Heart of the Gospel:
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The majesty of Christ, His stupendous claims and the evidence of His power which the passing centuries brought, dazzled the imagination of the Christian public, and there arose by degrees a view of His place in the history of religion which may have suited well enough distant days of ignorance, but is not tenable in modern times. Thinking men know it to be mistaken, but they have not yet found an alternative which does not seem to detract from the dignity of Christ and to be inconsistent with His claims.
Speaking broadly, the Christian community has not believed and does not now believe in a continuous and world-embracing scheme of Revelation in which Jesus Christ played a part. The existence of such a vast divine Design might in the past have been denied; and perhaps the idea of it would have been to many without value or meaning.
Nor has the Christian community believed that the Bible teaches a progressive system of Revelation which began with the creation of man and has been constantly guiding the race forward towards the attainment of a spiritual maturity. It has not believed in the gradual spiritual growth of the whole human race down through the ages, aided by a succession of heavenly Messengers.
No doubt with the thought of magnifying the position of Christ, and certainly with the effect of magnifying its
own opinions, it has suffered Jesus of Nazareth to eclipse utterly all other Teachers; it has regarded His spiritual teaching as exhaustive and final, and has attributed to Him a personal immortality of some such corporeal kind as the pagans of old might have attributed to one of their gods like Apollo.
Such conceptions as these, though not indeed contained in the formal creeds of Christendom, have come down through tradition and are generally held, and either implied or expressed in much of the greatest Christian literature.
But their seeds were sown by men in less enlightened times than ours, and they flourished in the Dark Ages. 'They are not taught by Christ. They are now difficult to reconcile with known truth. They do not add to the magnificence of Christ's station, and they are seen to be derogatory to the character of Almighty God.
They are parallel to the views which the Hebrews in Jesus' time held about Moses. For the scribes taught that Moses' Revelation was complete and conclusive, that it would not receive nor need development and that a formal profession of Mosaism was enough to exalt a man above the rest of humanity. Because they accepted Moses in this sense, therefore they rejected Jesus. Mosaism, they thought, was enough, was final; why should they listen to a new teaching? This narrowness, this lack of openness of mind, we condemn in them as a heinous sin, and it led them to the appalling crime of martyring Jesus. And if the record of their error be written for our learning, it contains a warning against being in religion self opinionated and unprogressive.
A narrow view of Revelation has for us greater difficulties than for them, and there is for us even less excuse for holding it. What knowledge had they compared with ourselves of the vast extent of the globe with all its seas and lands, of the number and variety of the peoples that inhabit it, of the civilisations and religions that had sprung up and flourished and perhaps already decayed in that great continent of Asia in which they dwelt; what did they know of the antiquity of the earth and of humanity, what conception had they of such truths as progress and evolution?
A wider knowledge has brought us a severer responsibility. We who compose universal histories, who study comparative religion, who can take a far broader and more discerning view of the ancient world than was possible for those who themselves lived in it, we, thus highly privileged, have no excuse at all for prejudice or egoism in our interpretation of Christ and His mission.
The dogma, the notion that there is no single divine law governing continuously the affairs of men whether before or after Christ, that in some inexplicable way and for no imaginable reason the compassion and the redemptive love of the Heavenly Father was shut away through millenniums from all His children, that the multitudes were left during those ages in some outer cold and darkness, were expected to shift for themselves without divine guidance, to submit themselves blindly to the chances and changes of an orphaned and undirected world, and that nations and individuals moved on their aimless way without instruction of conscience, without the inspiration and the cheer which religion confers, without access to
knowledge of spiritual truth-any such dogma or notion as this seems to us strange and arbitrary to a degree, an evident invention of man's cruel and uninstructed imagination.?"here is not a word of evidence for it in the teachings of Christ. It is wholly repugnant to that teaching. It is the merest superstition. Indeed, it is worse than untenable and monstrous; it is assuredly blasphemous, an insult to the character and power of God. What but the evil thought of man could imagine that a God of justice and compassion, of succour and helpfulness, the Author of all that is kind and good, would create the human race and abandon them to dwell unshepherded without the comfort of His Word or the light and warmth of His presence through innumerable ages till at last that year dawned which we in the West denominate the year One. Has God ever shut the gates of mercy against His children? If it be argued that He has and that He showed His clemency and forgiveness by opening these gates in the year One, the special question arises — why, that year in particular? What distinction is there about that epoch to make it suitable to the exclusion of all other epochs for the one and only effort of God to illuminate and save mankind? Great saints arose and mighty civilisations flourished before that period, and left an enduring mark on the memory and conscience of mankind. And since that time Islam produced its wonderful mystics and that brilliant civilisation to which we of to-day owe so large a debt.
What intelligible or consistent philosophy of world history can be woven around the idea that the one authentic Revelation of God was given nineteen hundred
years ago, and that it was both final and complete? None at all. This idea originated in days of ignorance, and bears every mark of the date of its origin. It contradicts the teaching of Christ and the spirit of the Bible; it is incompatible with the revealed character of God and repugnant to the better instincts and to the fuller knowledge of our time.
If the interpretation of the Bible as the story of mankind's spiritual evolution did not bring into relief the reality of Redemption, did not enhance the majesty of Christ and uplift our conception of the glory of the Creator, still one would be impelled to accept it since it is proved from the Bible's own words. But why should anyone be reluctant or hesitate to accept it since it redounds to the greater glory of God and His Messengers and all His works! How precious in such a world of doubt as ours is the picture of a scheme of salvation which is intelligible and in accord with the rest of our thinking and which shows how real and grave and costly and perilous are those imperfections and sins which men in ignorance so long have treated as of no account!
How great, how far beyond the thought of any generation of men is this Scheme which Christ unfolds!
How wonderful the love and wisdom that could conceive and order it!
How unimaginable the Power that commands and creates, that informs every part of this vast process from everlasting to everlasting and that executes His plan throughout according to a purpose defined before the first foundation of the world! How far surpassing anything we can ever know of glory is One who is styled the Son of so great a God, the Image of His perfections, the
executive of His authority over all things in heaven and earth!
Jesus was not called on to draw any full sketch of the Redemptive Scheme of God nor to delineate it in any detail, as is done, for instance, in the Book of Certitude. The view of it which He offers to us may be compared to our view of the young crescent moon. A portion of the moon's orb corresponding to the Christian gospel, is seen in full light; the rest is shown in outline by a faint filament of thin light so that the eye can trace the size and contour of the moon, but nothing more.
Christ was talking to a child-people, and He had no opportunity of expanding a philosophy of the General Design of God. Doubtless this was one of those larger mysteries for the revelation of which their minds were not yet ripe. 'Other things I have to tell you, but ye cannot bear them now.' Nevertheless the discourses of Christ are shot through with allusions and references to the course of God's evolutionary plan. Many of His words take on a richer, deeper meaning when contemplated against the background of the General Design. Only when His teaching is examined as part of a progressive revelation, when it is seen to be calculated to answer a particular need of mankind at a given time and to carry humanity over a definite stage of their evolutionary journey - - only then can the teaching be recognised as having its own shape and pattern, as being a consistent and ordered whole, a considered prescription fitted to the spiritual malady of a special age.
Not until the Gospel is so regarded can the wisdom of Christ or His power be really appreciated. Jesus made
several references to other revelations, past or future, than His own. But there is one in particular which is of special significance because in it when His authority is challenged by certain Jews He asserts the spiritual continuity of His own revelation with the earlier revelations of pre-Hebrew days. 'Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.' (John 8:58.) The Jews took this to refer to Jesus the son of Mary who stood before them; they thought accordingly He was mocking them. Believers know that He spoke not of the individual Jesus but of the Eternal Christ. 'The Christ, the Word of God which spoke through Jesus, which was as a Sun, the splendours of which were reflected in Jesus as in a mirror, had spoken to men long before the prophet Abraham; it had not confined its energies, its appearances, its utterances to the Hebrews alone. 'The Revelation of God through the eternal Word antedated the Jewish race and had been in action untold ages ago. Jesus gave no backward limit of time. He said that Revelation had been in process before Jewish history began and had always been one and the same, always in source and spirit identical with that which now was vouchsafed through Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was not called on to particularise further than this. He utterly denied the arrogant monopoly claimed by the self righteous Hebrews and — as his way was — in so doing, revealed to men a truth with a far profounder significance than appeared on the surface.
While Jesus here and elsewhere stressed the unity and wholeness of all Revelation He emphasised in particular and with detail one portion of God's revelatory design — namely, His own succession to Moses, the nature of the
transition from one Dispensation to the other, and the relationship established between the two connected but different Teachings.
This was to the Hebrew a matter of vital importance. It has to us to-day as students of the unified Design of God a further interest. From it, if we study it with humility and attention, we may be able to discover the principle of succession which imparts continuity to a Movement that is carried forward by a series of separate impulses. We may, for instance, be able to form some idea of the kind of spiritual relationship which must have existed between the work of Abraham and that of Moses who followed him, and perhaps be able to estimate what kind of change and advance beyond the First Teaching of Christ will be brought to mankind in His Second Advent.
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