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Sec. 1.—Arguments drawn from Experience.
In many cases, undoubtedly, the fruit of experience in connection with the moral relations of life, is distrust of the purity of human virtue, and unbelief in the existence of true goodness and greatness amongst men. The more earnestly we examine the phenomena of human life around us, and the workings of our own hearts, the harder is it to attain the conviction, that there ever did live one who was wholly pure and perfect. Whithersoever our eyes are turned, we find concealed, under a thousand captivating forms, vanity and ambition, the pursuit of possessions, power, and enjoyment; malevolence and envy; and, above all, that evil of evils, selfishness, which in the subtlest way creeps into volitions and acts of a nobler character. Seldom does it fall to our lot to 161rejoice at the sight of a really pure deed never have we the happiness to discover a man whose life is an unblemished picture of moral perfection. The eye of our spirit becomes, in consequence, so accustomed to the constant spectacle of imperfection, to this chiaroscuro of human life, that we are in danger of ultimately losing the power of recognising a character of perfect moral purity, when presented before us. And it is an undeniable fact, that the knowledge of human nature on which many plume themselves, ends in the miserable and comfortless result of absolute moral scepticism.
But that acquaintance with man which leads to such a conclusion really begins with the principle of mistrust and there must have been beforehand an inclination to discover defects, and either not to pay attention to the good, or to attribute it to bad motives. Besides, such a knowledge is proved to be spurious, by the fact of its giving a result that tends to destroy our best powers, faith and love, and that blights at the root all self-sacrificing effort for the welfare of mankind. Moral scepticism, consistently carried out, possesses no firm ground on which to base a moral judgment, and does in fact ultimately undermine all those higher relations which rest upon such a judgment.213213 Comp. Reinhard’s Moral Theol. iii. cap. 1, § 329. In opposition to such a system, the mind of man, when unaffected by sophistries, will ever cleave to the belief that it is possible—at least from the tendency of a whole life—to recognise moral differences between man and man, not indeed infallibly, but still with sufficient certainty to satisfy an earnest and modest mind. Such a mind, pursuing its inquiries in a spirit of love, will never renounce its faith in human virtue. And there will be less danger of this, because such a faith does not entirely rest upon mere experience: it is based also upon something far higher,—upon the perception of the purposes of God in and for mankind. Hence faith in humanity, as well 162as faith in God, with which it is connected, is independent of experience, nay, often maintains its power in opposition to experience. Man is destined to good by God, and the law of his being is not selfishness and sin, but holiness and love. What, then, could justify us in believing that, universally and necessarily, only exceptions to this law are possible, and that never and nowhere can there be a fulfilment of it? If we have a strong and living faith in the destiny of humanity, we shall always be ready and willing to acknowledge that some one can become, and to recognise that One actually has become, what man should properly be,—an image of his holy Creator. If we have sufficient evidence to warrant our believing that there has been such a realization, no experiences of a contrary kind, however numerous, should prevent our reception of this one fact. Nor must we allow it to stand in our way, that this has not lain within the range of our own direct experience. A resolution in moral matters to admit only that which falls under our own observation, would make our circle of vision an exceedingly contracted one. Not only would our faith in the absolutely pure virtue of the Redeemer be overthrown, but even our faith in the moral excellence of all beyond the limits of our own sphere of life. The moral nature of man devolves upon him the duty of believing in general in higher virtue, even when it does not occur within the sphere of his own individual experience; and we cannot, therefore, rightly refuse faith in a perfect and pure virtue, when there is satisfactory evidence of the fact of its historical realization.
It may, however, be further asked: Is it not a universal, indubitable truth, that the very nature of man renders it impossible for him ever to be perfectly good? Does not experience show us that, to be human at all, involves both sinfulness and actual sin? The question thus started is of a very comprehensive nature; and we shall do well to examine, 163one by one, the different elements of which it is composed.214214 The difficulties which may be raised in this connection are most fully expressed by De Wette in his Christliche Sittenlehre, Pt. i. pp. 182-193, where the entire section on Christus der Heilige should be compared. De Wette speaks more positively in regard to the sinlessness of Jesus in his work entitled Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens, § 53, p. 272 ff.
And, first, it has been urged that, ‘if we ascribe to Jesus the possibility of sinning, we must also conceive of Him as subject to sinfulness for sinfulness consists precisely in the possibility of sin, and not in the sum of actually committed sins. Sinfulness implies necessarily a minimum of sin, and therefore excludes absolute sinlessness.’215215 De Wette, Sittenlehre, Pt. p. 188. On the assumption that Jesus was a true, a real man, it cannot of course be denied that it was possible for Him to sin. This possibility is directly involved in human nature, in so far as this is to be morally developed. And if we assume that the possibility of sin means exactly the same as sinfulness, then it must be at once conceded that a germ of sin is implanted along with a moral nature. But the term sinfulness manifestly expresses far more than the mere possibility of sinning. Along with the latter, it is possible to form a conception of the free-will being in a state of perfect indifference to evil or good, and of a development from a condition of simple innocence to one of conscious virtue, without the intervention of sin. The former, on the contrary, presupposes a positive inclination to evil, from which there then arises actual sin. Hence, in acknowledging the possibility of sin in Jesus, we do not at all concede the existence of sinfulness, or even of the least trace of actual evil.
It is a further question, whether, besides that possibility of sin which we necessarily attribute to a personal being as such, there was not in Jesus that bias towards evil which we term original sin? The answers given to this question vary, 164of course, according to the varieties of theological opinion. We merely evade, not solve, the difficulty, when we reply by affirming that there is no such thing as original sin,—when we assert that man enters life innocent, in the full possession of his moral powers, and that there is nothing in himself to prevent his development being perfectly pure, especially when circumstances are favourable. We cannot indorse this answer, because, as we have plainly declared in the first section, we recognise in human nature a prevailing inclination to sin. Neither are we able to agree to the view, that the result of this inclination is only that we labour under ‘a difficulty of good,’216216 Augustine calls it difficultas boni in his earlier writings. but possess also a freedom capable in each separate instance of deciding in favour of that which is right, and hence rendering a perfectly sinless development conceivable. For as soon as the moral power is regarded as one which has to contend with inward difficulties, a perfectly pure beginning is no longer possible, and an internal discord is assumed irreconcilable with that sinless development which we attribute to the Lord Jesus.
On the assumption of universal sinfulness among men, there remains, therefore, no other way of accounting for the perfect purity of the life of Jesus, than by supposing that a creative Divine influence was at work in the origin of His personality.217217 ’All individual life rests on an original and specifically determined form of being, which points back to the Creator’ (Hale, Leben Jesu, § 32, p. 58). For a further carrying out of this proposition in relation to the sinlessness of Jesus, see the Streitschriften, No. iii. pp. 105-109. Because God so willed and effected it, a new link was introduced by a direct creation into the chain of sinful life and the individual thus created was endowed with pure, fresh, and unblemished moral powers, in order that a perfectly holy, godly life might be first realized in Him, and then through Him in humanity. The objection, that the case is in this way transferred to the region of the 165miraculous, need not mislead us. The new commencement of moral and religious life in Christ is undoubtedly a miracle, and inexplicable save .on the assumption of direct Divine causality. The new thing, however, which is thus called into existence is not contrary to nature, but the re-establishment of nature in its original purity.218218 Christ as the second Adam. Gess, Lehre von der Person Chr. pp. 338, etc., defines the religious and moral disposition of Jesus as a natural nobility of soul, ever powerfully attracting Him towards God and towards good, yet by no means exempting Him either from temptation and conflict, or from the necessity of ever fresh resolutions and self-denial. Besides, the origin of Christianity, and of all true religion in general, can only be explained on the condition that God should enter into real fellowship with humanity, and exert a creative influence on its development. This, again, is inconceivable, except on the supposition that the influence should manifest itself in a special manner in individual persons, and in every portion of the being of these persons. They who think they can explain the commencement, progress, and perfection of the religious life, and especially the origin of Christianity, apart from Divine agency, utterly misconceive its real nature.
It has been objected, and with greater apparent force, that in this way we destroy the significance of the life of Jesus as an example to men. If Jesus was in His origin free from sinful taint through special Divine influence, and if He was endowed with new moral power by special Divine gift, He cannot be, it is said, in respect of His moral perfection, a true, binding example to those who are not similarly favoured. To this we reply: The doctrine that Christ is an example for our imitation, must first of all be rightly understood. It evidently does not refer to all that Jesus was and did. He had a work to perform of an utterly unique kind, which, in its turn, required and assumed a unique personality. In this work, none of course can imitate Him in such wise as to do a like work—as to be a like person. He can only be 166regarded as our example with reference to religion and morality in general, to His perfectly holy disposition and conduct;—and even in these respects, not in the sense that we are to be as He was, but in the sense that we ought to become like Him, to attain to a conformity to Him, to be transformed into His glorious image.219219 2 Cor. iii. 18. This is a goal nu ot to be reached at once, but one set before us throughout the whole course of our earthly existence, and even beyond its limits. Now Jesus could not be a perfect and universal example of this kind unless He were absolutely pure and holy; and this, again, would be impossible if any impediment to a perfectly normal development were found in the basis of His personality. On the other hand, it is asserted that none but one absolutely like ourselves in all things, the original inclination to sin not excepted, could really be an example to us. But if this be the case, we shall find ourselves obliged either to give up the idea of a really perfect example, or to demand that it should be given by one naturally incapable of so doing. Hence the choice left us is—either we have no perfect example, or we must admit that this was furnished by a personality who was even in his moral constitution extraordinary. We need the less scruple to accept the latter alternative, since in other spheres, also, parallel instances occur.220220 Parallel, not identical. The differences are well stated by Gess, Lehre von der Person Christi, pp. 339, etc. In those of poetry and art, that which is truly typical and classical is ever the production of minds of extraordinary endowment; yet it never strikes any one that these, if they are to be examples to others, must necessarily have worked their ways through all the hindrances and difficulties to which the rest of the world is subject.
Again, it is argued, that ’so far as the virtue of Jesus was really human, there must have been a sensuous element 167in it, for no human virtue is quite free from such an admixture; but imperfection is involved in such a subjection to the law of our sensuous nature, and thus an end is put to any absolute moral perfection.’221221 De Wette, Sittenlehre, Th. i. p. 188. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this observation also. We cannot deny the presence, in the virtue of Jesus, of that sensuous admixture which gives the freshness of life to our own willing and acting. Body and spirit in Him were connected in the same manner as in other men. But there is nothing to justify the assertion that there is something intrinsically sinful in this sensuous element of our volitions and acts. Provided that the highest principle of our constitution, the spirit (pneuma), is the ultimate and decisive source of our volitions and acts, they are good, although either at their origin, or during their progress, the freshness and vigour of our purposes may be owing to an inevitable admixture of the sensuous element. The sensuous part of man’s being is only evil when it sets itself in opposition to the higher, the pneumatic part. By branding it as essentially sinful, we necessarily bring an accusation against the Author of our nature.222222 Compare Müller’s Lehre von der Sünde, i. 405 ff.; and with special reference to the perfect holiness of Jesus, pp. 439-442. But it is impossible to show that the sensuous impulses in Jesus were in any single case, to an unwarrantable degree, the moving spring of a determination of His will; or that, when called into natural play, they ever came into conflict with His higher nature. The general character of His words and acts is not passionate excitement, but the most deliberate calmness and self-possession.223223 This is beautifully unfolded in Sack’s Apologetik, second ed. p. 207 ff.
Last of all, the objection has been raised from this side, that ‘the feeling of humility in Jesus must have arisen from a consciousness of the imperfection and limitation of some 168minimum of sinfulness. Such a feeling is the means by which man frees himself from the guilt which cleaves to him: consequently Jesus was in this respect also our pattern, that He humbled Himself as a finite being before His heavenly Father.’224224 De Wette, Sittenlehre, Th. i. p. 192. If we are to uphold the unity of the inward life and being of Jesus, we cannot admit this assertion; for the same Jesus who declared Himself free from all sin, who was certain throughout His whole life that He was glorifying the Father, could not have humbled Himself from any consciousness of imperfection; but only from that feeling of piety, which evidenced itself in perfect submission to God, and in loving condescension to man. And, in fact, humility does not arise from a consciousness of sin. To regard it in this light, would make it synonymous with the feeling of guilt. Humility really arises from that inward relation of an individual towards himself and others, which removes all over-estimation, all vainglory, even in the midst of the most evident superiority,—which does away with all efforts to exalt self and to dazzle others. It prompts, in its judgment and treatment of others, to a spirit of gentleness, appreciation, and kindly sympathy, so far as the interests of truth permit. In this sense only was Jesus humble; but in this He was a perfect model of humility. He laid claim to nothing for Himself, but received all that was given Him of the Father. He pleased not Himself, and would have none but God called good in the very highest sense. He never placed His own dignity in a conspicuous light, but sought, on the contrary, to conceal it. He made Himself as he that serveth, even to His disciples. He condescended to all, and was ever ready to cast the beams of His light and His love, not only on the meanest and weakest, but even upon the most sinful. Such humility by no means presupposes the presence of indwelling sin, and the necessity of freeing Himself from it, 169on the part even of Jesus, but is, on the contrary, quite consistent with perfect moral purity.
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