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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Back to Christ
BACK TO CHRIST.—The movement or tendency described in the phrase ‘back to Christ’ belongs mainly to the past half century, and both its wide extent and its far-reaching consequences for religious thought justify us in regarding it as the most important theological event of the period.
The phrase can be received as a correct description of the movement, only under the explanation that the return has not been to the Christ of dogma, but to the Christ of history. This distinction must be kept clearly in view. The Christ of dogma is Christ as exhibited in the creeds—the eternally begotten Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, who, for our redemption, assumed our human nature and submitted to death as an atonement for our sins. He is the God-man, a Divine Person with two natures and two wills. It is evident that these determinations move in a different region from that of empirical reality. They cannot be established on merely historical evidence; they have their ground in a judgment of faith. What we have in dogma is not a portrait of the historical Jesus in the religious and ethical traits of His character, but a speculative construction of His Person; not an account of His historical ministry, but a doctrinal interpretation of it. The Christ of history is the concrete Person whose image meets us in the Gospels; the Christ of dogma is the complex of metaphysical or doctrinal characters which the Church, on the ground of its faith, attributed to this Person. So far the distinction is clear enough, and meets with general acceptance. The difficulty begins when we raise the question whether such facts as the Virgin-birth, the Miracles (in the strict sense of the word), and the Resurrection are to be included in our conception of the historical Christ as resting upon historical evidence, or whether they are not rather to be transferred from the domain of history to that of faith. The question will come up again; in the meantime it may be sufficient to call attention to the ambiguity which must attach to the term ‘historical Christ’ so long as it remains undecided.
When we speak of a return to the Christ of history, we imply that His image has been lost sight of, or at least obscured. It was not doubtless the intention of the Church that its doctrinal determinations should supplant the concrete reality in the thought and faith of the community. But this was what actually happened. More and more the historical Person was overshadowed by the speculative construction, the historical ministry by the formulas in which its significance was summed up. The figure of Jesus disappeared behind the pre-existent Logos, the earthly ministry behind the idea of the Incarnation, the cross behind the doctrine of the Atonement. This result is not to be explained by the fact that dogma, from its controversial character, attracted to itself an undue share of attention and interest as compared with matters that had never been in dispute. The cause lay deeper. It is to be found in the conception of Revelation and of Faith that has dominated the Catholic and also, to a large extent, the Protestant Church. Revelation has been understood as the supernatural communication of a system of doctrine; Faith, as the submission of the mind to doctrine on the ground of its authority. The emphasis has thus been thrown, not on the historical life, but on the dogmatic construction. The historical life has occupied only a secondary place, its significance being found mainly in the basis it supplies for this construction or interpretation.
1. Causes of the movement.—What are the causes that have contributed to restore the figure of Jesus to its place in the centre of religious thought? We shall mention three as the chief.
(a) The first is the application of historical criticism to the Gospel narrative. In 1835, D. F. Strauss published his Leben Jesu, and this book proved the starting-point of a critical movement the end of which is not yet in sight. The results of Strauss’ criticism were almost purely negative: the Gospel story was resolved into a tissue of myths. There are still writers who find in that story only the most meagre basis of fact; but their conclusions are far from representing the general results of the movement, which are much more positive than negative in their character, much more constructive than destructive. If doubt has been cast on some of the facts related about Jesus, and if the influence of subsequent ideas has been detected here and there in the presentation of His life and teaching, the substantial truth of the Gospel narrative has been amply vindicated. Moreover, the critical study of the NT has done for Christ what that of the OT has done for the prophets. It has reconstructed the contemporary background, given us a better understanding of His teaching, and enabled us to see the Man and His work in their human environment. To this enlarged historical knowledge and new feeling for the historical, we owe the recognition of the fact that the Christ of history is one thing and the conception of His Person that sprang up on the soil of the Church’s faith another. As early as the Fourth Gospel the two images had been blended into one. Still further, criticism has contributed to the return to Christ by the mere fact that it has brought the problem of His historical reality and significance into the centre of attention and interest. Up to the appearance of the Leben Jesu the problems that occupied the theological field were almost purely speculative: when Christ was considered, it was as the vehicle or symbol of certain speculative ideas. The retirement of the speculative behind the historical is one of the signs of the times.
(b) A second and even more important factor in the movement ‘back to Christ’ is the widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional statements of Christianity. Since the rationalistic movement of the 18th cent. the history of dogma has been in the main a history of disintegration. Those who seek to go behind the creeds, back to the source of our religion, proceed on the ground that the creeds do not represent, with any sufficient correctness or adequacy, either the conceptions that Jesus taught or the significance that His Person has for faith. All we can do here is to indicate the main lines which the criticism of dogma has followed.
When we examine the formulas of Nicaea and Chalcedon, in which the Being of God and the Person of Christ are determined, we find one basal conception underlying them all. It is the conception of Substance. God is conceived primarily as the Absolute Substance; that is to say, as the indeterminate, unchanging and permanent ground of the knowable world of variety, change, and transience. Christ is true God because He shares in the Divine Substance; and because He has taken up human nature or substance into union with His Divine substance, He is also true man. The inner relations of the Godhead—Fatherhood, Sonship, the Procession of the Holy Spirit—are all expressed in terms of this category. It is true that the Church had other things to say about God and Christ than those of its formulas; still the formulas were regarded as conveying the deepest and most vital truths, and their acceptance was made the criterion of orthodoxy and the condition of salvation. If the ethical was recognized, it occupied only a subordinate position in comparison with the metaphysical. Now, what is this idea of Substance which plays so great a rôle in the creeds? It was not derived from Christ or the New Testament. It was borrowed from I Hellenistic philosophy; and what it originally answered was not any religious need, but the purely intellectual demand that all the manifoldness of this time-world shall be reducible to the unity of a single principle. Even from a philosophical point of view the idea of Substance is open to fatal objections as a principle by which to explain personal or, indeed, any relations. To modern thought Substance is not a concrete reality; it is nothing more than the most abstract of all ideas. To hypostatize abstractions, equip them with causal power, and employ them as principles of explanation, was a peculiarity of Greek thought, and one that it is hopeless to revive. The use which the creeds make of this idea is even more objectionable when considered from the standpoint of religion. Absolute Substance has nothing in common with the holy, personal Will of the prophets, or with the gracious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. One cannot, on such a foundation, build up a Christian conception of God. And to say that Christ is Divine in virtue of His participation in the Divine Substance, is not to present Him in any character that makes Him the object of our trust. What gives Christ His significance for faith is the fact that in His Person and ministry faith recognizes the revelation of God’s gracious will towards sinful men. To substitute a divinity of Substance for a divinity of Revelation is to remove Christ from the realm of faith into that of speculation; and, further, since the category of substance is at bottom a physical category, it is to rank the physical above the personal and ethical.
In formulating these metaphysical doctrines, the Church no doubt believed that it was safeguarding vital religious interests. What seemed at stake was nothing less than the reality of the salvation mediated by Christ. But, it is contended, the conception of salvation that the Nicene and Chalcedon formulas were designed to safeguard is not an ethical, but a metaphysical, or, more correctly, physical, conception. The evil from which deliverance is sought is not primarily sin; it is the mortality that belongs to our fallen nature; and the good salvation brings is not ethical communion with God, but participation in eternal life, which is thought of as a natural quality of the Divine substance. Human substance is deified, invested with the quality of immortality, by being taken up into and penetrated by Divine substance. It is this metaphysical conception of salvation that requires a metaphysical Christ. Christ must be God and man in the substantial sense, since it was in His Person that the penetration (ἐπιχώρησις) of human substance by Divine took place. It is obvious that such a conception of Christ’s Person can have little or no significance for those who regard religious relationships as being at their deepest and highest personal and ethical. An ethical conception of Redemption, as a change in our relation to God effected within our consciousness, requires us to seek the significance of Christ not in the metaphysical background of His nature, but in the ethical and religious traits of His character, which disclose to us the heart of God, and have the power to awaken within us the response of love and faith.
In the theology of the Greek Church the work of Christ was summed up in His Incarnation. In that act salvation was already achieved. A more practical and ethical conception entered the Church with the great figure of Augustine. The metaphysical antithesis of mortal, creaturely life and eternal, Divine life retired before the ethical antithesis of sin and grace. There was a transference of emphasis from the metaphysical Incarnation to the ethical Atonement. The change marked an important advance. Yet in the doctrine of the Atonement as formulated by Anselm, and even as subsequently modified, the ethical does not appear in its purity, but only under the form of the juristic. The work of Christ is interpreted by means of categories borrowed from the legal discipline of the Roman Church. But ethical relationships and ethical ends cannot be adequately expressed in terms of criminal law. The juristic no less than the metaphysical conceptions of the old theology have lost their hold on the modern mind. We interpret religious relations now in terms of ethics and psychology.
(c) The third cause that has operated in bringing the historical Person and work of Christ into the foreground, has been the new sense—reflected in the writings of men like Goethe, Emerson, and Carlyle—of the importance of great personalities as factors of historical change and progress. Neither Catholicism nor traditional Protestantism can be said to have shown much appreciation of the religious and ethical forces that radiate from Jesus as a historical personality. The saving activity of God in Christ has been conceived either in a mystical, semi-mechanical way, as affecting us through an operation in the substance or background of our being; or, again, rationalistically, as mediated through ideas or doctrines. The Rationalism of the 18th century and the speculative philosophy of the 19th, while rejecting the former of these views, only accentuated the latter. History was resolved into a dialectic of ideas: not personalities but ideas were regarded as the creative forces. In the speculative theology of the Hegelian period, the religious importance of Jesus was found almost solely in the fact that He was the introducer or the symbol of the supreme religious idea. This idea—the essential oneness of God and man, man as the eternal Son of God—is the active and creative thing. There is still a large and important school, represented by writers like Green, Edward Caird, Pfleiderer, A. Dorner, which continues the Hegelian tradition. But the past half century has witnessed a reaction from this exaggerated intellectualism. It is being more and more widely recognized that the elevation and enrichment of man’s spiritual life have been effected far less by the movements and instincts of the mass, or by the introduction and development of ideas, than by the appearance on the stage of history of great creative personalities. Such personalities are fountains of life for many succeeding generations. In no province is their importance so marked as in that of religion. And Christ is the supreme personality. It was the impression produced by His Person, even more than the new ideas He taught, that created the Christian Church. ‘The life was the light of men.’ And in whatever way we account for it, it is certain that Christian ideas cannot be separated from Christ without being stripped of much of their power to maintain themselves in men’s minds and hearts. The recognition of such facts has had no small share in bringing the Person of Christ into the centre of religious thought.
2. Theological reconstruction.—We pass from the causes that have brought about a return to the historical Christ, to consider some of the attempts at theological reconstruction or revision to which the movement has led. What is its dogmatic significance? The movement is not a uniform one; it has taken various directions; and while most of the thought of the day confesses its influence, this influence is much more marked in some cases than in others. We need not take into account a writer like Gore, who, though insisting on the importance of a knowledge of the historical Christ, yet derives his theology not from Christ, but from the Œcumenical Councils; or like Loisy, who, indeed, distinguishes between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith, but yet allows the former little significance except as the starting-point of the movement known as Christianity. Our attention must be limited to the theologies in which the new feeling for the historical Christ has exerted some marked influence.
(1) We begin with that form of the movement which departs least from traditional orthodoxy, and to which the term ‘Christo-centric’ is usually applied. In this case the return to Christ has not led to anything like a reconstruction of doctrine; the most that has been undertaken is a revision. The traditional doctrines receive a reinterpretation and a fresh grounding in the light of the fuller knowledge of, and keener feeling for, the Christ of history. In the words of the most distinguished representative of the Christo-centric movement in this country, ‘We cannot conceive and describe the supreme historical Person without coming face to face with the profoundest of all the problems in theology; but then we may come to them from an entirely changed point of view, through the Person that has to be interpreted rather than through the interpretations of His Person. When this change has been effected, theology ceases to be scholastic and becomes historical.’* [Note: Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology, p. 8.]
This claim to break with the scholastic method is partially, but only partially, justified. The doctrines of the Church are no longer treated as sacrosanct, and as the first principles of theological construction. Still further, it is recognized that even Scripture cannot be received as the ultimate source and norm of doctrine. The Apostolic conception of Christianity is not formally authoritative. We must not look at Christ merely through St. Paul’s eyes; it is possible for us to see the Christ whom St. Paul saw, and to estimate St. Paul’s thoughts from the vantage ground of this immediate knowledge. The idea of an external authority is not, however, surrendered; it is only carried back to the last possible resort, the consciousness of Christ. Whatever can be derived from the consciousness of Christ has an authoritative claim on our acceptance. And since His history is of a piece with His consciousness, the two must be taken together. The theological task is therefore to interpret God through the history and the consciousness of the historical Christ.
But here the question postponed at the beginning presses for an answer. The term ‘historical Christ’ is not unambiguous. What are the contents of His consciousness, what are the facts in His history, which give to Him His meaning for faith, and which must be regarded as constituting His historical personality? We know Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels as the teacher of an ethical ideal supreme in its depth and height, and of a religion of pure inwardness and spirituality. We obtain glimpses into an inner life of intimate and unbroken fellowship with God. He was conscious of a unique vocation, to bring men to the knowledge and service of the Father in heaven, and to introduce the Reign of God on earth. In His consciousness of this vocation and of His equipment for it, He accepted the title of Messiah. He carried out His vocation with an obedience to God that never wavered, with a trust in God that no storm could shake, with a love that shrank from no sacrifice, and that never grew cold. He accepted the cross in the confidence that God’s purpose would not be overthrown by His death, but established. This at least criticism leaves untouched; and for some this human Jesus is the Jesus of history, and, at the same time, the Divine Christ, the Saviour of the world. The constitutive facts in His Person and history are the religious and ethical facts. But such is not the view of those whose position we are now describing. Accepting these facts, they do not regard them as supplying an adequate conception of the Christ of history, or as disclosing the deepest meaning of His life. For Christo-centric as for traditional theology, the elements of cardinal importance in Christ’s consciousness and history are the miraculous elements. The facts that give to His inner life its character are His moral perfection and consciousness of sinlessness, His assertion of a unique knowledge of God, and of a Sonship different in kind from that possible to His disciples, His assertion of His Messiahship and pre-existence, His demand for absolute devotion to His Person, His claim to a superhuman authority in forgiving sins and in dealing with OT institutions and laws, His claim to be the Saviour of the world, the arbiter of human destiny, the final Judge. Similarly His outer life receives its character from the Virgin-birth, the Miracles (interpreted in the strict sense), and, above all, from the bodily Resurrection. The historical Christ is the transcendent and miraculous Christ, the Christ who was conscious of a superhuman dignity, and who was declared by the resurrection from the dead to be the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4).
This conception of Christ, with its subordination of the moral and religious in His consciousness and history to the miraculous, carries with it two momentous consequences. In the first place, it involves the view, is indeed founded upon it, that the Revelation of God is to be found not primarily in Christ’s Person and ministry, but in the doctrines in which these are interpreted. Christ is brought before us as primarily a problem that demands solution. What constitute Him a problem are the above-mentioned facts in His consciousness and history, which cannot be accounted for except on the hypothesis that He was a superhuman, supernatural Being—a Being that stood in a relation to God beyond any that can be described in ethical terms. These facts are singled out as the essential ones, just because they set the problem and provide the basis for the transcendental hypothesis. The solution of the problem is given in the NT doctrines of Christ’s Person and work. The Person and work constitute the facts; the doctrines supply their explanation or interpretation. Apart from the doctrinal interpretation the facts might still retain a certain ethico-religious significance, but they would lose their highest, their essential, meaning. It is the interpretation or construction that is the essential thing in Christianity. The gospel is not given with the character, teaching, and ministry of Christ, in their direct appeal to the heart and conscience; only the doctrinal interpretation of these facts—that the pre-existent Son of God assumed human nature, lived among men, and atoned by His death for their sin—has a right to the name. Christianity is given only when Christ is speculatively construed.* [Note: Fairbairn, Philosophy of the Christian Religion, p. 306.]
Though the need for such a construction can be demonstrated, the construction itself is not to be regarded as a work of human freedom. We receive it as authoritatively given. To traditional theology the authority is inspired Scripture, the witness of the Apostolic writers no less than Christ’s self-witness. It is characteristic of the Christo-centric school that, with a freer view of inspiration, it admits only the self-witness as the ultimate authority. Only Christ Himself could know and reveal the secret of His unique personality. The doctrine of the Apostolic writers is not to be regarded as the product of a religions experience created by Christ, but as the reproduction or development of ideas received from Christ’s lips. These writers are only the channel by which the interpretation has reached us, not its source.
A doctrinal conception of Revelation requires as its correlate a conception of Faith as primarily an intellectual act. Faith must be defined as the assent of the mind to a proposition on the ground of authority. This assent, however, though the primary element in faith, is not treated as the whole of it; it becomes effective only when reinforced by the practical elements of feeling and will.
More fruitful, perhaps, than its attempt at a fresh grounding of doctrine has been the contribution of the Christo-centric school to the revision of doctrine. It has sought to free the formulas that describe the Triune Being of God and the Person and work of Christ from their over-relinement, to translate them into the categories of modern thought, and to make them more ethical and less metaphysical.
(2) We pass to a second, and much more radical phase of the movement. To many, ‘back to Christ’ means back from historical Christianity, the religion founded upon Christ, to the religion which Christ taught, and which we see embodied in His life. More than a century ago the position was summed up by Leasing in his famous saying, ‘The Christian religion has been tried for eighteen centuries; the religion of Christ remains to be tried.’
That the stream of religion flows purer at its fountainhead than at its lower readies is a fact which the study of every historical religion confirms. As a religion advances through history, it loses something of its idealism and becomes more secular, takes up foreign elements, accumulates dogmas and ceremonies, parts with its simplicity and spontaneity, and becomes more and more a human construction. And every religious reform has signified a throwing off of foreign accretions, and a return to the simplicity and purity of the source. Did not Christ Himself represent a reaction from the elaborate legal and ceremonial system of Judaism to the simpler and more ethical faith of the prophets? The Reformation was a return to primitive Christianity, but less to Christ than to St. Paul. But we must, it is maintained, go behind even St. Paul and the early disciples. It is true, indeed, that, in the NT, Christianity is not the complex tiling it afterwards became; still, the process of intellectual and ceremonial elaboration has begun. If we have not the fully-developed system of dogma and sacrament, we have at least the germs out of which it arose; and while much must be regarded as the legitimate development of principles implicit in Christ’s gospel, there is also the introduction of a foreign element.
Let us contrast at one or two points the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus with the Church’s rendering of it. Jesus’ gospel contains no Christology. It is the glad tidings of a Father in heaven, whose love and care embrace all His creatures, in whose eyes every human soul is precious, and who is at once the righteous Judge and the pitiful, forgiving Saviour. Jesus was conscious of His unique position as the Mediator of salvation, but He never (according to the Synoptic tradition) required faith in Himself in the same sense as He required faith in God. God was the one object of faith; and if Jesus called men to Himself, it was only that He might lead them to God, and teach them to love, trust, and obey God. Turning to the gospel of the Church, we find a doctrine of Christ’s Person at the heart of it. To believe the gospel is no longer, in the first place at least, to receive God’s message of love and forgiveness, and to obey His summons to repentance, trust, and service; it is to believe that Jesus is Messiah, a pre-existent, heavenly Being, the second Person in the Trinity. A doctrine of Jesus’ Person is substituted for the Heavenly Father as the immediate object of faith.
Again, Jesus’ gospel contains nothing like a developed doctrine of Redemption. The question as to the rationale of forgiveness is never raised, and there is no hint of the inability of God to forgive without a propitiation. Forgiveness is presented as flowing directly from God’s fatherly love (Luke 15). And as little do we find the other propositions included in the Church’s doctrine of Redemption. Jesus, indeed, teaches that none is good (Matthew 19:17), that even at the best we are unprofitable servants, who have done no more than our duty (Luke 17:10); but He knows nothing of inherited guilt, radical corruption of human nature, human inability to do any good work. In the gospel of Jesus we are in the region of direct moral intuition; nothing is there merely because apologetic or system required it. We are also in the region of moral sanity. There is nothing of asceticism, and no attempt to cultivate a feeling of sinfulness. Men are bidden strive to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Comparing the gospel of the Church with that of Christ, we find complication instead of simplicity, theological construction instead of intuition, and sometimes morbidness and exaggeration in place of sanity.
Finally, while the teaching of Jesus places the centre of gravity in the will, the Church transfers it to the intellect. ‘This do and thou shalt live’ (Luke 10:28) is the command of Jesus: what the Church requires is belief rather than conduct.
The gospel of Jesus represents the crown of religion; it is the highest and, in its innermost nature, the final stage of religious development. No other historical religion can endure a moment’s comparison with it. And the religions manufactured out of a few philosophical principles have still less claim to serious consideration, since they are wholly lacking in everything that gives a religion vitality. It can be said with literal truth that, for any civilized community, the choice is not between Christianity and some other religion, but between Christianity and no religion at all.
While the religion of Jesus is regarded as the one faith capable of meeting the need of this and of every age, it is not meant that it can he reproduced in every detail. We must distinguish between central and peripheral elements, and between the enduring spirit and the passing form of manifestation. We cannot, for example, revive the primitive expectation of the world’s speedy end, or the ideas about angels, Satan, unclean spirits as the agents in disease, which Jesus shared with His contemporaries. The gospel must be translated into the language of to-day, and its spirit applied to the relations of our modern life.
How is Jesus Himself regarded by those who represent this type of thought? All speculative Christology, whether Biblical or ecclesiastical, is rejected, and it is asserted that such Christology has no basis in the language which Jesus used about Himself. Further, it is held that not Jesus, but the God whom Jesus revealed, is the immediate object of our faith. At the same time, the unique significance of Jesus, not only in the history of religion but also for the individual, is earnestly recognized. We quote the confession of Bousset: ‘Thou art our leader, to whom there is none like, the leader in the highest things, the leader of our soul to God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’* [Note: Bousset, Das Wesen der Religion, p. 267.] The figure of Jesus is the grandest and most perfect that God has bestowed on humanity throughout the long course of its upward journey. Bousset can even adopt the confession of St. Paul, ‘God was in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Harnack goes a step further. ‘Jesus,’ he says, ‘is the way to the Father, and He is also the judge ordained by the Father. Not as a constituent does He belong to the Gospel, but He has been its personal realization and power, and will always be felt as such.’* [Note: Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, p. 91.] But in thus insisting on the dependence of the gospel on the Person behind it for its power in awakening faith, Harnack is to be regarded as representing the type of thought to be described in the next section rather than that described here.
(3) The last type of theological thought which has to be considered, as bearing upon it the impress of the modern feeling for the historical Christ, is the most important of all. It is that represented by the great name of Ritschl. For Ritschlianism, even more than for traditional orthodoxy, Christ is the sum and substance of Christianity. In Him the living God reveals Himself to men; He is the fact in history in which God meets us, to awaken our faith and lead us into the blessedness of His fellowship. What is it in Christ that gives Him His so momentous significance? The answer which Ritschlianism gives to this question involves a new interpretation of the great Christian ideas,—Revelation, Gospel, Doctrine, Faith,—only it is claimed that this interpretation is nothing more than a carrying out of the fundamental principles of the Reformation.
In Catholic, and not less in traditional Protestant, theology the significance of Christ is concentrated in the doctrines in which His Person and work have received their interpretation. Christianity is summed up in the great speculative ideas of the eternal Sonship, the Incarnation, and the atoning Death. These ideas are regarded as constituting the content of Revelation and the object of faith; into them the meaning and power of Jesus’ life are gathered, and to believe them is to believe the gospel. Doctrine, Gospel, Revelation are treated as one and the same thing. For Ritschlianism, on the other hand, it is not the doctrinal interpretation that is the vital thing, but the Person and work interpreted. Doctrine has its own importance, but it must not be identified with Revelation or with the Gospel; and consequently it is not the object of faith. The importance of doctrine lies in this, that it brings to expression what faith has found in Christ. The appropriation of the Revelation of God in Christ results in a new knowledge of God and of human life, and it is the task of dogmatics to exhibit this knowledge in its purity, free from any admixture of philosophical speculation, and in its connexion with the inner life. Doctrine is the explicitly formulated knowledge of faith. But the doctrines in which another’s faith has expressed itself cannot be received by us as the ground of our faith. It is not by appropriating St. Paul’s thoughts about Christ—that He was a propitiatory offering, a pre-existent heavenly Being, etc.—that we become Christians, but only by trusting Christ as St. Paul trusted Him. When there is this direct contact with Christ, St. Paul’s thoughts will be reproduced as the fruit of our own experience, and only then will they have real meaning for us. To substitute for Christ as the object of faith a doctrine of His Person and work is to remove faith from its genetic ground. For the creative thing in Christianity is not the doctrines which, with more or less truth and fulness, describe Christ’s significance; it is the personal life in its inexhaustible wealth of meaning and power, and as it manifests itself to us in word and deed. Doctrine is a product of faith, not its causal ground. Moreover, the substitution of doctrine for Christ has this further result, that it carries with it a false view of faith. Faith is then necessarily conceived in the Catholic manner as the submission of the mind to a proposition on the ground of its authority. But if the Reformation has taught us anything, it is that faith is not assent to a doctrine, but trust in the living God. Faith is no product of our own activity; it is God-created—the result of the contact of the soul with Divine reality. In the Person of Christ, God so reveals Himself to us as to command our reverence, trust, and devotion.
Not a doctrine, therefore, but a life is for Ritschlian theology the medium of Revelation and the object of faith. But the further question arises, What are the facts in the life that clothe it with Divine meaning and power? In traditional theology the main emphasis falls upon the element of the miraculous. This follows necessarily from the position assigned to doctrine. Doctrine is the object of faith, and it is the miraculous facts—Virgin-birth, Miracles, Sinlessness, unique Knowledge of God, bodily Resurrection—that supply the basis for the dogmatic structure. But in the Ritschlian system no importance is attached to the miraculous as such. The attempt to demonstrate the Divine significance of Jesus in a theoretical (or causal) way is abandoned as at once impossible and mistaken. It is not possible, it is maintained, by means of the facts to which traditional theology appeals, to prove scientifically that Jesus cannot be explained by the causes operative in history, and that the hypothesis of a transcendental origin and nature must he brought into the field. Only for faith is a miracle a proof of God’s working; for science it is either an unexplained fact or a deceptive appearance. Moreover, it is not through breaches in the continuity of nature or of history that God makes His presence and activity certain to us. The religious view of nature or history is no product of causal explanation. To faith alone does God reveal Himself, and the judgment that God is in Christ is a judgment of faith. To consider Jesus in the light of a problem that has to be explained is to abandon the religious attitude for the scientific.
The vital facts in Christ’s life are, for Ritschlianism, those that exhibit the living Person, and His activity in His vocation. The Christ who knew God as Father, who never turned aside from doing the Father’s will, who never in the darkest vicissitudes of His life lost His confidence in the Father’s wisdom, power, and love, and who by His faith overcame the world and conquered death; the Christ who, understanding and feeling the evil of sin as none else, in holy love and pity sought out the sinful, making them His companions and opening for them the door into the Kingdom of God, and who for their sakes surrendered His life as an offering, enduring the cross and despising the shame—this is at once the Christ of history and the Christ of faith. His unique consciousness of God and His sinlessness—or, as it is better described, His moral perfection—do not owe their religious importance to their serviceableness as proofs of a transcendental ‘nature’; their importance lies in their inherent worth and power as elements in His personality. That there is something inscrutable in Jesus’ consciousness of God is strongly maintained; only it is not our inability to account for Him that gives Him His religious significance. Similarly the miracles are not to be viewed as proofs, but as exhibiting His gracious activity in His vocation. What of the Resurrection? Within the Ritschlian school there are some who include this as part of the historically given ground of faith. The view of the majority, however, and the one that seems most consistent with the general position, is that belief in Jesus’ eternal existence is rather the final outcome of faith than its preliminary condition. Apart from the difficulties which the Resurrection narratives present, our belief that Jesus lives is not one that rests on human testimony. It depends on the impression produced on us by His Person,—He could not be holden of death (Acts 2:24),—and on our acceptance of His revelation of the Father-God.
The question has been raised whether it is the historical or the exalted Christ that is the object of faith. These alternatives are not, however, so opposed as they seem. Most would admit that our conception of the exalted Christ, if it is not to pass into the region of pure phantasy, must derive its content from the historical life; and also, that the historical Christ must be thought of, not merely as a figure of the past, but as alive for evermore. The exalted Christ is the Christ of history, with the superadded thought that He is not dead but risen, and at the right hand of God.
The gospel, the glad message of God’s Fatherly love and forgiveness, is, according to Ritschlian thought, already given in the simple proclamation of Jesus. To complicate this simple proclamation with doctrine is to pervert it. But this is not to say that Christ has no place in His gospel. In the first place, it is from Christ’s Personality, and from His activity in His vocation, that the gospel derives its meaning. Apart from His ministry of love, our conception of the Fatherly love of God can have but little living content. That historical ministry in its inexhaustible richness stands as the enduring exhibition of what Divine love means. The dogmatic conception of the Father surrendering His eternal Son to death is much poorer as an exhibition of love than the historical reality. So also one can rise to the height of the gospel conception of God’s righteousness and mercy only as one keeps in view the mind and character of Christ, and His treatment of sinners. The reconciliation of these two attributes is not a matter of jurisprudence, as the Atonement doctrine makes it; it is the secret of a personal life. We see them reconciled in the mind and ministry of Jesus, who, undefiled and separate from sinners, yet received them into His fellowship.
But this is not all. In analyzing Christ’s significance, Ritschlian theology attaches even greater importance to the idea of Power. Christ is that fact through which God enters as a force into history, to awaken and sustain faith. It is not natural for us to believe the gospel of God’s forgiveness and Fatherly love and care. Rather does faith arise as a victory over nature. When we contemplate the iron system of mechanical forces and laws that beset us behind and before, and beyond which no theoretical knowledge can conduct us, it is a hard matter to persuade ourselves that these forces and laws are but the angels and ministers of a gracious personal will. It is supremely through Christ that we reach this assurance. He is the Divine fact that so masters us as to convince us that not mechanism, but the Good is the ultimate reality. The spiritual might of God becomes real to us as we contemplate the power of the Good in Jesus’ life. Forgiveness becomes real and guilt becomes real when we feel behind them the throb of Jesus’ holy love. The great redemptive forces—faith, love, self-sacrifice, moral fidelity—have their supreme seat and centre in the Person and life and cross of the man Christ Jesus. We may sum up the position by saying that in Him the will of God for man’s salvation becomes effective.
Such are the three theological types in which the influence of the movement ‘back to Christ’ is most apparent. It would be premature to forecast the ultimate issue of the movement. But one thing is certain. So momentous an event as the recovery of the historical figure of Christ cannot leave theology exactly as it found it.
Literature:—I. (1) Distinction between the historical and dogmatic Christ: Kahler, Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche biblische Christus; Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology, p. 186; Loisy, Autour d’un petit livre, pp. 111, 90, 134; Sabatier, Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion, p. 141 f. (2) Criticism of dogma: Histories of Dogma, by Harnack [English translation], Loots, and A. Dorner; Kattenbusch, Confessions-Kunde; Kaftan, The Truth of the Christian Religion, vol. i.; Fairbairn, op. cit. (3) Religion and history: Harnack, Das Christentum und die Geschichte; O. Kirn, Glaube und Geschichte.
II. (1) Christo-centric theology: Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology, and The Philosophy of the Christian Religion; Denney, Studies in Theology; Forrest, The Christ of History and of Experience.—(2) Religion of Jesus theology: Channing, Sermons on Love to Christ and on Preaching Christ; Seeley, Ecce Homo; A. B. Bruce, With Open Face; The Thinker, 1893, p. 38; Hatch, Hibbert Lectures, 1888, pp. 333, 349, 351; Watson, The Mind of the Master; Tolstoi, My Religion; Harnack, What is Christianity?; J. Weiss, Die Nachfolgc Christi und die Predigt der Gegenwart; Bousset, Wescnder Religion, p. 192 ff.
III. Ritschlianism: Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation; Garvie, Ritschlian Theology; Swing, The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl; Herrmann, The Communion, of the Christian with God, also Ethik, and der Begriff der Offenbarung; Kaftan, Dogmatik.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Back to Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/b/back-to-christ.html. 1906-1918.