Abbott -- the Divinity in Humanity


Lyman Abbott was born at Roxbury, Mass., in 1835. As successor to Henry Ward Beecher, at Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, he ministered with great spiritual power until 1898, when he resigned his pastorate to devote his entire time to The Outlook, of which he was, and still is, the editor. Dr. Abbott's conception of the minister's work is briefly summed up in his own words:

"Whenever a minister forgets the splendid message of pardon, peace and power based on faith in Jesus Christ as God manifest in the flesh, whenever for this message he substitutes literary lectures, critical essays, sociological disquisitions, theological controversies, or even ethical interpretations of the universal conscience, whenever, in other words, he ceases to be a Christian preacher and becomes a lyceum or seminary lecturer, he divests himself of that which in all ages of the world has been the power of the Christian ministry, and will be its power so long as men have sins to be forgiven, temptations to conquer, and sorrows to be assuaged."


BORN IN 1835


Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? -- John X., 34-36.

The context and argument is this: Jesus Christ has declared that He will give unto His sheep eternal life; and that no one can pluck them out of His hand, because He and His Father are one; and the Father who gives these sheep to His care and keeping is greater than all the forces that are leagued against them. Thereat the Jews took up stones against Him, saying: "Being a man thou makest thyself equal with God." And Christ answers with our text. He refers them back to the Old Testament, which, He says, declares of the judges of Israel, of the men to whom the inspiration of God came, that they are divine. "Why, then," He says, "do you accuse Me of blasphemy because I claim divinity?" It is impossible to consider this a mere play upon the word; that Christ uses the word God in one sense in one paragraph and in another sense in the paragraph immediately following. It is impossible to conceive that this is a kind of sacred pun. No, no; the argument is clear and unmistakable. According to your Old Testament scripture, He says, the men in whom and to whom and through whom the power and grace of God are manifested are themselves the partakers of the divine nature. If that is so, if the men of the olden times, patriarchs and prophets, through whom the divine nature was manifested -- if they are divine, do not accuse me of blasphemy because I claim for Myself divinity. If in this message, on the one hand, Christ claims kinship with God, on the other He lifts the whole of humanity up with Him and makes the claim for them. The religion of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the religion of Christianity and of Judaism, is a religion of faith in God. But it is not less truly a religion of faith in man, and of faith in man because man is a child of God. And the one faith would be utterly useless without the other. For faith in God is effective because it is accompanied with faith in man as the child of God.

And in this faith in man is the inspiration of all human progress. Faith in man, I say. Faith sees something which the eye does not see. Faith sees something which the reason does not perceive. Faith is not irrational, but it perceives a transcendent truth, over beyond that which the sense perceives. Faith is always intermixed with hope and with a great expectation, either with a hope because it sees something which is not yet but will be, or else with a hope because it sees something which is not yet seen but will be seen. Faith in a man is not a belief that man is to-day a great, noble character, but it is a perception in man of dormant possibilities of greatness and nobility which time and God will develop. It is only the man who has faith in man who can really interpret man. It is faith in man that gives us all true human insight. The difference between a photograph and a portrait is this: the photograph gives the outward feature, and stops there; and most of us, when we stand in a photograph saloon to have our picture taken, hide our soul away. The artist sees the soul behind the man, knows him, understands something of his nature, and paints the soul that looks out through the eyes. He sees in the man something which the sun does not exhibit, and makes that something shine on the canvas. The artist in literature sees an ideal humanity, and interprets it. Realism in literature does not portray the real man. Anthony Trollope pictures the Englishman as he is to-day, and society as any man may take it with a kodak; but Dickens gives Toby Veck and Tiny Tim; George Eliot, Adam Bede and Dinah Morris. Men say that no such boy ever lived as MacDonald has portrayed in Sir Gibbie. In every street Arab is a possible Sir Gibbie; and MacDonald has seen the possible and shown us what Christianity may make out of a street Arab. In this perception of a possible in man lies the spirit of all progress in science. The man of practical science laughs at the notion of an iron railway on which steam cars shall travel faster than English coaches. But the man of faith in men, who believes that it is in the power of men to dominate the powers of nature, builds the road. The man of practical science laughs at the notion that we can reach up our hands into the clouds and draw down the lightning. But Franklin does it. The man of faith is sometimes mistaken, but he is always experimenting, because he always believes that man to-morrow will be more than man is to-day or was yesterday. And all progress in civilization has its secret in this great faith in man as a being that has a mastery, not yet interpreted, not yet understood, not yet comprehended in its fulness, over all the powers of nature.

Now, is there any ground or basis for this faith in man? Have we a right to believe that man is more than he seems to be, as we can see him in the street to-day? Have we a right to build our institutions and fabrics on this belief? Have we a right to think that man can govern himself, or must we go back and say with Carlyle and Ruskin and Voltaire that the great body of men are incompetent to govern themselves, and a few wise rulers must govern them? Have we a right to believe that all the progress that has thus far been made in science is but an augury of progress far greater, reaching into the illimitable? Have we a right to say that these portraits of a possible humanity, this Portia, this Toby Veck, this Tiny Tim, this ideal man and woman, are real men and real women in possibility, if not in the actualities of life? Or are we to think of them as simply phantasmagoria hung up for the delectation of a passing moment? The Bible makes answer to that question, -- the Bible preeminently, but the great poets and the great prophets of all religions; the Bible, because the poets and the prophets of the Bible transcend the poets and the prophets of all other religions. And that declaration is that man is made in the image of God, and that God dwells in man and is coming to the manifestation of Himself in growing, developing, redeemed humanity. Our Bible starts out with the declaration that God made man in His own image. The poets take the idea up. MacDonald tells us in that beautiful poem of his, that the babe came through the blue sky and got the blue of his eyes as he came; Wordsworth, that the child's imaginings are the recollected glory of a heavenly home; and the author of the first chapter of Genesis, that God breathed his own breath into the nostrils of man and made him in the image of God. All fancy, all imaginings? But, my dear friends, there is a truth in fancy as well as in science. We need not believe that this aspiration that shows itself in the pure mind of a little child is a trailing glory that he has brought with him from some pre-existent state. We need not think that it is physiological fact that the sky colored the eyes of the babe as the babe came through. Nor need we suppose that man was a clay image into which God breathed a physical breath, so animating him. But beyond all this imagery is the vision of the poet. God in man; a divine life throbbing in humanity; man the offspring of God; man coming forth from the eternal and going forth into the eternal.

This is the starting-point of the Bible. Starting with this, it goes on with declaration after declaration based on this fundamental doctrine that man and God in their essential moral attributes have the same nature. It is human experience which is used to interpret divine experience. According to pagan thought, God speaks to men through movements of the stars, through all external phenomena, through even entrails of animals. Seldom so in the Bible, save as when the wise men followed the star, and then that they might come to a divine humanity. In the Old Testament God speaks in human experience, through human experience, about human experience, to typify and interpret and explain Himself. God is like a shepherd that shepherds his flock. God is like a king that rules in justice. He is like the father that provides for his children. He is like the mother that comforts the weeping child. All the experiences of humanity are taken in turn and attributed to God. The hopes, the fears, the sorrows, the joys, the very things which we call faults in men -- so strong and courageous are the old prophets in this fundamental faith of theirs that man and God are alike -- the very things we call faults in men are attributed to the Almighty. He is declared to hate, to be wrathful, to be angry, to be jealous; because, at the root, every fault is a virtue set amiss; and the very faults of men have in them something that interprets the power and will of God, as the very faults of a boy interpret the virtues of his father. All through the Old Testament God manifests Himself through human experience. He speaks in the hearts of men; He dwells in the experience of men; He interprets Himself through the life of men; and, finally, when this one selected nation which has a genius for spiritual truth has been so far educated that there is no danger that it will go back and worship man, that it will become a mere hero-worshiper, when it has been so far educated that there is no danger of that, then Jesus Christ comes into the world -- God manifests Himself in human life.

Who, then, is Jesus Christ? Let John tell us. The Oriental world was puzzled about the question of the origin of evil. They said, in brief, a good God cannot make a bad world. Out of a good God, therefore, there have emanated other gods, and out of these gods other gods, until at last there came to be imperfect gods or bad gods. And the world was made, some of them said, partly by a good god and partly by a bad one; and others by an imperfect god who was an emanation of the perfect one. Of these emanations one was Life, another was Light, another was the Word. And John, writing in the age of Oriental philosophy, uses the phraseology of Oriental philosophy in order that he might tell mankind who and what Jesus Christ is. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God." God never was an abstraction; from the very beginning He was a speaking God, a living God, a manifesting God, a forth-putting God. "The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. And this Word became flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth." Let me put this into modern language. What is it but this? From eternity God has been a manifesting God. When the fulness of time came, God, that He might manifest Himself to His children, came into a human life and dwelt in a human life. He that had spoken here through one prophet, there through another prophet; He that had sent one message in this direction and another in that; He that had spoken through signs and tokens, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, in divers manners and in fragmentary utterances -- when the fulness of time had come, He spoke in one perfect human life, taking entire possession of it and making it His own, that He might manifest Himself in terms of human experience to humanity. Or turn to Paul and let me read you this declaration; "Let this mind be in you which was also in Jesus Christ; who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man, and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." What is this, again, but the same declaration? God desiring to show Himself to humanity, entered into one human life, became subject to human conditions, shared the weakness, the wants, the ignorance of humanity, entered into and was identified with one human life.

Do I say, then, that Jesus Christ was a man like other men? No. But I do say that in their essential qualities God and man are identical, and God entered into humanity that He might show to humanity what He is. I do say, not that Jesus Christ was a man like other men, but that other men may become like Jesus Christ. I hold a bulb in my one hand and a tulip in my other. Will any man say to me, this beautiful flower with all its rich coloring is like this bulb? Oh, no! But let the sun of God shine long enough on this bulb, put it where it belongs, subject it to the conditions of life, and this bulb will become like this flower. Man is made in the image of God. All that is in man that is not in God's image does not belong to man's nature. Natural depravity? There is no natural depravity. Depravity is unnatural. Depravity is contra-natural. It is against the whole law of man's being. It is never wrong for any creature God has made to act out the nature which God endowed him with. It is not wicked for a tiger to be ravening. It is not wicked for a snake to be sinuous. It is wicked for man to be ravening or sinuous, because it is against the divine nature that God has put in man. He made man for better things.

God made man in His own image, God coming through successive stages, manifesting Himself in successive relations of Himself in human experience, God at last disclosing Himself in one pure, sinless, typical man in order that man through that humanity might know who and what God is -- and is that the end? Oh, no! That is the beginning, only the beginning. For what did God come in Christ? Simply to show Himself? Here is a hospital -- all manner of sick; the paralytic, the fever-stricken, the consumptive. Is it good news to these hospital bedridden ones if an athlete come in and show them his life, his muscles, the purity of his lungs, the health of his constitution, and then goes out? But if he comes in and says, "My friends, if you will follow my directions I will put into you consumptive ones some of the strength of my lungs, into you fever-stricken ones some of the purity of my blood; into you paralytic ones some of the sinew and muscle I possess -- you can become like me," then there is good news in the message. If God came into the world simply to tell us what God is and what the ideal of humanity is, the gospel would be the saddest message that could be conceived, as delivered to the human race. It would add gloom to the gloom, darkness to the darkness, chains to the chains, despair to despair. He comes not merely to show divinity to us, but to impart divinity to us; rather, to evolve the latent divinity which He first implanted in us. As God has entered into Christ, He will enter into me. Christ says to me: As I am patient, you can become patient; as I am strong, you can become strong; as I am pure, you can become pure; as I am the Son of God, you can become the Son of God. Therefore His message is the gospel that it is.

Christ is not a man like other men. I can find in the biography of Jesus no trace of sin. In every other biography, oh, how many traces! There is no trace of repentance. The Hebrew Psalmist laments his iniquity. Paul confesses himself to be the chief of sinners. Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Edwards -- go where I will, in the biography of all the saints there are signs of sin and iniquity. Never a trace of repentance or confession in Christ. In all others we see a struggle after God. "My heart panteth after thee, as the hart panteth after water-brooks." "I count not myself to have attained, but, forgetting those things that are behind, I press forward toward the mark." Never in the written biography of Christ a trace of that aspiration after something not yet reached. On the contrary, a great peace and a great possession. He says: I have come full of life. I have come to give life. This sinless Christ comes that He may give to us that which He Himself possesses; that He may take the sin out of our lives and sorrow out of our hearts, and for the yearning desire give a great, great peace. I have come, He says, that you might have life. How much, Lord and Master? Life more abundantly. What kind of life, Lord and Master? Eternal life. Has He come with that great life of His to give a little and then stop? Nay, to give all to every one that every one will take.

I marvel to find Christian men denying that Christ is the type and manifestation and revelation of the possible divinity in universal humanity. It is written all over the Bible. What says Christ Himself? I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly. As the Father has sent Me into the world, even so I send you into the world. You shall be My disciples. You shall learn of Me. You shall be My followers, and tread where I have trod. You shall take up My cross, and suffer as I have suffered. The secret of My life shall be the secret of your life. Ye shall be in Me. I will abide with you. Ye shall be as a branch grafted on the vine, drawing the same life as I have, as out of My very veins. As the Father was in Me, so I and My Father will come and abide in you. He breathes upon the disciples and tells them to receive the Spirit that was in Him; and in His last prayer He prays that they may share His glory, that they may be one with the Father, as He is one with the Father. Paul takes up the same refrain and repeats it over and over again. Righteousness in man is the righteousness of God, God's own righteousness coming out of God's heart into human hearts. Ye shall be partakers of the divine nature. Ye shall be joint heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ, inheriting all that Christ inherited from His Father. Ye shall have the same spirit that was in Christ. Metaphor and trope and figure are exhausted in the endeavor of the apostle to set forth this sublime truth. Christ is the servant of God. We are the servants of God. He is the Son of God. We are the sons of God. He is the light of the world. We are the lights of the world. He is a priest forever. We are priests perpetually serving in His temple. He is the one eternal sacrifice. We are to present our bodies a living sacrifice before God. He is dead. We are to die with Him. He has risen. We are to rise with Him. Already we sit in the heavenly place with Christ Jesus. We are changed from glory to glory into His image. We are predestined to be conformed to that image. We are bid to pray that we may be rooted and grounded in Christ, and that with Him, we may be filled with all the fulness of God.

Do I say, then, that I am equal to Christ? Or that I shall ever become equal to Christ? No! Let me try to make this plain to the child, and then the rest will perhaps understand it. Here is a great man. He is a great statesman. He is a great poet. He is a great orator. He is a great philosopher. He is a great general. He is Bismarck and Gladstone and Dante and Napoleon and Raphael and Plato all combined in one. And he has children, and this boy is a statesman, and this boy is a general, and this boy is an orator, and this boy is a poet, and this boy is an artist. No one of them comprizes all the genius that was in his father, but each one has one quality of that father, and all the boys together reflect their father's nature. No, I shall never be equal to Christ. But according to the measure of my own capacity, I may reflect even here and now something of Christ and be really Christ-like.

Christ is my Master. I acknowledge no other Master than Him. I wish to follow where He leads. I gladly believe whatever He says. And I have no other ambition -- oh, I wish it were true that I never had any other ambition! -- than to be like Him. But He is my Master because He bids me follow where He leads, because He gives what I can take, because He promised what He will yet fulfil. I believe in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the center of my faith, as He is the center and source of my life. But I do not believe in the medieval formula that Jesus Christ is God and man mysteriously joined together, because to believe that would be to leave me both without an ideal of man which I might follow, and without a manifestation of God to which I might cling. In my country home two Christians quarreled. An atheist went to them and said to one of them, "Your Christ said, 'Forgive all your enemies and love one another.'" "Yes," he said, "Christ was divine. He could. I cannot." But there was nothing of moral virtue that God wrought in Christ that He cannot work in you and me if we give Him time enough. And, on the other hand, this separation of "God" and "man" in Christ denies the real manifestation of God to man. Jesus called His disciples to watch while He wrestled with agony in Gethsemane, and Dean Alford, speaking on Gethsemane, says this was the manifestation in Christ of human weakness. No! no! A thousand times, No! It is the glorious manifestation of that sympathy in God which wants the sympathy of the feeblest of His followers, as the mother wants the sympathy and love of the babe on her lap. "Beloved, now are we the sons of God; and it doth not yet appear what we shall be. Only we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." There are two things we do not know. Genius is always a mystery, spiritual genius the greatest mystery of genius, and Christ the greatest mystery of all. We do not know what we shall be, any more than one who never had seen a garden could guess what the mold would be when the spring had finished its work. Those are two things we do not know. But there are two things we do know. We shall be like Him, and when we are like Him, we shall see Him as He is. We shall be like no imagination of Him, no deteriorated or imperfect conception of Him; but when we come to see Him in all the regal splendor of His character, with all the love, all the justice, all the purity, all the divine glory which is adumbrated and shadowed here because our eyes could not look upon it and still live -- when we come to see Him in all the glory of that divine character, we shall be like Him -- we shall be like Him.

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