The Church and the Kingdom
A New Testament Study
By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
PART VI. CONTEMPORARY SIGNIFICANCE
BEARING ON SOME TENDENCIES OF
THE PRESENT TIME
Abundant suggestions arise in connection with the subject discussed, which it is needless to enumerate in detail, or even to do more than hint at the bearing of those mentioned. There is a growing disposition among theological writers:
1. To follow the bad example of German critics in treating the text of the New Testament as unreliable, and reconstructing the narrative, especially the words of our Lord, from a speculative standpoint. Even Dr. Thayer, in his Lexicon, ventures to improve on the report of Matthew (16:18) by the insinuation that "perhaps the Evangelist employs ten ecclesian, although Christ may have said ten basileian mou." Of course, if the more radical "higher critics" are right, and the text of Scripture is the mere flotsam and jetsam of current legend, caught together and rafted down to us by irresponsible
hands, all opinions or practices based upon the use of specific words, are left defenseless. But we "have not so learned Christ"
2. Closely allied to the habit mentioned is the fashionable tendency to repudiate the authority and importance of the specific doctrine conveyed, even where the language and its meaning are not doubted. Prof. G. B. Adams, of Yale, tells us, in his "Civilization During the Middle Ages," that "the Christian apostle did not demand belief in any system of intellectual truth. The primitive Christianity had apparently no required theology. He did not demand that certain rites and ceremonies should be performed." So that they were to believe without drawing on the intellect, to accept Christ as the Son of God without dabbling in theology, and to be baptized without submitting to any rite!
3. Another feature of current theological speculation is the manifestation of a decided drift toward Universalism. It reveals itself in many ways. New emphasis upon the incarnation of Christ, as of itself either revealing or effecting redemption, wholly apart from his atoning death, is one of its forms of expression. Its catch-words are becoming
familiar: such, for instance, as "the father-hood of God and the brotherhood of man," as the essence of the gospel; or the "solidarity of humanity," as involving necessarily the corporate salvation of the race. Canon Fremantle, in his "World as the Subject of Redemption," plainly says that Paul, in Ephesians 1, speaks of the whole human race, which, he declares, "was chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be the adopted children of God. . . . The purpose of God is absolutely universal." All men, he further says, are undergoing "unconscious and proleptic" processes of regeneration: they "absorb" Christianity from their "environment." There is thus a "substratum of truth" in baptismal regeneration; which, in the case of infants, is an expression of the fact that the "house" as well as the intelligent believer at its head is being saved. The picturesque illustration of this supposed religious brotherhood of the race was a prominent purpose of the famous "World's Parliament of Religions" at Chicago. "In the center," according to the account of an enthusiastic participator, "clad in scarlet robes, and seated in a high chair of state, was Cardinal Gibbons, the
highest prelate of his church in the United States, who, as was fitting in this Columbian year, was to open the meeting with prayer. On either side of him were grouped the Oriental delegates, whose many-colored raiment vied with his own in brilliancy. Conspicuous among these followers of Brahma and Buddha and Mohammed was the eloquent monk Vivekananda of Bombay, clad in gorgeous red apparel," etc. The Lord's Prayer was used by the assembly under the leadership of a Jewish Rabbi, and the benediction of the "eight million deities of Japan" invoked upon those present by a Shinto priest. Thus Christianity took its place as one of the many allied phases of the "absolute religion" in the "universal church" of humanity.
4. Closely associated, and marching easily in line with these conceptions, is that of Christianity as the product of, and destined to reach its completion through, the agency of natural "evolution." The "New Jerusalem," Canon Fremantle assures us, is "not a heavenly state beyond this world," but "a progressively righteous state in this world." Nor is it to be a "society of worship and teaching," for there is to be "no
temple therein." A specious justification of this conception of Christianity as mastering the world by subtle diffusion, without intervening organism or doctrine, is sought in the parable of the leaven; through whose silent permeation the "whole" world is to be "leavened." This figure, it is said, precisely describes the process, and foretells the result, of the steady ripening and broadening of Christian sentiment and the pioneering invasion of outlying nations by Christian culture and civilization. Thus, by purely natural processes, the world is developing into the "kingdom of heaven." Such interpreters are usually conveniently content with this one only of all the "parables of the kingdom": they are careful not to molest, or let themselves be molested by, the fate of the tares or of the bad fish caught in the net. Those who contend for a "scientific evolution" of Christianity seem ordinarily to "understand neither what they say nor whereof they affirm." The evolution they conceive of is not scientific, and the Christianity they would unfold is not Christian. Science can not recognize the supernatural as a factor in its researches; and Christianity is empty of significance without it. To
surrender the incarnation of Deity in Christ, his miracles, his resurrection, the immediate work of the Holy Spirit in man, regeneration, revelation, is to leave an empty husk. But no scientist would claim these as within the range of the natural.
It is obvious that the four vagaries, thus alluded to, start from, and are largely governed by, a common conception. Beginning with the idea of the "kingdom of heaven" as invisible, unorganized, and destined to become universal, and reckoning the "church" as only another name for the same thing, Christianity has been reduced in conception to a kind of atmosphere of sentiment; a vague effluence too ethereal to be formulated into a doctrinal form, or to find concrete expression in a visible organization. Such a Christianity is apt to content itself with the current revelations of the "Christian consciousness" in lieu of the written Word; with the "Christ of to-day" - that is, the ideal Christ - in exchange for the historic person of the Gospel narrative, and with an "immanent" God, scarcely, if at all, distinguishable from the "resident forces" of the physical universe, as a substitute for the living God of Scripture. Of course the individual
church becomes not simply superfluous, but positively obstructive, in such a scheme.
But, aside from these theoretic rhapsodies, there are some movements of a practical character, within and without the churches, which suggest a similar source and drift. Among these we may observe
5. Growing laxity with reference to Christ's ordinances. The Lord's Supper was instituted in connection with the Passover, which was a household ordinance: "No stranger may eat of it." It was from the beginning the center and characteristic expression of the fraternal life of the single church. When the episcopate had crept in, the diocese in due time became the "church." Then the bishop, consecrating the elements in the "cathedral" center, distributed them to the local "parts" of the body. When there came to be a world-bishop, all the members of the one ecumenical church might communicate anywhere in any part thereof lawfully. So came "open communion." Of late denominational assemblies and conglomerate religious bodies of the most heterogeneous composition have spread the household table in the market-place, so to speak. And in many churches the door of admission to the
local table is thrown open to those who belong to the "universal church," or think they do, without either baptism or profession of faith in Christ in any form.
6. A noteworthy phenomenon of the times is the rapid multiplication of newly invented schemes for the prosecution of work alleged either to have been left undone by, or not to be within the province of, the individual church. "Societies," "leagues," "alliances," and the like, have sprung up in swift succession, each aspiring to a world-wide sway in some particular field of activity. It is, perhaps, too early to pronounce upon the net results of some of these movements; and they have been inaugurated by men too far above suspicion of unworthy motives to justify harsh criticism. But sincerity of purpose, or even temporary fruit - fulness of good, should not exempt any novelty from cautious inquiry as to its natural tendencies. If our Lord intended the local church to be the normal object of personal affection and field of personal activity, we must look with jealousy upon any actual rival, whether or not rivalry be admitted or disavowed. The question naturally arises whether under the law of gravitation,
which holds alike in the social as in the physical world, a body revolving loyally around a smaller center can come within the sweep of a larger, and not be disturbed in its proper orbit. Will the local attachment and steady efficiency of the individual disciple be best promoted by dependence for freshened enthusiasm upon the feverish impulse of an occasional monster meeting, and by looking for spiritual guidance to official utterances from a remote organic center? Will the absorption into a common treasury, of funds enough to defray the expenses of great assemblies, national or international; the establishment of a costly newspaper organ; the payment of salaries and of sending its officials round the world - in nowise deplete the resources of affiliated churches, or divert them from more aggressive forms of Christian work? It is possible that good may, on the whole, result: it is certain that a tremendous kind of agency for good or ill here awaits the test of time.
7. "Christian socialism" may be referred to in this connection. Professor Herron and his colleagues never weary in denouncing the "institutional church" as utterly failing to comprehend its mission. The "kingdom
of heaven" is, according to their theory, not to be brought in by the sentimental process of "saving souls," but by improving tenement-houses and revolutionizing our social arrangements.
They agree substantially with Canon Fremantle, that "the prayer 'Thy will be done' leads directly into politics." The business of Christians, according to the learned Canon, is "to make the kingdoms of this world into kingdoms not of this world." Save the ship, and the passengers will be thereby saved. When the "kingdom of England" has, through wise legislation, been transformed into a local "kingdom of heaven," the "worshiping church" will have completed its provisional work and become effete. "Civilization has now reached a point at which the eyes of all Christian men should be turned distinctly in the direction of the universal church, with a view to its organization" (by turning all civil governments into a confederate "kingdom of heaven.") How simple and feasible - especially in view of the present millennial attitude of these inchoate "kingdoms of heaven"! From the days of John the Baptist men have been seeking to bring in the Kingdom of heaven
by violence. They have been determined to hasten the growing mustard-tree by heaving at its roots. And too often they have listened to Satan's temptation, which Christ refused; hastening to set up the Devil's kingdom in Christ's name, or to "weed the garden of the Lord with Satan's borrowed dibble."
8. The same passion for consolidation which has produced "trusts" in finance, and "imperialism" in politics, seems to have infected the Christian realm. The worship of ancient Pan has revived. We have had pan-Presbyterian, pan-Congregational, and other ecumenical assemblies, as before noted; to say nothing of the "World's Parliament of Religions," which, in view of its large representation of the heathen gods, might aptly have been called pandemonium. It has been soberly proposed, according to the newspapers, to organize a "religious trust" in Maine, to prevent sectarian squandering in the establishment of churches. For denom-inationalism has been widely denounced as the chief hindrance to the more rapid advance of Christianity at home and abroad. It seems to be forgotten that this first denominational century is the great century
of missionary conquest. Such competent observers as Philip Schaff and Theodore Christlieb assure us that the coincidence is logical and not casual.
The sermon on "The Talisman of Unity," before mentioned, was preached in the new five-million-dollar cathedral now building for the "Bishop of New York" (where the rival Roman Catholic claimant of the same title already has his "throne" in like imposing structure, flanked by a gorgeous marble "palace" for his private occupancy). The new cathedral, located in an aristocratic section of the city, is designed, as has been explained, to show to the whole population, by its massiveness and splendor, how great and beneficent a thing Christianity is. Meanwhile "local churches" among the starving and bemired population of the "submerged" districts have, one by one, "folded their tents, like the Arabs, and silently stolen away," because of lack of financial resources.
The sermon referred to, preached in the crypt beneath the apse of the great building, refers to the "chapels of the tongues" which are to radiate from the apse above, as symbolic of its cosmopolitan function and purpose. Mere unity of sentiment, the preacher
argues, is an "iridescent dream," if taken as the realization of the "universal church." That must be an actuality, with a real organization and a real nucleus of control. What better than the "Apostles' Creed" and the "Historic Episcopate"? for the Episcopal Church shelters happily under her wing the Romanizing ritualist and the intolerant Puritan.
Professor Shields (who afterward gravitated from the Presbyterian to the Episcopal body) hoped for a consolidation of Christendom which would take in "those Unitarian churches which express the flower of Puritan culture, as well as the great Roman Catholic Church, which is already in the lead on such social questions as marriage, temperance, education and property." The "iridescent dream" of a universal Church will, then, when realized, take in one group which refuses to exclude from its pulpits those who "can not conscientiously believe in God," and another who worship a piece of bread!
The often urged notion that a "united front" of Protestantism against Romanism, or of Christianity against heathenism, will be irresistible, is itself a relic of heathenism.
It is the old "trusting in horses and chariots," which the Scripture condemns. No massing of inherent weakness can bring strength. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord."
More on Jesse Thomas
Baptist History Homepage