1878: True Dogmatism


Brethren or The Graduating Class :— The Providence of God that has brought you by varied but converging ways, first to your meeting, as students, and now to your parting, has doubtless been preparing your work for you, as well as you for your work. God's Providence and God's Spirit supplement each other. As each age rises, new men arise to take the lead of it and to turn its activities into Christian channels. The preachers of a past generation give place to the preachers of the modern time, because of the great law that men are influenced most by those who are in sympathy with them. The everlasting gospel is everlasting because of its power of endless adaptation to the conditions of the humanity it is to save. And you, who are sent out to teach an age different in some respects from any that has gone before, must in some respects be different men from God's servants in the past, if you are to succeed in your ministry. "Like people, like priest," is a maxim that has a good meaning as well as a bad. As this is an age of intelligence, rapid thinking, hatred of shams, you can mould it for Christ only by being educated, alert and genuine men.

But it is to another point that I wish to call your special attention. It is an age in which all beliefs that take possession of men's minds, whether in science, literature or philosophy, intensely and dogmatically assert themselves. If you would cope with the age's skepticism and indifference, its pre-occupation and hostility, you must meet this assurance of unbelief with the sublimer assurance of faith; you must believe something with all your heart, and then you must declare it and stand for it, and offer combat to all who come. To this doubting, questioning time, you must present something beyond all doubt or question — the eternal truth of God,— present it with the true dogmatism of an unwavering faith. Then your faith shall be contagious, and those who hear you shall believe and live.

Is there a body of definite truth for which you may thus safely stand? And has this truth laid hold of you, so that you glory in nothing else but the preaching of it? These are the two great questions. I trust your course of instruction and investigation in this Seminary has settled the first one for you. I know that there are many "winds of doctrine " at present blowing; much doubt whether the apostles fully knew whereof they affirmed, and whether even Christ's teaching was not an accommodation to his times. There are many who question whether we can be sure enough what the New Testament teachings are, to warrant us in drawing a hard and fast line anywhere, and saying "This is truth," and "Thatisalie." But just this, John did — that Boanerges whose love could brook no slight upon Christ or his truth. And we have failed in our teaching, if we have not awakened within you a new and profound conviction that a magnificent and organic scheme of doctrine is made known in the Scriptures — a scheme of doctrine whose foundations are the nature and decrees of God, whose various parts have fixed and unchangeable relations to each other, and whose structure towers above all human systems and embraces truth with regard to heaven as well as with regard to earth.

One of the Bampton Lecturers, Garbett by name, has pointed out very clearly a distinct inculcation of this principle by one of the apostles. In an age of heresy and conflict Jude exhorts his readers to "contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints." Notice how much is implied here. First, he assumes the existence of a definite and well-known body of truth called "the faith." The belief of the church was not something vague and changeable, but it consisted of a clear and organized mass of religious doctrine, distinctly separable from the errors that assailed it, and recognized by all believers as characteristic of the Christian church. Secondly, this body of truth is characterized by completeness and finality; it is not susceptible of addition or diminution ; it is the faith "once," or as it should be translated, "once for all, delivered to the saints." Thirdly, there is an authority about it, because it has not originated in human reasonings or in human speculations, but has been given from above; it is " the faith once for all delivered," by God. And fourthly, this faith has been given as a sacred trust to a particular body, namely, the church, that they may keep it and defend it,— the faith has been "delivered to the saints." And thus we, as ministers of the church, are trustees, and into our hands this priceless treasure has been put, to ensure not only its safety and purity, but its universal diffusion through the world. What can humble us, what can exalt us, more than this, that we who are "less than the least of all saints," are yet chosen to be "stewards of the mysteries of God," and that "this grace is given us," that we might present "the unsearchable riches of Christ"!

You have the objective faith — the system of divine truth ; have you the subjective faith — the confidence and zeal that will lead you to devote your lives to its propagation and defense? This is the last question. I invite you to severe self-scrutiny, while you answer it. There is much to weaken this faith in our day. The skeptical habit is the prevalent habit of the time. The oldest and most settled beliefs have become open questions. God and conscience, heaven and hell, are all marked with interrogation-points. Dogmatic reviews have given place to critical journals in which doubters and disputants hold prolonged symposia. Laxity of doctrine — aye, scorn of doctrine — is epidemic. I beg you, stop where you are and go no further toward the work of the ministry, if you are not ready to meet this half-questioning, half-denouncing spirit, with faith in the living Christ and in the absolute truth and saving power of his word. If you have still the idea that Christian doctrine is dead dogma, that it is a human invention instead of a deliverance of God, that it weakens the human intellect instead of nourishing it with its proper food, and fetters the mind instead of expanding it with its vital breath,— in fine, if to contend earnestly for the old faith seems to be dogmatism, in the narrow and mean sense of positiveness where there is no certainty,— then turn back, the pulpit is no place for you. But, if you know whom you have believed, if God has revealed his Son in you, if you have indnbitable assurance that the Scripture doctrines of sin and salvation are the very truth of God, then go forward, — declare the whole counsel of God: whoever may refuse to hear, God's Spirit will make your word a word of power, and you shall both save yourselves and those who hear you.

One year ago this evening the class that preceded yours stood in like manner before me. How well we remember one of the members of that class, the manly but gentle, the noble but modest, Albert J. Lyon. As I think of his tall and graceful form, and then of the thorough scholarship and deep devotion that he showed in his Seminary course, I thank God that I was permitted to instruct him. He gave himself to the work of missions. With all the ardor of his ardent nature, he went across the intervening oceans to Christianize and civilize a mountain tribe in Northern Burmah. God spared his life just long enough to permit him to see in the distance the hills where he had expected to labor, and there, before the first year was over, he was called from work to rest, from labor to reward. How pathetically and impressively his example speaks to us to-night! Out from that new-made grave the other side of the sea there comes a voice, speaking to us of the glory of a Christian service performed under the eye and direction of the great Captain of our salvation, even though that service may only be one of suffering and death. May the Spirit that animated him be yours! If you go and continue in that Spirit, your life will not be in vain, even though that life be short.

In this last address, which marks the termination of three years of intimate spiritual and intellectual fellowship — years in which you have commended yourselves individually and collectively to your instructors as candid and faithful Christian men — I bid you for my last admonition to be true dogmatisln; not dealers in negations, nor fanciers in literature, nor liberalists in doctrine; but positive preachers of a positive faith. Listen to no theory of development which would add to or take from the written word ; and yet let every sermon that you preach show that the old truth has had a new and living development in your apprehension and experience. "Be not ashamed of the testimony of our Lord." Be satisfied with the breadth of his mercy. Proclaim his terms of salvation. Preach his gospel as the final and the only hope of the sinner. One only life is given you to live. Let the "Woe is me !" sound through it. Let it be said that for you "to live is Christ."

Then, whether your lives be long or short, whether you labor on Christian or on heathen soil, whether your apparent success be great or small, you will be sure of the "honor that comes from God only." There is a day whose splendors will outshine the brightest trinmphs of the world. Not for the present time, with its flatteries and its pleasures, let us live, but for that day when one approving word from Christ our Lord will well repay a life-time of suffering for his truth. With hopefulness, but with solemnity also, go to work as ministers or servants of the word,— for by that word you, as well as those to whom you preach, will be judged at the last day.