I have completed a task painful to myself and the reader. Painful to myself inasmuch as I am humiliated upon remembering the power which arguments, so shallow and so easily to be refuted, once had upon me; painful to the reader, as everything must be painful which even appears to throw doubt upon the most sublime event that has happened in human history. How little does all that has been written above touch the real question at issue, yet, what self-discipline and mental training is required before we learn to distinguish the essential from the unessential.
Before, however, we come to close quarters with our opponents concerning the views put forward in the preceding chapters, it will be well to consider two questions of the gravest and most interesting character, questions which will probably have already occurred to the reader with such force as to demand immediate answer. They are these.
Firstly, what will be the consequences of admitting any considerable deviation from historical accuracy on the part of the sacred writers?
Secondly, how can it be conceivable that God should have permitted inaccuracy or obscurity in the evidence concerning the Divine commission of His Son?
If God so loved the World that He sent His only begotten Son into it to rescue those who believed in Him from destruction, how is it credible that He should not have so arranged matters as that all should find it easy to believe? If He wanted to save mankind and knew that the only way in which mankind could be saved was by believing certain facts, how can it be that the records of the facts should have been allowed to fall into confusion?
To both these questions I trust that the following answers may appear conclusive.
I. As regards the consequences which may be supposed to follow upon giving up any part of the sacred writings, no matter how seemingly unimportant, it is undoubtedly true that to many minds they have appeared too dangerous to be even contemplated. Thus through fear of some supposed unutterable consequences which would happen to the cause of truth if truth were spoken, people profess to believe in the genuineness of many passages in the Bible which are universally acknowledged by competent judges of every shade of theological opinion to be interpolations into the original text. To say nothing of the Old Testament, where many whole books are of disputed genuineness or authenticity, there are portions of the New which none will seriously defend;--for example, the last verses of St. Mark's Gospel,--containing, as they do, the sentence of damnation against all who do not believe--the second half of the third, and the whole of the fourth verse of the fifth chapter of St. John's Gospel, the story of the woman taken in adultery, and probably the whole of the last chapter of St. John's Gospel, not to mention the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and to the Ephesians, the Epistles of Peter and James, the famous verses as to the three witnesses in the First Epistle of St. John, and perhaps also the book of Revelation. These are passages and works about which there is either no doubt at all as to their not being genuine, or over which there hangs so much uncertainty that no dependence can be placed upon them.
But over and above these, there are not a few parts of each of the Gospels which, though of undisputed genuineness, cannot be accepted as historical; thus the account of the Resurrection given by St. Matthew, and parts of those by Luke and Mark, the cursing of the barren fig-tree, and the prophecies of His Resurrection ascribed to our Lord Himself, will not stand the tests of criticism which we are bound to apply to them if we are to exercise the right of private judgement; instead of handing ourselves over to a priesthood as the sole custodians and interpreters of the Bible. It has been said by some that the miracle of the penny found in the fish's mouth should be included in the above category, but it should be remembered that we have only the injunction of our Lord to St. Peter that he should catch the fish and the promise that he should find the penny in its mouth, but that we have no account of the sequel, it is therefore possible that in the event of St. Peter's faith having failed him he may have procured the money from some other source, and that thus the miracle, though undoubtedly intended, was never actually performed. How unnecessary therefore as well as presumptuous are the Rationalistic interpretations which have been put upon the event by certain German writers!
Now there are few, if any, who would be so illiberal as to wish for the exclusion from the sacred volume of all those books or passages which, though neither genuine nor perhaps edifying, have remained in the Canon of Scripture for many centuries. Any serious attempt to reconstruct the Canon would raise a theological storm which would not subside in this century. The work could never be done perfectly, and even if it could, it would have to be done at the expense of tearing all Christendom in pieces. The passages do little or no harm where they are, and have received the sanction of time; let them therefore by all means remain in their present position. But the question is still forced upon us whether the consequences of openly admitting the certain spuriousness of many passages, and the questionable nature of others as regards morality, genuineness and authenticity, should be feared as being likely to prejudice the main doctrines of Christianity.
The answer is very plain. He who has vouchsafed to us the Christian dispensation may be safely trusted to provide that no harm shall happen, either to it or to us, from an honest endeavour to attain the truth concerning it. What have we to do with consequences? These are in the hands of God. Our duty is to seek out the truth in prayer and humility, and when we believe that we have found it, to cleave to it through evil and good report; TO FAIL IN THIS IS TO FAIL IN FAITH; to fail in faith is to be an infidel. Those who suppose that it is wiser to gloss over this or that, and who consider it "injudicious" to announce the whole truth in connection with Christianity, should have learnt by this time that no admission which can by any possibility be required of them can be so perilous to the cause of Christ as the appearance of shirking investigation. It has already been insisted upon that cowardice is at the root of the infidelity which we see around us; the want of faith in the power of truth which exists in certain pious but timid hearts has begotten utter unbelief in the minds of all superficial investigators into Christian evidences. Such persons see that the defenders have something in the background, something which they would cling to although they are secretly aware that they cannot justly claim it. This is enough for many, and hence more harm is done by fear than could ever have been done by boldness. Boldness goes out into the fight, and if in the wrong gets slain, childless. Fear stays at home and is prolific of a brood of falsehoods.
It is immoral to regard consequences at all, where truth and justice are concerned; the being impregnated with this conviction to the inmost core of one's heart is an axiom of common honesty--one of the essential features which distinguish a good man from a bad one. Nevertheless, to make it plain that the consequences of outspoken truthfulness in connection with the scriptural writings would have no harmful effect whatever, but would, on the contrary, be of the utmost service as removing a stumbling-block from the way of many--let us for the moment suppose that very much more would have to be given up than can ever be demanded.
Suppose we were driven to admit that nothing in the life of our Lord can be certainly depended upon beyond the facts that He was begotten by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; that He worked many miracles upon earth, and delivered St. Matthew's version of the sermon on the mount and most of the parables as we now have them; finally, that He was crucified, dead, and buried, that He rose again from the dead upon the third day, and ascended unto Heaven. Granting for the sake of argument that we could rely on no other facts, what would follow? Nothing which could in any way impair the living power of Christianity.
The essentials of Christianity, i.e., a belief in the Divinity of the Saviour and in His Resurrection and Ascension, have stood, and will stand, for ever against any attacks that can be made upon them, and these are probably the only facts in which belief has ever been absolutely necessary for salvation; the answer, therefore, to the question what ill consequences would arise from the open avowal of things which every student must know to be the fact concerning the biblical writings is that there would be none at all. The Christ- ideal which, after all, is the soul and spirit of Christianity would remain precisely where it was, while its recognition would be far more general, owing to the departure on the part of its apologists from certain lines of defence which are irreconcilable with the ideal itself.
II. Returning to the objection how it could be possible that God should have left the records of our Lord's history in such a vague and fragmentary condition, if it were really of such intense importance for the world to understand it and believe in it, we find ourselves face to face with a question of far greater importance and difficulty.
The old theory that God desired to test our faith, and that there would be no merit in believing if the evidence were such as to commend itself at once to our understanding, is one which need only be stated to be set aside. It is blasphemy against the goodness of God to suppose that He has thus laid as it were an ambuscade for man, and will only let him escape on condition of his consenting to violate one of the very most precious of God's own gifts. There is an ingenious cruelty about such conduct which it is revolting even to imagine. Indeed, the whole theory reduces our Heavenly Father to a level of wisdom and goodness far below our own; and this is sufficient answer to it.
But when, turning aside from the above, we try to adopt some other and more reasonable view, we naturally set ourselves to consider why the Almighty should have required belief in the Divinity of His Son from man. What is there in this belief on man's part which can be so grateful to God that He should make it a sine qua non for man's salvation? As regards Himself, how can it matter to Him what man should think of Him? Nay, it must be for man's own good that the belief is demanded.
And why? Surely we can see plainly that it is the beauty of the Christ-ideal which constitutes the working power of Christianity over the hearts and lives of men, leading them to that highest of all worships which consists in imitation. Now the sanction which is given to this ideal by belief in the Divinity of our Lord, raises it at once above all possibility of criticism. If it had not been so sanctioned it might have been considered open to improvement; one critic would have had this, and another that; comparison would have been made with ideals of purely human origin such as the Greek ideal, exemplified in the work of Phidias, and in later times with the mediaeval Italian ideal, as deducible from the best fifteenth and early sixteenth Italian painting and sculpture, the Madonnas of Bellini and Raphael, or the St. George of Donatello; or again with the ideal derivable from the works of our own Shakespeare, and there are some even now among those who deny the Divinity of Christ who will profess that each one of these ideals is more universal, more fitted for the spiritual food of a man, and indeed actually higher, than that presented by the life and death of our Saviour. But once let the Divine origin of this last ideal be admitted, and there can be no further uncertainty; hence the absolute necessity for belief in Christ's Divinity as closing the most important of all questions, Whereunto should a man endeavour to liken both himself and his children?
Seeing then that we have reasonable ground for thinking that belief in the Divinity of our Lord is mainly required of us in order to exalt our sense of the paramount importance of following and obeying the life and commands of Christ, it is natural also to suppose THAT WHATEVER MAY HAVE HAPPENED TO THE RECORDS OF THAT LIFE should have been ordained with a view to the enhancing of the preciousness of the ideal.
Now, the fragmentary character, and the partial obscurity--I might have almost written, the incomparable chiaroscuro--of the Evangelistic writings have added to the value of our Lord's character as an ideal, not only in the case of Christians, but as bringing the Christ-ideal within the reach and comprehension of an infinitely greater number of minds than it could ever otherwise have appealed to. It is true that those who are insensible to spiritual influences, and whose materialistic instinct leads them to deny everything which is not as clearly demonstrable by external evidence as a fact in chemistry, geography, or mathematics, will fail to find the hardness, definition, tightness, and, let me add, littleness of outline, in which their souls delight; they will find rather the gloom and gleam of Rembrandt, or the golden twilight of the Venetians, the losing and the finding, and the infinite liberty of shadow; and this they hate, inasmuch as it taxes their imagination, which is no less deficient than their power of sympathy; they would have all found, as in one of those laboured pictures wherein each form is as an inflated bladder and, has its own uncompromising outline remorselessly insisted upon.
Looking to the ideals of purely human creation which have come down to us from old times, do we find that the Theseus suffers because we are unable to realise to ourselves the precise features of the original? Or again do the works of John Bellini suffer because the hand of the painter was less dexterous than his intention pure? It is not what a man has actually put upon his canvas, but what he makes us feel that he felt, which makes the difference between good and bad in painting. Bellini's hand was cunning enough to make us feel what he intended, and did his utmost to realise; but he has not realised it, and the same hallowing effect which has been wrought upon the Theseus by decay (to the enlarging of its spiritual influence), has been wrought upon the work of Bellini by incapacity--the incapacity of the painter to utter perfectly the perfect thought which was within. The early Italian paintings have that stamp of individuality upon them which assures us that they are not only portraits, but as faithful portraits as the painter could make them, more than this we know not, but more is unnecessary.
Do we not detect an analogy to this in the records of the Evangelists? Do we not see the child-like unself-seeking work of earnest and loving hearts, whose innocence and simplicity more than atone for their many shortcomings, their distorted renderings, and their omissions? We can see THROUGH these things as through a glass darkly, or as one looking upon some ineffable masterpiece of Venetian portraiture by the fading light of an autumnal evening, when the beauty of the picture is enhanced a hundredfold by the gloom and mystery of dusk. We may indeed see less of the actual lineaments themselves, but the echo is ever more spiritually tuneful than the sound, and the echo we find within us. Our imagination is in closer communion with our longings than the hand of any painter.
Those who relish definition, and definition only, are indeed kept away from Christianity by the present condition of the records, but even if the life of our Lord had been so definitely rendered as to find a place in their system, would it have greatly served their souls? And would it not repel hundreds and thousands of others, who find in the suggestiveness of the sketch a completeness of satisfaction, which no photographic reproduction could have given? The above may be difficult to understand, but let me earnestly implore the reader to endeavour to master its import.
People misunderstand the aim and scope of religion. Religion is only intended to guide men in those matters upon which science is silent. God illumines us by science as with a mechanical draughtsman's plan; He illumines us in the Gospels as by the drawing of a great artist. We cannot build a "Great Eastern" from the drawings of the artist, but what poetical feeling, what true spiritual emotion was ever kindled by a mechanical drawing? How cold and dead were science unless supplemented by art and by religion! Not joined with them, for the merest touch of these things impairs scientific value--which depends essentially upon accuracy, and not upon any feeling for the beautiful and lovable. In like manner the merest touch of science chills the warmth of sentiment--the spiritual life. The mechanical drawing is spoiled by being made artistic, and the work of the artist by becoming mechanical. The aim of the one is to teach men how to construct, of the other how to feel.
For the due conservation therefore of both the essential requisites of human well-being--science, and religion--it is requisite that they be kept asunder and reserved for separate use at different times. Religion is the mistress of the arts, and every art which does not serve religion truly is doomed to perish as a lying and unprofitable servant. Science is external to religion, being a separate dispensation, a distinct revelation to mankind, whereby we are put into full present possession of more and more of God's modes of dealing with material things, according as we become more fitted to receive them through the apprehension of those modes which have been already laid open to us.
We ought not therefore to have expected scientific accuracy from the Gospel records--much less should we be required to believe that such accuracy exists. Does any great artist ever dream of aiming directly at imitation? He aims at representation--not at imitation. In order to attain true mastery here, he must spend years in learning how to see; and then no less time in learning how NOT to see. Finally, he learns how to translate. Take Turner for example. Who conveys so living an impression of the face of nature? Yet go up to his canvas and what does one find thereon? Imitation? Nay--blotches and daubs of paint; the combination of these daubs, each one in itself when taken alone absolutely untrue, forms an impression which is quite truthful. No combination of minute truths in a picture will give so faithful a representation of nature as a wisely arranged tissue of untruths.
Absolute reproduction is impossible even to the photograph. The work of a great artist is far more truthful than any photograph; but not even the greatest artist can convey to our minds the whole truth of nature; no human hand nor pigments can expound all that lies hidden in "Nature's infinite book of secrecy"; the utmost that can be done is to convey an impression, and if the impression is to be conveyed truthfully, the means must often be of the most unforeseen character. The old Pre-Raphaelites aimed at absolute reproduction. They were succeeded by a race of men who saw all that their predecessors had seen, but also something higher. The Van Eycks and Memling paved the way for painters who found their highest representatives in Rubens, Vandyke, and Rembrandt--the mightiest of them all. Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio and Mantegna were succeeded by Titian, Giorgione, and Tintoretto; Perugino was succeeded by Raphael. It is everywhere the same story; a reverend but child-like worship of the letter, followed by a manful apprehension of the spirit, and, alas! in due time by an almost total disregard of the letter; then rant and cant and bombast, till the value of the letter is reasserted. In theology the early men are represented by the Evangelicals, the times of utter decadence by infidelity--the middle race of giants is yet to come, and will be found in those who, while seeing something far beyond either minute accuracy or minute inaccuracy, are yet fully alive both to the letter and to the spirit of the Gospels.
Again, do not the seeming wrongs which the greatest ideals of purely human origin have suffered at the hands of time, add to their value instead of detracting from it? Is it not probable that if we were to see the glorious fragments from the Parthenon, the Theseus and the Ilyssus, or even the Venus of Milo, in their original and unmutilated condition, we should find that they appealed to us much less forcibly than they do at present? All ideals gain by vagueness and lose by definition, inasmuch as more scope is left for the imagination of the beholder, who can thus fill in the missing detail according to his own spiritual needs. This is how it comes that nothing which is recent, whether animate or inanimate, can serve as an ideal unless it is adorned by more than common mystery and uncertainty. A new Cathedral is necessarily very ugly. There is too much found and too little lost. Much less could an absolutely perfect Being be of the highest value as an ideal, as long as He could be clearly seen, for it is impossible that He could be known as perfect by imperfect men, and His very perfections must perforce appear as blemishes to any but perfect critics. To give therefore an impression of perfection, to create an absolutely unsurpassable ideal, it became essential that the actual image of the original should become blurred and lost, whereon the beholder now supplies from his own imagination that which is TO HIM more perfect than the original, though objectively it must be infinitely less so.
It is probably to this cause that the incredulity of the Apostles during our Lord's life-time must be assigned. The ideal was too near them, and too far above their comprehension; for it must be always remembered that the convincing power of miracles in the days of the Apostles must have been greatly weakened by the current belief in their being events of no very unusual occurrence, and in the existence both of good and evil spirits who could take possession of men and compel them to do their bidding. A resurrection from the dead or a restoration of sight to the blind, must have seemed even less portentous to them, than an unusually skilful treatment of disease by a physician is to us. We can therefore understand how it happened that the faith of the Apostles was so little to be depended upon even up to the Crucifixion, inasmuch as the convincing power of miracles had been already, so to speak, exhausted, a fact which may perhaps explain the early withdrawal of the power to work them; we cannot indeed believe that it could have been so far weakened as to make the Apostles disregard the prophecies of their Master that He should rise from the dead, if He had ever uttered them, and we have already seen reason to think that these prophecies are the ex post facto handiwork of time; but the incredulity of the disciples, when seen through the light now thrown upon it, loses that wholly inexplicable character which it would otherwise bear.
But to return to the subject of the ideal presented by the life and death of our Lord. In the earliest days of the Church there can have been no want of the most complete and irrefragable evidence for the objective reality of the miracles, and especially of the Resurrection and Ascension. The character of Christ would also stand out revealed to all, with the most copious fulness of detail. The limits within which so sharply defined an ideal could be acceptable were narrow, but as the radius of Christian influence increased, so also would the vagueness and elasticity of the ideal; and as the elasticity of the ideal, so also the range of its influence.
A beneficent and truly marvellous provision for the greater complexity of man's spiritual needs was thus provided by a gradual loss of detail and gain of breadth. Enough evidence was given in the first instance to secure authoritative sanction for the ideal. During the first thirty or forty years after the death of our Lord no one could be in want of evidence, and the guilt of unbelief is therefore brought prominently forward. Then came the loss of detail which was necessary in order to secure the universal acceptability of the ideal; but the same causes which blurred the distinctness of the features, involved the inevitable blurring of no small portions of the external evidences whereby the Divine origin of the ideal was established. The primary external evidence became less and less capable of compelling instantaneous assent, according as it was less wanted, owing to the greater mass of secondary evidence, and to the growth of appreciation of the internal evidences, a growth which would be fostered by the growing adaptability of the ideal.
Some thirty or forty years, then, from the death of our Saviour the case would stand thus. The Christ-ideal would have become infinitely more vague, and hence infinitely more universal: but the causes which had thus added to its value would also have destroyed whatever primary evidence was superabundant, and the vagueness which had overspread the ideal would have extended itself in some measure over the evidences which had established its Divine origin.
But there would of course be limits to the gain caused by decay. Time came when there would be danger of too much vagueness in the ideal, and too little distinctness in the evidences. It became necessary therefore to provide against this danger.
PRECISELY AT THAT EPOCH THE GOSPELS MADE THEIR APPEARANCE. Not simultaneously, not in concert, and not in perfect harmony with each other, yet with the error distributed skilfully among them, as in a well-tuned instrument wherein each string is purposely something out of tune with every other. Their divergence of aim, and different authorship, secured the necessary breadth of effect when the accounts were viewed together; their universal recognition afforded the necessary permanency, and arrested further decay. If I may be pardoned for using another illustration, I would say that as the roundness of the stereoscopic image can only be attained by the combination of two distinct pictures, neither of them in perfect harmony with the other, so the highest possible conception of Christ, cannot otherwise be produced than through the discrepancies of the Gospels.
From the moment of the appearing of the Gospels, and, I should add, of the Epistles of St. Paul, the external evidences of Christianity became secured from further change; as they were then, so are they now, they can neither be added to nor subtracted from; they have lain as it were sleeping, till the time should come to awaken them. And the time is surely now, for there has arisen a very numerous and increasing class of persons, whose habits of mind unfit them for appreciating the value of vagueness, but who have each one of them a soul which may be lost or saved, and on whose behalf the evidences for the authority whereby the Christ-ideal is sanctioned, should be restored to something like their former sharpness. Christianity contains provision for all needs upon their arising. The work of restoration is easy. It demands this much only--the recognition that time has made incrustations upon some parts of the evidences, and that it has destroyed others; when this is admitted, it becomes easy, after a little practice, to detect the parts that have been added, and to remove them, the parts that are wanting, and to supply them. Only let this be done outside the pages of the Bible itself, and not to the disturbance of their present form and arrangement.
The above explanation of the causes for the obscurity which rests upon much of our Lord's life and teaching, may give us ground for hoping that some of those who have failed to feel the force of the external evidences hitherto, may yet be saved, provided they have fully recognised the Christ-ideal and endeavoured to imitate it, although irrespectively of any belief in its historical character.
It is reasonable to suppose that the duty of belief was so imperatively insisted upon, in order that the ideal might thus be exalted above controversy, and made more sacred in the eyes of men than it could have been if referable to a purely human source. May not, then, one who recognises the ideal as his summum bonum find grace although he knows not, or even cares not, how it should have come to be so? For even a sceptic who regarded the whole New Testament as a work of art, a poem, a pure fiction from beginning to end, and who revered it for its intrinsic beauty only, as though it were a picture or statue, even such a person might well find that it engendered in him an ideal of goodness and power and love and human sympathy, which could be derived from no other source. If, then, our blessed Lord so causes the sun of His righteousness to shine upon these men, shall we presume to say that He will not in another world restore them to that full communion with Himself which can only come from a belief in His Divinity?
We can understand that it should have been impossible to proclaim this in the earliest ages of the Church, inasmuch as no weakening of the sanctions of the ideal could be tolerated, but are we bound to extend the operation of the many passages condemnatory of unbelief to a time so remote as our own, and to circumstances so widely different from those under which they were uttered? Do we so extend the command not to eat things strangled or blood, or the assertion of St. Paul that the unmarried state is higher than the married? May we not therefore hope that certain kinds of unbelief have become less hateful in the sight of God inasmuch as they are less dangerous to the universal acceptance of our Lord as the one model for the imitation of all men? For, after all, it is not belief in the facts which constitutes the essence of Christianity, but rather the being so impregnated with love at the contemplation of Christ that imitation becomes almost instinctive; this it is which draws the hearts of men to God the Father, far more than any intellectual belief that God sent our Lord into the world, ordaining that he should be crucified and rise from the dead. Christianity is addressed rather to the infinite spirit of man than to his finite intelligence, and the believing in Christ through love is more precious in the sight of God than any loving through belief. May we not hope, then, that those whose love is great may in the end find acceptance, though their belief is small? We dare not answer this positively; but we know that there are times of transition in the clearness of the Christian evidences as in all else, and the treatment of those whose lot is cast in such times will surely not escape the consideration of our Heavenly Father.
But with reference to the many-sidedness of the Christ-ideal, as having been part of the design of God, and not attainable otherwise than as the creation of destruction--as coming out of the waste of time--it is clear that the perception of such a design could only be an offspring of modern thought; the conception of such an apparently self-frustrating scheme could only arise in minds which were familiar with the manner in which it is necessary "to hound nature in her wanderings" before her feints can be eluded, and her prevarications brought to book. A deep distrust of the over-obvious is wanted, before men can be brought to turn aside from objections which at the first blush appear to be very serious, and to take refuge in solutions which seem harder than the problems which they are intended to solve. What a shock must the discovery of the rotation of the earth have given to the moral sense of the age in which it was made. How it contradicted all human experience. How it must have outraged common sense. How it must have encouraged scepticism even about the most obvious truths of morality. No question could henceforth be considered settled; everything seemed to require reopening; for if man had once been deceived by Nature so entirely, if he had been so utterly led astray and deluded by the plausibility of her pretence that the earth was immovably fixed, what else, that seemed no less incontrovertible, might not prove no less false?
It is probable that the opposition to Galileo on the part of the Roman church was as much due to some such feelings as these, as to theological objections; the discovery was felt to unsettle not only the foundations of the earth, but those of every branch of human knowledge and polity, and hence to be an outrage upon morality itself. A man has no right to be very much in advance of other people; he is as a sheep, which may lead the mob, but must not stray forward a quarter of a mile in front of it; if he does this, he must be rounded up again, no matter how right may have been his direction. He has no right to be right, unless he can get a certain following to keep him company; the shock to morality and the encouragement to lawlessness do more harm than his discovery can atone for. Let him hold himself back till he can get one or two more to come with him. In like manner, had reflections as to the advantage gained by the Christ ideal in consequence of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of the Gospels--reflections which must now occur to any one--been put forward a hundred years ago, they would have met justly with the severest condemnation. But now, even those to whom they may not have occurred already will have little difficulty in admitting their force.
But be this as it may, it is certain that the inability to understand how the sense of Christ in the souls of men could be strengthened by the loss of much knowledge of His character, and of the facts connected with His history, lies at the root of the error even of the Apostle St. Paul, who exclaims with his usual fervour, but with less than his usual wisdom, "Has Christ been divided?" (I. Cor. i., 13). "Yea," we may make answer, "He is divided and is yet divisible that all may share in Him." St. Paul himself had realised that it was the spiritual value of the Christ-ideal which was the purifier and refresher of our souls, inasmuch as he elsewhere declares that even though he had known Christ Himself after the flesh, he knew Him no more; the spiritual Christ, that is to say the spirit of Christ as recognisable by the spirits of men, was to him all in all. But he lived too near the days of our Lord for a full comprehension of the Christian scheme, and it is possible that had he known Christ after the flesh, his soul might have been less capable of recognising the spiritual essence, rather than more so. Have we here a faint glimmering of the motive of the Almighty in not having allowed the Gentile Apostle to see Christ after the flesh? We cannot say. But we may say this much with certainty, that had he been living now, St. Paul would have rejoiced at the many-sidedness of Christ, which he appears to have hardly recognised in his own life-time.
The apparently contradictory portraits of our Lord which we find in the Gospels--so long a stumbling-block to unbelievers--are now seen to be the very means which enable men of all ranks, and all shades of opinion, to accept Christ as their ideal; they are like the sea, which from having seemed the most impassable of all objects, turns out to be the greatest highway of communication. To the artisan, for instance, who may have long been out of work, or who may have suffered from the greed and selfishness of his employers, or again, to the farm labourer who has been discharged perhaps at the approach of winter, the parable of "the Labourers in the Vineyard" offers itself as a divinely sanctioned picture of the dealings of God with man; few but those who have mixed much with the less educated classes, can have any idea of the priceless comfort which this parable affords daily to those whose lot it has been to remain unemployed when their more fortunate brethren have been in full work. How many of the poor, again, are drawn to Christianity by the parable of Dives and Lazarus. How many a humble-minded Christian while reflecting upon the hardness of his lot, and tempted to cast a longing eye upon the luxuries which are at the command of his richer neighbours, is restrained from seriously coveting them, by remembering the awful fate of Dives, and the happy future which was in store for Lazarus. "Dives," they exclaim, "in his life-time possessed good things and in like manner Lazarus evil things, but now the one is comforted in the bosom of Abraham, and the other tormented in a lake of fire." They remember, also, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of Heaven.
It has been said by some that the poor are thus encouraged to gloat over the future misery of the rich, and that many of the sayings ascribed to our Lord have an unhealthy influence over their minds. I remember to have thought so once myself, but I have seen reason to change my mind. Hope is given by these sayings to many whose lives would be otherwise very nearly hopeless, and though I fully grant that the parable of Dives and Lazarus can only afford comfort to the very poor, yet it is most certain that it DOES afford comfort to this numerous class, and helps to keep them contented with many things which they would not otherwise endure.
On the other hand, though the poor are first provided for, the rich are not left without their full share of consolation. Joseph of Arimathaea was rich, and modern criticism forbids us to believe that the parable of Dives and Lazarus was ever actually spoken by our Lord--at any rate not in its present form. Neither are the children of the rich forgotten; the son who repents at length of a course of extravagant or riotous living is encouraged to return to virtue, and to seek reconciliation with his father, by reflecting upon the parable of the Prodigal Son, wherein he will find an everlasting model for the conduct of all earthly fathers. I will say nothing of the parable of the Unjust Steward, for it is one of which the interpretation is most uncertain; nevertheless I am sure that it affords comfort to a very large number of persons.
Christ came not to the whole, but to those that were sick; he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Even our fallen sisters are remembered in the story of the woman taken in adultery, which reminds them that they can only be condemned justly by those who are without sin. It is to the poor, the weak, the ignorant and the infirm that Christianity appeals most strongly, and to whose needs it is most especially adapted--but these form by far the greater portion of mankind. "Blessed are they that mourn!" Whose sorrow is not assuaged by the mere sound of these words? Who again is not reassured by being reminded that our Heavenly Father feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies of the field, and that if we will only seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness we need take no heed for the morrow what we shall eat, and what we shall drink, nor wherewithal we shall be clothed. God will provide these things for us if we are true Christians, whether we take heed concerning them or not. "I have been young and now am old," saith the Psalmist, "yet never saw I the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging their bread."
How infinitely nobler and more soul-satisfying is the ideal of the Christian saint with wasted limbs, and clothed in the garb of poverty--his upturned eyes piercing the very heavens in the ecstasy of a divine despair--than any of the fleshly ideals of gross human conception such as have already been alluded to. If a man does not feel this instinctively for himself, let him test it thus--whom does his heart of hearts tell him that his son will be most like God in resembling? The Theseus? The Discobolus? or the St. Peters and St. Pauls of Guido and Domenichino? Who can hesitate for a moment as to which ideal presents the higher development of human nature? And this I take it should suffice; the natural instinct which draws us to the Christ-ideal in preference to all others as soon as it has been once presented to us, is a sufficient guarantee of its being the one most tending to the general well-being of the world.