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Introduction: The Problem of the Christian Religion

§ I. The Person of Christ as the Mystery of the Christian Religion

1. EVERY reader of recent theological literature is familiar with the remarkable contrast between the image of Jesus in the Gospels and the conception of Christ in the œcumenical creeds. It represents a change which time cannot measure or place explain. The Council of Nicæa stands as nearly as possible at a distance of three hundred years from the death of Jesus, while the interval between the Council of Chalcedon and the latest of the Gospels is at most three centuries and a half. But years and even centuries cannot describe the difference between the simple lines in which the Evangelists draw the historical portrait of Jesus and the metaphysical terms in which Nicæa defines the person of the Son and His relation to the Father, or Chalcedon distinguishes the natures and delimits their provinces and relations. On the one hand we have the Son of man “meek and lowly in heart”; humble in birth, obscure in life; “despised and rejected of men,” disbelieved by the priests and rulers, companying with publicans and sinners; “crucified under Pontius Pilate”; forsaken in death by His disciples, and followed to the grave by only a few women, who were too mean to be heeded by His enemies, and who but loved Him the more that He had suffered so much. On the other hand we have the Son “consubstantial with the Father,” “begotten, not made,” “very God of very God”; we have a Person composed of two distinct natures, which must neither be divided nor confused; for how could convertible natures be opposed? or how, if they were separable, could there be a real and enduring personal unity? If we attempt, first, to look through the eyes of the Evangelists, and, next, to think in the categories of the Councils, we shall feel as bewildered as if we had been suddenly transported from a serene and lucid atmosphere to a land of double vision and half-lights, where men take shadows for substantial things.

Yet the two moments are too organically related to be characterized and dismissed in a series of contrasts. They are bound together by a dialectical process which has only to be understood to turn their antithesis into a synthesis; and in this synthesis the opposed elements appear to coalesce and become indissoluble, the later conserving the earlier belief, the earlier vivifying the later. For if we may reason from the processes of collective experience to law in history, we may say that two things are certain, viz. (α) that without the personal charm of the historical Jesus the œcumenical creeds would never have been either formulated or tolerated; and (β) without the metaphysical conception of Christ the Christian religion would long ago have ceased to live. Clear and sweet as the Galilæan vision may be, it would, apart from the severer speculation which translated it from a history into a creed, have faded from human memory like a dream which delighted the light slumbers of the morning, though only to be so dissolved before the strenuous will of the day as to be impossible of recall. The religion which makes its appeal to the sense of the beautiful, and speaks to the fancy in legends, or to the imagination in symbols, may do well for a season or while a special mood continues; but only the religion which addresses and exercises the reason will continue to live. To say that the article of faith which the intellect finds the hardest to construe may be the most necessary to the life of the religion, is to state a sober truth and no mere paradox. This does not mean that the heart has to be satisfied at the expense of the head; it means the very opposite, viz., that unless religion be an eternal challenge to the reason it can have no voice for the imagination, and no value for the heart. The symbol is only a thing of sense, most valued where it has displaced the ideal and become the sole reality; but the mysteries which compose the atmosphere in which all truth lives, are too inseparable from thought to be absent from religion. The pure reason has its antinomies, but the very ideas it so describes may be said to be the laws which bind together mind and nature, which make a rational experience possible, and which set the personal intellect in the midst of an intelligible system. The faith, therefore, that had no mysteries would be an anomaly in a universe like ours; and would suffer from the incurable defects of being a faith without truth and without the capability of so appealing to reason as to promote man's rational and moral growth. For in the degree that a religion did not tax thought it would not develop mind; it is the problems which most imperiously appeal to the reason for solution which open those glimpses into the secret of the universe that most fascinate the heart and awe the imagination. And the Person of Christ is exactly the point in the Christian religion where the intellect feels overwhelmed by mysteries it cannot resolve, yet where Christian experience finds the factors of its most characteristic qualities, and the Church the truth it has lived by and is bound to live for.

2. But mysteries are of two sorts they may either be things of nature, or creations of the art of man. The mysteries of nature are universal, and are known to man in every place and in all stages of his culture, though their forms are many and most varied; but the mysteries of art are a vaster and more mixed multitude, occasional in origin, partial in distribution, living and increasing at one stage of culture, diminishing and dying at another. The faculty which sees and feels the mysteries of nature is the reason, and the more rational or conscious it grows the more does it realize their burden and their impenetrability to mortal sight. But the art which makes mysteries is not so much conscious as spontaneous in its operation; and shows itself in the skill with which it blends the fantastic with the real, and out of the impossible weaves the very texture of life. The mysteries of the reason are the problems of philosophy: this world, who made it, and how was it made? Our rational experience, how is it possible? Is it created by what man brings to nature, or by the action of nature upon man? What are Space and Time? Are they forms of perception or are they outside things, which, through association and sense, impress themselves upon the mind? What is Mind and what Matter? Are they two, or are they one, in aspect different, in essence the same? Is there such a thing as Will in the universe and Freedom in man, or does fixed fate govern all? If Necessity reigns, how is the illusion of Freedom to be explained? If Freedom reigns, how are the uniformities of Nature and the order of History to be understood? These are questions man cannot escape: art has had nothing to do with their making, or time with their origin or end; for they are involved in the very processes of the intellect, and they grow at once more imperative and more complex with the progress of knowledge.

But the other order of mysteries bears rather the tool-marks of made or manufactured articles, and have not the stamp of the inevitable which belongs to the work of nature. They may be the creations of Tradition or of the Schools, made by the hand which reveres the past too much to change the forms of its beliefs even where their substance has perished; or by the master whose skilful subtlety has shaped formulæ which later men may accept but dare not question. They may be but the fantastic shapes of an old mythology frozen and sterilized by the cold breath of the understanding, which loves to deal with the fluid forms of poetry as if they were stiff and pedantic prose; or they may be speculative interpretations of historical persons and events, translating them into figures in a new mythology which is all the more audacious that it is a creation of the logical intellect, and not, like the old, of the concrete imagination. Of this sort are mysteries which all religions have been rich in, and which none seems to be able to live without. Hinduism transmutes the epic hero Krishna into an incarnation of deity; Buddhism makes out of its founder a being with more infinite capabilities of change and action than any god; Zoroastrianism turns the phenomena of day and night into the terms of an ethical dualism and personalizes eternity; Islam so magnifies its Koran that it experiences a kind of apotheosis and becomes an uncreated Word, which had no beginning and can have no end, and which found manifestation but not origin through the mouth of the prophet. These are examples of the mysteries which art makes in religion, and which are in their own order more intricate and invincible than any of the creations of the mythical imagination.

§ II. Need the Person be a Mystery?

1. Now, to which order of mystery does the doctrine as to the Person of Christ belong? Is it a thing of nature? or is it a made or manufactured article, a myth, which the logical intellect has woven out of the material offered by a simple but beautiful history? It were certainly easy so to represent it, and to urge that by so doing we should relieve religion from an oppressive dogma, and religious thought from a problem which always perplexes, and even bewilders, the intellect, if it does not provoke it to disdainful denial. There is, as we have said, in this case, a sort of infinite incommensurability between the historical person and its theological construction; the one is so simple, so natural, so like a child of His time and people; while the other is such a mass of intricate complexities, as it were a synthesis of all the incredibilities with which religion has ever loved to shock and offend the reason. The spontaneous impulse of the intellect, therefore, when it first comes face to face with the modest premisses and the stupendous conclusion, is to attempt to divorce them, and to conceive Jesus as real, and the deified Christ as the product of idealization. And this attempt may be cogently justified by both thought and criticism. If we begin with thought, we may represent its process of analysis and argument somewhat thus:

‘The doctrine that affirms that Jesus was “God manifest in the flesh,” or, in other words, that in Christ the natures of God and man were so united as to form a single and indivisible person, is the very apotheosis of the inconceivable. God is a Being too transcendental to be either known or rationally conceived; but man is a child of nature and experience: how, then, can we attach any idea to the words which affirm a union of these two?—of the God who transcends our experience, and of the Man who is its most familiar factor and object? But suppose it be granted that both ideas are alike real, is it any more possible to conceive them as so united as to constitute an historical person? The incarnation of God in all men, the manifestation of the Creator in the whole of the race He had created, might be an arguable position; but not its rigorous and exclusive individuation, or restriction to a single person out of all the infinite multitude of millions who have lived, are living, or are to live. God and man are too incompatible in their attributes to be conceived as co-ordinated in a Being who appears on the stage of history as a human individual, and who has the experiences and suffers the fate proper to one. The man cannot become God, for man is mortal and finite God eternal and infinite; and it does not lie even with the Almighty to invest temporal being with the attributes of the eternal. Nor can God become a man any more than His eternity can be annihilated or His infinitude cancelled or curtailed. To attempt to conceive God creating another God, or ceasing to be the God. He is, were to attempt a feat which is impossible to reason. Then if the union is effected by God remaining God, and the man a man, what sort of being is the resultant person? Nay, is he, in any tolerable sense, a person at all? Is he not rather a mere symbol of contradictory ideas, as it were qualities which thought refuses to relate, and is therefore unable to unite, personalized and made into an everlasting enigma?

‘The matter is not illumined, but rather darkened, by definition and explanation. The union has been defined as personal, and again as between a concrete, i.e. a divine person, the Son of God, and an abstract, i.e. human nature before it had taken shape in a personal man. But what is union in a person save a conscious unity, being realized and made homogeneous in the unity of a rational consciousness? But is not the very note of this case the double consciousness where the person knows himself now as God and now as man; or, what is still less rationally conceivable, as living a veiled and double life, where he speaks and acts as man, while he consciously possesses the omniscience and power of God? To a life lived under such conditions, what reality, what integrity or veracity, could be said to belong? And as used here, are not the terms “nature” and “person” simply the catch-words of a juggler? When the speech is of God, He is described as three persons in one nature; when it is of Christ, he is represented as two natures in one person. In the former case the persons are plural, but the nature singular, and the argument is based on the position that unity belongs to nature and difference to person. But in the latter case the person is singular and the natures plural, and the argument proceeds on the premiss that unity belongs to the person and difference to the natures. Apply to Christ the conception of nature or substance as it is predicated of the Godhead, and the unity is dissolved, because the natures become personalized; apply to the Godhead the idea of person as used of Christ, and the argument for the divinity loses all its force, because unity of nature is no longer necessary to the personal integrity. It is evident, therefore, that a doctrine which can so little stand the criticism of the reason is a manufactured mystery, made by the art and craft of man, not by the solemn and inexorable necessities of thought, as conditioned and confronted by a universe which it must interpret in order that it may continue to be.’

2. In some such manner, then, the understanding, by means of its keen and dexterous logic, might argue that the Incarnation was a mere fictitious or artificial mystery, significant only of the extravagances of the ecstatic or dogmatic mind, without any significance for the saner reason. And if we proceed from the destructive dialectic of thought to the analytic process of literary and historical criticism, we may find the fatal cycle completed somewhat thus:

‘Literary analysis enables us to discover a primary and a secondary stratum in the Gospels. Jesus, as he is presented in the primary or original document, is a real and tangible enough figure, capable of easy and complete historical explanation. He is the last of the prophets of Israel, ethical as they all were, but sweeter in character and in speech than they had been, larger and more reasonable in mind, as became one who lived under the influence of Rome and its universal ideas. This gives the source of His most distinctive teaching. Hebrew literature—Canonical, Apocryphal, Talmudical—supplied the matter; the spirit of the time determined the form. His God is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, though sublimed and subdued to the likeness of his own genial nature. His idea of the kingdom of God is the common prophetic belief, though adapted and enlarged by the genius of humanity within him. His notion of the Son of man comes, partly, from Daniel, and, partly, from Enoch. His conception of the suffering Messiah was directly suggested by Isaiah's Servant of God. In the Psalms can be found his ideas that the true worship of the Father is to be not by sacrifice and ceremonial, but in spirit and in truth, by men of clean hands and contrite hearts. His notion that God's people are the pure and holy in spirit came from Jeremiah. His doctrine of repentance was Ezekiel's. His idea of God's forbearance with the wicked and desire to save them only repeated and expanded Hosea's. His ethical temper was inspired by the Books of the Hebrew Wisdom and their Apocryphal successors. Some of his individual and most characteristic precepts, such as the love of one's neighbour, or the law of reciprocity, were commonplaces in the Jewish schools, certain to be frequent on the lips of men who loved learning and revered the rabbi. And as he has his antecedents in Israel, so has the literature which preserves his memory. The Gospels are the creations of men who knew the Old Testament, and found again its most miraculous histories in the life of him who had in their eyes fulfilled it. The things that were possible to Moses, the wonders that had been worked by Elijah, the translation of Enoch, the deliverance accorded to Jonah, were occurrences which the regretful admiration of simple-minded disciples could not refuse to ascribe to him whom they had come to conceive as the most marvellous and winsome of the sons of men.

‘The secondary stratum in the Gospels has thus been formed by the very same influences that shaped the figure which is embedded in the primary. The associations created by the only literature which their authors knew, made at once the atmosphere through which they saw Jesus, the attributes in which they arrayed him, and the categories under which he was conceived. Hence came the miracles which they ascribed to him, his supernatural birth, his sacrificial death, and the ascension which translated him from a guilty world to the right hand of God. In a word, their imaginations, touched by the enthusiasm of an all-believing love, became creative; and, losing the very power to distinguish between the things that had happened and the things that might, or rather that ought to, have happened, they saw Jesus as if he had been the Messiah they had hoped he was. They dreamed in the language of the Messianic hope, and when they attempted to describe him, their dreams so mingled with the realities that the realities partook of the idealism of the dreams, and the dreams absorbed the realism of the realities. Thus by a perfectly natural process one who had been in actual life a Hebrew peasant, though indeed a peasant of superlative genius, supernal goodness, and ineffable charm, came to wear to the imagination a divine hue and form; and once this had been achieved for him it needed only the fearless logic of a metaphysical but unscientific age to identify him with Deity and resolve his humanity by the incarnation of the son of God.’

§ III. Why there is a Problem, of the Person

1. But now what precisely is this double argument of rational logic and analytical criticism worth? Is it not cogent simply because it is narrow? The conclusion of the dialectic is invincible for the reason that it started from an inarticulated premiss. The rational problem is not so simple as the argument assumed, for the facts to be co-ordinated and the ideas to be construed are infinitely more complex than the premiss was allowed to state or to suggest. The dexterous logician is not the only strong intellect which has tried to handle the doctrine. The contradictions which he translates into rational incredibilities must either have escaped the analysis of men like Augustine or Aquinas, or have been by their thought transcended and reconciled in some higher synthesis. It is a wholesome thing to remember that the men who elaborated our theologies were at least as rational as their critics, and that we owe it to historical truth to look at their beliefs with their eyes.

And as with the dialectical, so with the critical process: the two are related by having a common premiss; and if it be insufficient or invalid in the one case, it cannot be beyond question in the other. Thus it is possible that the secondary element in the Gospels may be due rather to intellectual prevision than to imaginative reminiscence. We have not solved, we have not even stated and defined, the problem as to the person of Christ when we have written the life of Jesus, for that problem is raised even less by the Gospels than by Christ's place and function in the collective history of man; or, to be more correct, by the life described in the Gospels and the phenomena represented by universal history viewed in their reciprocal and interpretative inter-relations. If the Gospels stood alone, the problem would be comparatively simple; indeed, there would hardly be anything worth calling a problem, for they are concerned with events which happened in time, and with an historical figure whose antecedents, emergence, circumstances, behaviour, experiences, fate, words, are exactly the sort of material biography loves to handle. But the very essence of the matter is that the Gospels do not stand alone, but live, as it were, embosomed in universal history. And in that history Christ plays a part much more remarkable and much less compatible with common manhood than the part Jesus plays in the history of His own age and people. And we have not solved, or even apprehended, any one of the problems connected with His person until we have resolved the mystery of the place He has filled and the things He has achieved in the collective life of man.

2. We have granted that it were an easy thing to construe the life of Jesus, isolated from its historical context, in the terms of a severe naturalism; indeed, the ease with which it can be done makes it the first temptation of the intellect, which is as naturally indolent as it is instinctively audacious. But suppose our rigorous naturalism has done its work, what then? Why, we have come face to face with a new problem, which may well seem all the more mysteriously insoluble that our naturalism is courageous and complete. For Christ has to be fitted into our scheme of things, and we have to explain (1) How He whom we have resolved into a mere Jewish peasant, came to be arrayed in the most extraordinary attributes which were ever made to clothe mortal man; (2) how His historical action has corresponded to His fictitious rather than to His real character; and (3) what sort of blind accident or ironical indifference to right can reign in a universe which has allowed to fiction greater powers than have been granted to truth. The question does not relate simply to the apotheosis of Jesus; that is a process which the indolent intellect, if it be also ingenious, can facilely describe. We admit that the process may be stated in terms of such amazing verisimilitude as to turn it into a cogent probability. The question becomes urgent only when the deificatory process has been completed. The deification, if we may so call it, though the term is radically incorrect, has all the effect of the most finely calculated purpose formed after all the needs of man and the whole course of his history have been considered. There is nothing in nature or art that can so well illustrate design or adaptation to an end. And though it be illusory, yet it works not as illusion, but as truth, and for it, in a most miraculous way; true men receive it, are made truer by it, so use it as to build the world up in the love and pursuit of the truth as it had never been built up before. As unconscious fiction it is as void of substance as a dream, yet it acts upon humanity as if it were the most substantial good which had ever descended upon it out of heaven. And how, by what right, at whose instance, did this thing, the apotheosis of the obscure, happen? For it is the apotheosis which has proved the real or substantive factor of change. It is not Jesus of Nazareth who has so powerfully entered into history; it is the deified Christ who has been believed, loved, and obeyed as the Saviour of the world. The act or process of apotheosis, then, created the Christian religion; and who was responsible for it? If the imaginative peasants of Galilee, they were doing a deed no less wonderful than the creation of the world, and the power or providence which allowed them to do it was consenting by fiction and make-believe to govern reason and form character.

But what kind of reflexion is it upon the Maker and Master of the universe if we conceive Him as consenting to do this thing? Nay, in what sort of light does it set reason if we imagine it capable of being so deluded and deceived, seduced to martyrdom or compelled to enthusiasm by a mistake? Indeed, if the doctrine of the Person of Christ were explicable as the mere mythical apotheosis of Jesus of Nazareth, it would become the most insolent and fateful anomaly in history. For it could not stand alone; it would affect all thought and all objects of thought. “Here,” men would say, “a mere chapter of accidents has made one of the meanest figures in literature the most potent person of all time, the source of a series of illusions which have exercised the most transcendent influence upon the life and destinies of men. If accident and illusion have played such a part in history, what character must we attribute to the power which rules the world? Order in nature is an insignificant idea compared with the idea of order in history; but how can there be an order if the persons who create it be, in the very degree that they are potent, themselves the mere creatures of chance, or of worse than chance, fiction and pure phantasy?”

3. We may say, then, that the doctrine of the Person of Christ is no mere theory concerning an historical individual with whose biography we are all familiar. On the contrary, its attributes are those in an even higher degree of a symbol than of a fact, though of a symbol which owes all its reality to its being fact transfigured and sublimed. In other words, Christ's person is even more intellectually real than historically actual, i.e. it does not simply denote a figure which once appeared under the conditions of space and time, but it also stands for a whole order of thought, a way of regarding the universe, of conceiving God and man in themselves and in their mutual relations. Its interpretation, therefore, is not a problem in mere formal logic or limited literary criticism; but touches at once facts of history and the ultimate mysteries of being. We may, then, make here a perfunctory distinction, and say that it raises two series of questions: historical or literary, and speculative or philosophical. The historical problem is threefold, concerned, first, with the life of Jesus of Nazareth; secondly, with the process by which the thought of His people regarding Him developed from the synoptic Gospels into the conceptions that needed for their expression the formulæ of the œcumenical creeds; and, thirdly, with the mode in which the Person as represented in the history and interpreted in the doctrine has created a religion which has absorbed the noblest elements out of the past, and been the most potent factor of moral and intellectual progress that has ever entered into the life of man.

But the speculative problem is at once more simple and less soluble, viz., in what terms must we state our idea of the order in which He stands, of His place within the order, and of the qualities or right by which He holds it. Now, it is evident that every attempt to solve the former problem must be incomplete without some attempt at the solution of the latter; for a person who fulfils universal functions cannot be described and dismissed as if He were a particular individual. In other words, the secret of such a personality is not explained when historical science and literary art have combined to tell in the most adequate and exhaustive way the story of the life He lived at a given moment in a given place, and of how He was conceived in ages of imaginative faith and metaphysical enthusiasm; but only when such a coherent conception of Him is reached as shall show Him in organic relation to the whole system of things. Now, whatever we may think of the œcumenical formulæ, we must acknowledge that their purpose was to make Christ represent in His person the natures, relations, inter-activities, community and difference in attribute and being, of God and man. They may have in many respects done violence to both speculation and logic; but one thing we must confess: if the idea they tried to express as to Christ's person had not been formulated centuries since, we should have been forced to invent it, or something like it, in order that we might have some reasonable hypothesis explanatory of the course things have taken. And this, we may add, means that the problem is neither dead nor concerned with the recovery of a world of dead ideas, but one of living actuality, concerned with all that is most vital and characteristic in the thought of to-day.

Now, this defines our purpose, which may be stated thus: to discuss the question as to the Person of Christ, what He was, and how He ought to be conceived, not simply as a chapter in Biblical or in systematic theology, but as a problem directly raised by the place He holds and the functions He has fulfilled in the life of Man, collective and individual. The principle which underlies the discussion we may further state in these terms: the conception of Christ stands related to history as the idea of God is related to Nature, i.e. each is in its own sphere the factor of order, or the constitutive condition of a rational system. The study of nature has been the means of unfolding, explicating, and defining the contents of the idea of God; the study of history has developed, amplified and justified the conception of Christ. We hope that this statement may in the course of the discussions which follow become something more and better than a paradox.

Of course, a too timid faith may doubt whether it be pious to regard the Person of Christ as in any proper sense a fit subject for philosophical discussion; and it may urge that, as the knowledge of it came by revelation, it is only as a revealed truth, attested and authenticated by inspired men, that it ought to be accepted and understood. The only proper method of elucidation and proof is the exegesis of the sacred Scriptures, while the precise sense in which it is to be construed has been defined by the great councils of the undivided Church. The Incarnation is a mystery which transcends reason, and it can enter into the categories of metaphysical criticism only to be mishandled, profaned and misjudged.

But to this it may be sufficient to reply: it does not lie in the power of any man or any society to keep the mysteries of faith out of the hands of reason. Nature and history, the very necessities of belief and its continued life, have combined to invite reason to enter the domain of faith. The only condition on which reason could have nothing to do with religion, is that religion should have nothing to do with truth. For in every controversy concerning what is or what is not truth, reason and not authority is the supreme arbiter; the authority that decides against reason commits itself to a conflict which is certain to issue in its defeat. The men who defend faith must think as well as the men who oppose it; their argumentative processes must be rational and their conclusions supported by rational proofs. If it were illicit for reason to touch the mysteries of religion, the Church would never have had a creed or have believed a doctrine, nor would man have possessed a faith higher than the mythical fancies which pleased his childhood. Without the exercise of reason we should never have had the Fourth Gospel or the Pauline Epistles, or any one of those treatises on the Godhead, the Incarnation, or the Atonement, from Athanasius to Hegel, or from Augustine to our own day, which have done more than all the decrees of all the Councils, or all the Creeds of all the Churches, to keep faith living and religion a reality. The man who despises or distrusts the reason despises the God who gave it, and the most efficient of all the servants He has bidden work within and upon man in behalf of truth. Here, at least, it may be honestly said there is no desire to build Faith upon the negation of Reason; where both are sons of God it were sin to seek to make the one legitimate at the expense of the other's legitimacy.