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ESSAY ON ATONEMENT AND SATISFACTION - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON ATONEMENT AND SATISFACTION
‘Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not . . . Then said I, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.’
—Ps. xl. 6–8.
The doctrine of the Atonement has often been explained in a way at which our moral feelings revolt. God is represented as angry with us for what we never did; He is ready to inflict a disproportionate punishment on us for what we are; He is satisfied by the sufferings of His Son in our stead. The sin of Adam is first imputed to us; then the righteousness of Christ. The imperfection of human law is transferred to the Divine; or rather a figment of law which has no real existence. The death of Christ is also explained by the analogy of the ancient rite of sacrifice. He is a victim laid upon the altar to appease the wrath of God. The institutions and ceremonies of the Mosaical religion are applied to Him. He is further said to bear the infinite punishment of infinite sin. When He had suffered or paid the penalty, God is described as granting Him the salvation of mankind in return.
I shall endeavour to show, 1. that these conceptions of the work of Christ have no foundation in Scripture; 2. that their growth may be traced in ecclesiastical history; 3. that the only sacrifice, atonement, or satisfaction, with which the Christian has to do, is a moral and spiritual one; not the pouring out of blood upon the earth, but the living sacrifice ‘to do thy will, O God;’ in which the believer has part as well as his Lord; about the meaning of which there can be no more question in our day than there was in the first ages.
It is difficult to concentrate the authority of Scripture on points of controversy. For Scripture is not doctrine but teaching; it arises naturally out of the circumstances of the writers; it is not intended to meet the intellectual refinements of modern times. The words of our Saviour, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ admit of a wide application, to systems of knowledge, as well as to systems of government and politics. The ‘bread of life’ is not an elaborate theology. The revelation which Scripture makes to us of the will of God, does not turn upon the exact use of language. (‘Lo, O man, he hath showed thee what he required of thee; to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’) The books of Scripture were written by different authors, and in different ages of the world; we cannot, therefore, apply them with the minuteness and precision of a legal treatise. The Old Testament is not on all points the same with the New; for ‘Moses allowed of some things for the hardness of their hearts;’ nor the Law with the Prophets, for there were ‘proverbs in the house of Israel’ that were reversed; nor does the Gospel, which is simple and universal, in all respects agree with the Epistles which have reference to the particular state of the first converts; nor is the teaching of St. James, who admits works as a coefficient with faith in the justification of man, absolutely identical with that of St. Paul, who asserts righteousness by faith only; nor is the character of all the Epistles of St. Paul, written as they were at different times amid the changing scenes of life, precisely the same; nor does he himself claim an equal authority for all his precepts. No theory of inspiration can obliterate these differences; or rather none can be true which does not admit them. The neglect of them reduces the books of Scripture to an unmeaning unity, and effectually seals up their true sense. But if we acknowledge this natural diversity of form, this perfect humanity of Scripture, we must, at any rate in some general way, adjust the relation of the different parts to one another before we apply its words to the establishment of any doctrine.
Nor again is the citation of a single text sufficient to prove a doctrine; nor must consequences be added on, which are not found in Scripture, nor figures of speech reasoned about, as though they conveyed exact notions. An accidental similarity of expression is not to be admitted as an authority; nor, a mystical allusion, which has been gathered from Scripture, according to some method which in other writings the laws of language and logic would not justify. When engaged in controversy with Roman Catholics, about the doctrine of purgatory, or transubstantiation, or the authority of the successors of St. Peter, we are willing to admit these principles. They are equally true when the subject of inquiry is the atoning work of Christ. We must also distinguish the application of a passage in religious discourse from its original meaning. The more obvious explanation which is received in our own day, or by our own branch of the Church, will sometimes have to be set aside for one more difficult, because less familiar, which is drawn from the context. Nor is it allowable to bar an interpretation of Scripture from a regard to doctrinal consequences. Further, it is necessary that we should make allowance for the manner in which ideas were represented in the ages at which the books of Scripture were written which cannot be so lively to us as to contemporaries. Nor can we deny that texts may be quoted on both sides of a controversy, as for example, in the controversy respecting predestination. For in religious, as in other differences, there is often truth on both sides.
The drift of the preceding remarks is not to show that there is any ambiguity or uncertainty in the witness of Scripture to the great truths of morality and religion. Nay, rather the universal voice of the Old Testament and the New proclaims that there is one God of infinite justice, goodness, and truth: and the writers of the New Testament agree in declaring that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Saviour of the world. There can never, by any possibility, be a doubt that our Lord and St. Paul taught the doctrine of a future life, and of a judgement, at which men would give an account of the deeds done in the body. It is no matter for regret that the essentials of the Gospel are within the reach of a child’s understanding. But this clearness of Scripture about the great truths of religion does not extend to the distinctions and developments of theological systems; it rather seems to contrast with them. It is one thing to say that ‘Christ is the Saviour of the world,’ or that ‘we are reconciled to God through Christ,’ and another thing to affirm that the Levitical or heathen sacrifices typified the death of Christ; or that the death of Christ has a sacrificial import, and is an atonement or satisfaction for the sins of men. The latter positions involve great moral and intellectual difficulties; many things have to be considered, before we can allow that the phraseology of Scripture is to be caught up and applied in this way. For we may easily dress up in the externals of the New Testament a doctrine which is really at variance with the Spirit of Christ and His Apostles, and we may impart to this doctrine, by the help of living tradition, that is to say, custom and religious use, a sacredness yet greater than is derived from such a fallacious application of Scripture language. It happens almost unavoidably (and our only chance of guarding against the illusion is to be aware of it) that we are more under the influence of rhetoric in theology than in other branches of knowledge; our minds are so constituted that what we often hear we are ready to believe, especially when it falls in with previous convictions or wants. But he who desires to know whether the statements above referred to have any real objective foundation in the New Testament, will carefully weigh the following considerations:—Whether there is any reason for interpreting the New Testament by the analogy of the Old? Whether the sacrificial expressions which occur in the New Testament, and on which the question chiefly turns, are to be interpreted spiritually or literally? Whether the use of such expressions may not be a figurative mode of the time, which did not necessarily recall the thing signified any more than the popular use of the term ‘Sacrifice’ among ourselves? He will consider further whether this language is employed vaguely, or definitely? Whether it is the chief manner of expressing the work of Christ, or one among many? Whether it is found to occur equally in every part of the New Testament; for example, in the Gospels, as well as in the Epistles? Whether the more frequent occurrence of it in particular books, as for instance, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, may not be explained by the peculiar object or circumstances of the writer? Whether other figures of speech, such as death, life, resurrection with Christ, are not equally frequent, which have never yet been made the foundation of any doctrine? Lastly, whether this language of sacrifice is not applied to the believer as well as to his Lord, and whether the believer is not spoken of as sharing the sufferings of his Lord?
I. All Christians agree that there is a connexion between the Old Testament and the New: ‘Novum Testamentum in vetere latet; Vetus Testamentum in novo patet:’ ‘I am not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil.’ But, respecting the nature of the revelation or fulfilment which is implied in these expressions, they are not equally agreed. Some conceive the Old and New Testaments to be ‘double one against the other;’ the one being the type, and the other the antitype, the ceremonies of the Law, and the symbols and imagery of the Prophets, supplying to them the forms of thought and religious ideas of the Gospel. Even the history of the Jewish people has been sometimes thought to be an anticipation or parallel of the history of the Christian world; many accidental circumstances in the narrative of Scripture being likewise taken as an example of the Christian life. The relation between the Old and New Testaments has been regarded by others from a different point of view, as a continuous one, which may be described under some image of growth or development; the facts and ideas of the one leading on to the facts and ideas of the other; and the two together forming one record of ‘the increasing purpose which through the ages ran.’ This continuity, however, is broken at one point, and the parts separate and reunite like ancient and modern civilization, though the connexion is nearer, and of another kind; the Messiah, in whom the hopes of the Jewish people centre, being the first-born of a new creation, the Son of Man and the Son of God. It is necessary, moreover, to distinguish the connexion of fact from that of language and idea; because the Old Testament is not only the preparation for the New, but also the figure and expression of it. Those who hold the first of these two views, viz. the reduplication of the Old Testament in the New, rest their opinion chiefly on two grounds. First, it seems incredible to them, and repugnant to their conception of a Divine revelation, that the great apparatus of rites and ceremonies, with which, even at this distance of time, they are intimately acquainted, should have no inner and symbolical meaning; that the Jewish nation for many ages should have carried with it a load of forms only; that the words of Moses which they ‘still hear read in the synagogue every sabbath-day,’ and which they often read in their own households, should relate only to matters of outward observance; just as they are unwilling to believe that the prophecies, which they also read, have no reference to the historical events of modern times. And, secondly, they are swayed by the authority of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer of which has made the Old Testament the allegory of the New.
It will be considered hereafter what is to be said in answer to the last of these arguments. The first is perhaps sufficiently answered by the analogy of other ancient religions. It would be ridiculous to assume a spiritual meaning in the Homeric rites and sacrifices; although they may be different in other respects, have we any more reason for inferring such a meaning in the Mosaic? Admitting the application which is made of a few of them by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to be their original intention, the great mass would still remain unexplained, and yet they are all alike contained in the same Revelation. It may seem natural to us to suppose that God taught His people like children by the help of outward objects. But no a priori supposition of this kind, no fancy, however natural, of a symmetry or coincidence which may be traced between the Old Testament and the New, nor the frequent repetition of such a theory in many forms, is an answer to the fact. That fact is the silence of the Old Testament itself. If the sacrifices of the Mosaical religion were really symbolical of the death of Christ, how can it be accounted for that no trace of this symbolism appears in the books of Moses themselves? that prophets and righteous men of old never gave this interpretation to them? that the lawgiver is intent only on the sign, and says nothing of the thing signified? No other book is ever supposed to teach truths about which it is wholly silent. We do not imagine the Iliad and Odyssey to be a revelation of the Platonic or Socratic philosophy. The circumstances that these poems received this or some other allegorical explanation from a school of Alexandrian critics, does not incline us to believe that such an explanation is a part of their original meaning. The human mind does not work in this occult manner; language was not really given men to conceal their thoughts; plain precepts or statements do not contain hidden mysteries.
It may be said that the Levitical rites and offerings had a meaning, not for the Jews, but for us, ‘on whom the ends of the world are come.’ Moses, David, Isaiah were unacquainted with this meaning; it was reserved for those who lived after the event to which they referred had taken place to discover it. Such an afterthought may be natural to us, who are ever tracing a literary or mystical connexion between the Old Testament and the New; it would have been very strange to us, had we lived in the ages before the coming of Christ. It is incredible that God should have instituted rites and ceremonies, which were to be observed as forms by a whole people throughout their history, to teach mankind fifteen hundred years afterwards, uncertainly and in a figure, a lesson which Christ taught plainly and without a figure. Such an assumption confuses the application of Scripture with its original meaning; the use of language in the New Testament with the facts of the Old. Further, it does away with all certainty in the interpretation of Scripture. If we can introduce the New Testament into the Old, we may with equal right introduce Tradition or Church History into the New.
The question here raised has a very important bearing on the use of the figures of atonement and sacrifice in the New Testament. For if it could be shown that the sacrifices which were offered up in the Levitical worship were anticipatory only; that the law too declared itself to be ‘a shadow of good things to come;’ that Moses had himself spoken ‘of the reproach of Christ;’ in that case the slightest allusion in the New Testament to the customs or words of the law would have a peculiar interest. We should be justified in referring to them as explanatory of the work of Christ, in studying the Levitical distinctions respecting offerings with a more than antiquarian interest, in ‘disputing about purifying’ and modes of expiation. But if not; if, in short, we are only reflecting the present on the past, or perhaps confusing both together, and interpreting Christianity by Judaism, and Judaism by Christianity; then the sacrificial language of the New Testament loses its depth and significance, or rather acquires a higher, that is, a spiritual one.
II. Of such an explanation, if it had really existed when the Mosaic religion was still a national form of worship, traces would occur in the writings of the Psalmists and the Prophets; for these furnish a connecting link between the Old Testament and the New. But this is not the case; the Prophets are, for the most part, unconscious of the law, or silent respecting its obligations.
In many places, their independence of the Mosaical religion passes into a kind of opposition to it. The inward and spiritual truth asserts itself, not as an explanation of the ceremonial observance, but in defiance of it. The ‘undergrowth of morality’ is putting forth shoots in spite of the deadness of the ceremonial hull. Isaiah i. 13: ‘Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.’ Micah vi. 6: ‘Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, or bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?’ Psalm l. 10: ‘All the beasts of the forests are mine, and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills: If I were hungry I would not tell thee.’ We cannot doubt that in passages like these we are bursting the bonds of the Levitical or ceremonial dispensation.
The spirit of prophecy, speaking by Isaiah, does not say ‘I will have mercy as well as sacrifice,’ but ‘I will have mercy and not (or rather than) sacrifice.’ In the words of the Psalmist, ‘Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; Then said I, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God;’ ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:’ or again, ‘A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench; he shall bring forth judgement unto truth:’ or again, according to the image both of Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isa. liii. 7; Jer. xi. 19), which seems to have passed before the vision of John the Baptist (John i. 36), ‘He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.’ These are the points at which the Old and New Testaments most nearly touch, the (τύποι) types or ensamples of the one which we find in the other, the pre-notions or preparations with which we pass from Moses and the Prophets to the Gospel of Christ.
III. It is hard to imagine that there can be any truer expression of the Gospel than the words of Christ himself, or that any truth omitted by Him is essential to the Gospel. ‘The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant greater than his lord.’ The philosophy of Plato was not better understood by his followers than by himself, nor can we allow that the Gospel is to be interpreted by the Epistles, or that the Sermon on the Mount is only half Christian and needs the fuller inspiration or revelation of St. Paul or the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is no trace in the words of our Saviour of any omission or imperfection; there is no indication in the Epistles of any intention to complete or perfect them. How strange would it have seemed in the Apostle St. Paul, who thought himself unworthy ‘to be called an Apostle because he persecuted the Church of God,’ to find that his own words were preferred in after ages to those of Christ himself!
There is no study of theology which is likely to exercise a more elevating influence on the individual, or a more healing one on divisions of opinion, than the study of the words of Christ himself. The heart is its own witness to them; all Christian sects acknowledge them; they seem to escape or rise above the region or atmosphere of controversy. The form in which they exhibit the Gospel to us is the simplest and also the deepest; they are more free from details than any other part of Scripture, and they are absolutely independent of personal and national influences. In them is contained the expression of the inner life, of mankind, and of the Church; there, too, the individual beholds, as in a glass, the image of a goodness which is not of this world. To rank their authority below that of Apostles and Evangelists is to give up the best hope of reuniting Christendom in itself, and of making Christianity a universal religion.
And Christ himself hardly even in a figure uses the word ‘sacrifice;’ never with the least reference to His own life or death. There are many ways in which our Lord describes His relation to His Father and to mankind. His disciples are to be one with Him, even as He is one with the Father; whatsoever things He seeth the Father do He doeth. He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life;’ or, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life;’ and, ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me;’ and again, ‘Whatsoever things ye shall ask in my name shall be given you;’ and once again, ‘I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter.’ Most of His words are simple, like ‘a man talking to his friends;’ and their impressiveness and beauty partly flow from this simplicity. He speaks of His ‘decease too which he should accomplish at Jerusalem,’ but not in sacrificial language. ‘And now I go my way to him that sent me;’ and ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Once indeed He says, ‘The bread that I give is my flesh, which I give for the salvation of the world;’ to which He himself adds, ‘The words that I speak unto you they are spirit and they are truth,’ a commentary which should be applied not only to these but to all other figurative expressions which occur in the New Testament. In the words of institution of the Lord’s supper, He also speaks of His death as in some way connected with the remission of sins. But among all the figures of speech under which He describes His work in the world,—the vine, the good shepherd, the door, the light of the world, the bread of life, the water of life, the corner stone, the temple,—none contains any sacrificial allusion.
The parables of Christ have a natural and ethical character. They are only esoteric in as far as the hardness or worldliness of men’s hearts prevents their understanding or receiving them. There is a danger of our making them mean too much rather than too little, that is, of winning a false interest for them by applying them mystically or taking them as a thesis for dialectical or rhetorical exercise. For example, if we say that the guest who came to the marriage supper without a wedding-garment represents a person clothed in his own righteousness instead of the righteousness of Christ, that is an explanation of which there is not a trace in the words of the parable itself. That is an illustration of the manner in which we are not to gather doctrines from Scripture. For there is nothing which we may not in this way superinduce on the plainest lessons of our Saviour.
Reading the parables, then, simply and naturally, we find in them no indication of the doctrine of atonement or satisfaction. They form a very large portion of the sayings which have been recorded of our Saviour while He was on earth; and they teach a great number of separate lessons. But there is no hint contained in them of that view of the death of Christ which is sometimes regarded as the centre of the Gospel. There is no ‘difficulty in the nature of things’ which prevents the father going out to meet the prodigal son. No other condition is required of the justification of the publican except the true sense of his own unworthiness. The work of those labourers who toiled for one hour only in the vineyard is not supplemented by the merits and deserts of another. The reward for the cup of cold water is not denied to those who are unaware that He to whom it is given is the Lord. The parables of the Good Samaritan, of the Fig-tree, of the Talents, do not recognize the distinction of faith and works. Other sayings and doings of our Lord while He was on earth implied the same unconsciousness or neglect of the refinements of later ages. The power of the Son of Man to forgive sins is not dependent on the satisfaction which He is to offer for them. The Sermon on the Mount, which is the extension of the law to thought as well as action, and the two great commandments in which the law is summed up, are equally the expression of the Gospel. The mind of Christ is in its own place, far away from the oppositions of modern theology. Like that of the prophets, His relation to the law of Moses is one of neutrality; He has another lesson to teach which comes immediately from God. ‘The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat—’ or, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts—’ or, ‘Which of you hath an ox or an ass—’ or, ‘Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within.’ He does not say, ‘Behold in me the true Sacrifice;’ or, ‘I that speak unto you am the victim and priest.’ He has nothing to do with legal and ceremonial observances. There is a sort of natural irony with which He regards the world around Him. It was as though He would not have touched the least of the Levitical commandments; and yet ‘not one stone was to be left upon another’ as the indirect effect of His teaching. So that it would be equally true: ‘I am not come to destroy the law but to fulfil;’ and ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.’ ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ yet it shall subdue the kingdoms of this world; and, the Prince of Peace will not ‘bring peace on earth, but a sword.’
There is a mystery in the life and death of Christ; that is to say, there is more than we know or are perhaps capable of knowing. The relation in which He stood both to His Father and to mankind is imperfectly revealed to us; we do not fully understand what may be termed in a figure His inner mind or consciousness. Expressions occur which are like flashes of this inner self, and seem to come from another world. There are also mixed modes which blend earth and heaven. There are circumstances in our Lord’s life, too, of a similar nature, such as the transfiguration, or the agony in the garden, of which the Scripture records only the outward fact. Least of all do we pretend to fathom the import of His death. He died for us, in the language of the Gospels, in the same sense that He lived for us; He ‘bore our sins’ in the same sense that He ‘bore our diseases’ (Matt. viii. 17). He died by the hands of sinners as a malefactor, the innocent for the guilty, Jesus instead of Barabbas, because it was necessary ‘that one man should die for that nation, and not for that nation only;’ as a righteous man laying down his life for his friends, as a hero to save his country, as a martyr to bear witness to the truth. He died as the Son of God, free to lay down His life; confident that He would have power to take it again. More than this is meant; and more than human speech can tell. But we do not fill up the void of our knowledge by drawing out figures of speech into consequences at variance with the attributes of God. No external mode of describing or picturing the work of Christ realizes its inward nature. Neither will the reproduction of our own feelings in a doctrinal form supply any objective support or ground of the Christian faith.
IV. Two of the General Epistles and two of the Epistles of St. Paul have no bearing on our present subject. These are the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians. Their silence, like that of the Gospels, is at least a negative proof that the doctrine of Sacrifice or Satisfaction is not a central truth of Christianity. The remainder of the New Testament will be sufficiently considered under two heads: first, the remaining Epistles of St. Paul; and, secondly, the Epistle to the Hebrews. The difficulties which arise respecting these are the same as the difficulties which apply in a less degree to one or two passages in the Epistles of St. Peter and St. John, and in the book of Revelation.
It is not to be denied that the language of Sacrifice and Substitution occurs in the Epistles of St. Paul. Instances of the former are furnished by Rom. iii. 23, 25; 1 Cor. v. 7: of the latter by Gal. ii. 20; iii. 13.
Rom. iii. 23–25: ‘For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith by his blood, to declare his righteousness.’
1 Cor. v. 7: ‘Christ our passover is sacrificed [for us]; therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’
These two passages are a fair example of a few others. About the translation and explanation of the first of them interpreters differ. But the differences are not such as to affect our present question. For that question is a general one, viz. whether these, and similar sacrificial expressions, are passing figures of speech, or appointed signs or symbols of the death of Christ. On which it may be observed:—
First: That these expressions are not the peculiar or characteristic modes in which the Apostle describes the relation of the believer to his Lord. For one instance of the use of sacrificial language, five or six might be cited of the language of identity or communion, in which the believer is described as one with his Lord in all the stages of His life and death. But this language is really inconsistent with the other. For if Christ is one with the believer, He cannot be regarded strictly as a victim who takes his place. And the stage of Christ’s being which coincides, and is specially connected by the Apostle, with the justification of man, is not His death, but His resurrection (Rom. iv. 25).
Secondly: These sacrificial expressions, as also the vicarious ones of which we shall hereafter speak, belong to the religious language of the age. They are found in Philo; and the Old Testament itself had already given them a spiritual or figurative application. There is no more reason to suppose that the word ‘sacrifice’ suggested the actual rite in the Apostolic age than in our own. It was a solemn religious idea, not a fact. The Apostles at Jerusalem saw the smoke of the daily sacrifice; the Apostle St. Paul beheld victims blazing on many altars in heathen cities (he regarded them as the tables of devils). But there is no reason to suppose that they led him to think of Christ, or that the bleeding form on the altar suggested the sufferings of his Lord.
Therefore, thirdly, We shall only be led into error by attempting to explain the application of the word to Christ from the original meaning of the thing. That is a question of Jewish or classical archaeology, which would receive a different answer in different ages and countries. Many motives or instincts may be traced in the worship of the first children of men. The need of giving or getting rid of something; the desire to fulfil an obligation or expiate a crime; the consecration of a part that the rest may be holy; the Homeric feast of gods and men, of the living with the dead; the mystery of animal nature, of which the blood was the symbol; the substitution, in a few instances, of the less for the greater; in later ages, custom adhering to the old rituals when the meaning of them has passed away;—these seem to be true explanations of the ancient sacrifices. (Human sacrifices, such as those of the old Mexican peoples, or the traditional ones in pre-historic Greece, may be left out of consideration, as they appear to spring from such monstrous and cruel perversion of human nature.) But these explanations have nothing to do with our present subject. We may throw an imaginary light back upon them (for it is always easier to represent former ages like our own than to realize them as they truly were); they will not assist us in comprehending the import of the death of Christ, or the nature of the Christian religion. They are in the highest degree opposed to it, at the other end of the scale of human development, as ‘the weak and beggarly elements’ of sense and fear to the spirit whereby we cry, Abba, Father; almost, may we not say, as the instinct of animals to the reasoning faculties of man. For sacrifice is not, like prayer, one of the highest, but one of the lowest acts of religious worship. It is the antiquity, not the religious import of the rite, which first gave it a sacredness. In modern times, the associations which are conveyed by the word are as far from the original idea as those of the cross itself. The death of Christ is not a sacrifice in the ancient sense (any more than the cross is to Christians the symbol of infamy); but what we mean by the word ‘sacrifice’ is the death of Christ.
Fourthly: This sacrificial language is not used with any definiteness or precision. The figure varies in different passages; Christ is the Paschal Lamb, or the Lamb without spot, as well as the sin-offering; the priest as well as the sacrifice. It is applied not only to Christ, but to the believer who is to present his body a living sacrifice; and the offering of which St. Paul speaks in one passage is ‘the offering up of the Gentiles.’ Again, this language is everywhere broken by moral and spiritual applications into which it dissolves and melts away. When we read of ‘sacrifice,’ or ‘purification,’ or ‘redemption,’ these words isolated may for an instant carry our thoughts back to the Levitical ritual. But when we restore them to their context, a sacrifice which is a ‘spiritual sacrifice,’ or a ‘spiritual and mental service,’ a purification which is a ‘purging from dead works to serve the living God,’ a redemption ‘by the blood of Christ from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers’—we see that the association offers no real help; it is no paradox to say that we should rather forget than remember it. All this tends to show that these figures of speech are not the eternal symbols of the Christian faith, but shadows only which lightly come and go, and ought not to be fixed by definitions, or made the foundation of doctrinal systems.
Fifthly: Nor is any such use of them made by any of the writers of the New Testament. It is true that St. Paul occasionally, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews much more frequently, use sacrificial language. But they do not pursue the figure into details or consequences; they do not draw it out in logical form. Still less do they inquire, as modern theologians have done, into the objective or transcendental relation in which the sacrifice of Christ stood to the will of the Father. St. Paul says, ‘We thus judge that if one died, then all died, and he died for all, that they which live shall not henceforth live to themselves, but unto him which died for them and rose again.’ But words like these are far indeed from expressing a doctrine of atonement or satisfaction.
Lastly: The extent to which the Apostle employs figurative language in general, may be taken as a measure of the force of the figure in particular, expressions. Now there is no mode of speaking of spiritual things more natural to him than the image of death. Of the meaning of this word, in all languages, it may be said that there can be no doubt. Yet no one supposes that the sense which the Apostle gives to it is other than a spiritual one. The reason is, that the word has never been made the foundation of any doctrine. But the circumstance that the term ‘sacrifice’ has passed into the language of theology, does not really circumscribe or define it. It is a figure of speech still, which is no more to be interpreted by the Mosaic sacrifices than spiritual death by physical. Let us consider again other expressions of St. Paul: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ ‘Who hath taken the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, and nailed it to his cross.’ ‘Filling up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh, for his body’s sake, which is the church.’ The occurrence of these and many similar expressions is a sufficient indication that the writer in whom they occur is not to be interpreted in a dry or literal manner.
Another class of expressions, which may be termed the language of substitution or vicarious suffering, are also occasionally found in St. Paul. Two examples of them, both of which occur in the Epistle to the Galatians, will indicate their general character.
Gal. ii. 20: ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ iii. 13: ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.’
This use of language seems to originate in what was termed before the language of identity. First, ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ and secondly, ‘Not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ The believer, according to St. Paul, follows Christ until he becomes like Him. And this likeness is so complete and entire, that all that he was or might have been is attributed to Christ, and all that Christ is, is attributed to him. With such life and fervour does St. Paul paint the intimacy of the union between the believer and Christ: They two are ‘One Spirit.’ To build on such expressions a doctrinal system is the error of ‘rhetoric turned logic.’ The truth of feeling which is experienced by a few is not to be handed over to the head as a form of doctrine for the many.
The same remark applies to another class of passages, in which Christ is described as dying ‘for us,’ or ‘for our sins.’ Upon which it may be further observed, first, that in these passages the preposition used is not ἀντί but ὑπέρ; and, secondly, that Christ is spoken of as living and rising again, as well as dying, for us; whence we infer that He died for us in the same sense that He lived for us. Of what is meant, perhaps the nearest conception we can form is furnished by the example of a good man taking upon himself, or, as we say, identifying himself with, the troubles and sorrows of others. Christ himself has sanctioned the comparison of a love which lays down life for a friend. Let us think of one as sensitive to moral evil as the gentlest of mankind to physical suffering; of one whose love identified Him with the whole human race as strongly as the souls of men are ever knit together by individual affections.
Many of the preceding observations apply equally to the Epistle to the Hebrews and to the Epistles of St. Paul. But the Epistle to the Hebrews has features peculiar to itself. It is a more complete transfiguration of the law, which St. Paul, on the other hand, applies by way of illustration, and in fragments only. It has the interest of an allegory, and, in some respects, admits of a comparison with the book of Revelation. It is full of sacrificial allusions, derived, however, not from the actual rite, but from the description of it in the books of Moses. Probably at Jerusalem, or the vicinity of the actual temple, it would not have been written.
From this source chiefly, and not from the Epistles of St. Paul, the language of sacrifice has passed into the theology and sermons of modern times. The Epistle to the Hebrews affords a greater apparent foundation for the popular or Calvinistical doctrines of atonement and satisfaction, but not perhaps a greater real one. For it is not the mere use of the terms ‘sacrifice’ or ‘blood,’ but the sense in which they were used, that must be considered. It is a fallacy, though a natural one, to confuse the image with the thing signified, like mistaking the colour of a substance for its true nature.
Long passages might be quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which describe the work of Christ in sacrificial language. Some of the most striking verses are the following:—ix. 11–14: ‘Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.’ x. 12: ‘This man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.’
That these and similar passages have only a deceitful resemblance to the language of those theologians who regard the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ as the central truth of the Gospel, is manifest from the following considerations:—
1. The great number and variety of the figures. Christ is Joshua, who gives the people rest (iv. 8); Melchisedec, to whom Abraham paid tithes (v. 6, vii. 6); the high priest going into the most holy place after he had offered sacrifice, which sacrifice He himself is, passing through the veil, which is His flesh.
2. The inconsistency of the figures: an inconsistency partly arising from their ceasing to be figures and passing into moral notions, as in chap. ix. 14: ‘the blood of Christ, who offered himself without spot to God, shall purge your conscience from dead works;’ partly from the confusion of two or more figures, as in the verse following: ‘And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament,’ where the idea of sacrifice forms a transition to that of death and a testament, and the idea of a testament blends with that of a covenant.
3. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews dwells on the outward circumstance of the shedding of the blood of Christ. St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians makes another application of the Old Testament, describing our Lord as enduring the curse which befell ‘One who hanged on a tree.’ Imagine for an instant that this latter had been literally the mode of our Lord’s death. The figure of the Epistle to the Hebrews would cease to have any meaning; yet no one supposes that there would have been any essential difference in the work of Christ.
4. The atoning sacrifice of which modern theology speaks, is said to be the great object of faith. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews also speaks of faith, but no such expression as faith in the blood, or sacrifice, or death of Christ is made use of by him, or is found anywhere else in Scripture. The faith of the patriarchs is not faith in the peculiar sense of the term, but the faith of those who confess that they are ‘strangers and pilgrims,’ and ‘endure seeing him that is invisible.’
Lastly: The Jewish Alexandrian character of the Epistle must be admitted as an element of the inquiry. It interprets the Old Testament after a manner then current in the world, which we must either continue to apply or admit that it was relative to that age and country. It makes statements which we can only accept in a figure, as, for example, in chap. xi, ‘that Moses esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.’ It uses language in double senses, as, for instance, the two meanings of διαθήκη and of ἡ πρώτη in chap. viii. 13; ix. 1; and the connexion which it establishes between the Old Testament and the New, is a verbal or mystical one, not a connexion between the temple and offerings at Jerusalem and the offering up of Christ, but between the ancient ritual and the tabernacle described in the book of the law.
Such were the instruments which the author of this great Epistle (whoever he may have been) employed, after the manner of his age and country, to impart the truths of the Gospel in a figure to those who esteemed this sort of figurative knowledge as a kind of perfection (Heb. vi. 1). ‘Ideas must be given through something;’ nor could mankind in those days, any more than our own, receive the truth except in modes of thought that were natural to them. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is writing to those who lived and moved in the atmosphere, as it may be termed, of Alexandrian Judaism. Therefore he uses the figures of the law, but he also guards against their literal acceptation. Christ is a priest, but a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec; He is a sacrifice, but He is also the end of sacrifices, and the sacrifice which He offers is the negation of sacrifices, ‘to do thy will, O God.’ Everywhere he has a ‘how much more,’ ‘how much greater,’ for the new dispensation in comparison with the old. He raises the Old Testament to the New, first by drawing forth the spirit of the New Testament from the Old, and secondly by applying the words of the Old Testament in a higher sense than they at first had. The former of these two methods of interpretation is moral and universal, the latter local and temporary. But if we who are not Jews like the persons to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed, and who are taught by education to receive words in their natural and prima facie meaning, linger around the figure instead of looking forward to the thing signified, we do indeed make ‘Christ the minister’ of the Mosaic religion. For there is a Judaism not only of outward ceremonies or ecclesiastical hierarchies, or temporal rewards and punishments, but of ideas also, which impedes the worship of spirit and truth.
The sum of what has been said is as follows:—
Firstly: That our Lord never describes His own work in the language of atonement or sacrifice.
Secondly: That this language is a figure of speech borrowed from the Old Testament, yet not to be explained by the analogy of the Levitical sacrifices; occasionally found in the writings of St. Paul; more frequently in the Epistle to the Hebrews; applied to the believer at least equally with his Lord, and indicating by the variety and uncertainty with which it is used that it is not the expression of any objective relation in which the work of Christ stands to His Father, but only a mode of speaking common at a time when the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish law were passing away and beginning to receive a spiritual meaning.
Thirdly: That nothing is signified by this language, or at least nothing essential, beyond what is implied in the teaching of our Lord himself. For it cannot be supposed that there is any truer account of Christianity than is to be found in the words of Christ.
Theology sprang up in the first ages independently of Scripture. This independence continued afterwards; it has never been wholly lost. There is a tradition of the nineteenth century, as well as of the fourth or fourteenth, which comes between them. The mystical interpretation of Scripture has further parted them; to which may be added the power of system: doctrines when framed into a whole cease to draw their inspiration from the text. Logic has expressed ‘the thoughts of many hearts’ with a seeming necessity of form; this form of reasoning has led to new inferences. Many words and formulas have also acquired a sacredness from their occurrence in liturgies and articles, or the frequent use of them in religious discourse. The true interest of the theologian is to restore these formulas to their connexion in Scripture, and to their place in ecclesiastical history. The standard of Christian truth is not a logical clearness or sequence, but the simplicity of the mind of Christ.
The history of theology is the history of the intellectual life of the Christian Church. All bodies of Christians, Protestant as well as Catholic, have tended to imagine that they are in the same stage of religious development as the first believers. But the Church has not stood still any more than the world; we may trace the progress of doctrine as well as the growth of philosophical opinion. The thoughts of men do not pass away without leaving an impress, in religion, any more than in politics or literature. The form of more than one article of faith in our own day is assignable to the effort of mind of some great thinker of the Nicene or mediaeval times. The received interpretation of texts of Scripture may not unfrequently be referred to the application of them first made in periods of controversy. Neither is it possible in any reformation of the Church to return exactly to the point whence the divergence began. The pattern of Apostolical order may be restored in externals; but the threads of the dialectical process are in the mind itself, and cannot be disposed of at once. It seems to be the nature of theology that while it is easy to add one definition of doctrine to another, it is hard to withdraw from any which have been once received. To believe too much is held to be safer than to believe too little, and the human intellect finds a more natural exercise in raising the superstructure than in examining the foundations. On the other hand, it is instructive to observe that there has always been an under-current in theology, the course of which has turned towards morality, and not away from it. There is a higher sense of truth and right now than in the Nicene Church—after than before the Reformation. The laity in all Churches have moderated the extremes of the clergy. There may also be remarked a silent correction in men’s minds of statements which have not ceased to appear in theological writings.
The study of the doctrinal development of the Christian Church has many uses. First, it helps us to separate the history of a doctrine from its truth, and indirectly also the meaning of Scripture from the new reading of it, which has been given in many instances by theological controversy. It takes us away from the passing movement, and out of our own particular corner into a world in which we see religion on a larger scale and in truer proportions. It enables us to interpret one age to another, to understand our present theological position by its antecedents in the past; and perhaps to bind all together in the spirit of charity. Half the intolerance of opinion among Christians arises from ignorance; in history as in life, when we know others we get to like them. Logic too ceases to take us by force and make us believe. There is a pathetic interest and a kind of mystery in the long continuance and intensity of erroneous ideas on behalf of which men have been ready to die, which nevertheless were no better than the dreams or fancies of children. When we make allowance for differences in modes of thought, for the state of knowledge, and the conditions of the ecclesiastical society, we see that individuals have not been altogether responsible for their opinions; that the world has been bound together under the influence of the past; moreover, good men of all persuasions have been probably nearer to one another than they supposed, in doctrine as well as in life. It is the attempt to preserve or revive erroneous opinions in the present age, not their existence in former ages, that is to be reprobated. Lastly, the study of the history of doctrine is the end of controversy. For it is above controversy, of which it traces the growth, clearing away that part which is verbal only, and teaching us to understand that other part which is fixed in the deeper differences of human nature.
The history of the doctrine of the atonement may be conveniently divided into four periods of unequal length, each of which is marked by some peculiar features. First, the Patristic period, extending to the time of Anselm, in which the doctrine had not attained to a perfect or complete form, but each one applied for himself the language of Scripture. Secondly, the Scholastic period, beginning with Anselm, who may be said to have defined anew the conceptions of the Christian world respecting the work of Christ, and including the great schoolmen who were his successors. Thirdly, the century of the Reformation, embracing what may be termed the after-thoughts of Protestantism, when men began to reason in that new sphere of religious thought which had been called into existence in the great struggle. ‘Fragments of the great banquet’ of the schoolmen survive throughout the period, and have floated down the stream of time to our own age. Fourthly, the last hundred years, during which the doctrine of the atonement has received a new development from the influences of German philosophy1 , as well as from the speculations of English and American writers.
1. The characteristics of the first period may be summed up as follows. All the Fathers agreed that man was reconciled to God through Christ, and received in the Gospel a new and divine life. Most of them also spoke of the death of Christ as a ransom or sacrifice. When we remember that in the first age of the Church the New Testament was exclusively taught through the Old, and that many of the first teachers, who were unacquainted with our present Gospels, had passed their lives in the study of the Old Testament Scriptures, we shall not wonder at the early diffusion of this sort of language. Almost every application of the types of the law which has been made since, is already found in the writings of Justin Martyr. Nor indeed, on general grounds, is there any reason why we should feel surprise at such a tendency in the first ages. For in all Churches, and at all times of the world’s history, the Old Testament has tended to take the place of the New; the law of the Gospel; the handmaid has become the mistress; and the development of the Christian priesthood has developed also the idea of a Christian sacrifice.
The peculiarity of the primitive doctrine did not lie here, but in the relation in which the work of Christ was supposed to stand to the powers of evil. In the first ages we are beset with shadows of an under world, which hover on the confines of Christianity. From Origen downwards, with some traces of an earlier opinion of the same kind, perhaps of Gnostic origin, it was a prevailing though not quite universal belief among the Fathers, that the death of Christ was a satisfaction, not to God, but to the devil. Man, by having sinned, passed into the power of the evil one, who acquired a real right over him which could not be taken away without compensation. Christ offered himself as this compensation, which the devil eagerly accepted, as worth more than all mankind. But the deceiver was in turn deceived; thinking to triumph over the humanity, he was himself triumphed over by the Divinity of Christ. This theory was characteristically expressed under some such image as the following: ‘that the devil snatching at the bait of human flesh, was hooked by the Divine nature, and forced to disgorge what he had already swallowed.’ It is common in some form to Origen, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and much later writers; and there are indications of it in Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. v. i. 1). The meaning of this transaction with the devil it is hardly possible to explain consistently. For a real possession of the soul of Christ was not thought of: an imaginary one is only an illusion. In either case the absolute right which is assigned to the devil over man, and which requires this satisfaction, is as repugnant to our moral and religious ideas, as the notion that the right could be satisfied by a deception. This strange fancy seems to be a reflection or anticipation of Manicheism within the Church. The world, which had been hitherto a kingdom of evil, of which the devil was the lord, was to be exorcised and taken out of his power by the death of Christ.
But the mythical fancy of the transaction with the devil was not the whole, nor even the leading conception, which the Fathers had of the import of the death of Christ. It was the negative, not the positive, side of the doctrine of redemption which they thus expressed; nobler thoughts also filled their minds. Origen regards the death of Christ as a payment to the devil, yet also as an offering to God; this offering took place not on earth only, but also in heaven; God is the high priest who offered. Another aspect of the doctrine of the atonement is presented by the same Father, under the Neo-Platonist form of the λόγος (word), who reunites with God, not only man, but all intelligences. Irenaeus speaks, in language more human and more like St. Paul, of Christ ‘coming to save all, and therefore passing through all the ages of man; becoming an infant among infants, a little one among little ones, a young man among young men, an elder with the aged (?), that each in turn might be sanctified, until He reached death, that He should be the first-born from the dead’ (ii. 22, 147). The great Latin Father, though he believed equally with Origen in the right and power of the devil over man, delights also to bring forward the moral aspect of the work of Christ. ‘The entire life of Christ,’ he says, ‘was an instruction in morals’ (De Ver. Rel. c. 16). ‘He died in order that no man might be afraid of death’ (De Fide et Symbolo, c. 5). ‘The love which He displayed in his death constrains us to love Him and each other in return’ (De Cat. Rud. c. 4). Like St. Paul, Augustine contrasts the second Adam with the first, the man of righteousness with the man of sin (De Ver. Relig. c. 26). Lastly, he places the real nature of redemption in the manifestation of the God-man.
Another connexion between ancient and modern theology is supplied by the writings of Athanasius. The view taken by Athanasius of the atoning work of Christ has two characteristic features: First, it is based upon the doctrine of the Trinity;—God only can reconcile man with God. Secondly, it rests on the idea of a debt which is paid, not to the devil, but to God. This debt is also due to death, who has a sort of right over Christ, like the right of the devil in the former scheme. If it be asked in what this view differs from that of Anselm, the answer seems to be, chiefly in the circumstance that it is stated with less distinctness: it is a form, not the form, which Athanasius gave to the doctrine. In the conception of the death of Christ as a debt, he is followed, however, by several of the Greek Fathers. Rhetoric delighted to represent the debt as more than paid; the payment was ‘even as the ocean to a drop in comparison with the sins of men’ (Chrys. on Rom. Hom. x. 17). It is pleasing further to remark that a kind of latitudinarianism was allowed by the Fathers themselves. Gregory of Nazianzen (Orat. xxxiii. p. 536) numbers speculations about the sufferings of Christ among those things on which it is useful to have correct ideas, but not dangerous to be mistaken. On the whole the doctrine of the Fathers of the first four centuries may be said to oscillate between two points of view, which are brought out with different degrees of clearness. 1. The atonement was effected by the death of Christ; which was a satisfaction to the devil, and an offering to God: 2. The atonement was effected by the union in Christ of the Divine and human nature in the ‘logos,’ or word of God. That neither view is embodied in any creed is a proof that the doctrine of atonement was not, in the first centuries, what modern writers often make it, the corner-stone of the Christian faith.
An interval of more than 700 years separates Athanasius from Anselm. One eminent name occurs during this interval, that of Scotus Erigena, whose conception of the atonement is the co-eternal unity of all things with God; the participation in this unity had been lost by man, not in time, but in eternity, and was restored in the person of Christ likewise from eternity. The views of Erigena present some remarkable coincidences with very recent speculations; in the middle ages he stands alone, at the end, not at the beginning, of a great period;—he is the last of the Platonists, not the first of the schoolmen. He had consequently little influence on the centuries which followed. Those centuries gradually assumed a peculiar character; and received in after times another name, scholastic, as opposed to patristic. The intellect was beginning to display a new power; men were asking, not exactly for a reason of the faith that was in them, but for a clearer conception and definition of it. The Aristotelian philosophy furnished distinctions which were applied with a more than Aristotelian precision to statements of doctrine. Logic took the place of rhetoric; the school of the Church; figures of speech became abstract ideas. Theology was exhibited under a new aspect, as a distinct object or reality of thought. Questions on which Scripture was silent, on which councils and Popes would themselves pronounce no decision, were raised and answered within a narrow sphere by the activity of the human mind itself. The words ‘sacrifice,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘ransom,’ could no longer be used indefinitely; it was necessary to determine further to whom and for what the satisfaction was made, and to solve the new difficulties which thereupon arose in the effort to gain clearer and more connected ideas.
2. It was a true feeling of Anselm that the old doctrine of satisfaction contained an unchristian element in attributing to the devil a right independent of God. That man should be delivered over to Satan may be just; it is a misrepresentation to say that Satan had any right over man. Therefore no right of the devil is satisfied by the death of Christ. He who had the real right is God, who has been robbed of His honour; to whom is, indeed, owing on the part of man an infinite debt. For sin is in its nature infinite; the world has no compensation for that which a good man would not do in exchange for the world (Cur Deus Homo, i. 21). God only can satisfy himself. The human nature of Christ enables Him to incur, the infinity of his Divine nature to pay, this debt (ii. 6, 7). This payment of the debt, however, is not the salvation of mankind, but only the condition of salvation; a link is still wanting in the work of grace. The two parties are equalized; the honour of which God was robbed is returned, but man has no claim for any further favour. This further favour, however, is indirectly a result of the death of Christ. For the payment of the debt by the Son partakes of the nature of a gift which must needs have a recompense (ii. 20) from the Father, which recompense cannot be conferred on himself, and is therefore made at His request to man. The doctrine ultimately rests on two reasons or grounds; the first a noble one, that it must be far from God to suffer any rational creature to perish entirely (Cur Deus Homo, i. 4, ii. 4); the second a trifling one, viz. that God, having created the angels in a perfect number, it was necessary that man, saved through Christ, should fill up that original number, which was impaired by their fall. And as Anselm, in the spirit of St. Paul, though not quite consistently with his own argument, declares, the mercy of God was shown in the number of the saved exceeding the number of the lost (Cur Deus Homo, i. 16, 18).
This theory, which is contained in the remarkable treatise Cur Deus Homo, is consecutively reasoned throughout; yet the least reasons seem often sufficient to satisfy the author. While it escapes one difficulty it involves several others; though conceived in a nobler and more Christian spirit than any previous view of the work of Christ, it involves more distinctly the hideous consequence of punishing the innocent for the guilty. It is based upon analogies, symmetries, numerical fitnesses; yet under these logical fancies is contained a true and pure feeling of the relation of man to God. The notion of satisfaction or payment of a debt, on the other hand, is absolutely groundless, and seems only to result from a certain logical position which the human mind has arbitrarily assumed. The scheme implies further two apparently contradictory notions; one, a necessity in the nature of things for this and no other means of redemption; the other, the free will of God in choosing the salvation of man. Anselm endeavours to escape from this difficulty by substituting the conception of a moral for that of a metaphysical necessity (ii. 5). God chose the necessity and Christ chose the fulfilment of His Father’s commands. But the necessity by which the death of Christ is justified is thus reduced to a figure of speech. Lastly, the subjective side of the doctrine, which afterwards became the great question of the Reformation, the question, that is, in what way the death of Christ is to be apprehended by the believer, is hardly if at all touched upon by Anselm.
No progress was made during the four centuries which intervened between Anselm and the Reformation, towards the attainment of clearer ideas respecting the relations of God and man. The view of Anselm did not, however, at once or universally prevail; it has probably exercised a greater influence since the Reformation (being the basis of what may be termed the evangelical doctrine of the atonement) than in earlier ages. The spirit of the older theology was too congenial to those ages quickly to pass away. Bernard and others continued to maintain the right of the devil: a view not wholly obsolete in our own day. The two great masters of the schools agreed in denying the necessity on which the theory of Anselm was founded. They differed from Anselm also respecting the conception of an infinite satisfaction; Thomas Aquinas distinguishing the ‘infinite’ Divine merit, and ‘abundant’ human satisfaction; while Duns Scotus rejected the notion of infinity altogether, declaring that the scheme of redemption might have been equally accomplished by the death of an angel or a righteous man. Abelard, at an earlier period, attached special importance to the moral aspect of the work of Christ; he denied the right of the devil, and declared the love of Christ to be the redeeming principle, because it calls forth the love of man. Peter Lombard also, who retained, like Bernard, the old view of the right of the devil, agreed with Abelard in giving a moral character to the work of redemption.
3. The doctrines of the Reformed as well as of the Catholic Church were expressed in the language of the scholastic theology. But the logic which the Catholic party had employed in defining and distinguishing the body of truth already received, the teachers of the Reformation used to express the subjective feelings of the human soul. Theology made a transition, such as we may observe at one or two epochs in the history of philosophy, from the object to the subject. Hence, the doctrine of atonement or satisfaction became subordinate to the doctrine of justification. The reformers begin, not with ideas, but with the consciousness of sin; with immediate human interests, not with speculative difficulties; not with mere abstractions, but with a great struggle; ‘without were fightings, within were fears.’ As of Socrates and philosophy, so it may be also said truly of Luther in a certain sense, that he brought down the work of redemption ‘from heaven to earth.’ The great question with him was, ‘how we might be freed from the punishment and guilt of sin,’ and the answer was, through the appropriation of the merits of Christ. All that man was or might have been, Christ became, and was; all that Christ did or was, attached or was imputed to man: as God, he paid the infinite penalty; as man, he fulfilled the law. The first made redemption possible, the second perfected it. The first was termed in the language of that age, the ‘obedientia passiva,’ the second, the ‘obedientia activa.’
In this scheme the doctrine of satisfaction is far from being prominent or necessary; it is a remnant of an older theology which was retained by the Reformers and prevented their giving a purely moral character to the work of Christ. There were differences among them respecting the two kinds of obedience; some regarding the ‘obedientia passiva’ as the cause or condition of the ‘obedientia activa,’ while others laid no stress on the distinction. But all the great chiefs of the Reformation agreed in the fiction of imputed righteousness. Little had been said in earlier times of a doctrine of imputation. But now the Bible was reopened and read over again in one light only, ‘justification by faith and not by works.’ The human mind seemed to seize with a kind of avidity on any distinction which took it out of itself, and at the same time freed it from the burden of ecclesiastical tyranny. Figures of speech in which Christ was said to die for man or for the sins of man were understood in as crude and literal a sense as the Catholic Church had attempted to gain from the words of the institution of the Eucharist. Imputation and substitution among Protestant divines began to be formulas as strictly imposed as transubstantiation with their opponents. To Luther, Christ was not only the Holy One who died for the sins of men, but the sinner himself on whom the vials of Divine wrath were poured out. And seeing in the Epistles to the Galatians and Romans the power which the law exercised in that age of the world over Jewish or half-Jewish Christians, he transferred the state which the Apostle there describes to his own age, and imagined that the burden under which he himself had groaned was the same law of which St. Paul spoke, which Christ first fulfilled in His own person and then abolished for ever.
It was not unnatural that in the middle ages, when morality had no free or independent development, the doctrine of the atonement should have been drawn out on the analogy of law. Nor is there any reason why we should feel surprised that, with the revival of the study of Scripture at the Reformation, the Mosaic law should have exercised a great influence over the ideas of Protestants. More singular, yet an analogous phenomenon, is the attempt of Grotius to conceive the work of Christ by the help of the principles of political justice. All men are under the influence of their own education or profession, and they are apt to conceive truths which are really of a different or higher kind under some form derived from it; they require such a degree or kind of evidence as their minds are accustomed to, and political or legal principles have often been held a sufficient foundation for moral truth.
The theory of the celebrated jurist proceeds from the conception of God as governor of the universe. As such, He may forgive sins just as any other ruler may remit the punishment of offences against positive law. But although the ruler possesses the power to remit sins, and there is nothing in the nature of justice which would prevent his doing so, yet he has also a duty, which is to uphold his own authority and that of the laws. To do so, he must enforce punishment for the breach of them. This punishment, however, may attach not to the offender, but to the offence. Such a distinction is not unknown to the law itself. We may apply this to the work of Christ. There was no difficulty in the nature of things which prevented God from freely pardoning the sins of men; the power of doing so was vested in His hands as governor of the world. But it was inexpedient that He should exercise this power without first making an example. This was effected by the death of Christ. It pleased God to act according to the pedantic rules of earthly jurisprudence. It is useless to criticize such a theory further; almost all theologians have agreed in reprobating it; it adopts the analogy of law, and violates its first principles by considering a moral or legal act without reference to the agent. The reason which Grotius assigns for the death of Christ is altogether trivial.
4. Later theories on the doctrine of the atonement may be divided into two classes, English and German, logical and metaphysical; those which proceed chiefly by logical inference, and those which connect the conception of the atonement with speculative philosophy.
Earlier English writers were chiefly employed in defining the work of Christ; later ones have been most occupied with the attempt to soften or moderate the more repulsive features of the older statements; the former have a dogmatical, the latter an apologetical character. The nature of the sufferings of Christ, whether they were penal or only quasi penal, whether they were physical or mental, greater in degree than human sufferings, or different in kind; in what more precisely the compensation offered by Christ truly consisted; the nature of the obedience of Christ, whether to God or the law, and the connexion of the whole question with that of the Divine decrees:—these were among the principal subjects discussed by the great Presbyterian divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Continuing in the same line of thought as their predecessors, they seem to have been unconscious of the difficulties to which the eyes of a later generation have opened.
But at last the question has arisen within, as well as without, the Church of England: ‘How the ideas of expiation, or satisfaction, or sacrifice, or imputation, are reconcilable with the moral and spiritual nature either of God or man?’ Some there are who answer from analogy, and cite instances of vicarious suffering which appear in the disorder of the world around us. But analogy is a broken reed; of use, indeed, in pointing out the way where its intimations can be verified, but useless when applied to the unseen world in which the eye of observation no longer follows. Others affirm revelation or inspiration to be above criticism, and, in disregard alike of Church history and of Scripture, assume their own view of the doctrine of the atonement to be a revealed or inspired truth. They do not see that they are cutting off the branch of the tree on which they are themselves sitting. For, if the doctrine of the atonement cannot be criticized, neither can it be determined what is the doctrine of the atonement; nor, on the same principles, can any true religion be distinguished from any false one, or any truth of religion from any error. It is suicidal in theology to refuse the appeal to a moral criterion. Others add a distinction of things above reason and things contrary to reason; a favourite theological weapon, which has, however, no edge or force, so long as it remains a generality. Others, in like manner, support their view of the doctrine of the atonement by a theory of accommodation, which also loses itself in ambiguity. For it is not determined whether, by accommodation to the human faculties, is meant the natural subjectiveness of knowledge, or some other limitation which applies to theology only. Others regard the death of Christ, not as an atonement or satisfaction to God, but as a manifestation of His righteousness, a theory which agrees with that of Grotius in its general character, when the latter is stripped of its technicalities. This theory is the shadow or surface of that of satisfaction; the human analogy equally fails; the punishment of the innocent for the guilty is not more unjust than the punishment of the innocent as an example to the guilty. Lastly, there are some who would read the doctrine of the atonement ‘in the light of Divine love only;’ the object of the sufferings and death of Christ being to draw men’s hearts to God by the vision of redeeming love (compare Abelard), and the sufferings themselves being the natural result of the passage of the Saviour through a world of sin and shame. Of these explanations the last seems to do the least violence to our moral feelings. Yet it would surely be better to renounce any attempt at inquiry into the objective relations of God and man, than to rest the greatest fact in the history of mankind on so slender a ground as the necessity for arousing the love of God in the human heart, in this and no other way.
German theology during the last hundred years has proceeded by a different path; it has delighted to recognize the doctrine of the atonement as the centre of religion, and also of philosophy. This tendency is first observable in the writings of Kant, and may be traced through the schools of his successors, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, as well as in the works of the two philosophical theologians Daub and Schleiermacher. These great thinkers all use the language of orthodoxy; it cannot be said, however, that the views of any of them agree with the teaching of the patristic or mediaeval Church, or of the Reformers, or of the simpler expressions of Scripture. Yet they often bring into new meaning and prominence texts on this subject which have been pushed aside by the regular current of theology. The difficulties which they all alike experience are two: first, how to give a moral meaning to the idea of atonement; secondly, how to connect the idea with the historical fact.
According to Kant, the atonement consists in the sacrifice of the individual; a sacrifice in which the sin of the old man is ever being compensated by the sorrows and virtues of the new. This atonement, or reconcilement of man with God, consists in an endless progress towards a reconcilement which is never absolutely completed in this life, and yet, by the continual increase of good and diminution of evil, is a sufficient groundwork of hope and peace. Perfect reconcilement would consist in the perfect obedience of a free agent to the law of duty or righteousness. For this Kant substitutes the ideal of the Son of God. The participation in this ideal of humanity is an aspect of the reconcilement. In a certain sense, in the sight of God, that is, and in the wish and resolution of the individual, the change from the old to the new is not gradual, but sudden: the end is imputed or anticipated in the beginning. So Kant ‘rationalizes’ the ordinary Lutheran doctrine of justification; unconscious, as in other parts of his philosophy, of the influence which existing systems are exercising over him. Man goes out of himself to grasp at a reflection which is still—himself. The mystical is banished only to return again in an arbitrary and imaginative form—a phenomenon which we may often observe in speculation as well as in the characters of individuals.
Schleiermacher’s view of the doctrine of the atonement is almost equally different from that of Kant who preceded him, and of Hegel and others who were his contemporaries or successors: it is hardly more like the popular theories. Reconciliation with God he conceives as a participation in the Divine nature. Of this participation the Church, through the Spirit, is the medium; the individual is redeemed and consoled by communion with his fellow-men. If in the terminology of philosophy we ask which is the objective, which the subjective part of the work of redemption, the answer of Schleiermacher seems to be that the subjective redemption of the individual is the consciousness of union with God; and the objective part, which corresponds to this consciousness, is the existence of the Church, which derives its life from the Spirit of God, and is also the depository of the truth of Christ. The same criticism, however, applies to this as to the preceding conception of the atonement, viz. that it has no real historical basis. The objective truth is nothing more than the subjective feeling or opinion which prevails in a particular Church. Schleiermacher deduces the historical from the ideal, and regards the ideal as existing only in the communion of Christians. But the truth of a fact is not proved by the truth of an idea. And the personal relation of the believer to Christ, instead of being immediate, is limited (as in the Catholic system) by the existence of the Church.
Later philosophers have conceived of the reconciliation of man with God as a reconciliation of God with himself. The infinite must evolve the finite from itself; yet the true infinite consists in the return of the finite to the infinite. By slow degrees, and in many stages of morality, of religion, and of knowledge, does the individual, according to Fichte, lay aside isolation and selfishness, gaining in strength and freedom by the negation of freedom, until he rises into the region of the divine and absolute. This is reconcilement with God; a half Christian, half Platonic notion, which it is not easy to identify either with the subjective feeling of the individual, or with the historical fact. Daub has also translated the language of Scripture and of the Church into metaphysical speculation. According to this thinker, atonement is the realization of the unity of man with God, which is also the unity of God with himself. ‘Deus Deum cum mundo conjunctum Deo manifestat.’ Perhaps this is as near an approach as philosophy can make to a true expression of the words, ‘That they all may be one, as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.’ Yet the metaphysical truth is a distant and indistinct representation of the mind of Christ which is expressed in these words. Its defect is exhibited in the image under which Fichte described it—the absolute unity of light; in other words, God, like the being of the Eleatics, is a pure abstraction, and returning into himself is an abstraction still.
It is characteristic of Schelling’s system that he conceives the nature of God, not as abstraction, but as energy or action. The finite and manifold are not annihilated in the infinite; they are the revelation of the infinite. Man is the son of God; of this truth Christ is the highest expression and the eternal idea. But in the world this revelation or incarnation of God is ever going on; the light is struggling with darkness, the spirit with nature, the universal with the particular. That victory which was achieved in the person of Christ is not yet final in individuals or in history. Each person, each age, carries on the same conflict between good and evil, the triumphant end of which is anticipated in the life and death of Christ.
Hegel, beginning with the doctrine of a Trinity, regards the atonement as the eternal reconciliation of the finite and the infinite in the bosom of God himself. The Son goes forth from the Father, as the world or finite being, to exist in a difference which is done away and lost in the absoluteness of God. Here the question arises, how individuals become partakers of this reconciliation? The answer is, by the finite receiving the revelation of God. The consciousness of God in man is developed, first, in the worship of nature; secondly, in the manifestation of Christ; thirdly, in the faith of the Church that God and man are one, of which faith the Holy Spirit is the source. The death of Christ is the separation of this truth from the elements of nature and sense. Hegelian divines have given this doctrine a more Pantheistic or more Christian aspect; they have, in some instances, studiously adopted orthodox language; they have laid more or less stress on the historical facts. But they have done little as yet to make it intelligible to the world at large; they have acquired for it no fixed place in history, and no hold upon life.
Englishmen, especially, feel a national dislike at the ‘things which accompany salvation’ being perplexed with philosophical theories. They find it easier to caricature than to understand Hegel; they prefer the most unintelligible expressions with which they are familiar to great thoughts which are strange to them. No man of sense really supposes that Hegel or Schelling is so absurd as they may be made to look in an uncouth English translation, or as they unavoidably appear to many in a brief summary of their tenets. Yet it may be doubted whether this philosophy can ever have much connexion with the Christian life. It seems to reflect at too great a distance what ought to be very near to us. It is metaphysical, not practical; it creates an atmosphere in which it is difficult to breathe; it is useful as supplying a light or law by which to arrange the world, rather than as a principle of action or warmth. Man is a microcosm, and we do not feel quite certain whether the whole system is not the mind itself turned inside out, and magnified in enormous proportions. Whatever interest it may arouse in speculative natures (and it is certainly of great value to a few), it will hardly find a home or welcome in England.
The silence of our Lord in the Gospels respecting any doctrine of atonement and sacrifice, the variety of expressions which occur in other parts of the New Testament, the fluctuation and uncertainty both of the Church and individuals on this subject in after ages, incline us to agree with Gregory Nazianzen, that the death of Christ is one of those points of faith ‘about which it is not dangerous to be mistaken.’ And the sense of the imperfection of language and the illusions to which we are subject from the influence of past ideas, the consciousness that doctrinal perplexities arise chiefly from our transgression of the limits of actual knowledge, will lead us to desire a very simple statement of the work of Christ; a statement, however, in accordance with our moral ideas, and one which will not shift and alter with the metaphysical schools of the age; one, moreover, which runs no risk of being overthrown by an increasing study of the Old Testament or of ecclesiastical history. Endless theories there have been (of which the preceding sketch contains only a small portion), and many more there will be as time goes on, like mystery plays, or sacred dramas (to adapt Lord Bacon’s image), which have passed before the Church and the world. To add another would increase the confusion: it is ridiculous to think of settling a disputed point of theology unless by some new method. That other method can only be a method of agreement; little progress has been made hitherto by the method of difference. It is not reasonable, but extremely unreasonable, that the most sacred of all books should be the only one respecting the interpretation of which there is no certainty; that religion alone should be able to perpetuate the enmities of past ages; that the influence of words and names, which secular knowledge has long shaken off, should still intercept the natural love of Christians towards one another and their Lord. On our present subject there is no difficulty in finding a basis of reconciliation; the way opens when logical projections are removed, and we look at the truth in what may be rightly termed a more primitive and Apostolical manner. For all, or almost all, Christians would agree that in some sense or other we are reconciled to God through Christ; whether by the atonement and satisfaction which He made to God for us, or by His manifestation of the justice of God or love of God in the world, by the passive obedience of His death or the active obedience of His life, by the imputation of His righteousness to us or by our identity and communion with Him, or likeness to Him, or love of Him; in some one of these senses, which easily pass into each other, all would join in saying that ‘He is the way, the truth, and the life.’ And had the human mind the same power of holding fast points of agreement as of discerning differences, there would be an end of the controversy.
The statements of Scripture respecting the work of Christ are very simple, and may be used without involving us in the determination of these differences. We can live and die in the language of St. Paul and St. John; there is nothing there repugnant to our moral sense. We have a yet higher authority in the words of Christ himself. Only in repeating and elucidating these statements, we must remember that Scripture phraseology is of two kinds, simple and figurative, and that the first is the interpretation of the second. We must not bring the New Testament into bondage to the Old, but ennoble and transfigure the Old by the New.
First; the death of Christ may be described as a sacrifice. But what sacrifice? Not ‘the blood of bulls and of goats, nor the ashes of an heifer sprinking the unclean,’ but the living sacrifice ‘to do thy will, O God.’ It is a sacrifice which is the negation of sacrifice; ‘Christ the end of the law to them that believe.’ Peradventure, in a heathen country, to put an end to the rite of sacrifice ‘some one would even dare to die;’ that expresses the relation in which the offering on Mount Calvary stands to the Levitical offerings. It is the death of what is outward and local, the life of what is inward and spiritual: ‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, shall draw all men after me;’ and ‘Neither in this mountain nor at Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father.’ It is the offering up of the old world on the cross; the law with its handwriting of ordinances, the former man with his affections and lusts, the body of sin with its remembrances of past sin. It is the New Testament revealed in the blood of Christ, the Gospel of freedom, which draws men together in the communion of the spirit, as in St. Paul’s time without respect of persons and nations, so in our own day without regard to the divisions of Christendom. In the place of Churches, priesthoods, ceremonials, systems, it puts a moral and spiritual principle which works with them, not necessarily in opposition to them, but beside or within them, to renew life in the individual soul.
Again, the death of Christ may be described as a ransom. It is not that God needs some payment which He must receive before He will set the captives free. The ransom is not a human ransom, any more than the sacrifice is a Levitical sacrifice. Rightly to comprehend the nature of this Divine ransom, we must begin with that question of the Apostle: ‘Know ye not that whose servants ye yield yourselves to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?’ There are those who will reply: ‘We were never in bondage at any time.’ To whom Christ answers: ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin;’ and, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.’ Ransom is ‘deliverance to the captive.’ There are mixed modes here also, as in the use of the term sacrifice—the word has a temporary allusive reference to a Mosaical figure of speech. That secondary allusive reference we are constrained to drop, because it is unessential; and also because it immediately involves further questions—a ransom to whom? for what?—about which Scripture is silent, to which reason refuses to answer.
Thirdly, the death of Christ is spoken of as a death for us, or for our sins. The ambiguous use of the preposition ‘for,’ combined with the figure of sacrifice, has tended to introduce the idea of substitution; when the real meaning is not ‘in our stead,’ but only ‘in behalf of,’ or ‘because of us.’ It is a great assumption, or an unfair deduction, from such expressions, to say that Christ takes our place, or that the Father in looking at the sinner sees only Christ. Christ died for us in no other sense than He lived or rose again for us. Scripture affords no hint of His taking our place in His death in any other way than He did also in His life. He himself speaks of His ‘decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem,’ quite simply: ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ The words of Caiaphas, ‘It is expedient that one man should die for this nation,’ and the comment of the Evangelist, ‘and not for that nation only, but that he should gather together in one the children of God that are scattered abroad,’ afford a measure of the meaning of such expressions. Here, too, there are mixed modes which seem to be inextricably blended in the language of Scripture, and which theology has not always distinguished. For the thing signified is, partly, that Christ died for our sakes, partly that He died by the hands of sinners, partly that He died with a perfect and Divine sympathy for human evil and suffering. But this ambiguity (which we may silently correct or explain) need not prevent our joining in words which, more perhaps than any others, have been consecrated by religious use to express the love and affection of Christians towards their Lord.
Now suppose some one who is aware of the plastic and accommodating nature of language to observe, that in what has been written of late years on the doctrine of the atonement he has noticed an effort made to win for words new senses, and that some of the preceding remarks are liable to this charge; he may be answered, first, that those new senses are really a recovery of old ones (for the writers of the New Testament, though they use the language of the time, everywhere give it a moral meaning); and, secondly, that in addition to the modes of conception already mentioned, the Scripture has others which are not open to his objection. And those who, admitting the innocence and Scriptural character of the expressions already referred to, may yet fear their abuse, and therefore desire to have them excluded from articles of faith (just as many Protestants, though aware that the religious use of images is not idolatry, may not wish to see them in churches)—such persons may find a sufficient expression of the work of Christ in other modes of speech which the Apostle also uses. (1) Instead of the language of sacrifice, or ransom, or substitution, they may prefer that of communion or identity. (2) Or they may interpret the death of Christ by His life, and connect the bleeding form on Mount Calvary with the image of Him who went about doing good. Or (3) they may look inward at their own souls, and read there, inseparable from the sense of their own unworthiness, the assurance that God will not desert the work of His hands, of which assurance the death of Christ is the outward witness to them. There are other ways, also, of conceiving the redemption of man which avoid controversy, any of which is a sufficient stay of the Christian life. For the kingdom of God is not this or that statement, or definition of opinion, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. And the cross of Christ is to be taken up and borne; not to be turned into words, or made a theme of philosophical speculation.
1. Everywhere St. Paul speaks of the Christian as one with Christ. He is united with Him, not in His death only, but in all the stages of His existence; living with Him, suffering with Him, crucified with Him, buried with Him, rising again with Him, renewed in His image, glorified together with Him; these are the expressions by which this union is denoted. There is something meant by this language which goes beyond the experience of ordinary Christians, something, perhaps, more mystical than in these latter days of the world most persons seem to be capable of feeling, yet the main thing signified is the same for all ages, the knowledge and love of Christ, by which men pass out of themselves to make their will His and His theirs, the consciousness of Him in their thoughts and actions, communion with Him, and trust in Him. Of every act of kindness or good which they do to others His life is the type; of every act of devotion or self-denial His death is the type; of every act of faith His resurrection is the type. And often they walk with Him on earth, not in a figure only, and find Him near them, not in a figure only, in the valley of death. They experience from Him the same kind of support as from the sympathy and communion of an earthly friend. That friend is also a Divine power. In proportion as they become like Him, they are reconciled to God through Him; they pass with Him into the relationship of sons of God. There is enough here for faith to think of, without sullying the mirror of God’s justice, or overclouding His truth. We need not suppose that God ever sees us other than we really are, or attributes to us what we never did. Doctrinal statements, in which the nature of the work of Christ is most exactly defined, cannot really afford the same support as the simple conviction of His love.
Again (2), the import of the death of Christ may be interpreted by His life. No theological speculation can throw an equal light on it. From the other side we cannot see it, but only from this. Now the life of Christ is the life of One who knew no sin, on whom the shadow of evil never passed; who went about doing good; who had not where to lay His head; whose condition was in all respects the reverse of earthly and human greatness; who also had a sort of infinite sympathy or communion with all men everywhere; whom, nevertheless, His own nation betrayed to a shameful death. It is the life of One who came to bear witness of the truth, who knew what was in man, and never spared to rebuke him, yet condemned him not; himself without sin, yet One to whom all men would soonest have gone to confess and receive forgiveness of sin. It is the life of One who was in constant communion with God as well as man; who was the inhabitant of another world while outwardly in this. It is the life of One in whom we see balanced and united the separate gifts and graces of which we catch glimpses only in the lives of His followers. It is a life which is mysterious to us, which we forbear to praise, in the earthly sense, because it is above praise, being the most perfect image and embodiment that we can conceive of Divine goodness.
And the death of Christ is the fulfilment and consummation of His life, the greatest moral act ever done in this world, the highest manifestation of perfect love, the centre in which the rays of love converge and meet, the extremest abnegation or annihilation of self. It is the death of One who seals with His blood the witness of the truth which He came into the world to teach, which therefore confirms our faith in Him as well as animates our love. It is the death of One, who says at the last hour, ‘Of them that thou gavest me, I have not lost one’—of One who, having come forth from God, and having finished the work which He came into the world to do, returns to God. It is a death in which all the separate gifts of heroes and martyrs are united in a Divine excellence—of One who most perfectly foresaw all things that were coming upon Him—who felt all, and shrank not—of One who, in the hour of death, set the example to His followers of praying for His enemies. It is a death which, more even than His life, is singular and mysterious, in which nevertheless we all are partakers—in which there was the thought and consciousness of man kind to the end of time, which has also the power of drawing to itself the thoughts of men to the end of time.
Lastly, there is a true Christian feeling in many other ways of regarding the salvation of man, of which the heart is its own witness, which yet admit, still less than the preceding, of logical rule and precision. He who is conscious of his own infirmity and sinfulness, is ready to confess that he needs reconciliation with God. He has no proud thoughts: he knows that he is saved ‘not of himself, it is the gift of God;’ the better he is, the more he feels, in the language of Scripture, ‘that he is an unprofitable servant.’ Sometimes he imagines the Father ‘coming out to meet him, when he is yet a long way off,’ as in the parable of the Prodigal Son; at other times the burden of sin lies heavy on him; he seems to need more support—he can approach God only through Christ. All men are not the same; one has more of the strength of reason in his religion; another more of the tenderness of feeling. With some, faith partakes of the nature of a pure and spiritual morality; there are others who have gone through the struggle of St. Paul or Luther, and attain rest only in casting all on Christ. One will live after the pattern of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Epistle of St. James. Another finds a deep consolation and meaning in a closer union with Christ; he will ‘put on Christ,’ he will hide himself in Christ; he will experience in his own person the truth of those words of the Apostle, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ But if he have the spirit of moderation that there was in St. Paul, he will not stereotype these true, though often passing feelings, in any formula of substitution or satisfaction; still less will he draw out formulas of this sort into remote consequences. Such logical idealism is of another age; it is neither faith nor philosophy in this. Least of all will he judge others by the circumstance of their admitting or refusing to admit the expression of his individual feelings as an eternal truth. He shrinks from asserting his own righteousness; he is equally unwilling to affirm that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. He is looking for forgiveness of sins, not because Christ has satisfied the wrath of God, but because God can show mercy without satisfaction: he may have no right to acquittal, he dare not say, God has no right to acquit. Yet again, he is very far from imagining that the most merciful God will indiscriminately forgive; or that the weakness of human emotions, groaning out at the last hour a few accustomed phrases, is a sufficient ground of confidence and hope. He knows that the only external evidence of forgiveness is the fact, that he has ceased to do evil; no other is possible. Having Christ near as a friend and a brother, and making the Christian life his great aim, he is no longer under the dominion of a conventional theology. He will not be distracted by its phrases from communion with his fellow-men. He can never fall into that confusion of head and heart, which elevates matters of opinion into practical principles. Difficulties and doubts diminish with him, as he himself grows more like Christ, not because he forcibly suppresses them, but because they become unimportant in comparison with purity, and holiness, and love. Enough of truth for him seems to radiate from the person of the Saviour. He thinks more and more of the human nature of Christ as the expression of the Divine. He has found the way of life—that way is not an easy way—but neither is it beset by the imaginary perplexities with which a false use of the intellect in religion has often surrounded it.
It seems to be an opinion which is gaining ground among thoughtful and religious men, that in theology, the less we define the better. Definite statements respecting the relation of Christ either to God or man are only figures of speech; they do not really pierce the clouds which ‘round our little life.’ When we multiply words we do not multiply ideas; we are still within the circle of our own minds. No greater calamity has ever befallen the Christian Church than the determination of some uncertain things which are beyond the sphere of human knowledge. A true instinct prevents our entangling the faith of Christ with the philosophy of the day; the philosophy of past ages is a still more imperfect exponent of it. Neither is it of any avail to assume revelation or inspiration as a sort of shield, or Catholicon, under which the weak points of theology may receive protection. For what is revealed or what inspired cannot be answered a priori; the meaning of the word Revelation must be determined by the fact, not the fact by the word.
If our Saviour were to come again to earth, which of all the theories of atonement and sacrifice would he sanction with His authority? Perhaps none of them, yet perhaps all may be consistent with a true service of Him. The question has no answer. But it suggests the thought that we shrink from bringing controversy into His presence. The same kind of lesson may be gathered from the consideration of theological differences in the face of death. Who, as he draws near to Christ, will not feel himself drawn towards his theological opponents? At the end of life, when a man looks back calmly, he is most likely to find that he exaggerated in some things; that he mistook party spirit for a love of truth. Perhaps, he had not sufficient consideration for others, or stated the truth itself in a manner which was calculated to give offence. In the heat of the struggle, let us at least pause to imagine polemical disputes as they will appear a year, two years, three years hence; it may be, dead and gone—certainly more truly seen than in the hour of controversy. For the truths about which we are disputing cannot partake of the passing stir; they do not change even with the greater revolutions of human things. They are in eternity; and the image of them on earth is not the movement on the surface of the waters, but the depths of the silent sea. Lastly, as a measure of the value of such disputes, which above all other interests seem to have for a time the power of absorbing men’s minds and rousing their passions, we may carry our thoughts onwards to the invisible world, and there behold, as in a glass, the great theological teachers of past ages, who have anathematized each other in their lives, resting together in the communion of the same Lord.
[1 ]In the following pages I have derived great assistance from the excellent work of Baur über die Versöhnungslehre.