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Christ

( Originally Published 1888 )



An old painter of the fifteenth century, Fra Angelico, used to paint the head of Christ on bended knee, and with corresponding reverence of mind the Saviour's life should be studied.

It may seem presumptuous, after nearly nine-teen hundred years of conflicting opinion, to say that it is not hard to arrive at true conclusions about him ; and if the modern student were obliged to seek for his true character and relation to mankind amid the dense mists of scholastic opinion, or the strifes of ecclesiastical councils, it would be impossible to say it. The doctrine of Christ's divinity, if it be true, is to be discovered in far simpler ways.

Theodore Parker once said : " Above all men do I bow myself before that august personage, Jesus of Nazareth, who seems to have had the strength of man and the softness of woman,óman's mighty, wide, grasping, reasoning, calculating, and poetic mind ; and woman's conscience, woman's heart, and woman's faith in God. He is my best historic ideal of human greatness." How much such a confession as that reminds us of the simple-hearted, yet deep and ardent love for him, that inspired Christ's first disciples ! There is a great gulf between their faith and admiration and that of the men who composed the Council of Nicaea, which, in the year 325, established on a dogmatic basis the Church's belief in his divinity ; and this modern utterance of one who loved the undogmatic faith of St. John and St. Peter, but cared little for the formulated opinions of the bishops of the fourth century, carries us back to the first flush of the world's new spiritual day.

Two questions in this chapter demand our attention : first, the nature of Christ ; second, his work.

The Catholic Church, ever since the Council of Nicaea, has persistently declared her belief in the double nature of Christ. It was the denial of his divinity by the Arians that led to the Nicene Council, whose stormy vote decided that henceforth the Church should hold and teach the doctrine of his double nature. After that council other sects arose denying his complete humanity, and although the echo of all such strifes has long since died away, many people are still in doubt whether Christ was both God and man. Can that question be settled rationally and beyond the sphere of mere theological assertion ? Let us see. The Christian world today contains but two leading forms of statement concerning Christ's nature : that of the Catholic Church, to which we have referred ; and that of the Unitarians, which is, in general, an assertion simply of his human nature. And in many minds there is an impression that the separation between the beliefs indicated by these two forms of statement, is as wide and deep as that between the beliefs of the Church and the Arians in the fourth century. This is not always true. The early Arians were people influenced by the current teaching of the East concerning God. Arius himself was bred, not in the Christian school of Alexandria, but in that of Antioch, a school tinctured with the Oriental view of God as remote from His universe and acting upon it only by means of intermediate agencies. In the Oriental view there was no point of contact between God and the universe such a thought as that He was the indwelling life of nature and the personality of man, never for a moment entered into it. They had discovered no natural tie between the human and the divine, and so the idea of the perfect incarnation of God in Christ, to which the Alexandrian view of God as incarnate in all men logically and quickly led the Church, was impossible for the Arian mind to grasp. Thus the early strife concerning Christ's divinity was, in reality, a strife about the more fundamental doctrine of the nature of God. The Alexandrian theologians regarded God as immediately present in His universe, not in the uncommunicableness and entire profoundness of His nature and power, but as the logos or reason in which every human being shared. He did not exist in solitary greatness, but in complex and beautiful relationships. Reason in the intellect and goodness in the soul of man both testified to His abiding presence in the race. And when " The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth," it was only in pursuance of the regular manifestation or revelation of Deity. God and man had never existed apart, one "in heaven," the other " on the earth," except in figurative language, used to portray the respective greatness and littleness of divine and human attributes. Christ was the perfect type or head of the visible incarnation of God, the highest point in the divine communication to the intellect and heart of man. In him was that perfect union of divine and human of which the constitution of the world and man had always been prophesying. " He was the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world." He had not alone the divine nature, else he would have been like those mythical gods whom the Orientals conceived of as sometimes walking the earth in human guise, and so would have taken the world back to heathen polytheism. He had not alone the human nature, else his appearance in the world would have destroyed the essential principle on which all true philosophy of the relations between God and humanity is based. He calls himself both Son of God and Son of man. He tells the Jews that no sign shall be given them but the sign of the Son of man; that is, that he had come to establish truth, not by means of "portent and prodigy," but by means of revelation in a person ; that his mission, was to declare the eternal, indestructible relationship between God and man.

In tracing the doctrine of God we have already seen how, after Augustine's time, the Oriental view of God as existing apart from the world, an awful remoteness, came to be generally held in the Western Church ; and it thus becomes most clear that the doctrine of Christ's divinity would necessarily appear in the later theology, under an entirely different aspect.

As a matter of fact the doctrine of the in-carnation, rich and beautiful in the Alexandrian theology, did harden soon into a cold and repulsive dogma closely allied to the older beliefs of the heathen in the appearance of gods on earth, the fruitful source of strife and division and cruel persecution in the Church. In the Western Church, Christ was not the perfect type of creation, the complete embodiment of the divine principle in man, the head-stone in the temple of God's Incarnate Life, into which all are builded, but rather a mysterious being, who came to earth to declare judgment, and to ward off dreadful punishment from a portion of the race by offering his body as a literal sacrifice to offended Deity.

This, briefly stated, is the doctrine of Christ that Calvinism has handed down to us, and who can describe the painful struggles of mind it produced, age after age, among those who more or less clearly perceived that it could not be harmonized with reason or the better instincts of the soul ? Turn whichever way they would, in the direction of a natural and reasonable faith, they were confronted with such passages as: " Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." " He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life, and he that believeth not the Son of God shall not see life." And they said : " If in these passages Christ, or the Son of God, means simply the historic Christ, the divine man of Palestine, how can salvation be justly limited to belief in him, since millions of the inhabitants of the earth, before he lived and since, never heard nor could have known of him ? And what does belief in him mean ? Can it mean merely some particular belief about him formed in the mind, or submission to the laws and institutions of the Christian Church ? " These were questions to which the Mediaeval and post-Reformation churches of Europe could give no answer satisfactory to thoughtful minds. It was clear that salvation, whatever it meant, could not reasonably have been made dependent on the opinions people held about Christ, nor on the administration of the external rite of baptism. There was always a lurking conviction that God could be just to man only by making well-being or ill-being depend on something man could do or refrain from doing, something that took far deeper hold on the roots of life than mere speculation concerning Christ, or an uncertain state of the emotions connected with that, or on baptism or the Lord's Supper. What, then, was the true belief in Christ that was so necessary to man? The answer would have been found, had people looked for it, in the writings of some of the most orthodox of the Apostolic and Church Fathers.

Justin Martyr's plain declaration was that " Christ is the Word of whom the whole human race are partakers " ; that " those who lived according to reason" were Christians, " though accounted atheists," even as those who lived without reason were enemies " to Christ ; and that each man of the heathen writers " spoke well in proportion to the share he had " of the Word of God in him. Clement of Alexandria had said : " The Son of God is never displaced ; not being divided, not severed, not passing from place to place ; being always everywhere, and being contained nowhere; complete mind the complete paternal light ; the teacher who trains the Gnostic by mysteries, and the believer by good hopes, and the hard of heart by corrective discipline." " Christ is called Wisdom by the prophets. This is he who is the teacher of all created beings the fellow-counsellor of God, who foreknew all things." " There was always a natural manifestation of the One Almighty God among all right-thinking men." " He whom we call Saviour and Lord gave philosophy to the Greeks. He has dispensed his beneficence both to Greeks and Barbarians." " For the image of God is His Word, the genuine Son of Mind, the Divine Word, the archetypal light of light."

Origen had said : "Christ has given light and taught the way of piety to the whole human race, so that. no one can reproach him if he remain without a share of his mysteries."

This was the orthodox doctrine of Christ, in the most enlightened portion of the Christian Church, before the time of Augustine ; and it is this to which the Church in our day is re-turning. In the largest sense Christ is the divine Word or reason or wisdom of God, manifest in the constitution of the universe, and most perfectly in the nature of man. He is that of God which we can comprehend, and by means of which we stand forever related to the unrevealed mystery of the Divine Nature. He is indeed the Mediator between God and man, not, however, as trying to win God over to our side, but as in his nature " the eternal logos of the world through whom the divine light shines into creation " ; " the ground and source of all reason in creation, be it in men or angels, in Greek or Jew."

From such statements as these we shall at once see the necessity for the modern distinction between the essential and the historic Christ. The historic Christ, the God-man of Palestine, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried, and rose again from the dead, was the perfect manifestation of the essential Christ incarnate from the beginning of the world. " Christ lives in the heart of the Church and of each believer," says Martensen, but the in-ward Christ of the heart presupposes the Christ manifested in history, and without the latter soon fades away into a mystic cloud."

It would hardly be profitable to discuss, at length, the various theories that have been held in explanation or definition of the work of Christ.

Most of the theological treatises with which people are familiar, and many of the pulpits, teach an erroneous doctrine of what is called " substitutionary atonement," and it is this principle of substitution or quid pro quo, that enters into most of the mediaeval and re-formed theories of the work of Christ.

For man's sin, those theories declared, justice demanded satisfaction ; outraged law must be vindicated ; God's wrath must be appeased. Yet Infinite Love could save the victims, if it would yield itself to that which would, other-wise, relentlessly fall upon them. So love and justice met in conference, and bargained that love, in the person of Christ, should come to earth and submit itself to the pains of physical death, in order to pay man's ransom.

No form of this substitution doctrine could possibly satisfy the minds of the best thinkers. The human reason revolted at the grotesque spectacle of a God at war with Himself, demanding man's utter ruin, yet willing to be pacified if some victim could be found to take the offender's place, and so bargaining with Himself, or with the devil, for men's salvation. And the question kept recurring how spiritual wrong could be atoned by physical suffering or, as in heathen sacrifices, by the mere shedding of blood ? Or how the sufferings of Christ for a few brief hours could, by any possibility, be regarded as an equivalent for unending ages of torture too dreadful to be imagined, for the whole race, in the life to come ? Yet this, in one form or another, was the doctrine that was almost universally preached and professedly believed in New England until about half a century ago, when a large body of thinking men, under the name of Unitarians, rose in revolt against it and the popular crude and unphilosophical doctrines of Trinity, Divinity of Christ, and Heaven and hell connected with it.

After what has been said concerning the belief of the early Church about Christ's nature, it will. not be necessary to show how far re-moved from early Christian thought this view of the atonement was. The New Testament writers, full of enthusiasm over their Lord and his divine work, seized all the strongest figures they were familiar with, in order to express what they felt of the value of his life and death, but they held no dogmatic theories of the sacrifice of the Son of God, least of all such theories as were imposed upon the Church in later ages by the Augustinian theology.

Nor among the Fathers of the Church, in the third and fourth centuries, can there be said to have been any well-defined doctrine of atonement, while, indeed, all believed profoundly in the sacrifice of Christ, and spoke rhetorically of his life and death as having been for man's redemption.

We believe that Christ redeemed the world, not by suffering a penalty that except for him man must have borne, but first, by revealing, in his own divine-human nature, the fact of God's enshrinement in the universe and the soul of man ; and second, by realizing in history, once for all, the perfect union of divine and human, and so the ideal, that man had long been struggling for and hoping to see realized, of perfect life. The death from which he saved man was the spiritual blight of sordidness and sensuality and false beliefs. The salvation he wrought was the " liberation of the God consciousness " in men from the slavery to sense in which it is so greatly held. The sacrifice of the cross not only typifies, but is the great tide-mark of that eternal sacrifice of the lower to the higher through which the universe and the soul of man struggle ever upward toward perfection.

The word salvation is as often on our lips to-day as ever, but we mean now, by salvation, not deliverance from fiery tortures in the life to come, but the gradually increasing perfection of our natures in all worlds where we may be. We speak of the atonement of Christ, but we mean by that, not the satisfying of an offended deity by a dreadful offering of human blood, but the revelation of the light and freedom of the obedient soul, which came through Christ. The redemption of the world, we believe, lies in the truth that " in him was life, and the life was the light of men." That "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we be-held his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." Thus we believe in Christ, not as man, but as God-Man, head and type of creation, eldest brother of all the great family of mankind to whom God has imparted Himself, liberator of the human soul, redeemer of the race from sin. We hold that in his divinity every one, how-ever defective his philosophy may be, who, loving reason and goodness and faith, seeks the liberation of his own soul from sin, truly believes.

The obstacle to a frank avowal of belief in the divinity, or deity, of Christ has always been a mistaken conception of God. The best thinkers have never personified God as a great man and localized Him in the distant heavens. To them God has been ever present in His children and His works, and they have had no difficulty in thinking of Him as manifesting Himself preeminently in Jesus. We love and admire the flowers in our gardens, and feel that they all reveal somewhat of that wondrous perfection of beauty that exists in God. But when one more rare and beautiful than the others unfolds its petals and spreads its perfumes lavishly abroad, we feel almost like worshipping that as a complete revelation of Infinite Beauty, When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls Christ " the brightness of God's glory, and the express image of His person," or when St. Paul says that " he is the image of the invisible God," and that " it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell," we have a similar exhibition of feeling. It was not Christ in his single personality that kindled the fervid apostolic imagination to so a bright a glow, but rather Christ as " unveiling God in the world and in the consciousness of man," Christ in his union with other men, of whom St. Paul had elsewhere said (i Cor. xi., 7) that they were " the image and glory of God."

On summer mornings as we watch the sun rise out of gold and crimson seas and mount proudly upward into the heavens " trailing clouds of glory as he comes," we understand how Tennyson could write, " God made himself an awful rose of dawn," for it seems to us that He has wholly incarnated himself in that glorious vision. Lost in contemplation of the divine man who reveals to men not only their duty and destiny, but, in his oneness with them, their divine relationship, how natural to feel that he is the image and glory of God. As we stand face to face with him, how can we better express our belief in the one perfect human character, the man who alone of all men could truthfully say as he looked into his inner life, There is no shadow of evil on my soul, than to repeat his own words : " I and my Father are one."

In confessing our belief in the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, we are confessing belief in the subordination of the lower to the higher, the universal sacrifice once historically, sublimely, and fully witnessed in the life and death of Jesus in Palestine.

Thus there are today many who piously repeat the Nicene Creed who, judged by the standard of the oldest and truest orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, are farthest from belief in the divinity of our Lord ; while there are many who never say the Creeds who, at heart, are the strongest believers in the fact. A clergyman of the English Church once quaintly said : " Divine truth is better understood, as it unfolds itself in the purity of men's hearts and lives, than in all those subtle niceties into which curious wits may lay it forth"; and there is the echo of the Master's own spirit in Whittier's lines:

Call him not heretic whose works attest
His faith in goodness by no creed confessed.
Whatever in love's name is truly done
To free the bound and lift the fallen one
Is done in Christ. Whoso, in deed and word,
Is not against him, labors for our Lord.
When he who, sad and weary, longing sore
For love's sweet service, sought the sisters' door,
One saw the heavenly, one the human guest.
But who shall say which loved the Master best?"



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