Chapter XIV. Some Instructors Of Conscience: Theology

Theology.––Theology, divinity, the knowledge of God, by whatever name we call it, is a sphere in which, more than any other, we must needs be ruled by the instructed conscience; and yet we are apt to think, as do the children, that God requires us to be good, and punishes us when we are bad; and this is all we care to know about religion: we leave out of count that knowledge of God which, we have it on the authority of Christ himself, 'is eternal life.'

Perhaps it is because the word 'eternal' casts our thoughts into the far future, about which we do not much concern ourselves. We do not realize that eternity is past, present, and to come. Life, in any real sense, is the knowledge of God now; and, without that knowledge, there cannot be the free and joyous activity of our powers, the glow of our feelings, the happy living, free from care, the open eye for all beauty, the open heart for all goodness, the responsive mind, the tender heart, the aspiring soul––which go to make up fulness of life. Most people live a poor maimed life, as though they carried about one or other mortified limb, dead in itself and a burden to the body. But they do not realize that their minds are slow and their hearts heavy for want of the knowledge which is life.

The Divine Method.––We think, too, that the knowledge of divine things comes by feeling, and chide ourselves because we do not feel more. If we examine the teaching of Christ, we shall find that exceedingly little is said about feeling, and a great deal about knowing: that our Lord's teaching appeals, not to the heart, but to the intelligence. "Without a parable spake he not unto them." Why? That, "hearing they should not hear, and seeing they should not see, neither should they understand."

Here we have a method exactly contrary to all usual methods of teaching. In a general way, the teacher labors to make what he has to say plain to the dullest; and, indeed, we are impatient and fretful under poem or apologue, the meaning of which is not clear at the first glance. That is, we choose that all labor shall be on the part of the teacher, and none upon that of the learner.

Whatever we get in this way is soon lost––'lightly come, lightly go'––for knowledge is only to be had at the cost of labour of mind. As regards the knowledge of our religion, above all, we must read, and inwardly digest; for it is only upon that which we take into us as part of ourselves that we grow. Our Lord knew this, and delivered no easy sayings for the instruction of the people. Even his disciples did not understand. Let us put ourselves in their place, and listen to the Master's 'hard' sayings––hard intellectually as well as morally––and see what we should get out of them on the first hearing. The involved arguments of St Paul are infinitely plainer; the dark sayings of the prophets, the Apocalypse itself, are easier to understand, so far as their meaning is decipherable at all, than the simple-sounding sayings of Christ. But this very fact evidences our Lord's way of teaching us that life comes of knowledge, the knowledge of God.

The Bible contains a Revelation of God.––Where shall we find our material?––for we can only think as we are supplied with the material for thought. First and last, in the Bible; for the knowledge of God comes by revelation. We can only know Him as he declares and manifests Himself to us. There are, no doubt, 'few, faint, and feeble' rays of revelation in books held sacred by various eastern nations; and this we should expect, because God is the God of all flesh, and does not leave Himself without a witness anywhere; but feeble rays in an immense void of darkness are not accepted even by the people who possess them as affording a knowledge of God. They do not aim at or conceive of such a knowledge. They sit in darkness as they have sat from the beginning, and must needs sit until they receive the light of revelation.

The Higher Criticism.––A serious danger threatens us who hold the means of knowledge in what is called the higher criticism. It is no doubt well that scholars should give critical attention to every jot and tittle of the Scriptures; and the danger to us does not lie in any possibility that in the Bible we have no word of God, but merely the literature of the Hebrew nation. So soon as men's eyes turn from minute literary criticism to the gradual revelation of our God in His beauty (the progressive revelation which we get in the Bible alone), the truth of the Book is confirmed to us; and we know, without proof

     "Thou canst not prove the Nameless,
     Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
     For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
     Nor yet disproven."––1

Plato has said the last word on this matter for our day as well as his own. The danger I refer to is that, while occupying our minds about questions of criticism, we neglect the knowledge which cannot come without labour; that we forsake the earnest and devout study of the Bible, the one way of approach to the knowledge of God.

Already we begin to gather the fruits of our ignorance. Little books with Bible sayings, worked into specious arguments to prove a philosophy of life which the Bible does not sanction, come to us as a new and wonderful gospel. We talk of new developments of Christianity, when the Christianity of the Bible offers infinite scope for development in the beauty of holiness and in the knowledge of our illimitable God. We are offered on all hands religions about Christ and without Christ. We are taught to believe that, "God manifest in the flesh," means no more than the divine in ourselves, and that every power that was used by Christ is available to us.

A smug religiosity is upon us, a religion of which we ourselves are the measure; whether we call it 'Christianity on a Higher Plane,' or Buddhism, or Theosophy; or whether, like the Dukhobors, we decline to obey human law, because we choose to believe ourselves under the immediate direction of God,––saying, with that poor little community in Lancashire, 'There is no law but God's law,' and drawing the absurd inference that all human law is transgression:––all these things have the one interpretation; we are declining from the knowledge of God.

Indecision.––In another way still we are eating the fruit of our ignorance. A paralyzing hesitancy and uncertainty are upon us. We are tolerant of all beliefs because we have none. 'We do not know,' we say; 'we are not sure.' 'What right have we to think that the creed of another man, or another people, is not as true as ours?' The very newspapers ask us, Is Christianity effete?––and we presume to discuss the question; or, at any rate, we are able to listen in calmness while men toss to and fro the one question which is vital to us. Let us believe it––What think ye of Christ? is the only question that matters. We cannot escape with the evasion, "We think not of Christ, but of the Father"––for the word is true, "No man cometh unto the Father but by me."

How are we to get this vital knowledge, without which we assuredly perish?––not in some unknown future state, but here and now, a slow paralysis creeps upon us. We have seen that there is but one source of illumination, the Bible itself. It is true that the divine Spirit is a light in every man's soul; but if a lamp is to be kindled, there must be the lamp; and it would seem as if the process followed by the Holy Spirit were to teach us by an arresting illumination, from time to time, of some phrase written in the Bible. Hence, our business is, before all things, to make ourselves acquainted with the text.

Study of the Bible.––How, then, shall we study our Bible, bearing in mind that our aim is not textual criticism, or even textual knowledge, but the knowledge of God?

The interpreter is too much with us. We lean on him––whether in commentary, essay, sermon, poem, critique––and are content that he should think for us. It is better that we should, in the first place, try our own efforts at interpretation; when we fail or are puzzled is the time to compare our thought with that of others, choosing as interpreters men of devout mind and scholarly accomplishment. Orderly study, with the occasional help of a sound commentary, is to be recommended. To use 'good books,' by way of a spiritual stimulus, deadens in the end the healthy appetite for truth. The same remark applies to little text-books, with remarks meant to stimulate certain virtues or states of mind. The error that underlies these aids to private devotion (public worship is another matter) is, that their tendency is to magnify ourselves and our occasions, while they create in us little or no desire for the best knowledge. It is probable that even our lame efforts at reading with understanding are more profitable than the best instruction. The preparedness we need is of the mind and heart; we must pray to be delivered from prejudices and prepossessions, and wait upon God as the thirsty earth waits for rain.

In the Old Testament it is well, for example, to read a life through, with such breaks as may be convenient, remembering that there has been no such constraint upon the author as to make him a recording machine. He writes as he is, a man with ignorances which have not been informed, with prejudices which have not been corrected. You discern the man in his book, as any author is discerned in his writings. The difference in the Scriptures is that the men who wrote the Bible books were charged with the revelation of God and of His dealings with men; revelations of men also, discovered with a certain childlike simplicity which shows us to each other––as we surely appear to our Father––without excuse or extenuation, but with a strong appeal in our simplicity. Men are, we may believe, shown to us in the Bible as we each appear before God. Good men offend, are chastised and forgiven, even as children in a family.

Thus, for example, we all leave our homes to seek our fortune, even as Abraham did; but, with Abraham, the veil is lifted, and we are shown that God called him forth, led him on his way, put him through the slow discipline of a life, the results of which belonged to a time that came after. The Bible lives are typical; they disclose to us the inner meaning of our own. That restraining touch of God of which we are all aware, that inspiring whisper in the ear which comes to us at great moments, that fixing of the bounds of our habitation which is part of our Father's plan for each of us,––these things are presented in the lives of holy men of old.

'Revelation' of the Bible Unique.––Do not let us make a mistake. Because we find little hints in many books, hints of the Lord God, merciful and gracious, who will by no means clear the guilty, let us not run away with the idea that the peculiar revelation of the Bible is, in truth, a universal revelation. Every hint we get of the Being of God is derived, consciously or unconsciously, from the Bible, even as that of a candle is derived from the light of the sun. Does the freethinker, who knows no God, proclaim the love of man? No hint of the brotherhood and sonship of men has escaped into the world except through the revelation which God has vouchsafed to us through certain chosen men. Thoughts already revealed are made luminous to us by the light that is vouchsafed to each, but that is a quite different thing from the first inception of a revealing thought.

When we have mastered all the knowledge of God that has been progressively revealed in the Bible, then perhaps further revelation will be granted to men in the same gradual way.

No Revelation is Repeated––It would appear, so far as we can discern the law, that God does not repeat a revelation which has been made; and, also, that as full a revelation as we are able to bear concerning our God has already been given, and recorded under divine authority. In this matter the present work of the Holy Spirit, who inspires, appears to be to illuminate a meaning here, another there, for each of us; so that our education in the knowledge of God is being gradually carried on, if we bring a hearing ear and an understanding heart.

In this way, our poets write and our painters paint under inspiration when they write and paint revealing truths. We may believe also, with the medieval Church, that a revelation is still going on of things not hitherto made known to men. Great secrets of nature, for example, would seem to be imparted to minds already prepared to receive them, as, for example, that of the 'ions' or 'electrons' of which that we call matter is said to consist. For this sort of knowledge also is of God, and is, I believe, a matter of revelation, given as the world is prepared to receive it.

But here the same two laws would appear to hold good. No revelation is repeated; the law of gravitation, the circulation of the blood, and the like, cannot twice be revealed to man; and, again, there is no overcrowding of such revelations. Not until we have mastered, digested and made our own, that which has already been presented, is a new revelation offered to us.

This, probably, is why the Bible is unique as containing original revelations of God. We know Him so little, we are so very far from attaining the Bible conception of the beauty and the goodness of our God, that we are not ready for more. Let us observe,–– God's dealings with individuals in this matter of revelation would always seem to have reference to the world. No man is taught for himself alone; and that for which the world––as represented by its best and most thoughtful people––is unripe by reason of ignorance, that revelation is withheld until the world is prepared. Therefore, the instructed conscience does not allow us to give heed to the 'Lo, here!' and 'Lo, there!' continually sounding in our ears; and we are equally careful as to how we receive private interpretations of the Scriptures, which are put before us as having escaped the vigilance of the Church until to-day. In the matter of our great first duty, it behoves us to keep to 'sober walking in true gospel ways.' 

Interpretation.––As for distinguishing between the merely human and the inspired elements in the Bible, the way to this is not by critical study and destructive criticism, but by a gradual absorption of the idea of God as it is unfolded to us through the long preparation of the Old Testament, the glorious manifestation of the Gospels, and the application to the life of the Church which we find in the Acts and the Epistles. By long, slow study and by quick heart's love we shall learn to discern God, to know in an instant those words which are not of him; to know that 'break their teeth in their jaws,' for instance, is no word of God, but an utterance of the violent human heart, allowed to pass without comment, as are most of the ways and words of men recorded in the Bible.

We shall be able, as a reward of long study, to distinguish when a popular legend crops up, by the signs that it contains no revelation of God, no simple portrayal of man. But we shall not venture to say, that, because a story is not the sort of incident we may meet with any day in the street, it is therefore not of divine inspiration. The narration of such an incident (and there are many of them in the Bible) is merely one of accidental, outside truth, with little illuminating value. How the essential truth may be revealed to us, whether by parable or record, we cannot say; but we know that we have all heard the tempting voice in the garden, have all eaten the fruit, have all become miserably aware of ourselves, and have left, though not without hope, the paradise of innocent souls. Nay, that very story of the stopping of the sun in its course, an embedded myth, let us say, is recorded, we may believe, by the inspiration of God. We have all had times in our lives when the sun has not been permitted to go down upon us until we have wrought a deliverance, escaped a peril, done a work. It would seem as if the divine Spirit taught essential truths, the truths by which we live, by all means fitted to the understanding of men. But let us be extremely chary as to how we use this method of interpretation. No doubt God instructed his people by figures; but also, no doubt, he instructed them by facts; and when the simple fact carries its own interpretation, let us beware how we seek for another.

Sentimental Humanity.––Of another thing also let us beware. We may not endeavour to interpret the Scriptures in the spirit of sentimental humanity preached as the highest gospel to-day. That thousands should fall in the wilderness because they murmured or because they rebelled; that the earth should open and swallow certain haughty chieftains; that the punishment of death should fall upon men for an act of irreverence––such records as these by no means disprove the truth of the Bible. There may be inaccuracies of statement; for verbal inspiration, the use of the writer as an amanuensis, would destroy the human element which appears to be essential in all the communications of God with men. But let us not be in a hurry to cry, 'Away with all such fables!'

When a ship goes down with all hands, when flood and fire destroy their thousands, when famine and pestilence are abroad, an older piety would have called it the visitation of God; and that is precisely what the Bible statements amount to. If we say, bad drainage, unhealthy conditions, carelessness, errors in construction, flood or storm, we only put in the intermediate step. These are offences for which God visits men; and wind and storm are still fulfilling his word.

The mystery is one we find in life as well as in the chronicles of the Old Testament. Our Lord throws some light upon it in his remarks about that Galilean tower; but it is conceivable that the final answer may be that death is less momentous in the thought of God, who knows the hereafter, than to us, who are still in the dark. Christ wept, not for Lazarus: his sorrow was for the griefs that fall upon all men, as upon the two sisters. Perhaps He would have said, 'If they only knew!'

Superstition.––I have indicated some of the prejudices and misconceptions likely to obtrude themselves upon us in reading the Bible. These and such as these put away, we shall be prepared to read with open mind and willing heart, until we learn gradually the ways of God with men, and something of the divine purity, tenderness, love, and justice. If we are told that the story of the Flood, another tale like that of Joseph, laws like those of Moses, and much besides, appear in the records of nations that knew not God, here is no ground for surprise. God is the God of all flesh; and surely, there never was a nation with which he had no dealings. The distinction is in knowing. To the nation who knew God––and was favoured, on account of its peculiar spiritual insight, to transmit what it received to the rest of the world––was revealed something of the interpretation of those dealings of God with men about which the nations who knew not God were pathetically and cruelly in the dark. The mind that knows not God is of necessity a prey to superstition. Only the other day, in a plague-struck district of India, boxes containing stationery for a public examination came to hand. Soon the report was rife in the bazaar that plague was in the boxes, and that, as soon as the sahib opened them, he would let it loose in the town. Nay, did not Israel itself, for our warning, relapse into ignorance of God, and, like the nations, sacrifice its sons and daughters to Moloch––the people gave of the fruit of its body for the sins of its soul.

An Indulgent God.––An element of peril in the teaching of our day is the continual presentation of our God as an indulgent Parent; whereas the Bible presentation is of a Father "who chasteneth whom he loveth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth," and who most of all christened and scourged the only begotten Son of whom he said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Undue solicitude about our own pains and grievances may well interfere with the educative purposes of God.

Christ presented in the Gospels.––The main object of the Gospels is to hold up for our regard a presentation of the image of Christ; therein we may see him as he walked among men, as he looked upon men, as he spake, as he worked, as he died. There is no personage of history whom we have the means of knowing so completely as we may know our Lord; and the object in our gospel reading should be, less to find words of comfort and admonition for ourselves, than to perceive with our minds and receive upon our hearts the impress of Christ. To know him is life, and is the whole of life; and every thought of Him, walking in the cornfields, sitting weary by the well, moving among crowds or in solitary places, raising his eyes upon the multitude, taking by the hand that little maid,––every such living conception we get of Christ is life to us. Just as, from the apparently casual touches of the painter, the living likeness grows, so, by laying upon the canvas of our hearts every apparently casual and insignificant detail about our Master, we shall by degrees gather a living vision of the Son of Man; and dearer to us than any beauty on the earth or in the heavens will become the thought

     "Of Jesus, sitting by Samaria's well,
     Or teaching some poor fishers on the shore."2

Miracles.––If we would see the vision, we must keep the single eye, unclouded by the breath of many words which wing from many mouths. Especially are men clamorous to prove that 'miracles do not happen,' except as it is within everyone's power to do miracles for himself!

The mist of words upon this subject is very apt to darken the mind; but, if we are careful to instruct our conscience on some two or three points, we shall not be blinded by this mote of destructive criticism. In the first place, perhaps miracles are no such great things as we make of them. St John calls those which he records not miracles, but signs. It is possible that in our day we have, or might have, the substance, the entire faith in Christ, which does away with the need of signs. As for the incredibility of the Gospel miracles, so fit and precious as evidences of the mind of Christ, all that scientists can say against them is that such a circumstance as the turning of water into wine, for example, has not come within their experience. They can no longer say that such acts are impossible, nor that they are contrary to the laws of nature. The amazing discoveries of recent years have made scientific men modest; they perceive that they do not know the laws of nature, and are only acquainted with a few of the ways of nature; and therefore they know that nothing is impossible.

Again, people think they can effect a compromise. They think they can still believe in God and in Christ, may even call themselves Christians, and yet scoff at the possibility of miracles as at a notion belonging to a benighted age. But they lose sight of the proportion of faith. They fix their minds upon certain incidents, and lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is altogether of the nature of a miracle. That God should hold intercourse with man; that we may pray, knowing, with full assurance, that we are heard and shall be answered; that at our word the hearts of princes will surely be refrained; that the fit and right desires of our hearts will be fulfilled, though always in simple and seemingly natural ways––these things, which come to all of us as signs, are they not of the nature of miracles? Do they not imply the immediate and personal action of our God, not in your behalf or mine alone, but in behalf of each of the creatures of his infinite care?

The Words of Christ.––Next after the Death upon the Cross, the deepest amazement of the Gospel story is, not miracles, but words. "Never man spake like this man," said that servant of the Temple sent to apprehend Jesus; and it was given to him to declare the unique distinction of Christ. Dare any man stand up and offer himself to the world with such words as: "I am the bread of life," "I am the light of the world," "I am the truth," "Come unto me, all ye that are weary, and I will give you rest"? It is in verifying the truth of these and such like sayings of Christ that Christianity consists; and all Christians everywhere and at all times have known these things to be true, with the knowledge that comes of experience; and this is the knowledge which is life. When we begin to get this sort of knowledge, the miracles of Christ are important to us only as they manifest the mind of our Master, his kindness and his pity, the necessity that was upon him to do acts of mercy.

The Incarnation and the Resurrection.––Another tendency of thought in our day is to deny the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ, to suppose that He was born and died and remained in the grave as do other men; but that He was truly the best among men, and our great example.

None are more ready than scientific men to admit their profound ignorance of the causes of birth and life and death. They know the usual processes exactly; but causes, principles, elude them. We are hemmed in by mysteries as much in the domain of science as in that of religion. No one is prepared to say that the Incarnation could not be, nor the Resurrection; but, if these things were not as they are described, then are we indeed, as St Paul says, without hope. Christ is not. For, if He were a man like other men, then, indeed, would the charge brought against him by the Jews have been correct; and, "This man blasphemeth," would deprive us of all inspiration from the life of Christ, from the peace of his death, and from the hope of his resurrection.

Trivial Doubts.––It is necessary that conscience should be instructed as to the grave issues of doubts that are lightly handled in magazine or newspaper, and in books to be found in most houses, because our first duty is not possible to us while we have a divided mind. The first commandment is, we are told, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." How can we love Him whom we do not know, and how can we know Him concerning whom we are not sure? and, also, let us remember at our peril, that a doubt once entertained remains with us, is incorporated with us, and we are liable to its appearance at any moment. It recurs, as certain bodily ailments recur when they are, as we say, in the blood. We are inclined to think that there is a certain distinction in doubt, that a sceptical turn is a sign of intellectual power. The activity of a lesser mind may be shown by doubting in things divine as in things human; but the greater mind takes in all the bearings of the point at issue, and the darkness of doubt disappears before a luminous understanding. It has been well said that, "To the living and affirmative mind difficulties and unintelligibilities are as dross, which successively rises to the surface, and dims the splendour of ascertained and perceived truth, but which is cast away, time after time, until the molten silver remains unsullied; but the negative mind is lead, and, when all its formations of dross are skimmed away, nothing remains."3

The instructed conscience would pronounce, 'Loyalty forbids,' when we would entertain thoughts derogatory to Christ, dishonouring to God; because only such a conscience perceives how much is implied in this or that sceptical idea; knows, too, that the edifice of our faith is no dead structure of opinions and doctrines, but is a living body, liable to bleed to death through a wound. The uninstructed conscience, on the contrary, is persuaded that 'Truth' is so all-important that it is our duty to consider, examine, and finally cherish every objection presented to the mind. It must be remembered that objections are negative and not affirmative; that Truth consists in affirmations and not in negations; that, the affirmation duly apprehended, the negation disappears as a cloud before the sun; that we have no right to tamper with the negations of doubt until we have got the assurance of knowledge.

 

1The Myths of Plato, Professor Stewart.