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Chapter 3: The Ethical Transcendence of Jesus

THE miraculous history is the most local and ephemeral thing in literature; it lives within a given geographical and ethnic area, and never outlasts an early stage of culture. Mythologies which were once believed because of their supernatural machinery are now, on account of this same machinery, credible no more. They may help the enquirer to see the human mind petrified, as it were, at a particular moment in its development, but they can never be regarded as permanent products of the mature reason or be taken for rational theologies or authentic histories. The standard of credibility is not indeed uniform, nor is belief in the marvellous restricted to simple minds; and when the subtle believe in the supernatural, they do it with surprising thoroughness. In this region the Orient easily excels the Occident, for narratives which offend the critical reason of the European scholar, speak agreeably to the speculative genius of the Hindu pandit. If, then, the Gospels had been simply miraculous stories, they might have lived a precarious life in the East, but in the West they would have died long ago and been forgotten. What has made them potent and credible, even in the face of belief in a natural law which cannot be violated, is that they have acted as the frame to the picture of a moral loveliness that can never grow old. Yet the idea this picture expresses may be more radically opposed to naturalism, whether physical or historical, than belief in all the miracles recorded in all the mythologies. For physical pre-eminence is by its very nature individual and transitory, but spiritual transcendence is immortal, with qualities that penetrate to the very heart of nature and cover the whole circuit of history. Now the Evangelists may be said to have conceived the essence of Christ's person to lie in its spiritual transcendence; and in this they but anticipated the mind of Christendom. It is, indeed, remarkable what a small part the belief in the miracles has played in the life of the religion; and even this part has been due not to themselves but to their moral significance. It is only when we turn to the character of Jesus that we begin to escape from the outer court of the temple.

§ I. The Ethical Ideal of the Gospels

1. Ethical perfection is a much more delicate thing to handle, as well as a much more difficult thing to conceive and describe, than physical transcendence. For literary art has never yet succeeded in embodying it in an actual person. It has given us many a theoretical ideal, which was indeed but a category of definitions or a synthesis of abstract virtues so adjusted as to look like the articulated skeleton of some ancient moral man. But such an imaginary impersonation has always suffered from a twofold defect: (α) it has, like the perfect man of the Stoics, so exaggerated sectional qualities and local features as to make its ideal unsuitable to other times, classes and places than those for which it was written; and (β) it has been without practical efficiency, for the unrealized vision is too impalpable to move men either to imitation or emulation. But the embodied idea of the Gospels is, while personal, so generic as to be universally imitable; and it has proved its potency by accomplishing the vastest, if the most silent, of revolutions. Jesus is not a creature of the religious imagination, but rather its creator, or superlative inspirer; for He has determined the form it has assumed and the ends it has pursued in the personal and collective histories of Christendom. It is as He appears in the Gospels that He has lived in the faith of man, shaped his character and governed his destiny. He could not indeed have so lived unless His person had borne a supreme transcendental idea; but the idea without the real personality would have been a mere dead abstraction. It is this which makes the Gospels books of religion rather than religious biographies. In a particular person they represent universal man; He is so typical, that what He was every man may be, and all men ought to become. To follow Him is to save the soul; to assume His yoke and learn of Him is to find in the highest duty the most perfect rest. To have His mind is to be perfect even as the Father in heaven is perfect. He is an embodied conscience, defining duty and executing judgment. To imitate Him is to be obedient to God; to be faithless to Him is to lose eternal life. Foresight of their function is evident in every line the Evangelists draw, and history has justified their belief that in Jesus they had discovered qualities too immortal to die, and too transcendental to be overcome by the lapse of time and the change of place.

2. The writer who would embody in a person dwelling in space and time a perpetual and universal ethical ideal, has to overcome certain initial difficulties that may well seem insuperable.

i. The subject must not be allowed to appear as a conscious sitter, a person who knows that he is being watched in order that he may be sketched as an example for all later men. Were he to conceive himself as living his life in the eye of the world and for its edification, his mental undertone would be that of the actor who plays his part upon the public stage, with this difference—that the actor by profession may preserve his integrity, but the actor who means his acting to be taken for reality is certain to lose it. Conscious holiness is foster brother to conscious sin; the goodness that knows itself to be good is but the inward side of the spirit that outwardly thanks God that it is not as other men. And this is a spirit which other men see nothing in either to admire or imitate; but from Jesus as the Evangelists show Him to us this spirit is infinitely remote. His character appears throughout as natural, His conduct spontaneous, His motives simple, His thought and speech transparently sincere. He is without the literary consciousness; He did not write or command anything to be written concerning Himself; neither did He seem to think that the craft of letters had any concern in Him or He any concern with it. His field of action was in the open air, not in the study; He was content to impress Himself on the minds of men, to live divinely careless in the present, without any thought of how He should seem to the future, yet so conscious of the all-seeing and all-enfolding God as to make of the moment He lived in an eternal Now. Of all persons who have made history no one has had so brief a public life as He, for it extended but little beyond two years; and it was lived face to face with nature and in the society of simple men, who had no eye for æsthetic features or majestic bearing or any of the things the artist in colours or in style so dearly loves. He and they were alike in knowing no art but nature, and so their transcendent results were attained by nature and not by art.

ii. The writers must be as unconscious of their art as their subject is of its being exercised upon him. And the Evangelists did not know how great a thing they were doing: if they had known, they could not have done it, for that would have meant that they conceived themselves as working, with the whole world looking on, at a model for all men to copy. If an author attempted to compose a history with a vision of all the ages standing at his elbow and reading his words, he would lose the serene eye which reflects the truth and would see double. Now what the Evangelists give us is a real portrait which is yet an undesigned ideal. They were not, any more than their great original, literary men; their atmosphere was not the Athens of Thucydides or Plato, the Rome of Cicero or Horace. The art of biography was unknown to their race and class, and the only literature they knew—if indeed they could be said to know it—was in a language which men of the classic tongues held to be barbarous. There is indeed one Evangelist who may be described as a Greek, but he is confessedly not an eyewitness, and only “sets in order” material which already existed. They did not dream of deathless fame, or of producing a work which posterity would not let die. They wrote to tell what they most surely believed; but in telling their tale they created the only true κτη̑μα ϵ̓ϛ ἐϵί.

iii. There is unconscious but real art in the limits they observe, in the shadows they allow to fall upon the sunlight of their picture. The temptation of the artist would have been to make his hero calm and radiant. He would have conceived the sinless as a sorrowless state, untouched by frailty or infirmity, undarkened by suffering or sin. But the Evangelists are greatly daring: the Jesus they describe is too completely a man to be in any respect alien from humanity. He is tempted without being overcome of sin; He can be angry and fierce as well as kind and gentle; He can speak words that bite as well as truths that console. He feels the bitterness of death, the horror of its great darkness, the desolation of being forsaken of God. It is by a supreme struggle that He achieves resignation, and in the conflict with His destiny He craves human sympathy, though He does not receive it. These are things the conscious literary biographer would have toned down or hidden, but the Evangelists leave them standing, flagrant, in the reader's eye. Without touching here the profound philosophy which justifies these traits, we may note how near they bring Jesus to man, how much they increase His personal charm and the potency of His example. We can think of Him as of our kind—one of ourselves. There are multitudes of the saintly less accessible than He, severe ascetics, martyrs to conscientiousness, rigorous devotees of virtue and self-denial, so remote from all weakness and so severe to self-indulgence that we dare not confess our sins in their presence, or hint that our humanity is frail. But we can do this before Him, yet in doing it we come to feel more ashamed of ourselves and of our sins than we possibly could in the face of a sanctity too complete to sympathize with our susceptibility to sin. This may seem a paradox, but it is a fact; and it expresses an adaptation of Christ's person to human experience which can hardly be explained by accident or the operation of any fortuitous cause.

§ II. The Sinlessness of Jesus

1. It does not surprise us as it ought to find in books which have been said to owe their existence to the untutored and unchastened oriental imagination, the history of a high religious personality written without adulation and eulogy, and with a severe and even austere moderation. It is significant that they never speak of Christ in terms of praise so ecstatic as Plato puts into the mouth of Alcibiades concerning Socrates,1 or as unqualified as those Xenophon employs.2 On the contrary, they allow Him simply to unfold Himself in the light. They seem to have cared little for external testimony to His character, judging, perhaps, that an eye-witness sees but a single moment in a life and casts upon it but a hasty and prejudiced glance. Still, there are a few significant witnesses. Pilate, who has the magistrate's eye for crime, describes Him as a “just person,” in whom no fault or cause of death has been found.3 His wife expresses a like judgment4 The penitent thief confesses that, while he himself dies justly, Jesus “has done nothing amiss.”5 The centurion who watched by the cross, and who saw the Crucified, described Him as “the Son of God.”6 His enemies bear involuntary testimony to His piety when they utter their gibe, “He trusted in God.”7 Judas convicts himself of sin when he says, “I have betrayed innocent blood.”8 Even before His public ministry the Baptist, the most jealous and outspoken of all contemporary critics of character, recognized His moral pre-eminence;9 and Peter so sees himself in the light of the Master's purity as to cry, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”10 “I am not worthy to touch Thee, and Thou art too holy to touch me.” And the reserve thus studiously cultivated is but a reflection of Christ's own. He does not speak like one who feels as if He stood or fell by man's judgment. His challenge to the Jews, “Which of you convicteth Me of sin?”11 means, indeed, that He knows, and they too know, that the only answer possible involves the counter challenge. “Why then do ye not believe Me, who am true and speak the truth?” He describes Himself as “a green tree”12 over against the “dry tree,” which was fit for the burning. He is more explicit to His disciples, and says, “The ruler of the world cometh and hath nothing in Me,”13 i.e. the master of the sinful finds Me sinless. And so He is not of the world,14 but, like His kingdom, He is from above.15 These high and transcendent claims are not compatible with the consciousness of sin, and His reserve makes such utterances the more impressive: He who so studiously conceals His soul is to be trusted all the more when His soul is surprised into speech. Nor are these sayings weakened by His reply to the Jewish ruler: “Why callest thou Me good? There is none good except one, God.”16 He would not accept a title out of mere courtesy or politeness, nor would He allow to be applied to one who was only a “Teacher” an epithet which properly belongs to God alone. And this was the more imperative as the ruler uses of the act he would do the very term he uses of the Master. He needed, therefore, to be reminded that there was but one absolutely good Being; His goodness is original, and all other is derivative, even the Son being but the express image of the Father. “There is none good but one, God,” does not signify “I am bad,” but rather, “think of My goodness through Him, and judge the quality of the acts you would do through what is pleasing in His sight.”

2. But more impressive than the explicit is the implicit evidence as to the quality of the moral ideal which Jesus embodied.

i. He betrays no consciousness of sin, neither confesses it nor asks pardon for it, nor speaks as if He were in thought or being alien from God, or had been guilty of any act which could have made God alien from Him. His goodness does not begin in any change of heart; for though He commands man everywhere to repent, He nowhere implies that He has Himself experienced, or has needed, conversion. He speaks throughout as one who does not belong to the category of sinners, a thing the holiest men have been the least able to do. He is aware, indeed, that sin is common to the race, that nothing more becomes man before God than the language of contrition and confession, and that he who imagines himself to be so good as to be apart from the guilty multitude is guiltier than they. He judged sin as no man had ever judged it before, and spared it not, whether as incorporated in persons of reputed godliness, or as expressed in acts; whether it lurked in the secret sources of action, lusted in the eye, hid in the thoughts, or sat behind the tongue that feared to break into speech. But to have been conscious of evil while so judging it would have been, measured by the standard He applied to man, to be guilty of intolerable un-charitableness and pride.

ii. What is even more characteristic, and would have been in any ordinary case a note of pride still more intolerable, is that He forgives while He has no conscious need of forgiveness. He said to the sick of the palsy, “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee;” and the scribes, who knew the law, charged Him with blasphemy, saying truly, “Who can forgive sins but God only?”17 To forgive sins against oneself, if such sins there be, is an affectation of superiority which it needs a generous man to overlook; but to forgive the sins which concern God, and which only God can know, is an act which implies a purity of nature equal to God's own, an unconsciousness of sin and a consciousness of holiness which we can describe as nothing less than divine. And alongside the act stands a most unexpected consequence: the men whose sins He forgives hate sin as the unforgiven never do. Forgiveness in His hands does not become a concession to human frailty, or an encouragement to evil, but an injunction against sinning; the man who receives it feels he must sin no more. And there is a parallel yet opposite fact, what the meaner critic thinks a suspicious inconsistency between His doctrine and His practice. He judged sin seriously; He was most severe to the offending eye or heart, foot or hand; it was to be plucked out and cut off rather than that the man should enter whole into hell. His conscience was sensitive to the shadow cast by sin, yet He associated with the outcasts of Israel. The very men who wanted to convict Him of blasphemy because He forgave sin, complained that He was “the friend of publicans and sinners.”18 They could not understand why He should seek the society of the guilty while He was so severe to their guilt. But the sinners never mistook the root and reason of His friendship for they knew, though the scribes did not, why He not only ventured into their company, but felt bound to seek it, even while hating the things they loved. He sought it because He was their friend; and because of His very sinlessness He could move amid evildoers like one who bore a will charmed against their spell, too perfect in its love of purity to be seduced towards evil. The Pharisee was but studying his own safety when he held aloof from the publican; the consciousness of sin warned him against all dalliance with sinners. Our social conventions are the safeguards of frail virtue against potent vice, and the policy of isolation is the method by which a nature no longer pure fortifies itself against natures still remoter from purity. But Jesus knew neither fear nor shame, and needed not the protection of distinguishing custom or speech, for while their state moved His soul to pity, His very presence awoke within them the desire after higher things.

3. But over against His relation to sin and man stands His relation to God. There is no saint in the whole calendar less distinguished by what we may term the apparatus of religion. It was His deficiency in this respect that helped to make Him despised and rejected of men. It would be easy to find persons in every age and church since He lived more zealous than He was in special religious exercises or for single virtues. Stones have been worn smooth by the knees of His penitents; martyrs have died at the stake for His name, rejoicing amid the flames and insensible to pain; the poor have been served more assiduously than He ever served them, and the diseased have been ministered to with a care and a tenderness He never surpassed, if indeed He equalled. The hermit or the monk who forsook the world that he might give himself wholly to the worship of God, has in bodily mortification gone beyond anything that is recorded of Jesus; while the nun who has hidden herself in the cloister that she may attain whiteness of soul, has surrendered herself to a severer discipline than He ever practised. Yet these are but the strenuous labours of persons who are miserable through their great desire to win by personal effort what He possessed by nature. He lived embosomed in Deity, filled, penetrated, transfigured by God, yet not by a God who was simply the fulfilment of desire or the infinite abyss which swallowed up the very personalities it had produced; but rather a God of transcendent ethical severity, whose truth could suffer no falsehood, who was the light which could bear no darkness, the good which could tolerate no evil, the life which overcame death, the love that cast out hate. The extraordinary thing is the co-existence in the same person of this total unconsciousness of sin with the complete conscious possession of an absolutely holy God. For Jesus so lived that He seemed to men the ethical perfection of God embodied in an ideally perfect manhood. And indeed He is most really man when He and the Father so interpenetrate that they become one, each so mingled in the other that He and we alike lose all consciousness of distinction, and they who hear or who see the Son hear and see the Father. Yet this is not absorption in the manner of the oriental mystic; the personal is not lost in the universal soul. The mysticism which the East has loved is a dream of man's disappearance into a deity infinitely absorbent, where he attains beatitude by escaping from the form Deity had given into the substance Deity is. And the result is a piety of languor and quiescence, of ethical lassitude and social isolation, which fears the burden of self and desires above everything the chance of laying it down. But in Jesus the perfection which God loves is one with the realization of personal manhood; it is the harmony of idea and being, of the governed character with the governing thought. Obedience was to Him a movement that did not tire, because it knew no friction; beatitude was the vision of God, expressed not in voluptuous quiet but in beneficent activity. It was out of the conflict of the ideal He embodied with the actual He confronted, that the sorrows came which constituted His passion and delivered Him unto death.

§ III. Qualities of this Ideal of Sinlessness

1. It must be confessed that this moral ideal, drawn by oriental peasants innocent of literary art—for Luke but repeats and arranges what he had received—is a work of stupendous originality. It has no prototype in religion or in literature. The mythical theory owed, as we have said, its vogue and its verisimilitude to the idea that the Evangelists were deeply versed in the Old Testament, and clothed their hero in garments which they had borrowed from that vast and ancient storehouse. But at the very point where this theory, if it were true, ought to have found final verification, it finds explicit contradiction and disproof. For the most original thing in the New Testament is not the acts or outward history of Jesus, but His spirit or inner character. It is no doubt true that His historical and religious antecedents are in the Old Testament; there, too, are the ideas He transfigures, the hopes He fulfils, the institutions He supersedes; but what is not there is His moral image, the personality He becomes. For in the Old Testament there is no sinless man with a mission to men rather than to the chosen race. Moses indeed is meek and “faithful in all his house,” but he so sins that he is not allowed to set foot within the promised land. David, the hero-king, is described as a man after God's own heart, but he is guilty of deeds abhorred alike of God and man. Elijah, the most impressive figure-among the prophets, breaks down in the hour of trial, and confesses himself to be a man no better than his fathers. Isaiah, the seer of sublimest vision, feels himself to be too unclean of lip to be a messenger of God. In the prophetic vision of the suffering servant of God, who did no violence, neither had any deceit in his mouth,19 there are lines that foreshadow the evangelical ideal; but the vision remained a vision, symbolical, typical, an image of collective Israel, until He came who so lived as to turn it into a reality. And thus it but helps to define and sharpen an antithesis which reaches its logical climax in the contrasted creations which sum up the character of the two dispensations. The Old Testament ends not in an ideal manhood, but in a ceremonial institution, in a method for making man, whom it cannot make pure within, liturgically clean. The literature burns here and there with the noblest ethical passion, but the religion refuses to realize its ethical dream, and plants the official priest in the place designed for the saint. The New Testament, on the contrary, begins not in a sacerdotal order, but in a Moral Person; its ideal is a manhood, not an institution; a creative character, not a purificatory method. And in this its greatness and its originality alike lie. All religions had, like Judaism, found it easier to create the sacred institution than the holy man, though none did it with higher energy and greater skill. But Christ opened a more excellent way—created a religion by means of a moral personality, and so bound the two together that they could never more live apart.

2. Quite as notable as the originality is the catholicity of this moral ideal. Jesus of Nazareth is the least local, sectional, or occasional type of moral manhood in all literature. In their ideals race differs from race and age from age. The typical manhood of Greece, while under the spell of Homer, is the swift-footed Achilles or the crafty and far-travelled Odysseus; but when under the spell of Plato, it is the sage who loved truth, praised virtue, and studied how to know and realize the good in the state. The saints of the East would not be canonized in the West, while the qualities which the cultured West most admires the civilized East holds in disdainful contempt. Few things, indeed, are more permanent or more prohibitive of moral sympathy and appreciation than racial characteristics. A good man in a black skin may be pitied and helped, or patronized and misunderstood, by white men, but he would certainly not be hailed as a saviour to be believed or as a master to be revered and followed. We may say, “beauty is only skin deep,” but, as a matter of fact, there are few deeper things than skin; it represents not so much a physiological or racial difference as an intellectual, a moral, and a social cleavage between man and man. The fields of religion and history teem with illustrations. Confucius is a sage China worships, but the Hindus would despise his ostentatious ignorance of the only Being they think worth knowing and his indifference to the only life they consider worth living. The ascetic community which is Buddha's social ideal for his saints, a Greek would have conceived as the final apostasy from good of a person destined by nature to live as a free citizen in a free state. The status Mohammed assigns to woman is an offence to the domestic ideal of the Teuton; and the way he indulged his sexual appetite makes him more deeply distasteful than even the “necessary fiction” which he compounded with “the eternal truth,” “that there is only one God.” But the character of Jesus transcends all racial limitations and divisions. He is the only oriental that the Occident has admired with an admiration that has be come worship. His is the only name the West has carried into the East which the East has received and praised and loved with sincerity and without qualification. And this power it has exercised ever since it made its appeal to human thought: it overcame the insolent disdain of the Greek for all things barbarian; the proud contempt of the Roman for a crucified malefactor sprung from a hated and conquered people; the vain conceit of a commercial race, which before the moral majesty of a moneyless peasant has almost wished to forget its passion for gold. And this catholicity endures because it is based upon nature. What seemed to His own day disastrous to His claims—the want of rank, of name and fame and honour—has saved the ideal from death, emphasizing the fact that His transcendence was due to nothing adventitious, but to Himself alone. If He had appeared as Cæsar, the majesty of the man would have been sacrificed to the ostentation of the Emperor; if as the Roman Augustus, He could not have seemed so sublime and kingly as He does as Jesus of Nazareth. But though all men may see this now, few saw it then. Their ignorance and simplicity saved the Evangelists from the temptation to make Him appear more royal than He was. If they had known imperial Rome, they could hardly have refrained from borrowing some of its purple and fine linen for His cradle or His grave. If they had known how the Gentiles would regard His birth and state, they might have tried to hide them under the shadow of the pomp He had despised. But knowing Him and knowing nothing else, they told what they heard and described what they saw, and so created the most immortal work of art in all literature,—a character so complete and catholic in its humanity that to it alone belongs the distinction of having compelled the homage of universal man.

3. But there is a final quality in the character of Jesus which we can, perhaps, better appreciate than even the Evangelists: its potency. It had, indeed, in a rare degree the attributes of gentleness and inflexibility. He described Himself as “meek and lowly in heart,”20 and men love to speak of Him even yet as “the humble Nazarene.” But if “meekness” be understood to mean compliancy, or “lowliness” the want of self-respect and personal will, or “humility” the surrender of conscience and reason before the conventions and imperious commonplaceness of society, or indeed any qualities resembling these, no one ever lived to whom such terms could be less fitly applied. He is, where duty or truth is concerned, the very impersonation of the unconquerable will; where dignity or right is at issue, it is vain to speak of silence or submission; where pride would overbear or justice turn into expediency, He stands up with a front that may be broken, but cannot bend or retire. The cross signified that man could kill but not subdue Him; desertion and denial came and awoke His pity, but they could not turn Him from His goal. The potency of His character is, however, best seen in its historical influence, in its being an immortal and inexhaustible recreative energy. Under this aspect its force may be represented by two facts.

(α) By acting as the Friend of the publican, who “came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” He introduced the great idea of conversion, set it by His own conduct as a duty before His people, and showed how it was to be accomplished. His new way of dealing with transgressors stood over against the old way, which was the way of pride and punishment, of insult and indignity, of a society which did not know any better means of protecting its order than the destruction of the persons who threatened to disturb it. The method of Jesus was remedial, changing the sinner and forgiving his sin. He used friendship and affection instead of isolation and distrust; His love played round the man whom hate had scorched, waked the goodness lying dormant in the heart of guilt, called faithfulness into being in the soul of the faithless, out of the man who had been cast as rubbish to the void making a pillar for the temple of God. Man has been slow to understand what this means, but he is at last coming to appreciate the new attitude it created in the good towards the evil, the hope it introduced into the lot of the oppressed, the sense of duty it begot in those who have inherited virtue to those whose main inheritance is vice, and the way it has enriched humanity by bringing into its service multitudes who would otherwise have sullied its fame and marched in the army which fights against its peace. Infinite, untouched possibilities lie in this idea of conversion. Though to it the Church of Christ owes the most radiant of the luminaries that have made its militant night clearer than the day, yet we have a long way to travel before we can get close enough to His spirit to see it as it is, and to be the willing captives of its power. But even so, this new mind and attitude is only an incidental consequence from the knowledge of His character, hardly visible amid the host of His benefactions to mankind.

(β) By His transcendent moral purity He has created two things which seem opposites, but are correlatives and counterparts, the deepest consciousness of sin and the desire for the highest sanctity. Man knew sin before Him; Hebrew literature is full of it. Men, as they thought of God's majesty, and knew that they were searched by eyes which were too pure to behold iniquity, abhorred themselves in dust and ashes. Classical literature knew it, for it is one of the themes on which Seneca speaks almost like a Christian apostle. Yet it is true that there was before Christ no such consciousness of sin as He, by His very sinlessness, created. There were ritual offences which ritual could remove; there were lapses from virtue which repentance could wipe out; there were even transgressions against God which His mercy could cover and forgive; but there was no such thing as a sin which cast its shadow upon the life of God. And sin has become to us not a ceremonial accident which the only sort of sacrifices man could offer might atone for, but an offence so awful in its guilt as to involve the passion of God and the death of His Son. Hence comes the tragedy of Christian experience—the co-existence and conflict in the same soul of a double sense, a fear of sin that almost craves annihilation, and a love of holy being that yearns towards the vision of God. Yet these are both due to the action in us of the ideal sinless personality, and express the love by which He guides man into the light of life.

§ IV. Sinlessness and the Moral Person

But we here touch questions concerning the function of the sinless personality in religion and religious thought, and the cause or reason of His appearance in history, which properly belong to a later stage in our discussions, and which must be left till then. There are, however, two questions which, as implied in the evangelical Histories themselves, ought to be noticed here: (l) The idea of moral perfection or sinlessness, and (2) how it affects our conception of the person and His history.

1. Sinlessness, though a negative term, is here used in a doubly positive sense. It applies to both nature and conduct, brings both under the same moral category, and so denotes what a person is as well as what he does. The two senses are, indeed, organically connected, since the quality of the nature is expressed in the conduct; while the conduct reacts upon the nature, uplifting or depressing it, enlarging or diminishing its good. The ancient maxim said: “Good acts do not make a good man, but a good man does good acts; the good fruit is made by the tree, not the tree by the fruit.” This signifies that moral nature is more radical than moral action, and, as the prior in being, requires earlier and more careful cultivation. But there is more here than a distinction of time; there is one of cause and ground. Man gets his nature, but he wills his acts; for the first, others are more responsible than he; for the second, he is responsible more than any others, though the responsibility is not unconditioned. A vast and mixed multitude of factors help to determine the coming and the character of the human being. He does not begin to be as an isolated unit or a characterless individual; but he exists, as it were, before he is born. He starts on his career as an historical and social being, though his history is ancestral rather than personal, and he lives in society mediately rather than directly—in his family, not as and for himself. And this means that he steps into a medium for which he has been fitted beforehand, possessed of a nature which he has inherited. Now here we come upon the fundamental difficulty in conceiving the sinlessness of Jesus:—If it be a matter of nature before it can become a matter of will, how, in the case of one who has a human descent and even an historical genealogy, shall we get the nature good to start with, the unflecked personality, the undefiled will? Do we not meet here the need for assuming the creation by the direct act of God of a new type or species of man, a being without father and without mother? The belief in Christ's moral perfection seems thus to involve the occurrence of a miracle beside which those described in the Gospels sink into insignificance. For it is not enough to affirm the supernatural conception; the real difficulty is conception itself under any form. The man who is born of a woman is her son, inherits her past, and owes to what it has made her his nature and nurture. We may find here the reason that induced the Roman Church to supplement the doctrine of the supernatural conception of the Son by the dogma of the immaculate conception of the mother; for the dogma was even more a concession to timid logic than to pious veneration for the Virgin. But it was a concession to the curious though common logic that thinks it simplifies and safeguards one mystery by creating another and greater, forgetting that there are mysteries which are credible because they are solitary, just as the reasons that persuade men to believe in one God are all against their believing in two. And the logic that justified the Roman dogma ought, in order to full rational consistency, to have required an enormous extension of the process; and argued that not only Mary, but all her ancestors and ancestresses back to Adam, were immaculately conceived, and quickened miraculously by grace and against nature. And even then the doctrine would not have been safe, for the only safety for an incorrupt nature would have been existence and growth in an incorrupt environment. Innocence is no match for experience, and the battle can never be equal if innocence, in all the feebleness of infancy, falls into the depraved hands of a deft and experienced age. Hence an immaculate conception were useless without an immaculate family, and this without an immaculate society and state, which speedily brings us to the logical but here impossible conclusion that, in order to the existence of a sinless personality, we must have a sinless world.

Let us try, then, whether we can find, without recourse to so halting a logic, a more valid and applicable idea of sinlessness. The Evangelists appear to conceive Jesus to be good both in nature and conduct. He impersonates for them the moral law; He judges, but is not judged, and is beforehand described as “holy.”21 But holy in what sense? Not in any sense that excluded liability to temptation, which implies not only the ability to sin, but susceptibility to sin's seductions. There is a distinction between an impeccable and a sinless nature; the impeccable is incapable of sinning; the sinless has the capacity to sin, but has not sinned. It would be quite incorrect to use the term sinlessness of God. He is absolute, and cannot change; infallible, and cannot err; and so, to ascribe to Him whose attributes are all positive a negative quality would be a logical impropriety. But sinless is the proper term to use of a nature which, with the capability of erring, yet has not erred; it is free from sin, yet possesses a will that can be tempted and may fall. The terms that may be used of moral natures are these:—Good, holy, innocent, evil. “Good” is absolute and exclusive, fixed and stable, untemptable and infallible; “holy” denotes a character achieved and defined, a nature which has learned obedience; “innocence” describes a being without positive qualities, which has attained nothing, but may become anything—a mere potentiality, all the possibilities of evil and good lying latent within it; “evil” qualifies a nature which has been tried and found unworthy, a will which has sinned and become depraved. “Good” is predicable of God only; He alone as good can neither be tempted nor sin. “Holiness” is the attribute of saints and angels, who have been sanctified by the truth and become Godlike. The “innocent” is the untried, who is capable of becoming either angel or devil; while “evil,” as regards both state and character, is the man who has fallen from innocence, whether his mind be one of penitence or obstinacy. Now, sinless is a term which may be distinguished from all these. It is stronger than innocence, for it implies tested faculty—will tried, but not overcome. It is more comprehensive than holy, for the holy may, on the one hand, be men saved from sin, and, on the other, men who have attained beatitude; but the sinless has done no sin, and yet lives in deadliest conflict with it and in sorest trouble from it. Yet the basis or starting-point of sinlessness is innocence, as its end is holiness, which will be eminent and meritorious in the very degree it has been attained without lapse. And so sinless is the word which most fitly describes Jesus as He was in the days when it became God to make Him “perfect through sufferings.”22 He had a nature which did no sin, but He faced the sin which could show no mercy to His nature; and in trying to conquer His will, it caused His passion and compassed His death. His humanity was no make-believe, nor the temptation a mere docetic process—a stage drama which He played in the actor's sock and buskin—but a grim wrestle between the tempter and the tempted. And it did not end with the forty days, for, as Luke significantly says, “the devil departed from Him for a season,”23 i.e., departed only to return at many times and in many forms, in the trouble of His soul,24 the weakness of His flesh,25 the agony of Gethsemane,26 and the desertion of the cross.27 The disciples continued with Him in His temptations,28 and knew Him to be in all “without sin.”29 What He suffered proved Him to be of our kin; what He achieved showed how much He differed from all who had been before Him. The humanity, and the sufferings needed to test its sinlessness, were His, but the fruits of His victory are ours.

Sinlessness as thus construed denotes a moral quality whose intellectual equivalent would be freedom from error, i.e. a knowledge that so saw all things as to permit no ignorance and admit of no mistake. But a being of whom this could be predicated could not be conceived as either created or dependent. He would require a memory and an experience that went back to the beginning of things, and an eye that while it saw everything misread nothing. But this is the attribute which we call in the Creator omniscience, and which has nothing in any creature to correspond with it. To affirm that a given person so knew what every day and every hour would bring forth, that ignorance of any thing or event was impossible to him, would be to say he was God and not man. But sinlessness is essentially the note of a being at once dependent and perfect; for as dependent he is under law or authority, and as perfect he must have completely obeyed. In other words, the only condition that will save an intellect from error is the knowledge of all things that have been, are, or are to be; but the one condition needed to help men to righteousness is the will to obey. Hence the nature that cannot err is infallible, but the nature that is obedient is sinless; the one term denotes a quality which the nature has in its own right, the other a quality which has been acquired by the exercise of its own freedom. Infallibility inheres in the person or society which possesses it, the sovereignty which sinlessness obeys inheres in another. Now it is significant that Jesus as expressly disclaimed omniscience as He claimed to do always the will of God. He left knowledge of the times and the seasons in the hands of the Father; but He Himself ever did what was well-pleasing in the Father's sight. The note of His person was sinless-ness; it was not the omniscience of Deity.

2. We are now in a better position to consider how the idea of sinlessness affects our conception of Christ's person and history. For one thing, it is evident that it is an idea which suits the historical person—leaves Him the son of Adam according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the Spirit. By virtue of the first He was, while innocent, peccable and temptable; by virtue of the second He endured in the face of temptation, remained sinless and became holy. What we call the Passion was a real agony—our name for the awful struggle of sin against a pure and obedient will, and for the resistance of the will to the sin. His was the one will sin failed to overcome; and in what sense its failure was man's victory we shall yet see. For a second thing, the idea shows how His humanity could be at once real and ideal. Man as a moral being was designed for obedience; through it and in it, and not otherwise, he could attain perfection. The man wholly obedient is perfectly moral—a human being as God meant him to be; and so he does not so much transcend as realize nature, though to be the only person in history who achieves it is to transcend empirical nature while realizing the ideal. For a third thing; He who achieves this end is not so much taken out of humanity as placed at its head, and so becomes “the Firstborn among many Brethren.”30 While the most eminent, He is also the most imitable, the symbol of what obedience to the highest law of being can make the man who obeys. For a fourth thing, it shows how moral perfection realizes rather than disturbs the balance of man's powers. To be sinless is to be God-like, but it is to be man and not God. It is to realize perfectly all that is contained in the creature's dependence and the Creator's sovereignty; it is to accept and faithfully fulfil the duties and the relations these terms denote and define. It is to be perfect in the sense, though not in the degree, that God is perfect—to be miniatures of Deity, visible images of the invisible God. And so the sinlessness of Jesus leaves us face to face with questions which may yet carry us into regions of high philosophical and historical discussion.

  • 1.

    Symposium, p. 215 ff.

  • 2.

    Memorabilia, I, i. 11.

  • 3.

    Matt. xxvii. 24; Like xxiii. 22; John xix. 6.

  • 4.

    Matt xxvii. 19.

  • 5.

    Luke xxiii. 41.

  • 6.

    Mark xv. 39; Matt, xxvii. 54.

  • 7.

    Matt. 43; cf. xxii. 16.

  • 8.

    Matt. 43; cf. xxvii. 4.

  • 9.

    Matt. iii. 14; Luke iii. 16.

  • 10.

    Luke v. 8.

  • 11.

    John viii. 46.

  • 12.

    Luke xxiii. 31

  • 13.

    John xix. 30.

  • 14.

    John xvii. 14, 16.

  • 15.

    John xviii. 36, viii. 23.

  • 16.

    Mark x. 17; Luke xviii. 18. Cf. Matt. xix. 16–17.

  • 17.

    Mark ii. 5–7.

  • 18.

    Mark ii. 13–17; cf. Luke xv. 2.

  • 19.

    Isa. liii. 9.

  • 20.

    Matt. xi. 29.

  • 21.

    Luke i. 35.

  • 22.

    Heb. ii. 10.

  • 23.

    Luke iv. 13.

  • 24.

    John xii. 27.

  • 25.

    Matt. xxvi. 41.

  • 26.

    Matt. xxvi. 38

  • 27.

    Matt. xxvii. 46.

  • 28.

    Luke xxii. 28.

  • 29.

    Heb. iv. 15.

  • 30.

    Rom. viii. 29.