Henry Wilder Foote
Berry Street Lecture, 1883
Read before the Ministerial Conference
Twenty-nine years ago, one who is now an honored leader among us gave this address, and made the occasion memorable by the breadth and sweep of outlook, the comprehensive temper, the large scholarship, and catholic sympathies which have since become known and loved of all men. Long may he be with us to inspire by his counsel and his presence! In that large discourse upon "Polemics and Irenics,” which illustrated the Berry Street Conference, and pre-eminent among the many noble words which have been spoken here, Mr. Clarke surveyed the tendency of the Theology of the Future, and showed that the time had come for the "syntheses which are to reconcile” old antagonisms, that the work of our body should be the statement of the truth, which was at the heart of the old theology, in a larger antithesis to the old thesis. "Leaving to others,” he said, "all destructive controversy, let us, while we criticize with the utmost freedom, always make criticism subservient to a practical gospel, negation subordinate to position, denial to assertion. Let us be… mediators in the Christian brotherhood…. We have great allies in human instincts, human reason, the hunger of the immortal soul, the spirit of the age, and the great course and current of Divine Providence.”
Many things have happened in thirty years, but nothing which does not emphasize the wisdom and truth of this generous statement that the time has come for a peace theology,-not a weak solution of contradictory opinions, nor an imposition of silence regarding honest thought, but the reconciliation which comes from a spirit high enough to rise above secondary differences, and deep enough to go down to the common heart of faith. Who could have foretold the advance that would be make in all branches of protestant Christendom toward building on the agreements rather than on the differences of belief? Meantime, it is impossible to state too strongly the effect which has been wrought within the churches by the tremendous experiences of the war. Men of all faiths and of no faith learned that they had a common creed in a common country. We shall go hence, on this sacred day of memory, to lay the flowers of our costliest love and gratitude on the graves of those whose lifeblood dyes for us the flag which is the symbol of all priceless memories and hopes, tingeing its folds as with the glow of a better sunrise. We cannot separate those graves, labeling them Calvinist, Methodist, Unitarian. Nor can those who shared the inspiration of being citizens of the same country, the mother of us all, think lightly of the only other boon to be compared with that, - the privilege of being members of a common Christianity.
Meantime also, the work of a body like ours in the religious development of America becomes every year a more practical problem. What is its relation to the unchurched and to the churches? Has it any mediatorial function to fulfill, and how can it fulfill it?
On the rough border-fringe of our country, you may see men who have broken loose from the restraints of civilization and left the clean and orderly home-life of the East, in the rebound toward the boundless liberty offered by vast spaces of prairie and mountains almost untrodden by the white man’s foot. Like Esau of old, clad in hairy skins, the trophies of the chase, living in tents, with noble qualities not a few, and drawing the large breath of a freedom which develops a rough manhood to its fullest, - as you talk with them round the camp-fire, you yet see that they are unaffected by the motives, unrestrained by the moral and religious conceptions which govern our world. They are the extreme type of the population which swarms in eager, quick American life on the fringes and borders of our Christendom,-full of the spirit of the new age, which has vast earthward horizons, and cares little to look beyond them. Nevertheless, it is the vital question of religious work to-day how to open to their vision the infinite spaces beyond the largest circle where the sky touches the earth. This is a question which presses, more earnestly than they are aware, on all religious bodies, but peculiarly on us, who stand between, as it were, touching with one hand the freedom of the wilderness, with the other the inheritances of a priceless past. For us, pre-eminently, it seems to me, the great talk is not to minimize Christianity in order to commend it, but above all else to show its great agreements, to emphasize the unisons which make its great accord.
I. First of all for us comes the fact that we stand in America as a Christian Church, inheritors of a great name which has stood for the chief factor in making the new age.
As we look back into the misty morning-land of our religion, the Christian Church seems at once the greatest and the humblest thing in the world. The greatest, in the potencies wrapped up in it of power and usefulness and historic significance in the life of mankind: the humblest, in its early obscurity and insignificance. We touch the history of the Christian centuries at whatever point, an find that the presence of that Church in the world has made it other than it would have been. We see it growing and greatening till its Chief came to sit on a greater throne than Caesar’s. We see it putting off its meek robes of humility and Christian grace, and putting on the raiment of worldly pomp and pride, till it sways the conscience of Christendom and its priests are at the ear of kings. Yet all this materialized power and splendor is only the outward sign of a power and spiritual energy which were at work in those churches at the beginning, to renew and transform the world. Hidden though they were, each little company of the apostles’ planting was the seed of life for the community in which it was set,-Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, and many another besides.
It was a church: in being that followed, of necessity, that it had a work to do and a place to fill. Now, as we look back through the utterly altered conditions of the world, it is not strange that men often ask whether any point of resemblance can be found between such primitive communities and the societies of our new age which are known by the same venerable name. Is a church merged into mere indefiniteness in our modern American Christian civilization, from the fact that civilization and the modern world are in so large a sense Christian? It is, of course, a great and blessed fact to thank God for that no small part of the illuminating work of such early spots of light in the midst of a dark age is done. Christianity is diffused in the very sky that bends over the modern world, full of light and hope. Yet there is no disparagement of the universal daylight in saying that the Christian Church in this modern world still fills an immense place, and gives a centre of cheer and light to the landscape. It has a raison d’etre, in so far as it stands for something definite in methods, in work, and in faith.
We, at least, should be the last to forget that we belong in this august procession of history, standing, as we do, in the line of succession of the New England churches which, while seeking to disencumber faith of much which was derived from the more artificial forms of Christianity, sought the more to strengthen the historic chain which bound them fast to the primitive Church.
There are those who will tell us that there is danger of becoming fossilized, if we dwell on the fact that we belong to an institution which has history behind it. We may admit that the peril is possible, but only if the subject be regarded in a one-sided way. In the Old World, the stream of the present holds in solution such a mass of the dust and ruin of a former age that everything which it touches stiffens out of life. But, in this our America, how utter the contrast! A land swept bare of ancient usage, of those subtile associations which weave so many cords for memory and reverence and faith, - where men rarely live in the towns they were born in, among the friends who knew their childhood and near their fathers’ graves, - where children have never seen the homes in which their parents’ childhood was spent, - where men and women so easily become nomads in religion. Here it is surely well to emphasize the fact that the Church is a link with the mighty historic past of Christendom, -that in it the generations touch hands, as it were, with one another in that one transcendent act which survives all the changes of the world beside, - the act of communion with the living God.
Nor are we excluded from this spiritual fellowship by our inheritance of religious independency. It is a great compensation for not being exclusively in communion with the sectarianism of one sect, if a church is inclusively in communion with the best of all sects. I cannot but believe, brethren, that our group of churches, united on this comprehensive basis of accord in a positive but broad Christianity, have special work of reconciliation to do in pointing our the spirit and temper in which American Christendom must hereafter take larger shape and freer expression.
We ought, indeed, to believe in the Church universal now, if men never did before, in the light of manifest tendencies of the spirit of the age. Everywhere, inventions break down the old pale of demarcation between peoples, communications grow more free, the bonds of commerce multiply, "fading antipathies” and "rising sympathies” increase the fellowships of humanity. Of all these things the bad side is that they blur distinctive character and drown out the flavor of quaint customs and mellow traditions; but they give a wider breathing-space and freer outlook, they make it easier for us to see the good and more possible to appropriate it. Now shall we hold that this is true in the lower spheres of life and not true in the highest? That would be to contradict all the deepest signs of the time. It is true there are also signs which may be interpreted the other way. Mr. Froude says that "we have entered on an age of universal democracy, political and spiritual, such as the world never saw before; and civilized mankind are broken into two hundred million units, each thinking and doing what is good in his own eyes.” This is, however, more plausible than just. The disintegrating tendencies will pull to pieces the walls that divide, but hardly the underlying bed-rock of principles on which all branches of Christendom are alike founded. We believe in the Church universal, as against a mere bundle of two hundred million units, because we believe in the broadest thing which can be, as against an infinity of narrownesses and pettinesses. It is impossible that in an age when unity is proclaimed as the deepest truth of science, when the brotherhood of the human race is believed and taught as never before, when men have found the uses of organization for all the fellowships of labor and capital, the grand vision should perish of the communion of all souls with each other and with God in the Christian Church. "Christendom,” in the words of Dean Stanley, "still conveys to noble minds a noble and inspiring thought.” Let us congratulate ourselves that for this noble thought we stand, and that more and more the leaders of the churches round us come to this affirmation in the breadth in which the fathers of our communion made it long ago. And on what does this great affirmation rest? On the blended witness of the Spirit and of History.
II. Our fundamental affirmation is the truth that there is such a thing as the spiritual imagination, - a faculty which pierces below the appearances of things, and "endures as seeing Him who is invisible.” This spiritual imagination is simply the power of visioning, which reflects the highest and best thoughts and aspirations which visit us. It is as natural and as transfiguring to the mental horizon as it is natural that a sheet of water should reflect the sky and in reflecting it glorify earth with a vision of heaven.
As religious teachers, we hold to this spiritual organ (if I may so call it), as having value and validity, as being the one door open to men out of themselves and into the larger life and sympathy with wider thought and feeling, with the whole earth and with heaven. But, in order to emphasize this in its full strength, we need to lay stress upon it in its correlation to the Divine Power beyond and above ourselves. To give this faculty in the human spirit its true worth, we must hold that there is an answering side in the nature of God himself. We must teach not only human communion with divine thoughts, but the divine communication to human weakness. A great deal of the speculation of our time seems to me leave this possibility quite out of the account, as if men could make or unmake spiritual facts by their mere say-so,-as if God himself were the one spiritual factor which could be omitted, in reaching our conclusions about him.
Two things, then, are posited for us by the fact that we are here, spiritual beings, in god’s world: first, that we are able to see that which is deeper than what we see; and, second, that, since God is helping our vision, the deeper it is and better it is, so much the mere can it be confided in. the vision which, without him answering, might be visionary, with him answering is whatwe call faith.
Whatever other things we may bring as evidences of the truth, the sincerity, the permanence of the Christian religion, no evidence is more impressive to a candid mind than the fact that in Christianity this spirit of communion with the unseen and eternal has been so wide-spread and so strong. There is an Alpine flower, rarely found except far up among the mysterious recesses of the mountains, where the stainless snows dazzle against the sky and the glaciers mass the "treasures of the snow” under the shadow of huge crags that tower sharply into the blue depths above. On the edge of those giddy precipices the edelweiss, type of purity, seems to catch its "noble whiteness” from the pure hues of the summits that look down upon it from their neighborhood to heaven. Yet this very flower, which seemed too shy and too remote to be ever tamed, men have of late persuaded to grow in common gardens and beside human dwellings. Even so the religion of Jesus Christ has taken the rare and perfect bloom of a spiritual relation so high and pure that it was only found on the mountain-tops of worship and communion where the saints of God dwelt, the pure white flower of prayer and trust which dwelt on the lofty level of the New Testament; and this it has made to blossom on the low plane of our common life, where plain honest folk work sincerely for their daily bread, where poor old women look out trustfully through their "faded eyes” on the world which has used them but hardly, where the sick learn patience, and the sorrowing resignation and hope, where the tempted find God strong to help them.
And from this there has come a wonderful "lift” and inspiration into Christian history, as distinguished from every other chapter of history which we know of. Prayer is, indeed, nothing less than an instinct of sane human nature. Religion in one form or another has been, the ages through, the most potent factor in human society; but, without depreciating all the might and blessing with which these have wrought through the ages,- above all, without forgetting the power with which they reveal themselves in the Old Testament, - I do not see how any just and fair mind, even among those who are disposed to scrutinize Christianity most sharply, can blink out of sight the overmastering influence of this sublime impulse and desire in creating the better part of our modern civilization itself.
The special mark of Christianity is the uplifted and aspiring spirit, reaching out toward One infinitely higher and better than itself, yet higher and better in such a way as not to be thereby removed into incommunicable perfection, but reaching down in answer to the need and the desire that seek him. This, then, it is the special function of the Church, in our time, to emphasize as the typical attitude of Christianity, all the more from the tendency of modern reserve in religiousness to retire more and more into unwatched and secluded chambers of the mind. Richard Owen, in his book On the Nature of Limbs, shows how the human skeleton hand may be developed into the angel’s wing, and that which is the tool of our earthly work may be conceived of as expanding into the soaring pinion which lifts the spirit into the empyrean. Let us accept it as a symbol of what this attitude of mind and heart will do for the sincere spirit.
The Christian Church stands, then, to-day in this America a witness for the reality of faith. Everything is here in solution, which was in the days of our forefathers in fixed forms; yet it does not follow that we see any reason to doubt that the same lines of statement and belief will be followed by the faith of the future when it crystallizes, as were followed aforetime, in so far as the faith of the past accorded with the facts of history and the laws of the soul and of God’s being.
And, surely, we have a right to learn from history that the true way to view whatever questions belong freshly in our won time is the hopeful way. Christianity has proved its universal quality already, in the face of problems as difficult as any that now press, though different. What the questions will be that our grand-children will have to answer we cannot tell, nor fully what will be their answer. But we are justified by all that mighty past, as well as by our own experience of what life is contained in Christianity, in believing that the answer will reveal itself when the questions fully open, and that the Christian gospel will be found to have deeper deeps and higher heights than we yet know.
Meantime, for ourselves, we find ourselves born into a time which is wrestling with problems of the mot serious kind. An intelligent believer in the "royal law” of Jesus Christ to-day believes in it, because he is convinced that it is competent to deal with those problems; in other words, that it is universal enough to touch these with as remedial and penetrative power as it has shown heretofore.
We find, for example, that those who go "outside of Christianity,” as far as they can get outside of that which is in the very air they breathe and colors the very thoughts which they think, more than they themselves know, do so from sympathy with physical or philosophical schools of thought which seem to them fatally to damage the Christian position. What is the answer from the Christian side? Manifestly, the only answer which can satisfy will be a broader affirmation than that of the rejectors.
We all share the pressure of the same facts which force them to their conclusions about the divine problem. The wonders of recent science, the ever-growing sense of the boundlessness of the mystery which surrounds us, the unresolved nebulae of thought and investigation, more remote and vaster as the nearer spangles of light are resolved into new signs of order and law, -- all these are modern to our time; but these really only add depth and intensity to the conviction with which the first eye which looked up into a starry night must have gazed into the wondrous deep of space. The question and the wonder were there from the beginning; and it was partly as their answer, partly notwithstanding their mystery, that men believe in God. And the closer pressures of that which is fate, dark and terrible, unless it is the mystery of a Loving Will, all-wise, all-good, were also borne in on men from the beginning. Christianity founded in mere sentimental optimism! A religion only for those who have the good things of this world! Nay, those who have affirmed the faith in a God of righteousness have been souls that knew their full share of sorrows. Loss and pain pass no man by; and the utter mystery of death eclipses with its awful shadow those who are dearer to us than life, and our own lives at last. It is out of the story of a saint long before Christian sainthood was that the cry of Job comes to us, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!”
The difficulty, then, is not peculiar to minds which might deem themselves, in that case, gifted with a sort of intellectual seership, the prophets of anew dispensation. We stand common with them on the same ground of this nineteenth century, with its discoveries and its ideas, on the same ground of human nature, made up of the same primeval stratum, for all of us of joys in the morning of creation. I submit, therefore, that we are competent to put the questions alongside of the Christian answers and to affirm the answers.
III. All the questions which the human mind asks of the universe and which the universe asks of the human soul really sum themselves up into the question concerning the Being of beings. (let us take the Unnamable Name reverently on our lips!) Shall we then, as is proposed, postpone the question concerning God, referring it to another court, whose sessions have indeed begun, but whose verdict is not to be rendered for some millenniums? "Let us wait,” it is said, "for science to determine the question.” But how can we do that? For life will not wait for us, and the gray hairs come soon; and, if the thought of God be the inspiration that we need, we need it this very hour. And death will not wait. Its shadow already steals over our hearts, and will soon swallow up all there is of us, unless God is and unless the future life is, which cannot be apart from his being. We cannot wait, save with hearts that must break. But why must we accept this appeal to that vague tribunal? What is meant when we are thus referred to science? Is it the methods of physical science? But those can only apply to physical phenomena: they can never touch more than the hem of the infinite garment, not the Infinite Being. Is it the methods ofmetaphysical science? long ago established the existence of the aspiration and trust on the human side which answer to the divine; and they have also proved that God is not to be proved or disproved by reasoning alone.
Besides, what is really meant by science deciding such a question must really be human minds instructed by science. Now, the real appeal of religion always has been, and from the nature of things always must be, not to human minds alone, however instructed, but to the human being,- mind and soul and heart, each part instructed according to its own nature; i.e., including the religious affections, which are part of human nature never to be slighted without starvation. In other words, the real appeal is to human nature, constituted as it is to-day, only with more light on all sides of its capacity, more on the religious, quite as much as on the intellectual side. And why should we suppose that such a being will reverse the verdict which such a being has already given? The idea can only be justified by discrediting the religious side of man’s nature. But now, if we cannot trust the spiritual faculties which draw us toward God, we cannot trust anything, certainly not those faculties, if any such there be, which bid us distrust them. For all are of one piece; and, if you pull out one thread from the complex web of human nature as unsound, you leave but a sleazy remnant. You cannot hang any weight on your knowledge even of yourself, if your annul the validity of your knowledge of God. You have no right even to assume that the mind is an organ of truth, or that truth itself is constant. What same mind can soberly suppose that such a universal skepticism is to be the final gospel? It has well been said, "The idea of sacrificing God on the altar of truth is sacrificing him on his own altar,- the altar he built himself.” And not only so, but the altar itself must crumble beneath such a sacrifice as that.
A phrase may be epigrammatic and yet barren of light. The "Not-ourselves” and "the Power that makes for righteousness” both define a part, but only a part, of what we mean by the Unnamable Name. It may be, or not be, a self-conscious power. It may be the veritable Ruler of the universe, or only a sort of "soul of the world.” Mr.Arnold leaves that open for the spiritual imagination of his followers to fill up as they may. But the essential, vitalizing idea is in any event lacking,- the idea which lay for the Hebrews and for us lies in the one word Thou. If we know anything of ourselves, it is our own individuality, that we are persons, sundered and separate in our being from all the world besides. And personality in ourselves implies personality in the being who is Not-ourselves: persons must commune with a person.
True, we can by no means assume that the word Person includes all the attributes which we must believe to be in God. The idea of infinity introduces an infinite alteration. But we may be very sure of one thing; namely, that if the word Person does not include all that we conceive to see in God, it is because he is infinitely more, not because he lacks the very supreme quality by which bounded and finite beings are characterized,- namely, that they are bound up and girded by a conscious unity.
Nor do we fare better with the doctrines of the nontheistic school, who present the whole of things as the object of our worship. Surely, if we can trust our minds in anything, we can trust them when they recognize in nature the manifestations of a creative intelligence, akin to what we feel in ourselves, albeit infinitely vaster. Here and there a trace! The rest is mystery and wonder. But why refuse to acknowledge it, any more than we refuse to see the hand of man in some inscription of which only a few words emerge above the desert sands? The words unburied may at least reveal a part of the meaning of the buried writing.
But, further, there is a monstrous assumption at the very root of this theory of an impersonal All, of which we human beings are all a part. The theory rests upon the doctrine of evolution for its great warrant, an evolution which substitutes (as the true doctrine need not) a growing universe for an overruling Spirit. It believes that man is the highest result of things thus far on the earth, the blossom of the ages. And this is the belief of Christianity as well. But the one theory holds that in him which also came down. Whatever the process ascending, there was also Spirit descending. Can we believe that the present flower of the universe, man, has come to self-consciousness, has developed a conscience which understands the moral law, and a capacity of affection which can be transfigured into love, but that the Spirit itself of this universe is destitute of all these? Then are we capable of believing the Unbelievable. If we turn this way, here also we find an enormous demand on our faith, if not on our hope or our love.
It is to get away altogether from these drafts on our believing power that some refuse to think anything at all about God. This theory, in a generous nature, is based upon a thought of unselfish service. It is, simply, that leaving all thought about religious questions our to our concern will give us just so much more time for philanthropy and political economy and politics, and in general for all ways in which the world is to be made better. A man has just so much for himself to spend, and the more he spends Godward the less he has left to spend manward. But does this, then, bear the test of fact? Who have been the men who have helped the world? Have they not been, the great majority of them, the men of faith? And this seems most natural, when we consider that the soul has infinite capacities of expansion toward God, and that as it grows larger toward him it must also grow on other sides. Moreover, the success of this as a working theory depends on the nobility of the nature. Rare souls, fired with a passion for humanity, may possibly find in it their sufficient inspiration. Yet, as I read even their lives, it seems to me that they find that height thin and cold. Besides, Christianity is in the very air these men breathe, in spite of themselves. It penetrated the secluded home where John Stuart Mill was instructed in atheism. Even there, Christianity affected him by the very reaction of his father from it; and the mighty breath of its influence in the great religious poet of this century was the first quickening air which stirred his true nature into life. "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”
And so, when we are presented on yet another side with a veiled and shadow mystery, hardly a presence, in no sense a person, and told that the most we can ever know is that He is, and that beyond that there is no searching him out either for love or for fear, -that he is a "pathetic perhaps,” a sigh of the soul,- that, if we think of this hidden Being, as coming into real relations with his work or his children, he is "an intruding God marring his own creation.” And we are to bow before this Unknowable, on the ground that knowledge lifts the cloud that mercifully shields our trust!
Now here there is this in common with the Christian doctrine of God, that we also bow before the mystery of God’s Being. But it differs from it in this: we feel that, because we do not know everything about God and in him, that does not exclude us from knowing as far as we know. The facts which reveal him are as sure as the acts which hide him: from these, we learn humility; from those, faith. If we cannot confide in those faculties and qualities from which in ourselves we reason to their infinitely greater manifestation in him, we cannot trust to anything,- certainly not to those sides of our minds which persuade us that there is onlymystery there. We know God, as the infant knows the father to whom the little arms reach out in a bond whose depths of tenderness hardly even the human father fully understands. The child knows the father through its needs and through his love. The larger its ignorance, we may in one sense truly say, the more truly it knows him. And so we know God through our wonder and our awe; through the world which he has made and which hides him by being full of him. "blinded by the very excess of light”; through the minds and souls which he has fashioned into some likeness to his own spiritual Being, and which are competent to see his revelation of himself in Jesus Christ; we know him "not an enigma to be solved, but a perfection to be loved and imitated; - if possible, to be understood, to be absorbed into our own hearts and minds.”
IV. And our affirmation of the Living God carries with it our affirmation of the historical witness, which is the accumulated testimony of faith.
There is a profound significance in the fact that Christianity is the religion of "the Word.” The Bible is the Christian Book. There are two kinds of religions in the human family,- those which have a written document, and those which rest on mere tradition. "Un livre sacre est une tradition religieuse qui a eu la force de signer son nom.” The Scriptures store up for us the accumulated religious life of our spiritual ancestors, just as civilization stores up for each generation the gains in comfort and intelligence of preceding generations. We can neither know the religion under which we were born, nor the belief which we were taught, nor the deepest needs of our own nature, nor the helps which God has for us, without knowing the Book. The attitude of a Christian Church, then, being itself a witness and a treasury of our spiritual inheritance, must be as conservative of this great repository of faith, the greatest literary fact n the intellectual history of the world, the greatest spiritual fact in its religious history. Other writings there have been, enough to cover the earth with their sheets of parchment or of paper, so often barren; but the piety of the Christian ages knows only one "Scripture.” Language contains monuments that abide when columns of brass and stone have passed away like withered leaves in a gust of winter: a single word will tell the story of the faith of generations. Such a word is this great word "The Bible.” Unless the history of the purest souls that have lived in Christendom be false, unless the faith which emphasized the Book be a shadow of the past, the writings which have thus been treasured by the religious affections of a world contain life perennial for the best and highest part of the soul.
Our very interest in the critical and scholarly side of the study of the Bible tempts us to an attitude which is really misprizing it, by emphasizing these things to the exclusion of those which are at the heart of faith. The generation to which we speak cannot read in the spirit in which its fathers read. Their faith took all alike as the unquestioned Word of God, infallible in every letter, of equal value in every part, as much the Divine Law, to be followed literally, in the extermination of the Canaanites as in the Sermon on the Mount; but our age has know a Biblical criticism which tries with unsparing analysis questions of authenticity and genuineness and inspiration. even those who know nothing from personal study of these discussions breathe them in the air, and feel their disquiet. To such an age, it might indeed be said, Better any way to prize the Bible than no way at all. But no such alternative is really before us. If we had to do with some schools of Christians, it might be expedient to warn them against forgetting that there are other books to read besides the Bible; it might be important to warn them against mechanical reading of it by "stent,” so many chapters a day, so as to come round once a year; they might need to be told that the New Testament is a higher law for Christians than the old. But you and I have heard and read earnest words against making the Bible a fetich, addressed to congregations who knew much better what a fetich was than they did what the Bible is, - and highly approved by persons who could not tell you the names of the books of either Testament, or whether the prophets lived before or after Moses, or who such a person as Abraham was, or whether any noble text you might quote was in the Bible at all. Such exhortations hardly fall in the line of wisdom. Better fetich than blank ignorance, if it comes to that. But it does not come to that.
The one important thing is that we make it clear that we stand on the Bible itself rather than simply on any special views about the Bible. It is easy to fall into that mistake, especially for those who are interested in controversy on the critical side. We, whose strength is there, need for that very reason to emphasize the fact that the critical faculty and the religious nature have distinct spheres. The problems which meet the former, it is for the trained scholar a labor of years to settle. Meantime, the true claim of the Bible to men’s reverence is not dependent on the settlement of them: the secret of its immortality is in the act that it ministers to eternal wants of the soul. Consequently, in our age as well as in every other, the fundamental question is, How does it meet the necessities of the spiritual nature? If it answers these, it has an authority which nothing can break or change.
The special call of our Church should be to commend it not only to the intelligence of the head, but to the intelligence of the heart, with vital sympathy; to commend it to the spiritual purpose, as the book of religion. Our age has done a great deal to bring out the literary relation of the Bible to the life of the Hebrew people. But all that has been gained in this direction does not change the fact- rather illumines it more clearly-that all its parts consent in a spiritual purpose. There is a more profound unity than that of external form, merely as lying between the two covers of the same volume, running through and binding together the different parts of Scripture. We do well to speak of the Bible as one book, though it contains sixty-six writings by more than fifty authors, many of whom wrote utterly independent of each other; because there is a deep consent between them in the things which concern the mind of the spirit. As, in a symphony, the theme is at first whispered, as it were, more dimly, but taken up by one instrument and then another and another, ever recurring with harmony more and yet more full, till in the final burst of grand triumph it comes our clear and victorious, and yet is the same strain that first hinted itself to the listening ear, so the wonderful story grows and greatens from history to poetry, from poetry to prophesy, "Israel’s great Torah of righteousness,” as it is well called by Prof. Toy in its beginnings voicing what in other tongues in their early rudeness is inarticulate, and glowing with ever higher teaching of the presence of God with man, till that Life of lives, which is at the heart of the Bible, strikes like a pure beam of sunlight across the dusty air of human history and transfigures the very motes that lie in its path. He is in this Book; and out of its pages his presence has shined upon countless souls and filled them with light and beauty, as the latter spring fills the sky with a tender glory and wakes all the voices of the birds and the blossoming earth.
The Bible, the book of our divine religion, the book of our human life,- on that we, no less than every other living branch of Christendom, must build. There are those who complain that our religion is "too Hebrew,”- that there is something foreign in the devotion of the Jeremy Taylors, the Miltons, -aye, and the Channings, whose thought is saturated in the Scripture. To which it is fair enough to answer, on one hand, that there is doubtless something foreign in heaven; and, on the other, that the brotherhood of nations is broader and deeper than the narrow lines of mere nationality. The true American religion of the future will not be some fire-new theosophy, whose first axiom is severance from the past. It will interpret the elder scriptures of the word in new scriptures of the life. Oh for more of these Bible-Christians, souls who drink wisely and lovingly of the life which is in the Word, going beneath the form to the substance, beneath the letter to the spirit! The world is poor and lean for more of such to-day.
Brethren, there is in the world, doubtless, much narrowness much credulity, much error, in the use of the Scriptures. Call it "bibliolatry” if you will. But, I apprehend, the point for us seriously to consider is whether we are not in danger of the opposite extreme in our attitude toward it. Even in earthly things, is it not rash to say, "I will climb Mt. Blanc, but have nothing to do with guides,” or "I will write poetry, but will keep original by not reading Shakespeare”? Let us, at least, not kick away the ladder till we are sure that we have climbed to its top. Mayhap, we shall yet find that it reaches the stars. No: the Bible is not outgrown: we must grow into it before we can grow out of it. It stands, and will stand, because it contains the voice of the child to the father, and voice of God to His child. A religious body which should cut loose from it would perish and would deserve to perish. The soul which abdicates its right in it will be stunted and starve.
True, the Bible posits a supernatural order. But let us not distort and then deny what that order really is!
Undoubtedly, the Christian miracles have often been believed as mere wonders: but they were never wrought for that end. It lies within the reach and grasp of our school of Christendom to interpret them by their moral and spiritual purpose, as transcendently showing forth the laws of god’s own being,- the law of Holiness, the law of Love, the law of the Divine Fatherhood. The most wondrous of them may well be, in this nineteenth century, not too wondrous to impress these truths, without which, spiritually, we could not live at all,- truths which we need the more, the more we are awed by the power, the sternness, the silence of the vast universe which surrounds us.
V. And in affirming the Bible, studiously, broadly, deeply, spiritually understood, as the great witness to God, we also affirm the personal loyalty of the Christian religion. It is "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The supreme potency of the gospel is not in its being a moral code or a series of theological propositions, but because it discloses to us a Person in whom the divine grace and pity are clothed upon with flesh, because we can see the very expression of its features, and can gaze face to face on our mighty Friend.
It argues nothing against this statement of the peculiar personal quality of Christianity as being embodied in Jesus Christ, that Christianity has so often taken on a scholastic form and built a ladder for faith to climb by logical steps heavenward, while all the time Jesus himself stood beside the first round of the ladder, and every step was one more remove away from him. The true method of formulating Christianity is that which the first age of the Church followed, and which, in every age since, it has found to be the only way to vitalize religion as a living power in the souls and hearts of men.
Thinkers have sought to make it a system of thought alone: dry minds have pressed it dry and bare, making religion a specimen for a museum of opinions instead of an inspiration for life. Meantime, we have but to turn again to the New Testament, to see how early Christendom stated its faith. It is that which they "have heard, have seen with their eyes, which they have looked upon and their hands have handled of the Word of Life.” Those Gospels got written, because faith was full for Christians of the mighty presence of One in history who had made all things new for them. Out of such a glow of reverent love and enthusiasm for him was the record born, that it is absolutely transparent for him to shine through. For its intense affirmation of him is only its "Amen” to his own clearest affirmations of himself in words most indubitably his, " I am the Resurrection and the Life,” "Come unto me.” Such words sound the deepest chord of the Gospels themselves. This is not self assertion, but rather self-manifestation. One asserts himself, when he makes an overstrained claim to what the facts do not warrant: he only manifests himself, when Jesus says, "Come unto me,” he but puts into words the attraction of his life, which was there without the words. The electric spark shines, because the force itself is present.
When we pass beyond the Gospels and question those other teachers in the New Testament who deal more with the abstractions of religion,- in Paul, for instance, whose writings are the stronghold of dogmatists,-under all the abstract forms of his discussions, supremely present and pervading all is this personal attraction of that Person whom he never saw till, on that day outside Damascus, the vision changed for him the look of all things. He preaches not Christianity apart from Jesus, but Christ, and Christianity as built upon him. It is the "love of Christ” which constrains him: it is "the meekness and gentleness of Christ” by which he entreats. The glow of this personal loyalty to him in whose face he sees "the light of knowledge of the glory of God” kindles through that mighty soul, and melts Christendom. It was the concrete gospel, the gospel "of the face of Jesus Christ,” which made over the world.
And so it has been through all the Christian ages. The great teachers who have poured new floods of spiritual power through the shrunken channels of religious life in their generations have done it by the warmth of this great affection, which, like the sun of midsummer shining on Alpine heights, has thawed the frigid accumulation of whole icy ages of mere traditional faith, till they poured a quickening flood on plain and valley. So it came in Tauler to the mediaeval Church, in Fenelon to the mystics who revived the type of Catholic piety, in the Wesleys to the most dead and formal age that ever froze up the soul of the English speaking race. It was simply that these were men who had looked on the face of Jesus Christ, till they caught "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”; and out of that sight came insight into the very souls of mankind.
Least of all can a Church which seeks above all else to emphasize the humanities of the gospel and to depolarize the truth of religion afford to hold that any theory of religion which binds it in a living connection with Jesus Christ limits it, -that it ties it to past history instead of relating it to the God who is always present. Least of all can it afford to relax its personal relation to this Person as the centre of its faith and hope. None so clearly as we should emphasize the solitary and commanding power of the claim of Jesus Christ upon our time, because none so clearly set forth its human appeal to human loyalty. It is ours to lay stress upon the revelation of the Highest, of the Eternal in his character; to show how here the soul looks out through living eyes,-in a real life, - the soul of beauty,- of that highest and ideal Beauty which is in the very being of God. Has this age, think you, grown dull to the power of appreciating the charm of perfect moral loveliness in Jesus Christ? Never was uttered more striking assertion of the sublimity of that moral beauty than by Diderot and Rousseau, in the age when all France turned atheist; and the vision which they saw outlasted the chaos which seemed to engulf it.
The gospel shows One whose kindred with men wins them most tenderly, yet who stands apart from them in rounded perfection of moral character; so wide in the sympathy of his touch that tenderest and strongest alike find in him their ideal realized; so universal in the equal appeal to all races of men that no limitation is set on him by being born into the most bigoted of nations,- the pure beam of light is uncolored by any twisted ray.
We need the more to make this faithful affirmation, because of our sensitive relation to critical thought. If the astronomer must turn his telescope skyward through cloudless and unflickering airs, to read the secret of the heavens aright, how much more so must he who gazes back through the vast spaces of the Christian centuries, and seeks to unravel the mysteries of the beginning!
Time fails us to discuss the great argument of historical conviction, on which our affirmation rests, yet this at least mist be said. The wonderful subtlety and profound learning of the Tiibingen school is not accompanied by a proportionate judgment. Here, for example, is the assumption that no solid historical ground is left in the New Testament. Yet they who hold it also admit that at least the Epistles of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, are left. But, surely, we need not go beyond these unimpeached documents to find sufficient ground of indubitable history to build the Church upon, and evidence which compels its own acceptance that the great wonder of the life and death and rising of Jesus Christ was believed in the first generation of the Church by multitudes who had been his contemporaries, and who found the evidence good enough to stake their lives upon.
Here, again, is the assumption that "no modern theologian who is also a scholar considers any of the four Gospels as having any apostolic value,” and in particular that according to John. This can only be proved by ruling out of court the names of scholars who fairly weigh with the greatest. Where men like Lightfoot and our own Ezra Abbot are brushed aside, a partisan temper seeks to sit in Moses’ seat.
It is, however, absolutely vital to the negative theory to prove the utter unreliability of the New Testament narratives in little or in large. Once admit even the mediate apostolic origin of a single Gospel, and the whole edifice of denial goes by the board, unless indeed one should resort to the extravagant supposition of an apostle who was a deliberate deceiver. To those who hold that we have the record of witnesses and of the generation in which those witnesses lived, there is evidence enough that Jesus Christ stands at the centre of the world’s history. Nay, a fair mind, even among those most sympathetic with the negative school, can hardly fail to find more truth to historic probability and to human nature in Mr. Matthew Arnold’s explanation than in Strauss’ vaporization. It would be far more probable that Jesus was greater than any record of him could adequately reveal, than that he was a comparatively insignificant factor in the development of his won religion, "influencing it not by what he was, but by what he was not.”
But no, we are told, "we cannot make sure of the sayings and teachings of Christ on any one point.” It is, however, held to be sure that he taught that the rich man is certain to go to hell, that he taught a religion whose principle is "directly antagonistic to culture,” that his "kingdom of heaven” was only a terrestrial heaven, and that his moral precepts are an afterglow of Buddhism, and are so mingled with narrow prohibitions as to have prevented Christianity from even yet attaining even to tolerance.
But we have either less or more than this. Either we do not know, as on the principles of the negative criticism we do not, enough about the teachings of Jesus to justify us in affirming that they were partial and unworthy, or we know, as Christendom believes that it knows, that his teachings round out and complete the very points which are considered partial; that he has taught, e.g., the true use of wealth and given the divine inspiration to charity; that the highest culture of the modern world is in the nations that have most deeply shared the Christian civilization; that all the spiritual conception of heaven that there is comes primarily from the words and life of Jesus Christ; that there is a specific difference between his morality and the Buddhist system, in the quickening glow which Christianity does not catch from the sunset of an older religion, but from the sunrise of its own new life; that imperfect tolerance is due to the make of human nature, and that the least of it there is in existence comes from the religion of Him who has taught not indeed a system of blank indifference, but faith in the infinite largeness of truth and in the certainly that truth will at last prevail, since it is in the very being of God. But, even after reducing all our information about him to the merest film of knowledge, hardly more than the probability that in Palestine, eighteen hundred years ago, "something happened,” the great difficulty would still remain, in the presence of Christ in the world’s history. Only substance casts such a shadow as that life has cast on all the centuries that came after, a shadow full of light. Such a power as the life of Jesus Christ could not come into the world without introducing a new moral order. It is a universal principle of being that souls affect other souls in proportion to their spiritual gravity. As in physical nature, the larger the body, the greater its attractive force, -the earth draws the moon, the sun sways the whole solar system,- so is it spiritually. In that realm also there are satellites and planets,- the lesser souls that shine in their common sphere, the great leaders of spiritual life who glow in the heaven above us, "fairer than the evening or the morning star”; and there is the Christian sun that for eighteen centuries has poured warmth and light into the world. He could not touch men while he was on earth without affecting them. Wherever a soul touches him to-day with a living contact, it is so still.
The Christian Church to-day is called, above all else, to focus that Transcendent Person upon the world. And that branch of the Church which best gathers up the rays of that "pure beame of light,” transmitting them unrefracted and unclouded through its transparent glass, will have the future. We need to abide by "the simplicity of Christ,”- to make his gospel as real a message of good tidings and goodwill to our generation as a letter to them might be from an Elder Brother whom they never saw. That Spiritcan be entered into; the pure air of that law of supreme unselfishness can be breathed; that radiant life can be so presented to men that the story of infinite pathos will sink into their souls; that Loving Spirit rejected and betrayed, those merciful ministries leading straight to the cross, will melt the very heart. The body of Christians which is possessed by this crowning fact of history and of spiritual life will surely bear those marks of discipleship which the Christian Church has called by many names. Call these marks, if any will, signs of a slavery which the rational man of to-day will scorn! We answer that it is the free loyalty of willing spirits which accepts it, and that we accept the discipleship of Jesus Christ, not as a servitude,but as a divine service. These are no chains to fret us: they are the guiding cords which draw us upward. The personal power of the personal Christ has converted men whom philosophy and morality, apart from that power, failed to touch. Not because philosophy and morality are not true and good; not because they cannot make men better, when they once enter a really living spirit. But to make the spirit living requires a more regnant and drastic energy. Since the world began, the law holds good that we must have fire to kindle. The life and spirit of Jesus Christ are the originating fire; and where they are the marks of their presence cannot be hid.
And all these energies flowing through the world from Jesus Christ are in their nature cumulative. They grow and greaten steadily. As a living force, Christianity enlarges continually. Every generation is richer in this vital power than was the generation before it. Civilization advances by the living impulse communicated to it by the Christ. And all that we count the consummate flower of civilization, -- the arts that soften and ornament life; the great geniuses who have been the fragrant blossoming on the highest summits of their time, the great appliances by which the modern world changes the face of the world and humanizes this earthly home of man; those subduings of the wild forces of nature by which this nineteenth century, addressing itself in earnest to the task of bringing wholesome order into chaos, has done more to bring plenty and comfort, light and truth within the reach of the poorest than all the ages before it, -- all must date back their originative impulse to the birth of "that holy thing” of God, in whose infant hand already began to crumble the cruel and godless civilizations of the past, and whose Spirit, kindling from heart to heart, from life to life, is the secret of the new life of the world.
It is not, then, a question of names, of light account whether we take them or discard them. It is a question of things, of realities. Is it not easy, indeed, to show that names themselves are much more vital matters than those assume who treat the name of Christian as if it were a mere counter of convenience or a meaningless badge? A man may not think his own surname the handsomest in the world; but, in the eyes of the law, the name means the man, and he cannot change it at his own arbitrary pleasure. It means something more still: it means father and mother and a worthy ancestry. There is honor in the plainest syllables which they have worn with dignity and unstained life. And who shall presume to say that this does not hold more deeply still with the pedigree of spiritual life which dates from our Lord Jesus Christ?
Be it ours, then, to affirm that the Church stands, as of old, for faith, -- faith, first of all, in conduct, laying its stress on the Master’s text, "By their fruits ye shall know them.” But it does not stop here, without furnishing spiritual and religious motives of the loftiest and most moving kind, -- the motives of the loftiest and most moving kind, -- the motives of a simple, an undogmatic, but a most real Christianity. The spiritual motives; the organ of faith; the God who is the Father of our spirits, the source and inspirer of all our life; the life immortal, rooted and grounded in him, assured to us in Jesus Christ; the supreme revelation of himself to us in the Beloved Son, with all which that contains of wonder and of power; in other words; the Book itself, the foundation truths of our religion, the gospel interpreted by its own light, and not tied up to any narrower interpretations than itself, -- what more inspiring views of religion, what more earnest inspirations to duty, is it possible to bring to bear upon the soul?
It is very evident, from the signs of the times, that religious men, in all forms of Christendom, are coming to be persuaded that Christianity must be presented in its simple majesty and unadorned beauty in these essentials which are its heart. It is very evident also that hosts of men and women are seeking anxiously to find what the essentials are, and to build upon them. They do not propose to let religion go or to give up; but they earnestly desire to have a reason for the faith that is in them, and to have more faith. At such a time, a Church that will hold up with power this simple, broad Christianity of the New Testament, that will live by it and feel it as a power of life, has a mighty work to do for the faith and hope of the nation.
We shall not do it, if we try to persuade by a vagueness of grasp on the great facts of personal religion, a haziness of faith, a perpetual criticism, or a depreciation of historic Christianity and of the great Head of the Church, which have no more place in the religious life than a north-east day in a proper spring.
Christianity is a perfectly definable and recognizable thing: it is based on the sacred books of our religion, and must therefore hold them to be of supreme spiritual worth and historic importance; it is founded on a living relation between the Living God and his children, and this implies revelation in the past and communion in the present; it is centred in Jesus Christ, the source of the moral and spiritual potencies of the new age. Within these wide limits, great divergencies of thought and creed exist, which yet belong to the same system as the planets which swing in varying course around the orb of day. Outside lie nebulous bodies, of different degrees of tenuity, not without light, perhaps not without warmth, but which, if they enter the plane of the ecliptic, do so rather as comets that wave their fiery portent in the sky for a brief season and then depart, than as orderly members of the Christian system.
The position of such a Church as ours is very clear here. By the argument of its own past, by the persuasion of a rational faith, by the very fact of its being at all, by the hope of and faith in its own future, it will stand as a witness; it will testify that Christianity means something, no less than the best and highest thing which the world knows or can hope for. Its affirmations will be the ringing and triumphant word of the apostle: "But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us,… was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen.”