Counted in years, the period from the Lord's birth to the present day is not a very long one; yet how changed the religious condition of the world within that period! Looking backward we admiringly say, What wonderful progress! We are here concerned only with the progress of Christianity. We must ask, in what it consists, and by what standard we are to measure the Christianity of to-day.
That Christianity, from very small beginnings, has become a dominant power in the earth, all know. But do we find in the numerical increase of its believers, or in the mighty influence of the Church upon the civilization of the nations, or in the honour paid it by the world, or even in the holy lives of its children, the standard of measurement we seek? We may not say this. We cannot separate Christianity from the living Christ; it lives only in Him. We can find Christian progress in the highest and truest sense only when He, the Founder of Christianity, the Head of the Church, is both better known and more honoured among those who bear His name. The questions, « What think ye of the Christ? Whose Son is He?" are still the questions which must prove whether Christianity has made progress with the centuries. Docs the Church of to-day better understand the mystery of the Person of the Incarnate Son, His teachings and His work, and more exalt and honour Him as her living Head, than did the Church of the apostolic age? Here is the standard by which we must test the Christianity of to-day.
We need not speak at any length of the place which the risen Christ held in the thought and affection of the early Church. How diligently the Apostles laboured to keep His Person, no less than His teachings, always before the eyes of the disciples, their Epistles attest. He was the centre of all their love, and hope, and labour. Although personally absent, He was still carrying on through the Holy Ghost in the Church His redemptive work; and all that was done by it, was done not only in His name and by His authority, but was in a true sense His own personal action. And His Person rilled the future as well as the present with its transfiguring light. The prayer for His speedy return, for the glorious hour when they should be made like Him, was upon all lips. All eyes were fixed upon Him. They endured persecution "as seeing Him who is invisible." He was the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
We turn to the Church of to-day and ask, " What think ye of the Christ? Whose Son is He?" Is He now as highly exalted, as truly reverenced, as devoutly worshipped, as at the first? Is He now, as the living Lord and Head of the Church, the centre of all Christian thought, and love, and hope? Are the eyes of those who bear His name continually fastened upon Him to know what is His will? Do they long for their perfected likeness to Him at His return, as the consummation of their hopes? Do they, in the full assurance of His supreme power, proclaim Him before the world as its Judge "who standeth at the door"; and admonish all kings and rulers to rule in righteousness as those who must give account to Him?
It will hardly be denied by any that the risen and living Christ does not hold the same exalted place in the thought and affection of the Church of to-day that He held in the Church of the apostolic age. This is not to say that multitudes of faithful souls do not live in personal communion with Him, and make His present existence a great reality to themselves. But there are, also, multitudes who bear His name to whom He is little more than a myth. His person, so clearly seen in the beginning although in heaven, has become dimmed and shadowy in the ages of the past. We hear much of the principles and of the spirit of Christ, but little of Himself. But while the Church is more and more silent, we hear many voices crying: He has been too much exalted, too much honoured; He must be brought to His proper level. Let us briefly note the steps by which this change has been made; and the goal of final rejection to which they lead.
The Church early embodied in her Creeds the great central and vital truth that Jesus is the onlybegotten Son, " in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." The significance of this truth is infinite, no one generation can comprehend it. Under the teaching of the Holy Ghost it should have unfolded itself more and more as the centuries passed, and His Person have risen before the Church in ever increasing glory and majesty. If,' then, we find to-day His Divinity disparaged or denied, and He Himself brought into the rank of common men, what shall we say? Has He not fallen from the supreme place which the early Church gave Him? And has not Christianity, which cannot be separated from Him, fallen from its original and distinctive character?
Let us briefly trace the steps of this fall, beginning with the denial of His Divinity.
If Jesus was not the one Incarnate Son of God, as affirmed by the Apostolic Church, what place could be assigned Him? Who was He? Arius (318 A. D.) early thought to answer this question by affirming that, though He was not God, He was more than man. He was, indeed, a creature, brought into existence by God, yet was absolutely separated from men by a prior and distinct act of creation. He was made before the worlds to be God's instrument in their creation, and His representative in all His relations to men; the one Mediator, and an object of worship. He was the one Divinely commissioned Teacher, having miraculous powers, and His death had an expiatory value. Rising from the dead, He now fulfils the office of High Priest in heaven; and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.
Thus Jesus, though His Divinity was denied, was kept by the Arians distinct from all men and angels, and held a unique place; below God, indeed, but above all created beings.* But this intermediate position could not long satisfy the speculative intellect craving for unity.
*To shew the radical nature of the change which has taken place in the minds of some, it is to be noted that the Nicene Creed, which was so worded as to declare without possibility of misinterpretation the Divinity of Christ, and of Him alone, is now made to affirm, that all men are Divine, all of one substance with the Father. Thus it is said by Dr. Hedge (" The Ways of the Spirit") that all without distinction can use this Creed, and confess that Jesus was of the substance of the Father, for this is true of all. "It was well for the Church, and well for humanity, that the Athanasian view prevailed against the Arian, and the Monophysite. The Arians saw no God-man, but a hypothetical Being, neither God nor man. The Nicene Creed permits us to behold that man partakes of the substance of God." "In declaring Him to be consubstantial, One with God in substance, the Creed of Nicsea dates a new era in the history of human thought." But its error was in the limitation of Divinity to Jesus. "To say that God incarnated Himself in a single individual of all the multitudes of the human family, is a proposition which cannot satisfy, if it does not shock, the unprejudiced mind." According to this, every man who repeats the Nicene Creed says of himself that he is "of one substance with the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." What more can Antichrist say of himself, or ask of his worshippers?
If not one with God, He must be made one with man. And this was done by taking from Him some of the personal attributes and official prerogatives which Arius had left Him. Passing over other deniers of the truth in the earlier centuries, we find this done by Socinus (1550 A. D.) who taught that He was a man in nature like other men, not created before the world, but distinguished by Hie supernatural birth, His sinless life, His Divine commission as a teacher, and His power to work miracles. He arose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, and is now to be adored and worshipped, though not in the same sense as the Father.
Being thus brought down from the unique and high place given Him by Arius, His pre-existence and creative activity denied, though still regarded as a mediator between God and man, it was inevitable that the distinction between Him and others should in time be effaced. The whole tendency since Socinus has been not only to take from His Person its Divinity, and bring Him as to His nature into unity with the common humanity, but also to deny to Him all special mediatorial offices. For a considerable time, indeed, the supernatural features of His life — the Virgin birth, His resurrection and ascension, His priestly work in Heaven, and His return to be Judge of the world — were retained as taught in the Gospels; but with a growing sense of their inconsistency with His pure humanity. Why, if only one of the sons of God, should He be so exalted above all the rest, and set apart by Himself? Since all in virtue of their Divine sonship may draw near to God the Father, what need of a mediator? Why must He bear the sins of men, and offer an expiatory sacrifice? Why must He stand as a High Priest offering continual intercession? Why should He return to judge the world? Is not the omniscient God alone the Judge?
This tendency to take from the Lord's Person all its supernatural features, and from Him all mediatorial offices, though clearly seen in the last century, received a new impulse in the present through the growing prevalence of the pantheistic philosophy. It is among the Unitarians, the theological successors of Socinus, that we most clearly trace the progress of this tendency. At first, Jesus was denied to be Divine on the ground of the absolute distinction of the Divine and human natures, the impassable gulf between Godhead and humanity. When this distinction was set aside by philosophy, it followed that He must be recognized as Divine in common with all men; but for a time a unique place was assigned Him. But the question arose, Why should His consciousness of God be the measure of the consciousness of all men down to the last generation? Granted, that He was distinguished above all of His day by His spiritual and ethical endowments, and His teachings, therefore, to have been full of light and authority, has He, only one of the Sons of God, revealed all that the Father would have us know? Logical consistency requires that, if purely human, He should come under the laws controlling human development. Why should His teachings be regarded as absolute truth, and not be judged of by the moral and intellectual character of His age, and of the people among whom he lived? Unless we separate Him from all other men, it would be a psychological impossibility that He should not partake of the limitations of His time. We, therefore, of a much later generation, and with a far larger knowledge, it is said, cannot receive His teachings as without error; nor can we regard Him as giving the most perfect possible example of our humanity in all its manifold aspects. A perfect moral character demands a corresponding intellectual development, and this we cannot find in one whose life was so limited in its opportunities and relations. Thus it is said of Him by Miss Cobbe ("Broken Lights"): "The greatness of the sovereign, of the statesman, of the economist, the metaphysician, the poet, the artist, the historian, was not His."
In regard to His teachings it is said by Theodore Parker that "the theology of Jesus seems to have had many Jewish notions in it wholly untenable in our day. If correctly represented in the Gospels, His theology contained a considerable mixture of error.'' "It is absurd to maintain that He entertained no theological error in matters of importance." "Popular theology is the greatest evil of our time, and this rests on two columns, one of which is the idea of a supernatural Christ. This popular theology is in a process of dissolution."
It is said by another (Rev. S. Longfellow): "No authority is to be given to the teachings of Jesus but what each, man's own mind, or heart, or conscience, can give them. In displacing Him from the place given Him by the Church, we see only another idol shattered that the true God may be revealed." And as His teachings are without authority, so His personal mediatorship is to be taken from Him. "Jesus is not the way to God, He is not needed. Go direct to the Father." "The prevalent doctrine of Christ as Mediator, Lord, and King, is a hindrance rather than a help to man's spiritual growth." And another, Rev. Mr. Chadwick ("Old and New Unitarian Beliefs"), tells us that "it is impious to specialize Jesus, and isolate Him as He has been specialized and isolated and worshipped by the Church."
But great as is this disparagement of the Lord, both as to His Person, and His place and authority, yet few have hitherto been bold enough to deny Him as a man moral perfection. Now, this is openly said: " That Jesus was a perfect man, it is impossible to prove. There are things about Him in the New Testament which are not helpful to the character of His impeccability. We know enough about Him to know that He was not intellectually infallible, yet without this He could not be absolutely free from actual wrong." "To speak of God's perfect revelation through Him, if confined to the moral revelation, is unworthy and irrational." A prominent Socialist writer says, "Socialism sees in Jesus but a weak and impulsive personality at best. Higher types are now to be found on earth."
It may be said these utterances impugning the Lord's intellectual and moral character are those of a few extreme men, and find little or no response in Christendom. But what shall we say of the recent "Lives of Jesus" which plainly declare Him to be a Son of His time, moulded by its influences, and not able to rise above its traditional and superstitious beliefs, e. g. in angels and devils? As subject to these influences, He encouraged the Messianic expectations of the day, which had no foundation except in some misinterpreted prophecies. What shall we say of Renan's Life of Him, not to mention any others of kindred spirit, passing through many editions in many languages, in which His moral character is openly assailed, and He is charged with premeditated imposture? That heathen enemies should have said like things in the first days of the Church, does not surprise us; but that these things should be said in Christendom after so many centuries, by learned and accomplished scholars, and have been welcomed by many thousands of all classes, high and low, shows the workings of a spirit of hostility to Christ which, like a smouldering fire, is getting ready to burst into a fierce flame.
Having thus seen the growing depreciation of the Lord, both as to His Person and offices, what are we to expect in the future? Will He as the living and ruling Head pass more and more out of the thought and life of the Church and of the nations? This is believed by many. As humanity rises to its destined greatness, new and brighter stars will appear in its sky, and He will gradually sink from sight. They see, therefore, no cause why any hostility should be awakened against Him. Christianity is now silently and peacefully being transmuted into a new and higher form, with its new teachers and leaders.
But we know that Christ is not thus to pass from the knowledge and obedience of men. He will by His actings affirm His supreme prerogatives as the anointed King to whom God has given all power in heaven and earth. We know that in due time He will reappear before the world in the immediate personal exercise of His headship and rule. As the Lord of the earth, He will come and take possession of it, and the nations then awake to a full consciousness of His existence and prerogatives. So long as He is regarded as a mere religious teacher, living only in the truths He taught, there is nothing to call forth any active hostility; but so soon as He shall assert His royal supremacy, and the Church shall reaffirm it and begin the preparation for Him, the latent hate will break forth in acts of violence and blood against all who abide faithful to Him, and who refuse to take upon them the mark of the Beast and worship him.
We may now sum up the successive downward steps by which the faith of the Church at the beginning in Jesus Christ as the one Incarnate Son, the Saviour of men by His cross, now High Priest and Head over all unto the Church, and to come again to be the Judge and King of the nations, has gradually decayed, and the way thus been prepared for the Antichrist.
1. The denial of His Divinity by Arius and others in very early times, but who still affirmed His unique place as the highest of created beings, His pre-existence and creative activity, His supernatural birth, His offices as the one Mediator, the Teacher of perfect truth, and our future Judge and King; thus drawing a broad and absolute line of distinction between Him and all other beings both as to His Person and offices. Although not God, He was more than man.
2. This absolute distinction between Him and other men set aside, but still a distinction of rank and office preserved. He is presented as specially chosen and commissioned by God, the one Mediator, His teacher, a worker of miracles, a present High Priest, and the future Judge, and to be worshipped with a secondary worship.
3. Through the teaching of a general Incarnation, and that all men are alike the sons of God, the need of a Mediator, either as a Sacrifice or Intercessor, is done away. Christ is to be distinguished from others only as the first to become fully conscious of His Divine Sonship, and so made our moral and spiritual Ideal. But His personal mission ended with His death, and He is not now our Priest, nor will He come to be our Judge. He is to be honoured, but not worshipped.
To this stage many have come.
4. As purely man, and one of a race ever progressing, although possessing pre-eminent spiritual endowments, He must be judged of by the standard of His age, and cannot be regarded as the teacher of the absolute truth; or even as intellectually and morally perfect when measured by the standard of our day. His teachings are erroneous in many points, and His example not always to be followed.
It is to this stage that some, the more advanced, have already come.
5. As He is set forth in the Creeds of the Church, and made a representative of the doctrine of a sinful humanity needing atonement, and of a personal God who rules all things according to His own will, faith in Him and in His teachings is an obstacle in the way of a true and universal religion based on Divine and human unity. His yoke, both as Teacher and Ruler, must be cast off before men can come to absolute freedom of thought and action.
This is the stage to which we are approaching.
6. Presented before the world by His disciples as now living, and claiming a present personal dominion over all men, thus awakening delusive expectations on the part of many of His return and Kingdom, and so making them indifferent to the important secular interests of this time, and hostile to the worship of humanity in its great representative who seats himself in the temple of God,— He must be regarded as a hinderer of human progress, and a disturber of the public peace; and those who recognize and uphold His asserted authority, must be dealt with as enemies of the State and of religion. His worship must be suppressed, and His adherents suffer the extreme penalties of disobedience.
This stage will not come till the man of sin attains to the fulness of his power.
Thus in the end is the Christ fully deposed, and the world enthrones the Antichrist as the highest representative of a perfected humanity, of the public order, and of a universal religion.