« AnteriorContinuar »
quite another. In other words, it petitions that we will attend to the influence of Christianity on morality and civilization.
These several claims, these professed sources of knowledge, it will be the business of these lectures to examine and estimate ; so that the course collectively may be regarded as designed to determine the best method of solving the problem, What is Christianity? Having seuled the plan of proceeding, perhaps the actual solution may be attempted in a future course. In the present lecture we examine the first of these instruments, viz., the books of the New Testament, with a view to learn, how we are to use them, in order to obtain an answer to the great question.
Let me then conceive myself to take up the Christian records for the first time, strip off the feelings with which habit has invested them, and lay open my mind freely to the impressions which they would make. Let me know nothing of them, but that they are the genuine productions of the age of Christ, and the work of disciples who won by bonds and death a title to be believed. Let me be a stranger to every actual Church,—a dweller in some island of the sea, visited only by faint rumours of the faith,—but with the eye and mind of a novice, called to read its documents at last. Oh, enviable state! would that that freshness were not a dream !
It is obvious at once, that in the New Testament I have a composite work, whose unity is purely nominal; or a collection of separate writings, as different from each other as Cicero's Letters and Livy's Histories, possessing no common end, proceeding from men who had no knowledge of each other's labours, still less any idea that the results of these labours would ever be congregated into one work. Thousands of Christians there must have been, whom neither the sight nor the report of any of them ever reached ; multitudes of churches familiar only with one or two; and a century of Christianity without the entire collection. They exhibit a
picture of two successive periods, the two consecutive parts of the original development of Christianity; first, the personal biography of Christ, sketched by four different hands in a manner evidently fragmentary, for one narrative contains incidents and discourses principally unknown to the others : secondly, this account of the Gospel at home is followed by the journal of its trials abroad; when its first missionaries bare it to the nations, and threw it into the arena of the world to do battle with ancient superstitions, and—like its persecuted disciples who in the Roman amphitheatre met the beasts of the forest face to face—to grapple with those animal passions which vice had torn from their natural range, and enhungered to feed on innocence and life. The notices of this second stage appear, partly in a short diary of apostolic wanderings ; partly in a series of letters, written chiefly by the most enterprising of the Christian emissaries, to churches of his own founding, and containing incidental sketches of his preaching and their condition, of his difficulties and their prejudices, of the questions which the new faith suggested to their minds, and the intellectual and moral errors which the old ones tended to preserve. Moreover, in this set of writings, it is not easy to discover any principle which determined their selection ; there is no visible line which separates them from the others, probably equally ancient, which have been lelt out; and if we could recover the Gospel to the Hebrews, and that of the Egyptians, it would be difficult to give a reason why they should not form a part of the New Testament; and a letter actually exists by Clement, the fellow-labourer of Paul, which has as good a claim 10 stand there, as the letter to the Hebrews or the Gospel of Luke. If none but the works of the twelve Apostles were admitted, the rule would be clear and simple : but what are Mark and Luke, who are received, more than Clement and Barnabas, who are excluded ? 1 The book, then, is a somewhat casual association of faithful records, the venerable remains of the early Christianity, the production
of its fresh and earnest time, born in the midst of its conflicts, and impressed with the energy of its youth.
My next impression is, that in these writings I have to do with realities. They are natives of the scenes which they describe ; for no one but a Hebrew of that one age could so conduct me through his country as it then was, making me see everything by simply following his own accidental rambles, any more than a German could be my guide through Rome. If ever there was anything real, it is the emotions and impressions of which those works are the record. Only look at those silent pictures of localities, and living attitudes of events ;intervening seas and countries sink, and we are there! actually tossed upon the lake, and trembling at the gale in which Jesus sleeps ; or on the Mount of Olives, the incense of the temple below curling upwards in the morning light; or in the very streets of Jerusalem at the hour of prayer, entering with Peter the beautiful gate, and startled to see the wellknown cripple leaping to his feet. There is that sabbath day of mercy and instruction at Capernaum, when Jesus in the synagogue interpreted the duties of the day, and rebuked his sanctimonious observers, by curing the man with the withered hand. Why, we almost hear Jesus call the poor beggar from the door, and bid him stand forth in the midst of the assembly, and penetrate the sabbatarian spies by the puzzling question, “ Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath day, or to do evil ?” we see their shrinking eyes, as he looked slowly round upon them for an answer, and feel the silence amid which the withered limb was stretched forth, soon broken by the murmurs and restlessness of imbecile rage. The different classes, 100, whom Christ addressed on several occasions, the Pharisee, the Sadducee, the Samaritan, and his own immediate followers, are made known to us,—their prejudices, their characters, their condition distinctly indicated, without a sentence of description ; revealed simply by the different trains of thought which Jesus unfolds before eachi, the
different points from which he commences his addresses, and the different forms of life which appear in his illustrations. And this knowledge which the writers possess is clearly not systematic and theoretical, but incidental and practical ; theirs not by acquisition, but by right of birth. It is the kind of knowledge of human opinions and feelings, which is gained by men of traffic in the world ; and it comes out in brief expressions with plebeian rudeness and simplicity. Moreover, this air of reality would disappear, if there were not discrepancies in the writings which record the same transactions ;such discrepancies as must take place among the witnesses of an event, who bring to it different feelings, who give a disproportioned attention to its several parts, or from whom the fluctuation of an eager crowd may intercept the sight of some short movement, or the sound of some short word. That these variations, continually amounting to positive, sometimes lo important, inconsistencies, are not more noticed, only shows how languidly, with how little acuteness of discrimination or energy of fancy, we read the gospel history. Let any one carefully study the account in the several Evangelists of the calling of the Apostles, attending to time, place, and order, or the narratives in Matthew and in Luke of the casting of the demons into the swine, and he will see indeed the sanie events, the same basis of reality in all, but regarded from different points of view, and not only conceived of differently, but in some inportant parts actually misconceived, from the different posilions of the observers. 3
Yet, amid all the varieties of these writings, and notwithstanding the complete individuality of each of their authors, there is one impression which, by all of them, is fixed upon the mind with perfect unity. A pure, vivid, and single image of Christ is reflected from each, and the forms entirely coalesce in outline, though the colouring is somewhat brightened, as each in turn is superimposed upon the others. The writings have various and doubtful reasonings: they have inconclusive
appeals to the Old Testament: they have partial misconceptions of fact: they have evident misrepresentations of miracle : they have strong traces of the peculiarities of the ininds from which they spring,—the confused, yet technical, order of Matthew,the exaggerations of Mark,—the distinctness of Luke,—the tenderness and Orientalism of John,—the impetuosity of Paul, with thought at the bottom, and confusion and genius on the surface, and affectionate vigour everywhere :—but, through all the errors and delusions which were rife in that age and country, and all the singularities of individual minds, the character of Jesus shines forth in beauty identical and unique; as if it had left an impression which it was impossible to mistake. It is the solitary universality amid the traces of time and place; the single line of moral unity which runs through the varieties of the Christian records.
The general impression, then, which I should derive from this first survey of the books of the New Testament is, that they are perfectly human, though recording superhuman events; that they were written by good and competent men, who reported from their own memory, reasoned from their own intellect; who received impressions modified by their own imagination, who interpreted the ancient scriptures by their own rules, and retained the notions of philosophy which they had been taught, and of morals which approved themselves to their own conscience. They saw and felt what they wrote, and they wrote it truly.
This belief is evidently all that is necessary to constitute a disciple of Christ. One who admits that Christ really wrought the miracles ascribed to him, delivered the discourses reported in his name, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, must evidently be a Christian. If not, what else is he? Belief in a revelation is obviously quite independent of any theory respecting the manner in which the books recording it were written. For are we not to class among believers those thousands who worshipped in the Christian Church, and fought the good fight of Christian faith, before the books were