25 DECEMBER 1880, Page 10


THE Rev. Edward White has just published a striking little book on "The Tone and Teaching of the New Testament on Certainty in Religion,"* which was preached as

the Merchants' Lecture for the last October in the Weigh- House Chapel, where the late Dr. Binney was so long the minister. It would be difficult to find a more suitable subject for consideration at Christmas-time than the comparative certainty and uncertainty of tile Christians of the first age and the Christians of this. Assuredly if, when the word "Christmas " is mentioned in any society, the certain convic- tions could be enumerated to which the mention of the word gives rise, how very small a proportion of them would be religious convictions, or perhaps even irreligious convictions, at all. Some would feel certain that they were going to_suffer from seasonable conventions ; others would feel ceruain that they were going to make themselves ill ; a few young people would feel certain that they were going to be happy ; many would feel certain that they were going to be rather more than usually unreal; and how very rare would be any flash of deep and eager conviction that there is anything at all in the invisible world corresponding to the external festival to be celebrated. Mr. White's striking little book brings out very powerfully how strong a contrast to this state of mind is afforded by the mind of the writers of the New Testament. Take one passage, in which he begins his sketch of that mind :—

"Let attention be drawn to the remarkable phenomenon that these books—from the Gospel of Matthew onward to Apocalypse—though differing in style, object, and feeling, are marked by one character- istic, which pervades them in every page,—and that is, the solemn lone of certainty which runs through them, without one single break- down into speculation or balancing of probabilities. At all events, these writers thoroughly believed what they wrote. This character- istic distinguishes the New Testament books, not only from all the Roman literature of the same age, but from all other Greek books that ever were written. In those literatures you have argument on both sides, guess, divination, doubt, mockery, despair. But here every page overflows with the feeling of certainty. The Evangelists and Apostles of the Gospel absolutely exhaust all the language of certainty in giving expression to their ideas. There are no words expressive of absolute truth and trustworthiness, and intense faith founded on that trustworthiness, which these men have not employed. 'This is the victory which has overcome the world' of doubters—'even their faith.' Such thorough belief and confidence were contagious. They drove mankind before them, and shut them up' in the fold

• Elliot Etnk. of faith. The Roman world at large believed nothing much—bat at least these men believed, nothing doubting.' The New Testament stands up like a mighty and immovable rook of certainty in the midst of the wide, unstable sea of contemporary thought—in the Jewish, Greek, and Roman world. You feel this tone of certainty in the teaching which they report from the lips of their Master—the Christ. Christ sets himself before us as The Truth. He has no long argu- ments, no processes indicating inquiry on His own part, or inference, or hesitation. But every word of His is struck with a definite sovereign image of truth upon it, like gold under the descending

stamp of the mint. Verily, verily, I say unto you :' this is the steadfast introduction to every lesson. In Him there is no feeling after God ' in the dark ; no derivation of wisdom from earlier teachers; no modest citation of authorities : the only quotation is from prophecy, to point out its punctual fulfilment in Himself. Christ, in the Gospels, is represented to us as the Truth of Eternal Thought, alighting on the earth in the form of Man, and speaking absolutely as One who knew both what was in Man' and what was in God. His intellectual countenance is as the sun shining in its strength.'" In discussing the vast change between this state of mind and the state of mind of the great majority of those who make up even the genuinely Christian world of the present

day, Mr. White makes many suggestions tending to show the unreasonableness of the new state of mental vacilla- tion in which Christians so often find themselves ; but his subject does not lead him to consider why it is that so

many who would probably quite agree in all he says, are

still, more or less, in the condition of mind which he condemns. We are disposed to think that the chief reason why there is so much more vacillation on the subject of religious truth, even amongst those who hold it, than the Apostles would have understood at all, is, to speak it shortly, that so much more of the modern intellect is engaged, and seriously engaged, with the surface of life, and so much less of it, in proportion, with the roots of that life. The Apostles and Evangelists belonged to a race whose most earnest life had for centuries been engaged on the unseen world, whether for good or for evil. The Jews have never been deficient in worldliness, but yet that part of them,—good or bad,—which was not worldly was very much the reverse indeed. Their intellect, whenever it was not sunk in the commoner earthly interests, was absorbed in the vision of the perfect righteous- ness, and the prospect of a perfectly righteous reign upon earth, or else in fierce dogmatic controversies which clouded over that vision. This was the side on which the intellect of Judaism was raised above the more selfish of human occupations. The Jewish race, so far as it rose above the earth, exercised itself in these great matters,—threw its whole heart into them.

In the modern world it is very different. A very great part of the best thought of the best men is occupied in very large degree with interests which have all the largeness and catholicity, as one may say, of something quasi-spiritual, and yet no vestige of the true spiritual world in them, no vestige in them of the great conflict between darkness and light, between evil and good, between temptation and grace. The area of perfectly disinterested and perfectly innocent and wholesome interests which are not in the least moral or spiritual interests, has grown vastly in the modern world ; and the effect of this is that a much larger portion of the permanent mind of good men, is usually eagerly at work in tracking out clues which have neither the taint of moral danger about them on the one side, nor the inspiration of spiritual help on the other. A great part of the minds of good men is thus invested in secular interests which are not in the bad sense worldly, and which are indeed in a very real sense unworldly, though they cannot be called moral or spiritual, nay, which, far from calling up the vision of an unseen world, only tend to give a deeper intellectual fascination to the spectacle of the seen world. The vast growth of interests and studies which, like the world of the mathematician or physicist, of the geologist or botanist, of the sculptor or artist, of the economist or statistician, of the geographer or astronomer, of the musician or superficial poet,—to say nothing of the world of the mechani- cian and the student of all sorts of delicate practical arts,— excite the most absorbing interest, and yet not an interest which turns at all directly on the eternal issues of good and evil, holiness and iniquity,—this vast area of new interests, we say, has undoubtedly drained away a great deal of the intensity of life devoted in earlier ages to the ultimate spiritual issues of time and eternity. To our mind it seems one great reason for the comparative vacillation of religions men on religious subjects, that so many of the best of these men are now more or less absorbed in problems of a much more finite and limited character, and yet problems quite as free from the contagion of spiritual evil, as they are from the attraction of spiritual good, so that when the mind reverts to the great ultimate issues, it is with a sort of start and a sense of inadequacy to grasp them with anything like the same force with which these smaller problems are grasped, that to some extent dizzies the mind, and produces that feeling of uncertainty which, as Mr. White justly says, would have been almost inconceivable to the first preachers of Christianity. To them, the choice lay between living in the world of sense without God, and living in the world of spirit with God. In modern times, there is, as it were, a third very real alternative, namely, living in a world intermediate between sense and spirit, a world of very narrowly. limited but perfectly wholesome and pure interests, to which the mind fits and adapts itself till it is absolutely bewildered by leaning once more over the great gulf which separates good and evil, which divides heaven from hell. St. Paul told his disciples, 'Walk in the spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh ; for the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other." But would he have said that the most ardent study of the phenomena of electricity, for instance, or even the devotion of a lifetime to the elaboration of a new form of escapement or steam-engine, was "fulfilling the lust of the flesh P" We do not think he would. Nevertheless, he would certainly not have called it "walking in the spirit." Be- tween the spiritual world which, — whether good or evil, —was to the Jews the chief intellectual world, and the life of the flesh, there has arisen a great world of the under- standing, with principles and interests of its own, the habitual inhabiting of which appears to be quite as bad a preparation for the spiritual life, as it is for the life of the flesh. Those who live chiefly in this world,—and how many of us do l—come to the true spiritual world with a sense of bewilderment which makes it very difficult to attach to the judgments we form upon it, the same sense of certainty which is felt concerning the intellectual issues of that more limited world to which so large a part of our intellectual life is devoted.

It is perfectly true that no true man can really avoid altogether the gravest spiritual issues, and that when he is in contact with these issues, especially when he is dealing with the personal issue of right or wrong for his own will, he begins to realise the meaning of the unseen world in the very sense in which the Christian apostles and evangelists realised it, and then perhaps he knows what religions certainty means. But the meaning and measure of certainty in that region are very different from the meaning and measure of certainty in that world of under- standing in which so large a part of the better human life is now passed. And we do not hesitate to say that, quite apart from the intrinsic difficulties of religious questions, one of the chief bewilderments of modern life in relation to religion is this,—that men have learnt most of their tests of certainty in a region which is not spiritual at all, and in which certainty hardly involves the inward judgment of the true man, but only, at most, a kind of shadow of the men. Possibly, as we go deeper in knowledge, this stage may pass away. Possibly men will one day learn to trace up the principles involved in the superficial problems which occupy us so much now into the deeper world of true spirit. But we very much doubt whether all the present unreality which arises in relation to things spiritual, from the finite weights and measures and the mechani- cal tests of accuracy to which so many of our thoughts are sub- jected in the world in which so much of our lives is spent, is one for which men are themselves wholly responsible. A certain amount. of shadow appears to be necessarily cast on the true spirit of man, by the rapid growth in relative importance of his practical understanding. Still, true men will do all in their power to hasten the time when the understanding itself shall become as spiritual, as it is now in essence carnal.