CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY - THE DOCTRINE OF GOD - by the Rt. Rev. ARTHUR C. HEADLAM C.H., D.D. Bishop of Gloucester ; Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford ; formerly Professor of Dogmatic Theology in King's College, London, and Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. First Published: Oxford University Press, 1934. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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WE have studied the records of the Christ of history, and I have attempted to point out to you how difficult it is to come to any conclusion but the acceptance of the Christian belief. It is only by doing violence to historical evidence and by adopting a purely arbitrary critical attitude that naturalistic theories can be supported. In arriving at this conclusion we have left out three events – the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the Ascension – which must be of great importance in this discussion. If the stories are true, it is obvious that there is no doubt about the supernatural character of the life of Jesus, and therefore they have been the centre round which much controversy has turned. I propose in this chapter to discuss these events and then to examine the general modernist and critical positions.


In studying the story of the Resurrection the first point to notice is that if we accept the record of the New Testament, the belief in the Resurrection was the fundamental basis of the Apostles' teaching. For example, the Acts of the Apostles tell us that the chief credential of an Apostle was to be a witness of the Resurrection. 'Of the men therefore which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us, of these must one become a witness with us of his resurrection.' « Acts i. 21, 22. In the early speeches of St. Peter in the Acts which represent a somewhat embryo form of Christology, he proves the Messiahship of Jesus by the fact of the Resurrection to which he and the other Apostles bore witness. 'This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses.' « Acts ii. 32. And St. Paul equally bases his Gospel on the Resurrection of Christ: 'If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain.' « 1 Cor. xv. 14. And this preaching he shared with the whole of the Christian Church. 'Whether it be I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.' « Ibid., 11. The first preachers of Christianity had no doubt that the belief in the Resurrection was fundamental.

We start with the evidence of St. Paul. We are dealing with the beliefs of a man of power and character whose whole life had been changed by his acceptance of Christianity. He had not accepted that belief lightly, and he had taken trouble to investigate the evidence for himself. His summary of the evidence is contained in the well-known fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and that must demand some examination. Notice first that St. Paul is claiming to tell us not merely what he preached himself but what the Church taught. 'I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received.' « Ibid., 3. His teaching, in his own opinion and that of his readers, is shared with the rest of the Christian Church.

Next I would ask you to notice how St. Paul lays emphasis on the fact that our Lord appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once 'of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep'. « Ibid., 6. That plainly implies that he is appealing to living people who can give first hand evidence. Moreover it has been maintained that these appearances were subjective, meaning that they had no existence outside the minds of the observers. Such a criticism might apply to St. Paul's own vision, but the nature of the other appearances excludes such an explanation. If five hundred people simultaneously have the same experience, there must be an objective cause for it.

Then further St. Paul's account of the Resurrection experience clearly implies that he had made careful inquiry. He thought it necessary to examine the evidence and he gives us the result of this examination.

It has been suggested that St. Paul knew nothing of the empty tomb. It is quite true that he does not directly refer to it, but his words 'he hath been raised on the third day' « Ibid., 4. imply that knowledge of the empty tomb lay behind his teaching, because the reason, the only reason, why it was believed that it was on the third day that our Lord rose from the dead was that it was on that day the empty tomb was found.

The following then are the principal points to notice in St. Paul's account, which is the earliest written evidence that we possess. First, it was shared by the Church. Secondly, it was based upon careful inquiry. Thirdly, the appearances were real, that is to say, they were not merely subjective. Fourthly, the belief in the Resurrection on the third day had become part of the accepted teaching of the Church, and implies a recognition of the stories of the empty tomb.


We turn now to the four Gospels. All four contain an account of the Resurrection, although it must be remembered that that of St. Mark is mutilated. The last twelve verses were clearly not part of the original Gospel, which probably had lost its last page. The narratives of the Resurrection came from different sources, and there is none of that marked resemblance that there is in the greater part of the Gospel story.

The first point to notice is that all the four Gospels bear witness to the empty tomb. That was the starting-point of their belief. You will find in various books attempts to explain away the story. One explanation is that it arose through a mistake, that when the women came to the tomb and were astonished that it was empty, a young man who was there explained to them that they had made a mistake. 'He is not here', he said, meaning that they had come to the wrong tomb. This confused them, and they thought that he was telling them about the Resurrection. I do not know how that appeals to other people; it does not seem to me very convincing.

Another explanation put forward is that our Lord was not really dead. He had not died on the Cross. He had been resuscitated and was now living in concealment. This in itself appears very improbable; but the importance of this explanation is that it nullifies all the criticism which would explain away the narrative. It shows that to the writers who adopt this explanation the story is so convincing that it makes it necessary for them to believe in the actual corporal and living presence of Jesus. It is not unfair to suggest that these two types of explanation cancel one another. Both are artificial attempts to explain away a story which is disbelieved on quite different grounds.
I think this statement is quite fair. Professor Kirsopp Lake says: 'The story of the empty tomb must be fought out on doctrinal, not on historical or critical grounds. The historical evidence is such that it can fairly be interpreted consistently with either of the two doctrinal positions – that the Resurrection implies or does not imply a resuscitation of the flesh – but it does not decisively support either' (op. cit., p. 233).

Certainly the story of the empty tomb and the Resurrection on the third day was early. Why did the Church at such an early date give up keeping the Sabbath and keep the first day of the week instead? As early as the date of the First Epistle to the Corinthians we find the Christian assembly taking place on the first day of the week. Very early it was called the Lord's day, and the reason no doubt was that on that day the empty tomb was discovered, and therefore it was believed that that was when our Lord rose from the dead. The belief in the empty tomb was not a later tradition, but was part of the faith of the Church from the very beginning.

There is another difficulty that has been raised, that of harmonizing the narrative in the four Gospels. I do not find that so much stress is laid at present on this, because many of those who have difficulties about the Resurrection are prepared to accept in some way or other the Resurrection appearances. Quite clearly the Gospel narratives represent to us the convinced belief that our Lord had appeared after his death to his disciples; but if you try to construct a continuous or complete narrative of the events after the Resurrection, you will find that there is considerable difficulty. That is not a difficulty peculiar to those narratives. It is equally difficult to reconstruct any complete or continuous account of our Lord's life. It is not a difficulty confined to sacred history. We read our history in text-books which contain the conventional reconstructions of it, but if you set aside the text-books and go back to the sources out of which the history is made up, you will find that it is only possible to construct a coherent and connected narrative by what we call harmonizing, that is by fitting the different narratives one into another, by recognizing that no one of them is quite accurate, that there is a great deal which has happened of which we know nothing, but if we knew it would explain our difficulties. In some such way a connected narrative of events is built up, and we do not think it untrue or untrustworthy because we are not certain about many details.

Take, for example, the battle of Waterloo. If you read the many narratives of persons who were present at the battle you will find remarkable discrepancies between them. To take an instance. Not long ago there was a discussion in the papers on which of the days before Waterloo it was that the famous ball took place. Yet no one doubts the reality of the ball. Or take an event nearer our own time. Most of us have talked to those who were present at the battle of Jutland, yet how difficult it is to get a coherent and satisfactory account of that battle. It appears to become more difficult the larger the number of eyewitnesses it is possible to consult. Each person present has seen just one particular part, and formed his own conception of the whole. Yet no one doubts that the battle of Jutland was really fought.

Instances such as these ought to be sufficient to show that there is a certain element of discrepancy in all historical narratives, and the necessity of harmonizing independent accounts does not take away from the truth of the event. In fact it is a condition of truth. Supposing that all the narratives of the Resurrection in the four Gospels and in St. Paul exactly harmonized, it would be apparent that they all came from one source and they would have no independent value. It is because there are five different summaries and accounts of events after the Resurrection, clearly independent of one another, but witnessing to the same fundamental conditions, but from different points of view, that we have grounds for a strong conviction of the truth that underlies all the narratives. They all alike tell us of the belief in the Resurrection, and of the empty tomb, and they give us a series of narratives bearing witness to the fact that the disciples had seen the risen Lord.


But now we come to another fact of great importance which we must consider. We spoke just now of the conditions of historical evidence. There is a problem of great interest which demands investigation. Why is it that we recognize that the events of the past as they are put before us in historical sequence are undoubtedly true although there is no demonstrative evidence for any particular event? It is because we have been able by historical investigation to build up a consistent account of the course of history as a whole, so that each separate event takes its place in a series of events and forms an integral part. We believe in the historical character of the battle of Waterloo or any other great event not merely because of the direct evidence that it took place, but because of the subsequent history of Europe. The whole series of events that followed it depended on the events preceding which culminated in the battle of Waterloo. In estimating the truth of any event in history, the most important question is whether it takes its proper place in the sequence of events.

Now with regard to the Resurrection, it clearly fulfils the required conditions of truth. Something happened which changed both the outlook and the personal characteristics of the disciples. The arrest and death of our Lord seems to have been too much for their faith. 'All the disciples left him, and fled.' They were overcome by a sense of failure and had lost belief. But something happened which transformed their lives, and gave them new and heightened powers. They had been timorous and doubting. They became enthusiastic adherents. What was the cause of this change? They had seen the risen Lord. They knew that he lived. An event had happened which had power to transform these Galilean peasants into fearless evangelists. I do not see how if you take away the Resurrection you can account for the transformation which took place in the disciples after the crucifixion or for the preaching of the Gospel.


It is not possible to examine all the attempts that have been made at criticism of the Resurrection narrative. Well known is that of the late Professor Harnack in his book translated under the title What is Christianity?. He made a distinction between the Easter message and the Easter faith.

'The Easter message tells us of that wonderful event in Joseph of Arimathaea's garden, which, however, no eye saw: it tells us of the empty grave into which a few women and disciples looked; of the appearance of our Lord in a transfigured form – so glorified that his own could not immediately recognize him; it soon begins to tell us, too, of what the risen one said and did. The reports became more and more complete, and more and more confident. But the Easter faith is the conviction that the crucified one gained a victory over death; that God is just and powerful; that he who is the first born among many brethren still lives. Paul based his Easter faith upon the certainty that "the second Adam" was from heaven, and upon his experience, on the way to Damascus, of God revealing His Son to him as still alive.'
What is Christianity? by Adolf Harnack, translated into English by Thomas Bailey Saunders (Williams & Norgate, 1901), p. 161. He says later (p. 162): 'Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of the appearances, one thing is certain: This grave was the birthplace of the indestructible belief that death is vanquished, that there is a life eternal. '

That is to say that you have to accept the Easter faith which tells you that Jesus lives, but you have to put on one side the narrative on which it is based. He says further:

'The New Testament itself distinguishes between the Easter message of the empty grave and the appearance of Jesus on the one side, and the Easter faith on the other. Although the greatest value is attached to that message, we are to hold the Easter faith in its absence. The story of Thomas is told us for the exclusive purpose of impressing upon us that we must hold the Easter faith even without the Easter message: "Blessed are they that have not seen but yet have believed".'
What is Christianity?, p. 160.

But our Lord's words do not mean that Thomas should have believed without evidence, but rather that he had already had evidence which should have been sufficient for him. Thomas had gone intimately about with the other Apostles, he had heard their witness to the Resurrection. That witness which he had received should have convinced him, as one who knew the person and teaching of our Lord. Our position is like that of Thomas. We have the evidence of those who preached that Christ had risen and who laid down their lives for that belief. Though we have not seen we accept the Easter faith because we believe the Easter message. Professor Har-nack has really misrepresented the whole tenor of New Testament teaching which makes the Easter message the true basis of the Easter faith. Without the empty grave and the appearance of Jesus the Church could not possibly have attained the conviction that death had been vanquished. No doubt the disciples had personal experience of our Lord and his teaching, but they could not have attained the belief without actual evidence. St. Paul believed not merely because of his own experience, but also because of the testimony of others. Before the event on the road to Damascus he knew that the Christians were preaching the risen Christ, and he had witnessed the death of Stephen.


Our own theological position is based upon a belief in actual historical fact, and the evidence for that fact seems to me as strong as that for any event in ancient history. The real difficulty that people find at the present time about belief in our Lord's Resurrection and the empty tomb does not depend upon the evidence but on certain a priori considerations. It is because it is held that our Lord's Resurrection violates what we call natural laws.

As an illustration of this I will refer to the criticisms which Professor Lake quotes from an unpublished work of Dr. Rashdall. With regard to the Resurrection he writes:

'The disappearance or absolute annihilation, the reanimation, or the sudden transformation into something not quite material and yet not quite spiritual, of a really dead body, would involve the violation of the best ascertained laws of physics, chemistry and physiology. Were the testimony fifty times stronger than it is, any hypothesis would be more possible than that. But in the present state of our knowledge of the kind of causality which is discovered in the relations between mind and mind, or between mind and body, there is nothing to be said against the possibility of an appearance of Christ to his disciples, which was a real though supernormal psychological event, but which involved nothing which can properly be spoken of as a suspension of natural law.'
The Historical Evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by Kirsopp Lake (Williams & Norgate, 1907), p. 269. The fact that Dr. Rashdall had not published this work must be remembered. It may well be that he had doubts and hesitations.

Professor Lake's theory is that the story of the empty tomb and of the Resurrection of the body of Jesus in any form would be impossible, for it would be contrary to the laws of physics, chemistry, and physiology, but that visions or psychological appearances would not be contrary to natural laws and therefore may have occurred. Now that statement seems to me to contain a fundamental inconsistency. If a naturalistic explanation of the universe such as could make a miracle impossible were true, it would be just as difficult for a supernormal psychological appearance to take place as for any other so-called violation of natural law. There is often a great deal of juggling with words. 'Supernormal' is allowed but not 'supernatural'. I do not think such a distinction will hold. If the world is subject to the control of fixed and rigid laws, then no miracle is possible either in material or what we call mental phenomena, nor is it possible for God to become incarnate, to be raised from the dead, to reveal himself for mankind. But we have not sufficient grounds for thinking that the interposition of a more fundamental cause cannot take place. We have evidence, as I believe strong evidence, for certain events. If our grounds for believing them are sufficient, then the truth of the Christian religion follows and all that it involves. But we cannot play fast and loose with our evidence. The reason that we are asked to do so is not that the evidence is not good, but for certain a priori reasons. These reasons derive any force that they have from assuming that the non-naturalistic, spiritual basis of the world, which Christians assume, is not true. If the reality of the world is spiritual, if the world is really controlled by spiritual forces, if these spiritual forces were incarnate in Jesus Christ, there would be no reason why he should not be able to supersede the normal laws of the corruption of the body, why some event should not take place which might bear witness to us of the reality of his Resurrection and provide the evidence on which his disciples preached the Gospel and founded the Church. If Christianity be true it implies a theory of the universe which makes events such as the Resurrection possible.


I pass to the Virgin Birth. Here is another question causing difficulty in people's minds at the present day.

As regards this there is a marked contrast to the story of the Resurrection. The evidence for the Resurrection is strong, as strong as that for most historical facts in the ancient world. The evidence for the Virgin Birth is, as it necessarily must have been, very much slighter. While the Resurrection was put forward from the beginning as the ground of belief in our Lord, the Virgin Birth was not put forward prominently and was rather accepted as part of the general Christian teaching. In the nature of things it was something for which there could not be evidence of the same demonstrative character. It was accepted not so much on the grounds of the evidence, but because it seemed to harmonize with the general teaching of the Gospels.

Let us first examine the evidence. The story of the Virgin Birth is contained in two of our Gospels, and in both there are certain questions of text which we must notice.

As regards the evidence of St. Matthew's Gospel. The genealogy with which it begins concludes with the words: 'And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.' Instead of this the Sinaitic Syriac version of the Gospels discovered in the convent on Mount Sinai in the year 1892 reads as follows: 'Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the Virgin, begat Jesus who was called The Christ.' In one small group of Greek manuscripts there is some corroboration of this reading. Now it has been argued that this reading is inconsistent with the belief in the Virgin Birth, because of the use of the word 'begat', and it is suggested that it presupposes an original reading 'Joseph begat Jesus', without any reference to Mary the Virgin. This last statement is a purely arbitrary assumption, and in any case not much stress need be laid on the use of the word 'begat' for it is plainly used in this genealogy in an artificial sense. The whole genealogy is in fact artificial. The line of descent from Abraham to Jesus is divided into three parts each of fourteen generations, and the word must in many cases be used of a legal, not a physical relationship. One instance may be quoted, that of Shealtiel. In the Book of Jeremiah, Jechoniah is said to be childless; here he is described as begetting Shealtiel. What the writer meant was that the line of succession was carried on by Shealtiel. The connexion is throughout a legal, not a physical one. The phrase 'Mary the Virgin' implies further that the compiler of the Syriac version himself accepted the virginity of Mary. There is no reason, moreover, for thinking the Syriac reading is original, nor is it scientific to build up the New Testament text on the evidence of a single manuscript. « See on this reading F. C. Burkitt, Evangelion da-Mepharreshe (Cambridge, 1904), vol. ii, p. 258.

As regards the first chapter of St. Luke some critics want to omit the two following verses:

'And Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God.'
Luke, i. 34, 35.

The reasons for doing this do not seem to be adequate. There is no textual evidence for omitting them which could have any weight with any one unless on other grounds he wished to do so. They are omitted it is true in the narrative of these events in the Apocryphal Gospel known as the Proto-evangelium, but that can hardly be considered an authority, and ver. 34 is omitted in one Latin manuscript, but there is no reason for thinking that these variations show any original displacement. Moreover ver. 35 is quoted by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century, that is to say there is better evidence for it than for almost any other verse in the New Testament. If you read carefully the narratives of both St. Matthew and St. Luke you will I think see that whatever the origin of their story, there is no reasonable doubt that in both writers it is implied that the birth of our Lord was miraculous. This implication does not depend on a single verse. It is based on the whole narrative.

Now the strength of the testimony of these two Gospels lies in this, that their narratives are clearly independent of one another. There is no serious discrepancy between them. They tell the story from different aspects. The one point on which they combine is the Virgin Birth. The belief therefore must be older than either narrative. In the more modern commentaries on the Gospels, you will see it suggested that these early stories are what is called midrashic. That is they are stories which have grown up to illustrate teaching. Many critics would doubt whether the story of the Magi or the massacre of the Innocents were true historically. But it is clear that the belief in the Virgin Birth is older than these stories. If they are not true, they have grown up to teach the doctrine, the doctrine has not grown out of the stories.

I come next to the argument from silence. How is it that we do not find the story of the Virgin Birth mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament? It is not referred to explicitly in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Gospels of St. Mark or St. John, or in the Epistles of St. Paul. Does that imply that the writers did not know of it, or if they knew of it did not accept it?

Now take the Acts of the Apostles first. We know that that book was written by the same person as the Third Gospel, probably St. Luke, and we know that it was written after the Gospel. It is quite certain, therefore, that the writer of the Acts of the Apostles both knew of the Virgin Birth and accepted it, although in the Acts he makes no reference to it. That will impress upon you the weakness of the argument from silence. He records the Virgin Birth in the Gospel because it was relevant to his purpose, he omits it in the Acts because it was not relevant. Further than that it reminds us that this was not part of the ordinary apostolic teaching, and that again would be a reason why it should not be mentioned.

Coming then to the Gospels of St. Mark and St. John, we must bear in mind the purpose of these two Gospels. St. Mark's Gospel was based on the ordinary witness of the Apostles to the life of our Lord, from his baptism to the Ascension. For example, you will remember that Matthias was elected an Apostle, according to the Acts of the Apostles, that he should bear witness to all things that had happened from the baptism of John to the time when our Lord was taken up into heaven. To any event before that the Apostles could not bear personal witness, and therefore it would not form part of any Apostolic narrative out of which St. Mark's Gospel grew. Exactly the same may be said with regard to St. John. The author claims to be an eyewitness or at any rate to give the record of an eyewitness. He gives the testimony of the beloved disciple. Now here again the fact of the Virgin Birth was outside the experience of the disciple, whoever he was. The Gospel begins where his experience began and ends where it ended. Moreover, we are quite certain that the author of the Gospel knew of the Virgin Birth, for he makes use of both the first and third Gospels. There is quite clear literary evidence to that effect. I have no doubt at all that the author of St. John's Gospel knew of the Virgin Birth, but did not refer to it simply because it was not part of his scheme, just in the same way that he only refers to events recorded in other Gospels if he wishes to give a different or more correct version of them, or to use them for the spiritual lesson which they might convey.
There is an interesting variant reading to which I would just refer. You will remember the words in the first chapter: 'Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God' (John i. 13). In Justin Martyr and in other Fathers these words were quoted in the singular as if they referred to our Lord, 'Who was born not of the will of the flesh, but of God' and refer as thus quoted to the belief in the Virgin Birth. There is no direct evidence of the reading in any manuscript or version. I would not recommend you to lay any stress upon this or to construct your text of St. John's Gospel on such inadequate authority. There are scientific principles which should prevail in the construction of the New Testament text, and it is better to adhere to those, rather than take the reading which happens to suit your particular belief. It is possible to rewrite the Gospel to suit a particular view, but the practice is not one to be recommended. We should try and build up our text on scientific grounds, and if we do so it makes it clear that both in St. Matthew and St. Luke there is a record of the Virgin Birth; it also prohibits the construction of the text in this passage of St. John to prove that belief.

In St. Paul's Epistle also we find no definite reference to the Virgin Birth. The same explanation applies as in other books, that it was not part of the ordinary Apostolic teaching. St. Paul had no reason to refer to it. It had not the evidential value which the Resurrection had, to which all the Apostles could bear witness. On the other hand there are passages which are consistent with it. In the Epistle to the Galatians our Lord is spoken of as: 'Born of a woman, born under the law.' « Gal. iv. 4. Some have seen in these words a definite reference to the fact that our Lord was born of the Virgin Mary, and had no human father. But the expression 'woman born' is so customary and proverbial that I personally cannot lay stress on it. On the other hand the statement in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 'the second man is of heaven', « 1 Cor. xv. 47. lays definite stress on our Lord's supernatural origin, and implies a different birth from that of other men.


We now come to another source of evidence which seems to me to be not without weight. There are considerable fragments preserved of an attack upon Christianity written by a certain Celsus, a philosopher of the middle of the second century, who gives us an account of Jewish traditions with regard to our Lord. Origen tells us of Celsus:

'After these things he introduces a Jew disputing with Jesus himself and refuting him as he thinks on many points; first of all as having invented the birth from a virgin. He reproaches Him as having been born in a Jewish village of a woman in the country, who was poor and worked with her hands. He says she had been turned out of his house by her husband a carpenter by trade, having been convicted of adultery. Then he says that she, having been thus cast out by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, brought forth Jesus in secret.'
Origen, contra Celsum, i. 28.

And again later he returns to the same subject:

'But let us return again to the place where the Jew is introduced, where it is recorded that the Mother of Jesus was thrust out by a carpenter who was betrothed to her, as having been convicted of adultery and bearing a son to a certain soldier named Panthera, and let us see whether those who have blindly invented these stories of the adultery of the Virgin and Panthera, and of the carpenter who thrust her out, did not invent all these things to overthrow the miraculous conception of the Holy Ghost. '
Ibid., i. 32.

There was, it appears, a Jewish story of the birth of our Lord which said that his father was a soldier named Panthera. This word is formed as an anagram or corruption of Parthenos, which shows its artificial origin. It seems to me that the fact that quite early the Jews were spreading discreditable stories such as these about our Lord and his birth implies that the belief in the Virgin Birth was part of the earliest Church teaching. It is possible also that there may be a reference to this tradition in the passage in St. John's Gospel where the Jews are represented as saying: 'We were not born of fornication ; we have one Father, even God.' « John viii. 41. It certainly makes the retort more pointed, if stories such as the above were already in circulation. At any rate these Jewish stories were early and imply that the Christian belief was still earlier.

There can be no doubt that from a very early time the Virgin Birth was part of the Church teaching. For instance Ignatius in the Epistle to the Ephesians says 'Hidden from the Prince of this world was the virginity of Mary'. « Ignatius, Ad Ephes. 19. In the Apology of Aristides, an early Christian document, we find the following: 'Christians trace descent from Jesus Christ, professed to be born of a pure Virgin.' « Aristides, Apology, xv; Texts and Studies, vol. i, edited by J. Armitage Robinson (Cambridge, 1891), p. 110. In Justin Martyr, writing about A.D. 150, there are full references and discussions. I do not think that I need go farther into the evidence of Church History. Whether you consider the attacks on Christianity, or the traditional teaching of Christianity, quite clearly the belief is part of the early teaching of the Christian Church.


We pass now to the various attempts that have been made to explain the origin of the story. Analogies have been found with other religions. The birth-legends of the Buddha, for example, have been quoted, but I do not think that it is necessary to dwell upon them; for these stories are not part of the primitive Buddhist tradition, but belong to the later tradition which has been influenced by Christianity. Nor do I think that the analogies with classical stories are important. The resemblances are really very far fetched, and the story as narrated in the New Testament is quite definitely Hebraic in character and shows no traces of Hellenic influence.

Perhaps more plausible is the attempt to explain the origin of the story by suggesting that it was invented to prove the fulfilment of prophecy. In the first two chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel a number of passages from the Old Testament are quoted, as containing prophecies which have been fulfilled in the stories contained in these chapters, and we are given to understand that the stories have arisen in order to produce fulfilment of the prophecies. A careful examination of the text will hardly lend support to this view; for the relation of the prophecy to the fulfilment is so strained and unnatural that it is difficult to believe that it is the prophecy which is the origin of the story.

Take, for example, the story of the flight into Egypt. This is said to be a fulfilment of the words of Hosea: 'Out of Egypt did I call my Son.' « Matt. ii. 15; Hos. xi. 1. But if you turn to the prophet you will see that the words as originally spoken referred not to the Messiah, but to Israel, and that quite undoubtedly: 'When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my Son out of Egypt.' They are certainly a reference to the Exodus. Now it would be quite natural, if we remember the methods of exegesis which prevailed at the time, that a Christian who had read the story of the flight into Egypt, searching the Scriptures carefully and finding these words, should quote them as referring to our Lord's flight into Egypt. But is it likely that the story would have been invented in order to create the fulfilment of a prophecy which did not naturally refer to the Messiah at all?

Or consider the story of the Magi. This is supposed to have been imagined in order to create a fulfilment of the words: 'And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.' « Isa. lx. 3. But if this had been the case, care would have been taken to make the fulfilment agree with the prophecy. In medieval tradition the Magi are called kings, so that the prophecy may be accurately fulfilled, but there is no suggestion of anything of the sort in the Gospel, which would have been the case if the story had been invented to fulfil the prophecy.

The same is true of the words quoted from Jeremiah about the massacre of the innocents. 'A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not.' « Matt. ii. 17, 18; Jer. xxxi. 15. Now the tomb of Rachel was shown near Bethlehem. It would be quite natural for some one who had heard the story of the massacre of the innocents to have quoted this passage and transferred it from Ramah to Bethlehem ; but it would be most unlikely that any one would have invented the story of the massacre in order to fulfil a prophecy which in its original form did not apply to Bethlehem and had no Messianic bearing.

We come now to the passage in Isaiah: 'Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.' « Matt. i. 22, 23; Isa. vii. 14. The words were not used by Jewish writers with a Messianic signification, the Hebrew does not mean a virgin but a young woman of marriageable age, the reference is quite clearly to events happening at the time of the prophet. The writer of the first Gospel, searching the Scriptures, found here what seemed to him a prophecy of the birth of our Lord as Christian tradition reported it. He would not have invented the story to fulfil a prophecy which was not interpreted as a prophecy at all.

All these forced and unnatural applications of the Old Testament show that the early preachers of Christianity desired to find Old Testament proof not only of his Messianic office, but of every incident in his life. They did exactly the same thing with regard to the events of the Passion. Having these events in their mind it was natural to find references to them in the Old Testament, in passages which did not really apply to them. It is not really natural to think that a number of these events could have been invented or imagined in order to produce a fulfilment of quite isolated passages of Scripture which have no obvious Messianic bearing. If the events were nearer, if they were in people's minds, it was natural to find prophecies in the Old Testament, even in unnatural contexts and with forced interpretations. What I deduce from a study of these prophecies is that the stories were in all cases older than the First Gospel. They were traditions which were inherited for which Scripture proofs were found.


Lastly let us consider the dogmatic significance and the congruity of the story of the Virgin Birth. Sometimes the case is overstated. It is argued that if Jesus was the Son of God, he must have been born in this way. I do not think that this is sound. It is not possible to argue on a priori grounds how a thing ought to have happened. What I think we can say quite legitimately is that the story of the Virgin Birth occupies a quite natural place in Christian theology. The Incarnation was a new departure in human history. Our Lord represented human nature in a form hitherto deemed impossible. He took upon himself human nature without any taint of sin. A new era began in the history of the human race. It is, therefore, quite in harmony with the whole scheme of Christ coming into the world that his birth should have been different from that of other men. A supernatural birth harmonizes with a supernatural mission. I notice that this argument is put with considerable weight in an interesting work, Evolution and the Doctrine of the Trinity by the Rev. S A, McDowall. Mr. McDowall writes from a scientific standpoint:

'No doubt some other means might have been chosen, though it is hard to see what that means could have been. No doubt it is true that the whole matter is a mystery which we cannot solve. But it does at least seem congruous that the Divine Nature of Christ should have been emphasized, and that the break with the tradition of disability should have been symbolized, by a miraculous and Divine generation, in which the Human and Divine aspects are visible equally. ... The birth of Christ must in some sense have been miraculous if He was God and if there is any truth in our contention that original sin even in the sense of inherited disability is a real thing. The Virgin Birth seems to emphasize this truth, and points to the miracle, in a way which lays stress on just the points that need stress.'
Evolution and the Doctrine of the Trinity, by Stewart A. McDowall, B.D. (Cambridge, 1918), pp. 133-4.

Then, without adopting the exaggerated language which has sometimes been used, we can appeal to the universal Christian consciousness, which has always felt that the picture of the mother and child, the purity of the virgin, the sacrifice of motherhood, are appropriate to the scheme of Christian doctrine. The Virgin Birth takes its place as a natural part of Christian doctrine, as representing a new departure in the human race, as harmonizing with our conception of the sinlessness of Jesus, and as having created the Christian ideal of motherhood.

If we attempt to sum up the result of our investigation we may put it in this way. The evidence for it is slight in quantity, but it takes us back to a very early stage in Christian teaching. There is little or no evidence against it. The evidence would not be strong enough to justify our belief in it if it were an isolated event apart from the rest of the Gospel narrative. But if we have become convinced of the truth of the Resurrection, of the divine character of our Lord's teaching, of the more than human character of his life, then the further account of his birth harmonizes with these things, and the whole presents itself to us as a record supernatural – unnatural, if you look at the world merely from the naturalistic point of view, but not unnatural if you look at the world from the point of view of the doctrine of the Incarnation, from the point of view of the whole Christian scheme. The strongest evidence ultimately in favour of a system of thought is that it is coherent. The whole record of our Lord in the Gospels, from his birth to his resurrection, is a coherent scheme, and therefore each particular part helps in the credibility of the whole. While there is evidence sometimes strong, sometimes less strong, for each particular element in that picture taken separately, the evidence for the whole becomes much stronger because it is based on the general congruity of the picture.


The doctrine of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is stated in the Creed as follows: 'He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father'; it consists of two doctrinal statements, the Ascension and the heavenly session at the right hand of God as the ascended Lord.
On the Ascension I have received most assistance from the article by Dr. J. H. Bernard in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, art. 'Assumption and Ascension", vol. ii, pp. 151 ff. See also W. Milligan, The Ascension of our Lord, Baird Lecture, 1891; H. B. Swete, The Apostles' Creed, 1894, chap. vi.

Of the Ascension and of its doctrinal significance the New Testament gives us full testimony: 'Wherefore he saith, When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens that he might fill all things)'; « Ephes. iv. 8-10. so St. Paul teaches. And in the hymn in the First Epistle to Timothy: 'God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.' « 1 Tim. iii. 16. In the Epistle to the Hebrews: 'Seeing then that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens'. « Heb. iv. 14. In the First Epistle of St. Peter: 'by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God.' « 1 peter iii. 21, 22. And in the Fourth Gospel: 'And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.' « John iii. 13. 'What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where he was before.' « John vi. 62. 'I am not yet ascended to my Father ... I ascend unto my Father and your Father: and to my God and your God.' « John xx. 17.

There need be no doubt as to the belief in the Church in the fact of the Ascension, the difficulty that has been felt is as to the actual narrative of the taking up into heaven. Apart from the appendix to St. Mark this is only narrated in the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, and the narrative of the Gospel may be ambiguous. In St. Luke we read: 'And he led them out until they were over against Bethany: and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, blessing God.' « Luke xxiv. 50-2. Here the words 'and was carried up into heaven' and 'worshipped him and', are omitted by Western authorities. The reading is one of the Western non-interpolations, as they are called by Westcott and Hort, which are a characteristic of the later chapters of St. Luke. We cannot be dogmatic about the text, but it is noticed that the narrative implies in any case a solemn and final separation.

There is no obscurity about the later narrative in the Acts: 'And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were looking stedfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? this Jesus, which was received up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven.' « Acts i. 9-11. This narrative was the basis of the tradition of the Church.

Besides the slightness of the evidence a difficulty is felt from the fact that the language that is used is clearly geocentric and represents heaven as literally above the earth. It is clear, therefore, that in some sense it must be looked upon as symbolical; howfar it is so may be considered an open question. But Dr. Bernard points out that

'it is clear that belief in the possibility of communication between man and God, between the natural and the spiritual, between earth and heaven, is not bound up with this geocentric philosophy which no one now accepts, although we are quite content to use the language of devotion which it originally suggested, just as we are content still to speak of the "rising" and "setting" of the sun. Such language misleads no one in the sphere of science, and there is no reason why it should be a perplexity in the sphere of religion. That there is a region of "spirit" which encompasses us; that although invisible, it is not inaccessible; that it is the dwelling-place – for we can get no better phrase – of the Divine; that it is the ultimate reality of the universe: these convictions are a sufficient background for the idea of "Revelation", and also for the idea of "Ascension", that is, the passage from the natural to the spiritual order.'
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. ii, p. 151.

Further he adds:

'Heaven is not a place up in the sky; it is the spiritual world which encompasses us, and which is nearer than can be indicated by physical proximity. It is like a fourth dimension of space, invisible, unimaginable, and yet quite as real and quite as near as the length, breadth and depth of our bodily environment. To move into this fourth dimension from the earthly life may be the most natural of all movements for the spirit, or for the "spiritual body" which is its envelope, while the process may be, must be, inscrutable for the spirit confined by the "natural" body.'
ibid., p. 156.

After his death our Lord appeared to his disciples in what we may describe as a Resurrection body. He passes among them, he leaves them instantaneously. But the Church knew that these visits were but for a time, a time came when they ceased, Jesus intimated that he must now be parted from them. He passed out of their sight as he had passed before, and they described his passing away in the symbolical language that harmonized with their cosmological conceptions.


The presentation of the historical Christ which I have given in this and the preceding chapter is one in accordance with the evidence that we possess. It would, however, be criticized at the present day from what is called a modernist point of view as traditional and conservative. I believe that it will ultimately be found to be the only satisfactory interpretation of the Gospel record. I think it right, however, that we should look at it from the other point of view and examine somewhat carefully the modernist position. This is supported by three main arguments.
There is a considerable literature of Modernism, representing a great variety of positions. The article 'Modernism' in vol. viii of the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics devotes itself to Roman Catholic modernism, which is associated more particularly with the name of Tyrrell. A reasonable exponent of Anglican modernism was Professor Percy Gardner, Modernity and the Churches (Williams & Norgate.1909), Exploratio Evangelica (1899). The most authoritative exposition of a modernist attitude which could claim to be accepted within the Anglican Church is Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought (London, 1912), by Seven Oxford Men: B. H. Streeter, R. Brook, W. H. Moberly, R. G. Parsons, A. E. J. Rawlinson, N. S. Talbot, W. Temple.

It is argued, in the first place, that miracles imply a breach of the order of nature, and that we have no indication otherwise that anything of the sort has or could happen. It is not denied on a priori grounds that such events could happen. It is argued that it is most improbable that they should occur. In the second place – this is the point on which the greatest stress is laid – it is argued that the miraculous is inconsistent with what we know of God's method of working in the world. God works normally not by interfering with the order of nature, but by making use of it. The providence of God in the world is not exhibited in miracles, but through a combination of natural events designed to produce what we believe to be the divine end. The third argument is that the evidence is not good. It is the argument from criticism.

To take the third point. I would meet it by a definite denial. I believe that the evidence for the miraculous character (I use the conventional word) of the Gospel narrative is good. I do not mean that it is demonstrative. There is no demonstrative evidence in history. I do not mean that the evidence for every separate miracle is equally good. But I believe that the general credibility of the Gospel narrative stands on a firm foundation, and that the criticism upon it has really been inspired by a priori conceptions of naturalism. The disbelief in the Gospel miracles or the miraculous character of our Lord's life is not because the evidence is not good but because these things are disbelieved on other grounds.

As regards the other two arguments, I think that the real difference is the different point of view. If you look at the world simply from the point of view which arises from the scientific study of the universe, everything which is a breach of the natural order seems abnormal, but if you look at it from the point of view of the Incarnation, so far from the apparent breach of continuity seeming abnormal, it seems natural. If any one's mind is filled with a particular view of nature, it becomes difficult for him to accept facts which seem to conflict with it. A religious man whose mind is filled with the thought of God, of the divine providence, of revelation through Jesus Christ, of the Incarnation, does not see anything abnormal, or impossible, or incredible. The whole narrative seems natural and harmonious.

If the Incarnation really took place, it is of course a breach in the continuous and harmonious development of the world far more remarkable than any miracle could be. It means a completely new departure in human history. It is something far more remarkable than any miracle. The miraculous accompaniments of it are not incongruous. They were a natural sign to the world of the events that happened. They have been felt by the Christian consciousness since as entirely congruous. Now I am not arguing at the moment against an ordinary scientific position. I am considering the modernist who believes in the Christian revelation, but would eliminate from it all the miraculous and abnormal accompaniment, and would maintain that then the Christian revelation would be easier to accept. It is exactly the same position as we contested about the Resurrection. I believe that this attitude is mistaken. It means accepting the greater miracle and rej ecting the smaller. The Incarnation is so stupendous a fact that if this interference with the normal continuity of things be true, nothing else need be incredible, and historically these signs are part of the evidence by which the world learnt to believe in Jesus Christ.

I believe then that the ultimate tendency will be to recognize that the traditional conception of the life of our Lord is the true one, but I think that we must recognize that the present represents a transitional period. There have been great changes in the outlook of many religious people. The old way of thinking has passed, or is passing away. A certain amount of hesitation and doubt is natural at such a time. Any one, for example, who is going to be ordained has certain problems to face. What obligations of belief does he take upon himself? Is it necessary for him to believe all the miracles of the New Testament great and small? Is it necessary for him to believe every article of the Creed quite literally? If that is not the case where must he draw the line? These are vital questions which must be faced.

Now I believe that it is right to recognize that at the present day there must be room in the Church for a certain latitude of opinion. There are many points on which a man who is firmly convinced of the truth of Christianity may have reasonable doubts, and therefore no one should be too anxious to impose on others his own standard of orthodoxy. This is a transitional age. Many questions are not settled. A rigid belief cannot be imposed. I will illustrate this with reference to the Bible, to miracles, and the Creeds.

First as to the Bible. A theological student a hundred years ago would have accepted without difficulty the whole of the Old and New Testament as containing accurate and veracious history. He would, probably, have had no difficulty in believing that the world was created in six days. He would have heard nothing of Old Testament criticism. He would have accepted the Books of Genesis and Exodus as a true account of the origin of mankind. A combination of causes has changed pur outlook. We have recognized that the science of the Old and New Testament is the science of the writer's own time. We have recognized that there is much that is legendary in the Old Testament. Are we definitely precluded from thinking the same about the New Testament? Are there no legends there also? It seems to me that it is not legitimate at present to draw a definite line and say, these things you need not believe, those you must. That, in my opinion, is not a tenable position. So in modern commentaries on St. Matthew you will see it stated that many of the stories at the beginning of that Gospel are legendary, or mythical, or midrashic, or symbolical, whatever phrase you like to use. They are not historically true. Now I do not think, whatever our own opinions may be, that we can dogmatically assert that we can allow a mythical element in the Old Testament, but not in the New Testament. The truth can only be attained in an atmosphere of free thought and free discussion.

Take again the question of miracles. A hundred years ago a theological student would have accepted without hesitation the miracles of the Exodus, or of Elijah and Elisha. Now the majority of theologians would have at any rate grave doubts on the subject. They would point out, and point out correctly, that for most of the miracles of the Old Testament the evidence is not good. Some people think that that is true also of New Testament miracles. I do not think we can exclude such people from the Christian Church, or say that every one who desires to be ordained must believe everything in the New Testament.

Or, thirdly, take the question of the Creeds. In the Articles it is said that all three Creeds, that of Athanasius, as much as the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, 'ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture'. But a great many people at the present day would have difficulty about the Athanasian Creed, and they feel a good deal of discomfort when certain clauses are imposed upon a mixed congregation to be recited in Church. Many theologians would feel that they could themselves make use of the Creed quite honestly, for they would look upon it as an historical document of the Church, and would realize that if our worship be based on historical tradition, there must be a good deal preserved which is not completely adapted to the thought of the day. All that is true, but it is also true that the Creed is not accepted in the sense of the Articles. More than that, both in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds there are clauses which we do not accept literally. The statements about 'sitting at the right hand of God', or the descent into hell, or the words 'he ascended into heaven', must be at any rate to some extent symbolical. It is clear that we cannot decide dogmatically how far this principle may be carried. Some people are inclined to allow themselves and others freedom up to a certain point, and then attempt to draw a rigid line, to say, 'thus far shalt thou go and no farther'. I do not think that such a position is possible or defensible. We must allow a wide freedom at the present day, for only in an atmosphere of freedom can these questions be thought out.

If the position outlined above is a correct one, the questions must inevitably be raised, what can we demand of any one if he is sincerely and truly to be called a Christian, what must any one who takes upon himself the responsibility of seeking ordination be sure about? What I think is demanded is sincerity, complete sincerity on this point. He must be prepared, without committing himself to this or that detail, without necessarily accepting every phrase or definition, fully to accept that conception of Christ which is put forward in the New Testament and has been taught throughout Christian history by the Christian Church. I do not think that we need have any reasonable doubt of what this is. It is the Incarnation. It is that God became flesh. It is that he who was Son of God 'for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate ... and was made man. He suffered and was buried. The third day he rose again. '
On the ethics of subscription see Henry Sidgwick, The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription, 1871.
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