The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
There is no article of the Christian faith supposed to be more distinctive than the Atonement, and no body of believers however isolated from the rest but gives it a foremost place in its theological scheme. Judged by the universality of its reception page 138 it must needs be a truth self-evident and simple. Judged by its universal importance it ought to be easy of apprehension and of exposition. Yet while the theory of the Atonement has had various phases in the course of centuries and remains undetermined to this day, the general consent under which it maintains its supreme position establishes nothing beyond the fact that the world can appreciate what it considers a blessing without knowing in what way or to what extent it operates.
If the speculations of divines have failed to establish a unanimous exposition, it is fruitless to expect that the unscholastic multitude will have any clear understanding of so subtle a question. It is, indeed, in whatever shape, a metaphysical theorem, incapable of absolute demonstration, and not likely therefore to be apprehended by the mass who take their creeds upon trust without adequate ideas to support them. Still, so largely is Christendom affected by the vague comfort of the Atonement, to which the educated and the ignorant cling in the critical emergencies of their spiritual life, that it may be interesting and profitable to consider one or two of the popular theories held, or presumably held, among church-going people. There is necessarily a difficulty in thus attributing to any class the repute of holding opinions in a general way, owing to the absence of direct and producible evidence, but if the following comments are based on any misconception let it be said beforehand that the error is not the result of any wilful prejudice. And let it be said also that to disturb opinions which give comfort must never be considered a wanton act when a desire to investigate truth is the compelling motive, for surely no one would maintain that error, however agreeable for the while, can be permanently associated with happiness.
The orthodox conception of the Atonement is based on the orthodox idea of Sin, and we have to consider whence this last-mentioned idea itself comes. In all the churches the masterminds have been men of strong emotions. They could not otherwise have had spiritual power over generations of mankind; but when they expressed their personal needs in litanies and psalms of titanic grandeur they stereotyped for the use of ages a phraseology concerning sin which assuredly does not represent the spontaneous feeling of one man in a thousand. No one with the least spiritual sensibility can speak lightly or think carelessly about sin, either as to its character or its consequences; but it may be questioned whether that mind speaks unaffected truth which asserts that sin is the essence of its every thought. Such a declaration may be the native, unfeigned utterances of a great soul, self-abased in its approach to God. To human eyes magnitude is proportionate not actual, and sinfulness is magnified by comparison with the Infinite Holiness. In a state of ecstacy the soul is overwhelmed with the thought of the Divine perfection, and imagines everything human to be sinful and page 139 worthless. From such a doctrine of sin, the Atonement is a corollary. Man, if he cannot by possibility please God, requires a mediator, who must of necessity possess divine power and human sympathy. Such is the easy gradation to the orthodox idea which, when it takes its rise in sincere personal experience and remains an abstract speculation, cannot be argued against. But when it assumes concrete shape in the assertion that Jesus was an atonement by virtue of his double nature, it can be disputed and, as many believe, disproved. Still, the fact that men may come to think themselves hopelessly lost unless a satisfaction is made on their behalf is so indubitably substantiated, that to deny it would be to discredit all human statement, and the same may be said of the wonderful vitalising power which often accompanies the gratitude for redemption. What then? Do the longings of the soul necessarily confirm the truth of the beliefs which embody them? If so, it might be said that the natural superstition which comes with darkness is an evidence of the truth of a million legends about ghosts; or that the instinct of immortality confirms the visionary heaven of the Apocalypse. Admitting that the constraining love of God in Christ is an influence too well established to be denied, and, perhaps, too beneficial to be quibbled at, what we do protest against is the blindness and partiality of theological tyranny which would force the standard doctrine of Atonement upon the human mind as if it were indisputable truth, and an essential preliminary to salvation.
Let us reflect for a moment on the position of the man who has never heard the name of Christ. Does the inevitable inflexibility of the Divine justice shut out such a man from any chance of mercy? Logically, it must do so. It is not to the point to quote the apostolic assertion that they who have sinned without law shall be judged without law, for the question is not whether the trial and the judgment shall be under any particular code, but whether Perfect Justice can possibly forgive under any condition than a perfect satisfaction. A man having committed a wrong cannot possibly undo it. It has passed forth and cannot be recalled. All subsequent acts of virtue stand for themselves alone. The man henceforth, doing merely what it is his duty to do, can have no superfluity of excellence to cover the demerits of the past. This is the unelastic logic under which the whole world, heathen or Christian, is found guilty. But our noblest feelings resent the conclusion. We cannot believe in God as a heartless judge, and even in those transient moods when sin appears to us most detestable, if asked what we think will be the doom of the sinner, can only answer—God is merciful; we cannot say.
According to that better and truer faith, by which we daily think and act, and hold communion with our fellows, we are not accustomed to be much cast down by the thought that the page 140 innumerable millions of human beings are, by the conditions of their lot, inevitably excluded from mercy. Inside a church, we despair of the unconverted; outside, we breathe the air of heaven and believe in the goodness of the Creator. In our human intercourse it never occurs to us that the friend whom we take by the hand can ever be cast off by God for honest doubts however broad. If under any temper of our faith we dare not positively say that one who is ignorant of, or who rejects, the Atonement will not have his sins forgiven, how can we assert as though it were indisputable that the Atonement will alone absolve our sin. No doubt among the numerous expositions which mitigate the harshness, while they destroy the consistency, of established dogmas, there may be found some which ascribe to the Atonement an instantaneous virtue in removing guilt; but obviously such views are tender for tenderness' sake, and disregard the theory of inexorable justice, demanding perfect obedience from first to last, which is at the base of the current doctrine of the sacrifice on Calvary.
Or does the foundation of the popular acceptance of the Atonement lie in the gratitude which is felt towards God who withheld not his own Son for our salvation? Is it possible that so unspiritual, so irreverent a conception of the Deity continues to have influence? In mediæval times when the most sacred ideas were presented in coarse material form adapted to the brute understandings of the multitude, it is likely enough that the surrender by the Almighty Father of a dear and only son was an image calculated to excite grateful emotion in breasts which, though rude, yet knew the meaning of paternal love. But in these days of religious enlightenment, must we not think for the credit of the popular mind that old expressions are retained and permitted to have some mystical sense not definite enough to excite an idea, yet forcible enough to stir the religious affections? Should not a perfect devotion pray with the heart and with the understanding also?
Let the assumed Atonement be in its essence what it may, it must clearly save us with our volition or without it. If without it, it is needless to inquire into its character or our duty in respect of it. If with it, we must need accept the salvation by some act of ours. What is that act? Most people say an act of faith; but how can one have faith in what he does not comprehend? Faith that God saves us through some incomprehensible potency in the death of Christ is quite intelligible, but this means that the faith is in God, not in the sacrifice; and if a man from his heart believes in God's goodness displayed in the universe; if he believes that in God he lives, and moves, and has his being; that he came from God and will go to Him; that all his life is due in grateful obedience to the Being who has given him his powers of sense and soul; who has furnished an education for his faculties in this wonderful world; and who has page 141 imbued him with love, reverence and all spiritual capabilities; we are ready to hope that such faith carried into a godly life will find as much acceptance in the sight of the great Creator as a so-called faith in the doctrine of the Atonement. For, let it be understood, we do not say that a faith can be explained, but it can surely be expressed so that others may understand what is believed. A man has faith in miracles; he cannot explain the modus operandi, but he can express the result. A man has faith in the Trinity; he cannot explain its nature, but he can express his conception of it, otherwise his faith is in mere words without ideas. Let a dozen orthodox people express their conception of the Trinity and they will discover how much their conceptions differ, and may learn to be charitable towards those who do not profess to believe in a Trinity of any kind. In the same way let a dozen orthodox people express their conception of the Atonement and they will doubtless find so much disagreement, and in their individual statements so much confusion and indistinctness as to induce them to modify their dislike to people who, unwilling to assume a virtue if they have it not, cannot pretend to be subject to influences which hitherto have not affected them.
Our limited space will not permit us to propose further objections, nor to establish the important point that the universal attestation to such facts as the justice of God, the sinfulness of man, and the death of Christ, is no proof of the correctness of any theory as to their relationship. The current theory is no fair deduction from the facts, but a mere ecclesiastical misconstruction of them. Nor can we refer to the judicious expositions of the apostolic language concerning Christ, by scholars not unknown, which do no violence to apostolic notions or to modern thought. We have room only to express the hope that if our comments should lead any to ponder the foundations of their faith, the result may be a more settled trust in what is true, combined with a scrupulous regard for the conscientious opinions of their neighbours.