Project Canterbury

The Unveiling of Deity

A Consideration of the Divinity of Christ Addressed to the "Average Man!"


From The American Church Monthly, Volume III, Number 3, May, 1918

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

IF God is not the God of Christianity, He ought to be; we can never, now, be content with any other. Men in general do not realize how little they know, apart from the Christian faith, of the kind of God in whom they can believe. Now and then some daring philosopher attempts to elaborate a new idea of God, only to succeed, by contrast, in revealing the perfection of the New Testament conception. Even the most casual study of comparative religion leads to a similar discovery. The world's best thoughts of God are found in Christianity; all that is weak or unworthy has been eliminated from it. In God the Father, as revealed in Jesus Christ His Son, we have the last possible word in religion. Generation succeeds generation and each finds its highest ideal realized in Christianity, each sees in it new spiritual appreciations, but none has ever added to the actual content of its faith. All we can ever ask for, it has had all the while to give. Were we to catalogue all the qualities we desire in God, we should find them all in the God of Jesus—and much more beside.

But is Jesus Christ's idea of God a revelation—a literal unveiling of deity—or is it only the last effort, the truest and [165/166] best conception, of the highest and best of men? Has he given us merely a splendid "interpretation" of God, or has he really drawn aside the curtain of the sanctuary so that we can see the Father’s face?

"And man created God in his own image, after his own likeness; in the image of man created he God. " So has been expressed the thought that God has never specially revealed Himself, that our idea of Him is but the result of our reasoning, so that "the best God is the God of the best men." Man wants a divinity and therefore works out the idea of divinity for himself. With man’s moral growth comes a growing appreciation of what God should be. He keeps on working, enlarging upon his ideals of deity until they become reasonably perfect and satisfying.

Is, then, the God of Jesus a real revelation?

It helps us in answering the question if we take note of the fact which gives to Christianity its true significance. It is not simply that Jesus Christ has given us the "last word" about God. The marvel does not end there. The perpetual miracle is this: that we find in the life of Jesus the God of Jesus. That is the wonder of the Gospel story. We cannot separate the divine character which Christ portrayed from the human character which He made so attractive. Our ideas of God as they have come to us out of the diffused Christianity which colors all our thinking are inextricably interwoven with our knowledge of what Christ was.

To put it in a very simple way: were we to ask any man to think long and carefully of all that he wants God to be, and then describe all that his hungry soul longs for, the description would hardly be other than a picture of what Jesus Christ was in His earthly life—not merely a picture of what He tells us that God is, but a picture of what he himself was. We could not ask for a God other or better than Jesus Himself. We cannot think of any attribute of deity of which we have not the human counterpart in His life. He was all that he taught.

Then there is this further fact: Jesus claimed to be of divine [166/167] origin. If His claim is true, then all that He asserted of God we know to be fact; for we know what God is in knowing what Christ is. If His claim of divinity be disallowed, or explained away, then we are once more in the dark. We have had a wonderfully beautiful conception of God as the thought of the Best of men; but—He may have been mistaken; He rose to the heights of human aspiration; but He could not have been sure, any more than we are sure.

So we come to the man who does not know what to believe about Jesus. "What think you of Christ?" we ask, and he cannot tell, "I am not quite sure what I believe. Indeed, I have not troubled overmuch, it may be, to find out; because to me the essential thing is my belief in Christ, not my belief about Him. I cannot honestly answer your question in words of no uncertain sound. I only know what the life of Jesus stands for. I admire and revere its supreme beauty. I appreciate to the full the splendor of His teaching. I bow in adoration before Him; I worship the Father of whom He taught. But beyond this I cannot go—I simply do not know. Is it not enough to follow Christ, without troubling ourselves to understand Him?"

There is something so fine about such an answer that it warms the heart of the believer. And yet—and yet—the question is the question of our Lord Himself: "What think ye of Christ?" Its importance, we have just said, lies in the fact that only through our right answer to it can we be sure of the God of Jesus. If Christ were only a good man, then we should have but one more instance of such a man, serving faithfully and deserted at the last. But if He is the Son of God, then we have light on life's dark mystery. What we want, is to know of a surety whether God is the God of Love we have been told He is—oh, how we do want to know that in these days that try men's souls! If Jesus is divine, then we can be certain. He is the assurance that God Himself has entered into the tragedy of human life, to show us that He understands and sympathizes. What Christ was, God is. What Christ said, God says. What Christ did, God does. What Christ felt, God [167/168] feels. Does God love? He gave His only begotten Son.

Having said that, we ask our friend to start on the path towards faith. Our appeal to the man who reveres the beauty of Christ's life is just this: Live true to your truth. You accept Christ as the embodiment of humanity's ideal; very well then, try to be all that you admire.

Of course you are conscientious and sincere—this is no questioning of your moral character. You more than meet the standards of ordinary present day religion. Your life is highly respectable and eminently useful; it fulfills all the ethical requirements of your class. But you know, do you not, that you have not actually and literally taken Christ as your model? You know you have not been striving, with serious and steadfast purpose, to embody His every ideal in your daily life. You know that you have been satisfied with standards lower than His. The circumstances of your life are different, of course; but you know that you have not steadily sought to translate Him into terms of to-day. You know that you have never fully and frankly faced the task of applying to the different circumstances of your life the principles which guided Him in the life of Palestine two thousand years ago. You know, indeed, that you have hardly more than surface impressions of His teaching; you have never dug down deep to discover the principles of conduct which ruled His life and should rule ours.

Suppose you try it. Begin to live with Christ, to live with Him long and closely. Just go on, quietly measuring your life against His. Try to live exactly as Christ would were He in your position; do exactly what He would do; say only the things He would say; banish every thought that could not by any possibility find place in His mind; put aside every ambition and give up every plan and every cherished desire that you could not imagine His considering worth your chief effort. You have had the vision of goodness—try to follow it faithfully, exactly and persistently.

If we tried to do that, how soon our doubts would dissolve and our difficulties vanish and the truth be made plain. Because we ourselves had made an honest effort towards a [168/169] lofty ideal, had tried and failed, we should begin to understand the significance of the Gospel story. The days of Christ's life on earth, we should see, were days of tremendous import—a time when the spiritual, the supernatural, the divine, manifested itself in an undeniable way. It would become our conviction, as it has been the conviction of the ages, that Jesus Christ cannot be explained in human terms alone. He is something more than the highest product of the human race. We set His life over against our lives, and it seems natural to apply to him the words of the ancient prophecy, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Back in the minds of many who cannot accept the fuller faith in Christ is the feeling that if we admit that He is God we are taking away what is most precious in His life, His "real, genuine, flesh-and-blood humanity," and are substituting a majestic and unapproachable figure for the human, toiling, loving Man we revere. If it were true that orthodox theology robbed us of a Christ who is wholly and genuinely one with ourselves men would be quite right in their insistence on a restatement of the Church's teaching; but as a matter of fact, it was the constant effort of Christian thinkers to safeguard the true and full humanity of Christ while proclaiming also His real divinity. The Chalcedonian decrees, for one who will take the trouble to study them, prove this. The Christ of the creed is the human Christ who emptied Himself and restrained His divine powers, and lived His life in human strength alone, subject to human weakness while perfectly responsive to divine grace. Only so much of His Godhead appears through the humanity as is consistent with a natural human development. He never called upon His divine resources and powers, He never summoned His divine wisdom and strength; He was what He was as man, with man's powers, through man's prayers, in man's communion with God. Sanday suggests that the divine in Him was like the subconscious in us, only so much [169/170] of it came to the surface as could be expressed in a truly human life. Whether this be true or not, at any rate His humanity was not an unreal thing, as if He were merely acting or playing a part.

Nor must we forget that humanity itself has sparks of the divine. "The only idea we can form of a God Whom we should desire to worship," says one of the authors of Faith and Fear, "is one who exhibits, while He transcends, the characteristics of the best men and women we know. He must be a Person who manifests the love and courage, the strength and beauty, the patience and self-sacrifice, the justice and wisdom, which we find scattered in little patches here and there in the lives of some whom we have met. It is because Christ did so completely embody the essentials of the perfect life, which are seen and known to us in glimpses here and there in human history, that we can say that the character which we believe to be divine has actually been manifested in the world."

Only as we understand what humanity was meant to be can the idea of Incarnation be possible. There is something essentially so splendid about our human nature that God can really enter into that nature without ceasing to be God. So clearly was this seen by some of the early Christian fathers that they regarded the Incarnation as inevitable and appropriate even apart from its redemptive purpose. It was "God's natural and eternal and inevitable destiny to manifest Himself as man."

To give full force to such thoughts as these is not to empty the Incarnation of all meaning through the assertion that Jesus Christ is divine as we all are, only "more so." It is simply to recognize the natural kinship of the human and the divine and, through an appreciation of all that is finest and best in humanity, to see the possibility of its use in the self-revelation of deity. It is to think of God in terms of humanity carried to infinite perfection. It is to see how the varied rays of human goodness meet in Christ in the absolute unity of perfect light. It is to see that a character manifesting all that is fine and high and true and noble in all the best men of all the ages, and manifesting it in such surpassing measure, is a character which [170/171] can be defined only in terms commensurate with divine perfection. It is to think of God in Christ not in terms of immensity and almightiness, but of identity of spiritual qualities—that is, identity of spiritual life. We are discouraged in our thoughts of God if we fix our minds chiefly on the greatness of the Universal Mind. To think of God in Christ is to bring Him near, to remove the abstractness and loftiness which keep the soul from warm and living contact with Him. It is to remember that He is not far removed from the world or wholly unlike men.

This makes the Incarnation, as Donald Hankey puts it, agreeable to common sense. "We cannot understand or perceive the spiritual unless we can establish contact with it through the medium of our physical senses. Just as we see electricity revealed in its effects on matter, though the stuff itself eludes our senses, so we can understand and perceive the divine Spirit in so far as He is revealed in His effects on physical beings." The Incarnation is such a revelation through a perfect medium.

All this we are on the way to realize the moment we begin literally to live true to the truth we know about Jesus. Christ never came among men, saying, "I am God; you must accept it and believe." He would have us know by experience rather than prove by argument. So it was that the first disciples came to know Him. They did not reason from the divinity downward, but from the humanity upward. They believed in the divinity through their experience of the perfect humanity and so believing they handed on their faith as an inheritance which the perpetual experience of the power of Christ in those who really believe has made continually more credible. Unique in character, they came to understand that their Master was unique in nature also.

This method of approach may help us in some of the special difficulties of the present day. Take, for example, the question of the Virgin Birth. We have seen, as we took our road toward faith, that belief in the divinity of Christ is in no way dependent on belief in His miraculous birth. We learn that Jesus is the Son of God exactly as the first disciples discovered it, by living [171/172] with Him long enough and closely enough to see that the real miracle is the continuous miracle of His life. Nothing could be more wonder-compelling than that. It is at once our shame and our inspiration. It is so absolutely unique that the only worthy explanation of it is found in the creed: "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God . . . Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven."

But if Jesus Christ is divine, if at His birth an Eternal and Divine Personality entered into a new mode of existence, and manifested Himself in human form, then it would hardly be strange or unreasonable if His birth were unlike other births. The fact of Jesus Himself is so unique and miraculous that we may rightly expect the method of His entrance into the earthly life to be unique and miraculous also. Face to face with a life that cannot be explained save as the unveiling of deity, we ask how it would be possible for an Eternal, Divine Personality to clothe Himself in human flesh after the ordinary mode of human conception. When a child is born of human parents, a new personality enters upon its life. When Jesus Christ was born, it was no new personality that appeared, but He who is from Everlasting.

We must start at the right point. Assuming that Christ is God (and we have barely touched the fringe of the argument for that fact), here is something which has no equal or likeness in the annals of earth. It is not the case of a new man coming into life, but of the Creator of all things manifesting Himself in a particular life. "If a divine life was entering into our weakened humanity," said the late Dean of Westminster in Some Thoughts on the Incarnation, "can we think it inappropriate that from the outset this life should manifest its power to transcend the natural order by which we are limited? If miracle is ever in place as a witness to the intervention of a new power, challenging our attention and manifesting the 'finger of God,' was not the coming of the Son of God in human flesh a fit occasion for miracle?"

[173] Once we separate in thought the fact of the Incarnation from the mode of its accomplishment, we have stated the two truths in the right order and can approach them with a due sense of their right proportion. Then we are not making the mistake of resting our belief in Christ's divine life on the frail foundation of an acceptance of the Gospel accounts of His birth. On the contrary, we are ready to adopt a less antagonistic attitude in our consideration of the evidence of the miracle of the birth, because it is secondary to the greater miracle of the life, secondary to it, but singularly consistent with it.

Then, too, we see the importance of the emphasis the creeds have always placed on the Virgin Birth. It safeguards both the truths we have been considering. The fact of the birth guarantees the actual humanity of Christ as against the tendency to make it humanly unreal; the uniqueness of the birth is the guarantee that the One born is unique in His Personality—the very Son of God.

And the fact of this unique Personality baffles any other explanation than that of the creed. Does that explanation seem too great to be true? In fact, it is too fine and splendid not to be true, "The very God! think Ahib"—so Browning makes Karshish the Arab physician write to his friend—"think, Ahib; then the All-Great were the All-Loving too."

Is there any message quite as important as that for the world now? With Europe soaked in blood and millions of lives sacrificed—with the good and the bad, the civilized and the barbaric, the Christ-like and the diabolic, in a death struggle—is there anything we want to know as much as to know that God is love? If we can only be sure of that, we can stand up under any strain. And we can be sure, if Christ is actually the unveiling of Deity.

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