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[Printed by Request]




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


Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.—St. Luke i: 1-4.

In every line of this preface to the third Gospel, we observe a love of accuracy. The tone is that of one who abhors cunningly devised fables, and who has a profound reverence for historic fact. His friend Theophilus, God's friend also, as the name denotes, is not a person wholly ignorant of the Christian religion. To a certain extent, though not to a sufficient extent, he has been already instructed. St. Luke now proposes to take Theophilus in hand and to supplement his partial knowledge by further and fuller information. There follows at once, without break, the marvellous story known as The Gospel of the Infancy, which begins in the temple with the vision granted to Zacharias the [3/4] priest, standing by the altar of incense, and ends also in the temple with the far wider vision vouchsafed to the man named Simeon, just and devout, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. This Gospel of the Infancy is full of great marvels. It records happenings the like of which are without parallel, either in the years that went before the birth at Bethlehem or in the years that have followed since. What are we to think about it? There are those who tell us that the story is a poem, conceived and executed in the realm of the imagination, beautiful no doubt, but no more to be taken literally than we take the first chapter of Genesis literally.

There are others who insist that the story is a fragment of folk-lore, similar in general character to what we find in the early Teutonic and Scandinavian literatures, and as completely untrustworthy from an historical point of view as the legend of the birth of Arthur.

It is sufficiently evident from his preface, to which we have just listened, that St. Luke, the author of the Gospel, held [4/5] neither of these opinions. In fact, had he been bent upon directly and definitively disavowing such a view of the matter, he could scarcely have chosen his words more carefully; "things most surely believed"; things delivered by them "which from the beginning were eyewitnesses"; "the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed"; this is not the language of a man who is presently to give loose rein to his fancy and dash off a cluster of lyrics; neither is it the language of an historian so indifferent to truth as to accept for trustworthy tradition the gossip of peasants' huts. We must remember that St. Luke was the contemporary of St. Paul and for a good part of the time his companion. If what he gives us is folk-lore, it is perfectly evident that he did not himself so regard it, and that he did not intend his readers so to do. Equally evident is it that the Church to which you and I belong means the Gospel of the Infancy to be taken seriously. The narrative is ordered to be read publicly at divine service during the season of Advent, a third of it at a time, and clearly [5/6] for the purpose of preparing the listeners for the holy solemnities of Christmas, the feast of the Nativity. We have no right to question the Church's good faith in doing this. If we suspected the Church of trying to feed our souls upon fairy stories and idle tales, we should have a perfect right, as intelligent men and women, to rebel, a perfect right to cry, in the phrase of the disheartened Israelites in the wilderness, "Our soul loatheth this light bread." Substantial nourishment is what the mind and heart must have; truth is their normal diet, reality their staff of life.

The attitude taken up by the Church of England at the time of the Reformation, with respect to Holy Scripture, was something like this. The old-time tradition with respect to Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection is in the main trustworthy. We need not propound a theory of verbal inspiration. The New Testament can stand without any such artificial support. That document reports the facts with sufficient accuracy for all practical purposes, and by that we will [6/7] abide. Our quarrel with Rome has not grown out of her having set a high value upon tradition, but because of Rome's having put oral on the same level with written tradition, thus confusing hearsay and record, two things that ought by all means to be kept apart.

In accordance with this decision, there was woven into the devotional fabric of the Church of England, in one shape or another, pretty much all that the Gospels and almost all of what the Epistles have to tell about the person of Christ. It did not occur to the Reformers to choose between things that seemed upon the face of them probable and things that on the face of them seemed improbable. They took what they found in the sacred writings and worked it up for liturgical use, into lessons, anthems, prayers and the like, according to their best judgment.

The question arises, were the framers of our Book of Common Prayer justified in doing this? Ought they not rather to have discriminated between things hard to be believed and things easy to be believed, rejecting the one sort and admitting the [7/8] other? As a step toward answering these questions, we can scarcely do better than to take the concrete instance of the Gospel of the Infancy, and treat it, so to speak, as a test case.

There are two suppositions, either one of which, if sound, would be fatal to our confidence in the Gospel of the Infancy. The first of these suppositions has to do with the integrity of the narrative. If it can be shown that the first chapter of St. Luke is an interpolation, not written by that Evangelist but the work of a later hand, why then, of course, its value as an account of things "most surely believed" among the early Christians must at once drop down to zero. Again, if it be taken for granted, to start with, that no narrative which contains what we know as a miraculous element can possibly be credible, in that case also the Gospel of the Infancy, inwrought as we see it to be, from first to last, with miracle, must go by the board instanter. But are these suppositions sound? Does enough probability attach to either one of them to cause us serious disquietude? Let us look at it and judge.

[9] Take the first supposition, namely, that St. Luke's initial chapter stands on a different footing as to authenticity from the rest of his chapters, and try it by a very simple test. The Authorized Version of the New Testament has been officially revised twice during the last forty years. As a result we have two revised versions, the one known as the Westminster Revision and the other known as the American Revision, the latter differing from the former in no very important respect, though possessing the advantage of a somewhat more recent touch. The men who conducted these revisions were especially selected for their competency. They were the best scholars who could be found in England and America for this important undertaking. They were experts and widely recognized as such. In their knowledge of New Testament Greek and in their acquaintance with the history of manuscripts they confessedly stood unsurpassed. Now, then, what did these scholars do? They put in brackets the first eleven verses of the eighth chapter of St. John's Gospel, a passage than which [9/10] none other, perhaps, in the whole New Testament is more dear to loving hearts, and they wrote in the margin, "Most of the ancient authorities omit this." Do you suppose that the men who had the honesty and the courage to bracket the story of the woman to whom Christ said, "Go, and sin no more," because the evidence of its authenticity was defective, do you imagine that these men would have lacked the honesty and the courage to bracket the story of Elizabeth and Mary, had there been, in their judgment, any serious grounds for questioning the authenticity of that? No, St. Luke's Gospel is not a patchwork; it has continuity and integrity; and when we hear discredit cast upon the first chapter we may be very sure that it is a case where the wish is father to the thought.

But why should the wish be father to the thought? Could anything possibly be more beautiful than this marvellous narrative, whether we judge it by the literary or by the spiritual standard? Its purity is as the purity of driven snow, its simplicity is the simplicity [10/11] of lips that know not how to frame a lie. The smoke rising from the altar of incense moves not more directly heavenward than does the soul which yields itself believingly to the story's power. Two of the great hymns of the Church, the Magnificat and the Benedictus, find here their origin and warrant. Nowhere in all literature, Hebrew or Gentile, has such a sacred glow been thrown over motherhood as in this precious idyll of the Incarnation. No wonder that, in the days before Art had divorced Religion, the painters found their highest thought of woman and their fairest dream of childhood given embodiment and form in this same Gospel of the Infancy. Whence then such an eagerness on the part of some to bring discredit upon the narrative? Pictures of surpassing beauty are not so numerous in the gallery of the soul that we can afford to blot the most surpassingly beautiful of them all. There must be some explanation of this destructive mood. Men do not take to image-breaking without cause. It cannot be that those who are seeking to destroy our [11/12] confidence in St. Luke's story are doing so out of mere wantonness, sheer love of mischief. No, the issues are too grave, the consequences too serious to allow of our thinking that. What then? Is there a conscientious, an honest motive that can be attributed to the iconoclasts? I think there is, and I find it in their conviction that any narrative which exhibits miraculous features is for that very reason inherently incredible. The scholarly misgivings as to the manuscript authority for St. Luke's story of the birth of Christ would quickly fade away, were it not for the far deeper misgiving veiled under the now familiar dictum, "Miracles do not happen."

There is no use, my friends, in shutting our eyes to the fact that a serious movement is on foot to formulate a non-miraculous Christianity. God forbid that I should speak harshly or bitterly of those who are engaged in this attempt. Their motive is a perfectly intelligible, and, from their point of view, an entirely praiseworthy one. Convinced, somewhat prematurely as many of us venture to [12/13] think, that modern science will speedily make an end of ancient faith unless something be done and quickly done to prevent it, they are bent on saving the ship of the Church by the process known in admiralty law as jettisoning the cargo. A ship's crew jettisons the cargo when it throws overboard so much of it as may be necessary to lighten the craft and thereby save it from foundering. But sailors who, under stress of a panic, cast away the very most valuable portion of the ship's contents, though they may be acquitted of an evil conscience, cannot be rightly credited with either coolness or discretion. Granting that the Church of Christ is tossed with tempest, as undoubtedly it is, buffeted by adverse winds, threatened by lightning, the proposal to jettison those articles of the Creed which tell of miracle is not likely to help matters. If the Church's hold on life can only be maintained by its losing hold upon the great affirmations that have made our own life endurable, there are not a few of us who would mournfully ask, Is then the Church itself worth [13/14] saving? If so much must go, why not let the rest go too?

But is there any real reason why so much should go? If there be, I confess I cannot see it; I know not what it is. Modern discovery has, no doubt, thrown a great deal of light upon some of the subjects dealt with in the Apostles' Creed. It has greatly enlarged our conceptions as to the extent of the material universe, and has correspondingly modified our estimate of the relative position which our own earth holds in the cosmos. It has added new planets to the old list and enormously multiplied the census of the stars. Moreover, we have learned, through the study of animal life, much more than used to be known concerning the human body and the interdependence of the material and immaterial elements which unite to make it what it is. But when you have said that much, you have said about all there is to say. Two or three of the articles of our belief have been illuminated by the larger light thrown upon them by what we call scientific research; not a single one of them has been invalidated.

[15] Must I count my faith in God as "Maker of heaven and earth" in the least degree affected for the worse by my having learned that the earth is spherical rather than flat, and heaven an illimitable stretch of ether instead of being, as was supposed, a huge star-lit dome arching the world? I say, No; my faith has not by these discoveries been affected for the worse; it has been affected for the better. I have exchanged a petty notion for a sublime vision. My interpretation of the first article of the Creed has gained in length and breadth and depth and height, but the article itself calls for no revision, demands no restatement. What it said a thousand years ago, it says today. Not a syllable of the majestic affirmation is outworn. Were we given the opportunity to rewrite the sentence in the light of modern knowledge, we should find it impossible to improve upon it in the slightest particular. By nothing that we could say should we add aught either to its dignity or to its significance. "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;" so said the Christians of the [15/16] primitive age, so say we. Our new knowledge has not necessitated a contradiction of the statement, a denial of the doctrine; it has simply made our present day interpretation an ampler thing than was their ancient one. And may I urge that this distinction which I have just drawn between an interpretation of an article of the faith and a flat denial of such article is the touchstone by which to test the genuineness of one's own loyalty to what the Church would have us believe. Take, for instance, the statement, "On the third day, He rose again from the dead." That opens to enquiry a whole range of questions as to the relation between the natural and the spiritual body of the Lord, the body that was taken down from the cross and laid in Joseph's tomb and the body in which the risen One appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Simon Peter and to the two at Emmaus. There is room for endless theorizing here; one theologian may hold one hypothesis and another theologian another. But this theorizing and these hypotheses must in every case be reconcilable with the record; [16/17] they must frankly take account of the empty tomb, if they are to be reckoned legitimate interpretations of what the Creed affirms. If a man says, "I accept the doctrine of Christ's resurrection, but I accept it simply in the sense of his having survived death, as we all of us hope to do. That anything happened to his body after his decease different from what usually happens, I distinctly do not believe." If a man says this, he is not "interpreting" the fifth article of the Creed, he is denying it. His hypothesis has passed beyond the Creed limit. He no longer construes, he rejects. And so also of that article of the Creed which compresses into a single sentence the Gospel of the Infancy. To say that it cannot be believed because it alleges an impossibility is simply to beg the question. Who shall say what is possible or what is impossible, when it is a Son of God who is making either his entrance into or his departure out of the earth life? If we take the ground that Almighty God cannot, under any circumstances, "do a new thing," [Isai. xliii 19.] of course the [17/18] wondrous birth must disappear and all else with it in the Gospels that has the look of being unparalleled and strange. But this is a position which modern science is showing an ever-increasing reluctance to assume. Too many "new things," unaccountable under old theories, have been coming to light of late to make such dogmatizing safe.

No, dear friends, we may keep our Christmas, when it comes, with a clear conscience, saying the old prayers and singing the old songs. The central feature of the Gospel of the Infancy has not been made incredible by science, nor is there the least likelihood that it will ever be.



[Extracts from a letter written to a young clergyman in response to an appeal for counsel in view of the difficulties of the times, and here printed because of its covering some points, germane to the subject, but not handled in the Sermon.]

MY DEAR X. I cannot refuse a plea for counsel based on such grounds as those that make the beginning and the ending of your letter, and I will try to tell you frankly just how I feel about this whole unhappy business. First of all, let me say that, in my judgment, it would be difficult to overstate the seriousness of the crisis that is upon us. The questions involved in the controversy go down to the very roots of the Christian religion, and beside them all the other issues that have been under debate in the Episcopal Church, since its colonial days, seem inconsiderable.

I take it that what we are trying to find out is whether there be room in the ministry of this Church for men holding to a ''non-natural" understanding of the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds; whether, for example, a man who believes with Matthew Arnold that, if anything be still left of the sacred body which Christ wore on earth, it lies mouldered where it was laid ''In the lone Syrian town,'' can, with a clear conscience, stand up in church and say ''On the third day he rose again from the dead''; or whether, again, believing that [19/20] Jesus was the son of Joseph, born as all other children of men are born, he can without reproach, on the Sunday mornings in Advent, read to the people, knowing that they will receive it as authentic history, a story which to his own mind is folk-lore and only that. I confess that, with my present light, I cannot see how such a course is possible for an honest man. You meet this, perhaps, with the argumentum ab silentio, and remind me that SS. Mark, John, Paul and Peter ''know nothing" of the Virgin Birth. I acknowledge that I am sadly out of fashion in not attaching weight to this ''know-nothing'' argument; and yet it does not strike me as conclusive. If these writers had said anything that conflicted with the Virgin Birth, it would indeed mean a great deal; but inasmuch as they say nothing that is out of harmony with that doctrine, and do say some things that are singularly consonant with it, their reticence does not disturb my faith.

When the Bishops, some years ago, in a Pastoral Letter, found "fixity of interpretation '' to be ''of the essence of the Creed,'' they stated what, in my humble judgment, is the opposite of the fact; but surely there must be a middle ground between a bald literalism and a wild liberalism, between, in other words, a legitimate interpretation and a sort of interpretation which it is next to impossible, if not quite impossible, for an unsophisticated mind to distinguish from blank [20/21] denial.            To illustrate: Latham's book ''The Risen Master" propounds a theory of our Lord's Resurrection quite unlike that which has been commonly received in the Church, and yet he says nothing that cannot be construed in strict harmony with the narrative as it stands. He avails himself of all the light thrown upon the subject by modern science, and at the same time is loyal to the record, in other words, he interprets without denying. Per contra, I heard the other day of a clergyman of our Church beginning an extemporaneous prayer, publicly offered in the presence of a congregation, with these words, ''O God, if Thou art.'' Doubtless the author of this extraordinary supplication would defend himself by saying that he had merely ''interpreted" according to the wisdom given unto him, the first article of the Creed; but to my mind, he appears to have enunciated what logicians call the contradictory of it. * * * And now, to come directly to the Creed as having a somewhat different status from the other portions of the Prayer Book, I understand the Anglican position to be this: That the Creed must be interpreted in the light of what is said in Holy Scripture  [* See Article VIII of the Articles of Religion.] and that any interpretation is permissible that can be shown to have the general consent of Scripture back of it. Thus, in the frequently instanced case of the eleventh article of the Creed, I do not admit that I [21/22] am nullifying the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body when I interpret it in the light of modern knowledge, and why not? Simply because I am able to meet all the objections which science raises, on chemical and biological grounds, by an appeal to St. Paul's exposition of the very doctrine to express which the article in question was framed. [I Corinthians xv.] To assume, as is commonly done, that none of those among whom the Creed took its origin understood the words in St. Paul's sense, seems to me unwarrantable. And so with all the other articles of the Creed; I find not one that is not backed by Scripture language. Much depends, of course, upon the philosophy of Nature which a man happens to hold. The spiritual philosophy of Nature has been my meat and drink ever since I began having serious thoughts upon the subject; but even so, I have to confess to finding nothing ''materialistic'' in certain statements in the Gospels which evidently to your mind have no other aspect. I want to be much more sure than I now am that matter has no rights which spirit is bound to respect (to paraphrase the Dred-Scott decision) before I determine that I must blot the prologue of two of the Gospels and the epilogue of all four of them, if I wish to free myself from the suspicion of being a materialist in disguise. There is, I think, something to be learned on this point from Augustine' s experience with the Manichaeans, as [22/23] detailed in the CONFESSIONS. With respect to the resurrection body of Christ, I am content to follow the New Testament narrative in all its literalness, even up to the under surface of the cloud which received Him out of their sight. Only when I have reached that level, do I become agnostic.

But I am talking too much about my personal beliefs. That is not what you looked to me for. Let us turn to the practical side of the question. You ask, What are we to do? Stay in or go out? My reply is: Do nothing rashly or in haste. You say you love the old institution despite the folk-lore, etc. Well, perhaps longer brooding over this very fact that you do love the old institution may awaken in you the surmise that possibly the institution would never have acquired those characteristics which have made you love it had it been built up around any other group of ideas than that around which, as a matter of fact, it has been built up. Would Christmas and Easter, to take palmary instances, be exactly what they are, I wonder, if the two events for which they stand had all along been understood to be miraculous only in that spiritual sense in which Romanists are told to believe that ''the miracle of the altar'' is wrought, namely, with no visible concomitants, no environment of evident fact? It may be possible,—it must be possible, since credible brethren are telling us that it is so in their case, to hold the dogma of the Incarnation in all its fullness [23/24] while maintaining that Jesus was the son of Joseph. But will it long be possible? Will it be possible after hard-headed critics have begun to ask the question, ''Why then should we be required to believe that He was not a sinner like the rest of us? You take the burden of one miracle off our shoulders only to impose another, for the sinlessness of Jesus is the greatest of all miracles.'' Look at it, moreover, from the side of cause and effect. Does a Gospel of the Resurrection ''spiritualized'' into a ghost story adequately account for the upspringing of Christendom? When criticism shall have dwarfed the ''holy Nativity'' into a common birth, and the ''precious death'' into a common dying, will not sensible people quickly reach the conclusion that the whole story, from first to last, is but a cunningly devised fable? You speak of the mention of ''the third day'' in the Creed as if it were an obvious instance of superstition. For myself, I do not feel sufficiently acquainted with the resurrection process to be able to affirm with any confidence (apart from revelation) what the rising of a Son of God from the dead, supposing it to occur, might mean. Time is a great mystery, timelessness a greater and for aught I know, the interval period so carefully noted in both Creeds under the words ''the third day'' may have some far-reaching signification that quite transcends the almanac. * * * Your doctrinal position, if I understand it, is not unlike that of the Rev. Stopford Brooke, one of [24/25] the keenest and most devout intellects of the Victorian period. He broke with the Church of England on this very question of miracles, and with a fine courage and a splendid sincerity went out, not knowing whither he went. I can fully understand the feeling of those who think with the editor of THE HIBBERT JOURNAL [Church and World. Hibbert Journal for October, 1906.] (see the opening article of the current number) that the time has come frankly to disavow the ancient distinction between the Church and the world, and to set up a theistic society into which ''all people that on earth do dwell'' may come, with no questions asked save the single one, Do you love goodness? That would mean, no doubt, getting rid of a somewhat troublesome dualism; we should no longer have the scandal of bad men in the Church and good men out of it; but I cannot help fearing that the large comprehension would be secured at too great a cost, and would mean the loss out of human life of certain powers, the presence of which in the organism, or, if you please, the organization, we name the Church, has helped us on to where we are. That such a world-Church would be warmly welcomed in some countries, and by some races, is not unlikely but I cannot think that English religion would feel like making terms with it.

But I must bring this already too long letter to an end. What all this means to me I will not attempt to say. I am no such expert as you are [25/26] in the new learning. The Higher Criticism came too late for me to master it. Indeed, I make no claim to profound scholarship in any field; but, as you know, for you make reference to the fact, I have given much thought to the principles of ecclesiastical unity, and have devoted forty years to a continuous effort after a better understanding among believers. I have labored for peace; and now, in the very communion which some of us have fondly hoped might prove the rallying centre, there come these ominous tokens of a possible disruption such as would make my dream that ''iridescent'' thing the critics have always insisted that it was. But old man that I am getting to be, I am not quite ready to fall into the querulous mood supposed to be proper to old age. It may be that some larger unity than that of which I have been dreaming all these years is in store for Christ's flock, and that to your ideas is to be granted a victory of which my narrower ones were not deemed worthy. But I doubt it. Believe me,

Faithfully yours,

W. R. H.

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