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Lecture 6: The Revelation of God in the Moral and Religious Order of the World

THE order of the world of Nature, as we saw in the last Lecture, is not to be understood, if it is contemplated either only from the point of view of the Ego, or only from that of presented things or objects. In the former case one reaches only a world of thoughts but not the real world; in the latter case the ideal or spiritual constituent, which lies in the conception of the Order of the World, remains inexplicable, and that order is resolved into a chaos of unconceived positive data. The essence of the order of nature consists rather in the correlation of the thinking Ego and the thinkable connection of things, a correlation in which we found the very revelation of the creative reason as the highest unity of thinking and being. And exactly the same holds true in regard to the moral and religious order of the world. It, too, is only to be understood if we keep in view the subjective and objective side—the personal consciousness of the world and the historical community of the peoples and religions, in their constant reciprocal relation to each other, and their conditionedness through one another. In this very correlation, this reciprocal tie between the personal conscience and moral society, mankind have always recognised the revelation of a universal or divine will combining the two with each other. It is obvious that we no longer regard this divine grounding of the moral order in the mythological manner prevalent in the childhood of mankind—namely, as a direct divine proclamation of laws given as on Sinai, or enunciated by divine oracles as at Delphi. We have long since learned that human history proceeds everywhere naturally. But it is asked whether the explanation of the moral law would be already exhaustively given, if we only gave heed to the external process through which the moral practices and laws form and alter themselves from motives of utility and of selfish interests; and whether there is not also here concealed under the mechanism of the natural motives a moral idea, a higher teleological order, which betrays its transcendental origin in the unconditionedness of the feeling of duty?

I have already, in the second of these Lectures, attempted to show that the characteristic of the moral feeling is not explained but denied, when it is made a mere product of society led by egoistic interests. It is indeed true that our moral consciousness develops itself only in reciprocity with society, that it receives its definite contents, its knowledge of what is to be regarded as right or wrong, in detail, primarily from the moral practices and tenets of society. But what the distinction of right and wrong generally indicates—namely, that right raises an unconditioned claim to our obedience, that it puts our will internally under obligation quite apart from external consequences—this we could only have learned by instruction from others, unless we had had in our rational constitution by nature the “Moral Sense”—that is, the capacity and the impulse for the judging and ordering of our manifold relations and motives, according to their relative value for the rational purpose of the whole. The “Conscience” is certainly not a sum of innate ideas, a code of law born in us, for in that case the mutability and manifoldness of the moral opinions of men could not possibly be explained. But just as little is the conscience merely a copy of the moral practices and tenets of society that have become actual at any time, for then the unconditionedness of its obligatory and judicial authority would be inexplicable. And particularly inexplicable would be the fact of experience that the judgment of conscience puts itself not seldom in direct opposition to the practice and tenets of society; that for the sake of the higher ideal right, it denies and combats the right that exists, as we see in all the reformers and heroes of moral progress. An unprejudiced consideration of these different facts of experience will, as I believe, lead to the result that in the conscience there are two different factors bound up into unity—namely, an innate or a priori factor, and an a posteriori or empirical factor. On the innate element rests the always self-identical, abiding, formal character of the judgment of conscience, the unconditionedness with which it commands and judges; while upon the acquired element rests the manifoldness and changeableness, or the historical conditionedness, of its particular contents. Kant had well considered that first factor of the conscience, and had emphatically accentuated the fact that it is the demand of the reason which speaks to us so categorically. But Kant stopped halfway in referring the moral law to the subjective reason of the separate individuals, to their thought of the similar mode of acting of all, to this merely formal thinking without any essential determination of purpose; and as he also again identified this lawgiving reason with the freedom of individuals, there resulted the strange thought that the freedom of each individual gives itself the law to which he and all others owe obedience.

But how can a law which the freedom of every one makes, be binding upon the freedom of all? Nay more, how can it be unconditionally obligatory even for the freedom of the subject himself who has made it? Will it not be capable of being denied and annulled at any time by the same freedom from which it is thought to have sprung? In truth the matter stands, after all, quite otherwise: we find the moral law as a norm which is in nowise produced by our freedom, but which is rather presupposed by it, and is super-ordinated to it; and to this norm we feel ourselves bound—we owe obedience to it whether we will or not. An authority demanding obedience like this, to which each individual as well as others knows himself bound to subordinate himself, cannot possibly spring out of the freedom of the individual person, just as little as it can out of the compulsion of society which could only produce a compulsive “must” but not the moral obligation of the conscience. We shall accordingly recognise in the conscience the manifestation of the universal rational will which forms the better self, the essential nature of man in accordance with the divine image, which binds the individual to a purposive order of the universe, a kingdom of good or of God, and which is therefore rightly called a revelation of the holy will of God.

But in seeing in the conscience, on the side of its a priori factor, the subjective revelation of the divine will, we do not mean thereby to exclude in any way the psychological mediation and historical conditionedness of the judgments of conscience. As the laws of our thinking, which are originally inherent in our theoretical mind, can only exert and develop themselves on the material of knowledge that is presented by the world, and thus rise to our consciousness, so is it also with the norm of our moral judgments of value, which is originally inherent in our practical reason; it develops itself and comes into our consciousness only in reciprocal intercourse with society. The forms of the social order of life which arise in the course of human coexistence, and which correspond to the purposes of human community, awaken in the individual, as he grows up in the midst of them, the innate rational impulse which aims at the establishment of an inner order, at the harmonising of the manifold impulses and motives of our nature. This inner rational impulse corresponds to the external order of society with sympathetic receptivity; it finds in that order spirit of its spirit, and recognises it therefore as a justified authority. But as the inner moral capacity then develops and strengthens itself under the education of the external authority, the matured personality comes to such independence in its moral judgment that it begins to test even the social authorities and observances founded thereon as to how far they correspond to the absolute authority, or to what is rational and good in itself. Only in so far as the right that exists in society stands in harmony with the idea of right that presses itself internally upon such an individual does he recognise that right as an unconditionally binding authority—a distinct proof of the fact that this recognition has its proper basis, not in external facts, not in the brutal violence of the power that gives itself out for right, but in the idea of right that unconditionally binds the conscience, of which idea all positive right is always only an imperfect and perfectible expression. In this Idea of Right the religious consciousness recognises the revelation of the holy will of God; and this Idea creates an organism for itself in the external right of the social order, in which organism, although it is never perfectly realised, but is always striving to realise itself more perfectly, the religious consciousness recognises the revelation of the righteousness of God.

The religious conviction that the divine righteousness rules over human fates, appears to be opposed by the experience that right often succumbs and that wrong triumphs, that the just man suffers and perishes, while the godless man enjoys an undisturbed prosperity. It is from these experiences that have arisen those doubts of the righteousness of the government of the world which we find not merely among the heathen, but which have likewise received touching expression at the hands of many of the Biblical writers (as in Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job). But belief always again rescued itself from these mysteries of the actual world through the hope of future adjustment; it demanded that the proof of the retributive justice which appeared to be missing in our present experience must show itself in some sort of adjustment and establishment of the right order in this world or the next. From this resulted the so-called proof for God's existence drawn from the idea of retribution. Kant appropriated it in his well-known postulate that there must be a God who guarantees the establishment of the highest good in the combination of happiness with virtue. Thus apprehended, this “Proof” is naturally untenable, for objection is rightly raised against it by the question, What, then, gives us, from the standpoint of the rigoristic Kantian morals, the right to demand a rewarding of virtue by happiness? Besides, Hume had already reminded us that it is a very arbitrary conclusion to infer from the failing of the wished-for retribution in that sphere of reality which we alone know, its coming in a problematic future. Of course, viewed logically, this is quite inadmissible; but viewed psychologically, the judgment presents itself more favourably: for what else ultimately is the confident demand of a future retribution than just the childlike expression of the firm faith that right must still remain right, and show itself to be the victorious power over reality, whereas wrong must be confounded? This is the faith in the “Moral World-Order,” which Fichte explained as the kernel of the Kantian postulate and put in the place of the belief in God, and which also the ethical idealists of the present day (such as Matthew Arnold) declare to be the kernel of religion in general.

We may certainly honour the moral value of this faith, and yet doubt whether it is fitted to be a substitute for faith in God. To me it cannot but appear that the conception of the “Moral World-Order” suffers in most of those who hold it from an obscurity which is more or less concealed by rhetoric and a wavering between two very different things—namely, between the represented ideal of an order which ought to be, and the actual yet not ideal order in the world of experience. The latter order, as being a fact of experience, cannot be an object of faith; and besides, it suffers from so great defects that we can be little edified by its contemplation, but feel ourselves driven to rise above it to the Ideal. The Ideal, on the other hand, however perfect we may think it, always suffers from the one defect, that it is merely a representation of our subjective wishes and hopes, and is separated by a wide gulf from the world of the actual. Then the great question arises, How can the Ideal become actual and the actuality ideal? The solution of this decisive question appears to me to be hopeless so long as there is not known, besides the unreal Ideal and the unideal reality, a third thing in which the synthesis of the two sides would be guaranteed. For if the “Moral World-Order” were only the subjective thought of myself and of certain other men, it would be impossible to see what would ever entitle us to expect its realisation in the objective world. Such a thought would then have no more significance than any pious wish or beautiful dream. All the poetry which we might lay into this dream could not deceive us for a moment regarding the total groundlessness of our hope of its realisation. That thereby the religious faith would dissolve itself into an æsthetic play with unreal illusions is clear. If we would guard ourselves against this, it appears to me that the only view remaining is that our thought of the “Moral World-Order” is not merely our human Ideal, but the divine idea of the Good, revealing itself in our moral consciousness on the one side, and in the historical process of the development of human civilisation on the other; and that it therefore is a purposive thought of the Infinite Spirit, who is at once the Almighty Ground and the Eternal Law of the development of the world in time. Then, but also only then, have we a rational ground for the belief that the world is constituted for the realisation of the good; that the good, because it is one with the almighty will of God, is the power which will conquer the world in infinite progress, as it has already hitherto conquered it in part. When we thus look with the eye of the faith which is based on God into the historical world, we also find infallibly in it, notwithstanding all its evils and painful disharmonies in detail, the traces of the ruling of that governing righteousness and wisdom, which so directs the course of things that, in spite of all the wrong in individual things, right nevertheless comes in the whole of humanity to an ever firmer and purer existence. All the resistance which the realisation of the good finds everywhere in detail cannot hinder us from recognising its victorious progress in the whole of the world's history; and the very fact that it constantly asserts itself only in conflict with the resisting will of individuals—nay more, that their very resistance contributes as a spur and stimulus to the ever richer and more powerful development of the moral idea—enables us to recognise the more distinctly the revelation of the divine will as the ground and law of the moral process of humanity. There lies a deep truth in the words of the apostle, “For God hath concluded them all in disobedience, that He might have mercy upon all.” The holy righteousness of God does not exert itself in order that it may keep men in the unfree innocence of childhood, and prevent any disunion of their will with the good; but it celebrates its highest triumph in this, that it reconciles those who are so disunited, and transforms sinners into saints.

We have thus already come upon the revelation of God in Religion. That it is customary to limit the conception of “Revelation” to Religion, or at least to refer that conception to it in quite a special sense, has so far a good reason in its favour, seeing that here more than anywhere else God enters into the human consciousness immediately as God—i.e., as the one foundation and concluding goal of the whole World-Order and of the whole life of man,—as the Eternal One who, as it were, unveils Himself to the finite Spirit face to face. But the opinion held that on that account the religious revelation is absolutely different from all other revelation, and that as purely “supernatural” it stands out of comparison with—nay, even in opposition to—all revelation in the natural and moral order of the world, is an error of dogmatic reflection which cannot be maintained before an unprejudiced view of religious history. Religious revelation is also an ordered revelation, mediated both by the religious self-consciousness and by the religious fellowship. In the latter the individual finds the accumulated sum of religious experiences, which constitutes the common consciousness of a community, and which find expression in their forms of belief and worship. Through the communication and appropriation of this religious common consciousness, the individual religious life is awakened and formed, just as the individual moral life is by the social moralisation, and as the theoretical life is by the universal fund of knowledge and culture in the surrounding circle. But this capability of cultivation on the part of the individual presupposes a corresponding spiritual capacity, the rational impulse innate in the man, which as theoretical strives towards the ordering of his representations under the idea of Truth, as practical towards the ordering of the impulses of his will under the idea of the Good, and as religious towards a supreme unity of all that is true and good under the idea of God. The “religious impulse” is therefore an exercise of the same universal rational capacity which lies at the basis of science and morality; but it is the potentiated closing exercise of that capacity, for it tends not merely towards the ordering of the one or other side of consciousness, but towards the harmonious ordering of the whole personal life, under the highest regulative idea, the subjective correlate of the absolute principle of the universe. But we only become conscious of this innate religious capacity within us, as in the case of the theoretical and moral capacities, by the fact that it actually develops itself; and, moreover, it can only develop itself in reciprocal intercourse with the religious community, of which the individual is a member. This coexistence and separate existence of the two sides, of the individual religious subject and of the historical community, constitutes the “Religious World-Order,” which is the highest stage of the order of the world, and the one in which the revelation of God completes itself in the most spiritual form. The religious revelation is therefore to be sought neither merely in the pious soul of the individual, who indeed only obtains his definite content in reciprocal intercourse with his community; nor is it merely to be obtained in the historical life of the religious community, which indeed only contains the sum of the religious experiences which have been handed down through many generations by the intercourse of the individuals with each other. The objective religion of the historical community is a product of the historical development of the religious capacity of its individuals, and is at all times capable and needful of further development through new contributions of the individuals. It is just in this advancing development of the religious capacities of our race, under the reciprocal furtherance of the individuals through the community and of the community through the individuals, that the ordered course of religious revelation consists. And it shows itself therein to be as conformable to law as the revelation in the natural and moral order of the world. If we turn our attention especially to those epochs and phenomena of the history of religion to which the conception “Revelation” is wont to be applied in a pre-eminent sense, we perceive everywhere, within as well as without the Biblical religion, the same relation of inner and outer, personal and social, traditional and new, as that belongs generally to the order of the historical life.

It is a defect of the present realistic theory of development that it underestimates or entirely overlooks the significance of personality in history, and endeavours to find the active forces of progress only in the masses. The masses, however, are never spiritually creative. All new world-moving ideas and ideals have proceeded from individual personalities, and even they have not arbitrarily devised them or found them out by laborious reflection, as men find out scientific doctrines by investigation; but they have received them by that involuntary intuition, which is also participated in by the artistic genius, and which everywhere forms the privilege of original genius, to whose eye the essence of things and the destination of men are disclosed. But certain as it is that every revelation is primarily a personal living experience, received and formed in the depths of the individual genius, yet in the thousand-fold echo which its communication awakens in others, there is always betrayed the fact that there has only come to right expression in it what had already slumbered unconsciously or lay darkly divined in the souls of others. Not that on that account the revelation is to be considered as a product of the common consciousness of its time—that is, of the opinions of the majority just then dominant. To these opinions the prophet of higher truth stands at all times rather in a polemical relation, as shown by innumerable examples in history, from the time of the Old Testament prophets down to the present day. Yet in all such cases the revelation of the religious genius is the expression of what the best men of their time have divined and longed for, the unveiling of their own better self, the fulfilment of their own highest hopes. It is just upon this that the power of a revelation proceeding from an individual to form a community, rests. While the prophet testifies by word and deed of the divine truth which has become revealed to him, and which dominates his whole personal life, he works through the collective impression of his personality attractively upon others, awakens in them the same spiritual experiences, inspires them for the same ideals, and thus founds a common higher life, a community of believers in which the revelation of the one becomes the common consciousness of the many. In this very power to awaken faith, to produce a common spiritual life in many, lies the self-proof which the revelation needs for its truth wherever it appears. Along with this “Proof of the Spirit and of Power” which he who is seized by it immediately experiences in his believing surrender to it, any other proofs from external “Signs and Wonders” are superfluous and useless; for as all revelation is originally an inner living experience—the springing up of religious truth in the heart—no external event can belong in itself to revelation, no matter whether it be naturally or supernaturally brought about. At most it may be an accompanying sign of such revelation by which the authority of the prophet is attested. But even the attestation of the person of the prophet is effected much more surely by the collective impression, and the effect of his appearance upon the world of his time and after-ages, than by extraordinary single miracles which he may have performed. In the case of these miracles it always remains very difficult, even for his contemporaries, and still more so for those who live in later times, to distinguish what actually happened from the embellishment of the narrators and the additions of legends; and then the interpretation of what happened must still remain so problematical that a firm conviction of religious truth is not capable of being founded upon it. Let us not forget that even Jesus Christ was so far from binding religious belief to external signs, that He rather reproves those for their unbelief who sought after such signs; and He referred them instead of this to the “signs of the time”—i.e., to the prognostications and warnings which the historical situation of the present contains for the intelligent mind.

That the religious revelation is a historically ordered revelation is shown further by this, that it never appears unprepared or abruptly, but always “when the fulness of the time has come”—that is to say, when the inner and outer religious and social conditions of its possibility are given, when the average common consciousness is so far matured that it is able to apprehend the new ideas, when the external state of society is favourable to a spiritual crisis and movement, and especially when the need of the time increases the longing of the heart for higher truth. Then the new appears as the “fulfilment” of the old, in the negative and positive sense, abolishing what was untrue in it, and preserving and clarifying what in it was true. It is a regularly recurring characteristic of all religious heroes, reformers, and founders of religion, that they never wish merely to bring in a new thing; but with their opposition to the immediate actuality of the present, they yet always appear to attach themselves to the old, and even to set before themselves openly as their end the restoration of the purer faith of the fathers. Thus the prophets of Israel appealed to the fathers of Israel, Jesus appealed to the prophets, and Luther to apostles and prophets. Yet in all such cases the attachment to the old was not simply mere restoration of it, for in history there are no simple repetitions. Old truths are put by their application to new relations in time, under new points of view; they are brought into new combinations; certain sides which were formerly important retreat into the background, new positions become central, and new consequences are drawn. Thus out of the old there actually always arises a new thing which now corresponds to the wants of its present time, in the same way as the old had corresponded to the earlier stage of human development. The continuity and conformity to law of the development, as distinguished from a radical revolution, consists in this, that there is not simply a mere breach made with the traditional, but that the valuable product of the past is received and made a constituent part of higher truth, and is therefore preserved and at the same time develop ed, while that which in the old had significance only for its time is set aside, whether it be by direct conflict or by silent repulsion. This is the immanent criticism which carries on its function in all living development, and not less in the development of the religious revelation. That in this sphere the criticism which history itself in its progress performs on the old is recognised with more difficulty than in other spheres, and is indeed very often entirely denied, is easily explained from the conservatism of the religious consciousness, which fears for the security of its faith, if it were to admit the humanly imperfect even in the history of revelation and the capability of a higher perfection in every form of development in time. And yet it ought not to be difficult to perceive that we men are never able to possess the treasure of divine truth otherwise than in the earthen vessels of our limited forms of consciousness, which are obscured by many an error and prejudice. Dr James Martineau says excellently on this subject: “Whatever higher inspiration visits our world must use our nature as its organ, must take the mould of our respective capacity and mingle with the existing life of thought and affection. How then can it both assume their form and escape their limitation? how flow into the currents of our minds without being diluted there?”1

However high a religious hero may tower above his time, yet he is always in many respects a child of his age, prepossessed by its ideas and expectations. Nay more, he can only work upon his age by the fact that he has his spiritual roots in it, and consequently also still has a certain share of its limitations; and hence the new, which he reveals, can always pass only relatively beyond the old, and only gradually loosen itself entirely from its bonds. Revelation in unveiling new truths always sets new tasks for the advancing knowledge of its believers. Thus Christ Himself says in the Gospel of John: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit, when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth.” And the apostle, who had recognised the “new” of Christianity in its relation to Judaism more acutely than all the others, yet also confesses of himself: “For now we see through a glass darkly; now I know in part.” “Not as if I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend.”

The historical order of the religious revelation, that it is a development from lower to ever higher stages, a development in which the new is always at once the fulfilment and the criticism of the old, becomes nowhere more clearly apparent than in the relation of Christianity to Judaism. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” This expression, which stands solemnly at the culminating-point of the Sermon on the Mount, has been authoritative for the Christian Church at all times. It decidedly rejected from the beginning the opinion of Marcion, that the Christian God is another than the God of the Old Testament, as a heresy; and it has recognised in the law of Moses and in the prophets the revelation of the one true God, who “at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,” and who has “in these last days spoken unto us by His Son” (Heb. i. 1, 2). And in fact, if a religious revelation is to be found anywhere, it is certainly to be found in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, who knew that God is the will of the morally good. This knowledge, which is of infinite reach and range, arose among them many centuries before Plato, and they grasped this truth still more purely than that profound thinker. For while in Plato the morally good, in the genuine Greek way, still blends in one with the beautiful, and is therefore not yet recognised in its full purity as the sublime ideal in its deep opposition to natural existence; in the Hebrew prophets, on the other hand, God is the holy will of the good, who, infinitely exalted above human weakness, makes His absolutely perfect purpose to men the law of their life, and lays claim to unconditional obedience. And in the light of this moral ideal they have not merely judged the life of individuals, but have also interpreted the fates of their people and of the nations of the world generally. Heathenism has indeed a nature-religion and a nature-philosophy, but it has neither a religious view of history nor a philosophy of history; for it knew no absolute final moral purpose to the attainment of which the fates of the nations were to serve as means. Israel, on the other hand, knew such a purpose of history—namely, the realisation of a kingdom of God, of a human fellowship and community corresponding to the holy will of God. In the light of this ideal the present always appeared insufficient to the prophets, and consequently their look was constantly directed to the future. Their belief in God was at the same time the hope of a divine future for their people and for human society; it was the spur which prevented them from resting sated and satisfied with any given things, but gave their wills infinite energy to combat the opposition of the present to their idea, and to keep their gaze fixed on the ideal time of salvation as the goal of their longing, striving, combating, and enduring. Thus did they become the path-finders and leaders of our race upon its toilsome way to the moral ideal of humanity. And because they recognised this goal as the purpose of God, they found everywhere in the living events of history the ruling of a purposive righteousness and wisdom, which the course of nature, as well as the politics of the powers of the world, was compelled to subserve as a means in order to carry forward the eternal end to its fulfilment—that is to say, as a means for the chastisement, the purification, the education of the people of God, out of whom the kingdom of God was to come. Thus did they become—not for Israel alone, but for mankind—the teachers of the religious view of the world which contemplates all that is perishing, all that is transitory, sub specie œternitatis; which makes the brightening gleam of hope fall upon all that is dark in the present; and which supports man's power of enduring and combating, by fixing his gaze upon the infinite infallible victory of the divine cause, the good and the true.

And yet even the illumined gaze of these Old Testament men of God was still confined within the limits of their own people and of their own age. True as the thought was, that history is the means used by the divine righteousness for the realisation of the kingdom of God, yet the idea of this kingdom was still imperfect, because it was too narrowly limited to the particular people of Israel. And from this there resulted a sensible obscuration of the idea of God—as if God were only the God of the Jews and not also of the heathen, as if He had only benevolence for the former and malevolence for the latter;—an opinion which in the post-prophetic Judaism became that religious pride which we encounter in such a repugnant form in the Pharisees of the time of Jesus. In like manner the true thought that the will of God is the law of our life still suffers in Judaism from a sensible defect. While the will of God was identified with the sum of the individual dogmas which grew out of the priestly legislation in the course of centuries, and when the same unchangeable authority was assigned to all these, and their exact fulfilment was made the chief thing, there arose that external legality which put the truly pious disposition below the performance of religious observances, and turned religion into a legal relationship of performance and reward. In such a relation no inner unity of the human will with the divine will is reached, but man sees in God only the retributive Judge before whose punishment he trembles or to whose reward he lays claim. Slavish fear and self-righteous reckoning with God are the unlovely features of this Jewish religion of law, to which the ethical idealism of the prophets had degenerated, and these traits strike us most visibly in Pharisaism.

It was this side of the Old Testament religion to which Christianity took a critical and destroying attitude, while it revealed a new and higher knowledge of God. “For,” says Paul, “ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” In the pure soul of Jesus the God of the prophets and Psalms had become revealed as the merciful Father who maketh His sun to rise on the just and the unjust, and whose sons we are all to become, by becoming like Him in merciful brotherly love. It is true that even here the will of God is, and continues to be, the holy law, with whose fulfilment or non-fulfilment life or death for every one is connected; but the content of the divine will is no longer formed by a sum of external dogmas, but is comprehended in the one great commandment, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself.” God's requirement in the new covenant to man is not less but greater than in Judaism; for He requires nothing less than the surrender of the whole undivided heart to His will. But the will of God has as its end nothing but the good—that is, man's becoming perfect in likeness to God, in which his true good, his eternal salvation, is also contained. Thus the good is here no longer a hard obligation which constantly excites the self-will only to rebel against it; but it is the Ideal in which man recognises the requirement of his own true being, to which he therefore surrenders himself, not in blind obedience, but in free and trusting love, certain of this, that in the surrender of himself to the divine purpose of the universal Good—to God's kingdom—he does not lose his soul, but preserves it; that it is only in unity with God that he becomes truly man, and free and happy. When man gets this experience of the liberating and blessing power of goodness, of love, and of faith, in himself and others, he recognises therein the working of the divine spirit. He recognises, therefore, that God does not as the holy lawgiver only command the good, but that as the holy spirit of love and inspiration he creates and effectuates the good itself (as Augustine said, “Jube quod vis et da quod jubes”). But then God is the good not merely in the sense of a sublime far-off Ideal, which stands in judgment over against the weak existence of men; but this Ideal is at the same time an ever active reality; it is the power to realise itself in the hearts of men and in the historical life of mankind; it is the power of the world, the truth of Being in general.

If we now look back from this height of the Christian knowledge of God to the development of the consciousness of God in the history of religion, it can hardly escape us that that high point was the goal to which the whole development strove from the beginning, and which is already prefigured in the religious capacity of man. For in some form or other these two things are always contained together in the belief in God: an Ideal of what ought to be, and that this is, at the same time, the power and the ground of real being. That God is the Ideal of moral goodness, that He is the Holy Will, was the revelation of Israel. But that this will of Goodness is the love which communicates itself to us, and which has constituted and guided nature and history, in order to realise itself in humanity as a kingdom of love—this is the revelation of Christianity, in which all the religious presentiment and longing of humanity before Christ comes to its fulfilment. Now, as the end of a development must also always be thought of as its ground and law, we shall now be entitled to say that the love which was recognised at the culminating-point of the history of religion as the essence of God, was even from the very beginning the ground of the human consciousness of God, which indeed could only disclose itself gradually to the consciousness of men, in the slow march of the human development, as the content of their belief in God. This is the sense in which we use the term when we designate the revelation of God in the religious Order of the World as revelation of His love.

“Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it has come to rest in Thee.” This beautiful expression of Augustine is in fact the key to the whole history of religion. In the universal experience that man's nature is so constituted that some kind of consciousness of God is inevitable to him, although it may be only a presentiment or a search, we must recognise the original revelation of the love of God. All human consciousness of God presupposes a self-communication of God, a working of the divine Logos in the finite spirit. Now as the consciousness of God is a constitutive element of the human species, it may be rightly said that the whole of humanity is the object of the divine love, that it is an Immanuel and son of God, that its whole history is a continual incarnation of God—as indeed it is also said in Scripture that we are a divine offspring, and that we live and move and have our being in God. But what lies potentially in the human consciousness of God, is not on that account also manifestly revealed to it from the beginning. If the heathen peoples generally attributed benevolent sentiments to their particular protecting deities, yet they were far from knowing the essential nature of the Deity, as such, to be Love; rather did the course of nature, with its incalculable vicissitudes and constantly threatening dangers, appear to them to point to a malevolent, capricious and envious, jealous and malicious disposition in the divine powers that rule in nature. In Herodotus the envy of the Deity still plays a prominent part in human history. It was Plato who first rejected this opinion, and recognised unenvious goodness as the essential nature of the Deity. But this purer belief in God did not become popular; the enlightenment of Epicureanism put chance in the place of the divine government, and held the gods to be indifferent spectators of human fates, while the superstitious dread of evil demons increased among the multitude with the pessimistic mood of the time. In the prophets of Israel there are found glorious expressions concerning the love of Jahve to His elect people; but beside this love stands the hate of Jahve against the enemies of Israel. “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.” In the Psalms the religious relationship is individualised; the feeling of the pious man rises often to such an intimate familiarity with the merciful and gracious God, that it comes home to us like a Christianity before Christ. But the increasing legal character of the Jewish religion brought along with it the consequence that the fundamental view of God was that of the just judge, and that it left no room for love. In addition to this came the fact that so long as the manifestation of the divine benevolence was sought pre-eminently in external happiness, the experience of the misfortune of the just always awakened those doubts of the goodness of God of which the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes bear witness. The idea of God in Judaism had not yet advanced to a pure spiritual morality, and therefore could neither free itself from the limits of the popular view, nor even exhibit itself in contrast to the evil of the world and the sin of man as the overcoming and redeeming power. It was the Christian faith in God that first rose to the pure ethical idealism which knows God absolutely as spirit and love, as the unconditioned will of the good which is neither bound to national limits nor withdraws powerlessly before the sin of men, but which rather reveals its victorious power most wonderfully to the world of sinners itself,—not as punishing justice, but as redeeming grace which makes all new and good, which transforms sinners into children of God and unites the divided humanity into a kingdom, nay, into a family of God, a fellowship of brethren who are animated by one spirit, the holy spirit of love.

As certain as it is that the highest revelation of God is first to be found in this faith, it would as certainly be a great error if we were to separate this high stage of revelation from the other stages of it, or even to put it in opposition to the revelation in the moral order of the world. This error appeared in a peculiarly striking form among those heretics of the second century who opposed the good God of the Gospel to the just but not good God of the old covenant—heretics whom the Church decidedly repudiated from the beginning. But the same error is committed very frequently in a finer form even within the Church, wherever divine grace is represented as an arbitrary sympathy of God with some at the cost of others, and of the righteousness of God, as if God were to suppress His righteousness in certain cases and make grace take the place of right in some individuals. This is a crude anthropomorphism which has brought much confusion into the Christian idea of God. The divine love, even as forgiving grace, is always one with His holy righteousness; for it is one and the same Will of goodness which in its self-communication to sinful men immovably asserts its holy purpose, in releasing man from his sin and transforming him into a new man, who “lives in the spirit” and is thereby freed from the guilt and damnableness of sin. The forgiveness of sin is everywhere one with the subdual of it. The inviolability of the moral order of the world is therefore not annulled even by the Christian order of salvation. It only ceases to be a judging power against man, seeing that it has itself become the living power of love in him, which voluntarily subordinates itself as a subservient member, to the purpose of the whole. Grace can therefore only come into operation where the moral conditions are present for its reception, and these moral conditions cohere with the universal state of the moral development, as it is brought about in the life of society, under the co-operation of the manifold educative factors. The working of grace is therefore as little an arbitrary working as is that of Omnipotence. As the latter is regulated by the laws of the natural world, so is the former by the laws of the moral world; as the divine Omnipotence reveals itself, not in the annulment or interruption of the order of nature, but in the purposeful constitution and preservation of nature as a means for the spiritual and moral life, even so the love of God reveals itself, not in the annulment of the moral order of the world, but in the purposeful government of history, through which it becomes the education and training for the highest end of the kingdom of God.

If we now finally reflect upon the oneness of the whole order of the world, how it exhibits one purposively guided development from the lowest stages of existence up to the highest perfection of the spiritual life in the fellowship of love and faith—in this we cannot but perceive the revelation of the divine wisdom. The question might indeed be raised why that wisdom is here spoken of for the first time, seeing that Nature already bears evidence of the wisdom of the Creator through its purposiveness and beauty? Certainly it is so; but on the other hand we must not forget that final ends are nowhere to be recognised within nature, but that it presents an endless change of becoming and perishing, of the furtherance of life and the checking and annihilation of life, so that looking only at nature we may often rather receive the impression of a purposeless play than of a wisdom pursuing definite designs. Even human life, viewed only from the natural standpoint, is no exception to this universal condition of the life of nature. Nature has not surrounded the life of man with greater care than that of other living beings. He has to undergo the same struggle for existence amid the thousandfold dangers and needs of his life; and he feels his evils even more keenly, because more conscious than other beings. But what follows from these facts? Surely only what is already otherwise certain to the pious consciousness—namely, that the final end of the government of the world is not to be primarily sought in the natural life, but in the spiritual and moral life. But even in that life it is not the changing fates of individuals, peoples, and kingdoms, in which we can yet find the highest and lasting final end of history. Even these show themselves, through the course of thousands of years, again and again as mere ministering means and fore-stages for the realisation of the one universal kingdom of God, which is destined to unite all men as children of God in brotherly love. Only in such a universal fellowship, in which the individuals are bound together through the same devotion of all to the common end of humanity—to the Ideal of the good and true—can we behold the ultimate final end of history. Certainly this is an Ideal from which the actuality appears to be infinitely far removed. But is it a mere abstract idea to which nothing in the actual world corresponds? I think assuredly that with the entrance of Christianity into the world, the firm foundation for its realisation has been laid, so that the whole history of the world prior to Christianity may be regarded as the preparation for the realisation of that Ideal, and the whole of Christian history as the development of it. If, therefore, the whole history of the world shows itself as the teleological process of the advancing realisation of the divine purpose of the world, we are entitled to find in the history of the world the revelation of the world-governing wisdom of God. But do not the fates of the various peoples, tribes, families, individuals, also belong to the whole of the world's history? If, therefore, the wisdom of God is manifestly revealed in the whole, shall we not then also be able to confide in its wondrous guidance, where much remains dark and mysterious in detail regarding the fates of peoples and men? The more we look away from what is individual and small to the great and whole, the more we free ourselves from particular egoistic purposes and seek first after the kingdom of God: in short, the wiser we ourselves become in our thinking and acting, so much the more shall we admire the wisdom of God in the order of the world, and say with the Apostle, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out.... For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

  • 1. Seat of Authority in Religion, p. 289.