Christianity: What it is not, and what it is

by G. Vance Smith


In looking back upon the past history of Christianity, it is easy to trace the existence of two very different ideas of the nature of that religion. Their influence is discernible in what may be termed its incipient form, in perhaps the earliest period to which we can ascend, while it has been especially felt during the last three hundred years, as also it materially affects the position and relations of churches and sects at the present moment. From obvious characteristics of each, these ideas may be respectively designated as the ritualistic, or sacerdotal, and the dogmatic, or doctrinal. It is scarcely necessary to add, that the two have been constantly intermingled and blended together, acting and reacting upon each other, and either supporting or else thwarting each other with singular pertinacity. Neither of them is found, in any instance of importance, existing wholly apart from the other, so as to be the sole animating principle of a great religious organization. The nature of the case renders this impossible. Ritualistic observances cannot be rationally followed without dogmatic beliefs. The former are the natural exponents of the latter, which indeed they are supposed to represent and to symbolize. Nor can doctrinal creeds, again, wholly dispense with outward rites and forms. Even the most spiritual religion requires some outward medium of expression, if it is to influence strongly either communities or individuals. It must, therefore, tacitly or avowedly adopt something of the dogmatic, if not of the ritualistic, idea, although this may not be put into express words, much less formed into a definite creed or test of orthodoxy.

A common factor of the greatest importance enters into the two conceptions of Christianity just referred to, though not perhaps in equal measure. I allude to the moral element, which may also be denoted as the sense of duty,—duty towards God and towards man. It may, indeed, be said to be a distinguishing glory of Christianity, that it can hardly exist at all, under whatever outward form, without being more or less strongly pervaded by the moral spirit of which the ministry of Christ affords so rich and varied an expression. It is true, however, that the ritualistic idea has constantly a tendency to degenerate into a mere care for church observances, devoid of any high tone of uprightness and purity in the practical concerns of ordinary life. It is a common thing, in that great religious communion of Western and Southern Europe which is so strongly animated by this idea, to see people in the churches ceremoniously kneeling in the act of prayer, while all the time they are busy, with eager eyes, to follow every movement in the crowd around them. In certain countries, many of the ritualistically devout, it is well known, have no scruple in practising the grossest impositions upon strangers; a statement which is especially true of those lands that in modern times have been governed and demoralized beyond others by the influence of the priestly class, with their religion of material externalities. A Greek or an Italian brigand, it is said, will rob and murder his captive with a peaceful conscience, provided only that he duly confesses to the priest, and obtains his absolution. This last is a gross and, happily, a rare case. But, equally with the more innocent acts, it illustrates the natural tendencies of ritualistic Christianity among various classes of persons. In ordinary civilized society, such tendencies are kept powerfully in check by other influences. Hence it is not to be denied that, throughout the Christian world, devotional feeling and the sense of duty are usually deep and active in their influence, and that the practical teachings of Christ, directly or indirectly, exercise a potent control, whatever may be the ritualistic or the dogmatic idea with which they are associated.

The ritualistic conception now spoken of offers us a Christianity which secures "salvation," by the intervention of a priest,—a man who, though, to all outward appearance, but a human being among human beings, yet alleges, and finds people to believe, that he can exercise supernatural functions, and has the power of opening or closing the gates of heaven to his fellow-men. It is needless to say how large a portion of Christendom is still under the influence of this kind of superstition, or how pertinaciously the same unspiritual form of religion is, at this moment, struggling to establish itself, even in the midst of the most enlightened modern nations.

Nor is it necessary here to argue, with any detail, against the notion of its being either inculcated upon us within the pages of the New Testament, or enforced by any legitimate authority whatever. Probably no one who cares to hear or to read these words would seriously maintain that the Gospel of Christ consists, in any essential way, in submission to a priesthood, fallible or infallible, in the observance of rites and ceremonies or times and seasons, or in a particular mode or form of church government, whatever doctrines these may be supposed to embody or to symbolize. Such things have, indeed, variously prevailed among the Christian communities from the beginning. Generation after generation has seen priests, and Popes, and patriarchs, and presbyters, without number. These personages have decked themselves out in sacred garments, assumed ecclesiastical dignities and powers, and sought, many of them, to heighten the charm and the efficacy of their worship by the aid of altars and sacrifices, so called, of prostrations, incense, lamps and candles, and many other such outward accessories. But are such things to be reckoned among the essentials of Christian faith or Christian righteousness? Does the presence or the blessing of the Spirit of God, to the humble, penitent, waiting soul of man, depend upon any thing which one calling himself a priest can do or say for us? Will any one, whose opinion is worth listening to, say that it does?

The teaching of Christ and his Apostles is, in truth, remarkably devoid of every idea of this kind. So much is this the case, that it may well be matter of astonishment to find men who profess to follow and to speak for them holding that in such matters there can be only one just and adequate Christian course,—that, namely, which commends itself to their judgment! It is evident, on the contrary,—too evident to be in need of serious argument,—that the very diversities of opinion and practice which prevail in the world—as expressed by such names as Catholic and Protestant, Greek Church and Latin Church, Church of England and Church of Scotland, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregational—prove conclusively that nothing imperative has been transmitted to us. The great Christian brotherhood, in its various sections and diverse conditions, has manifestly been left, in these things, to its own sense of what it is good and right to follow. Thus, too, if we will not close our eyes to the plainest lessons of His Providence, the Almighty Father gives us to understand that He only asks from us the service of heart and life that is "in spirit and in truth;" and, consequently, that we may each give utterance to our thoughts of praise and thanksgiving, to penitence for sin, to our prayer for the divine help and blessing, in whatever form of words, through whatever personal agency, and with whatever accompaniment of outward rite and ceremony we may ourselves deem it most becoming to employ.

The second, or dogmatic, conception of the Gospel has been less generally prevalent than that of which I have been speaking. Yet, ever since the days of Luther, not to recall the older times of Nicene or Athanasian controversy, it has been possessed of great influence in some of the most important Christian nations. Protestant Christianity is predominantly dogmatic. Under various forms of expression, it makes the Gospel to consist in a very definite system of doctrines to be believed; or, if not actually to consist in this, at least to include it, as its most prominent and indispensable element. We are informed, accordingly, that a man is not a Christian, cannot be a Christian, and perhaps it will be added, cannot be "saved," unless he receives certain long established doctrines, or reputed doctrines, of Christian faith.

What these are, it is not necessary here minutely to inquire. It is well, however, to note with care that there would be considerable differences of opinion in regard to them, among those who would yet be agreed as to the necessity of holding firmly to the dogmatic idea referred to. A Roman Catholic, of competent intelligence, would not by any means agree with an ordinary member of the Anglican church equally qualified. Both of these would differ in essential points from a member of the Greek church; and the three would be almost equally at variance with an average representative of Scotch Presbyterian Calvinism, as also with one whose standard of orthodoxy is contained in the Sermons, and the notes on the New Testament, of the founder of Methodism. Nay, it is well known, even within the limits of the same ecclesiastical communion, differences so serious may be found as are denoted, in common phrase, by the terms ritualistic and evangelical, and by other familiar words of kindred import.

Among the great Protestant sects the want of harmony under notice is, doubtless, confined within comparatively narrow limits. But there is diversity, not to say discord, even here. No one will dispute the fact who has any knowledge of the history of Protestant theology, or who is even acquainted with certain discussions, a few years ago, among well-known members of the English Episcopal Church, or with others, of more recent date, among English Independents,—in both cases on so weighty a subject as the nature of the Atonement. Moreover, in the same quarters, varieties of opinion are notorious on such topics as Baptismal regeneration, the authority of the Priesthood, the inspiration of Scripture, eternal punishment,—all of them questions of the most vital importance, in one or other of the popular schemes of the doctrine.

Now the indisputable fact referred to—the existence of this most serious diversity and opposition of opinion and statement—affords the strongest reason for considering it an error of the first magnitude to regard Christianity as essentially consisting in a definite system of theological dogmas. For is it possible to believe that a divine revelation of doctrine, such as the Gospel has been so commonly supposed to be, would have been left to be a matter of doubt and debate to its recipients? Admitting, for a moment, the idea that the Almighty Providence had designed to offer to men a scheme of Faith, the right reception of which should, in some way, be necessary for their "salvation," must we not also hold that this would have been clearly made known to them? so clearly, plainly stated as to preclude the differences just alluded to, as to what it is that has been revealed? It is impossible, in short, on such an assumption, to conceive of Christianity, as having been left in so doubtful a position that its disciples should have found occasion, from age to age, in councils and assemblies and conferences, in books and in newspapers, to discuss and dispute among themselves, often amidst anger and bitterness of spirit, upon the question of the nature or the number of its most essential doctrines. Of all possible suppositions, surely this is the least admissible, the most extravagantly inconsistent with the nature of the case.

To this consideration must be added another, of even greater weight. We gain our knowledge of Christianity, and of the Author of Christianity, from the New Testament. And, in this collection of Gospels and Epistles, it nowhere appears that it was the intention of Christ or of the early disciples, to offer to the acceptance of the future ages of the world a new and peculiar Creed, a Confession of faith, a series of Articles of belief in facts or in dogmas, such as the speculative theologian of ancient and of modern times has usually delighted to deal with. This is nowhere to be seen in the New Testament, although it speedily made its appearance when the Gospel had passed from the keeping of the primitive church into that of Greek and Hellenistic converts.

The only thing that can be supposed to approach this character, within the sacred books themselves, occurs in such phrases as speak of faith in Jesus Christ, or also of "believing" in the abstract, without any expressed object. But in none of these instances can a dogmatic creed be reasonably held to be the object implied or intended. What is meant, is simply belief in Jesus as the Christ, as may be at once understood from the circumstances of the case, and may easily be gathered from a comparison of passages. In the early days of the Gospel, the great question between the Christians and their opponents was simply this, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ or not. One who admitted this, and received him in this character, had faith in him, and might be an accepted disciple. One who denied and rejected him, as the multitudes did, was not, and could not be, so accepted. A man could not, in a word, be a Christian disciple, without recognizing and believing in the Founder of Christianity.

This explanation of the nature of the Faith of the Gospel will be found to apply throughout the New Testament books. An illustration may be seen in one of the most remarkable passages, the last twelve verses of St. Mark's Gospel,—a passage, it should be noted, usually admitted to be of later origin than the rest of the book. Here (v. 16) we read, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned" (condemned). The meaning is explained by a reference to the related passage, in chapter xxv. of the first Gospel. Here we learn that at the second Advent, shortly to come to pass, those who, having received Jesus as Lord, had approved themselves by their works obedient and faithful disciples, would by him be recognized as his, and admitted to share in the blessings of the promised kingdom of heaven: those who had not done so should be rejected and driven from his presence. It is clear that there is, in such ideas, no sufficient ground for supposing faith or belief in a creed or a dogma to have been intended by the writer of either Gospel.

Let me further illustrate my meaning by a brief reference to an ancient and, by many persons, still accepted formula of orthodox doctrine. This professes to tell us very precisely what is the true Christian faith. In plain terms it says, Believe this, and this, and this: believe it and keep it "whole and undefiled;" unless you do so, "without doubt" you shall "perish everlastingly."

Now my proposition is, that this kind of statement, or any thing like it, is not to be met with in the teaching of Christ, or in any other part of the New Testament. Had it been otherwise,—had he plainly said that the form of doctrine now referred to, or any other, was so essential, there could have been no room for hesitation among those who acknowledged him as Teacher and Lord. But he has manifestly not done this, or any thing like this. Hence, as before, we are not justified in thinking that the religion which takes its name from him, and professes to represent his teaching, consists, in any essential degree, in the acceptance, or the profession, of any such creed or system of doctrine, exactly defined in words, after the manner of the churches,—whether it may have come down to us from the remotest times of ante-Nicene speculation, or only from the days of Protestant dictators like Calvin or Wesley; whether it may have been sanctioned by the authority of an œcumenical council, so called, or by that of an imperial Parliament, or only by some little body of nonconformist chapel-builders, who, by putting their creed into a schedule at the foot of a trust-deed, show their distrust of the Spirit of Truth, and their readiness to bind their own personal belief, if possible, upon their successors and descendants of future generations.

We may then be very sure that, if the Christian Master had intended to make the "salvation" of his followers dependent upon the reception of dogmas, whether about himself or about Him who is "to us invisible or dimly seen" in His "lower works," he would not have left it to be a question for debate, a fertile source of angry contention or of heartless persecutions, as it has often virtually been, what the true creed, the distinctive element of his religion, really is. The very fact that this has been so much disputed, that such differences do now so largely exist before our eyes, forms the strongest possible testimony to the non-dogmatic character of the primitive or genuine Christianity. The same fact ought to rebuke and warn us against the narrow sectarian spirit in which existing divisions originate, and which is so manifestly out of harmony with "the spirit of Christ."


This absence from the Christian records of all express instruction, on the subjects above noticed, clearly warrants us in turning away from any merely dogmatic or ecclesiastical system, if it be urged upon us as constituting the substance, or the distinctive element of Christianity. We are thus of necessity led to look for this in something else. But to what else shall we turn? In what shall we find an answer to our inquiry, as to the true idea of the Christian Gospel?

The reply to this question is not difficult. The true idea of Christ's religion can only be found in the life and words of the Master himself. And these it may well be believed, in their simple, rational, spiritual, practical form, are destined to assume a commanding position among Christian men which they have never yet held, and, in short, to suppress and supersede the extravagancies alike of ritualism and its related dogmatism, whatever the form in which these may now prevail among the churches and sects of Christendom.

This conclusion is readily suggested, or it is imperatively dictated, by various expressions in the New Testament itself. "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life:"—such is the sentiment attributed to the Apostle Peter by the fourth Evangelist. Paul has more than one instance in which he is equally explicit: "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ;" while in another place he writes, "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his." Jesus himself speaks in terms which are even more decided, when he declares, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

In such expressions as these we may, at the least, plainly see the surpassing importance, to the judgment of the earliest Christian authorities, of the personal Christ, of his teaching and example. We are thus emphatically taught, in effect, that we must look to Christ, and take Him, in his life, his words, his devout and holy spirit, as the impersonation of his religion. When it is asked, then, What is the true idea of Christianity, no better answer can be given than by saying, it is Christ himself; that it is in Christ himself, in what he was and says and does, in all that made him well pleasing in the sight of God, as the beloved Son of the Almighty Father.

What Jesus was, in his visible life among men, we learn from the Gospel records. We learn it from them alone; for nowhere else have we information respecting him that deserves to be compared with theirs in originality or fulness of detail. It is not necessary to our present purpose to enter at length into the particulars which they have preserved for us, or into the differences between the three synoptical Gospels and the Fourth, in regard to the idea which they respectively convey of the ministry of Christ. The latter Gospel, it may, however, be observed, is usually admitted to be the last of the four in order of time. It is also, without doubt, the production of a single mind; and cannot be supposed, like the others, simply to incorporate, with little change, the traditions handed down among the disciples, for perhaps a long series of years before being committed to writing. But whatever accidental characteristics of this kind may be thought to belong to the respective Gospels, they all agree in the resulting impression which they convey, as to the high character of Jesus. And, it will be observed, they do this very artlessly, without any thing of the nature of intentional effort or elaborate description. They state facts, and report words, in the most simple manner, often with extreme vagueness and want of detail. It thus, however, results, that the image of Christ which the Evangelists, and especially the first three, unite to give us is, above all things, a moral image only; in other words, it has been providentially ordered that the impression left upon the reader is almost entirely one of moral qualities and of character.

It may even be true, as some will tell us, that we have in each of the first three Gospels, not simply the productions of as many individual writers, but rather a growth or a compilation of incidents, discourses and sayings from various sources, and drawn especially from the oral accounts which had long circulated among the people, before they were put together in their present form. But even so, the result is all the more striking. The identity and self-consistency of the central object, the person of Christ, is the more remarkable. Such qualities lead us safely to the conclusion that one and the same Original, one great and commanding personality, was the true source from which all were more or less remotely derived. Hence, even the imperfect or fragmentary character of the Gospel history becomes of itself a positive evidence for the reality of the life, and the peculiar nature of the influence, of him whose career it so rapidly, and it may be inadequately, places before us.

It is, however, to be distinctly remembered that we reach the mind of Christ only through the medium of other minds. So far as can now be known, no words of his writing have been transmitted to our time, or were ever in the possession of his disciples. To some extent, therefore, it would appear, the thoughts of the Teacher may have been affected, colored and modified, by the peculiar medium through which they have come down to us. Under all the circumstances of the case, this inference is natural and justifiable. It is one too of some importance, inasmuch as it directly suggests that, in all probability, the actual Person whose portraiture is preserved for us by the Evangelists must have surpassed, in his characteristic excellences, the impression which the narratives in fact convey. The first generation of disciples were evidently men who were by no means exempt from the influence of the national feelings of their people, or of the peculiar modes of thought belonging to their class. In the same degree in which this is true, they would be unable rightly to understand, and worthily to appreciate the teaching and the mind of Christ. This remark applies perhaps more especially to the first three Gospels, but it is not wholly inapplicable to the Fourth. Indeed, the fact referred to comes prominently out to view at several points in the Evangelical narrative,—as in the case of Peter rebuking his Master for saying that he must suffer and die at Jerusalem; in that of the request made by the mother of Zebedee's children; and in the anticipations ascribed by the first three Evangelists to Jesus himself, of his own speedy return to the earth,—anticipations which are recorded very simply, and without any corrective observation on the part of the writer.

But, whatever the hindrances of this kind in the way of a perfectly just estimation by the modern disciple, the portrait of Christ preserved for us by the Evangelists is, in a remarkable degree, that of a great Religious Character. The Christ of the Gospels is, before all things, a Spiritual Being, unpossessed, it may even be said, of the personal qualities which might mark him off as the product of a particular age or people. He is, in large measure, the opposite of what the disciples were themselves, free from the feelings and prejudices of his Jewish birth and religion. This he evidently is, without any express design of theirs, and by the mere force of his own individuality. He is thus, in effect, the Christ not merely of his immediate adherents, or his own nation, but of all devout men for all ages. He stands before us, in short, so wise, and just, and elevated in his teaching, so upright and pure in the spirit of his life, so engaging in his own more positive example of submission to the overruling will, and touching forbearance towards sinful men, that innumerable generations of disciples, since his death, have been drawn to him and led to look up to him even as their best and highest human representative of the Invisible God Himself.

It is very probable, however, that all this was not so fully seen by those who stood nearest to Jesus during his brief and rapid career, as it has been since. At least many, even the vast majority of his day, failed to perceive it. And yet, to a Hebrew reader of the Gospels, the greatness of his character could be summed up in no more expressive terms than by claiming for him that he was the Christ; that he embodied in himself the moral and intellectual pre-eminence associated with that office. In this light he is especially represented in the first three Gospels. In John, too, we have substantially the same thing, though very differently expressed. In that Gospel, he is also the Christ, but he is so by the indwelling of the divine Word. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," and the glory which had been seen among men, "full of grace and truth," was the glory even "as of the only-begotten of the Father." Probably no language could have been used that would have conveyed to a reader of the time a higher idea of the moral and spiritual qualities of any human being. And this corresponds entirely with the impression given by other writers of the New Testament, to some of whom Jesus was personally known,—by Peter, for example, by James, by Paul, and by the writer to the Hebrews. They evidently looked back to their departed Master, and up to the risen Christ, as a person of commanding dignity and spiritual power, and this not merely on account of the official title of Messiah which, rightly or wrongly, they applied to him, but for the lofty moral virtues with which his name was to them synonymous. He "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth," was, without doubt, the most perfect example which they could cite of all that was acceptable in the sight of God. "The spirit of Christ," without which we are "none of his," could be nothing else, and nothing less, than a participation in Christ-like goodness; nor can it therefore possibly be wrong, if we too lay the main emphasis of the Christian profession precisely here, where it is laid by the apostles; if, in other words, we pass over, or leave out of sight, as altogether of secondary importance, or of none, those various and often conflicting dogmas and forms and "diversities of administration," about which the Christian world is so sorely, and for the present, so irreparably divided.

The character of Christ stands in very intimate relations with the miraculous powers attributed to him by the Gospels. Those powers, it is needless to say, have been seriously called in question, as actual facts of history, by the critical investigations of recent times. Many persons, it may be, cannot see, and will not admit, that their value has been affected by the inquiries alluded to. To such persons the miracles will naturally retain whatever efficacy they may be conceived to possess as evidence of the divine, that is, supernatural, claims of him who is recorded to have wrought them. They are entitled to their own judgment in the case, as well as to whatever support to Christian faith they think they can derive from such a quarter. At the same time other inquirers may be permitted to think differently. If the lapse of time and the increasing grasp and penetration of critical knowledge necessarily tend to lessen the certainty of the miraculous element of the Evangelical history, may not this too be a part of the providential plan—contemplated and brought about for great and wise ends? May it not be that now the spiritual man shall be left more entirely free to discern for himself the simple excellence of the Christian teaching and example? left increasingly without that support from the witness of outward miracle which has usually been deemed so important, and which is unquestionably found to be the more commonly thus estimated, in proportion as we descend into the lower grades of intelligence and moral sensibility.

But, on the other hand, if this be true, one who may thus think need not of necessity also hold that the miracles of the Gospels did not take place, but that the history relating to them is the mere product of weak and credulous exaggeration. For, in truth, the ends which might be subserved by such manifestations are easily understood. Occurrences so unwonted and remarkable could not fail both to secure the attention of the spectator, and make him ponder well upon the words of the miracle-worker, and also to awaken in him new feelings of reverence towards the mysterious Being who had given such power to men. Thus it is readily conceivable, that a miracle might be a thing of the highest utility to those who witnessed it and to their generation. But then, on the other hand, it is not to be alleged that such occurrences are needed now to show us that God is a living Spirit in the world; or, consequently, that religious love and veneration are in any way dependent upon them, either as facts beheld by ourselves, or as incidents recorded to have been seen by others who lived many centuries ago. And, if this be so, surely we may look with indifference upon the most destructive operations of literary or scientific criticism, being anxious only, and above all things, for the simple truth, whatever it may be.

Again, however, it is not to be denied that the possession of miraculous power may have been for Christ himself, not less than for those who saw his works, of the deepest spiritual import. The formation of a character like his would seem peculiarly to require the training that would be afforded by such an endowment. We know how, with ordinary men, the command of unlimited power is, in fact, a test of rectitude, self-government, unselfishness, of the most trying and, it may be, most elevating, kind. The temptations which necessarily accompany it are proverbial. Was Christ exempt from that kind of moral discipline, that supreme proof of fidelity to God? Allowing, for a moment, what the narratives directly intimate, that he felt within himself the force of miraculous gifts, and the capacity to use them, if he had so willed, for purposes either of personal safety or of political ambition; in this, we may see at once, there would be an end to be served of the greatest moment both to himself and to the future instruction of his disciples. By such an experience, the moral greatness of his example might be doubly assured. It would be made possible to him to deny and humble himself,—even, in apostolical phrase, to "empty" himself of his Messianic prerogatives, in order the better to do the Heavenly Father's will, and, preferring even the cross to a disobedient refusal of the cup which could not pass from him, to be "made perfect through suffering," thus showing himself worthy to be raised up at last to be, as he has been, the spiritual Lord of the Church.

This idea was, in fact, a familiar one to Paul, as to others of the Christian writers. Its literal truth is enforced by the consideration of the strange improbability that one by birth a Galilean peasant, without any special gifts or powers to recommend him to the notice of his people, should yet be acknowledged by many of them as the promised Messiah; should, in spite of an ignominious death, be accepted in that character by multitudes; and finally, in the same or a still higher character, should acquire the love and reverential homage of half the world.

And yet it may remain true that, as time passes, this consideration shall lose much of its weight, in the judgment of increasing numbers of earnest inquirers. They, accordingly, will cease to place reliance on the outward material sign. Jesus, nevertheless, may still be to them as an honored Master and Friend, whose name they would gladly cherish, for what he is in himself. To those who thus think his character and words will appeal by their own intrinsic worth. He will be Teacher, Saviour, Spiritual Lord, simply by the inherent grace and truth spoken of by the Evangelist of old.

If this be the destined end, we may gladly acknowledge the providential guiding even in this; and we shall certainly guard ourselves against judging harsh or uncharitable judgment in reference to those who on this subject may not see as we see, or feel as we feel;—who, nevertheless, in thought and deed and aspiration, may not be less faithful to Truth and Right, or less loyally obedient to all that is seen to be highest and best in Christ himself.


Christ, then, I repeat, thus standing before us in the Evangelical records of his ministry, is the impersonation of his religion. What we see in Him is Christianity. Or, if it be not so, where else shall we look with the hope to find it? Who else has ever had a true authority to place before us a more perfect idea, or to tell us more exactly what the Gospel is? The Church, indeed, some will interpose, has such authority! But examine this statement, and its untenable character speedily appears. The Church at any given moment is, and has been, simply a body of fallible mortals, like ourselves. If the Christian men of this present day cannot suppose themselves to be preserved from intellectual error in matters of religion, neither can we think the Christian men of the past to have been more highly privileged. In fact, it must be added, as we ascend into the darker periods of Church history, we come upon the most undeniable traces of ignorance, misunderstanding, worldliness and folly, on the part of the ecclesiastics of the early and the middle ages, such as deprive their judgments on the subject before us of all right or claim to unquestioned acceptance. Let any one read, for example, the accounts given by trustworthy historians of that great assembly of the Church which produced the Nicene Creed. Will any one allege that in the passion and prejudice, the smallness of knowledge, the subtlety of speculation, and narrowness of heart, pervading the majority of that assembly, the Divine Spirit was peculiarly present to dictate or guide the decision arrived at, and make it worthy of the blind adhesion of future Christian generations? And, if we cannot thus admit the peculiar idea of Christianity there approved, it will surely be in vain to look to any similar quarter, either of the past or of the present, for what shall supersede the living "grace and truth," seen in Christ himself.

This conclusion is greatly strengthened by the briefest reference to the negative results of unbelief and irreligion, so prevalent in those countries which have been the longest under the influence of the old ritualistic idea of the Church and the priesthood. Positively speaking, this idea, it is needless to add, has largely failed in almost every thing except the encouragement among the people of the grossest superstitions—superstitions of which there is no trace whatever in immediate connection with the Christian Master. Not, however, to dwell in detail on this unpromising theme, let us rather turn to the considerations by which our leading position may be confirmed; from which too we may learn that a better future is yet in store for us.

The experience of past ages, the existing sectarian divisions of Christendom, the errors and superstitions involved in the grosser assumptions of Church authority, all unite to compel us to the conclusion of the essentially erroneous character of the old ritualistic and dogmatic conceptions of the nature of the Gospel. They show us not only that dogmas and rites about which the most earnest men are so utterly at variance cannot possibly be of the essence of Christianity, but further that the latter is nowhere to be found except in Him whom in spite of diversities all alike agree to hold in honor. And, in truth, his life, brief and fleeting as it was, may well be said to constitute the Christian revelation. That it does so, and was intended to do so, may, as already observed, be seen better in our day, than it was by the earliest disciples. Their thoughts were preoccupied, their vision obscured, by various influences which prevented them from clearly discerning the one thing needful. The temporal kingdom of their Master for which they were, many of them, so eagerly looking; his speedy return to judge the world,—an expectation of which there are so many traces in Gospels and Epistles alike; the great and urgent question of the Law and its claims, with that of the admission of the Gentiles to the faith of Christ without the previous adoption of Judaism;—such thoughts and such cares as these largely engaged and filled the minds of the disciples, within the limits of the period to which the origin of the principal New Testament books must be assigned. After the close of that period, fresh subjects of controversial interest continually arose, until these were gradually overshadowed by the rising authority of the Church and the later growth of sacerdotal power, followed in due course of time by the grosser corruptions of the primitive Gospel which marked the Christianity of the darker ages, and which have by no means as yet spent their power. Thus has it pleased the Great Disposer that men should be led forward to truth and light through error and darkness. Even as the Hebrews of old were gradually brought by many centuries of experience, and in the midst of imperfections and backslidings innumerable, to their final recognition of the One Jehovah, so have the Christian generations been slowly learning and unlearning according as their own condition and capacities allowed. Thus the great development has been running its destined course, and will doubtless conduct us eventually to yet better and truer ideas of what the Almighty purposes had, in Christ, really designed to give to the world.

To vary the form of expression, the life of Christ itself constitutes the revelation of His will which the Almighty Father has given to man by His Son. And that life does constitute a revelation, in the most full and various import of this term. It shows us, in a clear and engaging light, the One God and Father of all, the Just and Holy One, who will render to every man according to his deeds. It shows us the high powers and capacities of man himself; for, while and because it tells him to be perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, it not only recognizes in him the capability to be so, but also abundantly affords the spiritual nutriment by which the higher faculties of his nature may be nurtured and strengthened within him. It shows us how to live a life of religious trust and obedience to the commands of duty, and, amidst many sorrows and trials, still to preserve a soul unstained by guilt. It shows us that this high devotion to the sacred law of Truth and Right is that which is well pleasing to God; and that His will is that man should thus, by the discipline of his spirit, join the moral strength and sensibility in this world which shall fit him, if he will, to enter upon the higher life of the world to come. All this we see plainly expressed and announced in Christ, constituting him the Revealer in the best sense of this term. All this we do see, even though it may be very hard to find any doctrinal creed laid down in definite words, or any system of rites and ceremonies of worship, of Church government, or of priestly functions and dignities, placed before us as constituting an indispensable part of our common Christianity.

And it is here an obvious remark that, while Christian men have so often questioned and disputed with one another about the essentials of their religion; while they have sometimes, again, been forgetful of its spirit, in their controversies as to its verbal and written forms,—all this time they have been substantially agreed as to the matters which are the greatest and weightiest of all. About the Gospel as embodying and expressing man's faith in God and in heaven, and as setting forth the highest moral law with its exemplification in an actual human life; about the Gospel in these, which are surely its most serious and interesting aspects, there has been no dispute. The great spiritual principles taught by Christ, and the power of his practical exhibition of human duty, have been constantly admitted and—may it not be added?—constantly felt in the world, among all the sects and parties of Christendom, in spite of the differences of forms and creeds which have separated men from each other.

This fact suggests a further consideration of obvious interest. Regarded as a dogmatic or an ecclesiastical system, the Gospel is one of the greatest failures which the world has seen, no two sects or churches, scarcely any two congregations, being agreed as to some one or other of what are deemed its most essential elements. Regarded as a moral and spiritual energy and instructor among men, it is and always has been a quickening power,—tending directly, in its genuine influences, to support and to guide aright, and, even amidst the worst distractions or perversions of human passion and error, whispering thoughts of hope, comfort, and peace, to many troubled hearts. This should not be forgotten in our estimates of the part played by Christianity in past times, or in the judgments sometimes so lightly uttered by a certain class of its critics, who show themselves so ready to confound the religion with its corruptions, and to include it and them in one indiscriminate condemnation. It should help to call us back to juster views of the nature and the function of Christ's religion, and lead us the better to see that these consist, not in its capacity or its success as an imposer of dogmas or of ceremonial acts to be received and carefully performed by either priests or people, but in its power to strengthen with moral strength, to guide in the path of duty, to save us from our sins, to breathe into us the spirit of Christ, and so to bring us nearer to God. Such is the true function and the real power of the Gospel, even though it may constantly have had to act in the midst of gross ignorance, or of false and exaggerated dogmatic conception; nor is it too much to say that this its highest character has not been altogether wanting to it, even in the darkest periods of man's intellectual experience, during the last eighteen centuries.

And not only is this so; but, further, it is evidently not through the peculiar doctrines of his church or sect that a man is most truly entitled to the name of Christian, but rather by his participation in what is common to all the churches and sects which are themselves worthy of that name. For let us call to mind, for a moment, some of the more eminent Christian men and women of modern times, to whatever sectarian fold they may have owned themselves to belong. Recall the names of a Fénelon, an Oberlin, a Vincent de Paul, a Xavier, a Melancthon, a Milton, a Locke, a Chalmers, a Clarkson, a Wilberforce, a Mrs. Fry, a Keble, a Heber, a Wesley, a Lardner, a Priestley, a Channing, a Tuckerman, with innumerable other true-hearted followers of him who both bear witness to the truth, and "went about doing good." In such persons we have representatives of nearly all the churches, with their various peculiarities of doctrinal confession. And must we not believe that such men and women were true Christians? If so, will it not follow that in every one of their differing communions true Christians are to be found? Probably no man, unless it be one of the most bigoted adherents of Evangelical or high Anglican orthodoxy, would venture to deny this. There are, then, good Christians, let us gladly admit, in all the various sects and parties of Christendom; men whom Christ himself, if he were here, would acknowledge and welcome as true disciples. But what is it that entitles such persons all alike to the Christian character and name? It cannot be any thing in which each differs from the rest, but rather something which they all have in common. It cannot be any thing that is peculiar to the Roman Catholic alone, for then the Protestant would not have it; nor any thing that is peculiar to the Protestant alone, for then the Roman Catholic would not have it; nor any thing that is peculiar to the Trinitarian alone, for then the Unitarian would not have it. It must be something apart from the distinctive creed of each. It is then something which all must possess, otherwise they would not be truly Christian; which they must have in addition to their several distinguishing doctrines,—in company with which the latter may indeed be held, but which is not the exclusive property of any single church, or sect, or individual, whatever.

What then do all the Christian sects and parties, of every name, hold in common, and never differ about? Is it not simply in this, that they receive and reverence Jesus as the beloved Son in whom God was well pleased? that they hold the Christian faith in the Father in Heaven, with all that this involves of love to God and love to man? that they accept the law of righteousness, placed before us in the "living characters" of Christ's own deeds and words, and strive to obey it in their conduct? that they hold the same common faith as to the presence and the providence of God, the future life and the judgment to come? This Christian allegiance, it is true, is expressed under the most different forms of statement, and in many a case it may hardly be definitely expressed at all; but yet even this, and such as this, is, by belief and practice, the common property of every Christian man; and so far as he lives in the spirit of this high faith is he truly a disciple and no further whatever may be the church or sect, or forms of doctrine and worship, to which he may attach himself. And all this, I repeat, is most plainly revealed to us in the spirit and the life of Christ,—insomuch that we feel the statement to be incontrovertibly sure, that he is the truest Christian of all whose practical daily spirit and conduct are the most closely and constantly animated and governed by the spirit and precepts and example of the Master Christ.

It seems strange, when we think about it, that men should have gone so far astray, in times past, from the more simple and obvious idea of Christianity thus laid before us. We may have difficulty in explaining how this has come to pass; how it is that so much of the weight and stress, as it were, of the Christian religion should have been laid upon obscure metaphysical creeds and dogmas, the obvious tendency of which is, and always has been, to divide men from each other, to degenerate into gross superstition, and destroy the liberty "wherewith Christ has made us free," and which, moreover, are nowhere contained in the Scriptures, and cannot even be stated in the language of the Scriptures; how it is, again, that so little emphasis should be laid in these dogmatic formulas upon that obedience which is better than sacrifice, even that doing the Heavenly Father's will, which—strange to tell!—is the only condition prescribed by Christ for entering into the kingdom.

Truly this question is not without its perplexities. But some explanation may be found. It is the obvious law of Divine Providence, it is and has been a great law of human progress, that Truth shall not be flashed upon the mind at once, either in religion or in any other of the great fields of interest and occupation to man; but that it shall be conquered and won through the medium of slow and gradual approach, even in the midst and by the help of misunderstanding and error. It is thus, doubtless, that men are trained to appreciate rightly the value of the truths and principles which they ultimately gain. In other words, past experience goes far to show us that moral excellence and the apprehension of truth, by such a being as man, can only be acquired by means of previous conflict with evil and untruth, in some one or other of their manifold forms; or, if not by an actual personal conflict for each of us individually, at least by means of the observed or recorded experience of others, more severely tried than ourselves.

Thus it has doubtless been with the reception and gradual prevalence of Christian truths and principles. Men have had slowly, by a varied and sometimes painful experience, to learn that it is not by saying, Lord, Lord, by confessing some formal creed, or being included within the limits of some visible church; not by forms and ceremonies of any kind, such as baptism at the hands of a priest, or the confession of sin into his ear, that we may become truly recipients of the light and strength of the Gospel of Christ; but much rather by personal communion with the Spirit of God, by doing the things which the Lord hath said, by striving to be like Christ, in heart and in life, active in goodness, submissive to the Heavenly Father's will, and ready to the work of duty which He has given us to do.

In proportion as this conception of Christianity comes forward into view, and assumes the pre-eminence to which it is entitled, and which is either implied or expressly declared in the principal writings of the New Testament, in the same degree must the merely dogmatic and sacerdotal idea sink into insignificance. It will be seen that moral and spiritual likeness to the Christian Head is what is all-important; and, consequently, that within the limits of the same communion, bound together by the common principle of Christian faith,—the principle of love and reverence for the one Master, Christ,—there may exist the most complete mental freedom, and even, to a very large extent, the most diverse theological beliefs.


But here I may be met by certain objections which will hardly fail to occur to different classes of readers.

In the first place, it may be said, the idea of the Gospel above presented is itself dogmatic; and indeed that the conception of Christianity as involving definite forms of doctrine is not to be got rid of. This remark I am by no means concerned wholly to escape. Doubtless the Gospel, as it is given in the words of Christ, includes various clearly stated truths respecting the Divine Providence and Will, and the retributions of this world and the next,—truths, I may add, which are not only level to the apprehension of the human faculties, but also in harmony with the highest dictates of the natural conscience and reason of man. But these great truths are not dogmatically laid before us in the Gospel. The mind of each reader is left free to gather them for itself. They are so stated as to quicken and elevate, not to stupefy or render useless, the religious and moral sense of the disciple. They serve thus, in the result, to arouse in him the strength of deep individual conviction, without which they could have little practical value. The teaching function of the Gospel is of this kind, rather than dogmatic and denunciatory, in the manner of the creeds. It does not attempt to put before us a ready-made body of doctrine, in such a way as to save the disciple the trouble of inquiry and reflection for himself, as though it would make him the mere recipient of what is imposed upon him from without. Not in this mechanical way, either in the world of outward nature, or in the Gospel of His Son, does the Great Parent speak to the hearts of His children; but chiefly by awakening their higher, devouter sensibilities, and letting them feel the force of truth and right within their own secret spirits. No imposition from without could fitly accomplish this divine work; and we may be well assured that no man living, and no church or sect on earth, has a legitimate authority to define exactly the limits within which Christian belief shall confine itself, or beyond which belief shall not extend, without ceasing to be Christian. Obviously and unquestionably Christ himself has nowhere attempted to dictate his religion in such a way; neither has any of his apostles, not even the ardent and impetuous Paul. On the contrary, the latter, like his Master, constantly attaches the greatest importance to the practical virtues, and to a devout spirit,—in no case making his appeal to a dogmatic statement, or giving us to understand that he had the least idea of any dogmatic system whatever, similar, in spirit or in form, to the creeds of modern orthodoxy.

A second objection may be urged by a defender of the prevailing forms and dogmas of the churches. Such a person may say that, in taking Christ as the measure and representative of his own religion, we leave out of sight all that may have been contributed to its development by the Apostles, to say nothing of their successors, and that the Epistles of the New Testament contain much that is not met with in connection with him. In reply, let it be observed in what terms the Apostles speak of their Master, and of the obedience, the faith, and veneration due to him. Paul, for example, in various forms, tells them to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ;" to let his mind be in them, his word dwell in them richly, to acquire his spirit, to follow him in love and self-sacrifice. He will know nothing, he says, "save Jesus Christ, and him crucified;" and we know how closely he treads in his Master's steps, in the absolute preference which he gives to the Love which, he declares, is greater than faith, and the very fulfilling of the law itself. The same strain is held by others of the Apostles; and there can be no doubt that Christ, under God, was constantly looked up to by them as the great object of the faith, the love, and the imitation of every disciple. It is true, indeed, that there are many things in the Apostolical writings other than we find in connection with Christ's personal life; but these will be found to belong, almost exclusively, to the peculiar circumstances and controversies of the times succeeding his death. In truth, they belong so entirely to them as to have little of practical reference, or utility, beyond. Paul's Epistles, for instance, are full of the long debated question as to the claims of the law upon Gentiles, and the mystery which, he says, had been hidden "from the foundation of the world," that the Messiah should be preached even to those who were not of the fold of Israel. But these are only temporary incidents of the early career of Christianity. They have no intimate connection with the permanent influence of Christ; and we of modern times have little concern with them, except only to be on our guard against letting them unduly sway our judgment and turn us away from subjects of greater consequence,—as too often has happened to the ingenious framers of theological systems. Christianity, in a word, has been only perplexed and impeded in its course, by those thoughtless or over-zealous expounders who have insisted upon constructing schemes of orthodoxy out of the antiquated disputes of Jews and Gentiles.

In all his Epistles St. Paul, in the true spirit of his Master, gives us clearly to know what is of chief importance. After treating, as he usually does, of the local and passing concerns and disputes which engaged many of his correspondents, he never fails to turn at last to speak of the practical goodness, the purity of heart and life, the kindly affections towards one another, the reasonable service of love and duty, by which the Christian disciple may be known, by which alone he can present himself as a "living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God." In such qualities as these, the attainment or the practice of which he so earnestly urges upon his friends, we have precisely what constitute the most marked features in the life and the teachings of Christ. Thus we are brought once more to the old conclusion that in faithful loyalty to Christ, to the highest ideal presented to us of his spirit and character, are to be found the true light and joy and peace of the Christian Gospel.

A third objection is of a different character. There are some things, it will be said, in immediate connection with him whom we term Teacher and Lord, some things in his words and ideas, if not in his actions, which are far from being in perfect harmony with the highest truth, as known to men in these later times. For example, when he speaks as though he believed diseases and insanity to be caused by the presence of a devil, or demon, in the afflicted person, are we to attach importance to this, so as ourselves to think that such disorders are (or were) so produced?—or shall we not rather follow the guidance of modern science, and believe that the various infirmities which, in ancient times, were attributed to evil spirits arose from natural causes, and that the manner in which such things are spoken of in the New Testament is a product simply of the imperfect knowledge of those days?

In reply, there need be no hesitation in saying that we are bound, as beings of thought and reason, to follow the best guidance which God has given us, in these and all other subjects; and by the term best can only be understood that which commends itself most forcibly to our rational intelligence. It can in no way be claimed for Christ that he was intellectually perfect; that he did not share in the prevailing beliefs of his countrymen, and partake even of their ignorance. Such a claim as this is certainly nowhere advanced in the New Testament, but the contrary; and those who, in our time, would bring it forward should ask themselves whether, by so doing, they are most likely to benefit, or to injure, the cause which doubtless they would desire to support. Jesus himself makes no pretension to intellectual infallibility, but lets us see, in no uncertain way, that he was not unconscious of the limitation of his own knowledge.

In general terms it may be added, the Gospel, when first preached in the world, was necessarily adapted to the people to whom it was addressed. It conformed, in many respects, to their ideas and modes of expression, and also made use of these for its own ends. Had it not done so, how could it have touched and moved them as it did, and as, through them, it has touched and moved the world ever since? Jesus, therefore, himself, and those who took up his work after him, were, in a large degree, men of their own day, imbued with prevailing ideas and feelings, and employing these in their speaking and preaching in the most natural manner. Is it not even so with ourselves at the present moment? For how, indeed, can it be otherwise? And if many of the primitive Christian ideas were more or less erroneous and ill-founded, it is easy to understand that, while the overruling Providence made them its instruments for leading men on by degrees to something better, still it can have been no part of the great design of God that misunderstanding and ignorance should be removed by any other process than by the natural growth of knowledge among men. They were not to be supernaturally refuted, but left to be corrected in due course of time; and the needed correction was and is to come even as men grow wiser and more thoughtful and able to bear it.

Hence, it is not to be questioned, many errors, chiefly of the intellectual kind, attached to the early preaching of the Gospel, and some certainly did to the words of Christ himself; just as very much of human ignorance and prejudice has since and continually been involved in the ideas prevailing as to the character and purposes of his religion. As before observed, man has been made by his Creator to find his way up to light and truth from the most imperfect beginnings, and by a prolonged conflict against and amidst darkness and manifold error. Such is our human nature, and the position which the Divine Will has assigned to us. And so in the early ages after Christ there sprung up the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary and of innumerable saints; nor is the world yet free, though it is slowly freeing itself, from the influence of these superstitions and their related errors of thought. Successive generations inherit much of the evil as well as the good, the ignorance as well as the knowledge, of those who have been before them. Thus does the Almighty Father exercise and discipline his human family in patience, in self-control, in the search after truth, even by letting us suffer and work for the good fruits of knowledge and righteousness, instead of giving them to the world at once without thought or effort of our own. This is eminently true in connection with the whole course of Christian development. In Christ's own teachings and those of the Apostles, as time has amply shown, erroneous ideas were not wanting. Peter denied his Master, and thought at first that only Jews could be disciples. Both he and Paul, as well as James, with probably all the early Christians, long cherished the hope of their Master's return to the earth within that generation; a belief which is to be traced also, equally with that in demoniacal possessions, in the recorded words of Jesus himself. Other instances of a similar kind might easily be mentioned.

But, while all this seems perfectly undeniable, has not Divine Providence so ordered that what is really wrong and false in men's ideas of Christian truth shall sooner or later be seen in its real character, in the advancing progress of human knowledge?—and therefore, if we are ourselves only patient and faithful, each of us, to what we see, or think we see, to be right and good, that the untrue in our ideas shall be eventually separated from the true, however close may be the connection which at any time may subsist between them? Such is, doubtless, the Almighty purpose, such the all-sufficient process provided in His wisdom for securing the training and growth of the races and generations of men in the knowledge of Divine things. It follows, again, that whatever in the Christian teaching, as in other teaching, shall stand the test of advancing knowledge, and still approve itself as true and honest and just and pure and lovely and of good report to the purified conscience and practised intellect of man, that shall be God's everlasting Truth; that too He must have designed not only by the word of Christ, but through the living souls of His rational children, to proclaim to the world with the mark of His Divine approval.

It is not necessary here to ask in detail what it is in existing schemes of Christian theology, or in the outward forms and arrangements of priesthoods and of churches, that will bear this test of advancing knowledge, and this scrutiny of the educated intellect and conscience. Doubtless much in the popular creeds of our day will do so; but much more will only be as chaff before the wind, or stubble before the devouring flame. Among the perishable things will surely be the ecclesiastical systems which vary with every different country and church, and along with these the claims to priestly and papal authority and infallibility, about which we again hear such angry contention. Truly, none of these will bear the test and strain of time and knowledge; but only those great and unchangeable principles of spiritual truth, and those deep-lying sentiments of moral right, which are common to all the different sects and parties of Christendom. These will retain their place among the great motive forces of the world, even because their roots are firmly planted by the Divine hand itself in the very nature of man, and made to be a part of the constitution of his mind; while, also, it is true, and the Christian disciple will ever gratefully acknowledge, they owe their best and highest expression and exemplification to Jesus the Christ, the "beloved Son," in whom God was "well pleased."

We may conclude then, as before, that in the mind and life of Christ,—in his unshaken trust in the Heavenly Father, and in the heaven to be revealed hereafter,—in his readiness to obey the call of Duty, wherever it might lead him, even though it might be to the shame and the agony of the cross,—in his faithful adherence to the right, and earnest denunciation of falsehood, hypocrisy, and wrong-doing,—in his gentle spirit of forgiveness and filial submission even unto death,—we have the lessons of Christian truth and virtue which it most of all concerns us to receive and to obey. In this high "faith of Christ" we have the true revelation of God's will for man; the Gospel speaking to us in its most touching and impressive tones,—either reproaching us for our indifference and calling us to repentance, or else aiding and encouraging us onward in the good path of righteousness.

So long as Christianity shall be thus capable of speaking to the world, so long will it, amidst all the varieties of outward profession, be a living power for good; and vain will be the representation which would tell us that it is now only a thing of the past, unfitted for the better knowledge and higher philosophy of these modern times. Surely not so!—but, rather, until we have each individually attained the moral elevation even of Christ himself, and can say that we too, in character and conduct, in motive and aspiration, are well pleasing in the sight of Heaven, until we are this, and can feel and say this with truth, the religion of Christ will be no antiquated thing of the past to us; but from its teaching and its spirit—the teaching and the spirit of Christ—we shall still have wisdom and truth to learn.

May the time speedily come, which shall see Christ's spirit ruling the individual lives of all around us,—more truly inspiring the thoughts and efforts of our lawgivers,—teaching men everywhere to be just and merciful towards each other; and thus making Christianity, in deed and in truth, the "established religion," the guiding and triumphant power of this and all other lands! Then, indeed, will the daily prayer of all Christian hearts be answered, and the "kingdom of heaven" on earth be truly come.