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The Method of the New Theology, and some of its Applications

Address delivered to Theological Society of F. C. College, Glasgow, Jan., 1892.

I SHALL begin by congratulating you, and myself, on the free theological atmosphere in which it is the lot of this society to do its work. Never has there been fresher air in that dusty realm than there is to-day; and if we pay the price for our freedom in bewilderment or doubt, in the suspicion of our enemies, in the helplessness of our wisest friends to give us certainty, we have at least the sympathy of the best around us, and the stimulus of working in an age when theology is no longer stagnant, but the most living of all the sciences. Of what we seem to be leaving behind us we can speak without panic or regret. Much of what has been in faith or practice is visibly passing away. But there is little trace in this process of deliberate destruction; it resembles rather a natural decay. And it is the beauty of this change, and the guarantee of its wholesomeness, that it has worked without serious violence, that it has come, as all great kingdoms do, almost without observation.

Though this may appear to us a crisis, it is well to remind ourselves that to true thought crisis is chronic. There is nothing superior about ourselves that we shall have the privilege of thinking in a new way about theology. It is the world that progresses. Modern thought is not a new thing in history, nor is it an unrelated thing. It is simply the growing fringe of the coral reef, the bit of land far out, in contact on the one hand with the unexplored sea—the bit of land far out in the ocean of unexplored truth—on the other with the territory just taken in, and the place, in short, where busy minds are making the additions to what other busy minds have built through the ages into the growing continent of knowledge. After all, it is only the old reef that we extend; it is on the past we build; and the man who ignores the continuity of the past, and attempts to raise an island of his own, may be sure that the world’s lease of it will be very short. New ideas are, in the main, a new light on old ideas, and nothing is gained by a ruthless handling of the older gospel which our fathers held and taught, and which for the most part made them better men than their sons.

But what is this newer theology, and what is the direction of the movement where changes and perturbations come home to us in such a society as this with so great an interest?

To some the new theology is a re-arrangement of doctrines in a new order, a bringing of those into prominence which suit the need and temper of the age, and an allowing of others to sink into shadow because they are either distasteful to this generation or rest on a basis which it will not honour. We are told, for example, that the accent in the modern gospel is placed no longer upon faith, but rather upon love. We are told by others that what they see is the intricate theology of Paul beginning to give place to the simpler theology of John, or both being for the time forgotten in the still simpler Christianity of Christ. To others the change is from the great Latin conception of the Divine Sovereignty of Augustine and Calvin to the earlier Greek theology, with its emphasis on the immanence of Christ, or to its renaissance in the nineteenth century presentation of the incarnation, and the Fatherhood of God.

But, important as these characterizations are, to contrast the subject-matter of the new and the old Evangelism is not enough. In a theological society we must get down to principles, and I wish in a word to state what seems to me the essential nature of this change, and to illustrate its practical value by plain examples.

The real contrast between the new and the old theology is one of method. The way to make a sermon on the old lines, for example, was to take down Hodge, or by an earlier generation Owen, and see what the truth was, then to work from that—to proclaim what Hodge said, to expound, assert, reiterate, appeal in the name of Hodge and anathematise and excommunicate everybody who did not agree with Hodge. The new method declines to begin with Hodge, or Owen, or even Calvin. It does not work from truth, but towards truth. It aims not at asserting a dogma, but at unearthing a principle. With all respect to authors, it yet declines authority. These are two at least of its more obvious marks—it does not only allow, but insists on the right of private judgment, and it declines authority. These propositions mean practically the same thing, and so far from being novelties are of the first essence of Protestantism.

It is only to re-assert these propositions in a different form to say that another characteristic of the new theology is its essential spirituality. We are accustomed to hear it opposed on spiritual grounds, but its spirituality is really its most outstanding feature, and as contrasted with some at least of the old theology it has the exclusive right to the name. The mark of the old theology was that it was made up of forms and propositions. Filled no doubt with spirit once, that spirit had in many instances wholly evaporated, and left men nothing to rest their souls on but a set of phrases.

The task of the newer theology has been to pierce below these phrases and seek out the ethical truth which underlay them: and having found that, to set up the words and phrases round it once more if possible; and where not possible, to set up new phrases and a more modern expression. It is of course because men have been accustomed to these old forms that they fail to recognise the truth when clothed in other expression, and therefore raise the cry of heresy against all who take the more inward or spiritual view.

Two classes in the community must of necessity, and always, oppose the new foundation—the Pharisee who is not able to see spirit for forms, and the lazy man who will not take the trouble to see spirit in form. It is always easier to assert truth than to examine it, to accept it ready made than to verify it for oneself, and we must always have a class who are guilty of these intellectual sins, who mistake credulity for faith and superstition for knowledge. The calm way in which these men assume that they are right and put all the rest of us on our defence is a miracle of effrontery, a miracle only exceeded in wonder by the tolerant way it is submitted to. I am not sure but that if Christ were among us He would not denounce the Pharisee as He did of old.

But it is not enough to say that the new theological quest is a movement in the direction of spirituality. What is that spirituality? Is it a mere vagueness, a substitution of the shifting sand of the mysterious, and the undefined for the buttressed logic of the older doctrines? On the contrary, it is the most definite thing in the world. Instead of relaxing the hold on truth, the new method makes the grasp of the mind upon it a thousand times more certain. Instead of blurring the vision of unseen things, it renders them self-transparent; instead of making acceptance a matter of mere opinion, or of upbringing, or of tradition, it forces truth on the mind with a new authority—an authority never before to the same extent introduced into theological teaching. That authority is the authority of law. The basis—like the basis of all modern knowledge—of the coming theology is a scientific basis. It is a basis on great ethical principles. It is not a series of conceptions deduced from another central conception or grouped round a favoured doctrine of a favourite Divine—a Calvinism, a Lutheranism, an Arminianism, or any conceivable ism. It is a grouping round law, spiritual, moral, natural law, a structure reared on the eternal order of the world, and therefore natural, self-evident, self-sustaining and invulnerable.

This method, dealing as it does with law and spirit, ignores nothing, denies nothing, and formally supplants nothing in the older subject-matter; but it tries to get deeper into the heart of it, and seeks a new life even in doctrines which seem to have long since petrified into stone. This was largely Christ’s own method. He dealt with principles—His teaching was mainly excavation—the disinterring of hidden things, the bringing to light of the profound ethical principles hidden beneath Rabbinic subtleties and Pharisaic forms.

The Reformation—Protestantism—these were large attempts in the same direction, and modern thought is the heir to this spirit. Being a process of growth, and not a series of operations upon specific theological positions, this method is in the best sense constructive. It can never destroy except empty forms. To be negative, to oppose or denounce time-honoured doctrines is poor work—poor work which unfortunately many minds and pens and pulpits are continually trying to do. The only legitimate way to destroy an old doctrine is Christ’s way to fulfil it. Instead of busying themselves about its death and calling their congregations ostentatiously to attend the funeral, the new theology will invite them rather to witness anew the resurrection of the undying spirit still hidden beneath the worn-out body of its older form.

As an illustration of what I mean, I propose to select one or two Christian doctrines which in their current forms have lost their power for thinking men, and try to show how these may live once more and play a powerful part in current teaching. One or two of the greatest Christian truths have already been so abundantly re-illuminated and re-spiritualised by modern literature and preaching that one need only name them. An admirable case is the doctrine of inspiration. It is idle to deny that the authority of the Bible was all but gone within this generation. The old view had become absolutely untenable, misleading and mischievous. But from the hands of reverent men who have studied the inward characters of these books, we have again got our Bible. The theory of development, the study of the Bible as a library of religious writings rather than as a book; the treatment of the writers as authors and not as pens; the mere discovery that religion has not come out of the Bible, but that the Bible has come out of religion: these announcements have not only destroyed with a breath a hundred infidel objections to Scripture, but opened up a world of new life and interest to Christian people.

So thoroughly has the spiritual as opposed to the mechanical theory of inspiration imbued all recent teaching that the battle for Scotland at least may be said to be now won. If there is anything further to be said on the subject, indeed, it is to caution ourselves against going too far or being very positive.

Modern criticism in this country, especially of the Old Testament, is not in a good way. The permission to embark upon it at all is sudden, and very few men are sufficiently equipped for a responsible reconstruction. Probably in Old Testament criticism there are not ten competent experts in the country, and these are all more or less disagreed, and what is more, afraid to announce their disagreements lest the others should turn and rend them. One of the greatest of these ten has just written an important book. I happen to know that it is being handed about among the nine for a review in a certain high-class theological monthly, and not a man of them will touch it.

Hasty conclusions as to authorship or canonicity are as foreign to the scientific spirit as the old dogmatism. Guinness Rogers has well pointed out that in the far future, when English has become a dead language, almost no internal evidence would allow the literary critic to allocate the authorship of John Gilpin, e.g., to the melancholy recluse who wrote the Olney hymns; and in dealing with questions of Biblical authorship the minute scholarship of this day, based on favourite words and particular styles of thought, is often in danger of ignoring such broader facts as the versatility of human nature, the changing moods of thinkers, the contradictions which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exhibit within the same man’s soul at the same period, or at contrasted periods of his life of which history can keep no cognisance.

This remark applies with even greater force to the subject-matter of the Books. We have treatises written, for instance, on the theology of Peter. Men talk of the Petrine conception of this and the Petrine presentation of that; they contrast the Petrine standpoint with the Pauline and the Johannine, and even go the length of fixing the proportion in which the various theological truths were held in the Petrine system. The absurdity of all this may be seen from a single fact. The entire Petrine remains that have come down to us and upon which all these elaborate structures are reared amount to a page or two, all that the apostle ever wrote or all that is left to us. They could be read to a congregation in exactly half the time that it would take a minister to deliver a half-hour’s sermon. Think of the absurdity of judging a man’s theology, or the proportion in which he held its various parts, by half a sermon, and you will never again hear the word Petrine without a smile. The men, and especially the Germans, who allow internal evidence—not seeing its excessive limitations—to be abused in this way are the true literalists, and their provincial analysis can only hinder the victory of a spiritual cause. If the new theology is the scientific spirit, that class of work is its stultification.

But to pass on to another instance. The unearthing of the tremendous ethical principle underlying the atonement is now restoring that central doctrine to theology just when in its mechanical forms it was on the point of being discredited by every thinking mind. The Salvation Army preacher, it is true, still preaches it as a syllogism, and pays the penalty in the utter apathy or mystification of his hearers at least on that point. But no man who preaches the spirit of it, instead of the phrases of it, will lose his audience. The man who makes words, even Bible words, the substitute for thought, can never be understood of the common people at the present day. There is nothing the street preacher needs to be warned against with more earnestness than the mechanical preaching of the syllogisms of the atonement. One listens often and with admiration and respect to the powerful way the street preacher brings home the great facts of personal sin to the crowd around him, to his almost melting appeal for instant decision to this offer of salvation—nearly always in my experience glowing with real enthusiasm and backed with an almost contagious faith and hope. But when he tries at that point to answer the simple inquiry, How? when he stands face to face with the question of the drunkard leaning against the lamp-post, “What must I, the drunkard, standing here to-night in Argyle Street, do to be saved?” he takes refuge in some text or metaphor, a proposition, and passes on. What I complain of in Gospel addresses is that many have no Gospel in them, no tangible thing for a drowning man to really see and clutch. They break down at the very point where they ought to be most strong and luminous. To tell the average wife-beater to take shelter behind the blood or to hide himself in the cleft is to put him off with a phrase. I do not object to these metaphors, I believe in metaphors. I go the length of holding that you never get nearer to truth than in a metaphor; but you have not told this man the whole truth about your metaphor, nor have you touched his soul or his affections with what lies beneath that metaphor; and it falls upon his ear as a tale he has heard a thousand times before. It is not obstinacy that keeps this poor man from religion—it is pure bewilderment as to what in the world we are driving at. The new theology when it preaches the atonement will not be less loyal to that doctrine, but more. It will not take refuge in the poor excuse for slipshod preaching and unthought-out doctrines that we must wait for God’s light to break. God’s light breaks through some men’s preaching, through some clear, honest, convincing statement of truth, and not occultly. Faith cometh by hearing, and if our plan of salvation is not telling upon our audience it is blasphemy to blame God’s spirit. The blame lies in our own spirit and in our offering words instead of spirit, and in our neglect to spend time and thought, in trying to get down to the professed meaning and omnipotent dynamic of the law of Sacrifice.

If a man has not something more to say about the atonement than the conventional phrases, let him be silent. By introducing from time to time he may earn the cheap reputation of being orthodox; but it is for him to consider whether that is an object for which his conscience will let him work. There are thousands of tender and conscientious souls now in our midst who cannot find that foothold on the conventional doctrine which they are led to believe their teachers have, and without which they feel themselves excommunicate from the work of the Church and the fold of Christ. If we see no further behind these words, let us say so, and not keep up this fraud, or preach these words, until we have sunk our spirits in them and can teach them with vital force and truth.

* * * * *

Gentlemen, I do not for a moment mean that we are to treat our congregations to dissertations on biology. Nature—human nature—are to be to us but discoveries of things as they are, the expression of principle, the theatre, on whose stupendous stage each can see with his own eyes the great laws act.

And this leads me to a final statement. We have seen that the method of the new Evangelism is to deal with principles. The mental act by which we are to search for truth, truth being in this spiritual form, is not therefore to be so much the reason, but the imagination. We are to put up truth when we deliver truth to others, not in the propositional form, but in some visual form—some form in which it will be seen without any attempt to prove. Truth never really requires to be proved. The best you can do for a law is to exhibit it.

Gentlemen, as a preparation for the work of the new Evangelism in which you are to spend your lives, I commend you to the study of the principles of the laws of God in nature, and in human nature: the development of that seeing power, as opposed to mere logic, which discerns the unseen through the seen. About the greatest thing a man can do, Ruskin tells us, is to see something, and tell others what he sees.

The Gospel as Christ gave it was a gift to the seeing power in man. His speech was almost wholly addressed to the imagination, to the imagination in its true sense, and this, which is the highest language of science, is also the language of poetry and of the poetry of the soul, which is religion. Unless we can fill the new theology with what the soul sees and feels, and sees to be true and feels to be living, it will be as juiceless and inert as the old dogmatic.

For it is only a living spirit of truth that can touch dead spirit, and the test of any theology is not that it is logically clear or even intellectually solid, but that it carries with it some sanctifying power.

These examples of the rejuvenescence of old truths under the more spiritual treatment of an ethical theology are more or less obvious. I wish in the time that remains to apply the method a little more in detail to one particular department of theology, which is perhaps less intruded upon by modern teachers. The revolt of the moral sense of this country against the doctrine of a physical hell, and the appeal to a Judgment Day, has lately led to almost complete silence on the whole subject of eschatology. Is this great theme or any part of it —say the conception of a Day of Judgment—not capable of a deeper ethical treatment? If the Divine judgment upon sin lies in the natural law of heredity, may we not find among the laws of the moral world some larger and more universal principle of judgment which shall restore the appeal of these forgotten dogmas to their place in religious teaching? It is quite clear we must discuss this or remain silent. No man can now say such words to his people as these—I quote from no less an authority than Jonathan Edwards,—“The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you. It is nothing but His Hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment; it is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not go to Hell last night; and there is no other reason why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the morning. . . . There is nothing else to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into Hell.” 33Guinness Rogers’ “Present-Day Religion and Theology,” p. 150.

That kind of thing is not over, though we may hear little of it.

Many of you have seen some, at least, of the great classical pictures of the Last Judgment. Here [in the next chapter] is Ruskin’s account of the greatest of them all, the Last Judgment of Tintoretto, which hangs on a well-known church wall in Venice, in full view of the congregation.

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