The Future of Christianity

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The Future of Christianity  (1895) 
by Alexander Balmain Bruce
Appeared in The Biblical World, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Oct., 1895), pp. 248-259.


THE FUTURE OF CHRISTIANITY[1]
–––––
By Professor Alexander Balmain Bruce, D.D.,
Free Church College, Glasgow, Scotland.
–––––

Introductory.—The theme.—Christianity will have a future.—Discouraging symptoms.—Hopeful tokens.—The sovereign place assigned to man by recent science.—New interest in the Bible awakened by modern criticism.—New interest in the historic Christ.—What will the future of Christianity be?—The Bible popularized in accordance with modern critical principles.—Use to which the Bible will be put by the church.—The working out of the ideas of Jesus concerning God and man.—What will that mean?—The church and social questions.—Reconstruction of the church and its conditions.—The church of the future not to be a mere ethical society or benevolent association.—Proper function of creeds.—Conclusion.

It may well seem presumptuous to undertake to speak on the future of Christianity, or indeed to adopt the prophetic tone in reference to any subject whatsoever. And yet it seems to me that there is no place in the world where one may more pardonably assume the attitude of looking forward than in America, in Chicago, and in this University. America is a young country, as an independent nation about a century old. Its appropriate motto is not fuimus, "we have been," but erimus, "we shall be." It has a great future before it; its providential destination is to possess this vast land and turn its resources to good account. Chicago is a city whose small beginnings are remembered by men still living. It has already attained great dimensions, but shrewd judges predict that in fifty years or less it will be three times its present size, and in respect at once of population and commercial importance easily the first city of the American continent. The University of Chicago is but a child four years old, for its age it is a child of phenomenal proportions, but it is doubtless destined to indefinite expansion. Its buildings will be increased fourfold, its teachers will grow in number and in renown; its influence on all the higher interests of human life will wax in volume like the Mississippi, and become a mighty river fertilizing a whole continent. Amid such surroundings how can one help being seized with the prophetic mood! It might have been very suitable on such an occasion as the present to discourse on the future of this institution. But to do that to any purpose would demand more knowledge and more intimate relations than I possess. Yet I must crave your indulgence if I speak for a moment of the privilege and honor I have enjoyed in having a part, however humble, in the work of this University at so early a period in its career, and of being associated with its pioneer instructors. May God's rich blessing rest on the president of the University and on all associated with him in the teaching and governing functions connected with The University of Chicago.

Having said this much about an institution which will, I doubt not, play an important part in the higher life of America years and centuries to come, I turn to a theme intimately connected with the aims of this University as conceived by its promoters, ever dear to my own heart, and on which I have a professional right to speak, The Future of Christianity.

I begin with the remark that Christianity will have a future. We are now near the close of the nineteenth century of the Christian era, but the faith we profess is by no means a worn-out cult, a spent force, a religious movement which has run its evolutionary course and is now about to take its place among the things that have been. Such a fate may overtake a religion as well as other things. Such a possibility is significantly recognized in the Sacred Books of Christianity, where it is written, "Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away;" and it is important to note that the ominous word is spoken with reference to a religion venerable for its antiquity, and believed to have been divinely given, the Levitical cultus. Why should Christianity, it may be asked, not be subject to this law of decay? And when one is in a pessimistic mood it is not difficult to point to phenomena which look like symptoms of senility, tokens of the approaching fall season of the Christian era. There is the miserably divided church, which looks very like the hopeless wreck of organized Christianity. There is sacramentarianism rampant in many sections of the church; poetic, pathetic symbols turned into fetiches, objects of fond worship to a Christendom in its dotage. There is dogmatism by which a simple faith has been transformed into an elaborate creed, acceptance of which is virtually, if not formally, prescribed as a condition of salvation. Besides these internal symptoms there are external ones hardly less ominous: waning of respect for the church, as if it were an effete institution, among thoughtful good men; the question put here and there, are we Christians? and answered in the negative; the ethics of Jesus freely criticised and pronounced utopian and impracticable; his doctrine of a Divine Father dismissed as a fond dream to which there is nothing answering in the universe. "We are of age," wrote Heine, "and do not need a Father." "We are realists," says the modern pessimist, "looking facts in the face, and see no evidence in the world that throughout the ages one unceasing purpose of wisdom and goodness runs."

All this looks like impending dissolution. Yet there are not wanting facts and phenomena which encourage hope, wearing the aspect of a new dawn, suggesting the thought that if we have arrived at a crisis, it is not a crisis of destruction, but of reconstruction, a crisis in which old things pass away to make room for better things of the same kind. Of such hope-inspiring symptoms I name three: The sovereign place in the universe assigned to man by recent science, the new interest awakened in the Bible by recent criticism, and the intense thirst of the modern Christian mind for knowledge of the historic Christ. All these betoken a good time coming for the Christian religion.

I. Science has demonstrated that man is in his body, and probably also in his soul, the crown of the evolutionary process. By this achievement it promises a new lease to the Christian faith, in proclaiming a doctrine concerning man essentially the same as that of Jesus. Starting from the datum of science one would naturally argue: If man be the crown of the evolutionary process, he is the key to the meaning of the process and to the nature of the great ultimate cause of all that happens. The world-process was meant to arrive at man, and the Great Being who cherished this aim must be manlike in his nature, a rational and moral personality guiding all things by a will of love. What is this but the Bible doctrine of man made in God's image, Christ's doctrine of divine fatherhood and human sonship? Jesus magnified the importance of man, science does the same. Jesus was full of the enthusiasm of humanity, science tends to be humanitarian. No truly scientific man will ever encourage brutal indifference to human well-being, or feel otherwise than kindly towards the memory of Him whose meat and drink it was to do all the good in His power to others.

2. The new interest awakened in the Bible by modern criticism is a good omen. With reference to the Sacred Scriptures a state of mind like this is conceivable. Why should we trouble ourselves any more about these old documents belonging to an eastern people of insignificant extent, with ways of thinking so entirely different from ours? They may be very good books in their way, and for their time, and for the people which produced them, but outside antiquated theories of divine origin, ideal value and unique function, there seems to be no good reason why we should not forget them, as the world has forgotten many other books which served a useful purpose in their day. Probably men in this precise state of mind are not wanting among us. But it is very far from being the prevailing state of mind. On the contrary since the Christian era began there never has been so much keen interest in and so much intellectual activity upon the sacred literatures of the Jewish and Christian faith as exists now. What an immense amount of pains have been taken to settle the text, to translate it correctly into modern languages, to ascertain all that can be known about the dates, authors, and occasions of the different books, to determine the true historic sense of every part of the collection and of the whole. And all this is a labor of love on the part of men entirely emancipated, for the most part, from superstitious reverences. They undertake this work because they like it and think it worth their while.

3. Foremost in importance among the good omens is the intense desire of many among us to know the mind of the historic Jesus, and to give to it the authoritative place in the faith and life of the Church. Not a few of our best men, I fear, have been tempted in these years to get weary of ecclesiastical Christianity. But one rarely meets with a man who is weary of Christ. The appeal of malcontents is rather from the Church to Christ, from modern presentations of the Christian religion to the religion embodied in the authentic sayings of the Great Master. There is as little weariness of Jesus Christ as there is of nature, of the world revealed to us by the eye and the ear. After many disenchantments, multiplying with the years of our life, these two objects, Jesus and nature, retain their charm unabated, growing rather as old age steals on. What is true of the individual Christian is not less true of Christendom at large. It is going on to two millenniums since Christ was born, but that event and the life it ushered in are not losing their attraction through the long lapse of time. Rather Christ is being born anew amongst us; through scientific study, devout thought and loving endeavor at imaginative realization, his life and ministry are being enacted over again, insomuch that it may be said with truth that the Hero of the gospel story is better known today, and more intelligently estimated than He ever has been since the Christian era began. Herein surely lies a guarantee that the Christian name and faith are not going to die, that far from dying they are about to enter on a new lease of vitality, power and prosperity, through which greater glory will accrue to God in the future than has been yielded by all the past centuries!

What will the future of Christianity be? Who can adequately tell? Even Hebrew prophets were able to depict the good time coming only in vague outline, and with colors drawn from present desiderata and the hopes these inspired. Yet without special prophetic afflatus, with only a sufficient amount of sympathy with the longings of our most Christlike men and due insight into present tendencies, it is not impossible to sketch some of the broader features of the new development which Christianity is likely to undergo in the years that lie before us.

One of the inevitable tasks of the Christianity of the future will be the popularization of the Bible in accordance with modern critical principles. Whether we like it or not this is one of the things that lie before us. The inquiry into the history of the sacred books of our faith is a movement of too much depth, breadth, and strength to be stopped by prudential considerations. It must spread more and more till our ministers and even our Sunday school teachers have become more or less acquainted with its methods and results. It cannot remain a mere academic movement; it must influence the practical use of the Scriptures in pulpit, school and home. Religious people contemplate this prospect with mixed feelings; some with dread, many with sympathy and hope qualified by a certain solicitude engendered by reflection on the perils of a transition time. The right attitude for all who are competent to influence the situation is readiness for earnest participation in the work imposed by the situation, with unwavering faith in the ultimate issue. For that issue, I confidently believe, will be such as all lovers of the Holy Book will have cause to rejoice in. A well-known English preacher is reported to have expressed his fear that the critics were taking from him his mother's Bible. That is pretty certain. But what of that if they give to his daughter or granddaughter a better Bible than his pious mother ever knew; with nothing of real importance left out; the same righteous, gracious God, the same Jesus Christ, the same hope for sinful, sorrow-laden men and women, only all made more luminous, living, real, by the dating of books, the setting of prophecies in their proper historic situations, the arranging of the contents of the Sacred Volume in their due order, the illumination of its pages by side-lights through comparison with the documents of contemporary religions? I am reminded here of a little incident in my professorial experience. One of our brightest students, an exact scholar, and an intensely earnest man, came into my retiring room at the close of his second session after he had passed through my apologetic and exegetical classes, and thus addressed me: "Dr. Bruce! Thanks for the two sessions. You have taken from me my religion and you have given me a better." I am hopeful that the Christians of a future generation will speak in similar terms to those who are now engaged, or who shall hereafter be engaged, in the work of interpreting a critically edited Bible, saving to the Drivers and the Harpers of our universities and to the George Adam Smiths and the Washington Gladdens of our pulpits: "Thanks, ye scholars and ye preachers, thanks! Ye have taken from us a Bible which we reverenced to idolatry but in many parts did not understand, and have given to us a Bible which, with undiminished claims to reverence, awakens in our minds a real, rational interest to which hitherto we have been comparative strangers."

All hands to the work then! The sooner this service of familiarizing the people with the critically edited Bible is rendered the better. Till it is done there will be a dangerous interval of ignorance and indifference, during which the community will lose the invaluable moral tonic that comes from intimate aquaintance with a literature so elevated and unworldly in its spirit. When I was a minister there were certain books of the Bible which I never touched in my preaching. I knew too much of what was going on in critical circles to be able to treat them in the old style, and too little to have the courage to attempt exposition of them along new lines; and so I let them alone. This is what we have to fear on a large scale. The Bible let alone by the community, allowed to lie on the shelf, hardly a copy even to be found in the house; Psalms, Prophecies, Gospels, Epistles relegated to oblivion. What a loss to the forces making for righteousness in a community! Who would not gladly do his part to avert such a loss? Who, however much he may differ from his opinions about the Bible, does not sympathize with the general aim of Matthew Arnold in writing Literature and Dogma, viz., to rescue from neglect a book which, while containing some features not to the taste of men living in our modern era, was still the greatest book in the world in respect of the emphasis with which it asserts the value of righteousness, and the reality of a power not ourselves making for righteousness? All honor therefore to the men who in various ways are striving to rescue this Book from the neglect with which it is threatened through the temporary unsettling influence of the critical movement. There are many cooperating in this good work, but I may be allowed in this place to single out for honorable mention the American Institute of Sacred Literature, of which many of your foremost men are directors, and whose principal and chief promotor is the President of this University. Its aims and methods are well known to you, its work needs no eulogium from me, but I may be permitted as a stranger to utter one word of hearty commendation, and earnestly to wish it God-speed.

Time will not allow me to enlarge on a topic closely connected with the foregoing, viz., the use which will be made by the church of the future of the reëdited and reinterpreted Bible. A few sentences must suffice. The Bible will be regarded more as sacred literature, less as dogma than it has been in the past; as a book for religious inspiration rather than as a book for theological instruction. It will be understood that it does not teach many things, the raw material of an elaborate creed, but rather a few things very thoroughly. It will also be understood that all things taught in Scripture are not of equal importance; that it is not necessary that every proposition that can be supported by proof-texts should become an article in a creed. A distinction will be taken between doctrines of faith and dogmas of theology. The consequence will be a shrinkage in the dimensions of creeds and confessions, and therewith the removal of one of the main hindrances to a wide full communion of saints. For there have been two great dividers of Christendom. One is an undue value put upon sacraments, the other is equally undue value put upon dogmas.

I pass now to speak of what I expect to be the most characteristic feature of the Christianity of the future, viz., the working out of the ideas of Jesus concerning God and man. This must come sooner or later. The teaching of Jesus has taken such a hold of the Christian mind that it will get no rest till it has given effect thereto both in theology and in life. Though we be near the close of the nineteenth Christian century this thing has yet to be done. And done it shall be. The rediscovery of Christ imperatively imposes the task. It is an arduous task, not to be accomplished in a year, or even in a century, and before the consummation devoutly to be wished many changes, theological, ecclesiastical and social, may come which shall cause faint hearts to quake—such a shaking in earth and heaven as shall look like the final judgment. But it will be only a shaking of things that ought to be shaken in order that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. And during the shaking process the personal influence of Christ will be the sheet anchor of faith helping it to ride out the storm. My own religious history supplies a parable here. In my student days, when all accepted beliefs were in a state of solution, I was tided over a dark time of doubt and preserved from precipitate action by reverence for my father, whom I could not bear to grieve by avowal of unbelief, and abandonment of my purpose to study for the ministry. Even so will it be with the Christianity of the future in its time of trial. Traditional theologies may go, and ecclesiastical organizations be broken up, and old social conditions pass away, but Christ will remain, and the priceless worth of His words will keep the heart loyal amid temptation, and His ideas of God and man will be the fixed stars by which the mariner will steer his way through troubled seas to the desired haven.

What kind of a world will that haven bring us to? I know not any more than the Pilgrim Fathers who landed on your shores knew what a great nation was to grow out of such obscure beginnings. I shall not attempt to forecast even in the most sketchy outline the social outcome of the ideas of Jesus duly laid to heart. What I am concerned to affirm with emphasis is that in the years to come these ideas will be more seriously taken, and that when that happens the new earnestness about Christ's teaching will not remain fruitless. It shall accomplish that which God pleases, and prosper in the thing whereto he sent it. It will strengthen the passion for justice, and deepen the feeling of mercy, and make all men walk humbly with God, and lovingly with fellow-men. With this distant Pisgah-view of the promised land one can be content with Moses to die outside its borders, and ignorant of its geography. The religious and moral roots of the unknown future are the only things we need to care about. Given these, the vital outgrowth will look after itself; these lacking no changes in church or state can possess permanent value. In these days we hear much of "Socialism," economic socialism. "Let private property only pass away, and all things become common, and all will be well." Would all be well if economic socialism were accompanied with moral individualism—a spirit caring only for self? Manifestly the true bane of society is not property, but self-seeking, and the true need now and at all times moral socialism, caring for others, remembering that a man at the meanest is a man and treating him accordingly. That due heed to Christ's teaching will bring, that and all that properly goes along with it. And the function of the church of the future will be to secure that due heed shall be given to Christ's beneficent and humane doctrine. It is well to keep this in view at a time when the question as to the relation of the church to social questions is so much canvassed. The proper answer to that question seems to me to lie in a nutshell. Of course it is inconceivable that a church filled with Christ's spirit can be indifferent to the social applications of Christianity. Apathy in view of oppression and wrong, or of deep, wide, unbridged cleavages of caste, color, character, religion, birth, social position, is the mark of a church that has a name to live while it is dead, that while cultivating a ghostly care for "souls" has no care for men and women, and that is as unlike as possible in spirit and method to Him who not only preached a gospel of pardon, but healed the bodies of the sick. But it does not follow that the church should constitute herself the great social executive. Her main function is to teach, to enunciate principles, to put in circulation great ideas. That done with freshness, freedom, impartiality, discrimination: in a word with prophetic power and wisdom, her influence will be felt recognized and respected, and her voice will be a real and potent factor in bringing in the better time.

But the church of the present is fatally weakened by division and the lack of a common understanding among all who bear the Christian name. Is this state of things to last forever? I devoutly hope and pray not, though I am much less sanguine about the future of the church than about the future of Christianity. I see clearly some of the chief prerequisites of restored union and power, though whether these conditions will be realized must remain uncertain. Sacramental superstition must die out, and along with it the overweening love of dogma, and in the place of these two idols of the past must come a consuming devotion to the kingdom of God, a passion for righteousness, a resolute purpose that God's will shall be done. In saying this I do not wish to be regarded as one of those who conceive the ideal church of the future as an ethical society having for its aim "to insist on duty and character without insisting on any supernatural agencies or expectations,"[2] or as a benevolent association—"the union of all who love in the service of all who suffer."[3] Such organizations would be in themselves well intended if not effective institutions; and if by an evil chance Christian faith in the supernatural sense were to perish from the earth an ethical or a benevolent society on a considerable scale might to some extent act as a barrier against moral and social barbarism. But what if these modern churches, like the old ones they are to supersede, should become as salt which has lost its savor? Does the ethical spirit or the benevolent spirit not need support from a transcendental faith? Conscience is not so robust, nor the heart so filled with the passion of love, as to dispense with the aid of faith in a model Christ, our pattern at once in moral fidelity and in the enthusiasm of humanity, and in a Father-God who careth even for the lowest. A recent writer on social evolution has ably advocated a view of religion according to which it is a supra-rational element in human nature constraining men to be altruistic against the dictates of their reason, bidding them care for their own interest only. The theory is open to criticism. The two assumptions on which it rests, that religion is essentially supra-rational, and that reason is essentially selfish, are very questionable. But the general principle underlying Mr. Kidd's theory is sound, viz., that the humane benevolent impulses need the support of religion. A man is weak when he serves God with only a part of his spiritual nature. It takes all that is within us—conscience, heart, reason, imagination, the faith-faculty—to make us heroes in the warfare for justice and mercy. It is well to have a definite religious creed, if it be sincere, well to have a philosophic theory of the universe in harmony with our creed. Furnished with these the man of ethical and benevolent bent engages in the fight clad in "the whole armor of God," without them he enters into battle defenseless and vulnerable. Our pium desiderium, therefore, for the future is not a church without a creed, or a theology, or a philosophy, or regarding these things as idle encumbrances. We desiderate a church possessing all these but knowing better what to do with them than the church of the past; using them as ideals not as compulsory ordinances, as goals not as starting points, as symbols and means of advanced fellowship not as conditions of admission to her communion, or even to the exercise of teaching functions.

Such is the vision of the future as I have been able to see it. It is fair and winsome. If it be also in harmony with the true and the good it will come to pass, and God's name will be hallowed, His kingdom will come, and His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Notes[edit]

  1. An address delivered at the Autumn Convocation at The University of Chicago, October 1, 1895.
  2. Bosanquet: Civilization of Christendom, p. 145.
  3. Stead: If Christ Came to Chicago, p. 445.