THE ONE GOD AND THE GODS MANY.
'Though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and we for (unto) Him'
i Corinthians viii. 5.
Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1873.
We read in the Gospels that on one occasion, when our Lord was plied on all hands with casuistic problems by those who sought to entangle Him in His talk, He Himself confronted His interrogators with one simple, searching question, 'What think ye of the Christ?'
This question has been repeated again and again by Christian preachers with effect. Speaking to professedly Christian people, they have desired to sound the depths of their convictions, to test the ground of their hopes; and they have seen no better way of attaining this end, than by forcing an answer to the question, often repeated, yet ever fresh, 'What think ye of Christ?'
But the question which I desire to put this morning, and to which I wish to elicit a reply, is more elementary still. It strikes home to the very foundations, not only of Christianity, but of religious conviction in any sense. Before we ask, 'What think ye of Christ?' let us be ready with our reply to the prior question, 'What think ye of God?'
What think ye of God? Is it novel and startling to be addressed in such language? Does it seem superfluous to put this question in a Christian age, in a Christian country, to a Christian congregation? And now especially—now as we approach our Advent Season, when the services of the Church will strike the keynote of patience and joy and hope; now when our eyes are straining to catch the first glimpse of that bright presence, the glory of the Only-Begotten, the Shekinah once more resting visibly over the mercy-seat of God's providence; and our ears are intent to arrest the first preluding notes of that angelic strain, announcing the dawn of a new era, when glory shall' be to God in the highest—is it not incongruous, is it not cruel, to ask a question which implies this deep misgiving, to interpose this stern demand as a screen before the beatific vision, to interrupt the heavenly harmonies with this jarring, jangling note?
And yet, when, on the one side, the author of a movement, which arrogates the proud title of the philosophy of religion of the future, lays down as his fundamental maxim, that society must be reorganised, without a king and without a God, on the systematic worship of humanity, and by the instrumentality of this new religion, which is the direct negation of theology, proposes to regenerate the world; when, on the other hand, a scientific leader of the day, whose bold epigrammatic utterances are sure to arrest the ear, though they may not convince the mind and cannot satisfy the heart, warns us against this panacea of the positivist, this worship of the Great Being of Humanity, denouncing it in no measured terms as a gross fetichism and a crushing spiritual tyranny, and then calls us to follow him, not that we may throw ourselves, our temptations, our sorrows, our struggles, at the feet of the Everlasting and Loving Father, but that we may assist him in erecting once more an altar to the Unknown and the Unknowable, thus reversing the lesson which the Apostle taught to the bewildered Athenians on Mars' Hill long ages ago, and signing away by one fatal stroke the glorious acquisitions of eighteen Christian centuries; when discordant voices assail us on all sides, saying, Lo, here is God! or Lo, there! or Lo, He is somewhere or other! or Lo, He is nowhere; then, I say, we have good reason to ask, whether we will suffer ourselves to be diverted from the old and tried paths, or whether, on the other hand, though there be that are called gods many, yet we have, and we have had, but one and the same God, and that God a Father, in Whose all embracing arms we rest in filial trust and hope and love? If the answer of our hearts to this is clear, prompt, unhesitating, then we shall lack nothing. Then in all our joys and all our griefs, in adversity and in prosperity, in youth and age, in health and sickness, living and dying, we shall feel the strength of His sustaining presence. Then 'though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil;' for He will be with us; 'He is our shepherd;' 'His rod and His staff comfort us.'
When S. Paul wrote these words, it was more than ever true, that there were gods many, who claimed the allegiance of men. By the extension of the Roman Empire the barriers between nation and nation had been broken down. There was a general fusion of thought and of practice. With the native merchandise and with the hereditary customs of distant lands, the superstitions and the deities also were imported. Thus indigenous religions and foreign religions were everywhere bidding against each other for popular acceptance. Here it was the grave, stately political worship of ancient Rome; and there it was the artistic, imaginative worship of ancient Greece. Here it was some political conception deified; there it was some power of nature; and there again it was some physical condition of man, not infrequently some vile and degrading passion, whose apotheosis demanded recognition. Here the animal-worship of Egypt presented its credentials; there the star-worship of the farther East clamoured to be heard. Last of all—a creation almost of S. Paul's own day—the latest and boldest innovation had been made; Roman emperors by virtue of their office had received divine honours in their lifetime, and become gods on their decease. Only the other day a self-indulgent, cowardly weakling like Claudius had been translated to Olympus, and there enthroned as a deity; and he who now wielded the imperial sceptre, destined to develope into a very monster of human wickedness, a proverb and a byword to all generations—tyrant, sensualist, matricide—would, it seemed, in due course take rank as a god with his predecessors. This was the result (it is a serious thought) of the highest civilisation which the world had ever seen—when in intellectual culture, in political organization and material appliances, in the arts of peace and the arts of war, human society seemed to have reached the zenith; and in the paeans of her poets and the eulogies of her orators the unrivalled glories of queenly Rome were extolled with neverceasing praises—this result, this apotheosis of monstrous human vice, this vile parody of religion, this outrage on common sense and common decency.
Truly there were gods many, whether in heaven or on earth. In this chaos of conflicting claims, where could the devout and reverent mind obtain satisfaction? At what altar, to what God, were prayer and sacrifice to be offered?
The picture of Athens, as given in S. Luke's narrative, is a type of the state of the whole civilised world at that time. It was delivered over to idols of diverse kinds, some beautiful, some grotesque, some hideous, but idols, phantoms all—mythical heroes and dead tyrants, living animals and living men, human lusts and human ambitions, fire and blood, grove and mountain and storm, sun and star, social institutions and physical endowments—each vying with the other for the adoration of mankind. And some there were, who, notwithstanding this glut of deities, felt that their deepest wants were yet unsatisfied, yearned after a loftier ideal of Divinity; and so when some strange visitation had befallen them, striking home to their hearts and intensifying their religious emotions, vaguely conscious of the promptings within them, and feeling blindly after a more substantial truth, they erected an altar to some yet unrecognised power, dedicating it'to an Unknown God.'
To a God yet unknown to them; but, Heaven be thanked, not unknowable to them, or to us. Christ came and revealed; Paul came and preached. On that anonymous altar, which had been reared in the forlorn heart of humanity, he inscribed the missing name—the name of the Eternal Father, the One True God, 'of Whom are all things, and we unto Him;' the name of the Eternal Son, the One True Lord, 'by Whom are all things, and we by Him.' With an iron pen, in characters indelible, it was graven on the rock for ever. It might indeed have, seemed that in the tumultuous clamour of so many voices this new name would have been smothered and have passed away unheeded. It could never have been predicted— no human prescience could have seen so far—that startled by the accents of that unknown name, and scared by the glory of that new light, this multitudinous throng of idols would have vanished oul of sight, and hid themselves for ever, with the owls and the bats, in their congenial darkness.
Yet so it was. The blank was filled in. The secret, after which mankind had been groping, was brought to light; the mystery hidden from the ages, revealed. And men saw, and believed. They could not be deceived. Here was the answer to the vague, mysterious questionings within them; here was the satisfaction to the aching, bewildered soul, which panted to slake its thirst in the fountains of Eternal Love.
And by faith they received the truth. From its very nature it could not be apprehended by sight. From its very nature also it was incapable of demonstrative proof. It was not like those .mathematical conceptions, which are the primary conditions of thought; it differed wholly from those physical laws, which we establish by processes of extensive induction. Its proof was not external to itself: its evidence was contained in itself, was itself. Its correspondence with the deepest wants, and the loftiest aspirations, of the human heart was its credential; a correspondence as between the wards of a lock and the notches of a key. It claimed to be light; and, if it was light, then it was truth also. This was the simple test. As light it demanded admission. And the verification of its claim was in the result. To those that believed, this was their assurance, that, in their believing, ' power was given them to become sons of God;' to those that believed not, this was their condemnation, that 'the light was come into the world and they loved the darkness rather than the light.'
And now, in these last days, the words of S. Paul are again applicable, though in a different way. There are that are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, not a few. They too are idols, phantoms, though unlike the idols of old. Graven images, stocks and stones, material, tangible gods, these they are not; but wan, vague, fantastic spectres, haunting the dim twilight of thought, fascinating the imagination of men, and diverting their gaze from the contemplation of the truth.
There is first the God of philosophical deism— the most specious and the least repulsive of all these idols. He is One, Eternal, Omnipotent. He is in some sense Creator and Governor of the Universe. So far, there is truth. But He is not a Father. He is a mere metaphysical conception, a necessity of the intellect but not a satisfaction to the heart. He can hardly be called a Person. If He be a Person, He is at least so distant, so abstract, so incognisable to us, that we can hold no personal relations with Him. He is not a Father—certainly not our Father— not yours and mine. We know nothing of Him: we can only describe Him by negations. We cannot pray to Him, cannot love Him. He does not love us. It is doing violence to this abstract conception to speak of God as love. God has not spoken to us, God has not redeemed us, God has not given us assurance of our immortality. And so, notwithstanding the concession that God exists, that He is One and Eternal, we are still left alone in the world— alone with our struggles and our temptations, alone with our griefs, alone with our sins, alone with all our vague longings, alone with our poor, aching, unsatisfied, human hearts. We are thrown back on our own despair.
From the God of the deist we descend to the God of the pantheist. Nature is God; nature as a spirit, or nature as inanimate energy—this may be doubtful—but nature in some way. There is no God independent of, and external to, nature. And so we ourselves are part of God; not only the spiritual element of our being, but the emotional and the material elements also, our souls, our bodies, our passions, our vices. Yes: our very vices—there is no pausing in the downward series. Sin is an idle word, an empty delusion. The name must henceforth be blotted out of our vocabulary, the idea banished for ever from our conceptions. Our vices—or what we call our vices—not less than our virtues, are processes of the Divine energy, are expressions of the Divine will. And the anathema of the Apostle must be reversed. Be not deceived—the unrighteous, the murderers, the adulterers, and the thieves, and the covetous, and the drunkards, and the extortioners, these inherit the kingdom of God, nay, these are the kingdom of God. They are—it is the inevitable logical consequence of the theory—they are in God and God in them.
I will not stop to enquire what disastrous effect the worship of this God, if it became general, would have on the moral condition of mankind. I seem to see some faint indication of its effects in past history, where some one energy of nature, such as Baal or Astarte, has been held up as an object of adoration. I thankfully acknowledge that the theory is not carried to its strict logical consequences by those who hold it, that it has not been able to stifle the witness of God, the All-Holy, All-Righteous, All-Loving Father, in their heart, that their moral principles rise above their intellectual belief. But I ask you, sons of God, will you exchange the worship of your Heavenly Father for a religion, that confounds the eternal distinction of right and wrong, and orders you to renounce for ever as delusive those ideas, to which you owe (you cannot be mistaken here) whatever is noblest and best, whatever is most exalting and most energizing within you?
From the idol of the pantheist it is one step to the idol of the materialist—I say the idol, for I can no longer say in any sense the God. Law takes the place of Nature. The spectre of a God, which still remained to the pantheist, has now vanished; and the gulf of atheism yawns at our feet. The idea of sin had already been blotted out; the idea of responsibility, by this time reduced to a shadow, now disappears with it. It is idle, senseless now, to talk of morality. At least, if we use the term, we must stamp it with a value wholly different from that for which it has hitherto passed current. Law—inevitable sequence, fatal necessity—is the inexorable tyrant, who reigns autocratic not only in the domain of physical phenomena, but also in the domain of moral purpose and moral action; not influencing, not limiting our conduct only, but all-pervading, omnipotent, absolutely determining that which we call our will, and forcing irresistibly those which we call our actions. All our language, and all our conceptions, must henceforth be changed. It is as foolish to blame a murderer for his crime, as it would be to blame a stone for falling to the ground. These are thy gods, O Israel! Is this light or is it darkness? Interrogate your consciousness; take counsel of your heart, and so give an answer.
And lastly; the positivist offers for our worship his god, which is no God. He sees rightly that man cannot live without religion; and, having blotted God out of the world, he is bound to provide a substitute. So he sets up a new idol; he bids us fall down and worship the Great Being, Humanity. What is this but the final reductio ad absnrdum of atheistic speculation? How can we prostrate ourselves before a mere abstract conception, a comprehensive name for the aggregate of beings like ourselves, with our own capricious passions, our own manifold imperfections—some higher and some viler, much viler, than we are? What satisfaction is there for our cravings after an ideal perfection? What power is there here to convince of sin, to redeem from self, to sanctify, to exalt to newness of life? What consolation in our sorrows, what resistance in our temptations, what strength, what hope, what finality?
And now, that we have tried all these gods many, which have a place in the Pantheon of modern speculation, and found them wanting, whither shall we betake ourselves? Shall we close with the advice which has been tendered to us, as the best which in the present chaotic state of opinion we can adopt; and content ourselves with cherishing the most human of man's emotions by worship at the altar of the Unknown and Unknowable? What altar? What worship? What emotions? If the object of our adoration is unknown, the adoration itself must be blind, capricious, unsteady, worthless. As our conception of God, so will be our worship; and as our worship, so will be our lives. If we deify a bloodthirsty tyrant like Moloch, then his temple will reek with the blood of innocent children: but if we enshrine in our hearts the idea of an All-Loving, All-Holy, All-Righteous God, our Father, then on the altar of a self-denying life we shall offer with filial reverence the sweet incense of holiness and love. It is not a matter of indifference, it is a matter of the utmost moment, what are the theological beliefs of the individual, of the nation, of the age. By their ideas men are most powerfully swayed, and their idea of God is the first and most potent of all.
But you are a Christian. You have never yielded to any of these modern idolatries. You have remained faithful in your allegiance to the God of Revelation. This is well. But have you obscured His glory, have you distorted His image, with unworthy conceptions of your own? Have you indeed seen in Him the Father, the Father of yourself and of all mankind, tender, pitiful, longsuffering (albeit righteous), Who willeth not the death of a sinner, Who would have all men come to the knowledge of the truth? Or have you imposed some narrow restrictions of your own on His Fatherhood? Have you limited His merciful design to an elect few, a small circle to which you yourself belong, and complacently condemned all mankind besides to His eternal wrath? Have you represented the sacrifice of Christ, not as a manifestation of God's love, but as a thwarting of God's anger? Have you in your crude, hard, unscriptural definitions practically denied the perfect unity of the Son with the Father in the Eternal Godhead, adoring one as the dispenser of all mercy, and cowering before the other as the fountain of all vengeance and woe?
Not such the lesson of the text. This one confession, 'We have one God the Father, of Whom are all things and we unto Him,' is supplemented and explained by yet another confession,' We have one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things and we through Him.' The Incarnation of the Son is the manifestation of the Father. The life of Christ is the verification of the love of God. In Christ's words and works, in His Passion and Resurrection, we read the expression of the Father's will, we trace the lineaments of the Father's face. And so we no longer adore the Unknown. We know what we worship. We have seen and heard. We may not ignore, and we cannot forget. Henceforth His Fatherly love is an abiding presence with us. Henceforth He is about our path by day and about our bed by night; felt, adored, loved. He is our comfort, our stay, our hope. Holy Father, teach us, strengthen us, command us, use us. Chastise us, if it must be so, that Thou mayest purify us. Kill us, if it must be so, that Thou mayest make us alive. But, whether living or dying, we are Thine. Of Thy love we are assured. In Thine everlasting arms we rest in patience and hope, till the dawn of the final and glorious Advent shall break, and we shall see Thy face, and know Thee as Thou art.