« Prev Lecture VII Next »


WE were occupied in the last lecture with the relation of the Gospel to law and legal ordinance. We saw that Jesus was convinced that God does, and will do, justice. We saw, further, that he demanded of his disciples that they should be able to renounce their rights. In giving expression to this demand, far from having all the circumstances of his own time in mind, still less the more complex conditions of a later age, he has one and one only present to his soul, namely, the relation of every man to the kingdom of God. Because a man is to sell all that he has in order to buy the pearl of great price, so he must also be able to abandon his earthly rights and subordinate everything to that highest relation. But in connexion with this message of his, Jesus opens up to us the prospect of a union among men, which is held together not by any legal ordinance, but by the rule of love, and where a man conquers his enemy by gentleness. It is a high and glorious ideal, and we have received it from the very foundation of our religion. It ought to float before our eyes as the goal and guiding 123star of our historical development. Whether mankind will ever attain to it, who can say? but we can and ought to approximate to it, and in these days—otherwise than two or three hundred years ago—we feel a moral obligation in this direction. Those of us who possess more delicate and therefore more prophetic perceptions no longer regard the kingdom of love and peace as a mere Utopia.

But for this very reason there are many among us to-day upon whom a very serious and difficult question presses with redoubled force. We see a whole class struggling for its rights; or, rather, we see it struggling to extend and increase its rights. Is that compatible with the Christian temper? Does not the Gospel forbid such a struggle? Have we not been told that we are to renounce the rights we have, to say nothing of trying to get more? Must we, then, as Christians, recall the labouring classes from the struggle for their rights, and exhort them only to patience and submission?

The problem with which we have here to do is also stated more or less in the form of an accusation against Christianity. Earnest men in political circles of a socialistic tendency, who would gladly be guided by Jesus Christ, complain that in this matter the Gospel leaves them in the lurch. They say that it imposes restraint upon aspirations which with a 124clear conscience they feel to be justified; that in requiring absolute meekness and submission it disarms everyone who wants to fight; that it narcotises, as it were, all real energy. Some say this with pain and regret, others with satisfaction. The latter assert that they always knew that the Gospel was not for the healthy and the strong, but for the broken-down; that it knows, and wants to know, nothing of the fact that life, and especially modern life, is a struggle, a struggle for one’s own rights. What answer are we to give them?

My own opinion is that these statements and complaints are made by people who have never yet clearly realised with what it is that the Gospel has to do, and who rashly and improperly connect it with earthly things. The Gospel makes its appeal to the inner man, who, whether he is well or wounded, in a happy position or a miserable, obliged to spend his earthly life fighting or quietly maintaining what he has won, always remains the same. “My kingdom is not of this world”; it is no earthly kingdom that the Gospel establishes. These words not only exclude such a political theocracy as the Pope aims at setting up, and all worldly dominion; they have a much wider range. Negatively they forbid all direct and formal interference of religion in worldly affairs. Positively what the Gospel says is this: Whoever you may be, and whatever your 125position, whether bondman or free, whether fighting or at rest—your real task in life is always the same. There is only one relation and one idea which you must not violate, and in the face of which all others are only transient wrappings and vain show: to be a child of God and a citizen of His kingdom, and to exercise love. How you are to maintain yourself in this life on earth, and in what way you are to serve your neighbour, is left to you and your own liberty of action. This is what the apostle Paul understood by the Gospel, and I do not believe that he misunderstood it. Then let us fight, let us struggle, let us get justice for the oppressed, let us order the circumstances of the world as we with a clear conscience can, and as we may think best for our neighbour; but do not let us expect the Gospel to afford us any direct help; let us make no selfish demands for ourselves; and let us not forget that the world passes away, not only with the lusts thereof, but also with its regulations and its goods! Once more be it said: the Gospel knows only one goal, one idea; and it demands of a man that he shall never put them aside. If the exhortation to renounce takes, in a harsh and one-sided way, a foremost place in Jesus’ words, we must be careful to keep before our eyes the paramount and exclusive claims of the relation to God and the idea of love. The Gospel is above all questions of mundane development; 126it is concerned, not with material things but with the souls of men.

With this we have already passed to the next question which was to occupy our attention, and we have half answered it.

(4) The Gospel and work, or the question of civilisation.

The points which we shall have to consider here are essentially the same as those which we emphasised in regard to the question just discussed; and we shall therefore be able to proceed more concisely.

Jesus’ teaching has been felt again and again, but above all in our own day, to exhibit no interest in any systematic work or calling, and no appreciation of those ideal possessions which go by the name of Art and Science. Nowhere, people say, does Jesus summon men to labour and to put their hands to the work of progress; in vain shall we look in his words for any expression of pleasure in vigorous activity; these ideal possessions lay far beyond his field of vision. In that last, unhappy book of his, The Old Faith and the New, David Friedrich Strauss gave particularly harsh expression to this feeling. He speaks of a fundamental defect in the Gospel, which he considers antiquated and useless because out of sympathy with the progress of civilisation. But long before Strauss the Pietistic 127movement exhibited the same sort of feeling. The Pietists tried to evade the difficulty in a way of their own. They started from the position that Jesus must be able to serve as a direct example for all men, whatever their calling; that he must have proved himself in all the situations in which a man can be placed. They admitted that a cursory examination of Jesus’ life disclosed the fact that this requirement was not fulfilled; but they were of opinion that on a closer inspection it would be found that he was really the best bricklayer, the best tailor, the best judge, the best scholar, and so on, and that he had the best knowledge and understanding for everything. They turned and twisted what Jesus said and did until it was made to express and corroborate what they wanted. Although it was a childish attempt which they made, the problem of which they were sensible was nevertheless of some moment. They felt that their consciences and their callings bound them to a definite activity and a definite business; they were clear that they ought not to become monks; and yet they were anxious, to practise the imitation of Christ in the full sense. They felt, then, that he must have stood in the same situation as they themselves, and that his horizon must have been the same as theirs.

Here we have the same case as we dealt with in the last section, only covering a wider. field. It is 128the ancient and constantly recurring error, that the Gospel has to do with the affairs of the world, and that it is its business to prescribe how they are to be carried on. Here, too, the old and almost ineradicable tendency of mankind to rid itself of its freedom and responsibility in higher things and subject itself to a law, comes into play. It is much easier, in fact, to resign oneself to any, even the sternest, kind of authority, than to live in the liberty of the good. But, apart from this, the question remains: Is it not a real defect in the Gospel that it betrays so little sympathy with the business of life, and is out of touch with the humaniora in the sense of science, art, and civilisation generally?

I answer, in the first place: What would have been gained if it had not possessed this “defect”? Suppose that it had taken an active interest in all those efforts, would it not have become entangled in them, or, at any rate, have incurred the risk of appearing to be so entangled? Labour, art, science, the progress of civilisation—these are not things which exist in the abstract; they exist in the particular phase of an age. The Gospel, then, would have hafl to ally itself with them. But phases change. In the Roman Church of to-day we see how heavily religion is burdened by being connected with a particular epoch of civilisation. In the Middle Ages this Church, anxious to participate to 129the full in all questions of progress and civilisation, gave them form and shape, and laid down their laws. Insensibly, however, the Church identified its sacred inheritance and its peculiar mission with the knowledge, the maxims, and the interests which it then acquired; so that it is now, as it were, firmly pinned down to the philosophy, the political economy, in short, to the whole civilisation, of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, what a service the Gospel has rendered to mankind by having sounded the notes of religion in mighty chords and banished every other melody!

In the second place, labour and the progress of civilisation are, no doubt, very precious, and summon us to strenuous exertion. But they do not comprise the highest ideal. They are incapable of filling the soul with real satisfaction. Although work may give pleasure, that is only one aspect of the matter. I have always found that the people who talk loudest about the pleasure which work affords make no very great efforts themselves; whilst those who are uninterruptedly engaged in heavy labour are hesitating in its praises. As a matter of fact, there is a great deal of hypocritical twaddle talked about work. Three-fourths of it and more is nothing but stupefying toil, and the man who really works hard shares the poet’s aspirations as he looks forward to evening:


Head, hands and feet rejoice: the work is done.

And then, think of the results of all this labour! When a man has done a piece of work, he would like to do it over again, and the knowledge of its defects falls heavily on soul and conscience. No! it is not in so far as we work that we live, but in so far as we rejoice in the love of others, and ourselves exercise love. Faust is right: Labour which is labour and nothing else becomes an aversion. We long for the streams of living water, and for the spring itself from which those waters flow:

Man sehnt sich nach des Lebens Bächen,
Ach! nach des Lebens Quelle hin

Labour is a valuable safety-valve and useful in keeping off greater ills, but it is not in itself an absolute good, and we cannot include it amongst our ideals. The same may be said of the progress of civilisation. It is, of course, to be welcomed; but the piece of progress in which we delight to-day becomes something mechanical by to-morrow, and leaves us cold. The man of any deep feeling will thankfully receive anything that the development of progress may bring him; but he knows very well that his situation inwardly—the problems that agitate him and the fundamental position in which he stands—is not essentially, nay, is scarcely even unessentially, altered by it all. It is only for a moment that 131it seems as if something new were coming, and a man were being really relieved of his burden. Gentlemen, when a man grows older and sees more deeply into life, he does not find, if he possesses any inner world at all, that he is advanced by the external march of things, by “the progress of civilisation.” Nay, he feels himself, rather, where he was before, and forced to seek the sources of strength which his forefathers also sought. He is forced to make himself a native of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Eternal, the kingdom of Love; and he comes to understand that it was only of this kingdom that Jesus Christ desired to speak and to testify, and he is grateful to him for it.

But, in the third place, Jesus had a strong and positive conviction of the aggressive and forward character of his message. “I am come to send fire on the earth, and”—he added—“what will I if it be already kindled?” The fire of the judgment and the forces of love were what he wanted to summon up, so as to create a new humanity. If he spoke of these forces of love in the simple manner corresponding to the conditions nearest at hand—the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of the sick and those in prison—it is nevertheless clear that a great inward transformation of the humanity which he saw in the mirror of the little nation in Palestine hovered before his 132eyes: “One is your master, and all ye are brethren.” The last hour is come; but in the last hour from a small seed a tree is to grow up which shall spread its branches far and wide. Further, he was revealing the knowledge of God, and he was certain that it would ripen the young, strengthen the weak, and make them God’s champions. Knowledge of God is the spring that is to fructify the barren field, and pour forth streams of living water. In this sense he spoke of it as the highest and the only necessary good, as the condition of all edification, and, we may also say, of all true growth and progress. Lastly, he saw on his horizon not only the judgment, but also a kingdom of justice, of love, and of peace, which, though it came from heaven, was nevertheless for this earth. When it is to come, he himself knows not—the hour is known to the Father only; but he knows how and by what means it will spread; and side by side with the highly coloured, dramatic pictures which pass through his soul there are quiet perceptions which are fixed and steady. He sees the vineyard of God on this earth and God calling His labourers into it—happy the man who receives a call! They labour in the vineyard, stand no longer idle in the marketplace, and at last receive their reward. Or take the parable of the talents distributed in order to be employed, and therefore not to be buried in a napkin. 133A day’s work, labour, increase, progress—he sees it all, but placed at the service of God and neighbour, encircled by the light of the Eternal, and removed from the service of transient things.

To sum up what we have here tried to indicate: Is the complaint from which we started at the beginning of this section justified? Ought we really to desire that the Gospel had adapted itself to “the progress of civilisation”? Here, too, I think, we have to learn from the Gospel and not to find fault with it. It tells us of the real work which humanity has to accomplish, and we ought not to meet its message by entrenching ourselves behind our miserable “work of civilisation.” “The image of Christ,” as a modern historian justly says, “remains the sole basis of all moral culture, and in the measure in which it succeeds in making its light penetrate is the moral culture of the nations increased or diminished.”

(5) The Gospel and the Son of God, or the
Christological question

We now pass from the sphere of questions of which we have been treating hitherto. The four previous questions are all intimately connected with one another. Failure to answer them rightly always proceeds from not rating the Gospel high enough; from somehow or other dragging it down to the 134level of mundane questions and entangling it in them. Or, to put the matter differently: The forces of the Gospel appeal to the deepest foundations of human existence and to them only; it is there alone that their leverage is applied. If a man is unable, then, to go down to the root of humanity, and has no feeling for it and no knowledge of it, he will fail to understand the Gospel, and will then try to profane it or else complain that it is of no use.

We now, however, approach quite a different problem: What position did Jesus himself take up towards the Gospel while he was proclaiming it, and how did he wish himself to be accepted? We are not yet dealing with the way in which his disciples accepted him, or the place which they gave him in their hearts, and the opinion which they formed of him; we are now speaking only of his own testimony of himself. But the question is one which lands us in the great sphere of controverted questions which cover the history of the Church from the first century up to our own time. In the course of this controversy men put an end to brotherly fellowship for the sake of a nuance; and thousands were cast out, condemned, loaded with chains and done to death. It is a gruesome story. On the question of “Christology” men beat their religious doctrines into terrible weapons, and spread fear and intimidation everywhere. This attitude still continues: 135Christology is treated as though the Gospel had no other problem to offer, and the accompanying fanaticism is still rampant in our own day. Who can wonder at the difficulty of the problem, weighed down as it is with such a burden of history and made the sport of parties? Yet anyone who will look at our Gospels with unprejudiced eyes will not find that the question of Jesus’ own testimony is insoluble. So much of it, however, as remains obscure and mysterious to our minds ought to remain so; as Jesus meant it to be, and as, in the very nature of the problem, it is. It is only in pictures that we can give it expression. “There are phenomena which cannot, without the aid of symbols, be brought within the range of the understanding.”

Before we examine Jesus’ own testimony about himself, two leading points must be established. In the first place, he desired no other belief in his `person and no other attachment to it than is contained in the keeping of his commandments Even in the fourth Gospel, in which Jesus’ person often seems to be raised above the contents of the Gospel, the idea is still clearly formulated: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” He must himself have found, during his labours, that some people honoured, nay, even trusted him, without troubling themselves about the contents of his message. It was to them that he addressed the reprimand: 136“Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father.” To lay down any “doctrine” about his person and his dignity independently of the Gospel was, then, quite outside his sphere of ideas. In the second place, he described the Lord of heaven and earth as his God and his Father; as the Greater, and as Him who is alone good. He is certain that everything which he has and everything which he is to accomplish comes from this Father. He prays to Him; he subjects himself to His will; he struggles hard to find out what it is and to fulfil it. Aim, strength, understanding, the issue, and the hard must, all come from the Father. This is what the Gospels say, and it cannot be turned and twisted. This feeling, praying, working, struggling, and suffering individual is a man who in the face of his God also associates himself with other men.

These two facts mark out, as it were, the boundaries of the ground covered by Jesus’ testimony of himself. They do not, it is true, give us any positive information as to what he said; but we shall understand what he really meant by his testimony if we look closely at the two descriptions which he gave of himself: the Son of God and the Messiah (the Son of David, the Son of Man).

The description of himself as the Son of God, 137Messianic though it may have been in its original conception, lies very much nearer to our modern way of thinking than the other, for Jesus himself gave a meaning to this conception which almost takes it out of the class of Messianic ideas, or at all events does not make its inclusion in that class necessary to a proper understanding of it. On the other hand, if we do not desire to be put off with a lifeless word, the description of himself as the Messiah is at first blush one that is quite foreign to our ideas. Without some explanation we cannot understand, nay, unless we are Jews, we cannot understand at all, what this post of honour means and what rank and character it possesses. It is only when we have ascertained its meaning by historical research that we can ask whether the word has a significance which in any way survives the destruction of the husk in which it took shape in Jewish political life.

Let us first of all consider the designation, “Son of God.” Jesus in one of his discourses made it specially clear why and in what sense he gave himself this name. The saying is to be found in Matthew, and not, as might perhaps have been expected, in John: “No man knoweth the Son but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” It is “knowledge of God” that 138makes the sphere of the Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came. to know the sacred Being who rules heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God. Here, however, two observations are to be made: Jesus is convinced that he knows God in a way in which no one ever knew Him before, and he knows that it is his vocation to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and by deed—and with it the knowledge that men are God’s children. In this consciousness he knows himself to be the Son called and instituted of God, to be the Son of God, and hence he can say: My God and my Father, and into this invocation he puts something which belongs to no one but himself. How he came to this consciousness of the unique character of his relation to God as a Son; how he came to the consciousness of his power, and to the consciousness of the obligation and the mission which this power carries with it, is his secret, and no psychology will ever fathom it. The confidence with which John makes him address the Father: “Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” is undoubtedly the direct reflection of the certainty 139with which Jesus himself spoke. Here all research must stop. We are not even able to say when it was that he first knew himself as the Son, and whether he at once completely identified himself with this idea and let his individuality be absorbed in it, or whether it formed an inner problem which kept him in constant suspense. No one could fathom this mystery who had not had a parallel experience. A prophet may, if he chooses, try to raise the veil, but, for our part, we must be content with the fact that this Jesus who preached humility and knowledge of self, nevertheless named himself and himself alone as the Son of God. He is certain that he knows the Father, that he is to bring this knowledge to all men, and that thereby he is doing the work of God. Among all the works of God this is the greatest; it is the aim and end of all creation. The work is given to him to do, and in God’s strength he will accomplish it. It was out of this feeling of power and in the prospect of victory that he uttered the words: “The Father hath committed all things unto me.” Again and again in the history of mankind men of God have come forward in the sure consciousness of possessing a divine message, and of being compelled, whether they will or not, to deliver it. But the message has always happened to be imperfect; in this spot or that, defective; bound up with political or particularistic 140elements; designed to meet the circumstances of the moment; and very often the prophet did not stand the test of being himself an example of his message. But in this case the message brought was of the profoundest and most comprehensive character; it went to the very root of mankind and, although set in the framework of the Jewish nation, it addressed itself to the whole of humanity—the message from God the Father. Defective it is not, and its real kernel may be readily freed from the inevitable husk of contemporary form. Antiquated nit is not, and in life and strength it still triumphs to-day over all the past. He who delivered it has as yet yielded his place to no man, and to human life he still to-day gives a meaning and an aim—he the Son of God.

This already brings us to the other designation which Jesus gave of himself: the Messiah. Before I attempt briefly to explain it, I ought to mention that some scholars of note—and among them Wellhausen—have expressed a doubt whether Jesus described himself as the Messiah. In that doubt I cannot concur; nay, I think that it is only by wrenching what the evangelists tell us off its hinges that the opinion can be maintained. The very expression “Son of Man”—that Jesus used it is beyond question seems to me to be intelligible only in a Messianic sense. To say nothing of anything else, such a story as that of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem 141would have to be simply expunged, if the theory is to be maintained that he did not consider himself the promised Messiah and also desire to be accepted as such. Moreover, the forms in which Jesus expressed what he felt about his own consciousness and his vocation become quite incomprehensible unless they are taken as the outcome of the Messianic idea. Finally, the positive arguments which are advanced in support of the theory are either so very weak, or else so highly questionable, that we may remain quite sure that Jesus called himself the Messiah.

The idea of a Messiah and the Messianic notions generally, as they existed in Jesus’ day, had been developed on two combined lines, on the line of the kings and on that of the prophets. Alien influences had also been at work, and the whole idea was transfigured by the ancient expectation that God Himself in visible form would take up the government of His people. The leading features of the Messianic idea were taken from the Israelitish kingdom in the ideal splendour in which it was invested after the kingdom itself had disappeared. Memories of Moses and of the great prophets also played a part in it. In the following lecture we shall briefly show what shapes the Messianic hopes had assumed up to Jesus’ time, and in what way he took them up and transformed them.

« Prev Lecture VII Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection