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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Creeds of the Churches

Creeds of the Churches.

A protestant, and addressing the members of a protestant church, I will now further assume that no man and no council or church has had authority given to it to alter or to add to, in anything great or small, by way of development or otherwise, the doctrine of the Founder of Christianity, or to impose the profession of belief in any added doctrine or practice upon the human mind and conscience as a condition of membership of the Church of Christ. But the great bulk of the propositions of fact and of belief in even the earliest creeds and in all the later articles, confessions, and standards of faith, are undoubtedly additions to the primitive doctrine. If we except the first article in the earliest and the least exacting creed, the Apostles' Creed, which is a superfluous repetition, we shall find scarcely anything in any of the creeds and standards, increasing as page 19 they multiply in the number and oppressiveness of their arbitrary dogmas, that is not an unauthorised addition to the primitive simple doctrines.

Again, some of those dogmas which the churches have superadded to the doctrine of Christ without His authority, and which they endeavour pertinaciously to force upon the clergy and the laity, are dogmas which, as some of you, I doubt now, know from bitter personal experience, are revolting and odious to the natural conscience and to the understanding of man. I am well aware that at this point I stand on the borders of the deepest mysteries of being and of Providence. Such mysteries, painful and full of perplexity as are many that the course of nature and the constitution of the human mind present to us, must be endured. Faith reposes in the assurance that they all admit of, and that they will yet receive, explanation—

We trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill."

But while the human understanding bows before the mysteries of God, and awaits His solution of them, may we not, ought we not, to resent the attempts made by men like ourselves, only far more ignorant—to represent the hideous dreams that our interpretation, no doubt faulty, of those mysteries sometimes suggests, as articles of Christian faith, and the acceptance of such articles as a condition of salvation?

I observe, lastly, that some of the articles, and not the least opposed to reason and conscience, of these unauthorised creeds, have been undermined by recent science. The ancient tradition that man was created perfect, that the first man so created fell by his own act, and thereby introduced death for the first time into the world, and entailed hereditary guilt and moral ruin upon all his posterity, appears to have taken some hold upon the Jewish mind. The alleged historical fact, and the dogma of hereditary guilt founded upon it, are not so much as mentioned once by the Founder of Christianity; possibly they were included by Him amongst the traditions which had been the means, He said, of making the commandment of God of none effect. But both have found their way into the majority of the Christian churches, and have lent a distinct colour to most of the Christian creeds.

Now, if there be any general conclusions to which recent geological science has forcibly drawn the human mind, and to which, although they may not be established by inductive proof, laymen cannot, if they would, refuse to accord belief, they are these—That man at the first did not fall from a higher state of existence, but that he rose from a lower; and that what we call death, or the change and dissolution of the organic form in which life temporarily resides, existed on this planet from the time that life first appeared upon it, and millions of years before the comparatively recent date when man first came into being. There is here irreconcilable variance between modern science and the doctrine of the Christian churches.

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And now we are brought to the point at which we find the answer to the question—What is the cause of the failing influence as a teaching power of the clergy of all the Christian churches over the minds of educated, thinking laymen 1 Science in its modern, enlarged, and generalising spirit, and also in some of its recent conclusions, is opposed, not indeed to religion, but to the creeds of the churches, all of which urge an unfounded claim to infallible authority. The laity are habitually and of necessity influenced, though they do not always know it, by the broad conceptions of nature and of God which science imperceptibly but irresistibly conveys to their minds. Thinking laymen cannot reconcile these conceptions with the doctrines of the creeds; they have ceased even to make an effort to reconcile them. They yield an indolent assent, indeed, to the creeds, as they do to every part of the particular church system with which they are connected by birth, but in fact and actual practice they totally disregard them.

The clergy of all the churches, on the other hand, occupy a very different position. The clergyman is selected for his office while he is very young, and long before he has had time or has acquired sufficient intellectual expansion to be able to comprehend the nature and scope of the great subject to which his life is to be devoted. His mind is carefully trained to believe the tenets of a particular church, to defend and to teach them and them alone, and to carry on ceaseless war against the opposing tenets of other churches; and the fulfilment of these narrow functions during the whole of his professional life is attempted to lie enforced by sanctions highly penal in their personal, social, and professional consequences. How can a mind so trained, and harshly compelled to submit to such discipline, exercise the commanding power of a real teacher over the intellect, differently constituted, ever otherwise occupied, and constantly subject to influences so wholly diverse, of the educated, thinking layman at this day? The thoughts of the two men are not in unison; there is no intellectual sympathy, no common intellectual interest between them in regard to a large number of the topics and arguments which the clergyman is constrained to select for his pulpit utterances.

I must use all brevity in stating to you, the lay members of this Society, the practical conclusions upon this subject at which I, a layman born into another church, have arrived.