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THE present volume closes the series of Neander’s Practical Commentaries. Of his original plan, embracing all the more important portions of the Bible, only the Exposition of Philippians, of James, and of the first Epistle of John had been completed, when their revered author was summoned to a higher sphere. All these are now before the American public. They form a worthy close of his earthly labors, and to many, will seem tile crowning glory of his noble lifework. The treasures of genius and learning, which enrich his more scientific works, here seem vivified by a new element, and melt under the fervor of his inner spiritual life, into a glowing stream of eloquent practical instruction. Not that this element is wanting in any of his productions. It was the informing spirit of his life, and of all his labors. But here it is predominant; all else is but the servant and instrument of Christian love, seeking to edify the body of Christ.
Here, in the Epistle of John, Neander found a peculiarly congenial field. There is a noble freedom and assurance in his tread, a glow of feeling, an eloquence of utterance, such as even Neander exhibits nowhere else. He moves along the high track of revelation as in a familiar path; gazing into its deepest mysteries with reverent but open eye, and interpreting them to us, not as subjects for speculation, but as sources of vital influence to the human spirit.
This exposition derives a peculiar interest from the fact, that it was intended to meet the religious wants of the time. He found the tendencies of the age of John reproduced in our own; and threatening as then, not to subvert Christianity by open opposition, but to corrupt Christianity itself, distilling into the sources of belief the poison of human opinion, under the name of Biblical criticism, and Christian philosophy. In developing the Apostle’s meaning, he takes his stand, with a spirit and tone worthy of John himself, in defence of positive revealed religion. The Gospel history is to him no Myth; it is a record of divine facts. The Christ therein revealed, is the Eternal Son of God in human nature. He truly lived, he truly died; he rose victorious over death, and now lives at the right hand of the Father. Through his Life and his Suffering, he won immortal life for man; that life which consists in restoration to the likeness and fellowship of God. Only through him, can the human soul obtain this life. There is here no liberality, so-called, in the theology of Neander, truly liberal as he is on all minor points ivof belief. The crucified, the risen, the perpetually mediating Christ, must be the all and in all, or the soul wanders in darkness, cut off from the only fountain of salvation. On knowing Christ depends even the knowledge of God, as the universal Father end Creator. To the Christianity which does not accept Christ in his whole revealed character as the incarnate Eternal Word, the divine-human Redeemer, he refuses even the name of Christianity. In his own emphatic words: “Whoever denies or mutilates this fact, is to be at once rejected. No other mark for the designation of the undivine, the false, the anti-Christian, should be needed for the believer.” This commentary, as well as the two preceding, exhibits in a striking light Neander’s estimation of the Scriptures, as the inspired word of God. In what English interpreter, guiltless of German learning, can be found a more reverent reception of their teachings, a more devout and diligent seeking after what is revealed, a more child-like humility in pausing at the boundary where revelation ceases? The word of God is to him the supreme authority, the final appeal. His sole object is to develop its treasures, to penetrate through the letter to the spirit, and to bring this into contact with the living heart.
But Neander found also, in the present age, a dead orthodoxy; which, while professing the most tenacious adherence to the Scriptures as the revelation of divine truth, no less dishonored and endangered true Christianity. In unfolding John’s treatment of this error in his own age, he furnishes lessons of the richest practical instruction for the evangelical church of our time, and of all times. Religious truth is to him food for the soul, that on which it must live, something demanded by an inward necessity of its nature. Its office is not to exercise the intellect, but to raise and purify the spirit. Belief is the reception of this truth into the living heart, not the cold assent of the understanding. Hence both the earnestness with which he demands the reception of essential truths, and his comparative indifference to all points of doctrine, which do not affect the interests of salvation. Thus the true view of the person of Christ, is to him an object of infinite moment. This is not, however, for the sake of the knowledge in and for itself; but because it is only through this knowledge, that Christ himself can be rightly received into the soul perishing for his help. Only by knowing him as he is, can the soul rightly submit to him, trust in him, draw from him what it needs for the restoration of its God-like nature in the divine image. The right recognition of truth presupposes moreover, on the part of the percipient, that sense of his own moral state and of his relations to God, which converts the outward to inward knowledge. The famishing, the sick, the dying, knows that he has in this truth received refreshment, healing, life, in his inner being. The Christ revealed to him has become the Christ revealed in him; and in this inward revelation, continually derived anew from its divine fountain, lies the highest source of spiritual knowledge. For it is the perception imparted by the Son of God himself, the new God-related sense, which he alone can give. This is the Christian consciousness, so often mentioned by Neander in this commentary; vto which he ascribes so high an office, both as the immediate ground of belief in Christ, and the test of whatever is presented to the Christian as divine truth.
According to this view, a man’s creed cannot in the Scriptural sense be right while his life, his spirit, is wrong. The letter of his creed may be right; but wanting that which made it God’s truth, God’s revelation to the soul, it is essentially false. It no less misrepresents God, is no less ruinous to the soul, than the unbelief which openly rejects the truth, or the false philosophy which corrupts it. How much orthodoxy, so-called, and contended for as essential to salvation, would at this Ithuriel-touch stand revealed in its true form as from beneath not from above! The spontaneous inevitable expression of belief in the Gospel, of orthodoxy in the sense of John, is Brotherly Love; love which regards all men as brethren, but whose most immediate sphere, where it unfolds in its highest power and glory, is the church, the body of Christ. Hard test! Who then,—we might almost exclaim, as, looking over evangelical Christendom, we see rather an arena of deadly combatants than the peaceful, loving home of the family of God,—who then believes! Convinced we must be, both that the true knowledge of Christ is as yet greatly wanting among professing Christians, and that all attempts at outward union, whether among individuals, churches, or the various great divisions of the church, is labor thrown away. The inward union, which springs from living fellowship with God through Christ, will gradually melt away all outward differences which mar the symmetry of the church; but the outward union can never heal the inward discord. So also with the evils of the world at large. All reforms which proceed not from this divine principle, however fair their appearance, will prove unreal and of brief duration. The source of all evil, whether in the church or the world, is estrangement from God; the one great cure, the restoration of the soul to a loving union with God, effected through the mediation of the divine Redeemer.
Herein lies the peculiar characteristic of this whole Commentary,—the conception of Christianity in all its relations and manifestations, as a matter of the life. A believer, a Christian, is one who is in living fellowship with Christ. If this living fellowship is lost, he is, whatever may have been his former experiences, in precisely the same peril with one who has never known it. Neander knows of no dead state of grace. The human soul, created in the image of God, and redeemed by his well-beloved Son, is in his view too noble, and its price too costly, to be thus taken to heaven as a piece of purchased merchandise. The salvation won by Christ for man, is the life of God in the soul; a conscious life, a reaching forth of its warm living affections after him, a life manifested by free, unconstrained, joyful obedience to his commands, by the spirit of holiness and love pervading the whole character and conduct.
On this view of the Christian life, rests his noble conception of the Christian church. It is not a body of men bound into an external unity by the same creed; but a company of individual believers drawn together by an inward affinity, by a common participation in vithat living fellowship with God. Neither are there here any distinctions of rank. It is one family of God, in which each member stands in immediate communion with his Father, and receives immediate life and light from the same divine Spirit. There is here no infallible head of the church on earth; no constituted priesthood to mediate between him and God; no articles of faith shaped and stereotyped by the ingenuity of man, to which he is required to bow. Each has the Anointing of the Holy One; all are Priests and Prophets, through the indwelling divine Spirit.
It seems especially meet, that the illustration of these vital truths should be the closing labor of Neander’s life. The spirit which pervades it, reveals a soul matured and mellowed under the influence of these truths, to the deepest and richest tone of Christian experience. From his own christian consciousness flowed these eloquent expositions, of the true character of religious knowledge and belief, of the nature of sin, of the efficacy of redemption, of fellowship with God. Only from personal intercourse with heaven, was caught the fire of his almost inspired delineation of the power of prayer! And beautifully fitting it seems also, that it should be the exposition of these truths as revealed through the Apostle John. With him, the man of “burning love and burning hate,”11That is, in his original character, unmodified by divine grace. “Feurige Liebe und feurige Hasse,” was Neander’s characterization of the natural temperament of John. the beloved disciple and the son of thunder, the man of immediate perception and intuition of the divine, Neander had always felt a peculiar affinity. The illustration of John’s writings had been a favorite labor of his life; and now, as its close draws near, we find him again holding communion with the aged Apostle, and interpreting his latest counsels to the church. Standing on the threshold of the unseen world, he seems to listen with a deeper spiritual sense to the inspired utterances, and interprets them in words of kindred sublimity, earnestness, and love. Their sweetness had hardly died upon his lips, when he was called “to the home of the Good, to Christ;” to join in that new song, to which while yet on earth his spirit and his life were so fully attuned, “Worthy the Lamb that was slain!”
The brief sketch which has been given, of the leading features of the following work, will be pardoned by those who are conversant with Neander’s peculiar modes of thought, for the sake of the many to whom they are still new.
The quotations from the Epistle are given in the words of the common English version. The author’s variations are added in brackets, wherever they affect the view expressed in the commentary.
H. C. C.
ROCHESTER, Sept. 1852.7
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