The Deity of Christ
Four Sermons preached during Advent,
1921, in Grosvenor Chapel
Definitions and Objections
"Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God."—S. John xx. 28.
I HAVE been asking you on the past two Sundays to consider how it was that those first disciples were brought to this belief—that the man Jesus with whom they had companied so long, and whom they had seen die upon the Gross, was truly and really their Lord and God; and that, though they had been brought up in the strict faith of the Jews that there was only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and that the name of God must not be given to any other.
We are all interested in psychology nowadays. It is a very interesting study—the psychology of the group of disciples—how their profound reverence for their Lord and awe of Him and love of Him, how their experience of His authority, both in His works and in His words, brought them to an attitude of such absolute trust in Him, and that apparently under His deliberate training, as to put Him as it were in the place of God in their souls. We have watched how their newly-won faith broke down under the strain of His rejection and His death, and how it was brought to life again in an intensified form by their experience of His resurrection—as they understood how truly, through all seeming weakness, He was Lord—Lord of all and Prince of Life. Now they worshipped Him, they prayed to Him, they trusted Him utterly. They went forward with a new and whole-hearted confidence such as only the pressure of objective facts could have produced on their honest but by no means visionary minds. But still, as I showed you, they had not begun to think how it could all be. They had no theory. It was simply that they had been brought by an irresistible experience to worship as the Lord of Glory that Jesus who had died and was raised again and had been lifted to the right hand of God.
There are people who tell us that our religious emotions can do without logic, that our intellects have no place in our religion; but it cannot be so. We are rational beings; we must ask questions; we must know the reason of things. So it was that the first Christians could not but proceed to a theory or doctrine of Jesus. And the man who was to help them to this, under God, was the converted Pharisee, Saul who is called Paul. And there, in his epistles, and later in the writings of S. John, you get an account of this doctrine or theory as it was disclosed to them—how it was that Jesus could be to the disciples all that in experience they had found Him. It was for one reason only, because, though He was really man, He was not merely man: nor did He begin His existence with His human birth. In manhood He was truly Son of God, and before the world was He had ever been the Son—"God only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father."
Well, there is no doubt about it, that is the teaching of the New Testament about the Person of Jesus Christ. It is there explicit in S. Paul, in S. John, and in the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. And there was, as it seems, no dispute about it. It is implied plainly enough in the language of S. Peter and S. James. It is the doctrine then of the New Testament as a whole.
But it was not first the doctrine of a book. While the New Testament was being written, it was the doctrine of a society—the church. In Protestant circles there has been always a tendency to be jealous of the church as something that somehow comes between the soul of man and God or His word. And nowadays from a rather different point of view, there is an alienation from, or a resentment of, what is called institutional religion—which means the church. Yet there is no question that Christianity did come into the world as a visible institution or church, bound together by outward and visible sacraments and facts. Further, it was only because it was a church, a visible institution, that it succeeded in maintaining the faith for which it stood. The idea of the church was that it did not stand on any ultimate authority of its own; what had created it was the word, the message, the act of God; and on that it stood. That first Christian church, remember, did not go out into an uneducated, barbarous world such as it had to work in after the downfall of the empire five centuries later. It went out into a very highly educated world, very philosophical and very full of argument. It had to maintain itself in view of seething intellectual contentions, and rival tenets such as would have been, if they had been admitted within it, subversive of its fundamental principles. Thus it had to know its own mind; and there is not, I think, in history anything which comes so near to the idea of a corporate mind, a society acting as a person, as you find when you look back upon that early church. It is like a person being questioned: Do you mean this? Do you mean that? Are you prepared to affirm this? Are you prepared to deny that? Individual teachers made many mistakes; they made them in haste and they were corrected at leisure. But what you see is a corporate mind forming itself and then expressing itself. It did not really add anything at all to the teaching of S. Paul and S. John; it simply defended it and formulated it; and I want briefly to explain to you what those decrees or dogmas, as they are called, were, by which the church protected its doctrine of the Person of Christ.
First of all, it decided to exclude a view that might seem at first sight very natural, which was maintained by a parish priest of Alexandria called Arius early in the fourth century. "We have in Jesus Christ," he said in effect, "a being called the Son who is something between the Supreme God and all the other creatures; we can worship Him, we can treat Him as God, but really He is a creature, only higher than all other creatures and the instrument through which God made and deals with them." But this the corporate mind of the church said emphatically would not do. Here they saw the pagan principle of demigods; and the doctrine of the Prophets on which they stood would not allow of demigods. There can be no half-way house between the Creator and the creature. So they said, We cannot tolerate that doctrine, which would undermine our very basis. And they determined to insert into the Creed words about our Lord, as "very God of very God "and "of one substance with the Father." By this they meant simply that He belongs to the eternal reality which God is. If you think of God in His eternal self before ever the world was, you must not think of Him as a solitary monad or point. There was in God eternal life and what is necessary to life—fellowship; there was Father and Son and Spirit. The basis of all fellowship lies in God Himself, and in that fellowship He is indissolubly one. Froude tells an interesting story of Thomas Carlyle: how he heard him in his younger days denouncing the church for having made so great a fuss over a mere diphthong (the difference between two Greek words meaning "of one substance" and "of like substance"). So Carlyle denounced the church "in broad Annandale." But the time came when he felt bound to admit he had made a great mistake. He now saw that, if the Arians had won, Christianity would have dwindled away to a legend; it would have merged itself in all those surrounding beliefs in demigods whereby the distinction between God and man, between the Creator and the creature, was gradually obliterated. So it was the church said No to Arius: we can only treat the Son as God if He is really and originally God.
But again, in his zeal for the Godhead of Christ, another prominent Churchman called Apollinarius developed a theory that our Lord was man as regards His body and natural life, but that in Him the place of the human mind was taken by the divine mind; so that you have in Him the divine mind incorporated in a human body. So he thought to secure the immutable holiness of the Lord. But again the church said an emphatic No. It was as man He was tempted, it was as man He suffered anxieties and submitted Himself to the limitations of human ignorance; therefore He was mentally as well as corporally human; He was fully and completely man in all that makes up a man.
Then once again, from another source, came the idea that if He is man and completely man, He must be a self-complete human person, although joined to God never so closely. The child called Jesus, who was born of Mary, was a man, not God, though God united Himself to Him in the closest fellowship. Again the church said No—that deprives us of our Gospel of salvation. In being joined to Jesus we are joined to God. It was really the eternal person of the Son who came down to be born and dwell as man, and who submitted Himself to the limitations and sufferings of human nature; Mary was the mother (in respect of His manhood) of one who was and is very God. There is in Jesus but one continuous personality and that divine. Once again attacks were made upon the permanence and completeness of our Lord's manhood, some thinking of His manhood as somehow merged in the Godhead, others at a later date denying to Him the reality of a human will. But the church again said No. Whatever belongs to manhood, the full, complete, and distinct activity, mental as well as physical, of man, belongs to the Incarnate Son and belongs to Him for ever; there can be no merging of Godhead and manhood. In that one person there must remain the two natures.
All this you observe was negative work; it was saying No to certain theories which would subtly but effectively have undermined the faith in the divine Redemption—namely that the very Son of God, out of the very being of God, had come down to take our human nature and redeem it from within. These refusals or condemnations are of the greatest value. But their value is negative. If you want to know positively what the Incarnation means, you must still go back to the Gospels for the facts and to the Epistles for the doctrine. It is of the greatest importance to keep this constantly in mind. For the dogmatic decisions of the Councils, as happens too often with the best things, have been greatly abused—to obscure rather than protect the historical picture of Christ and the best thought of His inspired interpreters.
I cannot read the Gospels and Epistles without seeing in them the profound and illuminating inspiration of the Spirit of God. I believe the promises to the apostles that the Holy Spirit of truth should bring all things to their remembrance that Jesus said unto them (even though they were then buried in their unconscious minds) and should guide them into all the truth and bear witness of Jesus, were really spoken by the Lord l and were really fulfilled; and surely we have their fruit in the New Testament. Again, I cannot study the early church and its dogmatic decisions without feeling sure that the same Holy Spirit was with the church, forming its mind and directing its judgement to protect alike the real doctrine of God and the full reality of our Lord's manhood in body, soul, and spirit. But we cannot deny the imperfection of the church's witness in later ages to the reality of His manhood. Zeal for His Godhead has been allowed to obscure the reality of His human struggle, His human limitations, and the fascination of His human spirit. This has led to inevitable reactions, and it has been left to men like Shelley, and the author of Ecce Homo, and other of more recent date, who deny or minimize or leave out of sight the superhuman and divine features in our Lord's person, to emphasize afresh the glories of His real manhood, which the church ought never to have suffered to be obscured.
In this connection there is one phrase, which I think has no place in the dogmatic decisions of the church, but which has been constantly used by orthodox writers, which has caused serious trouble—I mean the phrase which describes our Lord's manhood as impersonal. You cannot surely read the Gospels and say that the manhood of Jesus was not an individual and intensely personal manhood. What the phrase means is that His personality did not begin with His human birth—that there was one continuous personality of the Son of God. That is certainly true unless S. Paul and S. John are utterly mistaken. But when He "was made flesh" the manhood which He took found its personality in Him, and He so truly accepted humanity as to live and work and think and struggle and believe under human conditions and human limitations. This was no failure of divine power, but the fullness of divine sympathy and mercy: and God declares His almighty power most chiefly in such an act of sympathy: and I suppose that such becoming man was possible for God because man was created originally in the image of God, and this manhood can therefore become the organ in which God can express Himself without ceasing to be human.
I find no help in understanding this except in great phrases of S. Paul's. He has specially two of which I would remind you. In one he speaks to the Corinthians of our Lord as having beggared Himself: "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich." He is speaking of His coming down into our manhood. He means that our Lord, in some sense which we can very imperfectly understand, really abandoned something in order to be able to live and suffer and struggle under the limitations and conditions of a proper manhood and so to enrich it.
S. Paul also uses another significant phrase, "he emptied himself" in his Epistle to the Philippians. In taking the reality of our human nature He emptied Himself of things which belonged to equality with God. Do not let us try too much to pry into mysteries which are beyond us. We can get no psychological theory of what is unique, I suppose. Agnosticism is a very good thing if you put it in the right place: for there are a great many things of which, with our limited capacity, we can have no adequate theory. But I say that there is no sufficient account to be given of Jesus, in view of all the facts, except that which declares that He truly was the eternal Son of the Father, and out of the Being of God came down and was born and lived and suffered and died under the limitations of a real human nature that He might exalt our human nature into the fellowship of God. That is it.
Now next week I am going to say something about what is in a way the greatest subject of all—that is the practical effect of this belief: its real value in practical life; why it is worth while fighting for it; why it is worth while going through all mental pain to get it clear to yourselves. But to-night before I stop I must say something about two objections which are made to this doctrine of the Incarnation.
There are, of course, as many objections as there are objectors. But I can only now call your attention to two which are typical. There is indeed a third about which I shall find myself talking next week, please God—that is the difficulty which so many people find in the fact or impression that our Lord talked of the end of the world as coming immediately; and that therein He must have been palpably deceived and mistaken. About our Lord's supposed delusions I shall find myself for another reason talking next Sunday. I leave that subject now.
But (1) there is a particular word of Jesus which, they say, is surely inconsistent with your doctrine of His real Godhead. It was His reply to the rich young man who came to Him and said "Good Master," when He repudiated, as it seems, the title to goodness. He said, "Why callest thou me good? None is good save one, even God." But I think that it must be a mistake to suppose that our Lord repudiates goodness. Read our Lord's dealings with His disciples in the Gospels, and you cannot think that He did not claim to be good. No; He was always putting Himself in that relation to them as guide and teacher and example, which one can only do if he is supremely and consciously good. There was not in all our Lord's words the slightest sign of the consciousness of sin or of the fear of going wrong. Certainly He cannot have repudiated goodness. But this young man came in a flattering spirit. It was a cheap thing to say "Good Master"; and what Jesus really meant was, I think, exactly this: "Young man, think what you are saying when you call me good." He did not either deny that He was good, nor did He say that He was God and therefore good; all He said was "This goodness which you are searching for is to be found in God only: do not lightly ascribe the title to man."
I cannot stop over the matter: but there are three or four occasions when you will find our Lord doing this very interesting thing—seeking to make men feel the importance of intellectual sincerity and consistency, so that they shall not be able to make glib statements or use convenient arguments which they cannot really abide by or be satisfied with. Thus He challenges the habitual statement of the scribes that the Christ was to be the son of David by pointing to the psalm, held to be David's, where He is addressed as Lord, and asking them how David could call his son "Lord." Or when they objected to Him that He was making Himself equal with God because He called Himself His Son, He confronts them with the psalm where the title "God" is applied to the magistrates. On these and perhaps other occasions our Lord appears not to be maintaining or teaching anything either about Himself or about Scripture, but simply urging on men the duty of thinking, before they speak, whether this or that convenient assertion or objection can really be made by them consistently or conscientiously—whether there is not something involved in their own admitted principles which would make such an assertion or objection impossible or insincere. This is a warning which men profoundly need in all generations.
(2) But there is another and deeper difficulty which a great many people feel. They say, "I cannot really think of our Lord as God without dehumanizing Him. I want a Christ who really could go wrong; I want a Christ whom I can think of as my example by being under exactly my own conditions—as better than me, but as no way in His relations to God different from me. Then He can help me, but only then; otherwise you dissolve the reality of His manhood." Now this is a very real difficulty; and when you get a real difficulty you should always follow it out bravely, until you get to the light, instead of being afraid of it. What is the truth about this matter of example? The truth appears to be that the value of example depends upon identity of conditions. Example tells with immense effect amongst boys in the same school, amongst members of the same profession, amongst contemporaries in the same nation; but any fundamental difference of conditions weakens almost to annihilation the power of example. If I tell a very poor man living in a very small house "You take my example of temperance! I don't go to the public-house"—what does he think? "Your example, my good sir, is worth precisely nothing to me; you have got a nice comfortable room; you have not got noisy children, and the washing hanging up to make your room distasteful; your example is nothing to me." Thus any real difference of conditions almost destroys the value of example. So also does distance in time or space: I do not think much of the example of the Indian ascetics or ancient Spartans. So again a touch of genius almost destroys the power of example. I do not imagine that I could write a tragedy because Shakespeare could.
Now in all these ways Jesus on the mere human level, as one man among millions, would seem very far off. His mere example would never have produced a permanent effect upon the sons of men. We should have been content to venerate Him as an inexplicable genius. But the very thing which seems to take Him furthest from us is what brings Him nearest to us—He was man, but He was the New Man. What in one form or another He is always teaching is that what we need most is a fresh start and a new birth. And He shows us an actual and arresting example of what human nature may be in closest union with God. It is a wonderful thing. Cynicism is for ever silent in the face of Jesus of Nazareth; there is indeed a life worth living. So He confronts us with the ideal—the New Man—even if it only makes us feel our sinfulness.
Again He seems to say, You want a fresh start free from the burden and guilt of sins and evil habits; I will acquit you, I will set you free. That is the absolution which He wins for us by His sacrifice of Himself. Wholly without regard to the multitude and magnitude of our sins, He sets us free to begin again.
But both the example and the sacrifice would have been of no use to us if we had been left just as we were before—a prey to evil within and without. But no! Jesus, crucified and risen, becomes the fount of a new life by His Spirit. He can dwell in men and in each man. He can actually by His Spirit communicate to each of them all the richness of His manhood to renew and purge and cleanse theirs. That is the doctrine which S. Paul and S. John preached: Christ in you by His Spirit the hope of glory.
But Christ can only be in all men because He is more than man; because He is verily creative spirit; because He is really God who has taken our manhood, and through it, spiritualized and glorified, can, by His Spirit, live in the hearts of men. Now I can look at that example of Jesus so awfully above me without despair. One so sinless, so pure, must be too high for me, I thought. But no; that same Jesus who has given me deliverance from all the past, and offered me a fresh start—that same Jesus lives by His Spirit in me to reproduce—if I will have it so, if my will is ready—to reproduce in me that very life of which He shows me the pattern outwardly. It is Christ living in me by His Spirit who makes it possible for me to follow and rise to that example which He set before my eyes. It is the Christ from heaven by His Spirit working within men, to mould them inwardly into the likeness of the pattern which He once showed them outwardly, that has made His example through all the ages, like the example of no other man, everlastingly effective and fruitful. That is to say, it is just that supernatural, positively divine background of His manhood—exactly what made it so sinless and, at first sight, so remote—which, when I come to understand His method and His purpose, alone makes it available and close at hand and effective in influence for me and for all men.