INSTITUTION OF REV. W. T. EGBERT,
HENRY C. POTTER, D. D.,
Rector of Grace Church, N. Y.
Church of St. John the Evangelist
American Church Press Company
111 EAST NINTH STREET.
THESE words describe, succinctly, but completely, the Church of Christ. They affirm moreover, a fact, whose demonstration, the history of that Church clearly and conclusively affords. The fact is this: the author of the Christian Church is Jesus Christ;--not man but God;--not a human teacher but a Divine person and the evidence of Christ' s divinity is to be found in the existence and history of the Christian Church. The city, the society, the brotherhood which we know as Christendom by the very characteristics of its being and its progress, demonstrates the Divine character of Him who founded it, and is, in other words, a "city whose builder and maker is GOD." This is my theme; let me tell you frankly, why I venture to invite you to its consideration.
Within your memory and mine the attitude of unbelief has greatly changed. Time was when skepticism was, if not modest, at least argumentative. It reasoned, and debated, and questioned, with the air of a man who owns freely, that there may be something worth hearing on his adversary's side. It attacked the precepts of Christ; it [3/4] attacked the miracles; it attacked the historic record of the Elder Testament; but howsoever vigorous its assaults, they were made with an air which implied that they might fairly, at least, be challenged. It is a new aspect of unbelief which confronts us to-day. Its tone of hesitating denial is changed for one of compassionate patronage. It declares that the lists are no longer open;--that the question of the claims of the religion of Jesus Christ upon the faith and reverence of thinking men is practically closed. The modern doubter denies that he is any longer a doubter at all. His attitude is one of downright and definite denial. Do others hesitate at such denial, and cling with fond credulity to the impotent idols of an effete Christianity? "Let us pity their ignorance," cries the modern unbeliever, "but let us not disguise their error. We will not deny that the Faith and the Book which tell of Jesus, include some things that are true and beautiful. Not all the wisdom of the past is within the lids of any one book, and we will not commend the Koran to the exclusion of the New Testament. But, though Christian myths are more graceful and touching than Hindoo legends, they stand upon the same level and must be judged by the same standards."
And the effect upon many nominally Christian people of this new attitude is at once amazing and mortifying. One meets, now-a-days a great many honest, earnest, and well-meaning persons who speak of their religious belief and its foundations, as one ordinarily speaks to a consumptive. The patient is hopelessly honey-combed with disease, [4/5] but we must keep up his cheerfulness and our own. We must mask our deep-rooted apprehensions, if we can, and wreath our faces in smiles, though a deadly dread and faintness are weighing down our hearts. For, the patient is moribund, though he was never so dear to us as now, when we are about to lose him. "Christianity is a fable, but oh! what a sweet and beautiful fable! Why would not remorseless Science, forever chipping at its corners, and with the tireless trituration of its destructive acids eating out the heart of its foundations, leave us and it alone a little longer?"
Is this the way that a Christian believer ought to talk? Out upon such craven cowardice, such ghastly hypocrisy as this! If the faith of our fathers is all a myth, then let us at least have the courage swiftly and manfully to say so! Does any one cringingly ask permission of the doubters to go down to the grave with a lie in his right hand? Would any truthful or disingenuous nature wish to live on, hugging to his breast an empty and exploded delusion;--wearing the image of a dead Christ in his heart, as, of old, men engraved the likeness of a dead insect on their tombs. No! a thousand times no! Better that we should have no religion at all, than one in which we cannot rest in hearty and unswerving faith. Better the blankest atheism, with at least its possibility of something nobler, than a faith which is only a superstition, and a creed which is merely a myth.
And therefore it becomes important that those of us who have been shaken in our faith, should examine its foundations anew, and somehow [5/6] certify to ourselves of their character and quality. What we especially want, is a simple and compact argument which can be grasped by the most unlearned, which rests upon indisputable foundations, and which will always and everywhere apply. Such an argument, as I have intimated, is implied in the statement of the text, and its value is all the greater because it so narrows our range. When we hearken to the patronizing utterances of some modern doubters their "imperial impudence" as it has well been called, "confounds us." What is it which has made unbelief so bold, and which begets in many of its champions a tone at once so arrogant and so contemptuous? Is it not the impression that their effort to discredit Christianity, needs only, in order to be successful, to be directed against the pages of that volume in which the story of its origin has been written? Is it not to the Bible that every enemy of the faith repairs, that out of it he may drag his particular monstrosity, and like the Dwarf of the Curiosity Shop, buzz about it and belabor it with almost a personal malice? With one man it is the Mosaic account of creation. With another, like Strauss, it is the mythical character of the Gospels. With another, like Renan, it is the half-legendary and half-visionary character of Christ. With Hume it is the unprovable character of the miracles. With Baur and Theodore Parker, it is the doubtful morality or more doubtful authenticity of the Book of the Acts. What now shall we say to all these varied [6/7] assaults upon the sacred Book? I answer, that, unless we are competent, as very few persons ordinarily are, to a critical and discriminating examination of these assaults, we had better say absolutely nothing at all,--or, if we do say anything, let it be to demand that those who complacently adopt and reiterate such assaults secondhand shall at least know enough about the points at issue to have an intelligent opinion. When one hears persons, who have never gone deeper into questions of scriptural criticism than the pages of a monthly or quarterly review, actually lay down a decision concerning the spuriousness or erroneousness of passages in a Volume, one line of which they could not read in the tongue in which it was written if their very lives depended upon it, one finds it hard to repress something of mirthfulness and something more of contempt. Would that some competent footsteps could oftener follow upon the trail of these industrious disseminators of second-hand doubt, and expose them and their pretentious fallacies as both alike deserve!
But, meantime, for those of us who would meet the modern average skeptic ourselves, there is another and an easier way. Such persons are wont to deal with Christ and Christianity as if both alike were imprisoned in the New Testament, and as if they had only to pull that down to overwhelm Him in its ruins. This, it seems to me, is the answer to be made to such persons: "You are skeptical concerning Christ and His religion. You doubt that evidence of Him and for Him which we profess to find in yonder Volume. You maintain [7/8] that modern criticism has shaken your faith in that Volume, and that you can no longer unreservedly, or even qualifiedly, accept it. Very well, then, let it go! We will rule it out of the issue altogether. Indeed, there is as much motive for this on the one side as on the other; for if there are some persons who distrust the Bible because of modern criticism, there are other persons who distrust modern criticism itself a great deal more. If we are to give up the Bible, let us do it because there is a good reason for it; but let us not be asked to accept scientific speculation for scientific demonstration, and let not Science be dishonored by being called upon to father the mere guesses of every enthusiastic dreamer. Science means knowledge, not surmise. Its root is, scio, I know, not deliro--"I dream." Every step forward that it takes it ought to be able to plant its foot upon demonstrable and ascertained facts. But when the author of the "Origin of Species" asks us to give up certain parts of the Bible because of certain probabilities which (with a caution and candor that do him no small honor) he expresses by "I think," "It seems likely," "It would appear to be not improbable," then we are constrained to tell him that his speculations are worth just so much as those of the old schoolmen, and no more. And, therefore, in deciding the question, "Has Christianity a divine Author, and is Christ a divine Person?" in the interests of modern criticism quite as much as in a spirit of concession to those who may have been influenced by it, one may well consent to leave the volume wholly out of the [8/9] issue, and simply see what answer we may find elsewhere.
For what is it that we find elsewhere, or, in other words, outside the Bible? Letting go that book--for the moment utterly dismissing it from the discussion as absolutely as if it did not exist, what is there which does exist, and which demands an explanation?
I answer, it is that Association, that Fraternity, that organized and living thing which we call the Christian Church. We go back all but two thousand years, and thirty-five years after the date at which Christendom fixes the crucifixion of its Founder we read in Pliny and Tacitus, both Pagan writers, something of the Church of Christ. These writers describe, imperfectly it is true, the faith and the rites of this Church. Since then nearly twenty centuries have passed away, and what upheaval of old dynasties, and explosion of old falsehoods, and destruction of old delusions have they witnessed! Meantime, take account of Christendom then and now. Have two thousand years exhausted the vitality of a religion which had its martyrs in Melanesia the other day, when a Christian bishop and his native presbyter went forward as calmly to their deaths as did Perpetua and Polycarp in the days of that Church' s infancy? Here, in other words, is a living and growing structure, a stately and ever-enlarging pile, like the exquisite Cathedral at Milan, climbing up higher and spreading out wider as the days and years go by. How do you account for it? A building implies an architect. [9/10] The old argument of Paley, for the existence of God from the constitution of nature, applies with equal aptness here. If you should find a watch in the desert, you would infer from the marks of design in it that it had an intelligent maker. So argues Paley of God and His world. You find in that world, aye, in the tiniest flower that you crush beneath your feet, marks of design--traces of an intelligent and all-powerful Creator. Even so of Christ and the Christian Church. Nay, more. A building is apt to betray the characteristics of its builder. It does not require a very highly-trained critic to recognize the characteristics of an architect in some building which he has reared. We say, very soon, "That must be So-and-so's work. It is in his manner." Nor, to go a step farther, does it require a very high degree of critical acumen to distinguish in a building between the evidences of genius and mere talent; or, again, between a high degree of culture and a merely servile imitativeness. Go and look at Salisbury Cathedral, standing on the earth as though it had roots, and then, seizing upon your imagination and lifting it step by step until at length, as it travels onward up that matchless and incomparable spire, your very soul seems soaring straight to heaven, and you will know the power and the eloquence of architecture.
Well then, here is an edifice whose stately proportions imply an originating Mind and Hand. Whose Hand was it? Is there nothing in its grand and growing outlines that helps us to an answer to that question? Bring [10/11] to its solution the critical faculties, which many of us are so fond of employing in other kindred directions. If a curious research has disinterred Pompeii, and constructed out of its long submerged streets and shops and homes a clear and definite theory as to the manners and habits, and even morals, of its people, can we not do as much concerning this other nobler building, not yet buried out of sight, but rearing its unique proportions where all may see and judge it? Do men cry that they cannot understand God's Word, that there are dark or perplexing passages in it, and that even Christ himself is not intelligible to them? Let them cease, then, to debate about the Builder, and turn to look at the Building; let them leave the words and scan the work. It has been aptly suggested, just here, [* See an admirable article, Christus Conditor, in the Baptist Quarterly of April 1872, to which I would express my indebtedness.] that it would be easy to imagine some chronic doubter reading the life of Michael Angelo. The volume pictures the man as a great painter, a great architect, a great sculptor, and a great engineer, and hints of early intimations of the later greatness in the man' s young and boyish life. Now, it would not be surprising if such a skeptical and habitually distrustful reader should put the book down, saying, "Really this is a little too much to be believed! A man might excel in one or two of the callings here named, but to be without a peer in almost all of them is something altogether preposterous!" How, now, will you convince such an one? Will [11/12] you stop to persuade him that the history of the book, the contemporaneous testimonies concerning its author, and its inherent evidences of truthfulness, alike conspire to make it credible? or would you not rather say to him, "Leave the book, and come and look at the work! See these marvellous statues! Stand here, and gaze on that miracle in stone, St. Peter's, in Rome. Look up, and take in those wondrous and incomparable frescoes. Never mind the biographies. What say you now to the work and the man?"
Even so in the presence of that stately edifice which we call the Church of God. What testimony does it bear concerning Him who is its Architect and Builder? It is no very difficult matter to confuse unlearned minds about the language of Holy Scripture, nor hard to wrench words from their contexts, and so make different utterances seem to a superficial scrutiny to be contradictory or obscure. But what is proven by that? I have no fear but that, in the long run, it will be found that the Bible can take care of itself, and will last when its critics and questioners are long forgotten--as how many of them already are! But, meantime, there is a simpler mode of demonstration concerning Him whom the Bible reveals to us, and that is, to turn from His Word to His Church.
We need not shut our eyes to the faults of that Church. It is not an infallible body, and its history is marred by many blemishes. But what, all along, are its ideals? Are they not those of the widest love--the loftiest purity--the noblest manhood [13/14]--the freest self-sacrifice that the race had ever dreamed of? See, now, how these ideals disclose themselves in a race in its saddest degeneracy, and how they propagate themselves triumphantly and perpetually in the face of the deadliest tyranny. See how what Pliny calls a handful of fanatics spreads and grows. It is not done spreading and growing. Two thousand years have come and gone, and yet there are hearts as brave and hands as eager to bear aloft the standard of the cross as when it fell from out the bruised and bleeding grasp of dying Stephen. Explain this fact! If it be an illusion, a devout fancy, why is it that it lives and lasts? The enduring power of a mere illusion is a greater miracle than the living power of Christ in His Church; and in this illusion, if it be one, the strangest feature of it is that it is, in its influence mightiest in exact proportion to its love for, and appeal to, Jesus Christ. If a man says merely, "I believe in an historic thing called Christianity, and in its historic Author," his life will be a very tame one; but if, on the other hand, he says, "I believe in a living, personal, present, indwelling Christ; I say, 'not I, but Christ which liveth in me,'" then, somehow, he straightway becomes a power. He takes his life in his hand, and goes forth to win and persuade other men, and he succeeds. His old meannesses and selfishnesses drop off from him just in proportion as he really and veritably owns and waits for the inspiration of a living Lord. These are not fancies, they are facts; [13/14] and each one of us may verify them from his own observation and experience.
Now then, explain these facts. There have been great men in the world; but no man ever held such a sway, or sustained such a structure, for a century. We are shut up to one or two inferences: either the Author of Christianity, the Builder of the edifice, is a Divine Being, or the Building itself is the fruit of a religious hallucination. To some minds precisely such an explanation may be most satisfactory and conclusive. But stop a moment. Look the question squarely in the face. If Christ was a fanatic, and if the living Church and household which He has reared is an assemblage of deluded enthusiasts, what of the fruits of that fanaticism through all the Christian centuries? The heroism, the virtue, the patience, the saintly living and dying of holy men and women in all climes and of all kindreds and tongues, the upward-climbing aspirations of Christian disciples whom you and I have known, and known only to love and revere--all this beauty of character and loftiness of aim have had their root in a delusion, and have been fed by downright falsehood. Verily he who can believe that, is no longer within the range of reasonable persuasion; nay, more, he who can deliberately attempt to explain the facts of Christian history on the basis of a presumption at once so wild and so weak, has proved himself intellectually disqualified for pronouncing a judgment in the matter.
No, brethren, the building implies and proclaims [14/15] the Builder--"whose Builder and Maker is God." Let unbelief seem to have succeeded in obliterating Christ from the pages of His Gospel, how little, after all, has it accomplished! The power of His Truth in the triumphs of His Church is inwoven with the history of humanity from the hour of His birth to this moment. Obliterate, if you can, the influence of Christianity and the triumphs of the Cross from the page of history. Pull down, oh doubter! as surely you can do, if He be only the promulgator of an illusion, the superstructure which the Founder of Christianity has reared in the world. No matter what sacred and beautiful things are crushed in its fall. If it is false, it will totter and crumble. But, if it does not--if, instead, it spreads and grows, how will you explain its enduring life and power?
Here, then, we may rest. The argument of such facts is complete, and how simple and conclusive! The history of that Society which names itself Christ' s Church can only be explained by admitting the divinity of its Author. And if He is Divine, my brother, with what joyous confidence may you take up the work which God, in His providence, has called you to do among this people! You are not here to witness to a fading and worn-out myth, but to a living and sovereign Lord and though your way may be clouded sometimes by discouragements, your heart will be cheered by the assurance that above you there is ever one hearkening, sympathizing Friend, whom God has exalted to be "the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body."
 It might have been expected that I should speak here, this morning, of the mutual relations which henceforth are to bind you and this people, your chosen flock, together. But you, at any rate, will not wonder that I have rather preferred to dwell upon that primary and fundamental truth, without the clear assurance of which such a relation must needs become a fiction and a mockery; for you, I am persuaded, can never forget (what I know you will not be unwilling that I should recall even on this occasion) that there was once a time when, concerning the living Builder of this Church of our affections, you walked in darkness and saw no light--a time when the skepticism of our day held you firmly in its subtle grasp, and made the Rock of Ages seem to your straining vision only a misty shadow,--a time when, of all human improbabilities, nothing seemed more improbable than that you should one day stand at God's Altar, and break the bread of life to the disciples of a crucified Christ. And now as you look back over all the way along which the Master has so wonderfully led you, I know well that the central fact to which your thoughts must needs turn is the fact of a living and Divine Christ as the power of a living and Divine religion.
May God daily deepen in you that primary and fundamental faith, and make it a ceaseless power in all your ministry among this people! May He especially give you wisdom and patience and tenderness in dealing with perplexities, of which these doubting hours are full, and which you may wisely refuse to forget were once your [16/17] own! May you have courage to carry the Church of the living God in all the fulness of her loving words and quickening sacraments into every home where you may enter! May you be enabled to perpetuate and deepen here that hearty and united fervor of common praise and common prayer, which, whenever it has been my privilege to minister in these courts, has seemed to be the signal characteristic of this people. Lead them, my brother, with tender but unfaltering hand. If they who have used the office of a deacon well have earned a good degree and much boldness in the faith, then yours is no unworthy occupancy of your present post; for, as I stand here, I cannot but recall the day, now more than three years ago, when you first made yourself known to me, and asked, with such modesty and yet with such manliness, that you might serve the church under my ministry, in that lower order. Nor can I forget how the fair promise of that first interview was, in all our subsequent intercourse, never broken,--your loyalty to authority, your willingness for every duty, your steadfastness and consistency in the doing of it leaving behind you a memory which I and mine will always cherish.
God bless and guide you, then, as you enter upon these larger responsibilities into which today you are inducted! May He give you the hearts of this people, that you may give them to Christ. And when discouragements and disappointments meet you, as meet you they surely will, when the hours come, as such hours come to every true-hearted Priest, when your eyes are [17/18] blinded with tears as you see how tardy and scanty are the fruits of your labors, then, as always, may it be yours to remember that "he that goeth on his way weeping and beareth forth good seed shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him."