THE Christian theory of redemption passes by a natural transition from the manifestation of God in the person and life of Christ, to the universal presence of God in the souls of individual believers and in the organic unity of the Church. Our Lord Himself is recorded as speaking of the necessity of this transition, and of the vast and important advance which it implies in the relation between God and man. The phrase “Kingdom of God,” which is of frequent use in the Synoptic Gospels, and which is often employed by theological writers as an expression for the new order of things that Christianity seeks to establish in the world, is obviously a figurative or pictorial form of thought, and one which, in some respects, falls short of the essential nature of Christianity and of the relation to God which it introduces. The distinctive characteristic of the kingly office is that of the external rule of an outward potentate, who publishes laws and enforces them by the sanctions of rewards and punishments, and who, even if he reign over a free people with a constitutioual authority, exerts a dominion which is still something outside of and foreign to the inmost nature of the subject.
But if, in the dispensation of the Spirit, Christ became simply the king of a world-wide empire, it would not have been, to quote His own words, “expedient for” His followers that He should “go away.” For a present and visible, is better than an absent king. The publication of the will of a sovereign withdrawn into perpetual seclusion from his people, whilst it might appeal to emotions of ignorant wonder and awe, could never exert over them an influence so potent as that of a living personality whom they knew and profoundly honoured and revered. Even for the survivors who have actually seen and known him, the image of a departed personality can never be so vivid as that of the beloved master, teacher, friend, on whose face they look, to whose words they listen, who lends to abstract lessons the incalculable influence of a life of moral elevation and beauty and a presence that appeals to immediate and personal devotion—to whom, moreover, in their difficulties and perplexities, they can repair for fresh direction and guidance.
We may treasure the sacred memory, we may fondly recall the words and deeds of departed greatness or goodness; but, do what we will, the image fades away more or less from the imagination of the most devoted follower, and amidst the rush of present cares and interests, there are times when he ceases to be thought of, and only by a renewed effort can the image of what he was be brought up before us. If this memory of the past were the only bond that united even his friends and followers to the Master they once knew and loved, it is impossible to think that they could gain by losing Him.
Still more obviously must this hold good of those who never knew Christ after the flesh, and whose knowledge of Him is, at best, only second-hand. Fainter, of necessity, is an image which can only be reproduced by description and testimony. As time rolls on, it becomes possible for historic criticism to doubt or dispute the recorded facts of His life, and even the very existence of that life itself. Intellectual difficulties supervene to blur the picture of a long-vanished personality; and for the questioning and critical intelligence, there arises the possibility of regarding the extant narrative of His career as only a subjective conception which has crystallized into a concrete form, or as a historical fiction woven by pious imagination out of a few scattered facts and traditions.
But, whatever force there may be in these considerations as to the superiority in point of privilege of the contemporaries of a great personality over their successors, the point of view thus expressed is obviously not that of the New Testament writers, and especially of St. Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel. In point of privilege, in their view, the kingdom of the Spirit is an advance on, and not a retrogression from, the kingdom of the Son. In the words above quoted, our Lord Himself is represented as declaring to His immediate followers that, even for them, it was expedient that He should go away, and as pronouncing that whatever advantage to their faith it was to have seen and known His outward personality, they were more blessed who had not seen and yet had believed. And when we inquire into the ground for the seemingly paradoxical assertion that they who had never seen Him would know Him best, we find that it resolves itself into the affirmation that there is a presence of Christ with His believing followers, infinitely more intimate and profound than that of His outward contiguity as an individual person—a presence which does not cease with the passing away of the latter, nay, of which that passing away is the necessary condition.
In all ordinary cases, death dissolves our conscious fellowship with those who are taken from us. Our own life and the life of the world with all its interests and events flow on, but they who felt the deepest interest in us and it, have passed absolutely away from all knowledge or concern in anything that is done under the sun. If we need friends, counsellors, guides, amidst the perplexities of life, we must turn to others. We can no longer feel the strengthening power of their stronger personality or the consciousness of their watchful sympathy. They have gone we know not whither, into regions and worlds unknown, and they are no longer cognizant of us, nor we of them.
But the view of the New Testament writers seems to be, that there is one grand exception to this rule. The presence of Christ is a presence never withdrawn. In form it vanishes, in essence it abides with us for ever. Nay, as they seem to teach, it is a presence not only more lasting, but immeasurably closer, more intimate, more universal, than that vouchsafed to men during the brief years of His earthly life. He ceased to be known as the outward Master and Friend of a few personal followers, or the occasional visitant of a few earthly homes, that He might become the indwelling life of all believing souls, a presence not intermittent but constant, transfused through their inmost being in all regions of space, in all ages of time. It is this which constitutes the fundamental idea of the kingdom of the Spirit, and which seems to be taught in such words as these: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word: that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” “If Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness.” “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” “This mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
What meaning, then, the question arises, can we attach to this conception? Is there any intelligible sense in which we can say that Christ abides with us, and becomes better known to us after, than during His outward, individual presence on earth?
Now there are various explanations of this problem which able writers have proposed, and which, whatever measure of truth they contain, do not seem to exhaust the Scripture doctrine to which I have referred. Shall we, for instance, interpret the language I have quoted with reference to Christ's abiding presence, simply in the sense in which we say that a good man's life becomes a permanent legacy to the world; that there is that in the career of a noble personality which never dies, but constitutes an enduring contribution to the spiritual life of the race? It is indeed true that, in this sense, Christ is ever with us. Measured merely by its traditional influence, no such life as His has ever been lived on earth. No other life has so triumphed over death, has gone on as His has done, reliving itself through the ages, penetrating the individual and social life of mankind. But the abiding presence of Christ, as St. Paul and the other New Testament writers conceive of it, is surely something more than simply that of a good man's memory. So to interpret it would be to thin down the conception to a mere metaphor, and to leave the language in which it is expressed, over-strained and exaggerated.
Or, again, shall we have recourse to the idea that great and good men are often better understood and appreciated, and so become a much more potent force, after death than during their actual life? A great original life resembles a work of art in this, that to be truly understood and appreciated it must be contemplated as a whole; and so it is only when death puts the finishing touch to it, that we can discern its meaning and its greatness. In so far as it is original, as it unfolds a new principle or idea, it is the end that explains the beginning and not the beginning the end; and the beauty of the successive parts or stages only breaks upon us in the light of the completed whole. So, it may be said, in so far as the life of Christ is the embodiment of an original idea, it was only in the retrospect, when the earthly career which expressed it had been completed, when the final touch had been given to the picture, that it was possible for the world to discern its meaning and grandeur. In any conception we form of the person and life of Christ, the death on the Cross is the crown and consummation of the whole; and until that final act of self-sacrifice had been accomplished, the life itself would have been left a fragment, and the principle it embodied would have lacked its highest expression.
Finally, to name no other aspect of the matter, it may be alleged of Christ, as of all who have enriched by their words and deeds the thought and life of the world, it is not the facts of His individual history, but the ideas that underlie it, that constitute the true value of His life. A true idea is true independently of the facts and events that first suggested it. There are many universal ideas which are their own evidence, apart from the superficial phenomena or the historic events that were the particular occasion of their discovery. The latter—the empirical, historic element—may be disputed, may be difficult to ascertain, may even turn out to be more or less fictitious. But when we have once grasped the principle or doctrine, we are no longer dependent on the proof or disproof of particular facts. The principle remains true, whatever becomes of the facts. The life of Christ has been the source of ideas concerning God and man, and the relations of human nature to the divine, transcending in originality and importance the contributions made to our knowledge of spiritual things by all other teachers. But, even if many of the details of Christ's life and teaching should fail to stand the test of scientific criticism; nay, even if we supposed the whole record of the life of Christ to be lost; still the ideas and doctrines concerning the nature of God and the hopes and destinies of humanity, which had their historic origin in that life, would be recognized as true in themselves, and as having an indestructible evidence in the reason and conscience of man. If our knowledge of Christ consisted solely of biographical knowledge, no later age could have the same facilities of information concerning Him as His own, no later inquirers could possess the same advantages as His contemporaries. But if the only knowledge of Christ that is of supreme importance, is that which apprehends the ideal meaning and purpose of His teaching and actions, then we cannot say that His immediate disciples were in a more favoured position than ourselves. It was only in a vague and imperfect manner that those who were in personal contact with Him, or conversant with the incidents of His outward life, could form any conception of the principles that underlay these incidents, and of the spiritual greatness of their teacher and example. And so, when we compare the inadequate apprehension of ideas confused or obscured by the accidents of time and place, which was all that was possible to His contemporaries, with the richer, fuller knowledge to which, in its subsequent experience, the Church has attained, we can understand in some measure the apparent paradox of ascribing higher opportunities of knowledge than His own immediate followers possessed, to those in after times who never knew Him according to the flesh.
It is, then, in these considerations that modern writers have found, as they suppose, the explanation of the superiority of the dispensation of the Spirit to the dispensation of the Son, and especially of that abiding and more intimate relation to Christ which the New Testament writers seem to ascribe to believers in post-Christian times. Yet I think that, on reflection, it will prove impossible to accept any of the views I have just cited, as exhausting the teaching of Scripture regarding the permanent presence of Christ with His Church and with individual believers. When Christ, in the hour of parting from His followers, declared that He would be with them to the end of the world; or when He spoke of His relation to them as nothing less profound and permanent than His own relation to the Father; it is impossible to understand these expressions as referring merely to the undying memory and moral influence He would leave behind Him, or to the fact that the ideas He taught would survive the life of the teacher. To see what He really meant we must have recourse to another idea of the New Testament writers, on which special emphasis is laid in the Pauline epistles—the idea, namely, of the organic unity of the Church, the idea, in other words, of all believers in Christ as not a mere collection of separate individualities, but as one corporate whole, of which Christ is the living Spirit or Head. “We being many,” St. Paul writes, “are one body in Christ.” And again, “Ye are the body of Christ and members in particular”; “The Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all”; “Ye are complete in Him”; “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones”; “There is one body and one Spirit.”
The idea which runs through all these passages is, that the relation of Christ to those who in all times and places shall be united to Him by the inner bond of a common faith, is something deeper and closer than that of separate individual persons to each other, something which can only be represented as the relation of the different organs or members of a living organism to the whole, or to the vital principle that pervades and inspires it.
Now, as I have said more than once, an organism, such as the human body, cannot be conceived as a mere collection or collocation of isolated parts, brought and kept together externally. It is a whole, the manifestation of a living principle, which determines every part and lives in it; it is a systematic unity in which the parts or members have no life of their own, but live, grow, fulfil their proper functions, only in so far as they absolutely surrender any isolated, particular life, to the life of the whole. If any organ or member begin to assert an individual independence, it is assailing the principle of its own life; if its isolation be only partial, it is the independence, not of healthy activity, but of disease and arrested development; if it be complete, it is the independence of the severed limb, which has ceased to be permeated by the vital principle and has become mere dead, inorganic matter. And if thus the members live and fulfil themselves only in union with the universal principle, so, on the other hand, does it fulfil or realize itself in them. Apart from its members or organs, the principle of life is only an abstraction. It is, at most, not a reality, but only an unrealized possibility. To go forth out of self, to realize its latent capabilities in the diversified form and beauty of its organs, and to receive back again in their self-surrender to it the full tide of vital activity which it gives—this is the ideal perfection of the principle of organic life.
Now it is this conception which the Scripture writers, in the passages I have quoted, apply to the new relation in which Christ stands to the Church or society of believers. As an individual person, He has long passed away from the world; but He lives for ever, as the ever-present, ever-active principle of its highest life. Nor, in so far as we believe Him to be the highest manifestation of God, the perfect expression of the divine life, can we, save in some such way as this, conceive of His relation to mankind.
Much of the language in which the New Testament narrates His departure from the world and the heavenly sequel of His history—His ascension, exaltation, and perpetual session at God's right hand, His investiture with external power and glory, His sending down from His celestial abode the Holy Spirit as His deputy to the bereaved Church—much of this is obviously figurative and cannot be interpreted as literal fact. God cannot be thought of truly as a potentate who sits on a material throne, as having a right hand and calling a favourite to be seated thereat as the place of honour; nor can we speak, save in the way of analogy, of a Divine Spirit as being sent, or descending through space, to a region formerly distant from Him; or as leaving one locality and coming to another, and being able only through local proximity to operate on the souls of men. What we must conceive of as the underlying import of all this pictorial representation is, that the divine principle which manifested itself in the human person and life of Christ, never did or can pass away from the world; and that, now and forever, it manifests itself in the life of every individual believer and in the universal or corporate life of His Church, in which “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” And if we reflect for a moment on what is implied in this distinctively Christian view of Christ's permanent relation to His Church, I think we shall see the profound significance of His own declaration as to the blessedness of those who have not seen but have believed; and, again, of St. Paul's assertion that there is a knowledge of Christ better even than that of those who knew Him after the flesh.
“I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” writes St. Paul. These words, whatever else they mean, point to the relation of the believer to Christ as that, not simply of one individual person to another, but as approximating to the blending or identifying of our very life and being with His. We do not simply stand in His presence, listen to His words, behold Him passing through the incidents and actions of His life, feel the power of His teaching, become stirred with admiration for the beauty of His character—all which are experiences consistent with no nearer connection with Him than with any human hero or saint whose individuality is entirely distinct from our own. If there be any meaning in this language, the division between the believer and His Lord is one which more or less completely vanishes; and it gives place to a relation in which we become sharers of the infinite life that is in Him, as closely related to Him as the member to the vital principle of which it is the organ and instrument.
And that this is no incredible relation, but one which finds its witness in our own consciousness, will, I think, be obvious if we reflect, that it is of the very essence of the religious life to be a life that is at once above us and in us, transcending our finite thoughts and feelings, yet in which we most truly realize ourselves and the ideal of our own spiritual nature. For, is it not so that in every moral and religious impulse and action, in all our spiritual experience, we are aware of a power, a presence, an authority, which, though in us, is yet above us; which we have not made nor can unmake, which asserts an absolute domination over our souls, and of which from one point of view we are only the passive organs? What this absolute principle, this imperative of truth and goodness, demands of every human spirit, is the sacrifice, the surrender, the abnegation of our private and particular self—its shallow opinions, its limited ends and interests; that we cease to think our own thoughts, to gratify our own desires, to do our own will, but rejoice to let this absolute, all-comprehending will reign in us and over us.
Yet, on the other hand, it is also the experience of the religious life that, in thus losing and abnegating, we truly gain ourselves: that our true will is not the will of this particular and private self, but a will that is in harmony with the absolute will; and that then only do we become aware of the greatness of our better and truer self, when we lose all sense of anything that divides our own self-consciousness from the consciousness of God. For then only have I attained to the true knowledge of divine things, when the voice of eternal reason that speaks to me, is at the same time a voice that speaks in me—not two concurrent voices but one, sounding through the spiritual intelligence. And then only have I attained to the true ideal of goodness, when the law of duty has ceased to be merely an outward authority to which I must bow; when it is no self-denial or self-limitation to obey it, but obedience to the one will of eternal righteousness which has become identified with my own. Now, it is this divine principle of which in His person and life Christ was the perfect expression, this eternal spirit of truth and beauty and goodness that was in Him, that becomes the principle of every Christian life; it is this principle that in all times and places constitutes the everlasting bond of union between the God-man and that universal organic unity of souls which is “His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.”
But this leads me to say, lastly, that another aspect in which the dispensation of the Spirit may be conceived of as an advance on that of the Son, is that, while the latter was necessarily an individual, the former is a universal presence of Christ, and one which binds all believers in closest harmony and union with each other. The visible, corporeal presence of Christ was, of course, possible only at one spot, and at most only to a few of His followers at one time; and that, moreover, only during the few brief years of His earthly ministry. But the spiritual presence of Christ is a presence not limited by the conditions of space and time, a presence in which all believers at one and the same time may participate, and which is the property, not of one age or period of the world's history, but of His Church always, to the end of the world.
Moreover, and as involved in this, whilst the earthly presence of Christ did not necessarily imply any relation to each other of those who looked on His person or listened to His voice, the spiritual presence of Christ binds in deepest unity with each other all, in every place and time, to whom it is vouchsafed. The relation of Christians to each other is a relation in which, from its very nature, all division and isolation are broken down; and innumerable and diversified as are the members of the Christian communion, in so far as they truly imbibe the spirit of their faith, all differences are lost in a deeper and more comprehensive unity. For the divine life that was manifest in Christ, and which is reproduced in every Christian spirit, is not a life the ideal of which is one ideal for this man or nation or period of the world's history, and another for another. A wide gulf separates the man of learning and culture, richly dowered with gifts of intelligence, from the ignorant and unrefined. The characteristic spirit and genius of one nation may be stamped with its own idiosyncrasy, and barriers more impermeable than dividing seas and mountains may separate the age or country in which we live from other countries and times; but learned or unlearned, Greek or Jew, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free—there is one principle of affinity which has power to overleap all earthly divisions; nay, which, outstripping even the division of worlds, is capable of being experienced by every spirit made in God's image in every region of the universe. The Divine Spirit that was embodied in the life of Christ, and which realizes itself in every soul that yields itself to its transforming power, wherever or whenever it takes possession of human spirits, is in essence one and the same in all. The imperative of duty, the presence within our consciousness that speaks to us in the command, “Be true, be just, be good,” is not simply a similar presence in your mind and mine, but it is one and the same divine presence in all; and those in every age and country who have responded to it are united together in one undivided confraternity. And as it is one and the same force which binds the atoms of matter together and holds the planets in their orbits, so every pure thought, every holy aspiration, every effort after goodness in the lowliest or the loftiest of human spirits, is a manifestation of the same divine principle that dwelt in Christ and was revealed to the world in His life and death. It is true, indeed, that in the best of men the action of this divine principle is modified and limited by many a foreign admixture. Amidst the perturbing intrusion of selfish desires and impulses, there is much to arrest the free play of vital energy between the members of Christ's body and their Divine Head. But as the words of Christ, which I have quoted, speak of our union with Himself and with each other as finding its type in nothing less than His own union with the Father; so they point to a time when every dividing element shall pass away, when every mind shall become the pure medium of the Infinite Intelligence, every heart the organ of the Infinite Love, and when all souls that have yielded themselves to Christ, suffused, pervaded in their inmost being by the same Divine Spirit, shall be “made perfect in one.”