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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29

Man or God ?

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Man or God ?

The lecture given by Mr Charles Bright at the Princess Theatre on Sunday, July 28, was the first of two under the above title in reply to the lectures in course of delivery by Professor Salmond. The prefatory reading was taken from a sermon by Theodore Parker, entitled, "The Relation of Jesus to his Age and the Ages."

Mr. Bright said that he desired at the outset to point out to his audience that the rev. gentleman whose lectures suggested the subject of the evening occupied the position of an advocate. In the great case of "Catholicism: or, Universal Religion v. Presbyterian Christianity," he held a brief for the defence. As soon as he saw that any line of argument was carrying him outside of that brief, he drew back. Of course he would consider that Presbyterian Christianity and truth were identical, but he was not in a position to judge that question, because he was careful not to be led away from his prescribed limits. One line of argument, he foresaw, would lead to Pantheism, therefore, he forsook it. Another he was conscious would take him to Deism. A third might involve him in Mariolatry; or a fourth in Rationalism: and he must have nothing to do with them. If a person set off to walk from Dunedin to Caversham he would naturally take the road which led to Caversham. He would not turn one way, for St. Kilda lay in that direction, nor the other, lest he should find himself in Mornington. He would reach Caversham, but he would not know which eminence in the neighbourhood of Dunedin gave the broadest view of the ocean. So with Professor Salmond. He set off with the avowed intention of reaching Calvinism, and so, of course he arrived at Calvinism, but he did not therefore necessarily obtain the most extensive view of the great ocean of truth. If they bore that fact in mind they would be able to form a fair estimate of the voluminous lectures the Professor of Presbyterian Theology was delivering. After having devoted several evenings to proving that Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a fact which (to adopt the French idiom) might be supposed to go without saying—Professor Salmond opened the sixth lecture of his course with these observations as given in that lecturer's revised report in the 'Christian Record' :—"We now affirm that Christ was very God—of equal power and glory with the Father. It is a stupendous assertion, one which takes our breath away, whenever we awake from the passive traditional way of assenting to it and realise the vast and overwhelming meaning of the assertion. We believe and affirm that God walked on this earth in fashion as a man—that he who lay in the manger, who was a babe in the arms of Mary, who wrought at a carpenter's bench, and wore a peasant's dress, who had not where to lay his head, and was crucified on Calvary—was very God, by whom the heavens and the earth were made. We can scarcely wonder that men say in their hearts or say openly, it is absurd, impossible, and incredible. Wilberforce tells us that a great statesman once said to him, 'How can I believe that the Almighty Creator of all things should have become a wailing infant, and submitted to the weakness of our nature ? Surely it is utterly impossible.' Similarly, J. S. Mill speaks with wonder of the fact that there should have once lived on earth a man who made so great page 3 an impression that whole nations have believed he was the Almighty in person ! Yet so it is and I stand here now, to affirm with the universal Church of these eighteen centuries that Christ was very God." That was a clear and straightforward statement of the position, and, doubtless, the assertion was well characterised as a stupendous one. Some time was then taken by the Professor in trying to show that the alleged fact ought not to be regarded as impossible. He (the lecturer) purposed pointing out that it was impossible to human thought at the present age of the world, but that had little to do with the question, which was—Is it true? It was admitted to be stupendously improbable, and, according to the canons of evidence, therefore, it needed overwhelming testimony to induce its acceptance. Professor Salmond did not press its acceptance as a blind act of faith; he appealed to reason, and it thus became needful to discern what unbiassed reason had to say to the proposition. That Jesus was a man born of woman was generally admitted; that he had been an infant, and then a boy, and then a youth, and had grown in knowledge and strength, was also admitted. That he had been taught the trade of a carpenter, and had worked at the trade, doing such jobs as came in his way, seemed to be allowed. That up to a certain time he must have been regarded by his friends and neighbours as an ordinary individual, appeared from the opinion expressed by them when he commenced his active career as a preacher, and from their then seeking to have him arrested as one beside himself. Here, then, came in the "stupendous assertion" to which Professor Salmond drew attention—that this man was the Creator of the Universe in person. Admitting this difficulty, the reverend gentleman contended that if we rejected it we had to encounter one as great—viz. : How came those who associated with him to believe him to be God Almighty, if it were not true. But this was not a fair statement of the case at the bar of reason. They did not know that those who associated with him believed him to be God. They only knew that certain persons unknown, compiling certain records more than a century after the events narrated, so shaped them that others—at a period still later—derived from them the conclusion that he must have been God. Now, in those days, when printing was unknown, and writing, even, was a rarity, the lapse of fifty years was far more potent than five centuries in modern times in throwing a haze of fancy around obscure facts. But, even in the records as now existing, there were loopholes left through which it could be recognised that the immediate associates of Jesus could not have believed him to be God. Had they so believed, could one of them have betrayed him to his enemies I Could another of them have altogether denied that he knew him ! And could the whole of them have deserted him as soon as he was arrested ? Had they conceived him to be the Almighty would they have declined to believe in his resurrection, and regarded the first statements respecting it as "idle tales?" Nay, even after his reappearance, subsequent to his crucifixion, was not Poter reported to have spoken of him as "A man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders, and signs, which God did by him"? Thus they did not know, as Professor Salmond alleged, that his associates believed him to be God; and so that difficulty disappeared, while the other "stupendous" difficulty remained. But if they looked at the earliest writings relative to Jesus which they possessed—writings supposed to have been penned from twenty to thirty years after his death, and admitted by the ablest biblical critics to be, in the main, genuine—what did they find I In these writings—the Epistles of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians,—while arguments of all kinds were presented to prove the beauty of Jesus's character and the grandeur of his sacrifice,—while the fact of his reappearance after death was insisted on over and over again, there was not a word about his having been born differently to other men—not a single attempt to demonstrate that he was Jehovah in person. Numerous passages might be quoted as showing that Paul held a different and more rational opinion, but he would give only three as illustrations. In Romans xv, 6, they read, "That ye may with one mind, and one mouth, glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." In 1st Cor., viii, 6, "To us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all thing, page 4 and we in .him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things," In 2nd Cor. i, 3, "Blessed be God, oven the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort." If Paul had had this "stupendous assertion" of Professor Salinoud's to make good, was he the man to have shirked his work I Professor Salmond said that the idea of the incarnation was so foreign to the mind of the Jewish doctors that they could not understand Jesus' alleged allusion to it. Well, now that it was affirmed to have occurred once in the world's history, and was so believed by the "universal Church," would such an allusion gain more ready credence I would the professors of the Otago University be more open to comprehend such a hint from a youth in their midst I The belief of the early fathers of the Church too, on this subject, was different to that of Professor Salmond, and was admitted to be so by many Trinitarian writers. It was not until the fourth century that the idea that Jesus Christ was "very God," crystallised into a dogma. Three centuries of traditions, moulded by the streams of opinions and fancies, flowing in from all quarters—Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and many others—at length settled themselves into that belief as orthodox, in an age when the deification of man was familiar to the human consciousness, and God himself was regarded as merely a monarch on a mightier scale. Thus Jesus, the last and noblest of the Jewish prophets, was made first a Prince of the House of David, then a son of God, then the only begotten son of God, and then God himself. In an age when tradesmen were despised, and only the blood royal thought worthy of respect, was it to be expected that the Jews, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, who became Christians, could endure to have it conceived that they were reverencing a Galilean carpenter, however much he might be, by nature, a spiritual King among men? Nowadays, less was thought of royalty, and, possibly, there were many there who, in the annals of their country, would not barter those commoners Shakspere, Milton, and Cromwell for a whole line of Kings. Thus, then, the idea of Jesus as God had taken possession of Christendom, and, once in possession, held it until men were allowed to reason about it,—a privilege which was scarcely yet fully accorded. The mere presentment of the proposition to the eye of unprejudiced reason was sufficient. It was seen to be as impossible for the Infinite to become the Finite as for a whole to be less than a part. People might say it, but they could not think it. They might say that the paddle-wheel of a steamer was the solar system; nay they, the "Universal Church," might dogmatically affirm it, but that would not make it true. Of course, when closely pressed, orthodox believers fell back on the phrase, "It's a mystery," and asked if we were not surrounded by mystery. The answer to that was—"We do not dogmatise about the mysteries which surround us. We leave them as mysteries until we can learn something definite concerning them. If you say that the angles of an equilateral triangle are equal to each other, and together equal to two right angles, you may dogmatise, because you can demonstrate; but if you say that an equilateral triangle is an elephant, you cannot dogmatise about that, and then, as a last resort, say it is a mystery." Jesus himself was reported to have spoken of "My Father and yours," "My God and yours;" and in the words of John Milton, "If the Father be the God of Christ, and the same be our God; and if there be none other God but one, there can be no other God beside the Father." That was unanswerable, and no amount of theological jargon could obliterate it.

Talk of essence and substance, and I know not what;

God either made Christ, or else He did not.

If He did, Christ's a creature—that's plain to our view;

If not, Christ's a God—and then we have two.

It was irrationalism in religion which repelled great minds—Milton, Newton, Locke, Hume, Humboldt, Goethe, in the past—and almost all the eminent thinkers of the present day. It reduced God from the Father of Humanity to the Father of a procession of Y.M.C. Associations. Why, the other day, at the meeting held to form a Young Women's Christian Association in Dunedin, the one living woman hold up as a pattern—Florence Nightingale—would not be eligible for membership. In the last page 5 number of the 'Christian Record' a correspondent stated that "there was good reason for believing" that Miss Nightingale, "though living among Unitarians," was becoming a believer in Jesus as the Divine Saviour. She had always believed in Jesus as a Divine Saviour, chief among the great and noble souls who helped humanity to progress towards God. The next probable convert spoken of by the same correspondent was Charles Brad-laugh ! Whatever religious views thoughtful men and women might entertain, there was little likelihood of their becoming perverts to irrationalism,—to a belief that the Infinite God, the incomprehensible Spirit of Power, Love, and Wisdom, ever walked the earth as a single finite human being.