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Is it not the central Presence of a unique and a compelling Personality felt through every page of those informal memoirs, which we know by the name of the Four Gospels ? Personality is the mightiest force which God can bring to bear upon man, and the supreme Personality in all history, the most potent factor in all civilised change and progress is that of Jesus Christ. It is of this Personality that the evangelists speak to us. In the Gospels Jesus Christ Himself is the Gospel. And from first to last the spell of His story on our hearts and consciences never lessens.
We feel it as we begin to read the records of the infancy, where in the Prologue of St. Luke's Gospel, the Spirit of Hebrew poetry, in sacred canticles, in bursts of lyric joy, in the still sweeter stranger music falling from the magic sky, is vocal above the manger-cradle of Bethlehem. We feel it more strongly as we read on through the historic narrative of later years, where, as in St. Matthew's Gospel, a Royal Figure moves, claiming homage from all good men, by signs of power, by deeds of mercy, by words of love; a Prophet, whose message is always Life means mission, Love means service; a Teacher whose sayings because of their moral insight and spiritual beauty are always vibrant down the centuries; a Legislator whose gift to His people is not a model code of laws, but a law-making power inherent in the disciplined human character.
human character. We feel it again when with an added touch of dramatic realism St. Mark takes up the tale to tell us of the “ God," the Lord of Patience and of Pity, who wins His throne of spiritual royalty, and through suffering,
strong Son of
through self-discipline, through self-subordination, exhibits the majesty of a self-possessed manhood and the divine strength of a perfected will. We feel it most of all perhaps, as we approach the last tragic issue, where, as in St. John's Gospel, the divine glory of the Passion is revealed and the eternal motive of Christ is made plain, as the “law of the spirit of life” is seen acting upon the secret principles of the human will, setting humanity free from “the law of sin and of death,” creating in the world a new order of spiritual evolution, which shall gradually bring the way of life of the disciple into perfect harmony with the duty-ideal of the Master.
But it is not only in the Gospel story, it is not only even in the writings of the immediately succeeding generation of believers, attempting to interpret the Gospel facts, that we feel that behind the wonderful teaching of Jesus there stands always the presence of His Creative Personality. It is also the witness of history. All through the ages of the Christian Church, side by side with the attempt to interpret the facts upon which the Gospel of man's redemption rests—the facts which underlie the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, of the Forgiveness of Sins, of the Resurrection of the Body, and of the certainty of Eternal Life, of the consciousness of man's filial relationship with the Heavenly Father, of the Mission of the Comforter, and of the Apostolic Church-all in fact which by St. Paul is epitomised as “the preaching of Christ crucified ”. there has been the endeavour to keep the picture of Christ's living Personality close before the eyes of the believer, for so only was it felt to be possible—it is the verdict of
experience—to reach the springs of the human heart, to kindle the personal devotion of the disciple of Jesus, to stir his imagination, to quicken his conscience, to compel his love. All indeed would have been lost for Christianity as an ethical force in the world, if men, busied too much with the task of perfecting a theological system, had suffered themselves permanently to lose or to undervalue the Personality of Christ Himself as the source of all holy inspiration. The presence of Christ in fact was a power which saved men from their sins by imbuing them with His Personality. The story of man's search after God, it is true, is a fine and a noble story, but it has always become an unspeakably pathetic story when the searcher —whether theologian or philosopher, whether monk or mystic—fogged, it may be, in the mist of scholasticism, or blinded by the dust of controversy, has lost sight of the Figure in the Way before him and has become deaf to the voice, saying, “Follow Me! I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The ethical instinct, at any rate, of humanity turns inevitably from a system to a Person, from theories about Christ to Christ Himself. It is the Person of Christ which is the essential factor in the Christian religion. It is the spirit of Christ which makes us Christian, the spirit, which is not the letter of His Gospel, but the emanation of His Person. In a word, it is upon Christology rather than upon Theology, that the ultimate sanction for Christian conduct rests.
But is it not true, you will ask, that the picture of Jesus Christ, the conception of His Personality, has varied greatly from age to age? Yes, it is true. Jesus Christ is indeed the Light of the World, but the light, as
has been broken up as by a prism, and to some eyes each colour of the spectrum in its turn has seemed to be the light's complete effulgence. You will see that that has been so nowhere more vividly than in the history of Christian art.
As you gaze upon the earliest Christian pictures, in the Roman catacombs, you cannot fail, I think, to recognise that the conception of Christ which was conveyed to the simple minds of the men of the second and third century by the gay and winsome figure of the Good Shepherd, “ with the happy sheep nestling upon His shoulder, with the pastoral pipes in His hand, blooming in immortal youth,” must be very different from that of the men of a later age, for whom the gracious and gentle Pastor has given place to the crucified Sufferer, depicted in countless aspects of misery and woe, from the gaunt and ghastly crucifixes and Pietas and entombments of the early Florentines, to the sublime dignities of Michael Angelo, and of Tintoretto and of Correggio.
Nor, again, can you help feeling that the conception of Christ's Personality conveyed to the Italian Churchmen of the Middle Ages by the numberless pictures of the Madonna and Child, unfailing in their sweet and gentle lessons of the divinity of childhood and of mother's love, must be far different to that conveyed to the Flemish Christians of the fourteenth century by such a picture as the Van Eycks' “ Worship of the Immaculate Lamb,” with its sublime figure of the omnipotent Christ, the King in glory, enthroned and crowned, with hands outstretched, in royal priestly benediction of the world.
But a still more potent witness to the varying pictures of the Christ might, I think, be found in the pages of the poets of Christendom; indeed, I can conceive of few nobler, few more useful subjects of Christian apology, than an adequate exposition of the witness which has been borne by the Christian poets of every age to Christ and Christianity. The poets, perhaps, even more than the theologians, are the representative men of their own age; for each poet is, in a sense, the epitome of the imaginative life of his age and nation, sharing with his countrymen the raw materials of his art, though illuminating those materials with the light of his own genius. The poets therefore are the most prophetic, the most clearsighted, the most deep-hearted men of their time. It is to their writings we may most wisely go if we would know what real spiritual insight is—there is in such things, remember, but one source of inspiration, for, as Christians, we believe there is but one Holy Spirit—if we would feel the true warm religious emotion of men's hearts rather than the cold intellectual thoughts of their minds; nay, if we would distinguish often between the religion of Christ and the religion of Christians; in a word, if we would find the very Christ Himself as He has been known and worshipped in every age.
I cannot, of course, in the time allotted to me as Hulsean Lecturer, undertake any such task. Obviously for a complete presentation of such a subject covering the whole field of Church history, a much wider canvas than mine would be necessary.
But I think it may be useful to delimit a small portion of that field, and to endeavour, from the history of