Literature and Dogma/Chapter VIII

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Literature and Dogma by Matthew Arnold
Chapter VIII

CHAPTER VIII.

FAITH IN CHRIST.

As the Jews were always talking about the Messiah, so they were always talking, we know, about God. And they believed in God's Messiah after their notion of him, because they believed in God after their notion of him;—but both notions were wrong. All their aspirations were now turned towards the Messiah; whoever would do them good, must first change their ideal of the Messiah. But their ideal of God's Messiah depended upon their notion of God. This notion was now false, like their ideal of the Messiah; but once it had been true, or, at least, true comparatively;—once Israel had had the intuition of God as the Eternal that loveth righteousness. And the intuition had never been so lost but that it was capable of being revived. To change their dangerous and misleading ideal of God's Messiah, therefore, and to make the Jews believe in the true Messiah, could only be accomplished by bringing them back to a truer notion of God and his righteousness. By this it could, perhaps, be accomplished, but by this only.

And this is what Jesus sought to do. He sought to do it in the way we have seen, by his 'method' and his 'secret.' First, by his 'method' of a change of the inner man. 'Do not be all abroad, do not be in the air,'[1] he said to his nation. 'You look for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the reign of righteousness, God s will done by all mankind. Well, then, seek the kingdom of God! the kingdom of God is within you!'[2] And, next, by his 'secret' of peace. 'Renounce thyself, and take up thy cross daily and follow me![3] He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.'[4] And the revolution thus made was so immense, that the least in this new kingdom of heaven, this realm of the 'method' and the 'secret,' was greater, Jesus said, than one who, like John the Baptist, was even greatest in the old realm of Jewish religion.[5] And those who obeyed the gospel of this new kingdom came to the light;[6] they had joy;[7] they entered into peace;[8] they ceased to thirst: the word became in them a spring of water welling up unto everlasting life.[9] But these were the admitted tests of righteousness, of obeying the voice of the Eternal who loveth righteousness. 'There ariseth light for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart;[10] he that feareth the Eternal, blessed is he!'[11]

Now, the special value of the Fourth Gospel is, not that it exhibits the method and secret of Jesus,—for all the Gospels exhibit them,—but that it exhibits the establishment of them by means of Israel's own idea of God, cleared and re-awakened. The argument is: 'You are always talking about God, God's word, righteousness; always saying that God is your Father, and will send his Messiah for your salvation. Well, he who receives me shows that he talks about God with a knowledge of what he is saying; he sets to his seal that God is true.[12] He who is of God heareth the words of God;[13] every one that heareth and learneth of the Father cometh unto me,[14] and ye have not his word abiding in you, because, whom he hath sent, him ye believe not;[15] if any one will do God's will he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.'[16] This, therefore, is what Jesus said:—'I, whose message of salvation is: If a man keep my word he shall never see death![17] am sent of God; because he, who obeys my saying: Renounce thyself and follow me![18] shall feel that he truly lives, and that he is following, therefore, Israel's God of whom it is said: Thou wilt show vie the path of life.'[19]

The doctrine therefore is double:—Renounce thyself, the secret of Jesus, involving a foregoing exercise of his method; and, Follow me, who am sent from God! That is the favourite expression:—Sent from God. 'I come forth from the Father; the Father hath sent me; God hath sent me.'[20] Now this identified Jesus and his salvation with the Messiah whom, with his salvation, the Jews were expecting. For his disciples therefore, and for Christendom after them, Jesus was and is the Messiah or Christ.

Meanwhile, as with the word God, so with the word Christ. Jesus did not give any scientific definition of it,—such as, for instance, that Christ was the Logos. He took the word Christ as the Jews used it, as he took the word God as the Jews used it. And as he amended their notion of God, the Eternal who loveth righteousness, by showing what righteousness really was, so he amended their notion of the Messiah, the chosen bringer of God's salvation, by showing what salvation really was. And though his own application of terms to designate himself is not a matter where we can perfectly trust his reporters (as it is clear, for instance, that the writer of the Fourth Gospel was more metaphysical than Jesus himself),[21] yet there is no difficulty in supposing him to have applied to himself each and all of the terms which the Jews in any way used to describe the Messiah,—Messiah or Christ, God's Chosen or Beloved or Consecrated or Glorified One, the Son of God, the Son of Man; because his concern, as we have said, was with his countrymen's idea of salvation, not with their terms for designating the bringer of it. But the simplest term, the term which gives least opening into theosophy,—Son of Man,—he certainly preferred. So, too, he loved the simple expres- sions, 'God sent me,' 'The Father hath sent me;' and he chose so often to say, in a general manner, 'I am He,'[22] rather than to say positively, 'I am the Christ.'

And evidently this mode of speaking struck his hearers. We find the Jews saying: 'How long dost thou make us to doubt? if thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.'[23] And even then Jesus does not answer point-blank, but prefers to say: 'I have told you, and ye believe not.' Yet this does not imply that he had the least doubt or hesitation in naming himself the Messiah, the Son of God; but only that his concern was, as we have said, with God's righteousness and Christ's salvation, and that he avoided all use of the names God, and Christ, which might give an opening into mere theosophical speculation. And this is shown, moreover, by the largeness and freedom,—almost, one may say, indifference,—of his treatment of both names; as names, in using which, his hearers were always in danger of going off into a theosophy that did them no good and had better occupy them as little as possible. 'I and my Father are one!'[24] he would say at one time; and, 'My Father is greater than I!'[25] at another. When the Jews were offended at his calling himself the Son of God, he quotes Scripture to show that even mere men were in Scripture called Gods; and for you, he says, who go by the letter of Scripture, surely this is sanction enough for calling anyone, whom God sends, the Son of God![26] He did not at all mean, that the Messiah was a son of God merely in the sense in which any great man might be so called; but he meant that these questions of theosophy were useless for his hearers, and that they puzzled themselves with them in vain. All they were concerned with was, that he was the Messiah they expected, sent to them with salvation from God.

It is the same when Jesus says: 'Before Abraham was, I am!'[27] He was baffling his countrymen's theosophy, showing them how little his doctrine was meant to offer a field for it. 'Life,' he means, 'the life of him who lays down his life that he may take it again,[28] is not what you suppose. Your notions of life and death are all false, and with your present notions you cannot discuss theology with me; follow me!' So, again, to the Jews in the rut of their traditional theology, and haggling about the Son of David;—Jesus, they insisted, could not be the Christ, because the Christ was the Son of David. Jesus answers them by the objection that in the Psalms (and the Scripture cannot be broken!) David calls the Christ his Lord; and 'if he call him Lord, how is he then his son?'[29] The argument as a serious argument is perfectly futile. The king of God's chosen people is going out to war, and what the Psalmist really sings is: 'The Eternal saith unto the king's majesty, Thou shalt conquer!' St. Peter in the Acts gravely uses the same verse to prove Jesus to be Christ: 'God,' says he, 'tells my Lord, Sit thou upon my right hand! Yet David never went up into heaven.'[30] Now, this is exactly of a piece with St. Paul's proving salvation to be by Christ alone, from seed, in the promise to Abraham, being in the singular not the plural.[31] It is merely false criticism of the Old Testament, such as the Jews were full of, and of which the Apostles retained far too much. But the Jews were full of it, and therefore the objection of Jesus was just such an objection as the Jews would think weighty. He used it as he might have used a crux about personality or consubstantiality with the Bishops of Winchester or Gloucester;—to baffle and put to rout their false dogmatic theology, to disenchant them with it and make them cast it aside and come simply to him. 'See,' he says to the Jewish doctors, 'what a mess you make of it with your learning, and evidences, and orthodox theology; with the wisdom of your wise men and the understanding of your prudent men! You can do nothing with them, your arms break in your hands. Fling the rubbish away, cease from your own wisdom,[32] and throw yourselves upon my method and secret,—upon me! Believe that the Father hath sent me; he that receiveth me receiveth Him that sent me. If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God, or whether I have invented it!'[33]

And no grand performance or discovery of a man's own to bring him thus to joy and peace, but an attachment! the influence of One full of grace and truth! An influence, which we feel we know not how, and which subdues us we know not when; which, like the wind, breathes where it lists, passes here, and does not pass there! Once more, then, we come to that root and ground of religion, that element of awe and gratitude which fills religion with emotion, and makes it other and greater than morality,—the not ourselves. We did not make the order of conduct, or provide that happiness should belong to it, or dispose our hearts to it. Man's goings are of the Eternal, as Israel said; Eternal, I know that the way of man is not in himself.[34] Neither did we invent Jesus, or make the 'grace and truth' of Jesus, or provide that happiness should belong to feeling them, or dispose our hearts to feel them. No man can come to me, as Jesus said, except the Father which sent me draw him.[35] So the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament is like the revelation of the God of Israel in the Old, in being the revelation of 'the Eternal not ourselves which makes for righteousness.' It is like it, and has the same power of religion in it.

2.

Thus, then, did Jesus seek to transform the immense materialising Aberglaube, into which the religion of Israel had fallen, and to spiritualise it at all points; while in his method and secret he supplied a sure basis for practice. But to follow him entirely there was needed an epieikeia, an unfailing sweetness and unerring perception, like his own. It was much if his disciples got firm hold on his method and his secret; and if they transmitted fragments enough of his .lofty spiritualism to make it in the fulness of time discernible, and to make it at once and from the first in a large degree serviceable. Who can read in the Gospels the comments preserved to us, both of disciples and of others, on what he said, and not feel that Jesus must have known, while he nevertheless persevered in saying them, how things like: 'Before Abraham was, I am,'[36] or: 'I will not leave you comfortless, I will come unto you,'[37] would be misapprehended by those who heard them?

But, indeed, Jesus himself tells us that he knew and foresaw this. With the promise of the Spirit of truth which should, after his departure, work in his disciples first, then in the world, and which should convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, and finally transform it, we are all familiar. But we do not enough remark the impressive words, uttered to the crowd around him only a little while before, and of far wider application than the reporter imagined. 'Yet a little while is the light with you; walk while ye have the light, lest the darkness overtake you unawares!'[38] The real application cannot have been to the unconverted only; a call to the unconverted to make haste because their chance of conversion would soon, with Christ's departure, be gone. No, converts came in far thicker after Christ's departure than in his life. The words are for the converted also. It is as if Jesus foresaw the want of his sweet reasonableness, which he could not leave, to help his method and his secret, which he could leave'; as if he foresaw his words misconstrued, his rising to eternal life turned into a physical miracle, the advent of the Spirit of truth turned into a scene of thaumaturgy, Peter proving his Master's Messiahship from a Psalm that does not prove it, the great Apostle of the Gentiles word-splitting like a pedantic Rabbi, the most beautiful soul among his own reporters saddling him with metaphysics;—foresaw the growth of creeds, the growth of dogma, and so through all the confusion worse confounded of councils, schoolmen, and confessions of faith, down to our own two bishops bent on 'doing something' for the honour of the Godhead of the Eternal Son!

Notes

  1. Μὴ μετεωρίζεσθε. Luke, xii, 29.
  2. Luke, xvii, 21.
  3. Luke, ix, 23.
  4. John, vii, 25.
  5. Matth., xi, 11.
  6. John, iii, 21.
  7. John, xvii, 13.
  8. John, xvi, 33.
  9. John, iv, 14.
  10. Ps. xcvii, 11.
  11. Ps. cxii, 1.
  12. John, iii, 33.
  13. John, viii, 47.
  14. John, vi, 45.
  15. John, v, 38.
  16. John, vii, 17.
  17. John, viii, 51.
  18. Matth., xvi, 24.
  19. Ps. xvi, 11.
  20. John, xvi, 27, 28, 30; vi, 57; vii, 29; viii, 42; xviii, 8.
  21. It is to be remembered, too, that whereas Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the most concrete and unmetaphysical of languages, he is reported in Greek, the most metaphysical. What, in the mouth of Jesus, was the word which comes to us as μονογενής (only begotten)? Probably the simple Aramaic word for unique, only. And yet, in the Greek record, even the word μονογενής is not, like only begotten in our translation, reserved for Christ; see Luke, vii, 12; viii, 42; ix, 38.
  22. John, iv, 26; viii, 24, 28.
  23. John, x, 24.
  24. John, x, 30.
  25. John, xiv, 28.
  26. John, x, 34–36.
  27. John, viii, 58.
  28. John x, 17.
  29. Matth., xxii, 42–45.
  30. Acts, ii, 34.
  31. Gal., iii, 16.
  32. Prov., xxiii, 4.
  33. John, xii, 44; xiii, 20; vii, 17.
  34. Prov., xx, 24; Jer., x, 23.
  35. John, vi, 44.
  36. John, viii, 53.
  37. John, xiv, 18.
  38. John, xii, 35.