DEAN CHURCH ON THE DISCIPLINE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER.*
OF all existing exponents of Revelation known to the present
writer, the Dean of St. Paul's seems to him to enter most pro- foundly into its spirit, and to exhibit that spirit with the highest power. This little volume contains the five sermons preached in St. Paul's Cathedral in August last, during Dr. Liddon's illness, and to one of them,—the sermon on the particular phase of the spiritual character represented in the Psalms and the Prophets,—we called attention at the time, for its singular force and beauty. Yet, on re-reading them all, we are by no means sure that we should single out that sermon, beautiful as it is, for its unique force. The whole series is, indeed, hardly less remarkable, as a whole, than any one part. A more striking outline of the gradual development of the elements of the Christian character, in its germ, in its stem, in its blossom, and in its fruit, has never been sketched by literary skill so great, inspired by so profoundly Christian a spirit. The Dean looks at the whole of Revelation as having one intention,—namely, to develop in man the character of Jesus Christ,—an intention the execution of which began long before the ideal character in which it was to end was visible to, or even anticipated by, created beings.
He treats God's revelation of himself to Abraham as the first distinct step in that discipline, the first in that it made Abraham realise his individual relation, and his indi- vidual responsibility to God, as it was very difficult for any man in that early age of the world to realise his dis- tinct and individual life at all, and most of all his distinct and individual life in relation to the all-powerful being who was regarded in so many ancient religions as en- grossing and absorbing in himself all his worshippers. It is curious that the danger on which Dean Church insists as
the especial danger of early ages of the world, when, in face of the many perils which then encompassed man, the tribe was the unit of life, rather than the individual, should now again be upon us as a consequence of those false and misleading philoso- phies which treat humanity and nationality as aggregates, instead of treating either as made up of individual souls. Here is the striking passage in which Dean Church sketches those features of the ancient world which made it so difficult for men to regard themselves as individually responsible for their own acts. The Dean insists first on,— " the singleness, the solitariness of the human soul, compared with all other things in the world about it; its independence, and its greatness. This is to us the most elementary of commonplaces. It has become part of the first axioms and presuppositions in our received conceptions of religion ; we cannot imagine religion without assuming it. But this great idea was not always as distinct and natural as it has come to be to us. It was once confused, imperfect, obscure. In the early days of the world it seemed much more natural to look upon men, not singly, but in great groups, or kindrede, or tribes. The individual, in his place on earth and his passage through life, was regarded as a part of a whole to which he belonged, for weal or woe, for preservation or destruction. His separate existence was of small account : the limb takes its importance from the body, the branch from the tree. 'When we examine the ancient mind all the world over,' writes Dr. Mczley, 'one very remarkable want is apparent in it—viz., a true idea of the individuality of man ; an adequate conception of him as an independent person, a substantial being in himself, whose life and existence was his own.' 'Society.' says another writer, ' in primitive times was not what it is assumed to be at present, a collection of individuals. In fact, and in view of the men who composed it, it was an aggregation of families.' 'One peculiarity always distinguished the infancy of society. Men are regarded and treated, not as individuals, but always as members of a particular group The family relation was the narrowest and most personal relation in which a man stood ; nor, paradoxical as it may seem, was be ever regarded as himself, as a distinct individual. His individuality was swallowed up in his family.' Strange 88 this often seems to us, it was not strange once; nor is it so unnatural as it seems now. The first outlook on the world is not one to enforce the importance of the individual. We see in it vast masses of men, streaming, drifting, like huge clouds, across the scene of time, and answering to the vast aggregates of inanimate nature—to the leaves which make up the foliage of the forest, to the blades of grass which cover the face of the pastures, to the raindrops in which the storm comes down for miles over the lands, the particles of water which fill the sea, the grains of sand which build up its shores. These great masses of human society remain, while certainly the individual, even the greatest, soon goes where he is no more seen. The poet watches with melancholy perplexity the continuity and permanence of nature. 'The form remaius, the function never dies,' of the running water :— • The Discipline of the Christian Character. By B. W. Church, Dean of St. Paul's. London : Macmillan and Co.
Still glides the stream, and shall not cease to glide While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise. We men must vanish.'
That is the first, and that is still one real aspect of human life. We, each of us, one by one, are lost in the innumerable crowd of our fellow-men. Half our thoughts are still of man in the aggregate : the nation, the city, the public, the class, the interest. We cannot break through the natural limitations of the human imagination. In half our thoughts we ignore the man in the function—he is to us the servant, the workman, the soldier, the office-bearer : of the man, the soul, the character, his joys, his sins, his hopes, we know nothing. Of the numbers who perish in a great battle, or are swept away in daily crowds by a great epidemic, how little do we think of each separate person, his separate history, and character, and sufferings, all the long process each has gone through since he was a little child, to the last fatal moment when he passed with so many others from life. No wonder the instinctive self-deceit still often comes into men's minds, against which the son of Sirach warns us—' say not thou, I
will hide myself from the Lord I shall not be remembered among so many people: for what is my soul among such an infinite number of creatures ?' "
The Dean traces the development of this individuality of the soul in the presence of God, as it was enforced on Abraham, down to the fully realised teaching of Ezekiel as to the in- dividual responsibility of every man for what he himself voluntarily did, or refused to do, and regards this clear sense of individual responsibility towards God as one of the main strands in the Christian character. He even makes a remark, which is as striking as it is just, that the very fact of membership of a body such as the body of a nation, to which we are proud to belong, or the body of the Church of Christ itself, often uncon- sciously affects us, so as to make us dangerously forget our personal responsibility and the singleness of our relation to God. We assume, as the Jews were perpetually assuming, that being what we are, members of the divinely chosen body, we cannot easily go very wrong.
The next step, after the detachment of individual responsi- bility from the dangerously collective ideas of responsibility which pervaded early civilisation, was to detach the Jewish people, as a people, from the wild waste of Asiatic polities and religions. And this stage, though it tended to some extent to diminish the sense of individual responsibility for a time, was effected, as Dean Church shows in a very fine passage, by the publication of the moral law :—
"What was of permanent significance in Judaism was the paramount place of the moral law. Aaron the Priest was great, but Moses the Lawgiver was greater. By placing the Ten Command- ments on its forefront, it made good its claim to be an 'everlasting covenant ;' it taught and laid down the moral conditions of religious character, not only for its own time, but for all time. It was a step in religious history of which we can even now but imperfectly measure the greatness. Think of what the world was then, what it had been, what it was to be long afterwards. We know something of it in its vast conquering and devastating empires, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia—we dimly guess outside of them, in the east, and north, and south, in the boundless 'wilderness of the nations' ranging beyond our ken. No one can look on the scene without feeling almost giddy as he contemplates the shifting appearances, not only of all things religious, but all things moral. It is like the sickening aspect of a wild, confused waste of waters, where nothing keeps its shape for an instant, but passes into another ; where all whirls about and eddies in hopeless entanglement of form and substance. You seem to see nature running wild—dazzled, bewildered, maddened by the senses and its own ignorance. You see the most fantastio maginations, the most extravagant caprice, the most savage and insatiate passion, the most monstrous instincts; the enormous play on a terrific scale of fierce pride and the madness of boundless con- quest and absolute power ; and you ask, What really is the rule by which to judge all this ? Is it all only natural ? Has it all an equal claim to assert itself ? Are the most hateful and repulsive forms of blood and impurity only hateful because we are not accustomed to them—on a level with the phenomena of nature, neither more nor leas blameworthy ? There is the sense of Divine power ; there is the recognition of right and wrong, of ought and ought not, of duty of some kind ; but of what kind ? of what restraint ? of what service, either to God or luau? And the moment you ask, the ideas seem to disappear, swept away, dissolved, lost in the clouds and storms of contradiction and confusion. Into this lawless world of tumult and self-will, tyrannous in its blindness, its hatred, its cruelty, its greed, the people of Israel were launched to begin their wonderful and perilous course. They had bat too much affinity, too much sympathy, with all the evil that was round them. But there was that among them which was nowhere else. At the head of their march through time and change, like the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, stood, fixed and stable and immovable, amid all that was mutable and fluctuating, the moral law. Elsewhere, in other legisla- lation, in other institutions, more or less partially, the moral law dis- closed itself ; but here it was the very condition e the existence of a nation, the reason which gave meaning to its being. It might be dis- obeyed, but it was acknowledged as the tie .between God and men, divine in its source, sovereign in its authority. Judaism was a religion, and not only a polity, and embodied a definite religious character, preserved it, continued it, unfolded it, not only in the written letter, but in fact and life. And in moulding the religious character at this stage of it, the law in its elevation as the moral law, in its stern and absolute control, as law—was the stamp and ener- getic agency."
The Dean shows that this enormous step gained, though it laid a hard foundation to the Christian character, laid one which was often,—and especially often in the case of Judaism,—too hard, whenever the law was interpreted not in a spiritual but in an external sense :—" In the Jewish character, as it came out after centuries of the law, there is that harsh and unhopeful feature to which we give the name of legality ; the slavery to law, the idolatry of law, the pride in law, the bondage to the letter ; obstinate, unsympathetic, contemptuous at once and fearful of everything in the free outside world." Then comes the Dean's remarkable sermon on the wonderful phenomenon that such a book as the Book of Psalms should be the first outburst of national feeling which followed the cruel, wild days of the Judges, an outburst without any previous sign that would have warranted us in supposing that such feelings were growing up, except, indeed, a few lyrics, comparatively unspiritual in their character, such as the song of Miriam and the lament of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan :— " Whore, in those rough, cruel days, did they come from, those piercing, lightning-like gleams of strange spiritual truth, those magnificent outlooks over the kingdom of God, those raptures at His presence and His glory, those wonderful disclosares of self-knowledge, those pure outpourinz,s of the love of God ? Surely here is some- thing more than the mere working of the mind of man. Surely they tell of higher guiding, prepared for all time ; surely, as we believe, they hear the word behind them saying, This is the way, walk ye in it,' they repeat the whispers of the Spirit of God, they reflect the very light of the Eternal Wisdom. Iu that wild time there must have been men sheltered and hidden amid the tumult round them, humble and faithful and true, to whom the Holy Ghost could open by degrees the wondrous things of His law,' whom He taught, and whose mouths He opened, to teach their brethren by their own experience, and to do each their part in the great preparation. For So is the kingdom of God : as if a man should cast seed into the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how, for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself ; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.' So has grown among mortal and sinful men, amid long delays and many disappointments, but with sure and wonderful advances, the 'mind of Christ."
In the Psalms, Dean Church recognises the final results of the divine education of the human affections by God. The Psalms are the wonderful response to that education. In the Prophets, on the other hand, he sees chiefly the effect on thought, in the mind of the thinker and the statesman, of the divine education which had been going on so long, to prepare for the manifestation of Christ. "So men learned to pray, to feel, to think, to teach."
Then came the development due to the full manifestation of the ideal of human character in Christ, and one of the finest of the sermons deals with the effect of this great event on the minds of those to whom the perfect character was manifested. After such a revelation of divine love as the death upon the cross, "was it not reason now to say, Set your affections on- things above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God' ?"—
" Can anything be more natural—could anything be more original and new at the time—than the pictures of religious character given by the Apostles as the reflections of the mind of Christ and directly connected with what He was and did ? Beloved,' says St. John, speaking of his tremendous theme with almost a child's simplicity, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.' Or take one of St. Paul's varied descriptions—so varied, I had almost said so pic- turesque, so suggestive of what is true and bright and happy and noble in character, breathing the profoundest peace, the strongest moral effort, the most joyful self-surrender to God, all that purity of thought and motive without which man cannot hope to see the face of God in the next world, or to live the life of God in this. Take such a passage as the 12th chapter of the Romans, or the impassioned burst in the First Epistle to the Corinthians on Charity, moving with the rhythmic march of the loftiest Hebrew Psalm or Greek chorus. Or take the following, from one of the central group of Epistles— 'Pet on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfect- ness, and let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also ye are called in one body ; and be ye thankful. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him ;' and then follows a series of details about the duties and affections of daily home life."
And then, in the last sermon, comes the frank admission that "the history of the Christian Church has hardly fulfilled the promise of the New Testament ;" and yet, though it has hardly fulfilled it, Dean Church shows that it has given us earnest enough of better and fuller fulfilment, to persevere in the only hope for man. He takes three pictures of Christian life in very different ages of the Church,—the picture of St. Paul's life, of the life of Francis of Assisi, and of the life of Bishop Wilson, the Bishop of Sodor and Man,—and shows how certainly these three totally different men, one a man of great genius and intellectual power, the second an enthusiast of exquisite sensibility and feeling, the last a somewhat strait-laced Christian in a rather formalist age, agree to testify to precisely the same effect upon their inner lives of the same great power of Christ's life and character ; and thus the Dean concludes one of the noblest series of sermons which it has ever been our privilege to read. The whole book can be read in a couple of hours. Surely it ought to be one of the most popular books of the day.