MR. ROBERTSON'S THEOLOGY.* [SEcoND NOTICE.]
M.B. ROBERTSON'S theology had its earliest origin in the most fer- vent and personal form of the so-called ' evangelical' thought, • 14fe and Letters of Frederick W. Robertson, U.S.,Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. Edited by. Stopford A. Brooke, M.A., Into Chaplain to the Malmsey at Berlin. 2 rola, with Portraits. London: Smith, Elder, and co.180.
escaping from its primitive narrowness by the help of his wide culture and poetic feeling, and escaping less completely from its dangerous tendency to self-conscious scrutiny through the almost military conception of his duty as a ' soldier of Christ,' which for a few months during his Oxford life even attracted him towards the standard of the great Tractarian leader Dr. Newman. No external law of belief, no command to believe, on external autho- rity, that which did not take a strong hold of his own heart, could ever really gain Mr. Robertson's assent, for he learnt to understand early, and never ceased to feel, how fictitious is the pretence of voluntarily surrendering to another human authority that power of determining your special convictions which, if it really had that power, it could, like God Himself, make you
feel involuntarily, and without any unmeaning act of mental prostration. Mr. Robertson felt, even as a young man at college, that the duty of obedience to the external divine will applied to actions, and not to thoughts, which can obey only the subduing power of the divine inspiration. Never- theless the keen military spirit which throughout his life made the command " to endure hardness as a true soldier of Christ " a never-failing spring of external activity, did not a little to balance the undue tension of inward excitement which the demands of the evangelical pietism make upon sincere minds. In his curacy at Winchester he belonged to the purest school of evangelical piety, and in one of those private prayers which we almost shrink from seeing published, but being published it seems natural to quote as the true fountain of all Mr. Robertson's later and far wider theo- logy, he prays, "Take what I cannot give, my heart, body, thoughts, time, abilities, money, health, strength, nights, days, youth, age, and spend them in thy service, oh, my crucified Master, Redeemer, God !"--and all were taken rather than given, and much more than he had then to give,—for his intellect was at that time still immature, and had not broken the bonds of that Scriptural infallibility which is only nobler than ecclesiastical infallibility because from its greater elasticity it usually has gone much nearer than the latter towards conquer- ing convictions instead of exacting a dry intellectual submission. When this outer shell of superstition had decayed, and yielded to the deeper and wider trust, proper to so fine a nature, in the natural as well as supernatural channels of God's inspiration, Mr. Robertson's early system was dissolved into its elements, and in 1846 and 1847 it was for a time uncertain whether he would ever again accept duty as a clergyman. As he himself tells us, there was a short period about this time when nothing seemed certain to him except the absolute antagonism between duty and sin, and it was only through the intensity with which he realized the claims of the eternal righteousness within him that he recovered his per- sonal faith in Christ, and regained such a belief in the teaching of the Church as enabled him to resume his duties.
_ But even the latest and maturest form of his faith always retained both a token of its earliest type in a somewhat morbid tendency to self-analysis, and still more remarkably a sign of the temporary chaos into which his mind had fallen in that transcendental habit of thought, so well known to the pupils of Professor Jowett, of affirming that in all the great disputes of philosophy and theology both the rival antitheses are true, instead of any via media between the two. Thus, he would say that the necessarian argument was unanswerable, and the consciousness of freedom complete, and the only true method was to affirm both :- " All is free,' ho says : ' that is false ; all is fated—that is false. All things are free and fated—that is true. I cannot overthrow the argument of the man who says that everything is fated, .or, in other words, that God orders all things, and cannot change that order. If I had not met a certain person, I should not have changed my profession: if I had not known a certain lady, I should not probably have met this person : if that lady had not had a delicate daughter who was dis- turbed by the barking of my dog : if my dog had not barked that night, I should now have been in the Dragoons, or fertilizing the soil of India. Who can say, that these things were not ordered, and that, apparently, the merest trifles did not produce failure and a marred existence ?' " Aud the same transcendental method he applied habitually to all the greater moral and theological controversies. It is a theory which seems to us a mere recognition of chaos, and lees a solu- tion of such problems than the expression of a hope that some solution may yet be found reconciling phenomena which, taken separately, would suggest opposite solutions, and taken together only suggest a paradox. That, however, is the noblest and sincerest attitude possible to a mind unable to rest in half-troths, and unable to master the whole.
The point on which Mr. Robertson's theology did attain its clearest and noblest certainty, —a point, moreover, on which the evangelicism of his earlier career was most dangerously and pro- foundly in error, —was the conviction that the Spirit of God is not limited by human incapacity to recognize it, that it is spread abroad among millions who have no knowledge of it, that divine influence is far wider than human worship and always prior to it, that those who have not yet found God, though obeying many of His divine impulses, can never be said to be "without God in the world." In one of his finest letters he shows how completely he had thrown off that narrow and miserable limitation which the evangelical creed puts upon the Divine Spirit by denying its influence wherever our blind eyes are not awake enough to detect it :—
" I think there is perhaps a difference in our views of brotherhood, but in words more than in reality. I could not say that one man is not neighbour to another, except so far as they recognize the Father. Nor could I say that they are not brethren, except in Christ, and as re- cipients of His Spirit. I believe brotherhood and neighbourhood to be real, prior to the acceptance of these truths—real, not realized, but yet to be realized as a duty. And the realization of them leads to the higher, truer union—union in Christ. The Samaritan was neighbour to the Jew by benevolence, whether the Jew recognized it or not, and whether the Samaritan was, or was not, distinctly conscious of their re- lation to a common Father. A man as man, is the child of God; and one child is brother to another, whether they are conscious of their heritage relationship or not."
And still more finely he shows in a later letter how profoundly he had realized the truth that God is infinitely greater than human faith in Him :—
" I think we shall bacons content to wait—a great lesson ; and let God teach us by degrees, instead of fancying we can find it all out by effort. Do you remember Wordsworth's-
' Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum Of things for ever speaking, That nothing of itself will come, But wo must still be seeking ?'
We do not trust God ; we trust ourselves. We do not believe that He seeks us • we fancy wo have to seek Him. We are anxious to know all about Gc:d, and meanwhile we never think of knowing God. God, instead of religion, and much more, God, instead of theology, is what we need to believe in . . . . . I myself follow this plan as much as possi- ble. I mix little with the religious world, and so avoid discussion. I read little of divinity, much more of literature, though that, from men- tal prostration, is now next to nothing. And I try to trust in God—God and our souls ; there is nothing else to trust to. And I am sure I should be giving you dreary advice were I to say, read on all sides of the question. No, I rather say ; trust in God—live in Him—do His will—and rest."
And he applied the same faith to his exposition of the doctrine of baptism. Baptism was not, he said, a testimony to a moral and conscious change in man, as one school believes, for it bears witness to a deeper and more certain truth than any resting upon human self-analysis,—nor is it a magical process by which a change is effected, as the sacerdotal theory affirms,—it is the mere proclamation to the world of the fact of which we are all in danger of losing sight, that every child is a child of God's by, nature, and yet needs deliberate claiming as such and training as such if the many dangers which are likely to divert him from his true destiny are to be avoided. He valued baptism because it solemnly proclaimed and realized an existing spiritual fact, not because it either marked or effected a change in the nature of the baptized.
On the subject of Inspiration Mr. Robertson had gained a range of thought at least as wide as that which the criticism of the last twelve years since his death has gradually forced upon all the profoundest Christian intellects. " I think," he says, " it comes to this : —God is the Father of Lights, and—the King in his beauty, and—the Lord of Love. All our several degrees of knowledge attained in these departments are from Him. One department is higher than another ; in each department, too, the degree of knowledge may vary from a glimmering glimpse to infallibility : so that all is properly inspiration, but immensely differing in value and in degree. If it be replied that this degrades inspiration by classing it with things so common, the answer is plain : a sponge and a man are both animals, but the degrees between them are almost incalculable." In other words, he extends the work of the Holy Spirit, that is unrecognized by us, far beyond the range of that of which we are conscious, and makes the conscious' ecognition of it merely the high-tide mark, as it were, of divine influence on the soul of man. Nor does any theologian put the argument in favour of scientific error in the Bible on stronger or higher ground than Mr. Robertson :— 'I hold that a spiritual revelation from God must involve scientific incorrectness ; it could not be from God unless it did. Suppose that the cosmogony had been given in terms which would satisfy our pre- sent scientific knowledge, or, say, rather the terms of absolute scientific truth. It is plain that, in this case, the men of that day would have rejected its authority ; they would have said, Here is a man who tells us the earth goes round the sun ; and the sky, which we see to be a stereoma fixed and not far up, is infinite space, with no firmament at all, and so on. Can we trust one in matters unseen who is manifestly in error in things seen and level to the senses ? Can we accept his revela- tion about God's native and man's duty, when he is wrong in things
like these ?' Thus, the faith of this and subsequent ages intuit have been purchased at the expense of the unbelief of all previous ages. I hold it, therefore, as a proof of inspiration of the Bible, and divinely wise, to have given a spiritual revelation, i. a, a revelation concerning the truths of the soul and its relation to God, in popular and incorrect language."
But this argument is of course inapplicable to the historical errors of Scripture.
On the subject of the Atonement Mr. Robertson's language is somewhat less profound. He held very strongly to a kind of popular equivalent for the doctrine of "imputed righteousness," maintaining that as we regard the Thames in Oxfordshire as in some sense identical with the Thames at London and the Nore, so God regards man as just (" justify," he said, meant accounted just,' not 'made just ') through their faith, because faith in God is the spring of all human righteousness, as the Thames at Oxford is the spring of the Thames at London. We do not think this consis tent with his own admission that divine inspiration is far wider than man's recognition of it, because if that be true, our faith in God is not the spring of all human righteousness, but God Himself is the true spring of much which precedes faith. When St. Paul speaks of Abraham's faith being &moan ted to him for righteousness," he cer- tainly did not even hint that conscious trust is the condition of every righteous act. And when he says that men are justified (that as we understand it, "made just") by faith, and not by works, he only tells us how much, how infinitely deeper and purer, trust in God is than external achievements due to trust in self. Mr. Robertson's doctrine of "imputed righteousness" is scarcely the deepest part of his theology.
Nor do we wholly agree with his favourite principle, at least in the sense in which we understand him to have held it, that belief in the divine character of Christ's humanity must be antecedent to belief in its divine origin. Mr. Robertson read with deep admiration and sympathy the writings of such Unitarians as Channing and Mr. Martineau, and though his faith in personal communion with Christ, in prayer to Christ, was an essential of his belief, which distinguished him from the Unitarians, he apparently held that the natural progress of conviction was upwards from profound reverence for Christ's human nature to the of the Incarnation. When some Roman Catholic remarked to him on the coldness of Protestantism, saying, " The Protestants wor- ship Christ, but none of them love Him," "I was silent," writes Mr. Robertson, "but the result of a scrutiny into my own mind was that, with an exception, I scarcely love any one or anything else, and that not because of any reference to His love for me, which somehow or other never enters into my mind, but solely in consequence of what He is and was, according at least to my con- ception of Him and His mind and heart." And, as we believe, the whole tenure of the life proves this to be strictly true, almost too true, for the solitude in which Mr. Robertson's inner nature lived was something almost unnatural. Probably he supposed that be gained this absorbing feeling for Christ purely byreasoning from the human Christ of the Gospels to the divine life which could alone
have inspired it. We cannot but think this a profound error,—for we think we trace throughout his life the evidence that the assump- tion of the Incarnation pervaded him even during the chaos of his year of doubt, and revived in full force as his faith came out afresh. And the truth we believe to be, that that inward assumption inspired by the deepest part of his earliest faith, could never have been gained, has never been gained, by any one, by merely studying the human life of Christ. The eternal origin of the Son of Man is declared in the Gospels, and by St. Paul, and no doubt the biographies of Christ are all that we should expect if it were true ; but if the declara- tion itself did not appeal to a feeling in the heart quite distinct from any mere admiration for a perfect humanity, if it did not answer that yearning for a living bridge between the
eternal world and that of human history, if the story of the In- carnation did not seem the natural climax of all previous history, and a pledge such as our whole nature craves that divine Truth has a personal life of its own, which seeks us instead of waiting to be sought by us, no delight in the beauty of Christ's life could lead any one to speak of Him as having come down from God, and taken upon Himself the form of a servant. It was not by divine aspiration that Mr. Robertson reached the fervour of his love for Christ. It was the belief that an eternal king bad come from God to claim him, which pervaded his time of deepest doubt, and which could alone have given that intense and minute insight into the spirit of our Lord's human existence betrayed in every sermon and almost every act of his life. It was the life that
came from God which filled hie heart, not the lila that was bound thither,