THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION IN ITS DOCTRINAL EXPRESSION

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on tumblr
Share on email
Share on print
revival

By Edgar Young Mullins

RELIGION AND THEOLOGY

I. TWOFOLD AIM: The aim of this treatise is twofold: first, to set forth the contents of the Christian religion; and, secondly, to set forth the doctrines of the religion which arise out of it and which are necessary to explain its meaning. The aim implies a necessary connection between religion and theology. Theology has often been defined as the science which treats of God. This definition is based on the derivation of the word from the Greek words meaning God (Theos) and reason (logos). But Christian theology is something more than the science which treats of God. It also includes in its field of investigation man s relations to God. The reason for this wider definition of Christian theology becomes clear when we consider the nature of Christianity. The Christian religion is not a theory or speculation about God. It is more than deductions from objective facts concerning his nature and attributes. These are not altogether excluded from Christian theology, but they are not its foundations nor the chief elements of its content. Primarily religion is man s relations to the divine Being. It involves fellowship and obedience on man s part, and self-revelation on God s part. It is a form of experience and of life. It is an order of facts. Theology is the systematic and scientific explanation of this order of facts. Sometimes the term theology is used in a narrower sense, meaning the doctrine of God as distinguished from the doctrine of man, or the doctrine of sin, or the doctrine of salvation, or other particular doctrines. This, however, is not in conflict with what has just been said as to the general use of the word. It has come to mean the whole range of doctrines regarding God in his relations to man. This meaning appears in the use of the term in the various departments of theology. When we speak of the theology of the Old Testament we mean the systematic exposition of the truths about God and his revelations to man arising out of the life and experience of God s people in the Old Testament history. New Testament theology means the corresponding truths given in the life and religion of the actors and writers of the New Testament. The Pauline or Johannine theology means the truths found in the writings of Paul or John. In general, biblical theology is the scientific exposition of the theology of the Bible unmixed with speculative or other elements drawn from physical nature or the human reason. But in every instance mentioned, theology covers all the relations between God and man. It is not limited to the doctrine of the divine nature or attributes. Systematic theology is the orderly and harmonious presentation of the truths of theology with a view to unity and completeness. Reason may supply certain elements in such presentation which would be inappropriate in a rigidly biblical method of treatment. Historical theology traces the stages in the development of doctrines through the Christian centuries, with a view to showing their inner connections from age to age. Another method of dealing with the doctrines of the Christian religion is that which gives prominence to Christian experience. It is the method adopted in this work. In principle the experiential way of dealing with Christian doctrine has been employed in every vital and living system which has been produced since New Testament times. But in most cases it has been implicit rather than explicit. Christian experience has been tacitly assumed. It is the principle which animates all the biblical writers of both the Old and New Testaments. It is the source of power in the writings of an Augustine, a Clement, a Schleiermacher. All theology must be vitalized by experience before it can become a real force for the regeneration of men.

But when we speak of making experience explicit in expounding the doctrines of Christianity, we are by no means adopting that as the sole criterion of truth. He would be a very unwise man who should attempt to deduce all Christian doctrine from his own subjective experience. As we shall soon see, Christianity is a historical religion. Jesus Christ is its sole founder and supreme authority as the revealer of God. The Scriptures are our only source of authoritative information about Christ and his earthly career. These are fundamental to any correct understanding of our religion.

When, therefore, we speak of making Christian experience explicit as a principle in theological statement, we are simply seeking to understand Christianity first of all as a religion. We certainly cannot know the meaning of the religion until we know what the religion is. There are ways of handling Christian doctrine which lead away from the truth. A theologian may adopt some abstract logical or philosophical principle and construct a system having but slight connection with the New Testament. To avoid this error the best recourse is the religion of the New Testament itself.

It will be noted, then, that the clear recognition in doctrinal discussion of the experience of Christians does not render theology less biblical, or less systematic, or less historical. The Bible is the greatest of all books of religious experience. The theology of its great writers is all, in a sense, the expression of their experience under the guidance of God s Holy Spirit. Paul’s conversion was a formative influence in all his doctrinal teachings. Again, our treatment is none the less systematic because it is experiential. We may be more cautious in drawing logical and philosophic inferences from doctrines revealed and known in experience. But this does not at all hinder a systematic arrangement and exposition of doctrine. So also while the limits of space and method of treatment for bid any general review of the history of doctrine, the entire treatment of theology here represented implies the historical back ground and the whole course of doctrinal development through the Christian centuries.

We may now sum up in a general way the factors which must be taken into account if we are to understand the Christian religion and the doctrinal teachings which arise out of it.

First of all, we must recognize Jesus Christ as the historical revelation of God to men. What he is in himself, and what he means for our faith, are truths which must await development at a later stage of this book. But Christianity is bound up indissolubly with the facts of the historical Jesus.

Secondly, we must assign to their proper place the Scriptures of the New Testament as the indispensable source of our knowledge of the historical Jesus and his work for our salvation.

In the third place, we must recognize the place and work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. He continues the work of Christ. It is through him that we are led to accept Christ. It is in and through him that the meaning of the Christian facts is brought home to us.

Fourthly, we must seek to define and understand the spiritual experiences of Christians as subject to the operation of God s Spirit revealing Christ to them. The history of doctrine will aid in this, but we must make also a direct study of experience itself.

Now it is in the combination and union of all these factors, and not in any one or two of them taken by themselves, that we find what we seek when we undertake a systematic study of the Christian religion and its theology. We may specify some of the advantages of this method of study in the following statements:

1. It enables us to avoid a false intellectualism in theology. It  keeps theology properly anchored to facts and their meaning. It requires little discernment to see that systematic theologies which are chiefly concerned with the logical or philosophical relations between truths in a unified order, may easily overlook vital interests of the spiritual life. The Scriptures rarely present truth in this way. They never present it apart from the vital needs of the soul. The sense of proportion in the emphasis upon truth may be easily lost in our admiration for the harmony and beauty of a systematic arrangement. A single doctrine or conception, such as the sovereignty of God, or election, or human freedom, may be given a dominating position and all other truths modified to make them conform. Theological controversy may lead to one-sided systems. Thus Calvinism and Arminianism have sometimes taken on extreme forms and have led to unfortunate results. Other issues, more common in modern times, produce the same reactions to extreme forms of statement.

Now when the interests of life and experience are made explicit, many errors of this kind are avoided. So also a restraint is felt thus which prevents too great license in speculative and metaphysical deductions from biblical truth. We cannot have theology without metaphysics, but our metaphysics should arise out of the data supplied by the Scriptures and understood through our living experience of God in Christ.

2. The method also affords the necessary fact basis for the scientific presentation of the truths of Christian theology. The finest thing in the modern scientific spirit is its demand for facts and its painstaking and conscientious interpretation of facts. The desire to know reality as it is in itself and not as we wish it to be, combined with the patient effort to express exactly its meaning, is of the essence of the scientific spirit. Now this motive and aim are most welcome to those who would study the Christian religion and who would express its meaning in a system of theology. It is clear, upon reflection, that all the factors named are essential to such a thoroughgoing study of the Christian religion. If we study the historical Jesus apart from the other factors mentioned, we never get beyond a problem of history. If we devote ourselves solely to the study of the Scriptures by means of the most approved critical and scientific methods, we never rise above the issues involved in literary and historical criticism, or at best in questions of exegesis. In neither case do we rise to the level of religion itself. Again, if we grow weary of historical and exegetical study and devote ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, to the exclusion of the other factors, we do indeed come to the study of religion. But under these conditions it is not and cannot be the Christian religion in its fullness and power. We cannot dispense with Christ, and we are indissolubly bound to the Scriptures in any attempt to understand that religious experience we call Christian.

Two fundamental questions arise at the outset in any adequate study of the Christian religion. One relates to Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus, and what is he to men? The other relates to our experience of God s redeeming power in the soul. What is the relation of Jesus Christ to that experience? Those questions inevitably lead back to the question of the New Testament, the historical source o-f our information about Christ. They also lead back to the work of God s Spirit in our hearts. Hence we conclude that all four of the factors named are essential to a scientific study of the Christian religion.

In the light of these statements we see how defective are some efforts which are called scientific, to express the meaning of Christianity. Numerous attempts have been made to set forth “the essence of Christianity.” It is not our purpose here to dwell upon these at length. But usually they are efforts to extract from the Gospel records some small remainder of what is held to be the religion of the New Testament by Christians generally, and cast away the other elements as worthless. Of course it is always open to anyone to raise the question whether the original gospel has been perverted. But too often efforts of this kind fail to take account of all the elements in the problem. Christianity cannot be reduced to a simple problem of historical criticism. The facts involved have a much wider range. Again, Christianity cannot be construed under the guidance of some previously formed world-view or philosophy of the universe. We must begin with the facts in their totality and reckon with them. This is simply another way of saying that we must adopt the scientific method of dealing with the question.

3. Again, the method gives the best apologetic foundation for a system of theology. The term apologetics is perhaps not the most appropriate one for designating the scientific defense of the Christian religion against attack. But it has come into general use for this purpose and is well enough understood. Apologetics is, of course, a distinct department of theology, and calls for discussion of some problems which cannot be treated in systematic theology. And yet the latter requires a sound apologetic foundation in order to maintain itself among other sciences.

The method adopted in this work affords the strongest apologetic foundation for theology because it emphasizes the facts of history and of experience. A comparison with some of the older apologetic defenses will show this. We name a few of these:

(1) The proof of God s existence from the phenomena of the universe has long been a favorite method. It possesses, no doubt, elements of great strength. But along with these there are elements of weakness. Logical deduction from physical phenomena lends itself to many theories of the universe. Each of them claims to be most in accord with the facts. There results always an unstable equilibrium of theories. None of them satisfies fully. Immanuel Kant held that we cannot know what is behind phenomena. We can only know reality in its manifestations. And so long as we are limited to deductive reasoning from data objective to the mind itself there is much truth in his view. That which arises is a high degree of probability rather than knowledge in the strict sense, when we reason deductively to prove God s existence. But for the Christian who recognizes the reality and meaning of his experience of God in Christ a new kind of knowledge of God arises. The “proofs” are transferred from the world without to the world within. Thus direct knowledge of God arises.

 (2) Again, the proof of Christianity from miracles has always been questioned by many of the devotees of physical science. Christians have rightly replied that the objections were not well founded. But here again the proof resides in the realm of a remote history. Debate continues indefinitely because preference or preconception determines the view adopted. It is most probable that Christians themselves are not convinced entirely by the logical demonstration based on the reliability of the New Testament witnesses. Unconsciously they have been influenced by their own experience of a supernatural power working in them and redeeming them. It is easy to believe the New Testament miracles if the same power is known as a personal and vital experience. If then we make clear and explicit what that experience is, and combine it with the witness of the well-supported historical records, we have a much more powerful argument from miracles.

 (3) The deity of Christ has been employed as a means of establishing the truth of Christianity. A powerful argument is constructed from the witness of Jesus to himself, from the impression He made on others, from his resurrection, from his place and power in Christian history, and in other ways. But when to these considerations we add the facts as to Christ s redeeming power in men, we have greatly increased the strength of the appeal to his divinity.  The above will suffice to show the nature of the apologetic foundation which is laid for theology when the redemptive experience of God in Christ is made explicit and clear as an essential factor in the interpretation of Christianity. This does not by any means imply that we are henceforth done with history or logical proofs, or any of the ordinary processes by which the mind works out its conclusions. It only implies that from the center of a well-founded history, as interpreted in the light of a divinely inwrought experience, we may properly estimate the value of all the proofs. The Christian religion as a power in the soul, redeeming and transforming it, is its own best evidence.

4. The method adopted has a further advantage in that it enables us to show the reality, the autonomy, and freedom of the Christian religion. These are great demands which the modern world makes upon religion. A scientific age has given rise to a passionate demand for the real in the study of all subjects. Make-believes and shams of all kinds are subject to the most rigid scrutiny and criticism. Nothing can long remain secure which cannot endure the fierce heat and light of ruthless investigation. The religion of Christ welcomes this. It is the glory of Christ that he made the spiritual universe real to men. He brought God home to their souls. Those who know God in Christ find in him the supreme reality. The religion of Christ is autonomous. This means that it has

its resources in itself. The Christian has the guidance of God s Spirit when in humility he seeks it. He acquires a relation to and knowledge of the Bible which is for him most convincing and conclusive. He has the witness in himself. His faith performs for him a service, secures for him a power, brings to him a blessedness and a peace which he finds in no other way. The conflict between flesh and spirit, between the visible and invisible,

between the temporal and eternal order, is reconciled and overcome in Christ. He does not value other forms of human activity less than he did before, but rather more. But he sees that religion is the supreme value of life, the supreme function of the soul. In it all else, art, science, education, philosophy, are transformed into new forms of development and of ministry. But he also sees that they all find their completion and fulfilment in religion itself.

The religion of Christ is free. It is not subject to the rule of any form of human culture alien to itself. It is in conflict with no legitimate activity of man. Each great department of life has its special method, its great underlying principle. Physical science works with the principle of causality. Philosophy employs that of rationality. Religion deals with personality. God and man in relations of mutual love and service are the great realities with which it deals. There is no conflict between any of these, as we shall see. It arises only when one of these spheres undertakes to rule the other.

As autonomous and free, and as dealing with the greatest of all realities, the Christian religion in every age of the world comes to redeem men. They accept it under the conditions of their own age, confronted by their own difficulties and problems. Hence arises the need for restating its doctrines in terms of the living experience of each generation. Human creeds are valuable as such expressions. But they do not serve all the ends of doctrine. We must ever return to the Scriptures for new inspiration. We must ever ask anew the questions as to Christ and his relations to the needs of each generation. He does not change. His religion is the same in all ages. But our difficulties and problems are shaped anew by the forms of life which ever change about us. Hence we must revitalize our faith by deepening our communion with God and witnessing to his power in us.

5. The experiential method of dealing with Christian truth helps in defining the nature of the authority of the Bible. The Bible, against tradition and against the authority of the papal system, was one of the watchwords of the Reformation. Protestantism has from the beginning made the Bible the authoritative source of the knowledge of the gospel of Christ. Opponents have urged objections to the biblical authority on various grounds. It has been objected that the Bible is not infallible and hence cannot be an authority. The existence of textual errors, scientific, or historical deviations from exact truth, discrepancies of various kinds, proves that the Bible cannot be accepted as an infallible guide in religion, so it was argued. Christian apologists used to expend great energy and pains in answering all of these charges. Finally they came to see that the objector demanded more than faith required. We are not bound to prove in a way which compels assent that the Bible is the supreme authority for Christian faith. Such proof would not produce faith at all. It could only produce intellectual assent. The Christian s acceptance of the Bible arises in another way. It comes to him in ” demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” It is the life in him which answers to the life the Scriptures reveal which convinces him. So that the Bible is not for him an authority on all subjects, but in religion it is final and authoritative. At this stage the objector took a further step and urged that no authority which is external to the soul can be accepted. Truth must be assimilated and understood, not imposed by authority of any kind, whether pope or church or Bible. The Christian then framed his reply on the basis of his own inner experience. He urged that the very essence of the redemption he knows in Christ is inwardly as simulated truth and actual knowledge of the great spiritual realities. He proceeded to define and expound the truth thus inwardly known and assimilated. But then the objector gave the argument another turn entirely. He charged that the alleged knowledge of the Christian was merely inward and subjective. It was lacking in objective reality, and hence was unreliable. Of course these objections contradict each other. We shall see them recurring in other connections in the following pages.

Now the Christian rises above and overcomes both forms of the objection by insisting that it is in the union and combination of the objective source and the subjective experience that certainty and assurance are found. He is no less interested in objective reality than his opponent. He is no less interested in inward assimilation of truth. But he finds both in the religion of Christ. He finds Jesus Christ to be for him the supreme revelation of God s redeeming grace. He finds the Scriptures the authoritative source of his knowledge of that revelation. And then he finds in his own soul that working of God s grace which enables him to know Christ and to understand the Scriptures. Thus the objective and subjective elements find a unity and harmony which is entirely satisfying.

Now if the opposite method is pursued and either the Bible or experience is taken alone, no such finality is .possible. If the Bible is considered in an intellectual way merely, apart from the experience of God s redeeming grace in Christ, then again we have a recurrence of the old debate on grounds of history and criticism. Theories are then framed according to mental prepossessions, and unity of view is impossible. Again, if experience is taken apart from the history, the old charge of subjectivism at once recurs. Hence for the Christian there is no finally convincing and satisfying view except in the combination of the two elements. For the opponent of the Christian view this also makes the strongest appeal. There is an inward reality which corresponds to objective facts of history. God s approach to man in and through Christ finds its reaction in man s response. Faith completes the union, and the life of God flows into the life of man and transforms it.