[This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915.]
Three elements enter into every Christian's conception of his Lord—history, experience and reflection. Jesus is to him a figure out of the past, a force in the present, and a fact in his view of the universe. Whether we be discussing the Christ of Paul, or of the Nicene theologians, or of some thoughtful believer today, we must allow for the memory of the Man of Nazareth handed down from those who knew Him in the flesh, the acquaintance with the Lord of life resulting from personal loyalty to His will, and the explanation of this Lord reached by the mind, as, using the intellectual methods of its age, it tries to set His figure in its mental world.
The Jesus of the primitive Church was One whom believers worshipped as the Christ of God, in whose person and mission they saw the fulfilment of Israel's prophecy and the inauguration of a new religious era. They represent their conception of Him as corresponding to and created by His own consciousness of Himself. He was aware of a unique relationship to God—He is His Son, the Son. And because of this divine sonship He is the Messiah, commissioned to usher in the Kingdom of God, and to bring forgiveness and eternal life to men. This He does by becoming their Teacher and their lowly Servant, laying down His life for them in suffering and death, and rising and returning to them as their Lord. He appeals to them for faith in God, for loyalty to Himself as God's Servant and Son, and for trust in His divine power to save them.
This conception of Jesus is given us in documents which must be investigated and appraised as sources of historical knowledge. The four gospels are our principal informants, and no other writings in existence have been so often and so minutely examined. Among scholars at present it is a common hypothesis that Mark's is the earliest narrative; that this was combined with a Collection of Sayings (compiled, perhaps, by Matthew) and other material in our first gospel, and by another editor (probably Luke) with the same or a similar Collection of Sayings and still other material in our third gospel. Later yet, a fourth evangelist interpreted for the world of his day the Jesus of the first three gospels in the light of his own and the Church's spiritual experience.
The earlier sources, as is usually and naturally the case with literary records of the past, are considered historically more reliable than the later. The words of Jesus in the form in which they are given in the Synoptists are more nearly as Jesus spoke them, than in the form in which they are recorded in John. There is a tendency, often found in kindred documents, to make events more marvellous as the tradition is handed on. In Mark, for instance, the Spirit descends upon Jesus "as a dove," symbolizing the quietness with which the Divine Power possessed Him; in Luke, the symbol is materialized, and the Holy Spirit descends "in bodily form as a dove." The writers interpret the narrative for their readers: Matthew takes Jesus' ideal of the indissoluble marriage-tie, as it is given in Mark, and allows, in the practical application of the ideal, divorce for adultery; he adds to Jesus' word about telling one's brother his fault "between thee and him alone" further advice as to what shall be done if the brother be obdurate, ending with "Tell it unto the Church." John substitutes for the many sayings of Jesus in the earlier gospels, in which He appears to look forward to a speedy and sudden coming of His Kingdom in power, other sayings, in which He promises to come again spiritually and dwell in His followers. On the other hand, in some particulars scholars think that the later writers had more accurate information, and used it to correct misunderstandings conveyed by their predecessors; the length of our Lord's ministry, the procedure followed at the trial, the date of the crucifixion, are by many supposed to be more exactly given in John than in the Synoptists. In general there is no reason for questioning the data in the later sources, save as they seem to come from an interest of the Church of their day, unrelated with the Jesus of the earlier records.
In such documents we must expect some events to be supported by more historic proof than others. The evidence for Jesus' resurrection (to take a typical case), is far weightier than that for His birth of a virgin-mother. There is probably no scrap of primitive Christian literature which does not assume the risen Christ; and the origin of the Christian Church, and the character of its message and life, cannot be explained apart from the Easter faith in the Lord's victory over death and presence with His people in power. The virgin-birth rests on but two records (possibly on only one), neither of which belongs to the earlier strata of the tradition, and which are with difficulty reconciled with the more frequently mentioned fact that Jesus is the Son of David (an ancestry traced through Joseph). But in discussing the historicity of the narratives, it is just to the evangelists to recall that their main purpose was not the writing of history as such, but the presentation of material (which undoubtedly they considered trustworthy historically) designed to convey to their readers a correct religious estimate of Jesus Christ. "These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in His name." They do not often take the trouble to tell us on what evidence they report an event or a saying; they either did not know, or they did not care to preserve, the sequence of events, so that it is impossible to make a harmony of the gospels in which the material is chronologically arranged. But they spare themselves no pains to give the truth of the religious impression of Jesus which they had received.
And when one compares all our documents, it is significant that they do not give us discordant estimates of the religious worth of Jesus. The meaning for faith of the Christ of John is not at variance with the meaning for faith of the Christ of Mark or of the Christ of the supposed Collection of Sayings. The Church put the four gospels side by side in its Canon, and has continued to use them together for centuries, because it has found in them a religiously harmonious portrait of its Lord. This is also true of the portraits of Jesus to be found in the Acts and the epistles. The Christ of the entire New Testament makes upon us a consistent religious impression; and the unity of His significance for faith is all the more noteworthy because of the different forms of thought in which the various writers picture Him. Behind the primitive Church stands an historic Figure who so stamped the impress of His personality upon believing spirits, that, amid puzzling discrepancies of historical detail and much variety of theological interpretation, a single religious image of Him remains. We, whose aim is not primarily to reconstruct the figure of Jesus for purposes of scientific history, but to arrive at an intelligent conviction of His spiritual worth, are entirely satisfied with a portrait which correctly represents the religious impression of the historic Jesus.
Two diametrically opposed classes of scholars have denied that in the Christ of the gospels we possess such a trustworthy report. A very few have held that the evangelists do not record an historic life at all, but describe a Saviour-God who existed in the faith of the Church of the First Century. The allusions, however, in the letters of Paul alone to definite historical associations connected with Jesus are sufficient to confute this view. There undoubtedly was a Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, the divine redeemers of mythology, of whom this theory makes so much, are most unlike the Jesus of the gospels in moral character and religious power; and the old argument is still pertinent that it would have required a Jesus to have imagined the Jesus of the evangelists' story.
A much larger number of scholars, determined beforehand by their philosophic views to reject all elements in the records which transcend usual human experience, have for several generations sought to reconstruct the figure of Jesus on an entirely naturalistic basis. Instead of the Jesus of the gospels, they give us, as the actual Man, Jesus the Sage, or the Visionary, or the Prophet, or the Philanthropist, who, they think, was subsequently deified by His followers. Such reconstructions handle the sources arbitrarily, eliminating from even the earliest of them that which clashes with their preconceptions. They fail to do justice to Jesus' consciousness of Himself, of His unique relation to God, of His all-important mission to men, as the critically investigated documents disclose it. Historically, they do not give us a Figure sufficiently significant for faith to account for the Christian Church; scientifically, their portraits do not long prove satisfactory, and are soon discarded on further investigation of the facts; and religiously, they do not appeal to Christian believers as adequate to explain their own life in Christ.
It is not surprising that these attempts have failed. The historic Jesus did not make the same impression upon everybody who met Him; men's judgments of Him varied with their spiritual capacities, and their spiritual capacities affected what He could do for them. There is enough historicity in the narratives to convince sober historians, whatever their faith or unfaith, that Jesus existed as a man among men, and that He was conscious of a relationship to God and a significance for men which transcend anything in ordinary human experience. It requires something more than sound historic judgment to see in Jesus what He saw in Himself, or what Peter saw in Him when he called Him "the Christ of God." We can never prove to any man on the basis of historical research alone that the portrait of Jesus in the gospels correctly represents the religious impression of the historic Jesus. When we deal with anything religious, a subjective element enters and determines the conclusion, exactly as the artistic spirit alone can appreciate that which has to do with art. The gospels as appreciations appeal only to the similarly appreciative. We can show that the earliest stratum of the gospel tradition, according to the most rigorous methods of critical analysis, gives us a Jesus who possessed a meaning for His followers akin to the meaning the Jesus of our four gospels possessed for the Church of the First Century, and possesses for the Church of our day. Only as Jesus comes to have a supreme worth to any man can he believe that the estimate of their Master in the minds of the first disciples can be the accurate impression of a real man.
When, then, we speak of the Christ of history, we mean not the figure of Jesus as reproduced by scientific research apart from Christian faith, but the Christ of the four gospels, whose figure corresponds to the religious impression received from the historic Jesus by His earliest followers. Lives of Christ by historical students have their value when our main aim is historical infor mation; but the best of them is poor indeed compared with our gospels when we wish to attain the life of Christ's followers. The humblest reader of the New Testament has the same chance with the most learned scholar of attaining a true knowledge of Jesus for religious purposes; and Jesus remains, as He would surely wish to remain, a democratic figure accessible to all in the simply told narratives of the evangelists.
Each age seems to have its own way of phrasing its religious needs; and various elements in the picture of Jesus have been prized by the succeeding ages as of special worth. Our generation finds itself religiously most interested in three outstanding features in the record of His life:
(1) His singular religious experience. His first followers were impressed with His unique relation to God when they saw in Him the awaited Messiah. The narratives represent Him as invariably trusting, loving, obeying the Most High as the Father, Lord of heaven and earth. His sayings lay special stress on God's tender personal interest in every child of His, on His stern judgment of hypocrites, on His Self-sacrificing love, and on His kindness to the unthankful and the evil. While it is not easy for us with the limited materials at hand to discriminate clearly between the elements in Jesus' thought of God which He shared with His contemporaries, and those which were His own contribution, so discerning a believer as Paul, reared in the most earnest circles of Jewish thought, could not name the God to whom he had been brought through Jesus, without mentioning Jesus Himself; God was to him "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." The Deity Paul worshipped may be described as that loving Response from the unseen which answered the trust of Jesus; or rather that personal Approach to man from the unseen which produced Jesus. Men who had not been atheists before they became Christians are addressed by another writer as "through Jesus believers in God." It is not enough to say that in Jesus' experience God was Father; others before Him, both within and without Israel, had known the Divine Fatherhood. It was the fatherliness in God which evoked and corresponded to Jesus' sonship, that formed His new and distinctive contribution. A mutual relationship is expressed in the saying: "No one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son." Moving familiarly as a man among men, Jesus did not hesitate to offer them forgiveness, health, power, life; and to offer all these as His own possessions through His peculiar touch with the Most High—"All things have been delivered unto Me of My Father." In the words of the late Professor G.W. Knox, "Jesus set forth communion with God as the most certain fact of man's experience, and in simple reality made it accessible to everyone."
His consciousness of God was not something wholly new; He was not "a lonely mountain tarn unvisited by any stream," but received into His soul the great river of a nation's spiritual life. He was the heir of the faith of His people, and regarded Himself as completing that which a long line of predecessors had begun. He did not find it necessary to invent new terms to express His thought; but as He passed the old words through the alembic of His mind they came out with new meaning. His originality con sisted in His discriminating appropriation of His inheritance, and in His using it so that it became alive with new power. Madame de Staël said that Rousseau "invented nothing, but set everything on fire." Jesus took the religion of Israel, and lived its life with God, and after Him it possessed a kindling flame it had never shown before. The faith of a small people in a corner of the Roman Empire, with a few thousands of proselytes here and there in the larger towns about the Mediterranean, became in a generation a force which entirely supplanted the Jewish missionary movement and rapidly spread throughout the world.
(2) A singular character. More striking than anything Jesus said or did is what He was. That which He worshipped in the God He trusted, He Himself embodied. We can estimate His character best, not by trying to inventory its virtues (for a very similar list might be attributed to others of far less moral power) but by feeling the effect He had on those who knew Him. They are constantly telling us how He amazed them, awed them, and bound them to Himself. Their superlative tribute to Him is that, holding His own pure and exalted view of God, they felt no incongruity in thinking of Him as beside God on the throne. It may have been their belief in His Messiahship, accredited by His resurrection and destining Him to come with power and judge the world, that led them to place Him at the right hand of God; but there was the place where He seemed to them to belong. None have ever conceived God more highly than they who said, "God is love," and these men set Jesus side by side with God. The evangelists do not attempt to describe what He was like; they let us hear Him and watch Him, as He lived in the memories of those who had been with Him; and He makes His own impression. The crowning tribute is that we have no loftier adjective in our vocabulary than "Christlike."
(3) A singular victory—a victory over the world and sin and death.
Jesus believed in and proclaimed a new order of things in the world—the Kingdom of God—in which His Father's will should be realized. It was an order in which men should live in love with one another and with God, in which justice, kindness and faithful ness should prevail in all relationships, and in which all God's children's needs should be supplied, their maladies healed, their wrongs righted, their lives made full. This Kingdom was already in the earth in Himself and in the new life He succeeded in creating in those who followed Him. It found itself opposed by physical forces that were injurious to humanity; and these He met fearlessly, sleeping in a storm so violent as to terrify His fisherman companions; and, what is more, He commanded these forces for His Father's purpose in a way that amazed His first followers and is still amazing to us. The reports of His mighty works have to be carefully scrutinized by historical scholars, and no doubt the historicity of some of them is much more fully attested than that of others; but when every allowance is made for the ideas of a prescientific age in which miracles were relatively frequent, and for the possible growth of the marvellous elements in the tradition, enough remains to show that here was a Personality whose power cannot be limited by our usual standards of human ability. Judged by past or present conceptions of what is natural, His works were supernatural; He Himself regarded them as the breaking into the world through Him of the new order that was to be. He discouraged men's craving for the physically miraculous, and thought little of the faith in Him produced by its display; but there can be no question of His extraordinary control of physical forces for the aims of His Kingdom. It was, however, in the moral conflict between the Divine Order and things as they were, that He saw the decisive collision, and faced it with heroic faith in His Father's victory. When the dominant authorities in Church and State were about to crush Him, He looked forward undismayed, and in the glowing pictures of fervent Jewish men of hope He imaged the Divine Rule He proclaimed coming in power.
He was to His followers the Conqueror of sin. He went forth to wage war with evil in the world, because He was conscious that He had first bound the strong man, and could spoil his house. In an autobiographical parable He seems to have told them something of His own battle with temptation and of His victory. They found in Him One who both shamed and transformed them; they saw Him forgiving and altering sinners; and, above all, His cross, from the earliest days when they began to ask themselves what it meant, had for them redemptive force.
He was to them the Victor of death. However the historian may deal with the details of the narratives of the appearances of the risen Jesus to His disciples, he cannot fail to recognize the conviction of Jesus' followers that their Lord had returned to them and was alive with power. We must remember that it was to faith alone that the risen Jesus showed Himself, and that no one outside the circle of believers (unless we except Saul of Tarsus) saw Him after His death. Historical research, independent of Christian faith, may not be able positively to affirm the correctness of the Easter faith of the disciples, for the data lie, in part at least, outside the range of such research. But the historian must leave the door open for faith; and he may go further and point out that faith's explanation best fits the facts. Present faith finds itself prepared to receive the witness of the men of faith centuries ago. The attempt to banish Jesus from our world signally failed; He was a more living and potent force in it after, than before, His death.
This singular religious experience, character and victory we ascribe to the Jesus of history through the tradition which preserves for us His religious impression upon His immediate followers. There are some who lay little stress upon the events of the past; like Shelley's Skylark, they are "scorners of the ground." Why, they ask, should we care what took place in Palestine centuries ago? The answer is that it is the roots which go down into historic fact which give the whole tree of Christian faith its stability and vigor. A tree gathers nourishment and grows by its leaves; and Christianity has undoubtedly taken into itself many enriching elements from the life about it in every age; but a tree without roots is neither sturdy nor alive. A Christianity which disregards its origin in the Jesus of genuine memory may label anything "Christian" that it fancies, and end by losing its own identity; and a Christianity which does not constantly keep learning of the Jesus of the New Testa ment, and renewing its convictions, ideals and purposes from Him, ceases to be vital. We do not think of Christianity as a fixed quantity or an unchanging essence, but as a life; and life is ever growing and changing. But with all its growth and change it keeps true to type, and the type is Jesus Christ. The gospels, which conserve the impress of that Life upon men of faith, are anchors in the actual amid windy storms of speculation. We are not constructing a Christ out of our spiritual experiences, but letting Him who gave life to these early followers, through their memories of Him, recreate us into His and their fellowship with God and man.
Their spiritual experiences are the sensitive plate which caught and kept for all time the image of the historic Jesus; but their experience is a memory, and there must be a further experience in us upon which this memory throws and fixes His image before we know Jesus Christ for ourselves. Unless a man's soul is unimpressionable, he cannot be faced with the Christ of the New Testament without being deeply affected. "We needs must love the highest when we see it," and to millions throughout the earth Jesus is their highest inspiration. For them He ceases to belong to the past and becomes their most significant Contemporary. They do not look back to Him; they look up to Him as their present Comrade and Lord; and in loyalty to Him they find themselves possessed of a new life.
In a previous chapter, we used the phrase "man's response to his highest inspirations" as a description of religious experience; and in responding to the appeal of Jesus, His followers pass into the characteristically Christian experience of the Divine—an experience which involves two main elements: communion through Jesus with God, and communion with Jesus in God.
Communion through Jesus with God. His singular religious experience they find themselves sharing to some degree. They repeat His discoveries in the unseen and corroborate them. God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, becomes their God and Father, with whom they live in the trust and love and obedience of children. And for them Jesus' consciousness of God becomes authoritative. It is not that they consider Him in possession of secret sources of information inaccessible to them, but that, incomparably more expert, He has penetrated farther and more surely into the unseen, and they trustfully follow Him. He does not lord it over them as servants, but leads them as His friends. "Man," says Keats, in a remark which illustrates Jesus' method with His disciples, "Man should not dispute or assert, but whisper results to his neighbor." He, who of old did not strive nor cry aloud, still so quietly gives those who obey Him His attitude towards God, that they scarcely realize how much they owe Him. Only here and there a discerning follower, like Luther, is aware how all-important is the contribution that comes through a conscious sharing of Christ's revelation, "Whosoever loses Christ, all faiths (of the Pope, the Jews, the Turks, the common rabble) become one faith."
And when once Jesus is authoritative for a man, He is the supreme religious authority. A tolerant Roman, like Alexander Severus, set statues of Apollonius, Christ, Abraham, Orpheus, "and others of that sort," in his lararium; and many today are inclined to make a similar religious combination. Where Christ is concerned, there can be for His followers no other "of that sort." We cherish every discovery of the Divine by any saint of any faith which does not conflict with the revelation of Jesus; but to those who have found Him the Way to the Father, His consciousness of God is decisive. In the margin of his copy of Bacon's Essays, William Blake wrote opposite some statement of that worldly-wiseman, "This is certain: if what Bacon says is true, what Christ says is false." A loyal Christian must set every opinion he meets as clearly in the light of his Lord's mind, and choose accordingly his course in the seen and in the unseen.
When through Jesus we are in fellowship with His God, Jesus Himself becomes to us the revelation of God. The Deity to whom we are led through His faith discloses Himself to us in Jesus' character. What we call Divine, as we worship it in One whom we picture in the heavens or indwelling within us, we discover at our side in Jesus; and if we are impelled to speak of the Deity of the Father, when we characterize our highest inspirations from the unseen, we cannot do less than speak of the Deity of the Son, through whom in the seen these same inspirations pass to us. Jesus Himself awakens in us a religious response. We instinctively adore Him, devote our all to Him, trust Him with a confidence as complete as we repose in God. We are either idolaters, or Jesus is the unveiling in a human life of the Most High; He is to us God manifest in the flesh.
And Jesus is also the revelation of what man may become. None ever had a sublimer faith in man than He who dared bid His followers be perfect as their Father is perfect. He did not close His eyes to men's glaring unlikeness to God; He said to His auditors, "ye being evil"; He believed in the necessity of their complete transformation through repentance. But when He asked them to follow Him, He set no limits to the distance they would be able to go. He did not warn them that they must stop at the foot of Calvary, while He climbed to the top; or that they could not go with Him in His intimacy with the Father. Some Christians, out of reverence for Jesus, think it necessary to draw a sharp line between Him and our selves, and remind us that we cannot overpass it; but He drew no such line. He believed in the divine possibilities of divinely changed men. As a matter of fact we find ourselves immeasurably beneath Him, and, the more we long to be like Him, the greater the distance between us seems to become. But He is as confident that He can conform us to His likeness, as that He Himself is at one with His Father.
It is worth emphasizing that this Personality in whom we find the revelation of God and the ideal of manhood is a figure in history. When an apostle was speaking of "the one Mediator between God and men," he laid stress on the fact that He was "Himself man." When a distinction is drawn between the Christ of experience and the Christ of history, we must not be confused. The content of the name "Jesus" was given once for all in the impression made by the Man of Nazareth, One made "in all points" like ourselves. We may understand Him better than those who knew Him in the flesh; we may see the bearing of His life on many situations that were entirely beyond even His ken; and so we may have "a larger Christ," exactly as succeeding generations sometimes form truer estimates of men than contemporaries; but all that is authentic in our "larger Christ" was implicit in the Man of Galilee. That to which we respond as to God is the historic Jesus mirrored in His disciples' faith. We agree with the eloquent words of Tertullian: "We say, and before all men we say, and torn and bleeding under your tortures we cry out, 'We worship God through Christ. Count Christ a man, if you please; by Him and in Him God would be known and adored.'" And our assurance that we can become like Jesus rests on the fact that this life has been already lived. A mountain top, however lofty, we can hope to scale, for it is part of the same earth on which we stand; but a star, however alluring, we have no confidence of reaching. Jesus' worth as an example to us lies in our finding in Him "ideal manhood closed in real man."
In fellowship through Jesus with God we discover that His victory is vicarious; He conquered for Himself and for us the world and sin and death.
He imparts His faith in the coming of the Divine Order in the world. His followers share His fearless and masterful attitude towards physical forces; when they appear opposed to God's purpose of love, the Christian is confident that they are not inherently antagonistic to it: "to them that love God all things work together for good." What is called "nature" is not something fixed, but plastic; something which can be conformed to the will of the God and Father of Jesus. A pestilential Panama, for instance, is not natural, but subnatural, and must be brought up to its divine nature, when it will serve the children of God. The Rule of God in nature, like the Kingdom in Jesus' parables, must both be awaited patiently—for it will require advances in men's consciences and knowledge to control physical forces in the interest of love—and striven for believingly. And even when bitter circumstances seem, whether only for the present or permanently, inescapable, when pain and disaster and death must be borne, the Christian accepts them as part of the loving and wise will of God, as his Lord acquiesced in His own suffering: "The cup which the Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" And Jesus confers His confidence in the alterability of the world of human relations. Christians believe in the superiority of moral over material forces, in the wisdom and might of love. A life like Christ's is pronounced in every generation unpractical, until under His inspiration some follower lives it; and slowly, as in His own case, its success is acclaimed. His principles, as applied to an economic institution such as slavery, or to the treatment of the criminal, are counted visionary, until, constrained by His Spirit, men put them into practice, and their results gradually speak for themselves. His followers in every age have seemed fools to many, if not to most, of their judicious contemporaries; but cheered by His confidence, they venture on apparently hopeless undertakings, and find that He has overcome the world.
Jesus' victory over sin works in true disciples a similar conquest. Christians label any unchristlikeness sin, and they vastly darken the world with a new sense of its evil, and are themselves most painfully aware of their own sinfulness. Jesus' conscience has creative power, and reproduces its sensitive ness in theirs; they are born into a life of new sympathies and obligations and penitences. By His faith, and supremely by His cross, He communicates to His followers the assurance of God's forgiveness which reestablishes their intercourse with Him, and releases His life in them; and Jesus lays them under a new and more potent compulsion to live no longer unto themselves, but unto their brethren.
Jesus' conquest of death is to His followers the vindication of His faith in God, and God's attestation of Him; and with such a God Lord of heaven and earth, death has neither sting nor victory; it cannot separate from God's love; and it is itemized among a Christian's assets. The face of death has been transfigured. Aristides, explaining the Christian faith about the year 125 A.D., writes, "And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near." Christians speak of their dead as "in Christ"—under His all-sufficient control.
Communion with Jesus in God. When the Christian through Jesus finds himself in fellowship with His God and Father, he does not leave Jesus behind as One whose work is done. He discovers that he can maintain this fellowship only as he constantly places himself in such contact with the historic Figure that God can through Him renew the experience. It is by going back to Jesus that we go up to the Father; or rather, it is through the abiding memory of Jesus in the world that God reaches down and lifts us to Himself. And at such times no Christian thinks of Jesus as a memory, but as a living Friend. To Him he addresses himself directly in prayer and praise, which would be meaningless were there no present communication between Jesus and His disciples.
We cannot say that we have an experience of communion with Jesus which is distinguishable from our experience of communion with God; we respond through Jesus to God. But if our God be the God of Jesus, we cannot think of Jesus as anywhere in the universe out of fellowship with Him. His God would not be Himself, nor would Jesus be Himself, were the fellowship between Them interrupted; and we cannot think of ourselves as in touch with the One, without being at the same time in touch with the Other. It is an apparently inevitable inference from our Christian experience, when we attempt to rationalize it, that "our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." In communion with God we are in a society which includes the Father and all His true sons and daughters, the living here and the living yonder, for all live unto Him. They are ours in God; and Jesus supremely, because He is the Mediator of our life with God, is ours in His and our Father.
We have already passed over into the division of our subject which we called the Christ of reflection. All experience contains an intellectual element, and we never experience "facts" apart from the ideas in which we represent them to ourselves. But there is a further mental process when we attempt to combine what we think we have experienced in some relationship with all else that we know, and reach a unified view of existence. For example, when Paul took the gospel out of its local setting in Palestine, and carried it into the Roman world, he had to interpret the figure of Jesus to set it in the minds of men who thought in terms very different from those of the fishermen of Galilee or the scribes at Jerusalem. Similarly John, who wrote his gospel for Gentile readers, could not introduce Jesus to them as the Messiah, and catch their interest; he took an idea, as common in the thought of that day as Evolution is in our own—the Logos or Word, in whom God expresses Himself and through whom He acts upon the world—and used that as a point of contact with the minds of his readers. We have to connect the Christ of our experience with our thought of God and of the universe. Three chief questions suggest themselves to us: How shall we picture Jesus' present life? How shall we account for His singular personality? How shall we conceive the union in Him of the Divine and the human, which we have discovered?
The first of these questions faced the disciples when Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh. When a cloud received Him out of their sight, it did not take Him out of their fancy; finding themselves still in communion with Him, they had to imagine His present existence with God and with them. They used their current symbol for God—the Most High enthroned above His world—and they pictured Jesus as seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Or they took some vivid metaphor of personal friendship—a figure knocking at the door and entering to eat with them—and found that a fitting interpretation of their experience. These were picturesque ways of saying that Jesus shares God's life and ours. While our current modes of representing the Divine do not localize heaven, the symbolic language of the Bible has so entered into our literature, that in worship and in devout thought we find the New Testament metaphors most satisfactory to express our faith.
The second question was asked even during Jesus' lifetime—"Whence hath this Man these things?" The New Testament writers deal with the question of Jesus' origin in a variety of ways. The earliest of our present gospels opens its narrative with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus as He answers John's summons to baptism. It seems to explain His uniqueness by the extraordinary spiritual endowment bestowed upon Him in manhood. The first and third gospels contain besides this two other traditions: they introduce Jesus as the descendant of a line of devout progenitors, going back in the one case to David and Abraham, and in the other still further through Adam to God. They bring forward His spiritual heredity as one factor to account for Him. Side by side with this they place a narrative which records His birth, not as the Son of Joseph through whom His ancestry is traced, but of the Holy Spirit and a virgin-mother. This gives prominence to the Divine and human parentage which brought Him into the world. In Paul and John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is incarnate in Jesus a preexistent heavenly Being—the Man from heaven, the Word who was from the beginning with God, the Son through whom He made the worlds. They present us with a Divine Being made a man. This last conception is not combined by any New Testament writer with a virgin-birth. When our New Testament books were put together, the Church found all four statements in its Canon, and combined them (although some of them are not easily combined) in its account of Jesus' origin.
Historical scholars have difficulty in tracing any of these accounts but the first directly to Jesus Himself; but they come from the earliest period of the Church, and they have satisfied many generations of thoughtful Christians as explanations of the uniqueness of the Person of their Lord. Some of them do not seem to be as helpful to modern believers, and are even said to render Him less intelligible. We must beware on the one hand of insisting too strongly that a believer in Jesus Christ shall hold a particular view of His origin; the diversity in the New Testament presentations of Christ would not be there, if all its writers considered all four of these statements necessary in every man's conception of his Lord. And on the other hand, we must point out that it is a tribute to Jesus' greatness that so many circumstances were appealed to to account for Him, and that all of them have spiritual value. All four insist that Jesus' origin is in God, and that in Jesus we find the Divine in the human. All four—a spiritual endow ment, a spiritual heredity, a spiritual birth, the incarnation of God in Man—may well seem congruous with the Jesus of our experience, even if we are not intellectually satisfied with the particular modes in which these affirmations have been made in the past. The question of Jesus' origin is not of primary importance; He Himself judged nothing by its antecedents, but by its results—"By their fruits ye shall know them." No man, today, should be hindered from believing in Christ, because he does not find a particular statement in connection with His origin credible. Christ is here in our world, however He entered it, and can be tested for what He is. To know Him is not to know how He came to be, but what He can do for us. "To know Christ," Melancthon well said, "is to know His benefits."
The third question, How are we to conceive of the union of Deity and humanity in Him? is a problem which exercised the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries of the Christian Church to the exclusion of almost all others. The theologians of those times worked out (and fought out) the theory of the union of two "natures" in one "Person," which remains the official statement of the Church's interpretation of Christ in Greek, Roman and Protestant creeds. But the philosophy which dealt in "natures" and "persons" is no longer the mode of thought of educated people; and while we may admire the mental skill of these earlier theologians, and may recognize that an Athanasius and his orthodox allies were contending for a vital element in Christian experience, their formulations do not satisfy our minds.
In the last century some divines advanced a modification of this ancient theory, naming it the Kenotic or Self-emptying Theory, from the Greek word used by St. Paul in the phrase, "He emptied Himself." The eternal Son of God is represented as laying aside whatever attributes of Deity—omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, etc.—could not be manifested in an entirely human life. The Jesus of history reveals so much of God as man can contain, but is Himself more. But we know of no personality which can lay aside memory, knowledge, etc. The theory begins with a conception of Deity apart from Jesus, and then proceeds to treat Him as partially disclosing this Deity in His human life; but the Christian has his experience of the Divine through Jesus, and his reflection must start with Deity as revealed in Him.
Still later in the century, Albrecht Ritschl gave another interpretation of Christ's Person. He began with the completely human Figure of history, and pointed out that it is through Him we experience communion with God, so that to His followers Jesus is divine; His humanity is the medium through which God reveals Himself to us. This affirmation of His Deity is an estimate, made by believers, of Jesus' worth to them; they cannot prove it to any who are without a sense of Christ's value as their Saviour. Any further explanation of how the human and the Divine are joined in Jesus, he deemed beyond the sphere of religious knowledge.
Our modern thought of God as immanent in His world and in men enables us, perhaps more easily than some of our predecessors, to fit the figure of Christ into our minds. The discovery of the Divine in the human does not surprise us. We think of God as everywhere manifesting Himself, but His presence is limited by the medium in which it is recognized. He reveals as much of Himself through nature as nature can disclose; as much through any man as he can contain; as much through the complete Man as He is capable of manifesting. Nor does this Self-revelation of God in Jesus do away for us with Jesus' own attainment of His character. Immanent Deity does not submerge the human personality. Jesus was no merely passive medium through which God worked, but an active Will who by constant coöperation with the Father "was perfected." If there was an "emptying," there was also a "filling," so that we see in Him the fulness of God. How He alone of all mankind came so to receive the Self-giving Father remains for us, as for our predecessors, the ultimate riddle, a riddle akin to that which makes each of us "indescribably himself." And as for the origin of His unique Person, we have no better explanations to substitute for those of the First Century; the mystery of our Lord's singular personality remains unsolved.
While our reflections almost necessarily end in guesses, or in impenetrable obscuri ties, our experience of Christ's worth can advance to ever greater certainty. We follow Him, and find Him the Way, the Truth and the Life. We trust Him and prove His power to save unto the uttermost. We come to feel that no phrase applied to Him in the New Testament is an exaggeration; our own language, like St. Paul's, admits its inadequacy by calling Him God's "unspeakable gift." We see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in His face; He is to us the Light of life; and we live and strive to make Him the Light of the world. Though we may never be able to reason out to our satisfaction how God and man unite in Him, we discover in Him the God who redeems us and the Man we aspire to be. Jesus is to us (to borrow a saying of Lancelot Andrewes') "God's as much as He can send; ours as much as we can desire."
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