What We Believe and Why
Forgotten Truths Discovered in
THE RT. REV. CHARLES FISKE, D. D., LL. D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
"Back to Christ." It is the cry of the day. It fills popular thought. It colors popular theology. People are weary of the religion that used to be preached in the churches and is sometimes preached even now. It was a religion of controversy, where Protestants were engaged in proving that Romanists were superstitious idolaters and Romanists were busy reading everybody else out of the Church, and ministers of one denomination were spending half their time in showing that the members of other denominations were wrong or in expounding subtle articles of belief to prove that only they themselves were right.
There came a natural revulsion against this type of controversial Christianity, and [1/2] then the swing of the pendulum brought with it the preaching of a platitudinous morality that was not much better. It was based on the assumption that belief was a matter of utter unimportance. "What difference does it make what we believe if we are trying to be good?"
What does the cry "Back to Christ" usually mean? It means to get back of churches and creeds; back of councils and dogmatic decrees; back of the disputations of rival schools; back of the traditions and customs which men feel have overlaid the simple truths that the Master taught; to go back even of the later apostolic teaching, and come face to face with Jesus Himself and see Him as He was—that is the cry of men who say they are weary of dogma and want life, weary of creed and will be content if only they can get character. We want Christ, they say, not the Church. Show us the simple, majestic figure of the Master; let us have only what [2/3] He taught; let us see what His attitude was, what He really demanded of men; let us hear His voice as it came to His followers when they walked and talked with Him long ago in the fields and hills of Judea and Galilee.
In the popular conception, therefore, going "back to Christ" means throwing aside a lot of "theological rubbish." It means that the Church's system will be found to be a later accretion, the Church's doctrine a later philosophical development. When we get back to Christ, so men feel, we shall find ourselves in the presence of an undogmatic teacher of the life beautiful, one who cared nothing for organized religion and a teaching Church, who asked only for personal love and allegiance and stressed the need of individual fellowship, with no Church or sacrament, no priest or formal worship, to come between the soul and God.
We Churchmen do not believe for a moment that this is a true picture of the Christ. [3/4] He was all that the devoutest imagination can picture Him in the simple beauty of His life. He did ask, first of all, with intensity of insistence, for personal love, personal loyalty and devotion.
But, at the same time, He purposely founded a Church; He left it a body of truth to teach; He gave it sacraments and a new and pure worship. He did all this that there might be provided a means of approach to Him, so that we might better know Him and follow Him. He says to us of today: "I want you. Give Me your hearts. Be satisfied with nothing less than the enjoyment of personal friendship with Me. But be quite sure that to have all this and be all this, you must use the means I have provided."
To us, it is not conceivable that our Lord would say that it makes no difference what we believe, whether we belong to the Church or not, whether or not we are faithful in its worship and in the use of its sacraments. With Him it was not a question [4/5] as to whether men believed, but as to how they believed. We cannot read the story of His ministry without discovering that He always put faith in the foreground. "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent." And why? Because "this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent."
Did Christ indeed say nothing about the Church and the sacraments? Did He say nothing about doctrine? We know what St. Paul felt about right belief. With a world waiting to be converted, he took time to explain and re-explain his faith. His epistles develop a complete system of theology. He was always stressing, above all else, the absolute need of a right attitude toward Christ the Son of God. But we are not stopping at St. Paul, we are going back to Christ. Jesus Christ was constantly pointing men to Himself and asking, What do you think about Me? Unless you believe in Me aright, He seems to say, you [5/6] will have small incentive to follow Me. I am the Way—walk ye in it; I am the Truth—accept and believe it; I am the Life —receive and live it. The Christian life can be lived only through faith in Me. The Christian character is the outcome of the Christian creed.
The Gospel, in other words, is not a creedless Gospel. The creed is a Gospel creed.
We are not wrong then, are we, in saying that when we go back to the Master Himself as the source of our teaching, we find that some things are important which the modern world has been forgetting? To preach Christ does not mean to have a spineless theology. "An ugly yet God-designed skeleton underlies every beautiful form of divine creation," and our creeds and formularies may be the framework on which we are to build a life of Christian beauty. Only, so to speak, when we articulate the skeleton, we must remember that we are to do it as a preliminary to the [6/7] "more inviting task of painting the ideal in proportion, line and color."
Therefore, when all has been said about the necessity for right belief, two further words of caution are needed:
First. We must remember that our Blessed Lord always puts the emphasis on believing, not as a thing in itself, but as something that leads elsewhere. Jesus Christ preached the need of belief only as belief was to issue in life. He did not want a creed that is simply a fine-spun philosophy. He did not want hair-breadth distinctions in theology. What He wanted was a right attitude toward the truth. Not the doctrine insisted upon for its own sake; but a right faith as leading to a right life. Not a creed to be crammed down men's throats; but a creed which we translate into action. Belief is not a bare acceptance of facts; it is an atmosphere; it surrounds us; we live in it; we breathe it. It is a real [7/8] faith only when it becomes the background of all our thought. It must give color to all our conduct. Everything we do must be different because of it. It must make us do what otherwise we would not do. It is not dogma; it is life.
Then, second. As Jesus Christ taught that creed makes character, so, conversely, He taught that character makes creed. "He that willeth to do My will shall know of the doctrine." The ultimate test of a human life is not how much faith one has, but how much faith one has used. We must live true to the truth as we see it; we must will to do His will. Even if we cannot adequately define Christ, or our belief about Him, the really important thing is to follow Him. "The vital requirement of religion is obedience to the known will of God." Are there things you cannot believe? Well, what about the other half that you do believe? What are you doing with that? What are you making of it? How are you using it?
 Once more: those who would take us back to "the simple Gospel" not only decry doctrine; they demand "personal religion" rather than "Church allegiance."
As we travel back to the Divine Master and His teaching, let us stop again to think of St. Paul. For the Protestant world in general still thinks of him as the apostle of freedom and the challenger of an outworn faith, a consistent teacher of personal religion, a devoted follower of Christ whose constant prayer is that he "may be found in Him."
And they are quite right thus far.
But with St. Paul "personal religion" is not mere individualism. One by one we must surrender to Christ; one by one place ourselves under His influence. He "loved me and gave Himself for me" and I must accept Him as my Saviour and my Guide. All that, of course. But when one by one we have come to Christ, we are not to be [9/10] left loose and unattached; if we have read the story aright, individual fellowship is safeguarded as it becomes merged in corporate fellowship.
It was this conception of Christ's eternal purpose which brought back to the historic Church the pastor of the City Temple, Dr. R. J. Campbell. He had come to see that something must be done to rescue modern Christianity from "the calamitous error that it is only a set of views to be promulgated—and a more or less incoherent and unstable set of views at that." Christianity, as he finally began to feel, after deep and prayerful consideration, was a life to be lived in corporate fellowship—fellowship with another and higher world than that of our own perceptions. That our Lord intended to found a visible society was obvious, he felt, to any impartial reader of Christ's recorded words and from the sense in which those words were always understood and acted upon by the early disciples. Dr. Campbell was really recalling [10/11] the Protestant Christianity of today to the faith of the great apostle. That was St. Paul's central thought—the very heart and soul of all his theology.
So St. Paul is a great Churchman. What an enthusiastic belief in the Church he had! What a glorious thing his conception of the Church was! How he insists that our Lord meant us to be one in a visible fellowship! The religion of Jesus Christ is to be embodied in a society—the Church, which is His Body—and that society, one and undivided, is to go out into the world conquering and to conquer. It is difficult to understand, therefore, how Christians can be content with a religion that omits "the Church idea." And yet they are. There is today a more general desire than ever before to be of use in the world; but unquestionably there is, along with it, an equally conspicuous fact, the growing neglect of religious institutions. There is not a growing indifference to religion, but there is an indifference to church ordinances, [11/12] a neglect of church privileges, carelessness about church worship and membership, even hostility to the Church. It is hard to understand.
Unless, indeed, we have taught the Church idea without laying enough stress upon personal holiness; unless we have urged the need of a corporate religion without taking care lest it lead to mere passivity and blind obedience; unless we have been narrow and sectarian in our Churchmanship and so devoted to the forms of religion that we have failed to remember always that the Church was meant to be dynamic—a divine society charging men with power. Perhaps the prejudice of the day against the Church is calling the Church back to its Founder!
Ah, it is so much easier to criticize than to correct. What would the world be, if all church organizations were swept out of existence tomorrow? Imperfect they are, [12/13] of course, but imperfect as organized Christianity is, it is still the greatest single power for good the world has ever seen or dreamed of. To help the Church fulfil its mission is a better thing than to stand outside and complain. Whatever its faults, it is the chief institution in the world that labors persistently and definitely for righteousness. If it does not stand for all that you would like to have it represent, it is your business to get inside and make it rise to new ideals.
That we say, first; and then, second: If the man outside calls the Church back to Christ, the Church bids him remember that he needs a corporate religion to keep him close to the Christ he has found. Christ must be your strength as well as your pattern and guide. In worship, and in worship only, will you renew your strength, and the Church is a household of grace, not merely an association of believers. I venture to say that the man who forgets this will inevitably lose his grip on great [13/14] spiritual realities. His enthusiasm will wane; he will see his duty less clearly; he will be less sensitive to the distinction between the better and the best, more often discouraged or else more easily satisfied with self. The Church's call is really an offer of power. It is your business to worship as well as work, to get strength in prayer and sacrament; in united service to pass on a little of your enthusiasm to the other man; perhaps, oftener than you think, to catch some inspiration from him. That is the reason Christ's ideal for Christianity was a corporate ideal. The Church is not the afterthought of men; it is the forethought of Christ. If men have made it less than He meant it to be, surely you who desire to follow Him will not desert the organization He established; you will join in and help. If Christ thought it worth while to found a Church, it is worth while for you to try to bring it up to His ideal.
That brings us back to the vital question: [14/15] Did or did not Christ Himself found a Church? If He did leave it behind Him as an organized society, then it is our duty to be within its fold, no matter how poorly it is doing the work He established it for, no matter how many people stay out, no matter who else may be in, and however their lives may fail to square with their profession.
When we go "back to Christ," then, what shall we find? Nothing less than that test will satisfy us. Church membership may be convenient—we feel that organization is useful in Christian work as in everything else. Such membership may be expedient—it is a practical way of showing the world my personal acceptance of Christ. It may be helpful—in common worship I renew my strength. On the other hand, I may feel that none of these reasons is valid. As a matter of fact, even if I do believe them to be valid, they are often inconclusive for others. They do not go to the heart of the matter.
 After all, my real reason for belonging to the Church must go back to Christ Himself. If I belong, I must belong because I feel that He commanded or desired it. If He did not regard it as of prime importance; if He made it no essential part of His teaching; indeed, if it did not so largely occupy His thought as to appear to be a vital and integral part of His scheme of redemption—then I am not obliged to give it any large place in my own thought. It is merely a matter of preference, of likes and dislikes, of personal inclination and adaptability; simply a question of practical usefulness. I may belong to the Church or not, as I choose.
There is a picture of our Lord which will never lose its abiding beauty. Crowds of the poor flock to Him for comfort and help, multitudes of the sick press upon Him to be healed, the distressed and heavy laden come to Him for relief, and He receives them all so tenderly and graciously! So simply and beautifully does He explain [16/17] spiritual things that men cannot but be drawn to Him, cannot but love Him, cannot but long to be like Him. Because He is such a Master, one has a feeling that the moment we try to organize all this into a system, we have begun to rob the Gospel of its primitive purity and sweet simplicity; that moment the charm of the picture is gone.
But, as Scott Holland reminds us, when we study the picture clearly we see something else. There is a deeper purpose, an inner motive, that is always in the mind of Christ, a motive that was revealed at first only to the inner circle of His disciples, and to them only little by little. He came to suffer and to die, not merely that men might be drawn to Him as individuals, but that they might be knit together and organized into a body through the power of His risen life. He would be alone as much as possible with the Twelve. He must have time to train them. He is trying to make them understand something which the [17/18] others cannot take in. Towards that He bends all His energy. He tests them—"Will you also go away?" He tries them again and again, and at last the time seems ripe and He asks them the momentous question, "Whom say ye that I am?" When St. Peter answers with splendid faith, the heart of the Master beats with delight and quick relief. At last they see! At last He can do what was in His mind all the while! At last His plan is under way and His purpose can be fulfilled. Now He has material for building! "Thou art Peter (the Rock Man) and upon this Rock (of faith like thine) I will build My Church."
Yes, this was the purpose of His life. Not simply to do the little good that could be done in those few brief years, in one tiny corner of the globe, but to plant a seed which should be fruitful in service for all the centuries; to train a band of men who would understand what His sacrifice meant and read aright the meaning of His life as well as of His death, and would organize [18/19] a Church through which that life should be made known, in which that death could be pleaded, by which that teaching could be perpetuated. All the rest follows naturally now. The apostles receive their final call. He "breathes on them and ordains them" to go out—to preach? Yes, but also to baptize; to admit to a society; to perpetuate their ministry by the ordination of others; to extend it by the establishment of new orders, deacons and presbyters; to organize a kingdom. Surely these men who were so close to Christ could not have misunderstood His purpose. They knew the mind of the Master.
That is the reason St. Paul is so strong a Churchman. For him the Church is what it was to his Lord, a matter of vital necessity, a household of grace into which men come through the sacrament of life and in which they are strengthened by the food of the soul. The Church is the very Body of Christ; and we are members of that Body; [19/20] of His flesh and of His bones. As our own bodies have many members, each with its own office, and all joined in living union, so we are members of the Body of Christ, each called into His Church for some particular work, each admitted into the closest union with Him Who is the Head.
The thought is not St. Paul's; he received it from his Lord, who had used just as strong a figure when He said, "I am the Vine; ye are the branches." As the branches are in the vine, so that the sap flows out into them, and through them to the leaves, quickening and freshening the youngest shoot, so we are grafted into Christ.
The thought given by our Lord, developed in another figure by St. Paul, is to be traced, as was just indicated, in the action of the apostles. When men believed, they were baptized, and being baptized they became members of an organized body. "The Lord added to the Church daily such as were being saved." They [20/21] would love Him and serve Him, and they must have His life bestowed upon them for the quickening and strengthening of their faltering purpose.
That is what makes the Church idea so glorious. If the Church were nothing more than a convenience—on the whole a very satisfactory method of securing unity of Christian purpose—there would be no compelling motive for becoming a Church member. With St. Paul and the early Christians—rather, with our Lord Himself—it was more than that; not a matter of expediency, but a matter of vital necessity. Why? Because the Church is an organism, not merely an organization; a divine society, not simply a human association. The Church is the body of which Christ is the head. It is no "amorphous aggregate of individual souls, each with its own special and direct relation to the living Head, but standing in no relationship to the rest"; rather, it is a growing organism, a society indwelt by Christ, a body through [21/22] which the current of His life flows, to be shared by all who become part of it.
We have gone "back to Christ" and in going we have found some forgotten truths which He taught. The Church—we repeat it by way of emphasis—is the forethought of Christ, not an after-thought of men.
Yet there are those questionings of the man outside. We cannot brush them aside. They reveal an intense dissatisfaction with the Church as it is today, divided and weak, nerveless and impotent, suffering from a terrible blight, the blight of Sunday religion. What are we to do about it? Give it up? Substitute our own plan for Christ's? Or make our belief more vital by basing it on Christ's eternal purpose? Believe in the Church as He meant it to be, not in churches men have made; enlarge the idea of what the Church is for; enrich our conception of sacraments and worship.
The trouble with the average Church member today is that "his religion carries [22/23] no atmosphere, no courage, no conviction; it is hesitating, impotent, unsaving." So writes a devoted priest who has raised his standard of revolt, to call the Church back to its Lord. And a Christian layman, who has written one of the keenest of recent interpretations of the thought of "the man outside," with sympathy for his dissatisfaction and something of impatience that the average Churchman cannot see his real ground of complaint, has said much the same thing. "The Church is the Body of Christ. At the centre the great heart of Christ still beats strongly, pumping the life-giving blood into the veins of the different members; but unfortunately the valves are choked up, the blood cannot circulate freely, the members fail to work in harmony with each other, and many seem numb and dead."
The remedy lies not in abandoning Christ's ideal. It lies in seeking, through loving fellowship with our brother Christians, to try loyally to embody Christ's ideal. [23/24] His work is to be our work, His spirit our spirit, His plan ours. In it is power and love and life—all ours, if we will.
Copies of this Paper, at 5 cents each or $4.25 a hundred, may be obtained by addressing the Editor, the Rev. J. Wilson Sutton, D.D., Trinity Chapel, 16 West 26th Street, New York.