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The Priests’ Convention

Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924

From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.

Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.

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

The Deity of Our Lord

THE doctrine with which my paper is concerned is that the historic Person Jesus Christ is God-incarnate, the eternal and only-begotten Son of God the Father, sharing un-interruptedly, even while on earth, in all the fulness of the one and indivisible Godhead.

We acknowledge that in taking flesh the eternal Son submitted to the limitations of human nature and experience, except those of sin and error. But we believe that, in becoming Man, He continued to be full God. His Incarnation was "a stooping down of compassion, not a failure of power;" and we dare not make His loving self-effacement a pretext for withholding our adoring acknowledgement of His irreducible Godhead.

It is surely fitting that the Deity of Christ should be our first subject of attention, for it is the most central and determinative mystery of the Christian faith; and by making it the premise of our thoughts we shall best guard ourselves from unspiritual tempers and a narrow-minded outlook. Adoring loyalty to Jesus Christ is the mark of a consistent Christian; and logically results not only in unreserved self-committal to the Catholic faith and religion, but also in large-hearted sympathy with those who for any cause fail to assimilate the most significant and inspiring truth ever made known to man.

I. Modern Departures

It will serve my purpose to begin by defining briefly the chief rival conceptions of Christ's Person now maintained by professing Christians, and the standpoints which at once explain their emergence and establish their lack of credibility and power to displace the faith of Christ's Church.

(a) Protestant Liberalism calls us back to ''the historical Jesus," by which is meant the Jesus of a rationalistically expurgated remnant of the Synoptic Gospels, excluding both Old Testament prophecy and apostolic Christology. It regards Christ as one who made no super-human claims for Himself, but set forth ethically the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. [258/259] We may call Him divine, but His divinity lies in His goodness, His perfect conformity to the will of God. His unity with God is purely moral.

(b) In partial revulsion from this is the eschatological Christ, not giving promise of future importance, but momentarily significant as serving to weaken the Liberal Christology and as appropriated in part by Modernists. Christ is still viewed as human only, but as dominated by illusory expectation of an immediate and cataclysmic appearance on earth of the Kingdom of God.

(c) Modernism shifts the emphasis from questions of fact in Christ's life and words to the idea which the story of Him is said to have given birth—the idea of God-man, or of an incarnation of God which is not a single historic event, but is a universal process continuing in the whole history of mankind. The Gospel story, whether really historical or only mythical, symbolizes this idea, which gradually unfolds itself in the Christian church, and at certain stages is registered in relative and non-final terms in creeds and other dogmatic definitions. These terms can still be honestly subscribed to, provided their relativity is remembered and they are given progressive interpretation. A pantheistic element is latent in this Christology; and when it is said that human history describes the process of God actualizing Himself, this element is brought clearly to light. Christ may be called divine, but only as a symbolical description of Deity progressively unfolding itself in mankind.

II. The State of the Question

The adoption by professing Christians of these alien Christologies is plainly not due to scholarship, although they are defended by some scholars. It is clearly inconsistent with the state of the question, and is due to the blinding influence of the naturalistic and rationalistic standpoint, misleadingly called scientific—one that vitiates the argument of many who seem to be unaware of their bias. This standpoint, rather than evidential data, explains their readiness wholly to dismiss the fourth Gospel, and on purely a priori grounds arbitrarily to eliminate from the Synoptic Gospels those elements which exhibit the inherently supernatural quality of Christ's Person and work. [259/260] And the hopelessly fragmentary nature of what is retained easily accounts for the readiness of Modernists to substitute idea for fact as the basis of Christianity. In brief, their skill runs to destructive manipulation of the data requiring to be reckoned with, and thus their conclusions are determined by their pre-suppositions rather than by the evidence. They exemplify the phenomenon of which we have heard so much lately—"the closed mind."

I need not discuss the subtleties which lead some of them sincerely to think that the rights of conscience entitle them to retain an official ministry which publicly commits them to doctrines no longer believed in by them. It is enough to say that their argument persuades only those infected with their confusing standpoint. It may not overrule the Church's abiding mind in the matter.

Returning to my main argument, the real state of the question as to the doctrine of the Deity of Christ is determined by the following facts.

(a) This doctrine is known to have occupied the central place in the Church's faith from apostolic times; and at this moment retains the allegiance of the great bulk of professing Christians.

(b) Its original acceptance was beyond reasonable doubt the result of direct contact with Christ Himself. That is, the apostolic doctrine was grounded in firsthand evidence, evidence soon embodied in the four Gospel narratives, the general and substantial truth of which has been securely established by the labours of those numerous competent scholars who reckon seriously with all the data, and with the patent fact that the Gospel picture of Christ transcends invention.

(c) Among the vast number of those who in successive Christian centuries, including the twentieth, have reckoned with the data and have familiarized themselves with the Gospel narratives, whether with critical scrutiny or not, the overwhelming majority have always found in each and all these narratives, whether Johannine or Synoptic, ample confirmation of the doctrine that Jesus Christ both claimed to be and is co-equal with the Father and eternally possessed of the one indivisible Godhead.

(d) Those who have attempted to rebut this weighty and long [260/261] established consensus have been obliged to join issue with the supernatural and to mutilate the records—not on the basis of evidence at all, but arbitrarily and on purely a priori and subjective grounds.

Under such circumstances I need not discuss—certainly not before this audience—the several corroborative evidences of the Deity of Christ which open-minded readers find in the Gospels, in each and all of them.

III. What Does It Matter

We ought, however, to face a somewhat widespread doubt as to the practical need of worrying over the question whether the Christ whom we profess to follow was really very God-incarnate or merely an ideal man, filled with divine grace, and exhibiting in His teaching and example the kind of life and character we ought to lead and acquire. So long as we accept Him as our ethical Master, and strive to embody His ideals in our lives, what does it matter whether we solve the metaphysical problems of His alleged pre-existence and super-human rank in being or not?

You will observe that in this objection the terrifying word "metaphysical" usually does considerable duty for argument. Waiving discussion of the false notion that the Creeds commit their recipients to metaphysical theories, I call your attention to the real issue, which is this: Is Jesus Christ truly God-incarnate, or is He only a perfect creature? Unless the belief in a personal God, absolutely supreme over mankind, is itself false, this issue is tremendously practical. If Christ was only a perfect creature we may not treat Him as very God; and if He was God-incarnate, we cannot claim to be loyal to Him unless we adopt a course towards Him that is monstrous when observed towards any mere creature, however perfect. Accordingly, we have to choose between two mutually opposed forms of Christian allegiance,—which is righteous and which is sinful depending upon whether He is God-incarnate or only a wonderful man. Let me illustrate this.

(a) First of all, consider His tremendous personal claims. I mean their practical bearing, if we suppose them to come from a mere human being. They are given most fully, no doubt, in the [261/262] fourth Gospel, which negative critics reject; but the Synoptic Gospels describe Christ as exacting allegiance to Himself even when it involves disregard of obligations to one's nearest kin; as claiming to be the final Judge of mankind; and as habitually treating His sonship and relation to the Father as unique and unshared in by others. Must we not infer that, if He was merely a human prophet, such claims were blasphemous and proved Him not to be good? Must we not choose between accepting and rejecting His claims, in the one case conducting ourselves towards Him as towards God, in the other facing the problem as to whether a mere man making such claims is morally good and fit to be our spiritual Master?

(b) Thus the question of His example becomes practically acute. For if His divine claim was untrue, He was not a good man, and His example is valueless. Moreover, no purely human example can of itself bind human consciences; and if Christ was merely human, it lies within our discretion to judge whether we wisely imitate Him or not. That is, we need not follow His example merely because it is His. On the other hand, if He was God-incarnate, His example is that of our supreme moral Sovereign Himself, and reveals in human terms the character in which we must grow if we would be fit for eternal life with Him. It imposes obligation upon us. In brief, we have to choose between accepting the true Godhead of Christ and having no just reason for treating His example as either supreme or even good. And those who regard Him as merely human are often found in fact to criticise adversely both His example and His ethical teaching.

(c) Again there is the worship which Christians are accustomed to pay to Christ, whether it is formally addressed to His own Person or is implied in the practice of addressing God through Him. Both forms imply a relation between Him and God and the Father in which no created person can share, and neither of them is allowable unless He is God-incarnate, as the Catholic Church teaches Him to be. If we regard Him as only a perfect man to worship Him as Christians do is hero-worship—a species of pagan idolatry. Its name is Jesuolatry. Accordingly, men have to choose between belief in the Deity of Christ and abandonment of the customary forums of Christian worship.

[263] So much for the more obvious lines of practical attitude towards Christ that are determined by what we believe concerning His rank in being; but there are other issues to be faced by those who are willing to think.

(d) Our allegiance to the Christian religion, of course, depends for justification upon the faith which alone accounts for its origin, and all the distinctive elements of this faith depend in turn for their truth upon the correctness of the belief that Jesus Christ is very God-incarnate. If He is not this, to give the most radical illustration, we must abandon the trinitarian doctrine of God, the doctrine that determines all the relations in which Christians suppose themselves to stand towards the Supreme Being, whether in nature, in redemption or in grace, and that explains their religious practice in all its branches. Furthermore, if it was not God-incarnate who was crucified in His own flesh, His death was that of a mere man, a death which could have no such redemptive effect for mankind as has made the Church's Gospel the basis of hope for a sin stricken world. Nor is it credible to suppose that a mere man could have been victorious over death, have enthroned the body in which He suffered in the heavens, and have made that body the perennial source to men of quickening and sanctifying grace by the operation of His Holy Spirit. It is the rejection of His divine claim that leads the rationalists of our time to regard these truths as incredible, and to deny the significant fact of our Lord's Virgin Birth. Finally, if Christ is not very God, what becomes of the beliefs that by His Spirit He supernaturally quickens, nourishes, cleanses and sanctifies us in the sacraments, and that at the last day He will raise us up, judge us according to our deeds, and receive to Himself forever those of us who are worthy? Are we not justified in concluding that if our Christ is merely human, the Christian religion is nothing more than an illusory and passing phase in man's groping after an unknown God, one that should rightly give way to the utilitarian idealism that reckons only with this world and present human comfort?

IV. Concluding Thoughts

I conclude my paper by reminding you of certain inspiring aspects of the truth that Jesus Christ is very God-incarnate.

(a) [264] In the first place this truth assures us, as nothing else can, that God is neither the remote and ineffective God of deistic rationalism, nor the impersonal and non-moral principle of mechanical evolution that the current semi-pantheistic, naturalistic and pragmatic philosophy—misleadingly called scientific—treats Him as being. The trinitarian mode of divine unity which becomes manifest in the Deity of Christ, and in His teaching concerning the Holy Spirit, fortifies the doctrine of divine personality by showing that all the conditions which appear to be required for truly personal activity are present within the indivisible Godhead; and the Christian form of monotheism has alone protected its loyal adherents from the subversive tendencies towards Deism and Pantheism that by turns have beset unitarian beliefs.

(b) The self-manifestation of Christ as God-incarnate teaches us what God is like, that He really cares for us, and that He has submitted Himself to our limitations so that we may know Him, love Him and really approach Him. Moreover, He has done this at a cost that demonstrates almighty love to be in control of the future, and fills us with hope and courage. Because He is divine, Christ in us is the hope of glory, the ultimate solution of all problems.

(c) Finally, because our Christ is one in whom all things cohere, by our faith in Him, and union with Him, we reach the centre of all things, and obtain a mental outlook which is larger, grander, and more alive to the proportionate values of things, than can be had from any other point of view. That we can fail to take full advantage of our standpoint is true; but in such case the fault lies with our personal tempers—not with our standpoint. A Catholic Christian who properly realizes his position is the most sympathetic, open-minded and discerning of men. He is vitally interested in every line of progress in human welfare, enquiry and knowledge. And he is not worried as to the real results of any one of them, whether scientific, critical or philosophical. He knows that all will be found to afford a richer context in which to perceive with increasing joy the wonderful overruling of all things and events for advancing that great drama of divine love in which Jesus Christ has the preeminence.

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