Saying, What shall we do to these men?…
In religious systems the ultimate test of validity must ever be practical efficiency. Let us then apply this test to Christianity. Putting the argument in the broadest way, it stands thus: The fact of human sinfulness is proved from the universality of the consciousness of moral imperfection, and the assertion of the Christian Scriptures. Now philosophers, theologians, and moralists have set themselves to correct this evil, and to exert such influences as may quicken within men holy affections, and array their will resolutely and effectively on the side of purity and piety. The world has had along history. All kinds of experiments have been made in it. We know what was the faith, and what the kind of life that it produced in Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, and other non-Christian nations. We know how various forms of Christianity have worked in Europe. We know the effects of infidelity. And the comparative claims of these various systems are submitted to our verdict. Which of all the theologies, philosophies, or moralities propagated amongst men has been the most effective in making men good? We might rest the argument first upon a broad historical view of nations and peoples; we might compare Christian nations with idolatrous or Mohammedan nations; and point out how little non-Christian faiths have done to correct moral evil in men. We gladly admit that they have done something, and cannot question the true and noble elements of Buddhism, etc., and the very worst superstition is better than unchecked godlessness and vice. There may be religious traditions of a primitive knowledge of God which even a Bechuana has not lost. Yet who would hesitate to recognise the moral superiority of Christianity, and the greater practical power of its truths? A similar line of argument, secondly, might be maintained respecting different forms of Christianity. Just in proportion as it has been spiritual, biblical, have the nations who have received it been virtuous, noble, industrious, and powerful. The connection between Popery and the state of nations such as Spain, Austria, Italy, and Ireland, not to speak of France; and between Protestantism and the state of nations such as Germany, England, and the United States, is too obvious to need exposition. And one has only to think of the principles, religious, social, and political, of the two systems, to see that the result is inevitable. Sacerdotalism, in all its forms, is antagonistic to the noblest life of nations or men. But these lines of argument demand volumes for their adequate illustration. Let me take one or two of the fundamental elements of Christianity, and look at their adaptation to make men holy.
I. THE BIBLE. It is our authoritative religious book, claiming to be a supernatural revelation of the thought and heart of God. Is, then, the Bible, as tested by its history and practical moral power, the efficient instrument for recovering men? On many sides its claims are disallowed. It is denied that it is inspired — only as Plato, and Bacon, and Shakespeare, and Milton are inspired. It is not, we are told, even true as a history. Its chronology, statistics, science are false, its miracles impossible violations of natural law, its prophecies but remarkable coincidences or sagacious prognostications. There is in the Book nothing that may not be accounted for on natural principles. How, then, are its Divine claims to be vindicated? Christianity has scholars abundantly competent to reply to the scholars of infidelity. Nay, the chief learning and science, criticism and philosophy of the world, are Christian. Hitherto, moreover, every assault of hostile criticism has only called forth new champions, who by fresh researches and lines of argument have shown how impregnable and manifold its defences are. But the vindication of the Bible need not be left to learned argumentation. We may appeal to the religious character and achievements of the Bible. Alone among the religious books of the world it is a book of history; and further, itself has a history. The Bible is not like the Zendavesta, a book of liturgies; nor like the Vedic Hymns, a book of impossible legends; nor like the writings of Confucius and Plato, a book of moral philosophy; nor like the Koran, a book of mere doctrine and precept. Fundamentally and characteristically it is history. What, then, is the moral character of the Bible? and what have been its moral effects? Take as a test of the Old Testament the Book of Genesis. Is it history or is it legend, from God or of men? Do we need a Niebuhr to give us a reply? Nay, verily. Make what abatement we may for historic or scientific difficulties, indisputable religious characteristics remain.
1. How are we to account for its characters, Abel, Enoch, Abraham? Hew is it that Abraham, the "friend of God," is not, like Hercules, a demigod or a hero? Always in closest intimacy with Jehovah, he is yet always as human in all his thoughts and actions as the men of to-day. How is it, again, that the Jehovah whom he worships is not like Zeus, an incongruous conception of supernatural attributes, human imperfections, and even vile passions. While the worshipper has no single trait of divinity, the Jehovah whom he worships has no single trait of humanity. How is it that these conceptions of the human and Divine, and of their relations, so incomparably transcend all the mythologies of the world, that in fundamental ideas we have neither surpassed nor altered them since?
2. How is it, again, that the morality taught in the Book of Genesis so singularly transcends even that of Plato; nay, that it is so wonderfully accordant with the moral conceptions and feelings of our own day? Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, are fully delineated, and their faults exposed. Wrong is never confounded with right. How came it to pass that when the philosophy of a Plato and the morality of an Aristotle were so signally defective, this old book of three thousand years ago anticipated the fundamental theology and morality of our nineteenth Christian century? Is not the only possible answer — These were men whom God had healed, and this is God's record concerning them? Difficulties of science or of history have no weight against these moral evidences, based as the former are upon ignorance or erroneous interpretation, which greater information might remove. But there can be no mistake about these positive features, and before the claims of the record can be rejected these must be accounted for.
II. Turning to the New Testament, still grander moral delineations are presented to us. Peerless and Divine stands THE MORAL PORTRAITURE OF JESUS CHRIST. Whence is it? of man or of God? Whatever we may think about Christianity, Christ Himself is the greatest moral miracle of human history. Had Jesus never lived, could His character have been imagined? Has any conception of romance approached it since? Think of —
1. His calm, majestic strength, His perfect self-possession and dignity, and yet His nature intense even to passion in its emotions. He denounces the Pharisees, but without a vestige of unholy passion; He drives out the money-changers, but without a spark of religious fanaticism.
2. The wisdom of His holiness. His is not the innocence that is ignorant of human life, it is the strength that is above it.
3. His self-consciousness and self-assertion. When He speaks concerning Himself it is to avow His human faultlessness, to assert His Divine perfection and prerogative. His character, He claims, has been subjected to unparalleled tests, and without the discovery of a single flaw.
4. The singular proportion and adjustment of His character. What a wonderful harmony of greatness and gentleness, holiness and pity, strength and sympathy; the grandeur of the loftiest manhood, the tenderness of the gentlest womanhood. We reverence as much as we love Him, we love Him as much as we worship Him.
5. His moral excellences in combination with His intellectual greatness.
6. His conception of His own kingdom. He, a peasant of the mountain village of Nazareth, conceives a kingdom of pure spiritual life, alike adapted to the ancient Asiatic and to the modern European, to the shivering Esquimaux and to the torrid Hindoo; a kingdom of universal brotherhood, in which all men are to be knit together in holiness and love. May we not, then, fairly appeal to the moral portraiture of the New Testament in proof that it is of God? Not merely to its healed men, but also to their Healer. Scepticism has had its men of genius — why has it never produced another gospel? Upon the moral integrity of its Christ Christianity is staked. He alleged that He wrought miracles. But if He never did them, the loftiest truth, the purest morality of the world is the offspring of a lie — a moral solecism so great that our entire consciousness rejects it.
III. Nor are THE EFFECTS OF CHRIST'S GOSPEL or the religious history of the Bible less conclusive. We know what Christianity did in apostolic times, when it came into contact with the unutterable depravities of Greece and Rome — what it found its converts, and what it made them. We know what it has done in every land to which it has come since; what just now Europe is in contrast with Asia, America in contrast with Africa. We know what fifty years ago the South Sea Islands were, and what — the officers of our navy and the intercourse of our merchant ships being witness — they are now. And its latest triumphs have been the most signal. A few chapters of the Bible, sometimes a single page, has sustained and propagated the Christianity of Madagascar; inspiring its converts with the virtue of saints and with the heroism of martyrs. No other book does this. Stand in a pulpit and read to men Plato or Milton or Bacon: where are their converts? whose hearts do they change? whose lives do they sanctify? Read to them the Bible, and healed men spring up everywhere, "walking, and leaping, and praising God."
IV. We might take THE DISTINCTIVE DOCTRINES OF CHRISTIANITY, and reason from them in the same way.
1. No doctrine, e.g., has been more demurred to than the doctrine of atonement. It has been represented as unrighteous and immoral. It is sufficient to reply —
(1) That this, for eighteen hundred years, has been the fundamental doctrine of Christendom. The moral conscience of Christian men, so far from stumbling at its supposed moral incongruities, has gloried in nothing so greatly.
(2) That if it be a false doctrine, men are misled the most grievously where they think themselves guided the most explicitly; and instead of being the most lucid, the New Testament is the most ambiguous of books.
(3) That in its practical influence upon men's hearts and lives, this alleged error has been more potent and fruitful than all admitted truth. Whenever this idea is lost, whatever else is retained, religious life is chilled down, and grateful love is abated. Can we then imagine that all this is a delusion? that this gratitude has been falsely generated? this holiness illegitimately wrought? It cannot be; man's error can never be more potent than God's truth.
2. So with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is objected to as loosening the bonds of responsibility, as encouraging a perilous laxity in morals; inasmuch as men who are taught that all their goodness is from God, and that a Divine power external to themselves must "create in them a clean heart," and "renew them day by day," are not likely to strive to be good. Again we appeal to the inexorable logic of fact, to healed men. Who in religious life are the most sensitive to sin, the most scrupulous in holiness, the most consecrated in service, the most beneficent in help? Beyond all dispute, they who theoretically believe, and who practically illustrate the new birth of the Spirit. In a word, we boldly submit all the fundamental doctrines of Christianity to this test of results. Conclusion: Every Christian minister, every town missionary, almost every member of a Christian Church, could adduce instances, some of them scores and hundreds, which would stand the test of any judicial investigation. No one rejects Christianity because its influences are pernicious, or Christ, because His teaching is immoral. When Christian men are charged with inconsistency, the very charge implies a standard far higher than any other in our social life. Reason with a sceptical objector, you may be ignominiously defeated. But the argument from moral result is unanswerable. The most ignorant can say, "Whether this be of God or not I cannot tell; this I know, that whereas once I was blind now I see." If the objector tells you what his philosophy is, you show him what your Christianity has done. He challenges the philosophy of your creed, you challenge the moral effects of his infidelity. Where are its religious penitents, its rescued reprobates, its Magdalens and prodigals? And if he has found no such moral power to make men holy, he will, if a true man, tell you with a sorrowful heart, how reluctantly he rejects your Christianity. He who feels no such anguish, or who chuckles over any discredit of a benign and holy Christianity, is simply a fiend and not a man. In this way, then, even gainsayers may be made to confess, "That a notable miracle hath been done by these Christian teachers, is manifest to all them that dwell in the land, and we cannot deny it."
(H. Allon, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it.