Something a Man Can Believe: Studies in how to get the best out of Life

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Jesus the Christ

From “Something a Man can Believe in”: Studies in how to get the best out of life, by Alfred Gifford, Robert Dey & Son, Sydney, 1945, p.37, 41-57.

The Appeal of Jesus

Jesus evidently had no belief in the theory of totally depraved individuals. His aim was not to make people feel wicked and sensual. Rather He appealed to the better self, that is, the divine element in human nature. It was when they responded to this that they felt shame and saw their sins. It is this divine element, “the light that lighteth every man,” that is the Real Man. Every man has some thing of God in him. He is still a child of God, even when, like the prodigal of Jesus’ parable, he has wilfully gone wrong…

The Cross and Manhood

Because self-surrender is the way to self realisation, the Cross has become the Christian symbol of life. It has been often misread and misused. A species of teaching, alien to the New Testament, while using its terms, has grown up. The idea of clinging to the Cross, or hiding behind the Cross from the justice of God, has been taught. Salvation has been conceived as an idea of “getting off,” and, at its lowest, of escaping something called Hell. God has been taught as a Shylock who demands, as a condition of His forgiving sins, that someone must ‘pay the debt,” or suffer pain instead of the wrongdoer. Such theories tend to make men cowards, not MEN. We are “redeemed through judgment,” as Isaiah said, not by escaping it. Men reach their stature, not by evading pain, but by bearing it. Hence Jesus demands that each one must take up and bear his Cross. The Apostle Paul teaches the way to become our real selves is to be “crucified with Christ.” To share Jesus’ Cross is to follow Him to the point of absolute surrender to God, to suffer and do His will; and in daily life to suffer for and with others by sharing their pain and helping them to bear their load. Thus men are made by the real man emerging through practising the Principle of the Cross.


…Jesus is, at least, the greatest person of History. One writer of a study of Jesus expresses what everyone who seeks to know Jesus feels. He says: “When we absorb our selves in the contemplation of that figure we feel a great uprising of spirit. For there we touch indeed upon the foundations of our own spiritual and personal existence.’’ The interest of modern man in Jesus is shown by the fact that more “Lives of Christ’’ and studies of him have been published in our time than in all the earlier centuries of Christian history. If anyone asks, why another study? my reply is that I know of no one book or study in which all that I think you ought to know is to be found. It is not too much to say that we know or may know the real Jesus of history better than people of any other age, The period of history, from 8 B.C., when Jesus was born, to A.D. 30, when He was crucified, has been so illuminated by the searchlights of scholarly enquiries that He has been rediscovered. We live in the days of the Renascence of Jesus. The literature of His time, much of which has been recently discovered, has been carefully studied. Books that Jesus and His disciples probably knew and read have been searched, until the thought-circle in which they lived, and their times and customs, are known as never before.

Sources of Knowledge

The chief existing source of our knowledge of Jesus is the Gospel according to St. Mark, as it is called in our English Version. Both “Matthew” and “Luke” make this the basis of their gospels, adding precious sayings, parables and incidents in the life of Jesus that they were able to secure. The ‘Gospel according to St. John” is not the history of the life of Jesus in the way the other three Gospels are. It is a theological study designed to show that Jesus was “the Son of God,” that is, the true Messiah. It adds many precious passages to our knowledge, but it is hard, if not impossible, to harmonise the Jesus of this Gospel with Jesus as He appears in the other three. It is not the mere fact that the Jesus of “John” speaks in long’ and involved discourse, and loves allegories. That an ancient writer should put into the mouth of his subject a speech that he never delivered was common. It was a common way of summarising his ideas or teaching. The simple fact is that ‘‘John’’ has not the same purpose as the other gospels, which have for numerous generations been termed the Synoptic gospels, which means, broadly, that they all three look at or tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.

Lost Gospels

There were many attempts made to tell the story of Jesus and to record His teaching. In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel reference is made to these. Taking notes was a common practice in Jesus’ day. People could buy sheets of papyrus in the shops much as we buy note paper now. There is very little probability that we shall recover any of these friable notes unless they had been carried to Egypt and became buried in the sands of a rainless climate. This sand has preserved many ancient papyri. But in the climate of Palestine such notes have gone to dust and decay long ago.

The Unrecognised King

Jesus was not important enough to be known by contemporary writers of that period. There are some authentic references in Tacitus and Josephus to His followers. But many years after His death important men did not know even how to spell His name correctly. Indeed, a modern scholar suggests that the first news many people in the Roman Empire had of him was through His followers upsetting the meat market by refusing to buy from the butchers meat that had been offered in sacrifice in heathen temples. There are references in early Christian history to memoirs of Jesus, and groups of His sayings. These, almost certainly, formed the basis of the synoptic gospels as we know them.

Biblical Criticism

When we turn to the Gospels, which are our sources of knowledge, we find what is called “critical study,” that is, careful historical study, necessary. Happily, competent scholars have spent many years of work that we may know what Jesus did and taught, from what people, after His death, thought or imagined he must have taught. Their work has been carried out with such thoroughness that we may depend confidently on the results of their enquiries. In early days people had not the same literary conscientiousness as that now common in Christian lands. They did not hesitate to interpolate words or sentences of their own in ancient books. In view of this it is interesting to note that there is only one pious fraud in the whole of the New Testament, where some man who wanted to manufacture evidence for the later doctrine of the Trinity added an unauthorised passage in one of the Epistles of John (1 John 5:7). It is omitted in the Revised Version.

The Gospels—Private Documents

That there have been additions to the original gospels is well known. It would appear that at one period there was only a single copy of Mark’s Gospel in existence. The last leaf (or leaves) of that copy was lost. So someone very early added a short conclusion, and some other unknown person added a longer conclusion to complete the book. Both of these are given in our English Version. The Revised Version leaves a space to show these additions. It has to be remembered that originally the gospels were private documents. Not until about the fourth century did they become fully official documents that must not be altered. They were, of course, written by hand. If the owner of a manuscript was told a saying of Jesus that he believed authentic, or heard of an incident he believed to be true, he would hasten gladly to add it to his copy. This may possibly explain what is often termed The Great Commission near the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28:19). The direction to preach the gospel to every creature and baptise in the threefold name is supposed to have been spoken by Jesus. It is evident that the Apostle Paul had never heard of it. If he had he would have ended the persecutions and the hindrances of Jewish-minded Christians in a moment, instead of suffering them for a life-time. Also there is not one instance in the New Testament of anyone being baptised in the threefold name. Obviously Jesus did not give such a direction, but someone thought he must have done it, because of the later practice of the churches. These facts are noted simply to show how necessary careful and critical study is. We are greatly indebted to a body of scholars, called Biblical critics, who are often denounced by ignorant Christians. What is called biblical criticism is simply more competent, scholarly and conscientious study of the Bible than that common among professedly Christian people.

No Records of Childhood

When we turn to our earliest authority, Mark’s Gospel, to enquire concerning Jesus, the first fact that strikes us is that it begins by recording Jesus’ public ministry. The author either did not know anything of Jesus’ birth and boyhood and home-life, or he did not think it worth recording. Incidental references that Jesus was the son of a village carpenter, and that the family lived in Nazareth, are made in the course of the story. Later on, unrestrained Christian imagination filled the gaps. A number of what are known as Gospels of the In fancy appeared. In these Jesus is made out to be a wonder-child. They tell of Joseph cutting a piece of timber too short for the work in hand, and that Jesus miraculously pulled it out to the required length. Another story relates how Jesus made birds of clay, then clapped His hands, giving them life, so that they flew away.

The Rainbows of Legends

When “Matthew’’ and “Luke’’ wrote their gospels they evidently could get no authentic history of Jesus’ early life. Luke did find one story of the time when Jesus must have been about twelve years of age. Hence their gospels are prefaced by a number of beautiful legends concerning a star that appeared, wise men who came to seek, and shepherds who heard heavenly music. One of these stories they gathered and wrote down became very important in the history of the church. The story is that of the Virgin birth. It is not referred to in any other part of the New Testament. Matthew’s brief account and Luke’s more extended one are all we have. Either other writers of the New Testament did not want it, or thought it of no importance. It was almost inevitable that such a story should be told of one who impressed people as Jesus did. A like story is told of the Buddha: there is an Annunciation and a Virgin birth. People could not imagine that those so great could be born in the ordinary way. If any proof were wanted that it is only a tradition it may be found in the oldest stratum of the gospel story. There it appears that so far from believing in Him, Mary, His Mother, went with His brothers, when Jesus was teaching, to apprehend Him, thinking He was mad. Later on, to prove the virginity of Mary, a bit of history had to be faked, making out that Joseph was an old man, and that Jesus’ brothers were only step-brothers. This was done in spite of Jesus being called Mary’s first born son. Again later Christian imagination let itself go, and Mary was supposed to be a believer, and the movement did not stop until she became Queen of Heaven, and finally “Mother of God.”

Why Legends Arose

It is no wonder that a rainbow of legends should be thrown around the story of Jesus. When we consider His personality, His strange power that men of His day felt, His insight, His utter selflessness, and above all His revelation of the innermost of the Universe; with His sense of God, and the fact that somehow those who came close to Him sensed God in His presence, we can see they were inevitable. Just in the same way it was inevitable that thoughtful people should want to know where to place Jesus in the scale of being. The author of what we call John’s Gospel, whom honest enquiry reveals as a learned Alexandrian Jew, and not the disciple of John, is only the first fruit of the questing brains of devout men.

Is Jesus God or Man?

The question cannot be avoided. Who is this Jesus? In His own day the intellectual question was whether He was one of the old prophets returned or the Messiah. Their moral question was whether He was a true messenger of God or someone only misleading them. In the process of time the question changed to whether He was man or God. Such was the esteem of Him that quite early in the history of the Christian Church He was almost lost to sight as a man. There was a theory, even within the first century, that He was a mysterious being from another sphere taking the form of man, but really in essence a divinity. His nature and status were greatly discussed later on, and belief concerning it was supposed to have been fixed in the fourth century by the Nicene Creed. That Creed represents a majority decision in a conference of bishops gathered to fix the doctrine of the Christian Church, especially in regard to Jesus. The majority ratified the Creed in order to keep certain people out of the church. The discussion went on for a long time over one word, whether Jesus was of the same nature as God or of a like nature to God. Finally the half-heathen Emperor Constantine decided what should be orthodoxy. After the majority decision had phrased the Nicene Creed so that Arius and his followers were kept out of the church, which had become rich and powerful, “orthodox” ecclesiastics went so far as to alter even an old doxology of the Christian churches, “Glory be to the Father by the Son through the Holy Ghost,” into the doxology, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” This was definitely in order that they might make their victory complete by making it impossible for the people they hated to join in the worship of the orthodox Christian Church.

Human and Divine

Today the form of the problem has changed. The men who went to Nicea to discuss the person of Christ had the underlying idea that human nature was one thing and divine nature another thing, and that they were as different and distinct as black from white. That type of thinking, I am persuaded, has largely passed. We are sure that humanity in its essential nature is spirit. Man is a spirit using a body, and God is spirit, and these two spirits are not of different but of the same nature… It is not a question really whether Jesus is human or divine; it is only a question of, if I may put it, intensity and quality of spirit. God is spirit, and we, in our essential nature, are spirit. We find in the person of Christ, for the only time in history, someone of whom you cannot say where the human ends and the divine begins. As Tennyson said, “The highest human nature is divine.’’

Christology Not Essential

All this may be more or less puzzling to ordinary people, but it is not essential for a Christian to think about Jesus according to this, or according to any of the standards that have been set up. Jesus never put Himself before the world as a problem to be solved, but as a master to be followed. I know our churches have had what are called orthodox doctrines concerning Jesus, and have denied to people the right to the term Christian unless they think of Jesus in their way. They have no right to do this. Nobody has any right to define how people should think of Jesus in order to be recognised as a Christian. As a matter of fact, in the earliest Christian Church people had very many different ideas about Christ. The bond of their unity was that they all believed in Him as the manifestation of God. They were one, not in thinking the same about Him, but in following Him. Our churches, which have made it mandatory that certain thoughts about Jesus should be accepted, if they are to win the world, will have to go back, or forward, to recognise that He is not a problem to be solved but a Master to be followed. The popular idea, that finds its completest expression in the Athanasian Creed, where it is claimed that people will perish ever lastingly unless they accept certain ideas about Christ, which it calls the Catholic Faith, is something we have to challenge in the name of Christian freedom. Jesus makes no merely intellectual demands, but He does ask loyalty in following Him. It may be added that as we go back and come in touch with Jesus as He really was on earth, we shall find that many credal conceptions of Jesus are not based upon the real Jesus who lived and lives, but are only misleading ideas dressed up to represent Him.

Pictures of Jesus

The loveliest illustration I know of this is shown in Holman Hunt’s beautiful painting, where Jesus is depicted in a long white robe, wearing a crown of thorns, and carrying a lantern. That picture is a painter’s idea. It is not in any sense a portrait of Jesus. Those eyes are the eyes of someone who sat as a model, and Jesus never walked about in that way. If you see it as a picture of an idea, it becomes inspiring, but as an attempt to represent Jesus it is thoroughly misleading. The fact is we have no authentic portrait of Jesus. Of the supposed portraits, some even included in Bibles, it may be said, as John Masefield said of the portraits we have of Shakespeare, “they are false as water.” The same thing may be said of the Christ of the historic creeds. He is merely, in them, a theological idea. The earliest Christians tried wisely to signify Jesus by symbols, such as a sheep, or a dove, or a fish. It was very many centuries before any body dared to make a picture of Jesus. When they did they gave Him a face of a pagan god carved by Phidias. Then you find this strange thing if you study the history of Christian art, that Jesus loses His winsomeness, there is a steady deterioration in the painters’ ideas about him, which reached its climax in Michelangelo’s picture in “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican at Rome. There Jesus is depicted, not only as beardless, but as a muscular young- giant crushing down sinners to eternal doom. The popular picture of Jesus is really the portrait of an Italian model, by an Italian painter. In no instance are we looking at Jesus, but only at some painter’s notion of Him.

How to See Jesus

The gospels are so brief, fragmentary and imperfect that no complete biography of Jesus can be written. Yet the fact is that those who soak themselves in the synoptic gospels find a Person emerging out of the mist of the years, so winsome that they can understand why men left their homes and their means of livelihood just to be with Him. It will not be the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the child’s prayer, but a dominating personality who seeks to serve, yet rules by selflessness, endurance, courage, insight and love. He will grow upon us until we understand why His followers have sought the highest terms in the speech of man to describe Him. He will be found teaching a religion that is simply a disclosure of the spiritual laws of the Universe and a call to square our life with them. It cannot he outmoded, but only better understood and followed. This religion makes no priestly demands, it asks no blind acceptance, hut offers only that which may be put to the test in living and which satisfies the soul.

The Greatest Fact

Best of all He is not far away and unattainable, but a brother man who leads on to the marvel of sharing His experience. He is the Son of God, and He seeks to make us consciously Sons of God, and to enter in some measure, according to our capacity, into His oneness with God. The practical issue is that His greatness does not separate Him from us, for He gives us hope that despite our failures and sins we may become one with Him as He is with the Father. To this end He seeks, not our adoration, but our discipleship.