonted and remarkable could not fail both to secure the attention of
the spectator, and make him ponder well upon the words of the
miracle-worker, and also to awaken in him new feelings of reverence
towards the mysterious Being who had given such power to men. Thus it is
readily conceivable, that a miracle might be a thing of the highest
utility to those who witnessed it and to their generation. But then, on
the other hand, it is not to be alleged that such occurrences are needed


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