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THEN SHALL THE SON ALSO HIMSELF BE SUBJECT UNTO HIM THAT PUT ALL THINGS UNDER HIM, THAT GOD MAY BE ALL IN ALL.
IT is possible for the student of theology to observe through many cycles of human history the growth and development of the idea of God in the heart and conscience of man, passing from the worship of many gods to that of One, with whom mankind are brought into nearer and nearer relation, and of whom they seem gradually to acquire a truer notion. First among the successive stages he would note the rudimentary idea of God which existed among primitive nations, and which still exists in barbarous countries; the vague terror of stocks and stones, the shrinking of men from their own shadows, ascending gradually to a worship of the nobler forms of nature. Secondly, he would trace the idea of God as it grew up to larger proportions in the great eastern religions, and began to be interpenetrated and absorbed by moral elements in the Jewish prophets, not yet disengaged from nature, but struggling to be free from it. Thirdly, as 96it developed in the light and life of the Greek world, attaining to a superficial harmony in the Greek poets and artists. Lastly, he would reach the revelation of God in Jesus Christ which is contained in the Gospel.
And now the question arises, Is any further enlargement of the idea of God possible? Can we ever expect to know more of Him than we find in the Old and New Testament? Christ has spoken of Him to us as ‘His Father and our Father, as His God and our God.’ Nor was such a relation of God and His people altogether unknown to the prophets. ‘Doubtless Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us and Israel acknowledge us not.’ Do we want to know more than is implied by these or the like ‘comfortable words’? Or do we suppose that the feeble brain of man can search into the nature of the Most High? Can anything more be required of us than that we should bring the message of Christ home to our own hearts and lives?
This is a mode of speaking which naturally commends itself to our religious feelings. We are apt to think that we cannot have too much of a good thing in religion, too much reverence, too much humility, too much devotion. We forget how easily these may degenerate into ignorance and superstition, how nearly allied they are to them. We do not remark, when we oppose the words of God to the words of man, that still the word of God is of human interpretation, necessarily changing with the advance of literature 97and criticism; or that, when we call upon reason to bow before revelation, through reason only revelation can be apprehended by us; for, however we may strive to be more or less than ourselves, we cannot get rid of our own minds. There is the same difficulty in distinguishing between the movements of our minds towards good and the Spirit of God working in us. Who can say where one begins and the other ends? In like manner we may draw lines of demarcation about the Bible which may distinguish it from all other books, or about theology which may separate it from philosophy and secular knowledge; and such distinctions may help us to define our ideas. But we shall soon find them to be unreal. We cannot separate the secular from the religious any more than the human from the divine or God from nature.
Therefore we do not venture to isolate our knowledge of God: we cannot say that there is no truth which is not contained in the Bible, as the Caliph Omar said that all which is not contained in the Koran is either false or superfluous. More than eighteen centuries have passed away since Christ appeared upon the earth. Have they taught mankind nothing about the government of God and His manner of dealing with His creatures? Is there no religious experience to be gathered from history, analogous to that which individuals derive from observation of their own lives? Is there no ever-growing witness of God in nature, but only a vague sense that He is the 98Creator of all things? Within the last two centuries new sciences have come into existence which have changed the aspect of the world. Can they have left our religious life wholly untouched? The writers of the New Testament were hardly acquainted with any religion but the Jewish; nor did they wholly lay aside the prevalent traditions or opinions of the age in which they lived. But we have learned to compare one religion with another; we see how many truths are common to them all, truths which were once thought to be derived solely from revelation; how many tendencies to error, from which the Christian Church has not escaped. Again, the genuineness of sacred writings is tried by a different method from that of a century ago; and, as criticism advances, as our knowledge of physical science extends, the lines of defence which we draw around Christianity are different and wider. One by one its artificial supports seem to disappear, and it stands before us having no other witness but its own inherent excellence and purity.
It would seem, therefore, that we must go forwards and endeavour to learn what God has taught us in history and nature as well as in Scripture about Himself. There cannot be two truths in the world, but one only; and, if God is everywhere present, and with us in various degrees and ways, every part of truth must throw light upon His nature. I shall not endeavour to combat further the common prejudice that God is 99only revealed to us in Scripture, but rather proceed to show what it is which the experience of ages adds to the knowledge of God which we find there. I am not speaking of what God is in His own essence, which neither faith nor philosophy can ever penetrate—if indeed the very words which I have used can be supposed to have any meaning—but only of His manifestation to us. Without attempting to strain our eyes beyond the horizon of human vision, it would seem that our conception of the divine nature is really enlarged, chiefly from three sources.
First, from the comparison of other religions of the world, especially the great religions of the East and the influence of Greek philosophy, which have always been mingling with the stream of Christian truth.
Secondly, from the observation of nature, which extends so much further and penetrates so much deeper than in the ancient world.
Thirdly, from ideas and reasonings which present to us in an abstract and universal form what the Scripture for the most part teaches only by precept and example.
1. The study of the religions of the world throws a flood of light on the true nature of religion. It teaches us in the first place that we must not look backward to a primitive revelation, but forward to a final one. The aspiration of some great teacher has lifted man above himself; and then for considerable periods of time he has fallen back again into his old state. The truths of religion seem to have been 100always in process of being received and being lost. There has always too been a contrast between the principles of men and their practice, between the higher law which the few have imposed upon themselves and the customary religion of the majority of mankind. Yet upon the whole there has been a progress, often interrupted for a thousand years or more; a progress in which we must allow for many steps backward; still there has been a progress from the outward and ceremonial in religion to the inward and spiritual, from ideas of power and fate to ideas of truth and right. If we ask how this progress has been effected, it has been, in the Gentile religions as in Christianity, chiefly by the influence of individual men, who have broken in upon the darkness with new light, who have awakened the dormant elements of truth in the ancient faith, who have given new meanings to old words, who by some method of their own have reconciled the old with the new.
So we are made aware that in their general state and condition other religions are much more like our own than we should have previously supposed. But the parallel does not stop here. For many have had their sacred books, more or less resembling the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. And as time went on they have found the same difficulties in them, and have practised the same methods of interpreting in two or more senses. The Brahmins have had disputes respecting the nature and degree of inspiration which is 101to be conceded to the Vedas, whether they are wholly inspired or in the proportion of nine-tenths, or of one-tenth, or perhaps not at all. The Buddhists, again, like ourselves, have their controversy respecting faith and works, similar to that which occurred at the Reformation. And in all, or almost all, religions there seems to be a sense of impurity, sometimes unenlightened, seeking to make atonement by gifts and offerings, sometimes, again, enlightened, and proclaiming like the Jewish prophets that the true atonement or sacrifice was holiness of life. In the religions of the East we may trace almost every movement or tendency which is to be found in Christian Europe. There is Puritanism, Monasticism, Scepticism, Formalism, Mysticism; ancient priestly power and the reaction against it, reformation and counter-reformation, ceremonial bondage too heavy for men’s necks to bear; Gnosticism or Pantheism, and Agnosticism or Atheism; only, as the manner of the East is, exaggerated, and sometimes wearing the appearance of a caricature of what we may observe among ourselves. And often we may note among ourselves strange lingering tendencies to Jewish or Gentile fancies or opinions which from time to time revive because they have their origin deep in human nature.
There seem to be two ways in which these and similar facts enlarge our idea of the divine nature.
First, they help us to distinguish the important from the unimportant in religion. We see how many 102things there are which mankind have falsely attributed to God. The ceremonies of their own ritual even in minute detail have again and again been supposed to be a revelation from heaven, or they have thought only of the power of God, of His right to do as He liked, and not of the justice which He essentially is. They have attributed to Him the wayward caprice and passions of men, which in Him, because He was a superior being, are consecrated or venial. They have magnified in Him the mixed good and evil of human nature without passing the judgement upon them which they would have passed in the case of their fellow-men. The criticism of a later age has some times been that ‘such and such acts would have been wrong if they had not been done by the express command of God.’ Even in Christianity there have been survivals of this mistaken spirit, which distinguishes between God and truth, or between God and right, instead of viewing them as absolutely identical. And one of the advantages of the study of this comparative theology is that it shows us how much of human error is inseparable from all the earlier notions of a Divine Being; how easily such notions become confirmed by tradition, so that even good men often fall under their power, and can with difficulty be freed from them.
Secondly, we see that the religions of the world are not isolated, but are parts of a whole, forming together the religious education of the human race. God is 103not the God and Father of the Jews only, but of all mankind. The heathen, as we sometimes disparagingly call them, are not His enemies but His children, whom, though at a greater distance from Him and by a longer path, He is guiding into His truth. They too hear His voice and are conscious of His presence. To them may be applied the words in which St. Paul speaks, first of the Jew, secondly of the Gentile: ‘So then God concluded all under sin that He might have mercy upon all.’ And indeed they seem to stand to the future of Christianity in a relation not unlike that of the Jews to the Gospel of Christ. And of them too Christ would have said, as he did of the Gentiles, ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold.’ The fatherhood of God, as has been already remarked, is revealed both in the Old Testament and the New. But now it takes a wider scope, extending to all time and all the world. There is realized to us the great family in heaven and earth of which St. Paul speaks. And the principle of religion which might have been once thought to be granted by the favour of heaven to a chosen race, is now seen to be a part of human nature, and inseparable from the mind itself.
These seem to be the principal ways in which our knowledge of God is enlarged by the study of other religions. There is much in our traditional beliefs which is corrected or explained by them; something also is added.104
2. And now let us pass on to the second head, ‘The witness of God in nature.’ Is this merely a sentimental feeling aroused in us chiefly by the extraordinary phenomena of nature? or is it a real addition to our knowledge of the divine character, increasing as our knowledge of nature increases, and entering into our daily life? The Scripture speaks to us of ‘the visible things which testify of the invisible’; of the permanence of the world: ‘He hath set the round world so fast that it cannot be moved’; of the infinite or infinitesimal care of Providence: ‘Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.’ These, like many other words of Scripture, we may link to modern thoughts, and find in them a natural figure or expression of some recently discovered truths. But no one will maintain that the uniformity of nature, in the sense in which this term is understood by scientific men of the present day, is taught in the Old or New Testament. The sacred writers knew nothing of the indestructibility of matter, of the correlation of forces, of the interdependence of soul and body, of the antiquity of man, of the still greater, almost unmeasurable antiquity of the world, of the infinity of the heavens. They never considered this earth to be but as a grain or molecule in the ocean of immensity. It remains for us to reflect how, and to what extent, these truths of science affect our knowledge or consciousness of the divine nature.
First, they present to us the merely physical greatness 105of God in a manner which would formerly have been inconceivable to us; they give a sort of material reality to the words eternity and infinity, which over powers and almost oppresses. The boundaries of nature are enlarged, and the realm of the God of nature is enlarged also. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handy-work. With how much greater wonder must we repeat these words when we look out upon the heavens through the telescope, and measure, though imperfectly, the incredible distance of the stars and the rapidity of their motions. And with how much deeper feeling must we therefore add, ‘Lord, what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?’ We might have feared that He, who had so vast an empire, in His care of the greater would have overlooked the lesser: but we find, in looking through the microscope, that science has another wonder in store for us, a wonder of minuteness, as well as of vastness, and that not only man but the least of all animals invisible to the naked eye have their perfectly-formed structures and their place in the economy of the world.
But the conception of the laws of nature touches our own lives far more nearly, and teaches us far more about the manner in which God deals with us than either the greatness or minuteness of nature. They show us that He is a God of order, not of disorder. If the infinity of the world seems for a moment 106to distract us, the thought of these restores us to ourselves and Him. The word ‘law’ has some disturbing associations of external compulsion and the like; it is often opposed to morality, as it is in the Scripture to faith. And in applying the conception to our own lives we shall do well sometimes not to speak of law, but to think rather of harmony, of regularity, of the freedom which is given by order, of the communion of ourselves with nature. The Scripture tells us that in Him we live and move and have our being. And so we find as matter of experience, whatever higher meaning these words have, that His laws, as we term them, enter into us and are a part of us, and that we cannot escape from them if we would. They are at once the limits set to us and the powers by which we act. We are free agents, not in spite of them, but in consequence of them: without them we should be nowhere—the sport of chance or accident—occasionally, shall I say, relieved by the stretching out of a Divine Hand.
These laws teach us unmistakably how God governs the world; and, if we would co-operate with Him, we must know what they are. They do not prove that happiness is always the reward of virtue, or that suffering is the punishment of sin. They seem rather to show us that in endless and complex ways the spiritual well-being of man is bound up with his physical, that individuals are greatly influenced by their circumstances, that all men, although they have 107freedom of choice about good and evil, and are responsible for their actions, yet remain within a certain natural limit which they cannot pass. We see that the purely spiritual power which we can exercise over ourselves and others is narrower than we might at first sight suppose. But on the other hand the power which we can exert by the right use of means is very great; or rather, I may say, that of the two together is almost unbounded. The one leads, the other follows; the one indicates the end, the other the active steps which enable us to attain it. If a man would improve his own mind he must study the laws of the mind, the effect of habit, circumstances, intellectual influence, and the like. He must also realize to himself his own internal experience. Mere prayer, or devotional exercises, or the making of good resolutions, or the attempt to enforce some abstract principle on himself will not impart to him a harmonious principle of life or growth. He must understand human nature; he must learn to act what he thinks. Or, to take another illustration. Suppose a person desirous to reform the inhabitants of some neglected parish or district: he will not merely try to impress upon them some doctrine or even the greatest truth of the Gospel, but he will seek to raise their moral by improving their material condition; he will influence them through their natural affections, he will draw their children to the school; he will observe many causes which affect their health, of which 108they are wholly unconscious. In short, he will strive to apply all that doctrine about habits and circumstances, and the laws which affect the physical wellbeing ‘of man, to the service of his fellow creatures.
So God teaches us that we must worship Him through His laws and not beside them; not casting one eye upon earth, and lifting the other to heaven, but recognizing His presence at once and immediately in our homes and streets: may we not say, the nearer the duty, the nearer is God present in it? We have no reason to suppose that prayer will alter the fixed laws of this world; but God has shown us how, by the right use of means, we may vary without breaking them, so far at least as to receive all the good of them and to avoid the evil. The power which we have over them is no violation or infringement of them, but is included in them. And thus a new religion of nature springs up, not like the old religion, blind and helpless, but intelligent, recognizing in every addition to our knowledge of physical or social laws the possibility of adding something to the improvement of mankind and to our knowledge of the divine nature.
3. There remains the third division, of which I must briefly speak; the inferences which we may draw respecting the nature of God from abstract ideas or reasonings, or in other words from the divine attributes. Abstract ideas are apt to have a bad name with us; they seem to belong to philosophy rather than to 109religion, and we sometimes speak of them contemptuously as mere abstractions. The Bible is not a book of abstractions; it speaks to us heart to heart; it can rarely be said to appeal to general motives for a confirmation of the truths which it teaches. It tells us indeed that God is just; ‘For how else,’ as St. Paul says, ‘can He judge the world?’ It tells us, again, that God is love: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.’ Once more, it tells us that God is true: ‘Yea, though every man be a liar.’ But the Bible does not attempt to draw out the consequences of attributing to the divine nature, first, justice; secondly, love; thirdly, truth; or, in one word, perfection. It tells us, again, that ‘our Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ Here, then, is a legitimate field in which the Christian theologian may seek to extend our knowledge of God: we all speak of God as being a Moral Being; he may show us what is inevitably involved in these words. And many erroneous inferences drawn sometimes from a partial use of Scripture may be corrected, and the supposed antagonism between religion and morality removed. And in daily life and practice we may feel how great a thing it is to trust ourselves to a perfect God.
For example, if we attribute to God perfect justice, we cannot say He will pass over our offences without punishment; or that, having regard to the frailty of His creatures, He views with equal favour the righteous and the wicked. But we can say that nothing accidental, 110nothing capricious, enters into His government; He will not inflict disproportionate punishment, He will not lay down arbitrary conditions which He insists on our fulfilling; He will not fix a time before which all may be retrieved, after which all is for ever lost. We are right in assuming this about God, because we should infer it about any just or good man. To suppose anything else would be to suppose that the justice of God falls short even of a moderate degree of human justice. There is a great deal of comfort, not without awe, in all this. And we may go a step further. For the justice of God is based upon perfect knowledge. He sees not only all the evil but all the good which is in us, the unexpressed wish to become better, the least sense of sorrow for the past; and often He does not judge us as man judges us.
So again of His love and truth. The Scripture tells us that God is love, and that He wills all men to be saved. Or, again, ‘He concluded all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.’ There is no qualification of this; no exception to it. Can it be limited to those who have heard the message of Christ and been saved by believing on Him? The idea of divine love carries us far beyond this, to think of a love of God which is inexhaustible, not confined to the good only, but extended to all, and not resting satisfied while even a single individual among His creatures remains estranged from Him. There may be ways by which ‘He has provided that His banished ones be 111not expelled from Him.’ We shall do well to think of the state of being in which we are here, of that in which we shall be hereafter, as a state of education in which He is drawing us nearer to Himself and to the truth. Of such things we may meditate although we cannot describe or define them. They are hidden from our eyes, like that time of which the Apostle speaks in the words of the text, ‘When the Son Himself shall be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.’ But although we are unable to tell in what manner the work of love can be accomplished, any more than we can tell how the dead are raised up, we do not therefore cease to acknowledge, in the fullness of its consequences, the first and greatest of all articles of belief, that God is Love.
Once more, if God is truth, what is the inference? It is not a particular truth, but all truth, which we must identify with Him; the truths of science as well as the truths of religion or morals; the temper of truth everywhere, even when seemingly antagonistic to Christianity. Is not this again an enlargement of our idea of God? To the student, especially in these days, the thought that any inquiry honestly pursued cannot be displeasing to the God of truth is a great source of peace and comfort. He is better able to meet the attacks of his fellow-men when he is stayed upon the God of truth, and he feels that his duty towards knowledge is also a duty towards God. He 112is conscious that his life is innocent though many may condemn him. And sometimes he will seem to see the God of truth looking down upon the violence and party spirit of the world and of the Church.
These three—justice, love, truth—are the three great attributes of the divine nature, aspects of the one perfection which God is. When they meet in our hearts God may be said to take up His abode within us.
Let us take away with us the thought of a great writer—‘Certainly, it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.’113
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