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Incomprehensible Christ

HOWEVER inadequately, or with what failure of directness, the engrossing themes discussed in this and subsequent chapters may be treated, I could wish it understood from the first that this book is written in no spirit of pessimism. While seeking frankly to assess the obverse facts and conditions in current Christian history, I find neither in my fears nor in the outlook place for any note of despair.

This world belongs to God, and finally its last and apparently most forbidding province will come under his scepter. The influence and power of Christianity alone will bring to pass this sublime consummation. Christianity, with Christ at its center, its ever-inspiring and energizing life, is something immeasurably larger, greater, and more divine than the world has yet come to apprehend. Its larger meaning and possibilities are one thing; its various institutions, however time-honored, which have been associated with its life, are quite an-other thing. It is a common habit, and in large measure an infirmity, of the human mind to lay vital stress upon institutions and creeds which have attached them-selves as the exponents and explanation of the great movements of history. Thus, in the divinest of all historic movements, Christianity itself, there have grown up great institutions, creeds, and usages. These in turn have taken an enormous hold upon the imagination, faith, veneration, and affection of the believing Christian world. These various minor factors have in the lives of very many so come into the foreground of their thought as to have a meaning well-nigh synonymous with Christianity itself. But this view makes the fatal mistake of putting form, the ecclesiastical organism, in place of the vitalizing spirit of Christianity itself.

All institutions, creeds, and usages are but vehicles, instruments. Christ alone is the life of his Church. He alone is worthy to command our worship and love. Christ is the SON OF GOD. He is this in the preeminent sense; in a sense which is not true of any and all other beings. He is the one revealer of God to man. He is equally the revealer to man of what God would have man be, of what God purposes that he shall be. Concerning the supreme problems of the redemption and salvation of humanity, problems with which unlimited divinity alone can deal, Christ furnishes the only solution. For the mission of the world's redemption from evil, for the final bringing of man to his divinest possibilities, Christ is invested with all authority, having at command all the powers of the moral universe. It would, then, be treason to assume or to fear that he could finally fail in his work. Institutions, creeds, customs, may be superseded, but his kingdom shall move on, waxing stronger until its final consummation.

While the name of Christ is acknowledged as the greatest of names, there is proof abundant that as yet the world has very little comprehended his greatness. He is the one transcendent and indescribable Personality of History. The four literary fragments' called the Gospels are, as sources of information concerning his real character and teaching, of far greater value than all the learned and critical lives of him which have been written in recent times. But a careful reading of the Gospels themselves will impress us that their authors in seeking to picture the Christ were struggling with an impossible task. The men originally companioned with Christ only very imperfectly understood him. Their feeling toward him was one of wonder and perplexity, mingled at times with a sense of overwhelming admiration and love. In assessing this estimate allowance is to be made for the spiritual illumination which rested upon these men at Pentecost and afterward. But the Spirit in his mission as inspirer has to reckon with the limitations of human character. These early companions and chroniclers of Christ when in possession of the largest measure of inspiration possible to them, were still men of marked limitations. The only rational accounting for the matchless character glimpsed to us in the four Gospels is that a transcendent Being, one who had come forth from God, and whose glory they beheld, companioned himself with men. There was that about Jesus Christ which was immeasurably larger and more glorious than any who knew him best were able to comprehend. He was to them inexpressible. As Schweitzer says, "They were dealing with the Niagara force of an indescribable character."

Saint Paul, some of whose writings are the oldest in the New Testament, was a man rarely gifted, and of deepest spiritual insight. His own transformed life was a miracle. His experience of Christ's revelation in his life was an event so overwhelming to his consciousness that its marvel never lessened upon his view. There is no more impressive psychological chapter in Christian history than that which records the con-version and the after apostolic life of Saul of Tarsus. No spiritual experience was ever more vivid than his. No intellect more mighty than his ever struggled with the problems of the incarnation. As a witness to the transforming power and inspiring hopes of Christ's gospel, none greater than Saint Paul has ever arisen. But as a theologian even this greatest of the apostles was never able fully to emancipate himself from the habits of his Jewish training, nor from the impressions of his Roman citizenship. Saint Paul may well hold undisputed the first place among historic Christians. But even he, when he stood in the presence of Christ, felt that he knew only in part. To him the very love of Christ was something passing knowledge. In Christ he felt that there were heights and depths and lengths and breadths which he had never explored. Paul fairly burdens all language at his command in extolling Christ's dominion on earth, in heaven, and for eternity. His imagination was continually haunted by qualities ineffable and inexpressible inhering in his Lord. He says, "And without controversy" by common consent, without debate it is to be admitted by all, and in this he includes himself, that "great is the mystery of Godliness : God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." Paul, with all his wealth of revelation, would be the last man to claim exhaustive knowledge of Jesus Christ.

In the period of the Church Fathers, beginning with the origin of the Apostles' Creed, whenever that was, and including Augustine, a vastly exhaustive study was given to the subject of the Trinity and to the person of Christ. Lessing, the brilliant rationalist, the man whom Macaulay declared to be "beyond dispute the first critic in Europe," in speaking of the patristic development of orthodox Christology, confessed that he knew "nothing in the world in which human ingenuity showed and exercised itself in a greater manner." When the Athanasian, really the Augustinian, creed reached substantially its final form, three great ecumenical councils had struggled with and pronounced upon the doctrinal problems of Christ and his relations to the Trinity. The Athanasian creed, studied article by article, and sentence by sentence, reveals an ingenuity and penetration worthy of the greatest thought; and probably no abler thought was ever brought to bear upon any abstruse subject than that which wrought in the making of this creed.

Athanasius, Saint Paul excepted, was the ablest man whom the Christian Church had produced up to his time. The creed bearing his name undoubtedly reflected his views upon the great subject of the Trinity and the relations of Christ thereto. For a long time it was assumed that he was the author of this creed. But a more critical study of the history has shown beyond doubt that in its final shaping Augustine had more to do than had Athanasius.

Augustine was the greatest Christian mind of his century. He was a foremost philosopher. He knew experimentally much about the world on its evil side. His conversion to Christianity seems little less miraculous than that of Saint Paul. His essential greatness is indicated by the fact that his utterances dominated the theology of the Christian, especially the Western, Church for twelve centuries.

It is evident that the historic creeds were born in the throes of great thought. It would be unseemly for any single mind to utter itself in quarrelsome dissent from pronouncements which for many ages have commanded for themselves a reverent consensus of Christian faith. These creeds express as perfectly as it is possible for the human intellect to do the measurable facts concerning the divine Trinity, and the status of Jesus Christ in his relation thereto. As historic crystallizations of orthodoxy they have doubtless served a great purpose in preserving the fundamentals of a common Christian faith, and in giving to the Church familiarity with noble forms of reverent belief.

But, when all acknowledgment by the Church, is intelligently made for these monumental products of the great minds of its early history, it still remains to be said that not all the creeds combined have taken the measurement of Jesus Christ. There is a divinity a transcendency, an infinite indefinable something in his character that forever refuses reduction to the measurements of human thought. Applying the words of Loofs to Christ, we may with him say, "It is absolutely impossible for our reason to comprehend God: his eternity, his creation and maintenance of all things, his omnipotence and omniscience are absolutely incomprehensible for us."

More than eighteen centuries lie between us and the New Testament writers. These centuries have made great history. Christ is still alive. He is now vastly more alive, immeasurably more regnant in human thought, than in any preceding time. Within these centuries civilizations, religions, institutions, philosophies, systems of learning have perished. Christ has survived them all. Within these centuries new civilizations, new philosophies, new sciences, new inventions, new learning have changed the face of the world, have vastly increased human knowledge, have given new direction to thought and conduct. Yet in all this unmeasured revolution, in all the mighty progress of knowledge and enlightenment, Christ has received steady and increasing exaltation in the world's thought and affairs. There is no history parallel to this, none so wondrous.

It is worthy of special emphasis that within the last seventy-five years the most acute thought has been focused upon Jesus Christ. The keenest, most searching and relentless processes of analysis have been applied to his history and character. These years have been preeminently the period of scientific methods. In this time science has placed at the command of learning the most effective appliances for the ascertainment of truth. It is safe to say that not a single method, not a single test which the new learning has made available has been neglected in the critical scrutiny that has been centered upon Jesus Christ. No subject has received more intense, more capable, or more continuous study than has been given to this supreme character of the New Testament. If Lessing were living to-day, he might, in review of the recent thought which has been devoted to Jesus, parallel his tribute to that earlier period of thought, and say again, "There is nothing in the world in which human ingenuity shows and ex-presses itself in a greater manner."

But if we look at Christ today, in the present stage of ever-living discussion that centers about him a discussion that promises never to lessen we discover that his widening supremacy over the world's thought is increasingly acknowledged. In the first half of the last century Straus published his Life of Christ. It came to Christian scholarship as a brilliant and stunning surprise. It was a herald of consternation and fear to the world of Christian thought. Christian scholars were not prepared for the onslaught, and for a time they considered the phenomenon with bated breath. But Strauss himself, a brilliant scholar and intellectually great, lived to a dreary and disappointed old age. And when his life was sere and spent he himself uttered the bitter lamentation over his rationalistic Life of Christ that it was a thing which had "utterly gone to leaves."

Renan, scholarly, with great insight, brilliantly rhetorical, wrote his Life of Christ with a distinct intention to rob him of divinity. To Renan's credit it must be said that the more deeply he studied the character of his subject, the more was he himself captivated by its ineffable beauties. He pays eulogies to Christ which would seem properly rendered only to divinity. He says : "He is the common honor of all who share a common humanity. His glory does not even consist in being relegated out of history; we render him a truer worship in showing that all history is incomprehensible without him." Again he says: "He founded that high spiritualism which for centuries has filled souls with joy in the midst of this vale of tears. . . . Thanks to Jesus, the dullest existence, that most absorbed by sad or humiliating duties, has had its glimpse of heaven. In our busy civilizations the remembrance of the free life of Galilee has been like perfume from another world, like the 'dew of Hermon,' which has prevented drouth and barrenness from entirely invading the field of God." He finally closes his book with this statement : "What-ever may be the unexpected phenomena of the future, Jesus will not be surpassed. His worship will constantly renew its youth, the tale of his life will cause ceaseless tears, his sufferings will soften the best hearts; all the ages will proclaim that, among the sons of men, there is none born who is greater than Jesus." The great Frenchman is dead. His book rests on the shelves of the libraries. His attack on Jesus, an attack in which he yields every tribute of admiration, utterly failed of its purpose. Renan with all his genius failed because he was dealing falsely with a Personality whose divine largeness he failed to apprehend. Jesus, in the mean-time, has moved forward on his triumphal way with no scath upon his garments, no hurt upon his person.

Germany is a nation representing great scholarship. And German scholarship has undertaken to the last degree to find a purely rational status for the person and history of Jesus Christ. Perhaps no single volume gives a better survey of attempts in this field than Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus. This is a great book. In its preface the author says : "When, at some future day, our period of civilization shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historic insight, and religious feeling without which no deep theology is possible. And the greatest achievement of German theology is the critical investigation of the life of Christ."

This book traces the processes of German critical thought toward Christ from Reimarus, born in 1694, to William Wrede, who died in 1907. It is of great interest carefully to note the varying views of Christ which have been put forth by the long line now all dead of German scholars. All of these men were plodders, many of them brilliant, some of them friends, others enemies of evangelical Christianity. Their views were often diverse, the conclusions of one frequently in direct conflict with those of another. After reading it from cover to cover, one lays down this full, rich volume with the feeling that not all of these thinkers combined have said the last word about Jesus the Christ, not all of them together have given a complete statement of his mission, nor the adequate picture of his character. But Christ none the less lives, and still challenges the fresh scrutiny of both scholar and genius.

The spirit of the hostile critic was never more virulent nor determined than now. There are those, and they will probably have their successors for indefinite time to come, some of them in command of great resources, who seek, and who will continue to seek, to destroy the very historicity of Jesus Christ, and thus to destroy the foundations of Christianity itself. These men are not greatly to be feared. They cannot succeed. They are like those who would beat the stars out of the sky. Christ is infinitely beyond them. When they have done their worst, it will be but as the stout sea wave which utterly shatters itself against the immovable rock. The immeasurableness, the incomprehensibleness, of Jesus Christ are asserted in the fact that no progress ever surpasses him. In the complexities of a growing civilization new human needs are continuously developing, and old needs are coming into new expression and expansion. Old philosophies, creeds, and traditions are outworn. Not so with Jesus. There is no social or moral want made prominent by the world's growing knowledge and experience the satisfaction of which is not discoverable in his gospel.

Under the title, "The Modern Quest for a Religion," Winston Churchill has recently published a most suggestive article. After vividly picturing the awakened sense of the age to some great working energy of the times, an energy not material but expressing itself in the "inarticulate language of the people," and having testified to the spiritual hunger widely felt in human society, he proceeds to delineate the qualities which should characterize the kind of religion most perfectly adapted to the needs of the times. He then shows that all that could be hoped for in the most perfect religion for the meeting of human wants is already fully sup-plied in Jesus Christ. What is the meaning of that tremendous awakening in modern life of the new sense of human brotherhood, and the growing conviction that the highest life possible to any man is the life of unselfish service for his fellows? It all means that a new view of Christ's spirit and mission is entering into the vision of the age. This is not to say that Christ himself grows, but that as man grows in spiritual knowledge and illumination, so more and more are Christ's illimitable glories humanly apprehended. As the starry immensities have ever expanded upon man's growing knowledge, so in the moral world will the glories of Christ multiply upon the spiritual vision of the race. As the most powerful telescope yet invented reveals only the edges of the universe, so the experience of the most perfect saints has as yet only begun to apprehend his exhaustless and saving wealth. God's scheme for the world is one calling for unlimited growth for man growth in the knowledge of material things, growth in spiritual attainment and apprehension; but man will never grow to such stature of perfection as not to see in Jesus Christ a Being immeasurably transcendent to himself.

Confidence in the final success of Christ's kingdom in this world may be supreme. He has undertaken the world's redemption. His credentials for this mission are divine. All resources at the command of heaven are his. He will not fail. If either is seriously on trial before this age, it is clearly the Church and not Christ. The forms and methods of organized Christianity may need to be largely revised in order to best serve the interests of the Kingdom. Before closing this discussion we shall probably see much need for this. Revision, expansion, and new adaptations are a necessity to any organism designed for perpetual use-fulness. The expanding mission of the Spirit in the world will bring about these modifications in the organic Church. In the meantime the Christian disciple may move forward in his work in the sublime confidence that comes from the consciousness of personal fellow-ship with the great Master. Jesus Christ is known by his own. The Christ of the Gospels is best apprehended only by those in whose hearts he personally dwells. What scholarship can never discover, what philosophy can never explain, is apprehended and realized in the faith and experience of the Christian life. Christ does reveal himself in the lives of those who love and obey him. This is the reason why no hostile criticism can ever understand or disarm him. He lives, attesting his own divinity, in the hearts of growing millions whose love for him is such that if needs be they could die for him. Schweitzer, in the final summary of his book, says: "The abiding and eternal in Jesus is absolutely independent of historical knowledge and can only be understood by contact with his spirit, which is still at work in the world. In proportion as we have the spirit of Jesus we have the true knowledge of Jesus."

Hofmann's great pictures of the Christ appeal in a marked way to universal favor. A personal friend, Dr. Henry H. Meyer, once made a visit to Hofmann at his summer home in the Saxon Alps. To his query as to the secret of Hofmann's inspiration in painting the pictures of Christ, the old man, then over eighty years of age, said : "If you ask for the testimony of my faith, I must answer that the matter of religious faith is not so simple for the thoughtful man to-day. I do not know the conditions in your country, but here in Germany the thinking man, who looks about him in an earnest quest for religious truth, and notes the social and church conditions as they really are, cannot at times escape asking himself the question, 'Does the Christian Church today offer to the people what they have a right to expect of it?' There also rises the deeper question, `Does the religion of Jesus Christ really meet the deepest needs of the human heart?' But, when I turn away from these questionings and read again the story of his life, and contemplate again his teachings, it is as though I were lifted from the valley to the broad table-land, and from thence to successive mountain heights, until I stand at last upon the highest peak, above the clouds, where all is clear and radiant with sunlight ; and," he added, "it has been during these mountaintop experiences that I have seemed to behold his face and have attempted to paint his likeness."

( Originally Published 1914 )

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