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Chapter 1: The Person of Christ and the People of the Religion

§ I. The Problems to be Solved

1. THE problems here are most complex, (α) The religion could not become an historical fact, still less a social force in the bosom of humanity, without a people, and a people was exactly what did not exist and what had, therefore, to be created. But creation is not a process which art can accomplish, and in this case there was nothing in the past experience of man to show how it could be done. (β) If the religion was to be universal, the people must not be local or capable of being localized; for if it were, the very degree in which it was identified with one family or tribe would make it alien to other races. (γ) If a people is to have a single religion, they must have the homogeneous consciousness which not only allows, but demands for its expression, identity of beliefs and worship; but this had not as yet been realized, save under the magic influences of a common home and place. (δ) A religion that would belong to all men must be without family customs, tribal institutions, or a national polity; for unless it could live without these things, it had not learned to transcend the limitations of kinship and caste, language and colour.

But while the immanent potentialities that create religion are universal, the forms it assumes, whether in belief or in worship, are determined by the empirical causes,—physical, ethical, intellectual, political, and economical,—which govern the social evolution as a whole. Thus the history of a religion is but a special branch of its people's history, not to be construed unless they are conceived as a sort of colossal personality, continuous in being, though multitudinous in experience. The forces that evoke the energy to live develop the will to believe; and where the forces are uniform the beliefs constitute a unity. Hence the agencies that tend to make a state local, tend to make its religion the same; and so rigorous has the relation between these two ever been that while no being has been more migratory than man, no religion born with or within a nation has been either able or willing to change its home. For outside the place of its birth it would lose not only its historical continuity, but its personal identity. Hence the migration of customs, beliefs, and myths is one thing, and the migration of religions is a different thing altogether. Men, or even tribes, may borrow a term or imitate an institution, but a structure which has been built up by a multitude of local agencies, operating through more generations than man can reckon, must stand where it has been built, and can be removed only by being taken to pieces. And so the religion a people has made must remain that people's, and cannot become another's, for the simple reason that its transference would involve the uprooting of the whole historical order and consciousness of one race and their implantation in the soul of another.

2. But these were not the only difficulties which the Christian religion had to overcome; of a different but still more radical order was this: it had to create the people it needed out of old materials, ancient races, who had lived in every kind and variety of state, who had been born in countries distant from each other and reared under different climates, and who had been accustomed to religions ranging from the most austere monotheism to the most indulgent polytheism. It found no virgin consciousness in which to sow the seed of its ideas and usages, but had to form its people out of men who had no national unity, no common ancestry, no affinity of blood, speech or experience; in a word, nothing in their past to lead them to live together and think alike. On the contrary, each man who entered the new society was a focus of centrifugal energies. The Greek, acute, speculative, fastidious, metaphysical, had endeavoured to think of God either as He was in philosophy, as an abstract substance or a law of reason; or, as the plastic arts had represented Him, as an idealized man, godlike because beautiful; or, as the imaginative mythology conceived Him, as protean and stupendous in shape, but mixed in character and achievement. The Roman, civil in temper, political in genius, military in ambition and by habit, had conceived the Deity through the imperial idea, as typified in the Emperor and as defined and sanctioned by the State. The Persian or the Phrygian, touched with the oriental mysticism which construed existence as a kingdom under the rival forces of light and darkness, spirit and matter, good and evil, had been wont to divide the functions of God between a Creator who formed, but did not love man, and a Father who redeemed him and was not always able to save. The barbarian, who confounded ecstasy with inspiration and religion with exhilaration, could best appreciate a God who liked the oblation and the exuberant fertility of man. The Jew, who knew himself to be a son of Abraham, wished, even after his conversion, to believe in the God who had established the law and spoken through Moses and the prophets, who loved the circumcised, hated idols and condemned the ways and thoughts of the heathen. The men who constituted the people of the religion were thus varied in type and without any of the unities of thought and mind which come from centuries of organized co-existence and the cumulative effects of a long and jealously guarded inheritance. Hence came the problem: How out of the mixed families of man, the multitude of tongues he speaks, the strongly marked societies and castes, the opposed States and kingdoms, the rival religions and civilizations which at once make up the human race and isolate its parts from each other, could a people be evolved and organized into the social unity or the homogeneous society needed for the expression and realization of a universal religion?

§ II. The Social Ideal of Jesus

1. We have said that this was a new and peculiar problem, and we may add that it was one which no statesmanship could have solved. The solution, if it was to come at all, could only be effected by the energy of some constitutive idea acting in the mind. The inseparability of the religious and civil provinces and customs was, indeed, an ultimate axiom of thought to the societies and States of antiquity. Philosophical sects were common, and so were private and family cults, but these were conceived not as supersessive or prohibitive, but as supplementary of the public and legal worship. Indeed, the notion of a religion which appealed to man as man, and had no regard to racial, social, or class distinctions, was quite alien to ancient thought. Rome, in extending her empire, had spread her law but not her religion; she was, indeed, here more inclined to imitate older States than to require of them acceptance of her deities and observance of her rites. The ideal city of the Greek thinkers was a Greek State, incapable of realization by any other than Greek men. And so the last thing Greece and Rome could have imagined was the possibility of realizing a religion without some State, with its national customs and sanctions, as its basis. But the ideal of Jesus was altogether unlike these. He had lived so modestly within His own little world, He and it so corresponded, it so occupied His activities, and He found it so sufficient as an arena for His career, that we can hardly think of Him as nursing vaster ambitions than had ever dawned on the imagination of any statesman or warrior of antiquity. And we do not so think of Him, for ambition is not a word that can with any propriety be used to characterize anything He designed or conceived. But the more we study the more we admire what He proposed to do, and the way in which He proceeded to do it. For Jesus had both a social ideal and a social method; the ideal was expressed in His notion of the Kingdom of God, and His method was the way He took to realize it. The ideal may be defined as perfect obedience towards God, embodied in perfect duty towards man. Obedience signified that man knew God as Jesus knew Him and had made Him known, loved Him as Jesus loved, and therefore obeyed as He obeyed. Apart from this attitude—i.e. unless God was pleased with man, and man was reconciled to God,—obedience was not possible; and the relation to God determined the duty towards Man, for God could not be loved and the creature He loved be hated. Thus love to one's neighbour was but active and applied love of God; and this love was the law of the Kingdom. It was a universal law, knew no distinction of caste or country, Jew or Samaritan. It was a law possessed of inexhaustible energies; it could never live as if it had said the last good word and performed its final good act, but must ever impel man forward. It was an imperious law, for it could never allow a man to suffer or to perish which the soul by dying might save. And it was necessary, for without it no help could be effective nor could any effort be restorative. This germinal and governing principle developed into a multitude of special laws, as (i.) the law of beneficence: men were to return not evil for evil, or even good for good, but good for evil; no one was to have the awful right of sitting in the judgment seat of God, or the devilish power of compelling us to harm him by being harmful to us. (ii.) The law of reciprocity: we were to do unto others as we would have others do unto us: our soul was to stand in their soul's place, and we were to act as if they were we and we were they. (iii.) The law of charity: we were not to judge lest we should be judged. Judgement was the function of God; the Pharisee over against the Publican showed how pitiable man became when he tried to appraise himself and his neighbour. (iv.) The law of forgiveness: man was to forgive his brother, not once or twice, but as often as he needed to be forgiven, certain that where all offended no one could be blameless, (v.) The law of ends or motives: the real sin is not the outer act, but the mind that wills the act, and the end that moves the will. Adultery is not a deed, but the lust to do it. (vi.) The law of self-denial: man is to surrender himself and all he thinks he rightfully possesses, that he may have nothing of his own, but may hold all of Christ, and hold it for Him and for the service of man. (vii.) The law of redemption: man is not to live as one who is to be ministered unto, but as one who is the servant of all, bound to save even by the sacrifice of himself. These are but a few of the laws of the Kingdom, which is a society of mortal men living as sons of the eternal God, with all their relations realized in time, yet all conceived as eternal. Men are neighbours to each other, but God is the one and absolute Sovereign; and all that they do to each other they do unto God.

2. Now this ideal may seem ethical rather than religious, more concerned with duty to man than with the worship of God. And without question it has some omissions that appear the more extraordinary that we cannot think them to have been undesigned. Jesus seems to conceive the cultus as the least part of religion, most abused when taken for the whole or for the most essential part. He teaches man to pray, but for Himself He prays apart. He visits the Synagogue, reads the Scriptures, and speaks to the people; but He prefers to teach on the mountain, or in the fields, by the wayside or at the seashore. He speaks of the altar not as if it consecrated the gift, but as if the consecration depended on the spirit of the giver.1 He makes prayer avail not because of the place where it is offered or the person who offers it, but because of the offerer's own heart.2 For the priest as priest, the temple as temple, the ritual as ritual, He had no respect; but only for the mercy that was greater than sacrifice, the piety that was better than ceremonies. What His people came to regard as their supreme religious act was a social observance, a supper which recalled an event in the life of Israel in which the priesthood, as such, and the temple as temple, played no part, but where the worship was domestic and the father was the priest. Yet it would be to misconceive His whole spirit and purpose to say, “The ideal of Jesus is not so much religious as ethical”; on the contrary, it is so intensely ethical because so essentially religious. What concerns Him is that man should think rightly of God and do justly to man. If they so think and do, they will worship as they ought; if they refuse so to do and think, no worship they can offer will be agreeable to Him, and no regulations of it will be good and efficacious. There is nothing so certain as that the good man will worship; for him the most expressive form is the one most congenial to his spirit; and there is nothing more certain than that a bad man may scrupulously observe every ritual prescription without being any the better for all his observances. Jesus, in harmony with His own mind and practice, laid emphasis on the Spirit, what the man is to God and does to man, certain that where there is concern for the weightier matters of the law, the lighter will not be neglected.

§ III. The Social Method of Jesus and its Impersonation

1. The social method corresponded to the social ideal; Jesus created a people for His religion by teaching men to become like Himself. He called them into His society, made them His disciples, which simply means men who could learn of Him; He lived with them, threw over them the spell of His character and influence, opened their eyes by His words and example, woke them to admiration, roused them to love. Discipleship did not mean attainment, but the capacity to attain, the fidelity that could follow, the sympathy that could appreciate, the susceptibility that could imitate. But this method depended on His personal being and presence: without Him it could have no existence, with Him it was of necessity. Now the fact we have to deal with is this:—the method continued in operation after the Crucifixion, and men became Christians by becoming disciples of Jesus. He called, and their response was termed conversion. And so His society did not die when He died, and what kept it living was the belief in His continued and active existence. This is the fact that stands out clearly amid the confusions of the first days. Peter preached that Jesus had not seen “corruption,” but was exalted to the right hand of God as “a Prince and a Saviour.”3 The resurrection was not a mere physical miracle but a spiritual experience; it meant that Jesus lived and reigned as “both Lord and Christ.” The belief emboldened Peter and John to refuse, on the ground that they must obey God rather than men, to be silenced by the priests and rulers;4 and in its strength the Church stood the test suggested by the prudent diplomacy of Gamaliel.5 The men who saw “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” believed that, since His presence had ceased to be local and visible, it had become universal and spiritual; and so they awoke to the duty of commanding in His name all men to repent, of calling all into His discipleship. In the belief that He still lived Stephen died; it was a vision in which he saw the Lord that converted Paul. When persecution came and compelled the disciples to choose between Jerusalem and Christ, they chose as men who saw the invisible. The choice drove them out of Judea, and forced them either to be dumb or to preach His name to the Gentiles. They believed and therefore preached; and this raised questions as to His authority which they answered by placing Him high above Moses, and by so modifying, in spite of themselves, Jewish customs as to suit non-Jewish men. Soon the sole note of their society came to be faith in His Name; yet they did not by escaping from Judea escape from persecution. The rabble in the Greek cities proved even more intolerant than the Jewish priesthood; but the preachers only the more openly “placarded” Jesus Christ crucified before their eyes.6 Municipalities, anxious to keep the peace, threw them into prison without trial; “lewd fellows of the baser sort” gathered together against them and set cities in an uproar7; philosophers argued as if they were ignorant men and dabblers in matters too high for them; tradesmen whose crafts were in danger became enthusiasts for the goddess whose shrines they made and sold; but love of the invisible Sovereign proved mightier than fear of all visible powers. In short, the idea organized a people for the religion in the face of difficulties both inner and outer, those within being even more insurmountable than those without. Racial temper, for example, is one of the most obdurate and invincible things in man, and in no man more than the Jew; but this idea so changed and humanized the strongest son of that strong race, that he declared there were in Christ neither Jew nor Greek, neither barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but only the family of saints, the household of God. It so overcame the antipathies of blood and culture and speech that Greeks and Jews became kinsmen, and the richer sent to the poorer saints the help they needed. Newer ideals never work without friction, and wherever an old order is dissolved confusion reigns before a new one can be built up. We see in churches like Corinth how this happened; but we also see how the spirit of potent love worked like a healing grace, begot ethical ideals that rebuked ethnical customs, and was silently making a society that had been indifferent to good, careful of virtue. The people who accomplished these things had no arms in their hands, yet they faced without dismay the mightiest of all armed powers, and when it proudly commanded them to worship its gods as well as their own, they said: “Command us as a civil sovereign in civil things and we will dutifully obey, but speak to us as a religious authority and we will not listen to you. You may kill, for you have the power of life and death, but here you cannot command and shall not control. To our own Master we stand or fall, but that Master is neither the Emperor nor the Senate of Rome, He is Jesus Christ.”

2. But before we can fully appreciate this ideal and method we must compare them with what may be conceived as actual or possible alternatives. Buddha had founded a church as well as a religion; indeed, in his case these may be termed one and the same. His ideal was an ascetic and celibate community: monks who, as weary of the world, took refuge with the Buddha and his order; and nuns who, though as women disliked and distrusted, had still as human beings established their right to consideration at his hands. In no point is his want of originality so apparent as here; he simply borrowed the idea of discipleship from the Brahmanical schools, made it express the ideal state, and framed the regulations which their and his experience had proved to be necessary. His community was to be vowed to poverty; his saint was to be a mendicant without worldly goods or ambitions, industrial energies or occupation. He was to cease to be a father or brother a husband or son a citizen or neighbour; he was to wear a special dress, to abstain from many vices, but also from many duties; to live the profitless life of one whose sole end was to seek beatitude, and whose function was to show how it could be attained. What we should call the lay world was held to be only nominally and potentially of the religion, being needful to the maintenance of the mendicant community and the source whence it could be supplied with celibate members. But essentially, the man who had not made the great renunciation stood only in the outer court, where he waited the illumination that was to lead him within If he was reverent, he was judged worthy to have the bowl passed to him; if impious the bowl must be withheld, i.e. he was not fit to contribute to the support of the monks who preached to him concerning the vanity of all human things. Now if Jesus had been no more original than Buddha, there were sects or schools enough for Him to imitate. There were the Essenes, pious men, ascetics, cultivating purity and poverty, “honouring God most of all,” and after Him Moses, whom no man must be allowed to blaspheme. They believed in the rigorous regulation of life; in avoiding the touch of the uncircumcised; in bodily washings; in the scrupulous observance of the Sabbath; in abstaining from certain kinds of food; in eating only what clean hands had cooked; in being their own priests and offering their own sacrifices. If He had avoided the Essenes, He could have found many types of the theocratic ideal, Maccabaean, Apocalyptic, Pharisaic, popular and Messianic. Such an ideal had crossed His mind in the vision which showed Him “all the kingdoms of the world.” Later it was to become the ideal of Mohammed; and he was so to organize his Church that while it was built on the Word it yet should like a State wield the sword; and by the use of these two it converted Arabia, subdued kingdoms, and founded Empires. But Jesus, more original and daring than either of these, conscious of a function for man which resembles nothing so much as the function of God in creation, disdained all positive laws, whether regulative, ceremonial, administrative or coercive, and founded His society simply by discipleship.

3. But the significance of His social ideal and method becomes apparent only when they and the idea of His person are looked at together. The person may be described as His social ideal embodied and organized for the creation of His society. The ideas He impersonates become the ideals it articulates; in other words, He is the Symbol of all it ought to be. His people were to be like Him, sons of God; and as He was “Son of Man” His society was to know no distinction of blood or birth or estate, but to be the home where men were to be born and nursed as children of humanity. As He impersonated the race before God, He also so personalized man to His Church that to live unto Him was to live for all mankind. As He saves by bearing the sin which was not His own, so His people must sorrow and suffer and die if they would save men. The apostle who conceives Christ as the Second Adam, the Head of the New Mankind, conceives the Church as His body, all its members being related to each other as well as to Him. Their life is His, their actions are inspired by Him, and it is only through their relation to Him that they can perfectly realize all other relations and faithfully fulfil all duties. In other words, His society was meant as His articulated person to be as ethical as Himself. In Hebrews His people are the people of the New Covenant, with the law of God written in their hearts, made by their faith independent of time, and lifted into fellowship with the Church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. In the Apocalypse His society appears under a most winsome figure: it is “the bride of the Lamb,” arrayed in bridal garments; or, yet again, it appears as a multitude of saints redeemed “out of every tribe and people, nation and tongue.” Possibly the last thing John and Paul thought of as they laboured to interpret the person, was that they were creating an ethical ideal for a universal society; but it is not the self-conscious workman that accomplishes the grandest work. And no man ever did greater things for humanity than those who interpreted Christ into its ideal, personal and social.

§ IV. The Christian not a Positive Religion

1. The argument here touches one of the supreme and differentiating distinctions of Christianity: it is a personal but not a positive religion. The term “positive” is juristic rather than theological, and was introduced into theology by a distinguished lawyer who desired to construe the relations of God and man in the categories of his own science. It denotes an enacted, as distinct from a natural, law; the legislation which an established authority, whether personal like king or emperor, or representative like a Senate or Parliament, has promulgated and enforced, in distinction from the order, which nature is supposed to have constituted, the equity which issues from conscience and speaks in its name. Positive is public law, proclaimed and upheld by some public authority. Now founded religions are by the very necessities of their origin, positive, i.e. they express some will; their beliefs are, as it were, public laws; their whole order is a legislation authoritatively enacted. Hence the religion of Israel, conceived as the creation of a lawgiver, is positive; but the older Semitic cults, which no statesman instituted or reformed, are natural. Buddha, in forming his Sangha or Church, and framing the laws as to dress, diet and social relations according to which his people were to live, founded a positive religion. So did Mohammed when he made the Koran the law for Islam; for his authority is ultimate, his words express God's will, and all we can know of God is what he has made known. But Christ is not related to Christianity as are these creators to the religions that bear their names. The pre-eminence belongs to His person, not to His words; His people live by faith, not in what He said, but in what He is; they are governed not by statutes He framed, but by the ideal He embodied. In other words, His religion is an evolution of belief, not a product of authoritative legislation. Hence the extraordinary significance of His person, which, till it was interpreted, was but the immanent possibility of a religion. Hence, too, the value of the speculative idea to the ethical ideal; it was the universal Man of the one that created the potent humanity of the other. And so while positive legislation, like Buddha's or Mohammed's, emphasized the differences between those within and those without their societies, the Christian idea emphasized their common humanity. Through the Man who was all mankind, all men became kin. The idea that He who saves is not so much an individual as the collective race, compels His people to feel that in His presence all differences of blood and colour and caste vanish; that to be a man is to be His, redeemed by His death and passion; and that where He has loved we dare not cast out or despise. The people were not constituted like a state by positive law, but by those affinities of the Spirit which faith begot and developed.

2. But this method of constituting the people involved a correlative method of government. The ultimate sanction of positive law is the physical penalty. The magistrate is able to enforce obedience because he bears the sword. The idea of a free State is freedom to make its own laws, but not that its citizens are free to break the laws which have been made. Once the collective will has legislated, all single wills must obey; and if any one refuses obedience he will soon find the legislative become not a friendly and protective, but a hostile and retributive power. Though the bases of authority may be moral, yet the sanctions or penalties it uses to enforce its authority must be physical. The sovereignty of Christ, on the other hand, is in basis and form, in precept and sanction, rational and moral. He governs man as an idea and an ideal, i.e. through his reason and by his conscience. Hence belief is a material, but polity is a formal question; imitation of Christ is essential, but church is more or less an accident of time and place. A man need not be either a monk or a Churchman to be a Christian; but if he be a Christian he may be both, or either, or neither. He may be a master or servant, a soldier or statesman, a merchant or mechanic; but he must be a man who obeys the Sovereign of his soul. The society that is not free to form its own polity lives in bondage to tradition and custom; but the rule of God is made possible only by the exercised and disciplined freedom of man. And so the immediate result of the spiritual sovereignty was the creation of conscience in religion, and with it the rise of a higher social and civil order. For the ancient mind so identified religion and State that no citizen was conceived to be at liberty to refuse to do honour to his country's gods; it was a grave act of treason not to worship the image or the symbol the emperor set up. Where this notion prevailed no change in religion was possible, save by means of a civil revolution; and out of it came tyrannies, hypocrisies and vices too many to enumerate. Christ's method left the man in his old world, but changed the man; and the man He changed He made so loyal in all civil duties, while so hostile to civil control over his conscience, that the State, to maintain itself, was forced so to change its functions and readjust its claims as to be able to include the man. These things are a parable, but they illustrate the wisdom of the action which, instead of constituting a people by positive, separative regulations, created one by the method of discipleship and faith in a transcendental idea.

3. The social ideal thus created and realized by the idea of Christ's person had four characteristics: (i.) His people were gathered out of all nations without any respect to blood or rank or caste; they were called simply as men, and constituted into a new mankind, (ii.) They were so organized according to the idea of His person, that they may be described as, symbolically, its articulation. (iii.) As such they represented Him and continued His work. What this work is ought to be construed, not through the offices of organized religion, but through the character, the words and the history of Jesus Himself. (iv.) The most distinctive qualities of this society, its attributes and activities, were, like Christ's own, ethical, and consisted in a worship and service of God which ameliorated the state of man. Where the civil and military ambitions, the ceremonial and sacerdotal functions of the old States stood, the humane beneficences of the new people were now to stand. If His Church had conformed to His ideal, had followed His method in His Spirit, who can tell what man would have been to-day? All we can say is, the vision of the seer of Patmos,8 who saw the kingdom of the world become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, would have been infinitely nearer fulfilment than it is.

  • 1.

    Matt. v. 22–24. The argument in xxiii. 19—cf. whole context 13–24—is ad hominem, and has no force if the Pharisaic thesis and attitude be taken away.

  • 2.

    Luke xviii. 10–14.

  • 3.

    Acts ii. 31–36; v. 31.

  • 4.

    v. 29.

  • 5.

    v. 38–39.

  • 6.

    Gal. iii. 1. οἰ̑ κατ᾽ ὀϕθαλμοὺς ᾽Ιησου̑ς Χριστὸς προϵγρἀϕη ϵ̓σταυρωμϵ́νος.

  • 7.

    Acts xvii. 5.

  • 8.

    Rev. xi. 15.