SOME CHRISTIAN CONVICTIONS
OTHER BOOKS BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE CREED OF JESUS AND OTHER SERMONS
SOCIAL ASPECTS OF THE CROSS
HYMNS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD EDITED BY H.S. COFFIN AND A.W. VERNON The Same for Use in Baptist Churches REV. CHARLES W. GILKEY, Co-editor
IN A DAY OF SOCIAL REBUILDING (Second printing)
UNIVERSITY SERMONS (Second printing)
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS WITH A CHRISTIAN APPLICATION TO PRESENT CONDITIONS
Some Christian Convictions
A PRACTICAL RESTATEMENT IN TERMS OF PRESENT-DAY THINKING
BY HENRY SLOANE COFFIN
MINISTER IN THE MADISON AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN THE UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, NEW YORK CITY
Non enim omnis qui cogitat credit sed cogitat omnis qui credit, et credendo sogitat et cogitando credit.—AUGUSTINE
COPYRIGHT, 1915 BY YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
First published, 1915 Second printing, 1915 Third printing, 1916 Fourth printing, 1920
SOCIAE REI HUMANAE ATQUE DIVINAE
Bishop Burnet, in his History of His Own Time, writes of Sir Harry Vane, that he belonged "to the sect called 'Seekers,' as being satisfied with no form of opinion yet extant, but waiting for future discoveries." The sect of Sir Harry Vane is extraordinarily numerous in our day; and at various times I have been asked to address groups of its adherents, both among college students and among thoughtful persons outside university circles, upon the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Some of my listeners had been trained in the Church, but had thrown off their allegiance to it; others had been reared in Judaism or in agnosticism; others considered themselves "honorary members" of various religious communions—interested and sympathetic, but uncommitted and irresponsible; more were would-be Christians somewhat restive intellectually under the usual statements of Christian truths. It was for minds of this type that the following lectures were prepared. They are not an attempt at a systematic exposition of Christian doctrine, but an effort to restate a few essential Christian convictions in terms that are intelligible and persuasive to persons who have felt the force of the various intellectual movements of recent years. They do not pretend to make any contribution to scholarship; they aim at the less difficult, but perhaps scarcely less necessary middleman's task of bringing the results of the study of scholars to men and women who (to borrow a phrase of Augustine's) "believe in thinking" and wish to "think in believing."
They may be criticised by those who, satisfied with the more traditional ways of stating the historic Christian faith, will dislike their discrimination between some elements in that faith as more, and others as less, certain. I would reply that they are intentionally but a partial presentation of the Gospel for a particular purpose; and further I find my position entirely covered by the words of Richard Baxter in his Reliquiae: "Among Truths certain in themselves, all are not equally certain unto me; and even of the Mysteries of the Gospel, I must needs say with Mr. Richard Hooker, that whatever men pretend, the subjective Certainty cannot go beyond the objective Evidence: for it is caused thereby as the print on the Wax is caused by that on the Seal. I am not so foolish as to pretend my certainty to be greater than it is, merely because it is a dishonour to be less certain. They that will begin all their Certainty with that of the Truth of the Scripture, as the Principium Cognoscendi, may meet me at the same end; but they must give me leave to undertake to prove to a Heathen or Infidel, the Being of God and the necessity of Holiness, even while he yet denieth the Truth of Scripture, and in order to his believing it to be true."
In preparing the lectures for publication I have allowed the spoken style in which they were written to remain; several of the chapters, however, have been somewhat enlarged.
I am indebted to two of my colleagues, Professor James E. Frame and Professor A.C. McGiffert, for valuable suggestions in two of the chapters, and especially to my friend, the Rev. W. Russell Bowie, D.D., of St. Paul's Church, Richmond, Va., who kindly read over the manuscript.
Introduction—Some Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century Which Have Affected Christian Beliefs 1
Chapter 1. Religion 23
Chapter 2. The Bible 49
Chapter 3. Jesus Christ 78
Chapter 4. God 118
Chapter 5. The Cross 140
Chapter 6. The New Life—Individual and Social 160
Chapter 7. The Church 181
Chapter 8. The Christian Life Everlasting 205
SOME CHRISTIAN CONVICTIONS
SOME MOVEMENTS OF THOUGHT IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY WHICH HAVE AFFECTED CHRISTIAN BELIEFS
When King Solomon's Temple was a-building, we are told that the stone was made ready at the quarry, "and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house." The structures of intellectual beliefs which Christians have reared in the various centuries to house their religious faith have been built, for the most part, out of materials they found already prepared by other movements of the human mind. It has been so in our own day, and a brief glance at some of the quarries and the blocks they have yielded may help us to understand the construction of the forms of Christian convictions as they appear in many minds. Some of the quarries named have been worked for more than a century; but they were rich to begin with, and they have not yet been exhausted. Some will not seem distinctive veins of rock, but new openings into the old bed. Many blocks in their present form cannot be certainly assigned to a specific quarry; they no longer bear an identifying mark. Nor can we hope to mention more than a very few of the principal sources whence the materials have been taken. The plan of the temple and the arrangement of the stones are the work of the Spirit of the Christian Faith, which always erects a dwelling of its own out of the thought of each age.
Romanticism has been one rich source of material. This literary movement that swept over Germany, Britain, France and Scandinavia at the opening of the Nineteenth Century, itself influenced to some degree by the religious revival of the German Pietists and the English Evangelicals, was a release of the emotions, and gave a completer expression to all the elements in human nature. It brought a new feeling towards nature as alive with a spiritual Presence—
Something far more deeply interfused Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
It baptized men into a new sense of wonder; everything became for them miraculous, instinct with God. It quickened the imagination, and sent writers, like Sir Walter Scott, to make the past live again on the pages of historical novels. Sights and sounds became symbols of an inner Reality: nature was to Emerson "an everlasting hint"; and to Carlyle, who never tires of repeating that "the Highest cannot be spoken in words," all visible things were emblems, the universe and man symbols of the ineffable God.
To the output of this quarry we may attribute the following elements in the structure of our present Christian thought:
(1) That religion is something more and deeper than belief and conduct, that it is an experience of man's whole nature, and consists largely in feelings and intuitions which we can but imperfectly rationalize and express. George Eliot's Adam Bede is a typical instance of this movement, when he says: "I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings."
(2) That God is immanent in His world, so that He works as truly "from within" as "from above." He is not external to nature and man, but penetrates and inspires them. While an earlier theology thought of Him as breaking into the course of nature at rare intervals in miracles, to us He is active in everything that occurs; and the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, while it may be more startling, is not more divine than the process of feeding them with bread and fish produced and caught in the usual way. Men used to speak of Deity and humanity as two distinct and different things that were joined in Jesus Christ; no man is to us without "the inspiration of the Almighty," and Christ is not so much God and man, as God in man.
(3) That the Divine is represented to us by symbols that speak to more parts of our nature than to the intellect alone. Horace Bushnell entitled an essay that still repays careful reading, The Gospel a Gift to the Imagination. One of our chief complaints with the historic creeds and confessions is that they have turned the poetry (in which religious experience most naturally expresses itself) into prose, rhetoric into logic, and have lost much of its content in the process. Jesus is to the mind with a sense for the Divine the great symbol or sacrament of the Invisible God; but to treat His divinity as a formula of logic, and attempt to demonstrate it, as one might a proposition in geometry, is to lose that which divinity is to those who have experienced contact with the living God through Jesus.
A second quarry, which Christianity itself did much to open, and from which later it brought supplies to rebuild its own temple of thought, is Humanitarianism. Beginning in the Eighteenth Century with its struggle for the rights of man, this movement has gone on to our own day, setting free the slaves, reforming our prisons, protesting against war and cruelty, protecting women and children from economic exploitation, and devoting itself to all that renders human beings healthier and happier.
It found itself at odds with current theological opinions at a number of points. Preachers of religion were emphasizing the total depravity of man; and humanitarians brought to the fore the humanity of Jesus, and bade them see the possibilities of every man in Christ. They were teaching the endless torment of the impenitent wicked in hell; and with its new conceptions of the proper treatment of criminals by human justice, it inveighed against so barbarous a view of God. They proclaimed an interpretation of Calvary that made Christ's death the expiation of man's sin and the reconciliation of an offended Deity; in McLeod Campbell in Scotland and Horace Bushnell in New England, the Atonement was restated, in forms that did not revolt men's consciences, as the vicarious penitence of the one sensitive Conscience which creates a new moral world, or as the unveiling of the suffering heart of God, who bears His children's sins, as Jesus bore His brethren's transgressions on the cross. They were insisting that the Bible was throughout the Word of God, and that the commands to slaughter Israel's enemies attributed to Him, and the prayers for vengeance uttered by vindictive psalmists, were true revelations of His mind; and Humanitarianism refused to worship in the heavens a character less good than it was trying to produce in men on earth. These men of sensitive conscience did for our generation what the Greek philosophers of the Fifth Century B.C. did for theirs—they made the thought of God moral: "God is never in any way unrighteous—He is perfect righteousness; and he of us who is the most righteous is most like Him" (Plato, Theaet. 176c).
From this movement of thought our chief gains have been:
(1) A view of God as good as the best of men; and that means a God as good as Jesus of Nazareth. Older theologians talked much of God's decrees; we speak oftener of His character.
(2) The emphasis upon the humanity of Jesus and of our ability and duty to become like Him. Spurred by Romanticism's interest in imaginatively reconstructing history, many Lives of Christ have been written; and it is no exaggeration to say that Jesus is far better known and understood at present than He has been since the days of the evangelists.
A third quarry is the Physical Sciences. As its blocks were taken out most Christians were convinced that they could never be employed for the temple of faith. They seemed fitted to express the creed of materialism, not of the Spirit. Science was interested in finding the beginnings of things; its greatest book during the century bore the title, The Origin of Species; and the lowly forms in which religion and human life itself appeared at their start seemed to degrade them. Law was found dominant everywhere; and this was felt to do away with the possibility of prayer and miracle, even of a personal God. Its investigations into nature exposed a world of plunder and prey, where, as Mill put it, all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned are everyday performances. The scientific view of the world differed totally from that which was in the minds of devout people, and with that which was in the minds of the writers of the Bible. A large part of the last century witnessed a constant warfare between theologians and naturalists, with many attempted reconciliations. Today thinking people see that the battle was due to mistakes on both sides; that there is a scientific and a religious approach to Truth; and that strife ensues only when either attempts to block the other's path. Charles Darwin wisely said, "I do not attack Moses, and I think Moses can take care of himself." Both physicists and theologians were wrong when they thought of "nature" as something fixed, so that it is possible to state what is natural and what supernatural; "nature" is plastic, responding all the while to new stimuli, and the title of a recent book, Creative Evolution, indicates a changed scientific and philosophical attitude towards the world.
From this scientific movement we shall find in our present Christian convictions, with much else, these items:
(1) The conception of the unity of all life. When Goethe in a flash of insight saw the structure of the entire tree in a single leaf, and of the complete skeleton of the animal in the skull of a sheep, he gave the mind of man a new assurance of the unity that pervades the whole creation. And when scientific men asserted the universality of law, they made it forever impossible for us to divide life into separate districts—the secular and the sacred, the natural and the supernatural. Principles discovered in man's spirit in its responses to truth, to love, to companionship, to justice, hold good of his response to God. There is a "law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus"; and it must be ascertained and worked with. But "laws" are recognized as our labels for the discoveries we have made of God's usual methods of working, and they do not stand between us and Him, barring our personal fellowship with Him in prayer, nor between Him and His world, excluding His new and completer entrances into the world's life.
(2) The thought of development or evolution as the process by which religious ideas and institutions, like all other forms of life, live and grow in a changing world.
(3) The abandonment of the attempt to prove God's existence and attributes from what can be seen in His world. We cannot expect to find in the conclusion more than the premises contain, and "nature" as it now is can never yield a personal and moral, much less a Christian, God.
And not from nature up to nature's God, But down from nature's God look nature through.
(4) A readjustment of our view of the Bible, which frankly recognizes that its scientific ideas are those of the ages in which its various writers lived, and cannot be authoritative for us today.
(5) A larger view of God, commensurate with the older, bigger, more complex and more orderly world the physical sciences have brought to light.
A fourth source of materials, which is but another vein of this scientific quarry, is the historical and literary investigation of the Bible. This has not been so recently opened as is commonly supposed, but has been worked at intervals throughout the history of the Church, and notably at the Protestant Reformation. Luther carefully reexamined the books of the Bible, and declared that it was a matter of indifference to him whether Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, pronounced the Books of the Chronicles less accurate historically than the Books of the Kings, considered the present form of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea probably due to later hands, and distinguished in the New Testament "chief books" from those of less moment. Calvin, too, discussed the authorship of some of the books, and suggested Barnabas as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the Nineteenth Century witnessed a very thorough application to the Scriptures of the same methods of historical and literary criticism to which all ancient documents were subjected. The result was the discovery of the composite character of many books, the rearrangement of the Biblical literature in the probable order of its writing, and the use of the documents as historical sources, not so much for the periods they profess to describe, as for those in and for which they were written.
We can assign the following elements in our contemporary Christian thought to these scholarly investigations:
(1) The conception of revelation as progressive—a mode of thought that falls in with the idea of development or evolution.
(2) The distinction between the Bible as literature, with the history, science, ethics and theology of its age, and the religious experience of which it is the record, and in which we find the Self-disclosure of God.
(3) An historical rather than a speculative Christ. We do not begin (however we may end) with a Figure in the heavens, the eternal Son of God, but with Jesus of Nazareth. This method of approaching Him reinforces the emphasis on His manhood which came from Humanitarianism. Christianity, like the fabled giant, Antaeus, has always drawn fresh strength for its battles from touching its feet to the ground in the Jesus of historic fact. It was so when Francis of Assisi recovered His figure in the Thirteenth Century, and when Luther rediscovered Him in the Sixteenth. There can be little doubt but that fresh spiritual forces are to be liberated, indeed are already at work, from this new contact with the Jesus of history.
Still another opening in the scientific quarry is Psychology. The last century saw great advances in the investigation of the mind of man, which revolutionized educational methods, gave new tools to novelists and historians, and threw new light on every aspect of the human spirit. Psychologists turned their attention to religion, and have done much to chart out the movements of man's nature in his response to his highest inspirations. They have altered methods of Biblical education in our Sunday Schools, have shown us helpful and harmful ways of presenting religious appeals, and have given us scientific standards to test the value of the materials employed in public worship.
We may ascribe the following elements in our Christian thought to them:
(1) The normal character of the religious experience. Faith had been regarded as the product of deception or as an aberration of the human spirit; it now is established as a natural element in a fully developed personality. A psychological literary critic, Sainte Beuve, writes: "You may not cease to be a skeptic after reading Pascal; but you must cease to treat believers with contempt." William James has given us a great quantity of Varieties of Religious Experience, and he deals with all of them respectfully.
(2) The part played by the Will in religious experience. Man "wills to live," and in his struggle to conserve his life and the things that are dearer to him than life, he feels the need of assistance higher than any he can find in his world. He "wills to believe," and discovers an answer to his faith in the Unseen. This is a reaffirmation of the definition, "faith is the giving substance to things hoped for, a test of things not seen." And the student of religious psychology has now vastly more material on which to work, because the last century opened up still another quarry for investigation in Comparative Religion. An Eighteenth Century writer usually divided all religions into true and false; today we are more likely to classify them as more and less developed. Investigators find in the varied faiths of mankind many striking resemblances in custom, worship and belief. It is not possible to draw sharp lines and declare that within one faith alone all is light, and within the rest all is darkness. Everything that grows out of man's experience of the Unseen is interesting, and no thought or practice that has seemed to satisfy the spiritual craving of any human being is without significance. Our own faith is often clarified by comparing it with that of some supposedly unrelated religion. Many a usage and conviction in ethnic cults supplies a suggestive parallel to something in our Bible. The development of theology or of ritual in some other religion throws light on similar developments in Christianity. The widespread sense of the Superhuman confirms our assurance of the reality of God. "To the philosopher," wrote Max Mueller, "the existence of God may seem to rest on a syllogism; in the eyes of the historian it rests on the whole evolution of human thought." Under varied names, and with very differing success in their relations with the Unseen, men have had fellowship with the one living God. It was this unity of religion amid many religions that the Vedic seers were striving to express when they wrote, "Men call Him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni; sages name variously Him who is but One."
This study of comparative religion has gained for us:
(1) A much clearer apprehension of what is distinctive in Christianity, and a much more intelligent understanding of the completeness of its answer to religious needs which were partially met by other faiths.
(2) A new attitude towards the missionary problem, so that Christians go not to destroy but to fulfil, to recognize that in the existing religious experience of any people, however crude, God has already made some disclosure of Himself, that in the leaders and sages of their faith He has written a sort of Old Testament to which the Christian Gospel is to be added, that men may come to their full selves as children of God in Jesus Christ.
A final quarry, which promises to yield, perhaps, more that is of value to faith than any of those named, is the Social Movement. In the closing years of the Eighteenth Century social relations were looked on as voluntary and somewhat questionable productions of individuals, which had not existed in the original "state of nature" where all men were supposed to have been free and equal. The closing years of the Nineteenth Century found men thinking of society as an organism, and talking of "social evolution." This conception of society altered men's theories of economics, of history, of government. Nor did these newer theories remain in the classrooms of universities or the meetings of scientists; they became the platforms of great political parties, like the Socialists in Germany and France, and the Labor Party in Britain. Men are thinking, and what is more feeling, today, in social terms; they are revising legislation, producing plays and novels, and organizing countless associations in the interest of social advance. We are still too much in the thick of the movement to estimate its results, and we can but tentatively appraise its contributions to our Christian thought.
(1) It has given men a new interest in religion. The intricacies of social problems predispose men to value an invisible Ally, and such prepossession is, as Herbert Spencer said, "nine-points of belief." The social character of the Christian religion, with its Father-God and its ideals of the Kingdom, gives it a peculiar charm to those whose hearts have been touched with a passion for social righteousness. A recent historian of the thought of the last century, after reviewing its scientific and philosophic tendencies, makes the remark that "an increasing number of thinkers of our age expect the next step in the solution of the great problems of life to be taken by practical religion."
(2) It has made us realize that religion is essentially social. Men's souls are born of the social religious consciousness; are nourished by contact with the society of believers, in fellowship with whom they grow "a larger soul," and find their destiny in a social religious purpose—the Kingdom of God.
(3) It has taught us that religious susceptibility is intimately connected with social status. Spiritual movements have always found some relatively unimpressionable classes. In primitive Christian times "not many well-educated, not many influential, not many nobly born were called"; and in our own age the two least responsive strata in society are the topmost and the bottom-most—those so well off that they often feel no pressure of social obligation, and those without the sense of social responsibility because they have nothing. It is the interest of spiritual religion to do away with both these strata, placing social burdens on the former and imposing social privileges on the latter, for responsibility proves to be the chief sacrament of religion.
(4) It has brought the Church to a new place of prominence in Christian thought. Men realize their indebtedness for their own spiritual life to the collective religious experience of the past, represented in the Church; their need of its fellowship for their growth in faith and usefulness; and the necessity of organized religious effort, if society is to be leavened with the Spirit of Christ. Church membership becomes a duty for every socially minded Christian. And the social purpose renders Church unity a pressing task for the existing Christian communions. John Bunyan's pilgrim could make his progress from the City of Destruction to the New Jerusalem with a few like-minded companions; but a Christian whose aim is the transformation of the City of Destruction into the City of God needs the cooeperation of every fellow believer. Denominational exclusiveness becomes intolerable to the Christian who finds a whole world's redemption laid on his conscience.
(5) It demands a social reinterpretation of many of the Church's doctrines, a reinterpretation which gives them richer meaning. The vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ, for example, becomes intelligible and kindling to those who have a social conscience and know something of bearing the guilt of others; and the New Testament teaching of the Holy Spirit is much more real and clear to those who have felt the social spirit of our day lifting them out of themselves into the life of the community, quickening their consciences and sympathies, and giving them a sense of brotherhood with men and women very unlike themselves. Vinet wrote a generation ago, "L'Esprit Saint c'est Dieu social."
We have by no means exhausted the list of quarries from which stones, and stones already prepared for our purpose, can be and are taken for the edifice of our Christian convictions. The life of men with Christ in God preserves its continuity through the ages; it has to interpret itself to every generation in new forms of thought. Under old monarchies it was the custom on the accession of a sovereign to call in the coins of his predecessor and remint them with the new king's effigy. The silver and the gold remain, but the impress on them is different. The reminting of our Christian convictions is a somewhat similar process: the precious ore of the religious experience continues, but it bears the stamp of the current ruling ideas in men's view of the world. But lifeless metal, however valuable, cannot offer a parallel to the vital experiences of the human spirit. The remolding of the forms of its convictions does more than conserve the same quantity of experience; a more commodious temple of thought enables the Spirit of faith to expand the souls of men within. In theology by altering boundaries we often gain territory. We not only make the map of our soul's life with God clearer to ourselves, so that we live within its confines more intelligently; we actually increase the size of the map, and possess a larger life with God.
Religion is experience. It is the response of man's nature to his highest inspirations. It is his intercourse with Being above himself and his world.
Religion is normal experience. Its enemies call it "an indelible superstition," and its friends assert that man is born believing. That a few persons, here and there, appear to lack the sense for the Invisible no more argues against its naturalness than that occasionally a man is found to be colorblind or without an ear for music. Mr. Lecky has written, "That religious instincts are as truly part of our natures as are our appetites and our nerves is a fact which all history establishes, and which forms one of the strongest proofs of the reality of that unseen world to which the soul of man continually tends."
Some have sought to discredit religion as a surviving childishness. A baby is dependent upon its parents; and babyish spirits, they say, never outgrow this sense of dependence, but transfer that on which they rely from the seen to the unseen. While, however, other childish things, like ghosts and fairies, can be put away, man seems to be "incurably religious," and the most completely devout natures, although childlike in their attitude towards God, give no impression of immaturity. When one compares Jesus of Nazareth with the leaders in State and Church in the Jerusalem of His day, He seems the adult and they the children. And further, those who attempt to destroy religion as an irrational survival address themselves to the task of a Sisyphus. Although apparently successful today, their work will have to be done over again tomorrow. On no other battlefield is it necessary so many times to slay the slain. Again and again religion has been pronounced obsolete, but passing through the midst of its detractors it serenely goes its way. When men laboriously erect its sepulchre, faith,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, Will arise and unbuild it again.
Its indestructible vitality is evidence that it is an inherent element in human nature, that the unbeliever is a subnormal man.
Religion is an affair of the whole personality. Some have emphasized the part feeling plays in it. Pascal describes faith as "God felt by the heart," and Schleiermacher finds the essence of religion in the sense of utter dependence. Many of us recognize ourselves as most consciously religious in
that serene and blessed mood In which the affections gently lead us on.
Our highest inspirations commonly come to us in a wistful yearning to be like the Most High, in a sense of reconciliation with Him, in a glowing enthusiasm for His cause, in the calm assurance of His guidance and protection, in the enlargement of our natures as they become aware of His indwelling. "We feel that we are greater than we know."
Others give prominence to the role of the intellect. God is the most reasonable explanation of the facts of life. Religious truths and men's minds harmonize as though they had been made for each other. The thought of Deity gives them perfect mental satisfaction. Dante tells us: "The life of my heart, that of my inward self, was wont to be a sweet thought which went many times to the feet of God, that is to say in thought I contemplated the kingdom of the Blessed." And a present-day English thinker, Mr. F.H. Bradley, writes: "All of us, I presume, more or less are led beyond the region of ordinary facts. Some in one way and some in another, we seem to touch and have communion with what is beyond the visible world. In various manners we find something higher which both supports and humbles, both chastens and transports us. And, with various persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principal way of their experiencing the Deity."
Still others lay the chief stress upon the will. Man wills to live; but in a universe like ours where he is pitted against overwhelming forces, he is driven to seek allies, and in his quest for them he wills to believe in a God as good as the best in himself and better. Faith is an adventure; Clement of Alexandria called it "an enterprise of noble daring to take our way to God." We trust that the Supreme Power in the world is akin to the highest within us, to the highest we discover anywhere, and will be our confederate in enabling us to achieve that highest. Kant found religion through response to the imperative voice of conscience, in "the recognition of our duties as divine commands." Pasteur, in the address which he delivered on taking his seat in the Academie Francaise, declared: "Blessed is he who carries within himself a God, an ideal, and who obeys it; ideal of art, ideal of science, ideal of the gospel virtues, therein lie the springs of great thoughts and great actions; they all reflect light from the Infinite."
But while all these views are correct in their affirmations, it is perilous to exalt one element in religious experience lest we slight others of equal moment. There is danger in being fractionally religious. No man really finds God until he seeks Him with his whole nature. Some persons are sentimentally believers and mentally skeptics; they stand at the door of the sanctuary with their hearts in and their heads out. Writing as an old man, Coleridge said of his youth, "My head was with Spinoza, though my whole heart remained with Paul and John." An unreasoning faith is sure to end in folly; it is a mind all fire without fuel. A true religious experience, like a coral island, requires both warmth and light in which to rise. An unintelligent belief is in constant danger of being shattered. Hardy, in sketching the character of Alec D'Uberville, explains the eclipse of his faith by saying, "Reason had had nothing to do with his conversion, and the drop of logic that Tess had let fall into the sea of his enthusiasm served to chill its effervescence to stagnation."
Others, at the opposite extreme, are merely convinced without being converted. They are appealed to by the idea of God, rather than led into actual fellowship of life with Him. A striking instance is the historian, Edward Gibbon, who, at the age of sixteen, unaided by the arguments of a priest and without the aesthetic enticements of the Mass, was brought by his reading to embrace Roman Catholicism, and had himself baptized by a Jesuit father in June, 1753. By Christmas of 1754 he had as thoughtfully read himself out of all sympathy with Rome. He was undoubtedly sincere throughout, but his belief and subsequent unbelief were purely matters of judgment. The bases of our faith lie deeper than our intelligence. We reach God by a passionate compulsion. We seek Him with our reason only because we have already been found of Him in our intuitions.
Still others use their brains busily in their religion, but confine them within carefully restricted limits. Outside these their faith is an unreasoning assumption. Their mental activity spends itself on the details of doctrine, while they never try to make clear to themselves the foundations of their faith. They have keen eyes for theological niceties, but wear orthodox blinders that shut out all disturbing facts. Cardinal Newman, for example, declared that dogma was the essential ingredient of his faith, and that religion as a mere sentiment is a dream and a mockery. But he was so afraid of "the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries" that he placed the safeguard of faith in "a right state of heart," and refused to trust his mind to think its way through to God. Martineau justly complained that "his certainties are on the surface, and his uncertainties below." We are only safe as believers when, besides keeping the heart clean, we
press bold to the tether's end Allotted to this life's intelligence.
Those, again, who insist that in religion the willingness is all, forget that it seems no more in our power to believe than it is to love. We apparently "fall into" the one as we do into the other; we do not choose to believe, we cannot help believing. And unless a man's mind is satisfied with the reasonableness of faith, he cannot "make believe." Romanes, who certainly wished for fellowship with the Christian God as ardently as any man, confessed: "Even the simplest act of will in regard to religion—that of prayer—has not been performed by me for at least a quarter of a century, simply because it has seemed so impossible to pray, as it were, hypothetically, that much as I have always desired to be able to pray, I cannot will the attempt." Christianity has ever laid stress upon its intellectual appeal. By the manifestation of the truth its missionaries have, from Paul's day, tried to commend themselves. We do not hear of "Evidence Societies" among non-Christian faiths. When the Emperor Julian attempted to restore the ancient paganism, he did not argue for its superior credibility, but contented himself with abusing the creed of Christians and extolling the beauty of the rituals of the religion it had supplanted. But the propaganda of the gospel of Jesus is invariably one of persuasion, convincing and confirming men's minds with its truth.
It would be as false, however, to neglect the part a man's willingness has in his faith. To believe in the Christian God demands a severe moral effort. It can never be an easy thing to rely on love as the ultimate wisdom and power in the universe. "The will to believe," if not everything, is all but everything, in predisposing us to listen to the arguments of the faith and in rendering us inflammable to its kindling emotions.
But no man can be truly religious who is not in communion with God with "as much as in him is." Somebody has finely said that it does not take much of a man to be a Christian, but it takes all there is of him. An early African Christian, Arnobius, tells us that we must "cling to God with all our senses, so to speak." And Thomas Carlyle gave us a picture of the ideal believer when he wrote of his father that "he was religious with the consent of his whole faculties." It is faith's ability to engross a man's entire self, going down to the very roots of his being, that renders it indestructible. It can say of those who seek to undermine it, as Hamlet said of his enemies:
It shall go hard, But I will delve one yard below their mines.
As an experience, God is a discovery which each must make for himself. Religion comes to us as an inheritance; and at the outset we can no more distinguish the voice of God from the voices of men we respect, than the boy Samuel could distinguish the voice of Jehovah from that of Eli. But we gradually learn to "possess our possession," to respond to our own highest inspirations, whether or not they inspire others. Pascal well says: "It is the consent of yourself to yourself and the unchanging voice of your own reason that ought to make you believe." So far only as we repeat for ourselves the discoveries of earlier explorers of Him who is invisible have we any religion of our own. And this personal experience is the ground of our certainty; "as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God."
Religious experience, and even Christian experience, appears in a great variety of forms; and there is always a danger lest those who are personally familiar with one type should fail to acknowledge others as genuine. The mystics are apt to disparage the rationalists; hard-headed, conscientious saints look askance at seers of visions; and those whose new life has broken forth with the energy and volume of a geyser hardly recognize the same life when it develops like a spring-born stream from a small trickle, increased by many tributaries, into a stately river. The value of an experience is to be judged not by its form, but by its results. Fortunately for Christianity the New Testament contains a variety of types. With the first disciples the light dawns gradually; on St. Paul it bursts in a flash brighter than noonday. The emotional heights and depths of the seer on Patmos contrast with the steady level disclosed in the practical temperament of the writer of the Epistle of James. But underneath the diversity there is an essential unity of experience: all conform to that which Luther (as Harnack summarizes his position) considered the essence of Christian faith—"unwavering trust of the heart in God who has given Himself to us in Christ as our Father."
Religious experience has been defined as man's response to God; it often appears rather his search for Him. But that is characteristic only of the beginning of the experience. The experienced know better than to place the emphasis on their initiative in establishing intercourse with the Divine. "We love, because He first loved us," they say. The Apostle, who speaks of his readers as those who "have come to know God," stops and corrects himself, "or rather to be known of God." Believers discover that God was "long beforehand" with them. Their very search is but an answer to His seeking; in their every movement towards Him, they are aware of His drawing. The verse which begins, "My soul followeth hard after Thee," continues "Thy right hand upholdeth me."
Religious experience, like all other, is limited by a man's capacity for it; and some men seem to have very scant capacity for God. It is not easy to establish a point of contact between a Falstaff or a Becky Sharp and the Father of Jesus Christ. There is no community of interest or kinship of spirit. "Faith is assurance of things hoped for;" and where there is no craving for God, He is likely to remain incredible. Prepossession has almost everything to do with the commencement of belief. It is only when circumstances force a man to feel that a God would be desirable that he will risk himself to yield to his highest inspirations, and give God the chance to disclose Himself to him. It is a case of nothing venture, nothing have. Faith is always a going out whither we know not, but in each venture we accumulate experience and gradually come to "know Whom we have believed." Without the initial eagerness for God which opens the door and sends us out we remain debarred from ever knowing. As the Theologia Germanica puts it, "We are speaking of a certain Truth which it is possible to know by experience, but which ye must believe in before ye know."
The capacity for religious experience can be cultivated. Faith, like an ear for music or taste in literature, is a developable instinct. It grows by contagious contact with fellow believers; as "the sight of lovers feedeth those in love," the man of faith is nourished by fellowship with the believing Church. It is increased by familiarity with fuller and richer experiences of God; continuous study of the Bible leads men into its varied and profound communion with the Most High. It is enlarged by private and social worship; prayer and hymn and message were born in vital experiences, and they reproduce the experience. Browning, in characteristic verse, describes the effect of the service upon the worshippers in Zion Chapel Meeting:
These people have really felt, no doubt, A something, the motion they style the Call of them; And this is their method of bringing about, By a mechanism of words and tones, (So many texts in so many groans) A sort of reviving and reproducing, More or less perfectly (who can tell?), The mood itself, which strengthens by using.
An unexpressed faith dies of suffocation, while utterance intensifies experience and leads to fresh expression; religion, like Shelley's Skylark, "singing still doth soar, and soaring ever singeth." Above all, the instinct for the Unseen is developed by exercise; obedience to our heavenly visions sharpens the eyes of the heart. Charles Lamb pictures his sister and himself "with a taste for religion rather than a strong religious habit." Such people exclude themselves from the power and peace, the limitless enrichment, of conscious friendship with the living God.
Indeed it is not conceivable that a man can have really tasted fellowship with the Most High without acquiring an appetite for more of Him. The same psalmist who speaks of his soul as satisfied in God, at once goes on, "My soul followeth hard after Thee." He who does not become a confirmed seeker for God is not likely ever to have truly found Him. There is something essentially irreligious in the attitude portrayed in the biography of Horace Walpole, who, when Queen Caroline tried to induce him to read Butler's Analogy, told her that his religion was fixed, and that he had no desire either to change or to improve it. A believer's heart is fixed; his soul is stayed on God; but his experience is constantly expanding.
Constancy is perhaps an inaccurate word to employ of man's intercourse with the Invisible. Even in the most stedfast and unwavering this intercourse is characterized by
tidal movements of devoutest awe Sinking anon to farthest ebb of doubt.
And in the world's life there are ages of faith and ages of criticism. Both assurance and questioning appear to be necessary. Professor Royce asserts that "a study of history shows that if there is anything that human thought and cultivation have to be deeply thankful for, it is an occasional, but truly great and fearless age of doubt." And in individuals it is only by facing obstinate questionings that faith is freed from folly and attains reasonableness.
Nor can religious experience, however boldly it claims to know, fail to admit that its knowledge is but in part. Our knowledge of God, like the knowledge we have of each other, is the insight born of familiarity; but no man entirely knows his brother. And as for the Lord of heaven and earth, how small a whisper do we hear of Him! Some minds are constitutionally ill-adapted for fellowship with Him because they lack what Keats calls "negative capability"—"that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go a fine isolated verisimilitude, caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge." We have to trust God with His secrets, as well as try to penetrate them as far as our minds will carry us. We have to accustom ourselves to look uncomplainingly at darkness, while we walk obediently in the light. "They see not clearliest who see all things clear."
But to many it seems all darkness, and the light is but a phantom of the credulous. How do we know that we know, that the inference we draw from our experience is correct, that we are in touch with a living God who is to any extent what we fancy Him to be? Our experience consists of emotions, impulses, aspirations, compunctions, resolves; we infer that we are in communion with Another—the Christian God; but may not this explanation of our experience be mistaken?
Religious experience is self-evidencing to the religious. God is as real to the believer as beauty to the lover of nature on a June morning, or to the artistic eye in the presence of a canvas by a great master. Men are no more argued into faith than into an appreciation of lovely sights and sounds; they are immediately and overwhelmingly aware of the Invisible.
The rest may reason, and welcome; 'tis we musicians know.
Faith does not require authority; it confers it. To those who face the Sistine Madonna, in the room in the Dresden Gallery where it hangs in solitary eminence, it is not the testimony of tradition, nor of the thousands of its living admirers throughout the world, that renders it beautiful; it makes its own irresistible impression. There are similar moments for the soul when some word, or character, or event, or suggestion within ourselves, bows us in admiration before the incomparably Fair, in shame before the unapproachably Holy, in acceptance before the indisputably True, in adoration before the supremely Loving—moments when "belief overmasters doubt, and we know that we know." At such times the sense of personal intercourse is so vivid that the believer cannot question that he stands face to face with the living God.
Such moments, however, are not abiding; and in the reaction that follows them the mind will question whether it has not been the victim of illusion. John Bunyan owns: "Though God has visited my soul with never so blessed a discovery of Himself, yet afterwards I have been in my spirit so filled with darkness, that I could not so much as once conceive what that God and that comfort was with which I had been refreshed." Many a Christian today knows the inspiration and calm and reinforcement of religion, only to find himself wondering whether these may not come from an idea in his own head, and not from a personal God. May we not be in a subjective prison from whose walls words and prayers rebound without outer effect?
How far may we trust our experience as validating the inferences we draw from it? The Christian thought of God is after all no more than an hypothesis propounded to account for the Christian life. May not our experiences be accounted for in some other way? We must distinguish between the adequacy of our thought of God and the fact that there is a God more or less like our thought of Him. Our experience can never guarantee the entire correctness of our concept of Deity; a child experiences parental love without knowing accurately who its parents are—their characters, position, abilities, etc. But the child's experience of loving care convinces the child that he possesses living parents. Is it likely that, were God a mere fancy, a fancy which we should promptly discard if we knew it as such, our experience could be what it is? An explanation of an experience, which would destroy that experience, is scarcely to be received as an explanation. Religion is incomparably valuable, and to account for it as self-hypnosis would end it for us as a piece of folly. Can life's highest values be so dealt with? Moreover, we cannot settle down comfortably in unbelief; just when we feel most sure that there is no God, something unsettles us, and gives us an uncanny feeling that after all He is, and is seeking us. We find ourselves responding, and once more we are strengthened, encouraged, uplifted. Can a mere imagination compass such results?
How shall we test the validity of the inference we draw from our experience?
One test is the satisfaction that it gives to all elements in our complex personality. One part of us may be deceived, but that which contents the entire man is not likely to be unreal. Arthur Hallam declared that he liked Christianity because "it fits into all the folds of one's nature." Further, this satisfaction is not temporary but persistent. In childhood, in youth, in middle age, at the gates of death, in countless experiences, the God we infer from our spirit's reactions to Him meets and answers our changing needs. Matthew Arnold writes: "Jesus Christ and His precepts are found to hit the moral experience of mankind; to hit it in the critical points; to hit it lastingly; and, when doubts are thrown upon their really hitting it, then to come out stronger than ever." Unless we are to distrust ourselves altogether, that which appeals to our minds as reasonable, to our hearts as lovable, to our consciences as commanding, and to our souls as adorable, can hardly be "such stuff as dreams are made on."
Nor are we looking at ourselves alone. We are confirmed by the completer experiences of the generations who have preceded us. "They looked unto Him and were radiant." Those thousands of beautiful and holy faces in each century, "lit with their loving and aflame with God," can scarcely have been gazing on light kindled solely by their own imaginations.
And all their minds transfigured so together, More witnesseth than fancy's images, And grows to something of great constancy.
Religion has written its witness into the world's history, and we can appeal to an eloquent past.
Look at the generations of old, and see: Who did ever put his trust in the Lord, and was ashamed? Or who did abide in His fear, and was forsaken? Or who did call upon Him, and He despised him?
And its witness comes from today as certainly, and more widely, than from any believing yesterday. Ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, out of every kindred and tongue and nation, throughout the world, testify what the God and Father of Jesus Christ means to them. Are we all self-deceived?
Nor are we limited to the experiences of those who at best impress us as partially religious. For the final confirmation of our faith we look to the ideal Believer, who not only has an ampler religious experience than any other, but also possesses more power to create faith, and to take us farther into the Unseen; we look unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith. His life and death, His character and influence, remain the world's most priceless possession. Was the faith which produced them, the faith which inspired Him, an hallucination? There is contained in that life more proof that God is, than in all other approach of God to man, or of man to God.
The other test of the correctness of our inference drawn from our religious experience is its practical value, the way in which it works in life. "He that willeth to do His will shall know." Coleridge bursts out indignantly: "'Evidences of Christianity'! I am weary of the word. Make a man feel the want of it; rouse him, if you can, to the self-knowledge of the need of it; and you may safely trust it to its own evidence." Religion approaches men saying, "O taste and see that the Lord is good." He cannot be good unless He is. A fancied Deity, an invention however beautiful of men's brain, supposed to be a living Being, cannot be a blessing, but, like every other falsehood, a curse. If our religion is a stained glass window we color to hide the void beyond, then in the name of things as they are, whether they have a God or not, let us smash the deceiving glass, and face the darkness or the daylight outside. "Religion is nothing unless it is true," and its workableness is the test of its truth. Behind the accepted hypotheses of science lie countless experiments; and anyone who questions an hypothesis is simply bidden repeat the experiment and convince himself. Behind the fundamental conviction of Christians are generations of believers who have tried it and proved it. The God and Father of Jesus is a tested hypothesis; and he who questions must experiment, and let God convince him. To commit one's self to God in Christ and be redeemed from most real sins—turned from selfishness to love, from slavery to freedom; to trust Him in most real difficulties and perplexities, and find one's self empowered and enlightened;—is to discover that faith works, and works gloriously. A man's idea of God may be, and cannot but be, inadequate; but it corresponds not to nothing existent, but to Someone most alive. That which comes to us through the idea is witness of the Reality behind it.
Nor are we confined to the witness of our personal discoveries. There is a social attestation of the workableness of faith. The surest way of establishing the worth of our religious experience is to share it with another; the strongest confirmation of the objective existence of Him with whom we have to do is to lead another to see Him. The most effective defender of the faith is the missionary. "It requires," as David Livingstone said, "perpetual propagation to attest its genuineness." Not they who sit and study and discuss it, however cleverly and learnedly, discover its truth; but they who spend and are spent in attempting to bring a whole world to know the redeeming love of One who is, and who rewards with indubitable sonship with Himself those who prove wholeheartedly loyal.
For our final assurance we appeal confidently to the future. The glory of the Lord will only be fully revealed when all flesh see it together. But with personal certainty, based on our own experience, corroborated by the testimony of all the saints, we both wait hopefully and work tirelessly for the day when our God through Christ shall be all in all.
In terms of the definition of religion given in the last chapter, we may describe the Bible as the record of the progressive religious experience of Israel culminating in Jesus Christ, a record selected by the experience of the Jewish and Christian Church, and approving itself to Christian experience today as the Self-revelation of the living God.
The Bible is a literary record. It is not so much a book as a library, containing a great variety of literary forms—legends, laws, maxims, hymns, sermons, visions, biographies, letters, etc. Judged solely as literature its writings have never been equalled in their kind, much less surpassed. Goethe declared, "Let the world progress as much as it likes, let all branches of human research develop to their utmost, nothing will take the place of the Bible—that foundation of all culture and all education." Happily for the English-speaking world the translation into our tongue, standardized in the King James' Bible, is a universally acknowledged classic; and scarcely a man of letters has failed to bear witness to its charm and power. While most translations lose something of the beauty and meaning of the original, there are some parts of the English Bible which, as literature and as religion, excel the Hebrew or Greek they attempt to render.
The Bible is a record of religious experience. It has but one central figure from Genesis to Revelation—God. But God is primarily in the experience, only secondarily in the record. All thought succeeds in grasping but a fraction of consciousness; thought is well symbolized in Rodin's statue, where out of a huge block of rough stone a small finely chiselled head emerges. With all their skill we cannot credit the men of faith who are behind the Bible pages with making clear to themselves but a small part of God's Self-disclosure to them. And when they came to wreak thought upon expression, so clear and well-trained a mind as Paul's cannot adequately utter what he feels and thinks. His sentences strain and sometimes break; he ends with such expressions as "the love of Christ which passeth knowledge," and God's "unspeakable gift."
The divine revelation which is in the experience has been at times identified with the thought that interprets it, or even with the words which attempt to describe it. "Faith in the thing grows faith in the report"; and fantastic doctrines of the verbal inerrancy of the Bible have been held by numbers of earnest Christians. Certain recent scholars, acknowledging that no version of the Bible now existing is free from error, have put forward the theory that the original manuscripts of these books, as they came from their authors' hands, were so completely controlled by God as to be without mistake. Since no man can ever hope to have access to these autographs, and would not be sure that he had them in his hands if he actually found them, this theory amounts to saying with the nursery rhyme:
Oats, peas, beans, and barley grows, Where you, nor I, nor nobody knows.
We have not only to collate the manuscripts we possess and try to reconstruct the likeliest text, but when we know what the authors probably wrote, we must press back of their language and ideas to the religious experience they attempt to express.
As writers the Biblical authors do not claim a special divine assistance. Luke, in his preface to his gospel, merely asserts that he has taken the pains of a careful historian, and Paul and his various amanuenses did their best with a language in which they were not literary experts. The Bible reader often has the impression that its authors' religious experience, like Milton's sculptured lion, half appears "pawing to get free his hinder parts." Or, to change the metaphor, now one portion of their communion with God is brought to view and now another, as one might stand before a sea that was illuminated from moment to moment by flashes of lightning.
The Bible is the record of an historic religious experience—that of Israel which led up to the consciousness of God in Jesus and His followers. The investigation of the sources of Hebrew religion has shown that many of its beliefs came from the common heritage of the Semitic peoples; and there are numerous points of similarity between Israel's faith and that of other races. This ought not to surprise us, since its God is the God of all men. But the more resemblances we detect, the greater the difference appears. The same legend in Babylonia and in Israel has such unlike spiritual content; the identical rite among the Hebrews and among their neighbors developed such different religious meaning. This particular stream of religious life has a unity and a character of its own. Its record brings into the succeeding centuries, and still produces in our world, a distinctive relationship with God.
The Bible is a record of progressive religious experience. As every poet with a new message has to create his own public, so it would seem that God had slowly to evolve men who would respond to His ever higher inspirations. When scholars arrange for us the Biblical material in its historical order, the advance becomes much more apparent. Its God grows from a tribal deity to the God of the whole world; from a localized divinity dwelling on Sinai or at Jerusalem, as the Greeks placed their gods on Olympus, into the Spirit who fills heaven and earth; from "a man of war" and a tribal lawgiver into the God whose nature is love. "By experience," said Roger Ascham, "we find out a short way by a long wandering," and it took at least ten centuries to pass from the God of Moses to the Father of Jesus Christ.
Obviously we must interpret, and at times correct, the less developed by the more perfect consciousness of God. The Scriptures, like the land in which their scenes are laid, are a land of hills and valleys, of lofty peaks of spiritual elevation and of dark ravines of human passion and doubt and cruelty; and to view it as a level plain of religious equality is to make serious mistakes. Ecclesiastes is by no means on the same level with Isaiah, nor Proverbs with the Sermon on the Mount. Doctrines and principles that are drawn from texts chosen at random from all parts of the Bible are sure to be unworthy statements of the highest fellowship with God.
Nor does mere chronological rearrangement of the material do justice to the progress; there was loss as well as gain. All mountain roads on their way to the summit go down as well as up; and their advance must be judged not from their elevation at any particular point, but from their successful approach towards their destination. The experiences of Israel reach their apex in the faith of Jesus and of His immediate followers; and they find their explanation and unity in Him. In form the Jewish Bible, unlike the Christian, has no climax; it stops, ours ends. Christians judge the progress in the religious experience of Israel by its approximation to the faith and purpose of Jesus.
The Bible is a selected record of religious experience. Old Testament historians often refer to other books which have not been preserved; and there were letters of St. Paul which were allowed to perish, and gospels, other than our four, which failed to gain a place in the Canon. A discriminating instinct was at work, judging between writings and writings. We know little of the details of the process by which it compiled the Old Testament. The Jewish Church spoke of its Scriptures as "the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings"; and it is probable that in this order it made collections of those books which it found expressed and reproduced its faith. In the time of Jesus the Old Testament, as we know it, was practically complete, although there still lingered some discussion whether Esther, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were sacred books. We should like to know far more than students have yet discovered of the reasons which Jewish scholars gave for admitting some and rejecting other writings; but, whatever their alleged reasons, the books underwent a struggle for recognition, and the fittest, according to the judgment of the corporate religious experience of the devout, survived.
The first Christians found the Jewish Bible in use as containing "the oracles of God"; and as it had been their Lord's Bible it became theirs. No one of the first generation of Christians thought of adding other Scriptures. In that age the Coming of the Messiah and His Kingdom in power were daily expected, and there seemed no need of writing anything for succeeding times. Paul's letters were penned to meet current needs in the churches, and were naturally kept, reread and passed from church to church. As the years went by and disciples were added who had never known the Lord in the days of His flesh, a demand arose for collections of His sayings. Then gospels were written, and the New Testament literature came into existence, although no one yet thought of these writings as Holy Scripture.
Three factors, however, combined to give these books an authoritative position. In the Church services reading was a part of worship. What should be read? A letter of an apostle, a selection of Jesus' sayings, a memoir of His life, an account of the earliest days of the Church. Certain books became favorites because they were most helpful in creating and stimulating Christian faith and life; and they won their own position of respect and authority.
Some books by reason of their authorship—Paul or Peter, for instance—or because they contained the life and teaching of Jesus, naturally held a place of reverence. This eventually led to the ascription to well-known names of books that were found helpful which had in fact been written by others. For example, the Epistle to the Hebrews was ultimately credited to Paul, and the Second Epistle of Peter to the Apostle Peter.
And, again, controversies arose in which it was all important to agree what were the sources to which appeal should be made. The first collection of Christian writings, of which we know, consisting of ten letters of Paul and an abridged version of the Gospel according to Luke, was put forth by Marcion in the Second Century to defend his interpretation of Christianity—an interpretation which the majority of Christians did not accept. It was inevitable that a fuller collection of writings should be made to refute those whose faith appeared incomplete or incorrect.
In the last quarter of the Second Century we find established the conception of the Bible as consisting of two parts—the Old and the New Covenant. This meant that the Christian writings so acknowledged would be given at least the same authority as was then accorded to the Jewish Bible. Early in the Fourth Century the historian, Eusebius, tells us how the New Testament stood in his day. He divides the books into three classes—those acknowledged, those disputed, and those rejected. In the second division he places the epistles of James and Jude, the Second Epistle of Peter and the Second and Third of John; in the first all our other books, but he says of the Revelation of John, that some think that it should be put in the third division; in the third he names a number of books which are of interest to us as showing what some churches regarded as worthy of a place in the New Testament, and used as they did our familiar gospels and epistles. By the end of that century, under the influence of Athanasius and the Church in Rome, the New Testament as it now stands became almost everywhere recognized.
The reason given for the acceptance or rejection of a book was its apostolic authorship. Only books that could claim to have been written by an apostle or an apostolic man were considered authoritative. We now know that not all the books could meet this requirement; but the Church's real reason was its own discriminating spiritual experience which approved some books and refused others. Canon Sanday sums up the selective process by saying: "In the fixing of the Canon, as in the fixing of doctrine, the decisive influence proceeded from the bishops and theologians of the period 325-450. But behind them was the practice of the greater churches; and behind that again was not only the lead of a few distinguished individuals, but the instinctive judgment of the main body of the faithful. It was really this instinct that told in the end more than any process of quasi-scientific criticism. And it was well that it should be so, because the methods of criticism are apt to be, and certainly would have been when the Canon was formed, both faulty and inadequate, whereas instinct brings into play the religious sense as a whole. Even this is not infallible; and it cannot be claimed that the Canon of the Christian Sacred Books is infallible. But experience has shown that the mistakes, so far as there have been mistakes, are unimportant; and in practice even these are rectified by the natural gravitation of the mind of man to that which it finds most nourishing and most elevating."
In their attitude towards the Canon all Christians agree that the books deemed authoritative must record the historic revelation which culminated in Jesus and the founding of the Christian Church. A Roman Catholic may derive more religious stimulus from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola than from the Book of Lamentations, and a Protestant from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress than from the Second Epistle of John; but neither would think of inserting these books in the Canon. He who finds as much religious inspiration in some modern poet or essayist as in a book of the Bible, may be correctly reporting his own experience; but he is confusing the purpose of the Bible if he suggests the substitution of these later prophets for those of ancient Israel. The Bible is the spiritually selected record of a particular Self-disclosure of God in a national history which reached its religious goal in Jesus Christ.
Romanists and Protestants differ as to how many books constitute the Canon, the former including the so-called Apocrypha—books in the Greek translation but not in the original Hebrew Bible. And they differ more fundamentally in the principle underlying the selection of the books. The Roman Catholic holds that it is the Church which officially has made the Bible, while the Protestant insists that the books possess spiritual qualities of their own which gave them their place in the authoritative volume, a place which the Church merely recognized. Luther, in his celebrated dispute with Dr. Eck, asserted: "The Church cannot give more authority or force to a book than it has in itself. A Council cannot make that be Scripture which in its own nature is not Scripture." The Council of Trent, answering the Reformers, in 1546, issued an official decree defining what is Scripture: "The holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, legitimately convened in the Holy Ghost ...receives and venerates with an equal piety and reverence all the books as well of the Old as of the New Testament ...together with the traditions pertaining both to faith and to morals, as proceeding from the mouth of Christ, or dictated by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Church Catholic by continuous succession." Then follows a catalogue of the books, and an anathema on all who shall not receive them "as they are contained in the old vulgate Latin version."
Over against this the Protestant takes the position that the books of the Scripture came to be recognized as authoritative exactly as Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth have been accorded their place in English literature. It was the inherent merit of Hamlet and Paradise Lost and the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality that led to their acknowledgment. No official body has made Shakespeare a classic; his works have won their own place. No company of men of letters officially organized keeps him in his eminent position; his plays keep themselves. The books of the Bible have gained their positions because they could not be barred from them; they possess power to recanonize themselves. Some are much less valuable than others, and it is, perhaps, a debatable question whether one or two of the apocryphal books—First Maccabees, or Ecclesiasticus, for instance—are not as spiritually useful as the Song of Solomon or Esther; but of the chief books we may confidentially affirm that, if one of them were dug up for the first time today, it would gradually win a commanding place in Christian thought. And it is a similar social experience of the Church—Jewish and Christian—which has recognized their worth. The modernist Tyrrell has written: "It cannot be denied that in the life of that formless Church, which underlies the hierarchic organization, God's Spirit exercises a silent but sovereign criticism, that His resistlessly effectual judgment is made known, not in the precise language of definition and decree, but in the slow manifestation of practical results; in the survival of what has proved itself life-giving; in the decay and oblivion of all whose value was but relative and temporary."
In a sense each Protestant Christian is entitled to make up a Bible of his own out of the books which record the historical discoveries of God. He is not bound by the opinions of others, however many and venerable; and unless a book commends itself to his own spiritual judgment, he is under no obligation to receive it as the word of God to him. As a matter of fact every Christian does make such a Bible of his own; the particular passages which "grip" him and reproduce their experiences in him, they, and they alone, are his Bible. Luther was quickened into life by the epistles of Paul, but spoke slightingly of James; many socially active Christians in our day live in the prophets and the first three gospels, and almost ignore the rest of the Bible. But individual taste, while it has preferred authors and favorite works, does not think of denying to Milton, or Wordsworth, or Shelley, their place among English classics; a social judgment has assigned them that. A man who is not hopelessly conceited will regret his inability to appreciate a single one of the great authors, and will try to enlarge his sympathies. The Christian will, with entire naturalness, be loyal to so much of the Bible as "finds him," and humbly hope and endeavor to be led into ampler ranges of spiritual life, that he may "apprehend with all saints" the breadth, length, depth and height of the historic Self-revelation of God.
The Bible is thus a standard of religious experience. If there is any question as to what man's life with God ought to be, it can be referred to the life recorded in these books. But men have often made the Bible much more; confusing experience with its interpretation in some particular epoch, they used the Bible as a treasury of proof texts for doctrines, or of laws for conduct, or of specific provisos for Church government and worship. They forgot that the writers of the early chapters of Genesis, in describing their faith in God's relationship to His world and to man and to history, had to express that faith in terms of the existing traditions concerning the creation, the fall, the deluge, the patriarchs. Their faith in God is one thing; the scientific and historic accuracy of the stories in which they utter it is quite another thing. They did not distinguish between Paul's life with God in Christ, and the philosophy he had learned in Gamaliel's classroom, or picked up in the thought of the Roman world of his day. Paul's religious life is one thing, his theology in which he tries to explain and state it is another thing. They read the plans that were made for the organization of the first churches, and hastily concluded that these were intended to govern churches in all ages. The chief divisions of the Church claim for their form of government—papal, episcopal, presbyterian, congregational—a Biblical authority. The religious life of the early churches is one thing; their faith and hope and love ought to abide in the Church throughout all generations; the method of their organization may have been admirable for their circumstances, but there is no reason we should consider it binding upon us in the totally different circumstances of our day. Latterly social reformers have been attempting to show that the Bible teaches some form of economic theory, like socialism or communism. It lays down fundamental principles of brotherhood, of justice, of peaceableness, but the economic or political systems in which these shall be embodied, we must discover for ourselves in each age. It is the norm of our life with God; but it is not a standard fixing our scientific views, our theological opinions, our ecclesiastical polity, our economic or political theories. It shows forth the spirit we should manifest towards God and towards one another as individuals, and families, and nations; "and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
This brings us to the question of the authority of the Bible. There are two views of its authority; one that it contains mysteries beyond our reason, which are revealed to us, and guaranteed to us as true, either by marvellous signs such as miracles and fulfilled prophecies, or by the infallible pronouncement of the official Church; the other is that the Bible is the revelation of self-evidencing truth. The test of a revelation is simply that it reveals. The evidence of daylight lies in the fact that it enables us to see, and as we live in the light we are more and more assured that we really do see. Advocates of the former position say: "If anything is in the Bible, it must not be questioned; it must simply be accepted and obeyed." Advocates of the latter view say: "If it is in the Bible, it has been tried and found valuable by a great many people; question it as searchingly as you can, and try it for yourself, and see whether it proves itself true or not."
These two views came into collision in the struggle for a larger faith which we call the Reformation. Augustine had stated the position which became traditional when he wrote, "I would not believe in the Gospel without the authority of the Church." But Luther insisted on the contrary: "Thou must not place thy decision on the Pope, or any other; thou must thyself be so skilful that thou can'st say, 'God says this, not that.' Thou must bring conscience into play, that thou may'st boldly and defiantly say, 'That is God's word; on that will I risk body and life, and a hundred thousand necks if I had them.' Therefore no one shall turn me from the word which God teaches me, and that must I know as certainly as that two and three make five, that an ell is longer than a half. That is certain, and though all the world speak to the contrary, still I know that it is not otherwise. Who decides me there? No man, but only the Truth which is so perfectly certain that nobody can deny it." And Calvin took the same ground: "As to their question, How are we to know that the Scriptures came from God, if we cannot refer to the decree of the Church, we might as well ask, How are we to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, bitter from sweet."
The truth of the religious experiences recorded in the Bible is self-evidencing to him who shares these experiences, and to no one else. The Bible has, in a sense, to create or evoke the capacities by which it is appreciated and verified. It is inspired only to those who are themselves willing to be controlled by similar inspirations; it is the word of God only to those who have ears for God's voice. There is a difference between the phrases: "It is certain," and "I am certain." In other matters we appeal to the collective opinion of sane people; but such knowledge does not suffice in religion. Our fellowship with God must be our own response to our highest inspirations. The Bible is authoritative for us only in so far as we can say: "I have entered into the friendship of the God, whose earlier friendship with men it records, and know Him, who speaks as personally to my conscience through its pages, as He spake to its writers. The Spirit that ruled them, the Spirit of trust and service, controls me." This is John Calvin's position. "It is acting a preposterous part," he writes in his Institutes, "to endeavor to produce sound faith in the Scriptures by disputations. Religion appearing to profane men to consist wholly in opinion, in order that they may not believe anything on foolish or slight grounds, they wish and expect it to be proved that Moses and the prophets spake by divine inspiration; but as God alone is a sufficient witness of Himself in His own word, so also the word will never gain credit in the hearts of men, till it is confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit."
If, then, the authority of the Bible depends upon the witness of the Spirit within our own souls, its authority has definite limits. We can verify spiritually the truth of a religious experience by repeating that experience; but we cannot verify spiritually the correctness of the report of some alleged event, or the accuracy of some opinion. We can bear witness to the truthfulness of the record of the consciousness of shame and separation from God in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve; we must leave the question of the historicity of the narrative and the scientific view of the origin of the race in a single pair to the investigations of scholars. Our own knowledge of Jesus Christ as a living Factor in our careers confirms the experience His disciples had of His continued intercourse with them subsequent to His crucifixion; but the manner of His resurrection and the mode in which post mortem He communicated with them must be left to the untrammelled study of historical students. The religious message of a miraculous happening, like the story of Jonah or of the raising of Lazarus, we can test and prove: disobedience brings disaster, repentance leads to restoration; faith in Christ gives Him the chance to be to us the resurrection and the life. The reported events must be tested by the judgments of historic probability which are applied to all similar narratives, past or present. The Bible's authority is strictly religious; it has to do solely with God and man's life with man in Him; and, when read in the light of its culmination in Christ, it approves itself to the Spirit of Christ within Christians as a correct record of their experiences of God, and the mighty inspiration to such experiences. Surely it is no belittling limitation to say of this unique book that it is an authority only on God. Every fundamental question of life is answered, every essential need of the soul is met, when God is found, and becomes our Life, our Home.
And with such self-evidencing authority in the books of the Bible, it is a question of minor importance who were their authors and when they were written—the questions which the literary historical criticism undertakes to answer. Luther put the matter conclusively when he said in his vigorous fashion: "That which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, though Peter or Paul should have said it; on the contrary that which preaches Christ is apostolic, even if it should come from Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod." Some persons have been greatly troubled in the last generation by being told that scholars did not consider the conventionally received authorships of many of the books of the Bible correct, but thought that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, or David the Psalms, or Solomon the Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, or Isaiah and Jeremiah more than parts of the books that bear their names, or John and Peter all the writings ascribed to them. We are not to judge of writings by their authors, but by their intrinsic value. Suppose Shakespeare did not write more than a fraction of the plays associated with his name, or that he wrote none of them at all; the plays themselves remain as valuable as ever; their interpretation of life in its tragedy and humor, its heights and its depths, is as true as it ever was. Whatever views of their composition or authorship may be reached by literary experts, the Scriptures possess exactly the same spiritual power they have always possessed. The Lord has been "our dwelling-place in all generations," whether Moses or some other psalmist penned that line; and Jesus is the bread of life, whether the apostle John or some other disciple whom Jesus loved records that experience. Scholars may make the meaning of the Scriptures much plainer by their searching studies; and they must be encouraged to investigate as minutely and rigorously as they can. To be fearful that the Bible cannot stand the test of the keenest study, is to lack faith in its divine vitality. To found a "Bible Defence League" is as unbelieving as to inaugurate a society for the protection of the sun. Like the sun the Bible defends itself by proving a light to the path of all who walk by it. The only defence it needs is to be used; and the only attack it dreads is to be left unread.
And in speaking of the authority of the Bible we cannot forget that it is not for Christians the supreme authority. "One is your Master, even Christ." We must be cautious in speaking of the Bible, as we commonly do, as "the word of God." That title belongs to Jesus. The Bible contains the word of God; He is for us the Word of God. We dare not overlook His untrammelled attitude towards the Scriptures of His people, who let His own spiritual discernment determine whether a Scripture was His Father's living voice to Him, or only something said to men of old time, and given temporarily for the hardness of hearts that could respond to no higher ideal. As His followers, we dare not use less freedom ourselves. We test every Scripture by the Spirit of Christ in us: whatever is to us unchristlike in Joshua or in Paul, in a psalmist or in the seer on Patmos, is not for us the word of our God: whatever breathes the Spirit of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation is to us our Father's Self-revealing speech.
Nor do we think that God ceased speaking when the Canon of the Bible was complete. How could He, if He be the living God? "Truth," said Milton, "is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." The fountain of God's Self-revealing still streams. Religious truth comes to us from all quarters—from events of today and contemporaneous prophets, from living epistles at our side and the still small voice within; but as a simple matter of fact, its main flow is still through this book. When we want God—want Him for our guidance, our encouragement, our correction, our comfort, our inspiration—we find Him in the record of these ancient experiences of His Self-unveiling. When near his death, after years of agony on his bed, when he himself had become a changed man, Heinrich Heine wrote: "I attribute my enlightenment entirely and simply to the reading of a book. Of a book? Yes! and it is an old homely book, modest as nature—a book which has a look modest as the sun which warms us, as the bread which nourishes us—a book as full of love and blessing as the old mother who reads in it with her trembling lips, and this book is the Book, the Bible. With right is it named the Holy Scriptures. He who has lost his God can find Him again in this book; and he who has never known Him, is here struck by the breath of the Divine Word."
Three elements enter into every Christian's conception of his Lord—history, experience and reflection. Jesus is to him a figure out of the past, a force in the present, and a fact in his view of the universe. Whether we be discussing the Christ of Paul, or of the Nicene theologians, or of some thoughtful believer today, we must allow for the memory of the Man of Nazareth handed down from those who knew Him in the flesh, the acquaintance with the Lord of life resulting from personal loyalty to His will, and the explanation of this Lord reached by the mind, as, using the intellectual methods of its age, it tries to set His figure in its mental world.
The Jesus of the primitive Church was One whom believers worshipped as the Christ of God, in whose person and mission they saw the fulfilment of Israel's prophecy and the inauguration of a new religious era. They represent their conception of Him as corresponding to and created by His own consciousness of Himself. He was aware of a unique relationship to God—He is His Son, the Son. And because of this divine sonship He is the Messiah, commissioned to usher in the Kingdom of God, and to bring forgiveness and eternal life to men. This He does by becoming their Teacher and their lowly Servant, laying down His life for them in suffering and death, and rising and returning to them as their Lord. He appeals to them for faith in God, for loyalty to Himself as God's Servant and Son, and for trust in His divine power to save them.
This conception of Jesus is given us in documents which must be investigated and appraised as sources of historical knowledge. The four gospels are our principal informants, and no other writings in existence have been so often and so minutely examined. Among scholars at present it is a common hypothesis that Mark's is the earliest narrative; that this was combined with a Collection of Sayings (compiled, perhaps, by Matthew) and other material in our first gospel, and by another editor (probably Luke) with the same or a similar Collection of Sayings and still other material in our third gospel. Later yet, a fourth evangelist interpreted for the world of his day the Jesus of the first three gospels in the light of his own and the Church's spiritual experience.
The earlier sources, as is usually and naturally the case with literary records of the past, are considered historically more reliable than the later. The words of Jesus in the form in which they are given in the Synoptists are more nearly as Jesus spoke them, than in the form in which they are recorded in John. There is a tendency, often found in kindred documents, to make events more marvellous as the tradition is handed on. In Mark, for instance, the Spirit descends upon Jesus "as a dove," symbolizing the quietness with which the Divine Power possessed Him; in Luke, the symbol is materialized, and the Holy Spirit descends "in bodily form as a dove." The writers interpret the narrative for their readers: Matthew takes Jesus' ideal of the indissoluble marriage-tie, as it is given in Mark, and allows, in the practical application of the ideal, divorce for adultery; he adds to Jesus' word about telling one's brother his fault "between thee and him alone" further advice as to what shall be done if the brother be obdurate, ending with "Tell it unto the Church." John substitutes for the many sayings of Jesus in the earlier gospels, in which He appears to look forward to a speedy and sudden coming of His Kingdom in power, other sayings, in which He promises to come again spiritually and dwell in His followers. On the other hand, in some particulars scholars think that the later writers had more accurate information, and used it to correct misunderstandings conveyed by their predecessors; the length of our Lord's ministry, the procedure followed at the trial, the date of the crucifixion, are by many supposed to be more exactly given in John than in the Synoptists. In general there is no reason for questioning the data in the later sources, save as they seem to come from an interest of the Church of their day, unrelated with the Jesus of the earlier records.
In such documents we must expect some events to be supported by more historic proof than others. The evidence for Jesus' resurrection (to take a typical case), is far weightier than that for His birth of a virgin-mother. There is probably no scrap of primitive Christian literature which does not assume the risen Christ; and the origin of the Christian Church, and the character of its message and life, cannot be explained apart from the Easter faith in the Lord's victory over death and presence with His people in power. The virgin-birth rests on but two records (possibly on only one), neither of which belongs to the earlier strata of the tradition, and which are with difficulty reconciled with the more frequently mentioned fact that Jesus is the Son of David (an ancestry traced through Joseph). But in discussing the historicity of the narratives, it is just to the evangelists to recall that their main purpose was not the writing of history as such, but the presentation of material (which undoubtedly they considered trustworthy historically) designed to convey to their readers a correct religious estimate of Jesus Christ. "These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in His name." They do not often take the trouble to tell us on what evidence they report an event or a saying; they either did not know, or they did not care to preserve, the sequence of events, so that it is impossible to make a harmony of the gospels in which the material is chronologically arranged. But they spare themselves no pains to give the truth of the religious impression of Jesus which they had received.