Project Canterbury

Three Guardians of Supernatural Religion
by the Reverend Morgan Dix

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1901


THERE are subjects which embarrass by their extent. It is hard to decide how much may be considered, or how best to present that which time permits us to discuss. This is the case with the subject of the present lectures. If I did not believe that it is one of the utmost possible weight, and vitally related to the peace, safety, and happiness of mankind and the progress of the race on right lines, I should have chosen some other theme.

We do not admit that this is a speculative matter, suitable for discussion by wrangling theorists. It is urgent and practical; about it hang the issues of life and death. The last thing to undertake would be to prove by logical process that a supernatural order exists. We announce that truth as one compelling assent. It does not rest on a series of arguments possibly fallacious; we are not required to introduce it in that fashion, any more than the theologian is bound to begin by a priori demonstration that there is a God. Those are weighty words of Canon Mason: "It is no part of the duty of one who expounds the Christian doctrine to prove the existence of God. The attempt to exhibit such a proof belongs to a different department of study. The Christian Church does not in the first instance seek to convince men by argument that God is. Her voice is that of a witness, not of an uncertain inquirer. She bears testimony to what she knows; and instead of speculating how to establish God's existence, she teaches men, on God's authority, what God is." It is so with the supernatural order. I do not seek to prove its existence like a problem in mathematics. It speaks for itself, in the reason, the conscience, the soul of man, the voices of all ages, the march of temporal events. My business is to show how the knowledge of the supernatural order is preserved to us, how it is brought to us institutionally, how we are connected with it, and what would happen if the philosophers could demonstrate that it has no existence outside human thought.

I speak as a Christian and a Churchman to Christians and citizens of the kingdom of heaven, knowing that in these last days perilous times have come, that the faith of some has been shaken, and that strange and new things have gained a hearing among the people. I wish to show that this Church is committed to the maintenance of the supernatural; that it would be impossible to eradicate it from her standards and her teaching without destroying the fabric of our spiritual house; that she is one on this point with all branches of the Catholic Church, and all bodies holding the general principles of the Gospel; and that in her standards and by her clergy she teaches, or intends to teach, that faith in every part of her system. If so, it follows that while the Church stands firmly on the old foundation, and so long as her clergy are faithful to their solemn oath to teach what she bids them teach, and nothing inconsistent with or contrary thereto, we have no cause to fear, however modern thought may work, whatever falling away there may be.

That is the first thing that I propose to show; and then, having recalled to your mind the patent fact that this Church of ours, like the Christian religion to which it bears witness, is saturated with the supernatural, we shall be moved to look attentively at one painful subject to which a passing allusion may here be made. There are those among the clergy of this Church who, after having first set their hand to a promise, and then sworn to God and on the Holy Gospels that they will be faithful witnesses to that which the Church teaches as the Gospel of salvation, under pressure from the spirit of the times and extraneous influences, lapse from their bounden duty, break plighted faith and oath, substitute the opinions of modern schools of thought for the dogmas of the Catholic faith, put new concepts into the words of Holy Scripture and the venerable Creed, and thus disqualify themselves as transmitters of that which they should have handed on to the children that are yet unborn. It is a terrible charge to bring, but one which we are compelled to make, in justice to our own desire to cleanse and defend the Church, and save for ourselves and our descendants the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

And so let me outline my intention: to take the Word of God and the Book of Common Prayer and note the witness borne to the everlasting Gospel; its clearness, its fulness, its simplicity; to compare it with the current views of religion among those who bring forth things new to supersede the old; and thus to move you, first, to hold fast the truth yourselves as you value your life and your soul, and next, to try to realize the consequence of conceding to any man within the Church, and especially to any one in her Orders, the right to think what he pleases, and do what he likes, and talk as he chooses, on subjects which, by exact definitions, are closed, and from which to depart is nothing short of rebellion and revolution. And here I shall speak first of the Word of God as contained in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; of the place which the sacred books hold in our system, of the general drift of their teaching on the subject of the existence of a supernatural world and beings of other spheres with whom we are connected and on whom we depend.

The Holy Scriptures are venerated in the Church as THE WORD OF GOD ; not as some evasively express it as containing the word of God, but as being the word of God to us His rational and intelligent creatures. They are accepted as a revelation of Himself, His acts, His will. They are also held by the Church to be inspired; to have been written under the special and direct influence of the Holy Ghost; the Spirit of God working thereto on the mind and thought of the writer. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." And this would hold true, whatever changes might take place in our conception of the form and scope of the writing. If it could be ascertained beyond all doubt that a given book ought to be regarded not as history, but as an idyl or an apologue, still should we insist that such idyl or apologue was so written under motion from the Holy Spirit. If it should ever be proved, in a way to admit no further question, that narratives which have stirred our souls and carried us to heights far above the troubled fields of earth were not, as we supposed, accounts of transactions occurring as described, but epics of soul history and experience, still must we believe and teach that under these forms and in these descriptions God was making known to us something concerning Himself and us and the way of life.

Thus have the Holy Scriptures been accepted and revered in the Church from the beginning, as the Word of God, and inspired; not as mere literature, nor as books like other books, but as oracles communicated to the man of faith, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. Everywhere, from the first, have they been thus venerated by the wise, as if in them could be distinctly heard the voice of God speaking to us from the heights above.

Of the estimate of the Bible in the early centuries, all through the churches, no doubt exists, no doubt is possible. It is said that if the Bible should be lost, it could be recovered almost entirely from the quotations in the Fathers and doctors of old time. It has been held to be a living voice, a divine authority. In the Oecumenical Councils of the Church Catholic a copy of the Gospels was placed in the midst, as a symbol of the Sacred Presence there. It is our glory and strength as a Church that we occupy on this point the ground of Christendom from the beginning. In Article VI., "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation," they are declared to contain all things necessary to salvation, and a list is given containing the names and number of the Canonical Books, that there may be no doubt or misunderstanding on that point, and no ground for dispute of contention among us hereafter. The Word of God written by man under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost is a true and full revelation to man; oral tradition may not be cited, independent of the written Word, to establish dogma or doctrine contrary to that which it exhibits. In the place where the Bishops of our Church assemble in Convention or Council, a lectern is seen, bearing a copy of the Holy Bible. No man can be ordained to the Priesthood, nor can any be consecrated Bishop until he has signed this declaration:

"I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrines and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States."

Thus far of the place and honor of the Holy Scriptures among us. And now we come back to our theme, and inquire what is their testimony to the existence of a supernatural world. On this point I would have you try to form a just idea of the way in which that witness is borne, and of the manner in which it is woven into the texture of the Books throughout. For they contain the history of the world and man from the standpoint of religion, and they assume and attest the supernatural from beginning to end. The first word in the first book, Genesis, is the name of God Eternal and Almighty; the last word in the last book, the Apocalypse, is the name of the Son of God Incarnate. "In the beginning God," "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." Between those great phrases flows one continuous uninterrupted line of histories, prophecies, laws, songs and psalms of life, national records, individual biographies, in every part of which, distinctly or by implication, is predicated the existence of a Supernatural Being and an order above that of nature, with facts, inferences, and directions resultant from such superhuman, superterrestrial, unearthly relations to us; so that if the attempt were made to eliminate the supernatural element from those records not so much as a page would be left. Not more bare of its original sense would such a revised and corrected Bible be a skeleton which worms and serpents have cleaned even to the bone; nor yet would even the dry bones be left, but a dust, driven by the wind and blown about the channels of the desert hills.

Note of this glorious and fearful name of the Lord our God that it is the name of a Personal Being. It is impossible to imagine the God who appears in the books of the Old Testament as an impersonal force, a formless substance, a stream of tendency, a nondescript. On the contrary, the Personality is the life, and apart from it there is none. The Scriptures contain nothing intelligible if they do not contain the record of the dealings of One Supreme Being with a world which He created in the beginning of time and has governed ever since; the record of His dealings with men in their several relations, individual first, and then social; in their families, their tribes, their communities; His dealings with nations, monarchies, empires, in constant oversight; with mortals one by one, of whom not one was ever without Him nor divided from Him as the source and continuance of his existence. This is the Lord our God transcendent, immanent; nowhere mingled with the creature, nowhere apart from the creature. And in so presenting Him to loving faith and joyful knowledge the Holy Scriptures declare the truth of the supernatural state. This God, not a blind force like unto the idols of the heathen, which neither see nor hear nor speak; not a product of man's imagination; no creature; not the subject of evolutionary process, but a supreme, original, unique Being, before all time, the source of all that exists in time; Himself the framer and imposer of whatever laws, rules, or regulations are at work within the bounds of the universe; a Person so perfect that what we think we know of personality is but the faint light of His own; thinking, seeing, knowing, loving; invisible; not one in substance with any but Himself, so that no creature can be said to be of one substance with the Father, and that whosoever is of one substance with the Father can be nothing less than the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent God, this Lord Almighty, the source of life in us, but never substantially one with us—this is the personal, incomprehensible Being revealed to us in the books of the Old and New Testament, whose Name carries the assertion of a supernatural world.

Holding therefore this primal truth of the absolute distinction between the eternal and incommunicable substance of God and the finite substance of His creatures, we also hold, with equal love and reverence, two truths concerning Him, each essential, and each bearing on the other; that of the Transcendence and that of the Immanence. These are the poles between which the universe holds its even, orderly way. God is above nature; absolutely, eternally, essentially other than nature in His divine substance and personality; and yet God is in nature, not as of one substance with it, but by His power, grace, and love. Neither of these truths can be safely held without the other, for they compensate, and so make a perfect equilibrium. The transcendence of God, if held alone, separates Him from His works, and places Him afar off in remote and awful isolation. The immanence of God in ourselves and in everything that exists, if asserted without its proper balance, results in the identification of God and nature, and immerses Him in the lower world. These, then, must be held together, the impassable distinction between God and man, and the close indwelling of God, through His Spirit, in every creature to which He has given life. Whoso holdeth these primal truths shall never fall.

Such is He to whom the sacred Scriptures refer under the name of God. Everything said of Him implies supernatural dealing with us. The world was created by Him; how, we know not. The creative work is related; at every point God is present and acting. He sets laws to the universe which may not be broken—perhaps laws of development and evolution—but, at all events, laws which are simply the expression of His will, modes of working appointed by Himself as Supreme Ruler of the universe. The history proceeds. The world has been always under the care and government of this personal God. A judgment on sin appears at a very early date. A family is called out; it receives a special revelation about God, and man's duty to Him. It expands to a nation of which He is the head; it remains through many changes His own peculiar people. They have a law, promises, a covenant, testimonies. He helps them; He chastises them when they forsake Him. There are, through this long story of centuries, instances innumerable of the working of supernatural power—visions, dreams, apparitions; commissions of judges, priests, prophets; the lifting up of kings and their casting down. All that occurs is tending meanwhile to one grand end—an end which casts all else into the shade—the entrance of Him by whom all things were made into this world, in visible form, and in the nature, not the person, of mortal man.

And so these Scriptures bring before us another thing belonging to this same majestic order, the Incarnation of this Personal God. The "mystery of the Holy Incarnation" is rightly so called. It defies the attempt to bring it within the range of natural laws; it cannot have come by evolution on the line of natural causes. A Divine Person—such is the faith and such the continuous confession of the Church—a Divine Person, eternal, incomprehensible, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, takes upon Him our flesh; He is born of a pure virgin; not of two parents, but of One, a maiden of the earth; the birth is effected by the power of the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life. That Incarnation is the central fact of everything contained in the Books. All previous statements and occurrences lead up to it; all subsequent events flow from it. Faith in that Incarnation, as believed in by Christian people through all time, presupposes as indispensable a supernatural order, and powers outside those of natural law. And thus, as of the story of God in creation and providence, and of the unspeakable wonder of His entrance as man into His own world, the Bible witnesses to things beyond our ken, but not beyond our adoring faith. And such a book, bringing such truths to our ears, is much more than literature; it is not a book like other books; it brooks not to be so regarded or treated so lightly; it is the inspired Word of God, revealing mysteries of both worlds, or it is practically nothing, nor worth the paper on which it is printed.

But we have not done with the subject; there is more, much more, to come. This God Incarnate, known in that humble state as Jesus Christ, never vacating the divine position, nor stripping Himself of His divinity, very God in His essential being, His omniscience, and His power; yet very man, embracing in His Person the Godhead in its infinite perfection and the manhood in its absolute verity of human finiteness, weakness, and dependence, fulfils a ministry and executes an office. [1] The ministry is prophetic; the office sacerdotal. As Prophet He teaches man the way of life, the truth which makes him free. As Priest He makes atonement for that which lies at the root of sorrow, suffering, and death—the sin of man. This mystery is in its way as great as either of those which have been already presented. The atonement in the precious blood, the offering of the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, how vastly above the lower ideas of patient endurance exemplary lessons, and philanthropic sacrifice for others' good! Altogether wonderful, surpassing every other narrative, is the story of the Cross, whereon He made by His one oblation of Himself, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world! Here is the mystery which more than any other has melted hearts, and brought dead souls to life, and led to God in penitence, and granted the peace which the world cannot give. Here is another case in which the Holy Scriptures tell of something far beyond the range of the natural, and not to be appreciated by one who fails for any fault to see Him that is invisible and know the working of His love towards men.

I proceed to another instance in which it is impossible for the denier of the supernatural to bring himself into accord with the Word of God—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It was the chief theme of the first preaching by the Apostles. It is stated by St. Paul as the fact on the truth of which the Christian religion stands or falls: "If Christ be not risen, our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain." That is the keystone of the arch by which Christianity has spanned the troubled flood of temporal things; remove it, and the whole fabric falls and is lost in the roaring tide.

The Resurrection as they preached and delivered it was a literal fact; no moral revival, no post-mortem rehabilitation by way of influence or power; but as the Catholic Church from the beginning has taught and held: "Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again His body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature; wherewith He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until He return to judge all men at the last day." The Resurrection and the Ascension may be considered together, the latter being the continuation of the former. Tell us, then, by what natural law were these things accomplished? Were they not pure miracle? Were they not manifestations of the divine agency, acts of the powers of the world above? These mysteries of the supra-material order have always been held and loved in the faithful Church, and confessed as occurring" according to the Scriptures."

We are brought to the latter days. Christ, risen and ascended, still lives, and abides with us through His Spirit. A system has been evolved out of this living stream of supernatural forces and agencies, which carries the wonder-working power down through all ages to the end of the world. The New Testament books follow the Old; they are the sequel, the completion; they are bound together in one volume; and the character of these compositions is the same. Homogeneous with the earlier records, they overflow with miracle, mystery, signs to faith, visions of another life; men wield powers which they do not comprehend; they are under supernatural laws; they look for another country; they are dead to the world and alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. This system is known to us as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of which our spiritual mother is a living branch. But her life is essentially a life above that of nature; her manhood is not that of the natural man; her children are citizens of a kingdom not of this world. Eliminate the supernatural from the books of the Old and New Testament, and they become mere secular literature. Eliminate the supernatural from the Church, and it becomes a mere school of ethical science, a system of philosophical speculation, or at best a benevolent society aiming at the advancement of the people in culture and the arts, and the amelioration of the conditions of this earthly life.

I have made a brief review of the contents of our sacred Books. Among the wonders related in them are possibly, or probably, things which might be explained on natural principles; some signs which were wrought by men versed in occult philosophy, and possessing powers lodged somewhere in nature, and known to a secluded class of sages and experts. Pharaoh's magicians did things like those done by Moses, with their enchantments; and I have no disposition to deny that there was, and may be now, a reality of some sort in magic and the Black Art, as it was called, and in some of the phenomena investigated in our modern societies for Psychical Research. But allowing for cases capable of explanation on natural principles, there are others which peremptorily reject the effort to deal with them after that fashion; which must either be accepted as beyond the range of natural law, or rejected as fable only; and of these are the Creation, the Incarnation, the Resurrection and Ascension, and the Pentecostal coming of the Holy Ghost. No soothsayer, astrologer, or magician could ever have accomplished such wonders; they are beyond the power of man, or of any agencies which work on matter and in time, under the limitations imposed by such relation.

Our sacred Books, then, from the first word to the last, imply two worlds at the least —a lower world in which we live, a higher on which the lower is dependent. Their testimony is direct and uniform against the idea that man is alone in the universe, related to no person or persons above himself; substantially one with the physical process, all in all to himself; that there is no interference with him from the outside, and no possibility of encountering hereafter any Being, now invisible, to whom he once had obligations and to whom he must give account. The testimony of the Scriptures is direct against the correctness of such an account of our state. It describes us as surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, ruled by an Almighty Hand, borne on to a destiny indescribably greater than aught in view, and not for one instant of time, nor for any point in our existence, without the Presence, or beyond the sight and reach of that One in whom we live and move and have our being.

I spoke some time ago of the intense hostility of a certain class among us to the idea of the supernatural in religion. That hostility explains the assault upon the Holy Scriptures; they are the chief obstacles in the way of the assailants of Christianity. The existence of that record and its continuous acceptance as an inspired account of the origin, nature, progress, and destiny of mankind is the insuperable barrier to the growth of heretical views on those subjects. It becomes an object therefore to break down faith in the authenticity and authority of those writings, and to show that they are unworthy of credence, human compositions, ventures on credulity, and full of errors, mistakes, fables, and superstition. And considering the activity of the processes most in vogue for that end, some words on the modern criticism of the Bible, as it is called, may be deemed a fitting conclusion of this lecture.

Modern criticism of the Bible takes two lines: it deals with the text, it deals with the contents; it begins with study of manuscripts and versions; it proceeds to judgment on the matters therein set forth; and naturally, because in the sacred Scriptures there are an outward form and an inward and spiritual meaning. The study of the outward form demands scholarship adequate to such investigation; the study of the inner spirit and concept requires a mind and soul attuned to spiritual things. The tyro in philology can give us nothing of value in the former line; the man of prejudices and prepossessions, and without the spirit of God in his heart, cannot interpret aright these messages of the Holy Ghost.

Now as to the outward form, it is a legitimate subject of study. The originals of the sacred Books were lost long ago; we have transcriptions and versions, of the perfect accuracy of which it is no impiety to remain without complete assurance, and therefore we prize the work of the scholars who have done and are doing their best to give us a text as nearly perfect as possible. Nay, this uncertainty would seem to prove fatal to the idea of verbal inspiration; for if, in the originals, every word was dictated by the Spirit, a similar exercise of power ought to have been taken to secure the transmission of the documents without the slightest verbal change. We hold no such view of an inspiration extending to every word and line of the text. We do not know precisely what it was at first. But we have evidence sufficient to make us certain that we possess substantially the oracles of God; no other books in literature have been so thoroughly tried, none have come forth more free from harm; and for this we are indebted to the critics, somewhat indifferently classed as lower in the scale, although their lessons have been more profitable than those of any other men. We are, moreover, willing to abide by their conclusions as to date, authorship, and proper place in the Sacred Canon when such conclusions shall have been established beyond all reasonable doubt, and stand as the mature result of the learning of the age.

But when, having the sacred Books before them in authentic form, another class of critics proceeds to estimate their value and the truth of what they contain, we demur. He who sets out to interpret these writings under the influence of ineradicable prejudices and prepossessions of his own is not competent to his task; he is disbarred by the limitations under which he works. What sort of a critic of such a volume as this is he who begins by declaring that miracles are impossible; that there is no spiritual world; that there is neither angel nor devil? What is his criticism worth? He cannot form an unbiassed judgment; his prejudices are fatal to his success, his mental processes are not free; and to follow them is to follow blind guides. Yet this is what we are observing every day. There is a lower criticism and there is a higher criticism; to which I should venture to add what I will style a riotous criticism; it is that in which they indulge who run riot through the Scriptures, eliminating here, altering there, expunging, correcting, changing, for the reason that they cannot see how what is stated can be true. Running amuck, like the Malays, they dash at everything miraculous or supernatural, and drive at every statement which they cannot reconcile with modern, scientific, philosophical, or psychological conclusions. They assume that the writers had no inspiration essentially different from that enjoyed by Homer, Socrates, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Tennyson. St. Paul had his own private notions and views, which he expresses in his writings as the modern essayist does; the changing phases in the Apostle's mind may be seen in a comparative study of his Epistles. St. John in his later works displayed the feebleness of garrulity of advancing years. Christ was not infallible; He might have sinned; He did not intend that the Last Supper should be continued as a perpetual memorial in the Church; the manifestation of tongues on Pentecost was but confused vociferation of unknown and unintelligible cries. Such are instances of the work of that riotous criticism, before which such numbers quail and lose their faith, as quiet people run before a shouting mob. And to this absolutely worthless criticism we oppose the testimony of the Universal Church; the conviction of Christian people; and the assertion, which no one can rationally dispute, that the Bible is saturated with the supernatural and the miraculous from cover to cover, from the first verse of Genesis to the last of the Revelation. Now, if any one say that he cares nothing for these things; that his individual reason is a better judge than the collective intelligence of the Church; that the testimony of all ages could not convince him against his preconceived impressions; then we say, and less we cannot say than this, that there is no common ground between this extravagant critic and ourselves, and that we hold his persistent prejudices and his narrow dogmatism cheap against the secure and uniform judgment of the world.

The recklessness of modern criticism will, we doubt not, cure itself; reaction against it has already begun; and after the storm we shall have peace and the assurance of the indestructible nature of God's truth and the permanence of the means by which it has been made known to man.

[1] The recent reappearance of the theory of the Kenosis may be cited as another instance of the spasmodic efforts of the mind to escape from simple belief of revealed truth. How could Christ have been at one and the same time God and man? By way of a rational solution of the mystery, it is suggested that God the Son, when becoming incarnate, laid aside not only His glory, but also His Divine Attributes, Omniscience, Omnipotence, Omnipresence; and that He must have done so, to be truly Man. It is the sequel to the humanitarian heresy; the result of persistently dwelling on the human side of Christ till the divine side is lost to view. It demands of those to whom it is proposed an exchange of the central truth of the Incarnation for a notion not only self-contradictory, but unthinkable. God cannot lay aside His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence. To speak of a God who is omniscient at intervals, but not always; sometimes omniscient and sometimes not; involves an absurdity. Yet this is predicated of our Blessed Lord, that He was God, but not what God must be to be God. And so it is said that the miracles were wrought, not by Him in the exercise of His Divine power, but by the Father acting on Him through the Holy Ghost; and that the wisdom of Christ was not that of the All-knowing and All-seeing Deity, but communicated in measure as the Father thought best; and that it was not till after the Resurrection that the words were true, "In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." The Kenotic Christ is an indescribable impossibility, unless there were two persons in Him. But to say that is to deny the Catholic Faith.

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