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now to show us that God is a living Spirit in the world; or,
consequently, that religious love and veneration are in any way
dependent upon them, either as facts beheld by ourselves, or as
incidents recorded to have been seen by others who lived many centuries
ago. And, if this be so, surely we may look with indifference upon the
most destructive operations of literary or scientific criticism, being
anxious only, and above all things, for the simple truth, whatever it
may be.

Again, however, it is not to be denied that the possession of miraculous
power may have been for Christ himself, not less than for those who saw
his works, of the deepest spiritual import. The formation of a character
like his would seem peculiarly to require the training that would be
afforded by such an endowment. We know how, with ordinary men, the
command of unlimited power is, in fact, a test of rectitude,
self-government, unselfishness, of the most trying and, it may be, most
elevating, kind. The temptations which necessarily accompany it are
proverbial. Was Christ exempt from that kind of moral discipline, that
supreme proof of fidelity to God? Allowing, for a moment, what the
narratives directly intimate, that he felt within himself the force of
miraculous gifts, and the capacity to use them, if he had so willed, for
purposes either of personal safety or of political ambition;[25] in
this, we may see at once, there would be an end to be served of the
greatest moment both to himself and to the future instruction of his
disciples. By such an experience, the moral greatness of his example
might be doubly assured. It would be made possible to him to deny and
humble himself, - even, in apostolical phrase, to "empty" himself of his
Messianic prerogatives, in order the better to do the Heavenly Father's
will, and, preferring even the cross to a disobedient refusal of the cup
which could not pass from him, to be "made perfect through suffering,"
thus showing himself worthy to be raised up at last to be, as he has
been, the spiritual Lord of the Church.

[Footnote 25: Matt. iv. 1, seq.]

This idea was, in fact, a familiar one to Paul, as to others of the
Christian writers.[26] Its literal truth is enforced by the
consideration of the strange improbability that one by birth a Galilean
peasant, without any special gifts or powers to recommend him to the
notice of his people, should yet be acknowledged by many of them as the
promised Messiah; should, in spite of an ignominious death, be accepted
in that character by multitudes; and finally, in the same or a still
higher character, should acquire the love and reverential homage of half
the world.

[Footnote 26: 2 Cor. viii. 9; Eph. i. 20-23; Phil. ii. 5-11; Heb. ii. 9,
10, 18; 1 Pet. ii. 21.]

And yet it may remain true that, as time passes, this consideration
shall lose much of its weight, in the judgment of increasing numbers of
earnest inquirers. They, accordingly, will cease to place reliance on
the outward material sign. Jesus, nevertheless, may still be to them as
an honored Master and Friend, whose name they would gladly cherish, for
what he is in himself. To those who thus think his character and words
will appeal by their own intrinsic worth. He will be Teacher, Saviour,
Spiritual Lord, simply by the inherent grace and truth spoken of by the
Evangelist of old.

If this be the destined end, we may gladly acknowledge the providential
guiding even in this; and we shall certainly guard ourselves against
judging harsh or uncharitable judgment in reference to those who on this
subject may not see as we see, or feel as we feel; - who, nevertheless,
in thought and deed and aspiration, may not be less faithful to Truth
and Right, or less loyally obedient to all that is seen to be highest
and best in Christ himself.


III.

Christ, then, I repeat, thus standing before us in the Evangelical
records of his ministry, is the impersonation of his religion. What we
see in Him is Christianity. Or, if it be not so, where else shall we
look with the hope to find it? Who else has ever had a true _authority_
to place before us a more perfect idea, or to tell us more exactly what
the Gospel is? The _Church_, indeed, some will interpose, has such
authority! But examine this statement, and its untenable character
speedily appears. The Church at any given moment is, and has been,
simply a body of fallible mortals, like ourselves. If the Christian men
of this present day cannot suppose themselves to be preserved from
intellectual error in matters of religion, neither can we think the
Christian men of the past to have been more highly privileged. In fact,
it must be added, as we ascend into the darker periods of Church
history, we come upon the most undeniable traces of ignorance,
misunderstanding, worldliness and folly, on the part of the
ecclesiastics of the early and the middle ages, such as deprive their
judgments on the subject before us of all right or claim to unquestioned
acceptance. Let any one read, for example, the accounts given by
trustworthy historians[27] of that great assembly of the Church which
produced the Nicene Creed. Will any one allege that in the passion and
prejudice, the smallness of knowledge, the subtlety of speculation, and
narrowness of heart, pervading the majority of that assembly, the Divine
Spirit was peculiarly present to dictate or guide the decision arrived
at, and make it worthy of the blind adhesion of future Christian
generations? And, if we cannot thus admit the peculiar idea of
Christianity _there_ approved, it will surely be in vain to look to any
similar quarter, either of the past or of the present, for what shall
supersede the living "grace and truth," seen in Christ himself.

[Footnote 27: E.g., in Dean Stanley's _History of the Eastern Church_.]

This conclusion is greatly strengthened by the briefest reference to the
negative results of unbelief and irreligion, so prevalent in those
countries which have been the longest under the influence of the old
ritualistic idea of the Church and the priesthood. Positively speaking,
this idea, it is needless to add, has largely failed in almost every
thing except the encouragement among the people of the grossest
superstitions[28] - superstitions of which there is no trace whatever in
immediate connection with the Christian Master. Not, however, to dwell
in detail on this unpromising theme, let us rather turn to the
considerations by which our leading position may be confirmed; from
which too we may learn that a better future is yet in store for us.

[Footnote 28: A good authority has recently observed, "Catholicism,
substituted for Christ, has turned the thought of Southern Europe to
simple Infidelity, if not to Atheism; let us take heed that
Protestantism does not bring about the same thing in another way in the
North." - Bishop Ewing, in a _Letter_ to the Spectator newspaper, April
8, 1870. The remark here quoted is of much wider application than the
Bishop himself would probably admit!]

The experience of past ages, the existing sectarian divisions of
Christendom, the errors and superstitions involved in the grosser
assumptions of Church authority, all unite to compel us to the
conclusion of the essentially erroneous character of the old ritualistic
and dogmatic conceptions of the nature of the Gospel. They show us not
only that dogmas and rites about which the most earnest men are so
utterly at variance cannot possibly be of the essence of Christianity,
but further that the latter is nowhere to be found except in Him whom in
spite of diversities all alike agree to hold in honor. And, in truth,
his life, brief and fleeting as it was, may well be said to constitute
the Christian revelation. That it does so, and was intended to do so,
may, as already observed, be seen better in our day, than it was by the
earliest disciples. Their thoughts were preoccupied, their vision
obscured, by various influences which prevented them from clearly
discerning the one thing needful. The temporal kingdom of their Master
for which they were, many of them, so eagerly looking; his speedy return
to judge the world, - an expectation of which there are so many traces in
Gospels and Epistles alike; the great and urgent question of the Law and
its claims, with that of the admission of the Gentiles to the faith of
Christ without the previous adoption of Judaism; - such thoughts and such
cares as these largely engaged and filled the minds of the disciples,
within the limits of the period to which the origin of the principal New
Testament books must be assigned. After the close of that period, fresh
subjects of controversial interest continually arose, until these were
gradually overshadowed by the rising authority of the Church and the
later growth of sacerdotal power, followed in due course of time by the
grosser corruptions of the primitive Gospel which marked the
Christianity of the darker ages, and which have by no means as yet spent
their power. Thus has it pleased the Great Disposer that men should be
led forward to truth and light through error and darkness. Even as the
Hebrews of old were gradually brought by many centuries of experience,
and in the midst of imperfections and backslidings innumerable, to their
final recognition of the One Jehovah, so have the Christian generations
been slowly learning and unlearning according as their own condition and
capacities allowed. Thus the great development has been running its
destined course, and will doubtless conduct us eventually to yet better
and truer ideas of what the Almighty purposes had, in Christ, really
designed to give to the world.

To vary the form of expression, the life of Christ itself constitutes
the revelation of His will which the Almighty Father has given to man by
His Son. And that life does constitute a revelation, in the most full
and various import of this term. It shows us, in a clear and engaging
light, the One God and Father of all, the Just and Holy One, who will
render to every man according to his deeds. It shows us the high powers
and capacities of man himself; for, while and because it tells him to be
perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, it not only recognizes
in him the capability to be so, but also abundantly affords the
spiritual nutriment by which the higher faculties of his nature may be
nurtured and strengthened within him. It shows us how to live a life of
religious trust and obedience to the commands of duty, and, amidst many
sorrows and trials, still to preserve a soul unstained by guilt. It
shows us that this high devotion to the sacred law of Truth and Right is
that which is well pleasing to God; and that His will is that man should
thus, by the discipline of his spirit, join the moral strength and
sensibility in this world which shall fit him, if he will, to enter upon
the higher life of the world to come. All this we see plainly expressed
and announced in Christ, constituting him the _Revealer_ in the best
sense of this term. All this we do see, even though it may be very hard
to find any doctrinal creed laid down in definite words, or any system
of rites and ceremonies of worship, of Church government, or of priestly
functions and dignities, placed before us as constituting an
indispensable part of our common Christianity.

And it is here an obvious remark that, while Christian men have so often
questioned and disputed with one another about the essentials of their
religion; while they have sometimes, again, been forgetful of its
spirit, in their controversies as to its verbal and written forms, - all
this time they have been substantially agreed as to the matters which
are the greatest and weightiest of all. About the Gospel as embodying
and expressing man's faith in God and in heaven, and as setting forth
the highest moral law with its exemplification in an actual human life;
about the Gospel in these, which are surely its most serious and
interesting aspects, there has been no dispute. The great spiritual
principles taught by Christ, and the power of his practical exhibition
of human duty, have been constantly admitted and - may it not be
added? - constantly felt in the world, among all the sects and parties of
Christendom, in spite of the differences of forms and creeds which have
separated men from each other.

This fact suggests a further consideration of obvious interest. Regarded
as a dogmatic or an ecclesiastical system, the Gospel is one of the
greatest failures which the world has seen, no two sects or churches,
scarcely any two congregations, being agreed as to some one or other of
what are deemed its most essential elements. Regarded as a moral and
spiritual energy and instructor among men, it is and always has been a
quickening power, - tending directly, in its genuine influences, to
support and to guide aright, and, even amidst the worst distractions or
perversions of human passion and error, whispering thoughts of hope,
comfort, and peace, to many troubled hearts. This should not be
forgotten in our estimates of the part played by Christianity in past
times, or in the judgments sometimes so lightly uttered by a certain
class of its critics, who show themselves so ready to confound the
religion with its corruptions, and to include it and them in one
indiscriminate condemnation. It should help to call us back to juster
views of the nature and the function of Christ's religion, and lead us
the better to see that these consist, not in its capacity or its success
as an imposer of dogmas or of ceremonial acts to be received and
carefully performed by either priests or people, but in its power to
strengthen with moral strength, to guide in the path of duty, to save us
from our sins, to breathe into us the spirit of Christ, and so to bring
us nearer to God. Such is the true function and the real power of the
Gospel, even though it may constantly have had to act in the midst of
gross ignorance, or of false and exaggerated dogmatic conception; nor is
it too much to say that this its highest character has not been
altogether wanting to it, even in the darkest periods of man's
intellectual experience, during the last eighteen centuries.

And not only is this so; but, further, it is evidently not through the
_peculiar_ doctrines of his church or sect that a man is most truly
entitled to the name of Christian, but rather by his participation in
what is _common_ to all the churches and sects which are themselves
worthy of that name. For let us call to mind, for a moment, some of the
more eminent Christian men and women of modern times, to whatever
sectarian fold they may have owned themselves to belong. Recall the
names of a Fénelon, an Oberlin, a Vincent de Paul, a Xavier, a
Melancthon, a Milton, a Locke, a Chalmers, a Clarkson, a Wilberforce, a
Mrs. Fry, a Keble, a Heber, a Wesley, a Lardner, a Priestley, a
Channing, a Tuckerman, with innumerable other true-hearted followers of
him who both bear witness to the truth, and "went about doing good." In
such persons we have representatives of nearly all the churches, with
their various peculiarities of doctrinal confession. And must we not
believe that such men and women were true Christians? If so, will it not
follow that in every one of their differing communions true Christians
are to be found? Probably no man, unless it be one of the most bigoted
adherents of Evangelical or high Anglican orthodoxy, would venture to
deny this. There are, then, good Christians, let us gladly admit, in all
the various sects and parties of Christendom; men whom Christ himself,
if he were here, would acknowledge and welcome as true disciples. But
what is it that entitles such persons all alike to the Christian
character and name? It cannot be any thing in which each _differs_ from
the rest, but rather something which they all have in common. It cannot
be any thing that is peculiar to the Roman Catholic alone, for then the
Protestant would not have it; nor any thing that is peculiar to the
Protestant alone, for then the Roman Catholic would not have it; nor any
thing that is peculiar to the Trinitarian alone, for then the Unitarian
would not have it. It must be something apart from the distinctive creed
of each. It is then something which all must possess, otherwise they
would not be truly Christian; which they must have in _addition_ to
their several distinguishing doctrines, - in company with which the
latter may indeed be held, but which is not the exclusive property of
any single church, or sect, or individual, whatever.

What then do all the Christian sects and parties, of every name, hold in
common, and never differ about? Is it not simply in this, that they
receive and reverence Jesus as the beloved Son in whom God was well
pleased? that they hold the Christian faith in the Father in Heaven,
with all that this involves of love to God and love to man? that they
accept the law of righteousness, placed before us in the "living
characters" of Christ's own deeds and words, and strive to obey it in
their conduct? that they hold the same common faith as to the presence
and the providence of God, the future life and the judgment to come?
This Christian allegiance, it is true, is expressed under the most
different forms of statement, and in many a case it may hardly be
definitely expressed at all; but yet even this, and such as this, is, by
belief and practice, the common property of every Christian man; and so
far as he lives in the spirit of this high faith is he truly a disciple
and no further whatever may be the church or sect, or forms of doctrine
and worship, to which he may attach himself. And all this, I repeat, is
most plainly revealed to us in the spirit and the life of
Christ, - insomuch that we feel the statement to be incontrovertibly
sure, that he is the truest Christian of all whose practical daily
spirit and conduct are the most closely and constantly animated and
governed by the spirit and precepts and example of the Master Christ.

It seems strange, when we think about it, that men should have gone so
far astray, in times past, from the more simple and obvious idea of
Christianity thus laid before us. We may have difficulty in explaining
how this has come to pass; how it is that so much of the weight and
stress, as it were, of the Christian religion should have been laid upon
obscure metaphysical creeds and dogmas, the obvious tendency of which
is, and always has been, to divide men from each other, to degenerate
into gross superstition, and destroy the liberty "wherewith Christ has
made us free," and which, moreover, are nowhere contained in the
Scriptures, and cannot even be stated in the language of the Scriptures;
how it is, again, that so little emphasis should be laid in these
dogmatic formulas upon that obedience which is better than sacrifice,
even that doing the Heavenly Father's will, which - strange to tell! - is
the only condition prescribed by Christ for entering into the kingdom.

Truly this question is not without its perplexities. But some
explanation may be found. It is the obvious law of Divine Providence, it
is and has been a great law of human progress, that Truth shall not be
flashed upon the mind at once, either in religion or in any other of the
great fields of interest and occupation to man; but that it shall be
conquered and won through the medium of slow and gradual approach, even
in the midst and by the help of misunderstanding and error. It is thus,
doubtless, that men are trained to appreciate rightly the value of the
truths and principles which they ultimately gain. In other words, past
experience goes far to show us that moral excellence and the
apprehension of truth, by such a being as man, can only be acquired by
means of previous conflict with evil and untruth, in some one or other
of their manifold forms; or, if not by an actual personal conflict for
each of us individually, at least by means of the observed or recorded
experience of others, more severely tried than ourselves.

Thus it has doubtless been with the reception and gradual prevalence of
Christian truths and principles. Men have had slowly, by a varied and
sometimes painful experience, to learn that it is not by saying, Lord,
Lord, by confessing some formal creed, or being included within the
limits of some visible church; not by forms and ceremonies of any kind,
such as baptism at the hands of a priest, or the confession of sin into
his ear, that we may become truly recipients of the light and strength
of the Gospel of Christ; but much rather by personal communion with the
Spirit of God, by doing the things which the Lord hath said, by striving
to be like Christ, in heart and in life, active in goodness, submissive
to the Heavenly Father's will, and ready to the work of duty which He
has given us to do.

In proportion as this conception of Christianity comes forward into
view, and assumes the pre-eminence to which it is entitled, and which is
either implied or expressly declared in the principal writings of the
New Testament, in the same degree must the merely dogmatic and
sacerdotal idea sink into insignificance. It will be seen that moral and
spiritual likeness to the Christian Head is what is all-important; and,
consequently, that within the limits of the same communion, bound
together by the common principle of Christian faith, - the principle of
love and reverence for the one Master, Christ, - there may exist the most
complete mental freedom, and even, to a very large extent, the most
diverse theological beliefs.


IV.

But here I may be met by certain objections which will hardly fail to
occur to different classes of readers.

In the first place, it may be said, the idea of the Gospel above
presented is itself dogmatic; and indeed that the conception of
Christianity as involving definite forms of doctrine is not to be got
rid of. This remark I am by no means concerned wholly to escape.
Doubtless the Gospel, as it is given in the words of Christ, includes
various clearly stated truths respecting the Divine Providence and Will,
and the retributions of this world and the next, - truths, I may add,
which are not only level to the apprehension of the human faculties, but
also in harmony with the highest dictates of the natural conscience and
reason of man. But these great truths are not dogmatically laid before
us in the Gospel. The mind of each reader is left free to gather them
for itself. They are so stated as to quicken and elevate, not to stupefy
or render useless, the religious and moral sense of the disciple. They
serve thus, in the result, to arouse in him the strength of deep
individual conviction, without which they could have little practical
value. The teaching function of the Gospel is of _this_ kind, rather
than dogmatic and denunciatory, in the manner of the creeds. It does not
attempt to put before us a ready-made body of doctrine, in such a way as
to save the disciple the trouble of inquiry and reflection for himself,
as though it would make him the mere recipient of what is imposed upon
him from without. Not in this mechanical way, either in the world of
outward nature, or in the Gospel of His Son, does the Great Parent speak
to the hearts of His children; but chiefly by awakening their higher,
devouter sensibilities, and letting them feel the force of truth and
right within their own secret spirits. No imposition from without could
fitly accomplish this divine work; and we may be well assured that no
man living, and no church or sect on earth, has a legitimate authority
to define exactly the limits within which Christian belief shall confine
itself, or beyond which belief shall not extend, without ceasing to be
Christian. Obviously and unquestionably Christ himself has nowhere
attempted to dictate his religion in such a way; neither has any of his
apostles, not even the ardent and impetuous Paul. On the contrary, the
latter, like his Master, constantly attaches the greatest importance to
the practical virtues, and to a devout spirit, - in no case making his
appeal to a dogmatic statement, or giving us to understand that he had
the least idea of any dogmatic system whatever, similar, in spirit or in
form, to the creeds of modern orthodoxy.

A second objection may be urged by a defender of the prevailing forms
and dogmas of the churches. Such a person may say that, in taking Christ
as the measure and representative of his own religion, we leave out of
sight all that may have been contributed to its development by the
Apostles, to say nothing of their successors, and that the Epistles of
the New Testament contain much that is not met with in connection with


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