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.


| HOME | << | The Christian Faith | Undogmatic Christianity | The traditional definitions | Modernism | Value of the evidence | The witness of the Old Testament | The transformation of life | The Christian Church: The witness of history | The power of Christianity | >> |

IN the preceding chapters we have studied the history of the formation of the doctrine of the Christian Church concerning the Person of Jesus Christ up to the close of the development of Greek theology. It is not necessary to take our review any further as nothing has been added since that time to the authoritative teaching of the Church. Subsequent periods have had their problems, just as we have ours. The discussion of these problems may have illuminated this or that point in Christian teaching; but the traditional statement of the Church's belief has remained unaltered. Changes in human thought have sometimes seemed to increase our difficulties, sometimes have added new light. Some have held the traditional doctrine with rigid orthodoxy, others have thought they would make it easier to accept by minimizing it. There are (when thought is free) always those who seek to commend the Christian faith by teaching a reduced Christology. It is not necessary for us to study these variations; they have as little permanent influence as had all the many forms of semi-Arianism.


There is no doubt what the Christian faith has always been: that the Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, that thus as Messiah he fulfilled the hopes and expectations of the Jews, that he was truly God, although also perfect man, and thus in him God was revealed to mankind. This belief was formulated in language designed to guard carefully all sides of the truth: the reality of Christ divine, and the perfection of his human nature, the unity of his person, and the separateness of the two natures. These statements have been accepted by all orthodox Christians, and it may be noted that some of those who lay little stress on formulated statements of belief are most tenacious of the doctrine these statements are designed to guard.

This teaching comes with all the authority alike of the Bible and Christian thought, and is the fundamental Christian faith. It would in fact be widely held that the decisive test of whether a man is a Christian or not depends upon whether he accepts this faith; but there are objections put forward at the present day which may be shortly examined.


The first is that it is a mistake to consider that the essence of Christianity consists in any dogmatic belief. The test of a true Christian is whether he lives a Christian life, and the essence of a Christian life may be summed up in the one word love. Now it is quite true that no one is a good Christian who does not live a Christian life, and it is equally true that some people whose theological positions are unsound do lead a good Christian life. But that does not mean that it is of no importance what the world believes about Jesus. Christian ethics are dependent on and are the direct outcome of the Christian faith; for human life eventually depends on what men believe about reality. Unless the world has learnt to believe that goodness and love and sacrifice are real, the world will not recognize them as the principles on which conduct should be modelled. The philosophy of Nietzsche definitely denies this, and holds that human life should be guided by quite different principles. Mohammedanism teaches a quite different ethic from what Christianity does. In modern Germany there are those who desire to model their conduct on the War God, and express contempt for Christian ethical principles. Christianity cannot be the rule of conduct for mankind unless men's consciences are controlled by the Christian world view. The Bible and the Church alike teach quite clearly that Jesus Christ being the Son of God, the only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, can reveal to us the reality of the Godhead. He does it living as man in the world. Now if we are content to believe that Jesus was a man, living as a man among men, I do not say that his teaching would be without authority, but it would not have the same authority as it has had; it would in fact have no credentials to certify to its truth. There are those who are content to think that it is enough that from time to time good men such as Socrates or Plato or Marcus Aurelius have given us teaching about human life which makes them admirable models of conduct, and may be held to reveal the divine in man, and that this is sufficient. But I doubt whether it is so. At any rate it is quite different from what Christianity gives us, the authoritative revelation of God in Christ, declaring to us the ultimate reality of things and proclaiming the Christian ethic with the credentials of the Son of God. This is what the orthodox faith means. No form of reduced Christianity can give us the same satisfaction. The Christian life is and always has been dependent on the Christian faith.


A second Criticism would accept the reality of the Christian belief about Christ, but would be dissatisfied with the traditional mode of expression.
See especially 'The Divinity of Christ', by the Rev. W. Temple, M.A. (now Archbishop of York), in Foundations, by Seven Oxford Men, pp. 213-63.

It would say that this is in the language of an obsolete philosophy, and that the modern world demands a better statement. So it would be inclined not to lay much stress on the Creeds. Such a criticism is far less damaging to the traditional faith than that we considered first. It has been pointed out that we cannot claim infallibility for the Creeds any more than for the Bible, « See Chap. IV, pp. 138, 149. and if the Church felt itself compelled to adopt a new form of words it would not be exceeding its legitimate authority, nor does any loyalty to the Church demand that the Christian believer should consider the Christian Creeds, or any other formularies, as the best possible method of expression. But if the arguments that I have used in the history of Christian doctrine are sound, I do not think that this criticism is justified. I do not think that the acceptance of the traditional phraseology compels us to accept the philosophy which may have created it. It should not be looked upon as language which attempts to explain what is to the human intellect inexplicable, but as designed to guard all sides of the Christian truth. Quite clearly the fact of a divine incarnation is incomprehensible, quite clearly no human thought or analogy can make us understand how God could live on earth in human form. Christian speculation may indeed form theories such as may help us to accept these truths, but I think that these criticisms have really arisen from the mistaken idea that Christian theology claims to explain the Christian mystery.


A third criticism is that of the Modernist. It is always a little difficult to understand his position, and many Modernists are little more than bad theologians or bad historians. Perhaps their most typical position is that they would accept in some vague way the Christian faith, but would doubt the historical facts through which it has been taught and by which it is supported. I think that in all such criticism the question is one of degree. Some of the events and experiences narrated in the Gospels may quite reasonably be regarded as symbolical, and it is not necessary to draw a hard-and-fast line and say quite definitely what must be believed. The historical presentation of Christianity is the basis on which our faith rests, but historical truth never claims certainty for every detail. It is not based on simple fact but on wide generalizations. The majority of Modernists seem to me to be men of confused methods of thought, who have never really thought out the meaning of the language that they use. They fail singularly in any attempt that they make to provide a substitute for the traditional creed, but they probably intend to teach and believe the fundamental truths of Christianity.
See also what is said in Chapter XII, pp. 299-304.

I do not think that any of the criticisms that I have recorded would suggest to us a better definition of Christianity than that which I have attempted to present – the revelation of God in Christ, nor any better formulation of it than the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Person of Christ as it has been taught by the Christian Church. A careful study of Christian history would tell us that most of the false doctrines which from time to time have appeared have been due to a one-sided presentation of the Christian faith, or to confusion of mind. The traditional creed represents the balanced teaching which the Church as a whole has attained and preserved.


I accept then the traditional presentation of the Christian faith, and I will conclude this section of our investigation by putting forth certain broad lines of argument which may justify us in accepting this faith as true.

And first, I would state that the evidence for our belief is good; I will not say demonstrative – there is no such thing as demonstrative evidence in historical questions – but in the New Testament we have a collection of documents, the majority, at any rate, of early date and authentic, and these, as our investigations have shown, present to us a very definite conception of Christ. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the revealer of God to man, the Saviour. All these writings obviously record genuine religious experience. They are not artificial documents, written to prove a thesis. They are intended to teach what the writers themselves believed. The Gospel narratives are natural and spontaneous, and show no attempt at harmonizing. If we attempt by criticism to get behind our present Gospels and investigate the sources from which they are composed, we find just the same conception of Christ as we have in the Gospels themselves, not perhaps worked out as fully as in the later books, but with the same implications as we find there. There are no sound critical arguments for the existence of earlier strata which contained the history of a purely human Christ. I do not think that any form of evidence is so calculated to bring conviction to us at the present day as these spontaneous, unreflecting records of the life and teaching of Christ.

The presentation of this life and teaching which we find in the Gospels is worked out in different directions by the writers of the Apostolic Age. They all present the same conception of Christ, but looked at from different angles and expressed in different ways. They represent a spontaneous and natural development. Their agreement and their differences alike express the fact that their religious life had the same source throughout.

If we want further corroboration of the correctness of this view we may find it in the obvious failure of critical investigation to find good evidence for any other view. Destructive criticism has failed. The search for an historical Christ has brought into prominence many interesting features of the narrative, but has failed to establish any alternative interpretation.


The second argument that I would put to you is the witness of the Old Testament to Christ. As regards the Old Testament we are prepared, if necessary, to accept to the fullest extent the critical standpoint. Our argument does not depend on any adherence to traditional views. Whatever theory we may have as to the dates of the Old Testament books, it is in any case quite certain that there was among the Jews a definite Messianic expectation. We have traced the steps by which it grew up and the form which it took. « Chap. X. There may be differences of opinion as to when the hope first began, or as to the interpretation of some of the documents, but about the fundamental fact that the Jews expected one who was called the Messiah there can be no reasonable doubt at all. Then came Jesus, claiming to fulfil the Messianic hope, and doing so in a far more spiritual manner than Jewish expectation had conceived. Yet this spiritual fulfilment seemed to interpret correctly the vision of the Prophets. It may be suggested that prophecy produced its own fulfilment. In a sense it was intended to do so. The point is that the prophecy was fulfilled. The prophets predicted a time when the worship of Jehovah would be spread throughout the world. It was a strange dream for a nation so insignificant and so unsuccessful as were the Jews, but it was fulfilled. There is, it seems to me, between the Old Testament and the New Testament fulfilment a relationship which cannot be explained away. St. Paul saw a divine purpose in the history of the Jews, and the course of events justifies us in accepting that belief. The Jewish hope of the Messiah was the preparation for his coming. If you find a long period of preparation followed by fulfilment it is natural and legitimate to see indication of a divine purpose. I have said that if we cannot argue from a purpose in nature to the existence of God, our theistic belief justifies us in seeing in nature signs of a purpose. So it is in history. The course of history attains a new meaning read in the light of a belief in God.


A third argument that I would put before you is the great fact of the transformation in human thought and ideas which was worked by the coming of Christ. Take some early Christian book, for example the two Epistles to the Corinthians – analyse their contents. Work out the conception they present of the purpose of human life, their moral teaching, their spiritual ideals, the conception already formed of the Christian society. Then compare the results of your investigation with the teaching of any pre-Christian work, the highest attainable. Take some work of Plato, or Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius. Or take the best literature you can find of contemporary Judaism. Then notice the tremendous difference of thought and life between the two conceptions. What power was able to produce so great a transformation in so short a time ? Some new power has come into the world. Now if you put in its popular chronological place the teaching of Christ and about Christ contained in the Gospels, you have an adequate and satisfactory cause. If you say as some do that the Gospels and the Gospel conception of Christ were the products of the Christian Church and not its cause, you have the beginnings of Christianity left in the air, so to speak. You have no adequate explanation of how it came into existence. You cannot explain the genesis of the Christian Church. The only satisfactory explanation of the Christian Church as it is presented to us in Apostolic times is Jesus the Christ as he is presented to us in the Gospels.


The fourth consideration that I would put before you is the witness of Christian history; the fact of the growth and spread of the Christian Church. The custom of dating events from the Incarnation of our Lord is an illuminating fact in the study of history.

Our Lord had depicted the spread of the Gospel in the world in two parables, the Leaven and the Mustard Seed, and the fact that he spoke in this way of the growth of what must have then seemed a most insignificant movement must give us much food for reflection. The parables correspond with the facts. Silently and unobserved the leaven of Christ's teaching penetrated the world of the Roman Empire. Ter-tullian thought a Christian Emperor was an impossibility, but in a little more than one hundred years from his time it had been accomplished. In spite of the most determined opposition and bitter persecution, Christianity in less than three hundred years conquered the Roman Empire. That Empire became a prey to continuous waves of barbarian invasion. It seemed as if all traces of ancient civilization would be obliterated. But the barbarians who conquered the Empire were themselves conquered by the Christian Church, and there grew up the great fabric of Medieval Christianity, the Empire, and the Papacy. When this presentation of Christianity began to be broken up, it was only the beginning of a new growth. Out of the Empire there grew the nations of modern Europe, and in them, through the influence of national Churches, Christianity once more played a dominant part, and in the Churches of the Reformation a strong and virile Christianity was a new force in the world. The growth and spread, the misfortunes and triumphs of the Christian religion, have been the most prominent fact in the history of the world during nineteen hundred years.


I would mention lastly the power of Christ in the world at the present day, and I would speak of it first as a power in the world, and then as a fact of individual experience.

It might be held that at the present time it is over bold to speak of the power of Christianity in the world. The present century has seen the rending of the great Russian nation from its Christian tradition, and it might be maintained that the Christian faith had lost its hold over large sections of the modern world. That may be partially true. But it is equally true that neither Christian morality nor Christian civilization seem able to survive when the hold of the Christian faith is lost. The Church may fail in its work owing to its many defects, and may be weakened by its many divisions, but yet Christianity is, in the modern world as in the past, the strongest spiritual force. It is still winning new worlds for Christ. It is only by its power that even now the health of the community can be preserved. If we contrast the countries which own allegiance – -even imperfect allegiance – to Christ with those which have not come under his influence, or have repudiated their obligations, we shall find immense differences in the standard of life. The hope for the world lies in the possibility of spiritual regeneration through Christ.

Nor can any one with experience of religion doubt the power of Christ on the individual soul. Many who are influenced by his appeal might not be able to give a rational account of what they have experienced, but the power remains undoubted. In conversion and the regeneration of moral failure, the name of Christ can transform human nature to-day as it has always been able to do throughout its history. 'There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we may be saved, but only the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.'
See Acts iv. 10-12.
<< | top | >>