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These words are still echoed and re-echoed from ten thousand pulpits, and as many Christian teachers ring constantly the changes, and they are various, on the words, “ Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” On the one hand, we are told by divines of the Episcopal Churches of England and Ireland, as well as by the Roman Catholic, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, that, “Whosoever will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which faith, except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly;" a portion of this Catholic faith being the words quoted concerning Jesus from the same creed in the former chapter.
And we are also informed by divines of the Church of Scotland, quoting from their Confession of Faith, viz. that of Westminster, chap. 33, par. 2, “The wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” For those who ask to have these “eternal torments” more plainly defined, there is the answer to Question 29 in the “Larger Catechism,” viz. “Most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire, for ever.” To these torments all are destined who are not saved, and lest it be supposed that only the flagrantly “wicked" will be thus condemned, we quote Answer to Question 60, “They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature.”
But here it is due to ourselves and our readers to admit that we cannot profess to urge the hideous clauses above quoted as reasons why we should seek to know Jesus. We let them stand as part of what is still nominally held and authoritatively stated, but we do not now write for such as accept literally either the Catholic or Calvinist creed in its entirety. We are not speaking of such persons as explain away what is most offensive to the unsophisticated (like the late Charles Kingsley, who wrote, in all sincerity, in defence of the Athanasian Creed), but of those who profess to believe either creed in its most obvious
We shall hardly obtain serious readers from amongst these.
The masses of the people, also, who frequent Methodist and other evangelical places of worship, and especially those who are found at “revival services” and in the ranks of the “Salvation Army," give utterance in song to their conviction of the supreme need for belief in Jesus as “the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.”
Believe, and all your sin's forgiven ;
Only believe, and yours is heaven." So the Methodists; but the more thoroughgoing of the Evangelicals echo the oft-quoted words found in some collections of hymns for revival services :
“Till to Jesus' cross you cling
By a simple faith,
Doing ends in death.”
We see, then, that the question “What think ye of the Christ ?” is truly a momentous one, and, in words at least, is by the majority confessed to be so. It is not a question confined to any particular class or section, but one that intimately concerns the welfare of every individual, and as such ought to command the serious attention of all who are able to consider it, and who have not already done so.
This great importance of the subject is, strange to say, to many the very reason why they do not seriously entertain it as a question. Awestricken by the terrible doom pronounced on want of belief-on unbelief, they hasten to silence any unwelcome doubt of the truth of the creed which they have been trained from infancy to regard as certainly revealed from heaven; such doubt they unhesitatingly stifle as “devil-born.”
This is an attitude, however, which we, on the eve of an inquiry into the truth concerning Jesus, cannot take. Whatever may be our private conviction, it does not become us to assume beforehand the truth of any particular view or set of views
The whole question is to us, at this our present standpoint, an open one, excepting only the extreme aspects we have already noticed, but to reprobate as too absurd for this discussion.* Therefore, and because we are bound, previous to inquiry, to admit
* We mean that we-and, we presume, our readers—had already given such attention to them as they deserve, and had rejected them long before entering on the present inquiry, any consideration of these revolting dogmas belonging to a more elementary stage.
the possibility of the truth of each and every one of the various beliefs we have, without criticizing, noticed respecting Jesus, we are also under obligation to recognize the magnitude of the issues involved, and to confess that doubt on the main questions must be indeed misery—that suspension of judgment would be fatal to inward peace.
To say that a subject is important is to affirm that it is important to know the truth respecting it. This is now generally acknowledged. The age is passed in which men could be publicly asked to silence doubt in any other way than by resolute searching after truth. To stifle doubt is evidence of laziness, cowardice, or imbecility. To be apathetic regarding a matter of such grave import is a state of mind wholly indefensible; the trifler himself admits his folly. Those who state that the truth cannot be known, have assuredly no right to do so before they have tried to find it. For our own part, as regards the question of the importance of the subject, we are disposed to admit it, even if the result of inquiry be that no evidence of the supernatural is forthcoming in connection with the great Nazarene. In that case, to say nothing further of the moral benefit to be derived from studying the character and teaching of Jesus, it would still be a great work, in which each may be allowed to help according to his ability, to free the world from the terrible dogmas which cluster around the name of Jesus, some of which we have alluded to above. For if Jesus was, after all, a merely
natural man,-indeed, if there be no evidence amounting to a balance of probability for the miraculous, then these doctrines can no longer be sustained, and deserve to perish as colossal fictions, of which great will be the fall.
That the author of “Supernatural Religion,” for example, came sincerely to just this negative conclusion, is evident to any one, not a bigot, who reads him. He believed himself able to enlighten others on the subject, and was therefore justified in attempting to do so. To dismiss his plea of duty as a mere pretext is worse than a breach of good manners; and to stigmatize him as guilty, because he gives the reasons for his honest convictions (however mistaken he may be), is to show that one has not apprehended one of the most elementary ethical truths.*
There is one aspect of the subject which does not, it seems to us, command the attention it deserves. That is, the moral obligation resting on men, and especially on teachers of religion, to refrain from affirming the truth of any disputed proposition, unless
* We were led to make these remarks on reading the following in reference to “Supernatural Religion : ”—“The guilt of one single murder, which shortens the span of one little life, seems trivial compared with the guilt of this prolonged effort, under the pretext of fulfilling the duty of religious inquiry, to reverse and annul the greatest gift of Divine goodness to a dark and sin-disordered world ; and, after the true Light has dawned, to shut up the present and all future generations of mankind in Stygian darkness for evermore. Supernatural Revelation; or, First Principles of Moral Theology,” by Rev. T. R. Birks, p. 17. We may, however, remind ourselves and readers that though the work from which we have obtained this verdict bears a recent date (1879), yet the author belongs to a former generation.