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It is a large inquiry. I can but belief, once absolutely universal in touch on a few salient points.
Christendom, that no human being I. First, there is the essentially could be saved who had not passed progressive element in religion itself. through the waters of baptism ; Lord Macaulay, in his celebrated that even innocent children, if not essay on Ranke's History of the Popes, immersed in the font, were doomed maintains, with all the exuberance of to endless perdition? Or where are logic and rhetoric, the difference be- the interminable questions respecting tween theology and all other sciences the doctrine of predestination or the is in this respect, that what it was in mode of justification which occupied the days of the patriarch Job, such it the middle of the sixteenth and the must be in the nineteenth century, close of the eighteenth century in and to the end of time. No doubt in Protestant Churches ? Into what limbo religion, as in all great subjects of has passed the terrible conflict between human thought, there is a permanent the Burghers and the Anti-Burghers and unchanging element; but in every amongst the now United Presbything which relates to its form, in terians ? What do we now hear of much which relates to its substance, the doctrine of the Double Procesthe paradox of our great historian is sion, or of the Light on Mount Tabor, as contrary to fact as it would be which in the ninth century and in the crushing to our aspirations if it were fifteenth filled the mind of Eastern true. In the practice of theological Christendom? These questions for controversy, it has been too much the the time occupied, in these several custom to make the most of differences Churches, the whole horizon of theoand the least of agreements. But in logical thought. They are dead and the theological study of the past, it has buried; and for us, standing on their been too much the custom to see only graves, it is idle to say that theology the agreements and not the differences. has not changed. It has changed. Look in the face the fact that the belief Religion has survived those changes; of each successive epoch of Christendom and this is the historical pledge that has varied enormously from the belief it may, that it will, survive a thousand of its predecessors. The variations of more. the Catholic Church, both past and Even the mere removal of what may present, have been almost, if not be called dead matter out of the path quite, as deep and wide as the varia- of living progress is of itself a positive tions of Protestantism ; and these gain. But the signs of the capability variations, whilst they show that each of future improvement in Religion are form of theology is but an approxima more direct than this. No doubt theotion to the truth, and not the whole logians have themselves to thank for truth itself, contain the surest indica- the rigid, immutable character which tion of vitality in the whole body of has been ascribed by philosophers religious faith. The conceptions of to their beliefs. The Jesuit maxim, the relations of man to man, and, still Sint ut sunt, aut non sint, has been too more, of man to God, have been in- often accepted in all Churches for any contestably altered with the growth of the Churches to complain if they of centuries. Not to speak of the have been taken at their word. But total extinction of ancient polytheism, already, as far back as the Reformation, and confining ourselves within the there were indications of a deeper inlimits of the Christian Church, it is one sight-exceptional and quaint, but so of the most consolatory fruits of theo- expressive as to vindicate for Christianlogical study to observe the disappear ity, even then, the widest range which ance of whole continents of useless future discoveries may open before it. controversies which once distracted In the first Confession of John Knox, the world. What has become of the the Reformers had perceived what had been so long concealed from the eyes England, exclaim :-"I will not beof the Schoolmen and the Fathers—that lieve that the Reformers locked the the most positive expressions, even of door, and threw away the key for their own convictions, were not guaran- ever!” It is in the light of this proteed from imperfection or mutability; gressive historical development that the and the entreaty with which that Con- confessions and liturgies, the doctrines fession is prefaced, contains at once a and usages, of former times find their tine example of true Christian humility proper place. All of them, taken as the and the stimulus to the noblest Chris- final expressions of absolute truth, are tian ambition_“We conjure you, if misleading. All of them, even the most any man will note in this our Con- imperfect, may be taken as the various fession any article or sentence repug- phases and steps of a Church and a nant to God's Holy Word, that it faith whose glory it is to be perpetually would please him of his gentleness, advancing towards perfection. and for Christian charity's sake, to II. When we examine in detail admonish us of the same in writing; the materials of Christian theology, ind we, upon our honour and fidelity, they give abundant confirmation of do promise him satisfaction from the this general truth. Theology has Holy Scriptures, or due reformation of gained, and may gain immensely, by that which he shall prove to be amiss.” the process which has produced so And perhaps even more striking is the vast a change in all other branches like expression in the well-known of knowledge-the process of diving address of the first pastor of the below the surface and discovering Pilgrim Fathers, before embarking on the original foundations. How much the great enterprise which was to issue has been effected for archæology by in the foundation of new churches the excavations of Pompeii, of Nineveh, and new commonwealths beyond the of Rome, of Troy, of Mycenæ ! How Atlantic—“I am verily persuaded much for history, by the explorathat the Lord has more truth yet tion of the archives of Simancas, of to come for us-yet to break forth out the Register House of Edinburgh ! of His Holy Word. The Lutherans How much for science, by the crucible cannot be drawn to go beyond what of chemistry, by the spade and hatchet Luther saw. The Calvinists stick fast of the geologist, by the plummet of the where they were left by that great man Challenger ! To this general law theoof God, who yet saw not all things. logy furnishes no exception. Every Though they were burning and shining deep religious system has in it more lights, yet they penetrated not into the than appeared at the time to its whole counsel of God, but were as votaries, far more than has appeared willing to embrace further light as that in later times to its adversaries. Even which they first received. I beseech in the ancient pagan religions of Greece you to remember that it is an article and Rome, it is surprising to observe of your Church's covenant, that you be how vast a power of expansion and ready to receive whatever truth shall edification was latent in forms of be made known to you from the written which the influence might long ago Word of God.” “Noble words," says seem to have died out. The glory of the eloquent historian' of the Dutch the Homeric poems, the solemnity of Republic; “ words to bear fruit, after Sophocles and Æschylus, the beauty centuries shall go by.” They are of the Apollo Belvidere, have, as it indeed, the charter of the future were, risen from their graves after glories of Protestant, and perhaps of the lapse of centuries, and occupy a Roman Christianity. Well did Arch- larger space in the modern mind than bishop Whately, on the eve of a change they have done at any time since their in the constitution of the Church of first creation. Even in the case of
within the last century, been awakened from a slumber of ages, and has been discovered to contain maxims which Christendom might cultivate with advantage, but which, in all the long centuries of ignorance, were hopelessly forgotten both by friends and foes. A great religion is not dead because it is not immediately comprehended, or because it is subsequently perverted, if only its primitive elements contain, along with the seeds of decay and transformation, the seeds of living truth. Especially is this the case in Christianity, which is not only (like Mohammedanism) the religion of a sacred book, but the religion of a sacred literature and a sacred life.
Putting aside for the moment all question of the divine authority of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and of the dogmatic systems built upon them, it is certain that their original force and grace is far more keenly appreciated now than it was when they were overlaid with fanciful allegories and scholastic perversions. The spirit of the time, the “ Zeit-Geist," as Matthew Arnold says, “has turned the rays of his lantern” full upon them, and in “ the fierce light” that beats upon their structure through this process, if some parts have faded away, if the relation of all the parts to each other has been greatly altered, yet there can be no question that by its influence, which has penetrated more or less, all modern theology, the meaning, and with the meaning the grandeur and the beauty, of the Sacred Volume has been brought out with a fulness which was unknown to Hume and Voltaire, because it had been equally unknown to Aquinas and Augustine. Whole systems of false doctrine or false practice, whole fabrics of barbarous phraseology, have received their death-blow as the Ithuriel of modern criticism has transfixed with his spear here a spurious text, there an untenable interpretation, here a wrong translation, there a mistaken punctuation.
Or again, with regard to our in
creased knowledge of the dates and authorship of particular books, much, no doubt, remains obscure; but this partial ignorance is as the fulness of knowledge compared with the total blank which prevailed in the Church for a thousand years or more. All the instruction, inward and outward, which we have acquired from our discovery of the successive dates, and therewith of the successive phases, of St. Paul's Epistles, was lost almost until the beginning of this century, but has now become the starting point of fresh inquiry and fresh delight in very historical or theological treatise. The disentanglement of the Psalter, the Pentateuch, and the Book of Isaiah from the artificial and fallaci ous monotony in which, regardless of times and circumstances, a blind tradition had involved them, gives a significance to the several portions of the respective books which no one who has once grasped it will ever willingly abandon. The Parables, as has been of late well described, have by their very nature an immortality of application which could never have been perceived had they been always, as they were in many instances at the time of their first delivery, shut up within the gross, carnal, matter-of-fact interpretation of those who said, “ How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” or “It is because we have taken no bread.” In short, when it was perceived, in the noble language of Burke, that the Bible was not a dead code, or collection of rigid dogmas, but, "an infinite variety of a most venerable and most multifarious literature,” from that moment it became as impossible in the nature of things that the educated portion of mankind should ever cease to take an interest in the Old and New Testament, as it would be that they should cease to take an interest in Homer, or Shakespeare, or Dante, or Scott. The Sacred Books. which were once regarded as the stars were regarded by ancient astronomers,
1 Burke's Works, x. 21, Speech on Acts of Uniformity.
spangles set in the sky, or floating masses of nebulous light, or a galaxy of milky spots, have now been resolved by the telescope of scholarship into their component parts. Lord Macaulay would not deny that astronomy has undergone a total revolution through Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton--a revolution which has immensely extended its grandeur and its usefulness. Erasmus, Lowth, Herder, and Ewald have effected for Biblical knowledge a revolution no less complete and no less beneficent. There has been, as it were, a triple chain of singular, one may almost say providential, coincidences. The same critical process which has opened our eyes to the beauty and the wisdom of the sacred records has, by revealing to us the large infusion of the poetic element, enabled us to distinguish between the temporary and the essential, between the parabolical and the historical; and thus, at the moment when science and ethnology are pointing out difficulties, which on a literal and mechanical view of the Biblical records are insuperable, a door of escape has been opened by the disclosure of a higher aspect of the Scriptures, which would be equally true and valuable, were there no scientific difficulty in existence. Except in the lowest and most barbarous classes of society the invectives and the scofis of the last century have ceased. They have been extinguished, not by the fires of the Inquisition or the anathemas of Convocations or General Assemblies, but by the steady growth of the same reverential, rational appreciation of the divine processes for the revelation of great truths, as has shut the mouths of the defamers of Milton and covered with shame the despisers of Shakespeare.
III. Leaving the grounds of hopefurnished to us by the original documents of our faith, let us turn to those which are supplied from the study of its doctrines and institutions. And here I will name two bridges, as it were, by which the passage to a brighter prospect may be effected. One is the
increasing consciousness of the importance of definition. It was said by a famous theologian of Oxford thirty years ago that“ without definition controversy is either hopeless or useless." He has not, in his subsequent career, applied this maxim, as we might fairly have expected from his subtle intellect, to the clearing away of obstructions and frivolities. But the maxim is true, not only in the negative sense in which he pronounced it, but in the more important sense of the pacifying and enlightening tendency necessarily implied in all attempts to arrive at the clear meaning of the words employed. It was a sagacious remark which I heard not long ago from a Scottish minister on the shores of Argyleshire, that the vehemence of theological controversy has been chiefly in proportion to the emptiness of the phrases used. So long as an expression is employed merely as a party watchword, without inquiring what it means, it acts like a magical spell; it excites enthusiasm ; it spreads like an infectious malady ; it terrifies the weak; it acts as a stimulant to the vacant brain. But the moment that we attempt to trace its origin, to discover in what other words it can be expressed, the enthusiasm cools, the panic subsides, the contagion ceases to be catching, the dram ceases to intoxicate, the cloud disperses, and the clear sky appears. This pregnant reflection might be aptly illustrated by examples in the history of the Scottish Churches. But I will confine myself to two instances drawn from other countries. One is that of which I have before spoken, the doctrine of the Double Procession, which was sufficient to tear asunder the Eastern and Western Churches; to give the chief practical occasion for the terrible anathemas of the Athanasian Creed ; to precipitate the fall of the Empire of Constantinople; and therefore to sow the original seed of the present formidable Eastern Question. This controversy has in later days, with very few exceptions, fallen into entire obscurity.
But in those cases where it has occu- --the party collapses, the bitterness pied the attention of modern theolo- exhales, the fear is cast out. gians, its sting has been taken out by Another ground of hope is the growthe process, simple as it would seem, ing sense of the doctrine of proportion. but to which resort had never been It is a doctrine which has dawned had before, of inducing the combatants slowly and painfully on the theological to express their conflicting opinions by mind of Christendom. “In God's other phrases than those which had matters," said Samuel Rutherford, been the basis of the original anta- “there is not, as in grammar, tho gonism. This, and this only, is the positive and comparative degrees ; permanent interest which attached there is not a true, a more true, and to a recent Conference at Bonn, a most true.” “Every pin of the between certain theologians of the tabernacle,” said Ebenezer Erskine, Greek, Latin, and English Churches in his amazement at the indifference What was then done with much which Whitfield displayed towards the satisfaction, at least to those more Solemn League and Covenant, “is immediately concerned, might be precious." 3 What Rutherford and applied with still more advantage to Erskine thus tersely and quaintly many other like phrases which have expressed is but the assumption on acted as mischievous a part in the dis- which has rested the vast basis of the integration and disunion of Christen Rabbinical theology of Judaism, and dom. Another instance shall be given the Scholastic Theology, whether of from a Church nearer home. In the Catholicor Protestant Churches. But to Gorham Controversy, which in 1850 the better spirits of Christendom there threatened to rend the Church of has penetrated the conviction that England from its summit to its base, these maxims are not only not sound, and which produced the widest theo- but are unsound to the very core. logical panic of any within our time, « There is a true, a more true, and a the whole question hinged on the word most true.” “ Every pin of the taber“regeneration ;” and yet, as Bishop nacle is not equally precious." Richard Thirlwall showed in one of those Hooker and Richard Baxter had charges, which I would recommend to already begun to perceive that religion all theological students, of whatever was no exception to the truth, exChurch, who wish to see the value of pressed by a yet greater genius than severe discrimination and judicial either, in the magnificent lines of serenity on the successive controversies “ Troilus and Cressida,” which tells us of our time, it never occurred to the how essential it is in all things to disputants that there was an ambiguity in the word itself—it never occurred
“ Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insistence, course, proportion, season, form, to either of them to define or explain
Office, and custom, in all line of order. what either of them intended to express by it. What is there said This, if not the ultimate, at any rate with withering irony of “regenera is the proximate, solution of some of tion" is true of the larger number of the difficulties which have threatened, theological phrases by which truth has or which still threaten, the peace of been veiled and charity stifled. Differ- Churches and the growth of religion. ences and difficulties will remain. But Take the vexed question of Church the bitterness of the fight is chiefly con- government. The main source of the cerning words; the fight itself is what gall which once poisoned, and still in the apostle denounced as “a” battle some measure poisons, the relations of words.? Explain these--define these between Episcopal and Presbyterian
Churches, was not the position that one Bishop Thirlwall's Charges, i. 156.
or other form was to be found in the *1 Tim. vi. 4.
3 Lectures on the Church of Scotland.