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Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell


It is of course the merest commonplace to say that the revelation of God in the Scriptures comes to its climax in Christ. The revelation in Christ gathers up all that is loftiest in the utterances of the Old Testament and gives it embodiment in a human life. It is legitimate to declare that there is little either in the teaching of Christ or in his character that is not at least foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The uniqueness of the Christ revelation consists in the manner in which the separate streams of truth of the law and the prophets and the seers and the poets are merged together in the Christ teaching, and in the fine balance with which the ideal characteristics seen from afar by the saints of the older day were realized in the living Christ. We might justly say that a devout reader of the Old Testament could find rich elements of the Christ revelation even if he should never see a page of the New Testament. The virtue of the New Testament, however, is that all the elements revealed throughout the course of the historic periods of Israel's career are bound together in the life and character of Christ. It is no mere epigram to say that if the greatest fact about the Scriptures is God, the greatest fact about God is Christ. Any thorough study of the Scriptures must revolve around Christ as its center. If the Scriptures mean anything, they mean that in Christ we see God. Of course it is open to the skeptic to reply that in all this the Scriptures are completely mistaken; but he cannot maintain that this is not what the Scriptures mean. The Book comes to its climax with an honest conviction that Christ is the consummate revelation of God. The day when men could charge any sort of manipulation of the material by Scripture writers for unworthy doctrinal purposes is past. We have in another connection said that each of the New Testament books was, indeed, written with a definite aim, but this does not mean that facts and teachings were twisted out of their legitimate significance. That Christ is the supreme gift of God to men is so thoroughly built into the biblical revelation that there is no digging that idea out without wrecking the entire revelation itself. To maintain anything else would be to do violence to the entire scriptural teaching. The burden of the entire New Testament is that God is like Christ.

This may seem to some to be a reversal of present-day approach to the study of the Christ. We may appear to be attacking the problem from the divine angle rather than from the human. Why not ask what Christ was rather than what God is? It is indeed far from our purpose to minimize the rich significance of the humanity of Jesus, but we are trying now to get the scriptural focus. We do not believe that we can secure that focus by looking upon the character of Christ as a merely human ideal. The might of the scriptural emphasis is that Christ is the revelation of God. We are well aware that ordinary theological debate has centered on the question as to the extent to which Christ is like God. The Bible is colored with the belief that God is like Christ. This may seem at first glimpse to be a very fine discrimination, but the importance of that discrimination appears when we reflect that mankind is more eager to learn the character of God than to learn how far a man can climb toward divinity. In all such discussions as this we proceed at peril of being misunderstood, but we must repeatedly affirm that important as is the problem as to the human ideal set forth in Christ, the divine ideal set forth in him is more significant as explaining the hold of the Bible on men. Is it not sufficient for us to behold a lofty human ideal in the portrait of Christ without such emphasis on this ideal as also a revelation of the divine character? The answer depends upon what we are most interested in. If we care most for a perfect and symmetrical human life, we reply that we find that perfection and symmetry in Christ. In our second chapter we laid such stress upon the importance of the enlarging human ideal that we have committed ourselves to the importance of the Christ ideal as a revelation of the possibilities of human life. But if we take that ideal in itself without any reference to the character of God, how much enlargement does it bring us? As members of the human race we can indeed be proud that a human being has climbed to such moral stature as did Jesus, but what promise does that give that any other human being can attain to his stature? As a member of the human race I can be profoundly thankful for a philosopher like Kant. I can, indeed, dedicate myself to the study of the Kantian philosophy with some hope of mastering it. I can seek to reproduce in my life all the conditions that surrounded the life of the great metaphysician, but I cannot hope to make myself a Kant. Strive as I may, such transformation is out of the question. I may attain great merit by my struggle, but I cannot make myself a Kant. The more intensely I might struggle, the more convinced I would become of the futility of my quest, and the genius of the philosopher might tower up at the end as itself a grim mockery of my ambition. So it is with the Christ if he is not a revelation of the God life at the same time that he is an idealization of the human life. Viewed as a revelation of God's character the Christ life is the hope of all the ages. Viewed only as a masterpiece of human life it might well be the despair of mankind.

Of course there are those who believe that it is impossible for Christ to be a revelation of the human without also being a revelation of the Divine. We have no desire to quarrel with this position, though we find it more optimistic than convincing. Incredible as it may seem at first thought, the universe might theoretically be regarded as a system ruled over by a Deity who had brought forth a character like that of Christ just for the sake of seeing what he could achieve in the way of a masterpiece, without being himself fundamentally involved in self- revelation. Christ might conceivably be a sort of poetic dream of the Almighty rather than a laying bare of the Almighty's own life. We find that human authors by an effort of great imagination fashion creations in a sense completely different from themselves. It might be theoretically urged that the character of Christ is different from the character of God. If this seems very far-fetched, let us remind ourselves then that there are those in the present world who conceive of Christ as the very highest peak of human existence and yet deny that he has any sort of significance as a revelation of the forces back of the world. Such thinkers maintain that Christ is the best the race has to show, and yet affirm that the race is but an insignificant item in the total massiveness of the universe. The Bible establishes the faith of men against skepticism like this by making the Christ-ideal for God himself so attractive and appealing.

There are those who proclaim that we do not need any revelations of God to make then human ideal fully significant -- the human ideal stands by itself. Some such thinkers go consistently the full length of saying that they are willing to keep their eyes open to the hopelessness of the universe. They can see nothing beyond this life but total oblivion. Nevertheless, with their eyes open they will fight on manfully to the end and take the final leap into the dark without flinching. They are very apt to add that their philosophy is the only unselfish one; that the desire of men for any sort of help from conceptions about the Divine is selfishness where it is not sentimentalism. It is fair to say that such doctrines seldom meet large response. The reason is not that men selfishly seek out a God for the sake of material reward that may come to them, but that they seek him for the sake of finding a resting place for their minds and souls, for the sake of cherishing an end which seems in itself worth while, for the sake of laying hold on a universe in which they can feel at home. If this is selfishness, then the activities of the human soul in its highest ranges are selfish. If it is selfish to long for a universe in which the heart can trust, it is selfish also to enjoy the self-satisfaction with which some of these thinkers profess to be ready to take their leap into the night. As we scan the history of Christianity since the day of the Founder we are impressed that religious organizations as such which arise within Christianity tend to survive in proportion as they make central the significance of Christ as the revealer of the character of God. We would not for a moment underestimate the importance of those groups of Christians who take Christ merely as a prophet who lived the noblest life and exalted his truth by the noblest death. Many such believers manifest the very purest devotion to Christ. They are his disciples. But the historic fact is that organizations founded on such doctrines alone do not win sweeping triumphs. On their own statement the most they hope to do is to spread the leaven of their doctrine into the thinking of other groups of Christians. Their service in this respect is not to be disparaged, for at all times the more orthodox opinion of Christ, so called, needs the leavening of emphasis on the humanity of Christ. But after all these allowances it is just to affirm that theology which sees only the human in Christ does not come to vast power, and that clearly because the world is chiefly interested in the question with which the entire biblical revealing movement deals, namely, what is the nature of God? With that question answered we can best understand the nature of man and the possibility of communion between man and God.

We may be permitted to pick up the thread of the argument in the last chapter and ask again what moral purposes rule the forces of this world. It must indeed be an odd type of mind that does not at least occasionally ask what this world is for, and what all this cosmic commotion is about. It is well for all of us to do the best we can without asking too many hard questions, but the queries will at times come up and with the normal human being they are not likely easily to down. We are in the midst of powers which defy our intellects. We do not go far in the attempt to read the secrets of nature around us without discovering that all we can hope to spell out is the stages by which things come to pass, and the mechanisms by which they fit themselves together. Why they come to pass is beyond us, except in a most limited sense. The purposes for which events occur in this world are not self- evidently clear. Explanations of purposes only make matters worse; and at any moment this problem of the mystery of the universe may take personal significance in the form of a blow upon the individual which seems to mock all hope of anything worth while in human life. There is nothing more futile than the attempts even of ministers to divine the meanings of afflictions or of those inequalities of lot which attend the natural order. The preachers can encourage us to make the most of a bad lot, but their guesses as to why these things are ordinarily add to our burdens. No, the mind of itself just by contemplation of the things as they are cannot find much light. This enigma has always been before the philosophers in the form of the question as to physical suffering. A number of plausible answers have been made as to the reasons for pain in the present order. Leibnitz said that even the Almighty creating the finite world had to adjust himself to some limitations for the good of the whole; that if some forces are to run in one direction, there must be mutual concession and compromise in the adjustment of manifold other activities; and that all this involves at least apparent stress and injustice at particular points. This sounds well enough, but why the afflictions of the individual who happens to be one of the particular points should be just what they are is a mystery. The upshot is that the ordinary man -- the plain man, as we call him -- must either give up the whole problem by seeking to forget it, or must rebel against it, or he must find relief in a God whom he can trust without being able to fathom his plans.

The tragedy of physical affliction is light as compared to the tragedies which arise in any conscience which seeks to take moral duties seriously. To be sure, we live at present in a rather complacent age so far as the struggles of conscience are concerned. The advice of the world is to do the best we can and let the rest go. We are not to take ourselves too seriously. But the long moral advances of the race have come through those who have taken the voices of conscience seriously. Now, what can a sensitive conscience make of moral duty? Assume that we have before us the exalted Christ ideal, and accept this as the guide of our lives -- assume that we even have hope of some day attaining to that ideal -- the distracting question is bound to jump at us: Are we doing enough? Have we sacrificed enough for those in worse plight than ourselves? And what about our past mistakes? Shall we go back and try to undo these? At the very best that might be like unraveling through the night what we have spun through the day. It will not do to dismiss this as unhealthiness or morbidness of mind. William James has shown pretty conclusively that the so-called normal or healthy-minded moral life is apt to be shallow. The great moral tragedy of the race is the distance between the ideal and any possible attainment. We can console ourselves by saying that noble discontent is the glory of man; but that does not get us far. There is only one way out, and that is to trust that we are dealing with a Christlike God, that his attitude toward us is the attitude of Jesus toward men. It is impossible to feel that in discipleship with Jesus men were complacent about their own moral perfections on the one hand, or harassed with self-reproaches on the other. They were advancing toward the realization of an ideal in companionship with One who not only in himself realized the human ideal, but who taught them that all the forces of the world would work together with them in their climb toward perfection, and that God would be patient with their blunders.

The question as to the character of God becomes more vital the longer we reflect. The growing conscience of our time demands that two conceptions be kept together -- that of power and that of moral responsibility. We cannot hold a person responsible unless he has power; we cannot give a person power unless he is willing to act under responsibility. This realization is fast modifying all our relations to politics, to finance, to industry, even to private duties. We are swiftly moving toward the day when society will insist that any measure of power which has an outreach beyond the circle of the holder's personal affairs shall be acquiesced in by society only on condition that the holder of that power be willing definitely to assume responsibility to society. What we demand of men we demand also of God, and we have the scriptural warrant for believing that these human demands are themselves hints concerning the nature of God. Now, no one doubts the power of God. All scientific and philosophic trends are toward the centralization of power in some unitary source. All our study of nature and of society convinces us that there is a unity of power somewhere. If this be true, there must be raised with increasing persistence the question as to whether the World- Power is acting under a sense of moral responsibility. There were days when this problem was not raised as it is now. Men assumed for centuries that the king could do no wrong; that he could order his people about in the most arbitrary fashion. In our own time we have seen advocacy of the doctrine that the man of wealth is a law unto himself in the handling of the power that comes with wealth. Such mistakes never were really a part of the biblical idea. In shaping the threefold notion of priest and prophet and king to make the people familiar with the functions of God-sent leadership the strokes of emphasis always fell on the responsibility of the prophet to proclaim his message at whatever cost to himself, of the priest to keep in mind the sacredness of his office, and of the king to rule in righteousness. These demands were inevitably carried up to God: and in Christ the supreme effort is made to convince us that we can trust in the God of Christ, though we may not be able to understand him. This is not the place for an attempt at determining the essentials of the Christ career. Some features of that life, however, as illustrating responsibility in the use of power can be hinted at here. Take the story of the temptation. We are not concerned now with the historic form in which the temptation occurred. After the historians have made all the changes in the drapery of the story they choose, the fact remains that the temptation narrative deals with the essential problems of any leader confronted with a task like that of Christ. The Messianic consciousness was a consciousness of power. How should the power be used? Should it be used to minister to human needs like those of hunger? That would promise a quick solution of a sort. The peoples would eagerly rally around the new deliverer. Should there be an attempt to utilize the political machinery of the time? There could be no doubt of the effectiveness of this plan. Should the exalted lofty spiritual state of the Master be relied upon to carry him through spectacular displays of extraordinary might that would capture the popular mind? Each of these suggestions presented its advantages. Each might have been rightfully followed by some one with less power than Jesus had; but for him any one of them would have involved a misuse of power, and hence he cast them all aside.

The miracles reported of Christ have this for their peculiarity, that they show a power conceived of as divine used for a righteous purpose. It is significant that practically all the miracles described are those of healing or of relief. The kind of miracle that an irresponsible leader would have wrought is suggested by the advice of James and John to Jesus to call down fire on an inhospitable Samaritan village. The reported reply of Jesus, |Ye know not what spirit you are of,| is the final comment on such use of power. Now, after we have made the most of the miracles recorded of Jesus, after we have made them seem just as extraordinary in themselves as possible, their most extraordinary feature is this use to which the power was put; and on the other hand, if we strip the miracles of everything that suggests breach of natural law and make them just revelations of super-normal control over nature through laws like those whose existence and significance we are beginning to glimpse to-day, still we cannot empty these narratives of their significance as revealing a morally responsible use of force. Let us be just as orthodox as we can, the purpose of the use of the forces is the supreme miracle; let us be just as destructively radical as we please, we cannot eliminate from the Scriptures this impression of Christ as one who used power with a sense of responsibility. This revelation is one which the ages have always desired.

We must be careful to keep in mind the connection of the Christ life with what came before it and what has proceeded from it. Here we have the advantage which comes of regarding the Bible as the result of a process running through the centuries. If the Bible were not a library, but only a single book, written at a particular time, we might well be attracted by the nobility of its teachings, but might despair of ever making the teachings effective. There is no proving in syllogistic fashion that Jesus was what he claimed to be, or that he was what his disciples thought of him as being; but when we see a massive revealing movement centering on the idea of God as revealed in Christ, when we see the acceptance of the spirit of Christ opening the path to communion with the Divine, and when we find increasing hosts of persons finding larger life in that approach to the Divine, we begin to discern the vast significance of the scriptural doctrine that in Christ we have the revelation of the Christlike God.

In this discussion we have been careful to avoid the terms of formal and creedal orthodoxy. This is not because the present writer is out of sympathy with these terms, but because he is trying to keep to the main impression produced by the New Testament. The fundamental scriptural fact is that in Jesus the early believers saw God; they came to rest in God as revealed in Christ. This is true of the picture of Christ in the earliest New Testament writings. Modern scholarship has not been able to find any documents of a time when the disciples did not think of Jesus as the revealer of God. If the disciples had not thought of Jesus thus, they would have found little reason to write of him. Now the scriptural authors employ various terms to declare the unique intimacy of Christ with God. In these expositions Jewish and Greek and even Roman thought terms play their part. Passages like the opening sentences of the fourth Gospel, or like the great chapter in the Philippians, are always profoundly satisfying and suggestive in their interpretation of the fundamental fact, but that fundamental fact itself is the all-essential -- that in Christ the New Testament writers thought of themselves as having seen God, and as having gazed into the very depths of the spirit of the Father in heaven. Believing as we do, moreover, in the helpfulness of the creedal statements of the church, we must nevertheless avow that such statements are secondary to the impression made upon the biblical writers by actual contact with the Christ. We must not lose sight of the primacy of that impression as we study our Scriptures. We must not limit the glory of the impression itself by the limitations of some of the explanations which we undertake. Much harm has been done the understanding the Scriptures by speaking as if some of our creedal statements concerning Christ are themselves Scriptures! The scriptural Christ is greater than any creedal characterization of Christ thus far undertaken.

Of recent years an attempt has been made to prove that no such person as Jesus ever existed. The attempt has proved futile, but it has had a significance altogether different from what the propounders of the theory intended. The original aim was to show the contradictions of the testimony concerning Jesus and the inadequacies of the testimony to his existence as an historical Person. The result has been to show that the real significance of the Christ life is not to be found in any particular utterance, or in any specific deed, but in the total impact that he made upon the consciousness of man as suggesting the immediate presence of the Divine. The quality of the Christ life satisfies us in the inner depths as bearing witness to the quality of the God life. We have no sympathy with the views of the critics just mentioned; but we must say that no matter how the thought of God in Christ got abroad, no matter how mistaken our thought of the historical facts at the beginning of the Christian era, the belief in the Christlike God nevertheless did get abroad. There is no effacing that conception from the New Testament. No matter what detailed changes in the narrative itself radical criticism may think itself capable of making, the door was opened wide enough in the Christ for the divine light to stream through. We said in the last chapter that the most important feature of the biblical revelation is God himself. We must now say that the supreme fact about God is Christ.

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