HITCHCOCK

ETERNAL ATONEMENT


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Roswell Dwight Hitchcock was born at East Machias, Maine, in 1817. To his pulpit delivery, which was direct, fluent and impressive, he brought the results of profound Bible research. He was an evangelical transcendentalist, and for many years addressed large and cultured congregations in New York City. As a teacher he was clear and inspiring, particularly in historical theology. In 1880 he was made president of the Union Theological Seminary. His best-known work is the "Complete Analysis of the Bible." He died in 1887.

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


HITCHCOCK

1817-1887

ETERNAL ATONEMENT

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.—Revelation xiii., 8.

My subject is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. My text is Revelation xiii., 8, the precise import of which is disputed; and I will therefore give you the rival renderings. As we have been used to it in the Authorized Version, it reads: "Written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." The Anglican revisers, following the lead of Alford, make no essential change: "Written in the book of life of the Lamb that hath been slain from the foundation of the world." The American revisers, following the lead of Bengel, De Wette, and many others, would have it: "Written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that hath been slain." The American rendering makes the election eternal. The Anglican rendering makes the atonement eternal.

The prevalent opinion no doubt has been that the atonement is simply an historic fact, dating back now some nineteen hundred years; and that only the purpose of it is eternal. But Johann Wessel, the great German theologian, who died only six years after Martin Luther was born, got hold of the idea that not election only, but atonement also, is an eternal act. And this, it seems to me, is both rational and scriptural. Eternal election, profoundly considered, requires eternal atonement for its support. Both are eternal, as all divine realities are eternal. If the passage in Revelation were given up, we should still have to deal with 1 Peter i., 19, 20, where the Lamb is spoken of as foreknown before the foundation of the world, but manifested at the end of the times; eternal reality becoming temporal fact. We should still have to deal with John xvii., 24, which also carries back into eternity the redeeming relationship between the Father and the Son. Even on Calvary, as temporal actuality, the Lamb slain is only a figure of speech, and, of course, it can be no more than a figure of speech as eternal reality in the bosom of God. But whether in time, or in eternity—whether on Calvary or in the bosom of God, the figure must stand for something. For us the meaning is, and must be, that not election only, but atonement also, is eternal. And so the relationship of God to moral evil stands forth as an eternal relationship. Not that evil is itself eternal; but God always knew it and always felt it. It may help our thinking in this direction to remember that there is a sense in which creation itself is eternal; not independently eternal, but, of God's will, dependently eternal.

There must nothing be said, or thought, in mitigation of the ethical verdict against moral evil. The hatefulness of it, no matter what its chronology may be, is simply unspeakable. Violated law is monstrous. Unmindfulness of God, who has always been so mindful of us, is mean. Never to pray, either in one's closet or in one's family, is against all the proprieties. Idolatry is childish and contemptible. Profaneness of speech is scandalous. Neglect of holy time is robbery. Disobedience to parents is shameful. Murder is hideous. Unchastity murders the soul, is indeed both murder and suicide. And so of all the rest. Theft, falsehood, and even inordinate desire are abominable. Imagine a community, larger or smaller—a family, a township, a state, or a nation—where the Ten Commandments are persistently trampled under foot, and you will have imagined a community intolerable even to itself. And if this be our human judgment, what must the divine judgment be? The more pure and righteous a moral being is, the more squarely he must antagonize, more intensely he must hate, the more surely he must punish impurity and unrighteousness. Volcanic fire inside the globe, forked lightning outside of it, are faint emblems of holy wrath. Wrong doing is the one thing nowhere, and never, to be either condoned or endured. Physical accident, bodily sickness, financial disaster, social bereavement, may all be pitied. But when a thoroughly bad man stands revealed, only lightning is logical. He that sows the wind ought to reap the whirlwind. It was a great philosopher who stood amazed at the starry sky, and at the moral sense in man. Well he might. There is no softness in the midnight sky; only cold blue marble, and a steady blaze that never relents, and is never tired. You can not endure that blaze, you dare not risk yourself out alone among those gleaming orbs with a guilty secret in your bosom. The universe is instinct with law that never abdicates. Remorse is not repentance; and even repentance washes out no stain. Self-forgiveness is impossible. The trumpet is always sounding; every day is a judgment-day; and every one of us goes to the left. Gehenna is the only logical goal of sin.

Nor should any attempt be made to get at the genesis of moral evil. The beginning of it is simply inconceivable. The whole thing is a mystery and must be let alone. Moral evil is not eternal; or there would be two infinities. Nor is it a creature of God; or God would be divided against Himself. And yet it had the divine permission, whatever that may be imagined to have been. With every attribute roused and alert—infinity of power, infinity of wisdom, infinity of holiness—God stood by and let evil enter. Angels revolted first, somewhere among the stars. Mankind revolted. Was evil really unavoidable in a proper moral system? If so, immorality is not immoral. Evil that is really essential to good should not be considered evil. It would be only the bitter bud of the fragrant blossom and the luscious fruit. Or, putting it in another form, will you say that God could not have prevented evil? He certainly could have prevented it. In Heaven to-day, what is the security of saints and angels, of your own dear sainted mother, of Gabriel himself, but God's own grace constraining the will of every saint, constraining the will of every seraph? What is human sin but the abuse of human appetites, of human passions, of human faculties, in themselves all innocent? Study the lesson of our Lord's temptation in the desert. Certainly, He was not tempted as we are, by inflamed appetites and passions, by impaired and disordered faculties. But He possest all these natural appetites, passions, and faculties; and they were put to a real and a tremendous strain. That "great duel," as Milton calls it, was no sham fight; one or the other had to go down. Christ was gnawed by hunger, but refused to eat. He saw what might be done by a brilliant miracle towards inaugurating His Jewish ministry, but refused to work it. He saw the short, Satanic path to Messianic dominion, but chose Gethsemane and Calvary. Now the first Adam was just as cool and just as innocent as the second Adam. And, with more of grace to strengthen him, he too might have stood. There was no real necessity for that first human disobedience. It was sheer, wanton, gratuitous, inexplicable apostasy. Somewhat more of divine constraint, and the catastrophe would certainly have been averted. Call it non-prevention, call it permission, call it anything you please, somehow sin entered in spite of God's hating it. It came knocking for admission, and God's shoulder was not against the gate. For some reason, or reasons, not revealed, perhaps not revealable, God thought it best not to put His shoulder against the gate. The hateful and hated thing pushed through. Ormuzd let in Ahriman. I thank the Persian for these two words. They embody and emphasize the historic dualism of good and evil. The historic dualism, you will observe I say; there is no other dualism. God is One; and Master of all. The divine permission of hateful and hated evil, when we fairly apprehend it, is a tremendous statement, which might well be challenged, were not the thing itself so undeniably a fact. This is as far as we can go. Here we halt, with our bruised and throbbing foreheads hard up against the granite cliff.

Practically, historic sin finds relief in historic redemption. Apparently, there was little, if any, interval between the two. Sin came, perhaps, with the noontide rest. "In the cool of the day"—that same day, most likely—the offended Lord came walking in the garden. The colloquy had a sharp beginning, but a mellow ending. The bitten heel would finally crush the biting head. And the struggle at once began. The Lord came down very close to His erring, guilty, frightened children. And they clung very closely to Him. We are in great danger of underrating that primitive economy of grace. The record is very brief, and the Oriental genius of it seems strange to us. But we see an altar there; and it can have but one meaning. Ages after, in all the nobler ethnic religions—Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Pelasgic—we encounter echoes and survivals of that first vouchsafement of revelation. In all the great religions, we find one God; in all of them, personal immortality, with retribution; in most of them, divine triads; in two of them at least, the resurrection of the body. If it be true, as we may well believe, that Socrates is now in Heaven, singing the new song, it is because he sacrificed; and he sacrificed, whether he fully understood it or not, because of that colloquy in the garden. And if that sufficed for him, the Providence of God is justified. Historic sin is fairly matched, and overmatched, by historic redemption.

But the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, suggests a far sublimer theodicy. We are taken back behind the human ages, behind all time, into awful infinite depths, into the very bosom of the triune God. Theological science recognizes two trinities, which it calls economic and essential. The former began with historic redemption, and kept pace with it. Father, Son, and Spirit stood for law, redemption, and regeneration. It was economic trinity that suggested essential trinity. But for the historic process, the question might not have seemed worth asking, whether God is one only, or three also, and the three in one. The Hebrew mind, as represented by Philo, was only just beginning to be trinitarian, when Christ's life in the flesh compelled the Hebrew mind, as represented by Peter, Paul, and John, to a new theology. After Pentecost, bald Unitarianism was anachronous. Christian experience logically required three divine persons, of one and the same divine essence. Economic trinity required essential trinity.

Essential trinity is anything but an arbitrary conception of God. Wyclif taught it at Oxford as a necessary doctrine of reason. Trinity is another name for the self-consciousness, and self-communion, of God. Father, Son, and Spirit are vastly more than the revelation of God to man; they are the revelation of God to Himself, and the intercourse of God with Himself. They suggest infinite fulness and richness of being. Our scientific definitions of God do not amount to much. At best, they formulate only very inadequate conceptions of Him. It is assumed that these scientific definitions of God take us farther than the Biblical descriptions of God. We had better not feel too sure of that. Attributes in action may impart a better knowledge than attributes abstractedly defined. Pictures for children may be better than creeds and catechisms. What we need is to see God in the life both of nature, and of man. This the Hebrew prophets enable us to do by their anthropomorphic and anthropopathic pictures of God. If you say the pictures are childish, then I must say that we are children, all of us, and had better be children. It is no real scandal to science to be told, that "the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good"; that "the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry"; that the Lord "smelled a sweet savor" from Noah's altar; while wicked men are consumed by "the breath of his nostrils"; that "the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon"; and He "walketh upon the wings of the wind"; and that at last, in the Messianic time, "the Lord will make bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations." God is not a mere aggregate of attributes. He has a personality as distinct and positive as yours and mine. But the personality is infinite in all its outgoings. God's being is a vast abyss which no plummet has ever sounded. Imagine all you can of boundless power, constantly at work; of boundless intelligence, constantly at work; of boundless passion, constantly at work: God is all that, and immeasurably more than that. What right has any one to say that God is passionless? God Himself has never said it. He is not passionless. Like the sun, He is all aflame; He rejoices in the truth; He hates a lie. He is pleased with what is right, and displeased with what is wrong. Good men are the apple of His eye; bad men His abomination and His scorn. Rendered literally, "God is a righteous Judge, and a God who is angry every day."

But God is love. So says John in that famous passage, over which the theologians are still disputing, whether the meaning be that love is only one of the divine attributes, or is that very essence of God, into which every other attribute may be resolved. Some of the profoundest thinkers of our day accept these three words of John, "God is love," as the final definition of God. Sunshine striking a teardrop may give us the seven colors of the rainbow; but the seven colors are all one blessed light. God creates, governs, judges, punishes, pities, redeems, and saves; but love is the root of all. It was love that created this wonderous universe, to which science can set no bounds. It was love that created angels, tho some of them rebelled, and were "delivered into chains of darkness." It was love that created this human brotherhood, all of whom have rebelled and gone astray. This rebellion was permitted; but was rebellion all the same. God feels it; and has always felt it. Absalom has broken his father's heart; and we are Absalom. The grand old King goes up over Olivet weeping, with his head covered, and his feet bare; and that King is God. Only He is the King Eternal, and His agony over sin is also eternal. This agony of God over human sin is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. God Himself atones, to Himself atones; and so atonement is both eternal and divine.

In that matchless epitome of the gospel—that parable of the Prodigal Son, reported only by Luke—not a word is said, not a glimpse is given, of the father of the prodigal during all that interval between the departure and return. A veil is drawn over all those bitter, weary years. So has God yearned and suffered in the silent depths of His own eternity, waiting and watching for the repentant prodigal. This yearning, grieved, and suffering God is the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Son of God, Son of Mary. This sinless Child should have had no griefs of His own. His sorrows could have been only those old eternal shadows of permitted sin. The cross on which He died, flinging out its arms as if to embrace the world, lifted up its head toward the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Our hearts now go back to Calvary; and from Calvary they go up to God.

One word more. This stupendous idea of eternal atonement carries with it the idea of universal atonement. Whatever it was, and is, must needs have been infinite. No magnitude of sin, no multitude of sinners, can bankrupt its treasury of grace. "God so loved the world," is its everlasting refrain. "He that will, let him take of the water of life freely." "Take" is the word, my hearers. Let us remember this. There is something for us to do. God Himself can not pardon an impenitent offender. If pardon were offered, it could not be accepted. It is a law of our own being, that we must repent. O Lamb of God, slain so long ago, save us at last, when Thou comest in the clouds; and save us here to-day.

It is one of the revelations of Scripture that we are to judge the angels, sitting above them on the shining heights. It may well be so. Those angels are the imperial guard, doing easy duty at home. We are the "tenth legion," marching in from the swamps and forests of the far-off frontier; scarred and battered, but victorious over death and sin.

Ten thousand times ten thousand
In sparkling raiment bright,
The armies of the ransom'd saints
Throng up the steps of light;
'Tis finish'd, all is finish'd,
Their fight with death and sin:
Fling open wide the golden gates,
And let the victors in.