God's Kevelation Of Himself To Men.
We begin our inquiry, which embraces past, present, and future, with the fact — the central one in all God's actings — of the Incarnation. This fact we do not attempt to prove: we assume it. The Church believes and proclaims in all her creeds, that her Head, Jesus Christ, is the God-Man, and that He abides the GodMan forever. From this present fact, as from a high mountain peak, we look backward and forward: from its elevation we trace the winding pathway of Divine history as it leads onward from Eden to Bethlehem, and the pathway of prophecy, till it is lost to view in the splendors of the new heaven and the new earth. In the Incarnate Son is the key to all that God has said or done as recorded in the Scriptures, and we must read them in His light. "Search the Scriptures . . . and they are they which testify of Me."
To those who see in the Incarnate Son the centre of all God's works, "for whom all things were made," and "by whom all things consist," the biblical records will present such unity of purpose, and harmony of utter
ance, that they will recognize everywhere the one inspiring Spirit of Him who is "the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End."
We thus assume as the teaching of the Scriptures, and the faith of the Church, that the Divine purpose in the creation of man looked forward to the perfect manifestation of God in the person of the Incarnate Son, and that this manifestation is the goal of human history. As preparatory to this manifestation, we find three great stages of Divine actings; and we have to consider first these actings prior to the Incarnation.
God creates the heavens and the earth: He makes man in His own image, and places him in Eden. But how shall man, the finite creature, know God, his infinite and invisible Creator?
The basis of such knowledge must be laid in the nature of man as preconfigured to the Divine image. As made in God's likeness he is able to know Him, and to have communion with Him, and this in ever enlarging degree. But, however great the spiritual capacity of man, we are to remember that the relation between God and men is a personal one, and that, to be known, He must make Himself known. What communion with Him any creature may have, must depend both on its constitution and on His will. It is not enough that man has a religious nature — a faculty to apprehend the Infinite — or even an intuitive belief in His existence as Creator and supreme moral Governor; God must by His own acts enter into personal intercourse with men, must reveal Himself to them, ere they can truly know Him. The possibility of intercourse is not actual intercourse. Likeness to his Creator is the basis and condition of God's personal revelation of Himself to man, but not the revelation itself.
Here is the problem: How can man be so brought into intercourse with God as to know his relations to Him, and the duties which such relations involve? As God has a purpose in man, and as human history moves along the line of that purpose, man needs continually new instruction that he may be a worker together with God. This knowledge cannot come from any study of God's material works around him, nor from any study of his own nature. A God known only by inference is a God afar off. Knowledge of Him and of His will amidst all historic progress must be the result of God's continued personal self-revelation to man, such revelation as shall not only prove His existence and Divine nature, but be, also, an expression of His will as the law of human action. This is God's voluntary act. He comes to man, He speaks and acts; and man both knows that he meets God, and learns what are his relations to Him, and his duties.
In what manner God will reveal Himself to men, and make known His will — whether by spiritual actings in the individual spirit, or through the bodily senses, or both, and to what degree — lies wholly within His own pleasure. But we may believe, that from his creation onward man will not be left in doubt that he is dealing with a Person, One distinct from nature and above it; and that he is subject to a personal will. Recognizing it as the will of God, he is assured that it is the expression of infinite wisdom and goodness, and, therefore, to be obeyed. By obedience to this will as it is made known, he may attain to further knowledge of God, and be prepared to be admitted into closer intercourse with Him.
God having thus placed Himself in personal relation with men, the way to the fuller knowledge of Him is through obedience. The spirit of obedience can be exercised only where there is a law to obey: therefore it is that at the first God met man as the Ruler. He gave him positive commands, and thus taught him the nature and duty of obedience. If obedient as the will of God is made known to him, he is thereby prepared to receive new and fuller revelations, both as to the Divine character, and His purpose in man. The lower service prepares for a higher. Walking in the pathway of obedience man comes ever nearer and nearer to God. Thus the Scriptures are the record of man's religious education by means of successive Divine revelations beginning in Eden. We learn from them that God not only made man in His own likeness, but condescended to personal intercourse that he might know Him. And from the Fall on men were not left to grope blindly after Him; but He came to them, and dwelt with them, and manifested Himself to them; He put them under His own immediate instruction, and led them up from lower to higher measures of knowledge, each stage being a new revelation of Himself, and demanding as its condition a higher obedience. Thus man's spiritual education is through a series of dispensations, or ages,— aeons, — each being preparatory to that which follows it; the end of all being to reveal God more and more, and to bring men into closer and closer union with Him. This is the true progress of the race, — ever enlarging knowledge of God, and higher communion with Him.
REVELATION AND REDEMPTION.
To man unfallen and obedient God could have revealed Himself in ever enlarging measure. The history of a holy people would be one of progressive revelation, for each new expression of His will meets with ready and willing obedience. The more they know of God, and the closer their communion with Him, the more do they grow into His likeness, and His will become the law of their life. But to men fallen and sinful God must come as their Redeemer, delivering them from the law of sin and death, working righteousness within them, and restoring in them His lost likeness, ere He can manifest Himself to them in His glory.
But redemption is not possible without revelation. Without the manifestation of Himself to the fallen, He cannot deliver them. The sinful must know that God is; that He is holy, just, and good; and that He demands of them true repentance, submission, and holiness of life. He must reveal Himself as the Redeemer, and make known to men how He will save them; He must mark out the paths in which they shall walk, and give them commandments which they must keep. By His dealings with them He makes known His purpose, and also brings to light what is in their hearts.
Thus revelation may be without redemption, as with the unfallen and holy angels who always behold the face of God; but redemption cannot be without revelation, and these go hand in hand. In His dealings with sinful men God reveals that He may redeem, and He redeems that He may reveal. Each successive stage of the redemptive work — Patriarchal, Jewish, and Christian— is, also, a higher stage of Divine revelation. The Incarnate Son is both the Redeemer of men and the Revealer of God. But at no stage of the redemptive work does God so reveal Himself to His people as to affect their free and voluntary moral action. He declares His will, but does not compel obedience. It is possible, however bright the light, to close the eyes to it; however manifest His truth, it may be rejected. There is possibility of apostasy from God's covenants in each successive stage till redemption has been completed. Man, therefore, in each period of his redemptive history down to the end, is upon trial whether he will accept his place of subordination and dependence upon God, will acknowledge his sinfulness, will renounce his own will, and co-operate with Him in His purposes of salvation according to his measure of knowledge; or will refuse His grace, and defiantly and persistently reject His authority.
Redemption, from its very nature, is a work limited in time, and will come to an end; but God can never cease to reveal Himself to His redeemed and holy creatures. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," and this forever and forever. We may, therefore, distinguish between the revelations of Himself made by God to men during the time in which He is preparing them to stand before Him in immortality and glory, and those that will then follow. We have thus two great periods, — the first, the redemptive, limited in time; the second, the post-redemptive, and unlimited. In the first, the revelations made by God of Himself are for the salvation of men, and have a character corresponding to this end. Of this redemptive period, and of God's actings in it, we learn through the Scriptures historic and prophetic, — of the past through history, of the future through prophecy. But the prophets of the Old Testament open the future only so far as to show us the acts of God in redemption down to its close: of His glorious manifestations of Himself during the endless ages that will follow, they say little. We, however, know that all done by Him in redemption is only preparatory to the higher revelation afterward to be made, when old things pass away, and all are made new. The foundation of the new creation having been laid in the Incarnation of His Son — very God and very man, in whom is seen through resurrection the new and perfect and immortal form of humanity — He proceeds step by step till the new creation is completed, wherein the fullness of His glory is revealed, and all His redeemed enter into the fullness of heavenly and eternal blessedness. It is only by regarding the redemptive period as a whole; by keeping its preparatory character in mind, and its relation to the ages that follow; and by carefully discriminating its several stages; that we can judge aright of the actings of God as presented in the Scriptures.