The Written Word and the Christian Consciousness

Oliver Stearns

Berry Street lecture, 1856

 

read before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 28, 1856

 

            It is an interesting thought, which has a direct bearing on our duties and studies, as Christian ministers, that there is a continued reciprocal influence of the Written Word and the Christian Consciousness. The interpretation of the written word is variable. It depends in part on grammar and lexicon; and the mind may be imperfectly trained or furnished; therefore the intellectual perception is not infallible. It depends more on the moral affinity and spiritual position of the interpreter; therefore the spiritual perception is not infallible. Thus the interpretation of the written word must be modified by the student's growth in information and in the spiritual life. Interpretation deduces doctrine or opinion from the sacred history; faith puts it to practical test in life and the world; experiment shows wherein is its power or its defect, its truth or its error, and leads to a re-interpretation of the letter, and a remoulding by thought, in new forms, of the subject-matter of faith. There is no termination to this process but with the cessation of mental and moral activity.

 

            What occurs to the individual student and believer may be represented, for the purposes of the scholar, as taking place in the experience of the Christian body in the ages and realms of Christendom, regarded as one student mind and one believing heart; only in the case of the general Christian mind we must give more prominence to history, both secular and Christian, as an element of the experimental test. Providence has never deserted the Christian brain and heart. In despite of their most erratic working, God has, through their operation, been leading the advanced portion of humanity to more just apprehensions of his character and will. The divine instruction of the human family did not close with Christ's last earthly words, nor when the lips of Apostles were stilled in death, or the last Evangelist laid down his pen. The Spirit, which dwelt in Jesus and spoke by him as Christ, has been always with the Church, teaching it out of his words. Providence teaches it by events. The Truth comes to it through the thought and experience of disciples of every generation. Thus life reacts through thought upon the interpretation of the sacred history, and occasions a remoulding of doctrine. Doctrine modified returns to the crucial test of lives and minds ever new. Through all, God is with the Christian mind, never leaving it for a generation, never for a thought. And there is no termination to this process of divine instruction, save with the life of Christianity upon the earth, that is, with the earthly life of the human race; perhaps it may be said, no termination save with the life of God in immortal souls.

 

            It is this reciprocal action of the interpretation of the written word and what, for the want of any better single term, I shall cal1 the Christian consciousness, which I propose to illustrate. I hope, also, to indicate, incidentally, some bearings of the fact on the questions and duties which engage us. And we find illustration of the fact within the first quarter of a century after the crucifixion. Nay, such illustration forces itself upon us at the very time of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, before the word by the Messiah was written. The mighty efflux of God's power through these events, fused, in part, the hard Jewish mind of the eleven and their sympathizers, and left their faith free to run into somewhat modified forms. Scarcely had the grave-clothes fallen from the risen Saviour, when the Comforter began to come; and if he had not ascended, the Apostles would not have preached Jesus risen, the Christ to come again from heaven. They preached this, with some misconception, but in it a truth which electrified the world, and whose reverberation we feel in the spiritual atmosphere of this morning. We may question and cavil about the outward circumstances of those events; but it was precisely through the outward that the divine power acted on the consciousness of those chosen witnesses, and began to clear away the mist of pre-judgment from their apprehension of the words of Jesus. And the record of their changed thought and feeling is bound up, not in one narrative merely, but by the philosophical relation of effect to cause, with the record of the resurrection and ascension,— a relation which no criticism of man can unfix, any more than the guesses of a child can loosen the similar connection between the fossil forms dug from the bowels of the earth, and the life which breathed on its surface at the period indicated by the disinterred strata. In each case God has made a connection which man may not put asunder.

 

            No sooner had the re-illumined faith of the Apostles, put forth in preaching the restitution of all things, begun to show its legitimate effect, and the energy of the Spirit going forth in so much of the truth as it comprehended, than the watchful Providence disclosed the obstacle which, in the form of erroneous interpretation, lay in the path of its triumph. This disclosure was made in phenomena which threatened the utter disruption of the newly formed body. The question arose whether the new dispensation should be continued within Judaism by the conquest of Judaism slightly modified over the world, or whether the peculiarity should be abolished to give free course to a spiritual faith. It was a vital question. How it could be one at all, may surprise us now; yet less than it would if Christian sects, even at our advanced period, had ceased from Judaizing. The Master, indeed, had spoken of his coming to fulfill the Law. Not a tittle of it should fail of accomplishment. He told his disciples to do what was taught by the scribes, but to do it better. Yet he sometimes seemed to correct Moses himself. He declared himself greater than the temple. And in one act, construed by the by-standers into evidence that he was eaten up by zeal for the temple, a quick sympathy with him who spoke to the Samaritan woman of worship to be offered, not on Gerizim or Moriah, but wherever man might be, will see that he intimated, that it was time for the cumbersome ritual, which mixed traffic with worship, to cease,— to yield to the sublime emotion which might be felt by the pilgrim, of any nation, as he entered that solemn temple, with its vast untenanted spaces, and which, however awakened and wherever ascending, was the soul's true holocaust to the Divine Majesty. But the Twelve could not see the significance of some of the greatest actions of their Master. They kept the ritual. The foreign element, however, in the Church, increased by the pentecostal conversion, was ripe for, a new rendering of the Messiah's word. The Hellenist Stephen fell a martyr to a wider vision of Christian truth, his face as the face of an angel irradiated with the foreshining of that glory of the crucified Lord which was already gleaming over the partition-walls of Zion upon the mind of the world beyond. Holding the clothes of those who stoned the first martyr, was that fiery youth of gigantic energy, destined to be the Holy Spirit's special instrument in this emancipation, more deeply touched than men knew by what he heard and saw, kicking already against the pricks, and ripening for those events in which Christ called him to be his missionary to the Gentiles; who in fulfilling this mission took a position by himself, waged the battle of controversy for freedom, arid in the heat of his contest pressed the Gospel into those forms of truth which have held fast the human mind, yet announced, under the terms grace and faith in opposition to law and works, with such an excess of strength as gave rise afterward to Antinomian perils, and has ever called for careful explanation, if we may not say qualification. The universality and freedom of the Gospel are now grown into the consciousness of Christendom. But it required bitter conflict, martyrdom, miracle, and vision, to get this truth into its place in the consciousness of the infant Church. Before the tough shell of Judaism would crack and open for the expansion of the Christian germ, and the striking down of the Christian root, the Divine Power which had aggregated its particles in a living organism must strike upon it, with the hammer of its omnipotence, rending blows which seemed likely to kill the latent life itself.

 

            These movements in the Christian Church, modifying the interpretation given to Jesus’ words and actions, took place chiefly before the transactions of his ministry were published in the written forms in which they have come down to us. Scarcely had the generation of apostolic men passed from the stage, when speculation busied itself with the nature of Christ. Men asked earnestly what Christ is, and what his relation to God; for on this depended what he could be to them, and what he came to do for the world. This question reached its crisis in the Arian controversy. And there is no more striking illustration, in all ecclesiastical history, of the power of Christianity, than that in the early part of the fourth century it had taken so rank hold, as we find, of the interest not only of scholars, but of the laity. The question concerning the nature of Christ has never been, and can never be, an indifferent one to the Church. Within certain limits it is a vital one. It relates to the objective matter of that faith which is to work in the soul by our love of its object, and which must hold a certain objective truth in order to be the channel of a divine life to the human spirit. I think Neander has not overstated the importance of the Arian controversy; although probably none of us would apprehend the bearing of it precisely as he did. The written word contained expressions of Christ concerning himself, and of Evangelists and Apostles concerning him, some of which represented him unequivocally as man, and others seemed almost or quite to place him upon the throne of the universe. What statement shall reconcile them? What is the Being who is the subject of them? Doubtless the Fathers, like their theological successors, undertook to do more than the human mind is equal to accomplishing. Still, the question is not nugatory. Arius asserted that the whole Christ was created before other created beings, yet in time; Athanasius asserted that Christ was not a created being, but eternal, his essence derived from the Father, but not in time. Both held and stated their views somewhat inconsistently. Arius probably apprehended with his faith more truth than his dogma held. Athanasius brought into his dogma, with essential truth, error which corrupted the simplicity of Christ. Arius was right in guarding pure monotheism. Rightly he insisted on the subordination of the person Christ to the person God. Physiologically and scripturally it is an objection to Arius that he puts a pre-existing spirit, not of the genus man, into a human body. Now the human body implies man. Spiritually and scripturally it is an objection to Arius, that he brings not the uncreated, the eternal, the creative, directly into the person Christ, except you suppose the uncreated to abide permanently in this created spirit embodied in flesh,— a supposition which supersedes his peculiar dogma; for the uncreated may just as well be immanent in a man. Athanasius was right in guarding the divinity of Christ (not the personal deity of Christ). He rightly insisted on the eternal essence communicating itself to, and immanent in, the man Christ Jesus, constituting him the Son of God. It is an objection to Athanasius metaphysically and scripturally, that he represents this communication from the Father to the Son to be eternal; whereas it took place, as all communication must take place, in time. He makes eternal the constitution of the Son, whereas it is only something essential to it which is eternal. He virtually makes Christ eternal, whereas man belongs to Christ, as Athanasius himself rightly insists, and man is not eternal. Christ is the proper name of the being after the Mediator was constituted. I understand the late Professor Moses Stuart to have re-regarded the term Christ as strictly a proper name of the Mediator, and applicable only as a figure to anything pre-existing. Here was the error of Athanasius and others, that, in accordance with the philosophy of his age, which personified emanations from God, he conceived of the Uncreated which entered into the Mediator as a person, and yet distinct from the Father. Hence two persons, not merely a twofold nature, but two consciousnesses in one being. Yet Athanasius held to the sudordination of Christ, which leads Stuart, I think, to undervalue the difference of the Athanasian and Arian positions.

 

            Athanasius seized a great truth, and the Holy Spirit, through his instrumentality, fixed it in the consciousness of the best part of Christendom, that there is in Christ an inlay of the divine essence, the eternal, the creative. How it is applicable to the written word is obvious. I will remark upon but one text: "Before Abraham was, I am.” With great deference to the scholars who interpret it of pre-existence in time, I cannot take it as an equivalent to "I was,” "I existed,” "I lived.” So far as regards the usus loquendi of John's Gospel, Mr. Norton's rendering appears to be sustained: "I am he,” "I am the Messiah.” Yet it does not correspond with the whole enunciation of Jesus, which carries my mind back to the "I am” of the Old Testament. At the same time, I cannot take it to assert personal and absolute self-existence; for this is barred by the counter-enunciation, "My Father is greater than I,” and would make Christ God, not according to an eternal generation, but in exclusion of all generation, absolutely, God. It stands to me, therefore, as a mystical assertion, by a figurative use of the personal pronoun, putting the whole for a part, of a consciousness peculiar, and stamping the records of its utterances as authentic, — a consciousness modified by the Uncreated and Eternal dwelling in him in a mode which the forms of no logic can evolve to the understanding. There was in him an inlay of the divine essence out of which came the whole action which made him an expression of God. That which causes wheat to grow for our sustenance, instantaneously in Christ created bread for the multitudes. That which created the soul of Lazarus at his birth, brought him back from death a living man. This somewhat truly divine, communicating itself to and dwelling in the person Christ, Athanasius's position preserved. The symbols which have held his doctrine have been the waves of time to bear over the sea of thought a precious waif of truth to seekers of it on the shore of the Infinite. To that truth the Christian consciousness has responded, and will respond. Why, then, has his dogma repelled men? For it has produced reaction in opposite directions. Stuart flies from it one way. Norton flies from it another way. Because his dogma was inconsistent in its parts, because it held gross error which was carried out to its logical consequences in the Westminster Confession, and because it holds that to which neither Scripture nor Christian consciousness answers. It attempts to hold subordination together with existence from eternity. It holds subordination together with perfectly distinct and separate personality; and Stuart demands unity of numerical essence. As perfected by his successors, it holds three eternal persons; which Norton justly calls Tritheism. While Dr. Whately, Dr. Bushnell, and Stuart, and a host of others, modify or object to the word person. And so men are sent to their Bibles and their common sense again.

 

            In the early part of the fifth century arose the controversy respecting human nature and its need, which has left as decisive influences on Christian thought as that just noticed. It is a fundamental question. On its decision depends our judgment concerning what the Gospel is to do for man, and what men are to seek in Christ. Other questions respecting free-will, predestination, and irresistible grace, were connected with the discussion, and with the systems matured; but at the bottom of all lay this one respecting human nature and its need. The champions were Augustine and Pelagius; the one asserting the total corruption of man by Adam's sin, and the other an uncorrupted human nature. These were their main positions, although some expressions are to be found in each not consistent with his distinctive doctrine. Pelagius was right in not allowing man's freedom to he compromised. He was right in resisting the imputation of Adam's transgression to all the human race,— a dogma weakening the sense of personal guilt. Augustine was right in asserting the need in human nature of a corrective influence, and not merely a developing power, in Christ. He was right in maintaining a generic and organic character of moral disorder, as tending to seize and use for itself, in part, the organism of human nature, and to become a germ of wrong development. Augustine held the essential truth which the common sense of the world recognizes, and which Christian experience is sure sooner or later to demand. Pelagius failed to emphasize, if he did not wholly reject, this essential truth, which is both cause and effect of a conscious deep need of Christ. Augustine's opinion is often said to be traceable to his personal history, — to his strong passions, and great struggle with them in his conversion, as well as to the tendency of his age to exaggerate the supernatural. His spiritual experience was not a normal one, it is said. Now no man's Christian experience is exactly the measure of another's. But does not God make use of peculiar persons and of peculiar ages to bring forth into human consciousness particular truths? And was it Augustine's intellectual force alone which infixed his dogma in Christian belief? Intellect alone cannot permanently reconcile masses of earnest men to sheer falsities. God is mightier than godlike intellect. The truth held in his dogma has given it a firm grasp in Christian belief, in spite of extreme error incorporated with it. But that error, shocking the common sense of the world and the Christian consciousness of multitudes, has produced reaction, and resulted in modifying the interpretation of the written word. Augustine, like so many theorists, and some in the opposite direction, did not keep close enough to objective facts, but mixed with them egregious assumptions to account for what the human mind is incompetent to explain. Truths and facts are forced upon us by nature and Scripture, which we can apprehend for practical purposes, but of which we cannot unfold the logical relations to the whole of being.

 

            Human nature, and not merely human life, needs the corrective influence of Christ. The origin of sin goes back of the will into the complex nature, by which man is at once body and soul. Volition makes personal guilt; but sin comes out of nature. The original elements of human nature are good. These elements are unchanged in all generations. Here we protest against the error of Augustine, continued to our time, and recently brought out afresh in some very able and interesting lectures[1] by the Professor of History at Andover, that, in consequence of Adam's sin, the germ of good is crowded out and displaced by a germ of evil, so that the divine germ must be literally replaced in order to any development of good. Man's nature never becomes wholly evil. If so, human society could not subsist. But while the original, normal human nature is good, while its original germs are never destroyed, the actual, concrete, spontaneous human nature is not perfectly right. Evil becomes in it a powerful germ; and much of human history is the history of its development. Without postulating any such notion as that all pain and decay are a retribution for imputed sin, or are always retribution in any sense to individuals,— that they are nothing but the heap of penal disaster which ages of sinful ancestry have rolled down upon us,— we may admit that moral disorder becomes, in a degree, generic, and partly seizes and occupies the organism of man. All souls are created children of God. But all souls also proceed by generation, from ancestors in whom sin has reacted upon nature. The tendency of man, except where counteracted by the conservative and redeeming power of truth divinely given, is to moral deterioration. The tendency may be resisted in certain cases, and for a time. But it exists; and it may accumulate in its progress.

 

            St. Paul found, in the philosophy of his day, the conception of a double nature, of two men forming each composite man; and he used it to convey his apprehension of the relation of the Gospel to the subject of its influence. It supposes a natural man, or psychical man, (if we may coin a word from the Greek term used by Paul, which our English word "natural” does not translate,) or man as a soul in relations with nature and with the outward world, an animal soul with that part of the intelligence suited to its life, and a spiritual man in relations with God and other spirits, and with so much of the intelligence as is adapted to perceive these relations. We may still use this conception for unfolding Christian thought. And we must not be misled by the apparent exceptions to the tendency of the natural man to overlay and overmaster the spiritual. Where a powerful intellectual and æsthetic development has existed, as in Greece, it may have modified this tendency, or it may soften the horror of moral evil in the picture of human life. But intellectual life alone is not the normal life of man. The bare knowledge of the powers and properties of the kingdoms of nature and mind, and of their adaptation to selfish ends, is compatible with the life of evil spirits. The conception of Satan is that of gigantic intellect, possessed of the secrets of nature and man, but fallen from fidelity to God, moved by overmastering passion, and perverting the qualities of things and the powers of souls wholly to purposes opposite to the Creator's intent. This is, indeed, the extreme. Man has never reached it. But where the intellectual development, with a certain speculative moral development, has been most brilliant, without supernatural aid, we see at once, by comparing it with Christ, how wide it has gone of man's normal life; and how, as in Plato's Republic, the wisest and purest, befogged in the general darkness, have authorized forms of life at which the most imperfectly educated Christian revolts with loathing. Where this psychical man rules, there is death. Where the spiritual man rules, there is life. The natural man is first unfolded. Nature fosters him. The law of descent propagates him. This may be the fact which the thinkers who have taught native depravity, from Augustine to the Westminster divines, have sought to bring into bold relief. In doing this, they thrust into the shade the spiritual man, which really is just as natural. But so far as they mean the existing strength of this "natural” man of St. Paul in the human race, they stand on indisputable objective fact.[2] It is no superficial or trifling evil. It is deep and deadly. And when man is convinced of it in himself, and looks up to the holiness of God, beckoning him to come up to it, and is surprised and kept down by the sin so easily besetting him, he must be conscious of weakness, of inability to raise himself; not of inability to do anything good, but inability to attain, alone, to the freedom and life he longs for. He wants an objective life, which through faith and love shall become subjective. And he has what he wants. His "life is hid with Christ in God.”

 

            The reaction of the Christian consciousness upon the interpretation of the written word has been very manifest in regard to the redemptive work of Christ. A few remarks, on this subject, of some of our most recent polemics, fall within the path of my principal thought. The necessity of the Mediator's suffering had always been felt and admitted; for Christian experience generates the sense of that necessity wherever the Gospel does its work. In the eleventh century, Anselm sought to demonstrate the rational grounds of this necessity; and his speculation has contributed much to give form to the modern doctrine of Atonement. According to Anselm, the God-man, by perfect obedience, and by undergoing the penalty of death which he did not deserve, made satisfaction to the honor of God for man's want of obedience, and gave the believer a claim to blessedness. Modern creeds are chiefly variations of this statement. It has been developed with consequences and accessories which have made Faith stagger; and yet Faith has patiently borne the load for the sake of the strength infused into her frame from the truth latent in her burden. It challenged the philosophical acumen of Butler, who sought analogies for it from nature and life; but, as seldom happened to Butler, the analogies would not fit the supposed truth. About twenty years since, a living author, in one of the most successful of a series of popular illustrations of Christian truth, "The Corner-Stone,” tried to do what Butler had essayed as a graver task. Many of his illustrations beautifully analogized Christ's suffering for sin; but, instead of verifying the doctrine of substituted punishment, illustrated a view which, the author said, did not go far enough. The quick sense of justice generated by Christ himself revolts at the thought of a sinless being undergoing a penalty, that those who merited it might be exempt. That is not "being just, and the justifier of him who lives from faith.” The sense of God's perfection which Jesus has brought from the Father's bosom may shrink from the statement, that, "without his death, God could not forgive even the penitent and loyal.” The ground-fact, the first truth, of Christian consciousness is, that God must feel towards all spirits according to what they are. A soul penitent and loyal may still suffer from the consequences of sin; but God forgives it. It is willing to bear penal suffering for the sins for which Christ bore so much remedial suffering. But now, if, to satisfy the Christian consciousness on this side, we pass over to the statement that Christ died only to seal the divine promise of forgiveness with his blood, the Christian consciousness has not accepted this as exhaustive of the sense of the eucharistic words, and, I think, never will. Faith misses a part of what makes its life. It misses something deposited in that old doctrine of Anselm, something which is veritably in Christ, something held in Anselm's terms, "the honor of God.” Only we must not conceive of it after the ideas of miscalled honor among men. Christian truth has ever been obliged to cleanse the terms which the poverty of language compels it to impress into its service. Christ's death, instead of being only the proof of his sincerity, is, in connection with his character and life, the means of generating in the spiritual nature a knowledge of what the new covenant of forgiveness is, by a peculiar deepening of the sense of sin and of holiness. Thus it is atonement, strictly analogous to the atonements of the old dispensation; only in its spiritual effect it goes deeper. To produce this effect, it was necessary in the Divine optimism. For the deepest peace, the soul wants the interests of holiness asserted in the very expression of God's mercy. The Divine optimism meets this want of the soul in the very method taken to bring men into the covenant of faith. Christ gives up his sacred life to turn back the tide of evil. Hanging on the cross there in the middle of the ages, he doth, in fact, magnify the law. He doth make holiness more sacred, mercy more dear, penitence more trustful, and loyalty more devoted. He bears the cost of reclamation. The worth of righteousness is asserted to the conscience, as well as mercy to the heart. Christ's death, with its concomitants, brings down into man, out of God, what Paul calls God's righteousness, which begets its antitype in the believer, so that he honors God. His sense of Divine justice and his consciousness of reconciliation reciprocally strengthen each other. God is felt to be most just, when he is most the justifier and approver of his child. But man does not all this for himself. Christ is the potentiality of his right and accepted and believing state, and so is his ransom, his propitiation. And Christ's death never can be rightly apprehended, for the first time, in any world, by a human spirit, without a deepening of its sense of sin and holiness, and a deepening of its peace. He is propitiation for all human spirits in all states of being through his sacrifice, just as he is judge 'of quick and dead, of human spirits in all worlds, by his word.

 

            We must pass over many representative minds, and many phases of thought, which have protested against excess or defect in doctrine, and expressed the new sense of truth in believers by new interpretation. The rise of the Lutheran Reformation, the influence of Swedenborg, of George Fox, and of Wesley, the first appearance of what has become modern Universalism, would all afford elucidation of my subject. But we must draw near to our own period,—the period of that Liberal movement in whose drift we are, and in which has been going on a new formation of the Christian doctrine, and a formation yet in mid-progress. We might call it the rational movement; but we must not forget that all speculative movements are efforts of reason to seize the truth, to sift it from error, and to place the different portions of it so as to be seen in right relations with each other. In this Liberal movement two names, among a large number of efficient co-laborers, stand out in relief to us as names of men who have expressed the reaction of the Christian consciousness of their period against assumptions petrified in the traditions from other times. These are Norton and Channing. They are historic names. They have modified interpretation throughout the theological world, more than that world will just now own. They will modify it more. Their influence is but begun. It is not an influence of their systems of theology, for I do not know that either can be said to have drawn out a system of theology; although the former had an exact and carefully chosen method of Biblical criticism and interpretation. It is the power of their intellectual and moral spirit. They were emancipators. They broke shackles. With unparalleled personal influence over those whom they directly taught, they set minds free. They were seed minds. They produced their kind, yet with individual diversity. Mr. Norton's professional life was that of an interpreter, in a special sense, of the written word. Yet many of his greatest labors were those of an interpreter in the broader sense,— an interpreter of the bearing of the sacred text on doctrine, and of the evidence of its genuineness in the sacred text itself. Probably no single mind among us accepts all his conclusions, yet we must admit that he made a new era in interpretation. He distinctly enunciated the fact that the New Testament is not a revelation, but the record of a revelation. He broke the spell of the dogma of verbal inspiration. He wrought with as much zeal to establish the substantial authenticity of that record in the Gospels, as to correct the interpretation of it; and with a success to be more acknowledged than it ever yet has been. He was no cold critic. His sensibility to the divine in the life of Christ was quick and profound. Those who were favored with his instructions remember well how often it happened that, where they looked for only criticism, they found in the warmth and beauty of his deliberate speech an opening of the characteristic traits of Jesus, a pathetic delineation of the Divine Master's position and actions, and a breathing of his spirit, which made the text brisk and alive, and which held them transfixed with eye moistened and tongue paralyzed by unutterable emotion. To go into his recitation-room and spend the hour over any portion of the text, was to go to learn what were difficulties, and how to grapple with them; and it was to come out with a new consciousness of what one had to do, and of power to do it. The mind emancipated had a lesson in caution and reverence, as well as intrepidity. Still the emancipation brought perils. Such is the irreversible law of God. But although Mr. Norton's professional life was that of an interpreter and an educator of interpreters, he began his course as a controversialist on Christian doctrine. He may be said to have headed and led the reaction against the dogma of three persons in one God. He vindicated Monotheism valiantly against virtual Tritheism. He maintained the integrity of the idea of person,— one of the most important ideas in theology. Let that idea be mutilated, and its distinctness weakened, as the Trinity weakens it, (as we see in the remarks of Stuart, Whately, and Bushnell,) and we no longer know what we mean by One God. The Scripture says we may all "become partakers of the Divine Nature”; "God is all and in all”; and it is as easy to conceive of millions of persons in the Godhead as of three persons, of Deity eternally millioning himself, as of Deity eternally "threeing himself.” That unmutilated idea of person is essential to the clear conception and the unhindered enjoyment of the Mediator and Intercessor. Yet Mr. Norton's position was antagonistic, and it becomes those who own their debt to him with most filial admiration, to consider whether he was prepared to do full justice to the thought in relation to the constitution of the Christ, which men had tried to clothe in the theories which he impugned. Thus I dismiss a name on which it is grateful to dwell. May the mantle of his honesty and intrepidity fall on many Christian scholars.

 

            Channing was the champion of the re-assertion by the Christian consciousness of his age, against Augustinian and other traditions, of the dignity of human nature, of freedom, of undiminished moral responsibility, of a natural power of religious intuition, and of a germ of good in human nature, never displaced, however overlaid by depravity. No poor words of mine are needed to awaken appreciative remembrance of him whom to listen to or to read was to follow in the triumphal march of Christian power. He was of the few who make ecclesiastical history, who shade anew the complexion of civilized man's dearest thought. As long as our race lasts, men will the more "honor all men” because Channing preached. Let no word of his be cancelled. Yet he was theologically antagonistic. And the student who would preach to man as he is in all ages, must place in his own system, beside the never-to-be-forgotten worth of human nature, the fact of weakness, of cumulative evil, and of heritable predisposition. Channing himself would not have the reaction go too far. The pendulum must come back. The earthly gravitation must be owned. Christian self-conquest is not, as Channing truly asserted, the suppression of all which is natural as totally evil. It is not the stifling of nature. The soul has innate good. It is the recipient of divine life. Grace can flow only into the recipiency nature has provided. And there are spontaneous exhibitions of good in all natures, which may help to complete our ideal of loveliness and greatness. Their beauty is to be gratefully welcomed and made subsidiary to Christ's spirit formed in us. All the natural affections are the handiwork of the Divine Architect of humanity; yea, his inspirations, expressions of his goodness in the nature of the soul, a wealth of our being of which Christian culture alone reveals the vast value. But this justice to nature detracts nothing from regeneration in Christ. We have all seen natures rich in beautiful affections, graceful with natural loveliness-come to sad issues, run up into a wild waste of life, fail in the momentous interests, for want of the corrective repression and stimulation of a wisdom let down from heaven. Some imperious innate tendency, natural weakness at a point on which the stress of life has heavily borne, has overset them, and carried over their fine endowment a sacrifice to evil, when it. should have been a tribute of sacred co-operation to the One Good. Evil comes in our constitution, be it what it may, the moment we take nature for our god. Man must deny self, and come after Jesus, if he would make life a triumphant battle-field. Within our day we have been told, "Follow your constitution,” which is in danger of being interpreted, "Follow your lusts.” The spontaneous outgoing of the constitution is no law for the individual. Christ is the norm of human nature, and in none of us, besides, is human nature to be taken as the transcript of the Creator's law, and a measure of divinely proportioned rectitude. No fact is more dear, than that hereditary forces impose certain conditions upon the brain, and that we are beset with peculiar temptations from this cause. It blazes in the history of families and nations. The admission of this fact has in it no fatalism, as has the doctrine, "Follow the bent of your nature.” This fact is not connatural sin. It brings no instant guilt and condemnation with itself; but it creates peril. It is not necessarily of evil result, but it creates the need of a divine redemption; it calls for a standard and a help out of ourselves. It may be worked by Providence to the result of greater richness of character, to variety of spiritual forms, to an enduring strength of saintship. It is not a fate; but this hereditary force, augmented by personal action, may become a most abnormal development, without a divine life before us with its perfect forms, and within us with its support to our rectified wills. And there is nothing nobler in its results than the conquest of evil tendency in its innate forms. The more one resists it, the more is he a "conqueror through him that loved us.” He is a pillar in the universal temple of God, which may need, among other supports, columns not only of Corinthian ornament, or of the Ionic slenderness of native grace, but some of a Doric massiveness and strength, wrought out of the toughest granite of nature by the persistent strokes of a will which the inward Christ moves and wields.

 

            The review of Christian thought, as we have seen, presents strong contrasts. Doctrine is developed with intensity of statement in opposition to doctrine. A great diversity shows itself in the intellectual apprehension of the object-matter of faith. The history of all living Christianity is the history of controversy. It may seem at first view that Christ, the object of apprehension, is divisible, is variable, mutable, that there is no objective reality answering to human faith. Or we may deplore controversy, and be tempted to wish we could burn up all ecclesiastical history. But our discomfort may be changed into thankfulness, if the view which I have sought to illustrate can be received, that the Holy Spirit has been energizing Christian history, and operating upon Christian thought by various minds. A living lecturer upon the natural history of the earth and its inhabitants has indicated that, in the evolution of nature, the point of departure is a homogeneous unit, that the progress is diversification, that the end is an organic or harmonic unit, that all life is mutual exchange, and that all condition of more active life is a greater variety of forms of nature, of relative situations, of contrasts. The history of our religion indicates the same law. It is the history of the evolution of Christianity; not only of Christian theology, but of that Christian life which gives theology the law of its form and the sap of its growth. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. He is a real entity in the universe, a real power. He is an objective life fixed in the New Testament. But Christianity, or the consciousness in believers resulting from the contemplation of the objective life, is progressive, is a development. At first it was a chaos. When Jesus was crucified, the life was a crude mass, with its mighty force latent in the disciples' minds. With the first moving of the life within men came diversity,—diversity among apostles, diversity in the apostolic age,— with tendencies, at points, to unity. Afterwards, with the extension of the Gospel, we have diversification always attending intense life. Each Christian age is a speciality adding to the contrasts which enrich the spreading life. Each new statement of doctrine is the upheaving of truth by the deep fiery life. Each gifted and strongly individual nature is a new point of contrast, a new island of thought to be joined to some continent opposing continent. Each mind in a peculiar position, and reasoning from a marked individual experience, has been a new organ to evolve some perfection of the hidden life. The ugly dogmas which frown upon us from the past had a beneficent origin, and have contributed to the present perfection of our Christian home on the earth. And the errors and excesses of thinkers providentially gave prominence to truths which ought ever to be in our sight, and from which must flow influences by which we live. The coldest peaks of theology were once melting and aglow; and from their dark and sombre masses have trickled rills and floated abraded particles to fertilize many a vale of sweet and still Christian communion. And if we see now less of the volcanic upheaving than was witnessed in the apostolic age, or in the next succeeding it, we enjoy a richer Christian life, which, in spite of its glaring incongruities, if Paul beholds it from his glory, must be infinite reward of his soul's travail,—which, if John had caught a full prophetic view of it, would have amazed him as much as anything in the vision of Patmos. Still, however, diversification is going on; and signs of unifying some think they see. Specks they are to others; but as surely as there is a law of mind and a God of law, diversification in the Christian evolution must approach, as it goes on, a visible harmonic unity.

 

            Thus revelation is progressive. Christ is invariable; but the Christian revelation has been going on from the moment of his preaching on the mountain-side until now. The Holy Spirit has been and is steadily unfolding the significance of what he is and says. We may call the written word, tropically, a revelation, naming the means from the end, or the instrument from the process, or the vehicle of power from the result. The written word is the instrument, the divine spirit is the power, revelation is the process, conscious perception of Christ is the result. The progress of revelation in the generic Christian mind is analogized by the evolution of faith in an individual mind. There it begins with indistinctness. It contemplates at first fewer relations of truth, but it may have fits of more violent feeling and effort. As it grows, it diversifies, welcoming new thoughts and passing into a wider range of experience. As it ripens, it may have a more quiet life, but not less energetic. And it mellows its fruit in the autumn of man's years. As the soul is tried, as it feels the weight of responsibilities, as it passes from change to change, as it conflicts with temptation, as it is conscious of guilt, as it asks what it shall do to be saved, that which Christ spoke of the soul and to the soul is opened to us. Therefore revelation no more stands in contrast to reason, than seeing stands in contrast to the eye. Truth is revealed to reason. The word contains the object to be seen. Reason is the eye. The divine spirit is the "light of all our seeing.”

 

            Diversification, we have seen, is the law of the Christian evolution. Could the record of Christian thought and experience be struck out of existence, and the Christian mind be put back to the point at which it was at the commencement of the Christian era, it would, with the possession of the written word, run through the same phases of speculation again, except so far as they would be modified by the altered state of the world and its intelligence. The relation of the word to man's nature is such as would necessitate essentially the same spiritual experience as history discloses. Now if this be true, if Christianity be development of the meaning of the word and of the Christian consciousness as affected by its power, Christian theology must heed this fact. When the theologian makes his summary of the truth, and forms his theory of its operation on the heart, he must take account of the facts of spiritual experience presented in this evolution of the divine life through human nature. But here arises a question and an objection. The history of the Church is not a normal unfolding of the divine life. It offers a mixed life. The imperfection of man's finite nature and perverted experience is blended with the operation of the divine spirit through the word. How shall the abnormal be separated from the normal? The consciousness of no period or church is pure. It may include the false as well as the good; and thus error may usurp the throne of truth. What is the test of the Christian consciousness? To this question an answer has been given in the Lectures upon History[3] already referred to; which I will quote, partly because I assent to it in the main, and partly because it is within the scope of my subject to make upon it a passing criticism.

 

            "The student of church history is to provide his mind with the Biblical idea of Christianity, and to use it as a crucial test, while he examines the materials; while he examines the forms of polity and of worship, the varieties of orthodox and heretical doctrinal statement, the methods of defending Christianity, the modes of extending Christianity among unchristianized nations, the styles of life and morals, the specimens of individual Christian character. Through all this complex and perplexing mass of historical matter, the true Scriptural idea must conduct the investigator, so that he may see the true meaning and worth of the facts and phenomena, and set a proper estimate upon each.”

To this we may assent in the main. Doubtless Scripture must have the first place. The word is always a test of consciousness. So doubtless the investigator must carry with him some idea of Christianity with which he shall compare phenomena. But, what is the "true Scriptural idea” of Christianity? Here is a new difficulty. Where shall this true theory be found? The study of Christian history may be an essential help towards finding it. The idea with which we set out upon our investigation may be an idol of the tribe or of the den, and deserve to be cast out by a larger induction. It may in one mind be a Calvinistic scheme of redemption, in another Naturalism, in another Swedenborgianism, or Universalism, or Unitarianism. When the investigator returns from his circuit, if he be a candid seeker of truth, he may feel obliged to modify his Biblical idea of Christianity, because a wider induction has reacted upon his interpretation. The Word and Christian consciousness are re-agents. The very figure, "crucial test,” suggests an amendment of the answer to our question. Interpretation, or the Biblical idea, and the general consciousness, are reciprocal tests. In the crucible of history or experiment, they try one another. Each reveals the other's qualities. Each shows the other's relations to 'itself. Who, then, is the judge to preside over this trial? It is the human soul, with its rational and spiritual faculties. God conducts the experiment, and the human soul must estimate the results for itself. Ail analysis must come at last to this. Is it asked, then, where is man's infallible rule of faith and life? There is none. Intellectually or speculatively, there is no infallible rule; practically, there is a sufficient guide. Upon any theory of the Divine Word, there is for man no such infallible rule. Given a perfect written word, we must interpret it to get the rule. Human interpretation excludes infallibility from the rule. Dr. Whately, a sufficiently conservative mind, has said that the idea of infallibility is a delusion. It ought to be driven out of Christendom. Its effect is just that charged upon Transcendentalism, upon Mysticism, upon Romanism, of foisting the changelings of human tradition into the royal birthright of the Truth as it is in Jesus. There is no infallibility for us. There is probable certainty about what is essential. There is a proximate approach to truth. And we are to seek the truth by continual research, holding our systems loosely to us, and being ready, under our responsibility to God, to be taught by the Divine Word, and also by Providence and the ages.

 

            But we may be told that this is attempting to build a bridge from Transcendentalism to Orthodoxy. I have no partiality for either of these words. They have both been misused. Transcendentalism has been a word for bigotry to conjure with, when it would raise the demon of suspicion. I should be among the last to defend or to trifle with much which has passed under that name. But I suppose the fundamental principle of the Transcendental philosophy as applied to theology is, that God has endowed man, in all his weakness and want, with an inherent power of judging what is true and divine; and this principle is true. That faculty is Intuition. And Intuition has been finally admitted to the rights of hospitality in our liberal body. For a time, under the alarm excited by extravagant assertions, Intuition was denounced as an evil spirit, turned out of doors, beaten and left for dead. But some comforted him and bound up his wounds, knowing that he was a Siamese twin-brother of the good spirit of the Word; and that, if he were killed, the brother would be mutilated or compelled to drag after him a lifeless body. Presently the need of him was felt, and he was re-introduced with respectable auspices, sometimes under the name of Higher Reason, sometimes under that of Faith, into the mansion of Liberal Christianity, and bidden welcome. In other words, it is found that a proper spiritual faculty to receive it, is as essential to Christianity, as Christianity is to man; not to originate truth, but to receive it. Man is judge of miracle and truth. It was once said, that miracles are the sole evidence of the divine origin of Christianity; not merely the necessary attestation, but the sole evidence. The statement seems to refer exclusively to outward miracles. But we all look at the miracles in connection with the person and character of Jesus. Therefore, to the first statement the supplement was added, that Jesus’ character is itself a miracle. This is very true. But what is it which pronounces Christ's character a miracle, or divine? Is it sight, or insight? It is the soul, or Faith, directly, intuitively, apprehending the great whole,— the person, the action, the speech, the miracle,—and judging that whole to be of God. When one like Jesus appears, those who imperfectly apprehend him bow down to something divine. When reality and truth appear, men distinguish it from pretence, just as all men distinguish a real landscape from a painted one. All men do not at once sec in Jesus the same amount. But all who look at Christ with faith see much; and believe that where the best minds have found their enrichment, there is more for themselves to discover. Thus, according to the constitution of the soul, and by the intent, act, and power of God, Christ is the supreme authority in spiritual things. And this is the bridge from the true Transcendentalism to the true Orthodoxy. But it is no bridge of man's making. It is a Natural Bridge; its materials put into the original casting of the spiritual creation; built of spiritual granite; resting for one abutment on the divinely constituted nature of the human spirit, and for the other, on the divinely laid foundation of the Word; spanning with its arch the abyss of mortal darkness and human uncertainty; a glorious highway from spirit to spirit; its supports fixed by Him who of old laid the foundations of the earth; and though they shall perish, it shall endure. Over it that lowly pilgrim, the trusting faith of millions, has been passing and re-passing for centuries, — a messenger from souls to Christ, and from Christ back to souls. And let proud theorists mock her as they will, and call her a fool, as she fares on; she is in God's highway, and she will not err therein.

 

            The blessed Christ is not divided. He impresses himself directly on the believing. Men make their systems. But Christ is not a system, but a power. The objective life acts on hearts, as a whole, through the affinity of faith; not always with the same fullness of power, but always as a whole. St. Paul knew Christ, not after men's theories, but as the mighty Objective Life, acting to develop its subjective antitype in man. He lived in the faith of the Son of God. Says Mr. Stanley of the Church of England, in a dissertation appended to his recently published work upon the Epistles to the Corinthians: "This faith on which he [St. Paul] dwells with an almost exclusive reverence, is not faith in any one part or point of Christ's work, but in the whole. ‘Faith in his Incarnation,’ ‘faith in his merits,’ ‘faith in his blood,’[4] which, though employed in later times, and, like other scholastic or theological terms, often justly employed, as summaries of the Apostle's statements, yet are, in no instance, his own statements of his own belief and feeling. The one grand expression in which his whole mind finds vent, is simply ‘the faith of Christ.’ It is, as it were, his second conscience; and as men do not minutely analyze the constituent elements of conscience, so neither did he care to describe or bring forward the several elements which made up the character and work of his Master.” Let us put the stress on this "faith of Christ” as a complex whole, which leaves out the too much, or compensates for the too little, of human summaries. Where belief may err most, through excess or defect, we may often conceive the "faith of Christ” to live and to sanctify. No formulary of opinions, ever so numerous, ever so diversified, can express him fully to one man for one day of believing life; and still less to all men, for all their years and for eternity. Christ is light. When the chemist shall gather all the light of creation within the walls of his laboratory, then may the theologian hope to enclose the radiance of Him who is the light of the world within the walls of his human creed.

 

            Brethren, the application of the principal truth to which I have sought your attention, to our position and duty, as members of this ministerial conference, has been partly indicated. There are two simple thoughts to be expressed in conclusion. First, we are to believe that Providence has brought us into our special position of difference from disciples in other Christian ranks, in order that the Holy Spirit may do by us a work which no other body on earth can do for Christ's truth and kingdom. We must keep up every true protest. We must yield nothing to the persons or the praise of men. We must let God and the future take care of our reputation and pass judgment on our usefulness. Let every difference from others and from one another stand in all its real breadth. Let policy in matters of theology be to us the abominable thing. Why, if any one of us could choose a word of our theological diction or enunciate a syllable to get fair speeches from any quarter, he would be anathema maranatha! Charity will wait long before she will consent to insinuate any such charge, any such dereliction to the spirit of truth, against Christian brethren! We can serve well the ultimate unity only by being faithful in the present position of diversity. But, secondly, and equally, let us remember that our special position is valuable, not for its own sake, but for truth’s sake. Let truth be infinitely dearer to us than triumph. Let us be ready for union with others, when, and so far as, the spirit of truth shall lead us to them, and them to us. Let us hold ourselves to be in the line of the true apostolic succession of the strenuous thinkers and holy witnesses of all time. Let us accept the wisdom o fall the past, while we hope for glory beyond our power of conception to shine in the Church of the future. Let us respect our Christian position and faith so much as to believe that the great and good of all ages have been at work for us, and belong to us. And as we explore the history of times gone, or scrutinize the aspect of the time present, let us enter into the joy of our Lord, rejoicing that in any way, though mingled with error and imperfection, the faith of Christ, that infinite, complex whole, has found, and still finds, entrance into the hearts of men.


 

[1] Lectures upon the Philosophy of History, by William C. T. Shedd, Lecture II

[2]The elder Henry Ware, a scrupulous and cautious theologian,— one who kept close to the facts of nature and life, who was not given to vain speculation,—admits, if I rightly understand him, the fact of hereditary tendency to disorder. After saying tied all man's passions, appetites, and affections are necessary to his perfection and happiness, he proceeds thus, in stating man's liability to corruption: "Each of them also possesses a degree of strength beyond what was necessary to answer its own direct purposes, and thus answers the purpose of moral discipline. Besides this, disorder has been introduced, by which there is an increased tendency to further disorder. The just balance of the soul is thus disturbed. The restraining power is weakened, absolutely and relatively, by a variety of causes, — by hereditary disorders of the system, by infirmity of the physical constitution, by circumstances of increased temptation, by bad example.” Inquiry concerning Religion, Vol. I

[3]Philosophy of History, Lect. IV.

[4]"The apparent exception in Rom. iii 25 is, it need hardly be observed to those acquainted with the original language, only apparent.”