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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IN the preceding pages I have at considerable but not, I hope, undue length attempted to propound the Christian doctrine of God. That has included an investigation of what is as I believe a revelation to mankind, and an exposition of the opinions and teaching of many men of great intellectual power and religious inspiration who have devoted their lives to the study of divine things. Many questions have been discussed of profound difficulty, and I can only hope that I have been able to treat them with lucidity and accuracy. But now I think some will ask, what is the value of all this erudition? Has it any practical utility? If a clergyman were to put forth from the pulpit these technicalities of theology he would arouse very little interest, and would hardly be understood. What men require is religion, not theology.

This is a complaint that is often made. We are told that what people require is not dogma. We are asked to preach an undogmatic Christianity. Now of course there are some elements of truth in this demand. It is quite true that many dogmas do not seem to have any connexion with religious life. It is difficult, as I have pointed out, to understand the value for religion and life of the doctrine of the Procession. But although technical theology may often appear of slight value, a little consideration will show that the doctrines of Christianity are of vital importance.

In the first place it must be recognized that, although their influence is not always realized, intellectual conceptions are of paramount importance in life. Men's actions are governed, often unconsciously, by current intellectual conceptions. The power of religion depends upon a clear and definite insight into divine things. It must satisfy the intellect as well as the emotions. The formularies of the Church enshrine fundamental truths which influence conduct. There are questions relating to religion which are only matters of detail, and have been exaggerated into undue importance. The word dogma frightens people, but a little reflection will show that the very simplest religious acts imply tremendous truths.

Take for example the Lord's Prayer. It would be looked upon as a simple religious formulary. It begins with the words, Our Father. Very simple are these words from a religious point of view, but the statement that God is our Father is a great dogmatic truth. I think you will find that every clause in this prayer has no meaning apart from the acceptance of fundamental truths. 'Thy will be done, in earth as in heaven.' Think of the difficult questions that can be asked about the relation of the divine and human wills. No one's religion, however simple it may be, can be independent of dogmatic questions. Quite simple people, if once they begin to think about their religion, are troubled with them. A clergyman who has not thought about these questions and studied them will be constantly landed in difficulties, and if he cannot meet them he will fail in his work.

Another reason why theological study is necessary for religion is that, as a knowledge of Christian history will teach us, Christian truth demands from time to time restatement. In teaching the truths of religion it is not only necessary to teach them correctly, but also to teach them in language understood by the people, that is in language which harmonizes with the intellectual conceptions of the day. But these are constantly changing. The world thinks very differently now from what it did a hundred years ago, and a sermon preached then would have very little influence if preached now. So all through Christian history restatements of religious truth have been necessary. There was such a restatement in the time of the Schoolmen, there was again a restatement at the time of the Reformation. Neither the intellectual ideas of the thirteenth century nor those of the sixteenth have much meaning now, and if we are to commend the Gospel message we must state it in the language of the twentieth century. But that is impossible unless we know what the Gospel message is, unless we understand what are the realities of the Christian tradition, and have the theological training which will enable us to separate the fundamental from the changing. Unless our restatement of religious truth is loyal to the Christian tradition, we shall not be able to keep our hold on the religious world.

What then are the fundamental truths which we have to teach?

First, a belief in God. At one time it was the custom for many preachers to ignore the more fundamental truths. They concerned themselves with the trivialities of religion. I think there has been a change. At any rate, I believe that the most essential thing for the world at the present time is a real and sincere belief in God. I would go so far as to say that the chief cause of most of the troubles of the present day is that many people do not believe in God at all, and many believe only half-heartedly. There have been intellectual difficulties connected with the belief and there is a large body of modern literature expressing these difficulties. It is necessary for any clergyman who would keep his hold on his people to have a sound intellectual grip of theistic belief.

Our belief in God has to be expressed in human language, and much of it must be symbolical and relative, but in one direction nothing relative or symbolical can be allowed, and that is in relation to the moral attributes of God. Our moral instincts are the strongest proofs of God's existence. Therefore his moral attributes cannot be regarded as symbolical although our conception of them may be imperfect. The mercy, justice, and love of God must be higher than ours. Nevertheless the reality of all religion rests on the assumption that our human conceptions of the divine attributes, although they may be imperfect, are real and true. So in the same way when we speak of the Fatherhood of God, we are using an analogy from human experience. The Fatherhood of God is higher than human Fatherhood, but it must be real.

What I would emphasize is that the root of our religious difficulties at the present time lies in the fact that the majority of people do not believe really and vitally in God. They may not indeed deny the reality of God's existence, but the belief is vague and uncertain. To make it real and vital should be the aim of Christian ministers.

Our next fundamental belief is that in Jesus Christ. It probably is for most men the first, for people come to God through Christ. The lofty conception of God that we must inevitably form at the present day – a God who must transcend the universe which is so wonderful – makes men feel that he must be brought nearer to mankind, and that is what the revelation of Christ does for us. A God who seems remote, who is spoken of as a First Cause or even as the Absolute, makes no appeal to the religious instincts of mankind. The God of the philosophers seems far removed from the God of religion. But in Christ God is presented to mankind in a way which will appeal to our deepest religious instincts. This belief is summed up for us in two fundamental truths, the Incarnation and the Atonement – in the belief in the person and work of Christ, and no belief concerning our Lord is adequate which does not guard these truths. As we studied the tangled history of Christological controversies, we found in these two beliefs our guiding principles. No belief in Jesus Christ would be adequate which did not guard the reality of the revelation and the reality of redemption.

'No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.' No man has seen God, but many men saw Jesus Christ, and we can read of him in the Gospels and we can learn to believe in him, to revere him, to love him, and to worship him. Now it must be apparent that unless Jesus Christ be really God, he cannot reveal God. If he be not God, he is but a creature, and he knows as little about God as men do. That is why the belief in the true divinity of Christ is fundamental. It is less necessary than it has been in some ages of the Church to emphasize now the reality of the human nature, but it is equally apparent that unless Jesus has revealed God in human form, he cannot appeal to us. He not only told us about God, and thus revealed the most essential things about him, his righteousness, his justice, his mercy, his love; but being truly man he showed us the life of God in human form, and as man would be our leader and example.

Equally necessary is the Christian belief in the Person of Christ for the reality of his redemption. The fundamental fact is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Here let us distinguish between faith and the explanation of faith. Our faith is that Christ, the Son of God, died upon the Cross for us and for our redemption. Theologians, as we shall see when we come to study the theology of the Atonement, have held many and varied theories as to the explanation of this fact. These theological theories do not constitute our faith. They are merely explanations, valuable if they help us to understand, harmful if they become a substitute for faith. What the Atonement reveals is the reality of the divine love and divine sacrifice. Christ's death was a sacrifice in the highest sense and revealed to us that sacrifice is not an accident or flaw in life but of the very essence of God.

Man is called to sacrifice. No great thing in the world is accomplished without sacrifice. Men have been called to lay down their lives for their country, for their friends, for their religion. The mother sacrifices herself for her child, the patriot for his country, the loyalist for his king. Some men sacrifice themselves by living their lives, some by giving up their lives. Why should these things be? Why should not life be easy and smooth and comfortable as we desire? Why this awful visitation of a great war? The answer is that in his power of sacrifice the moral dignity of man is revealed, and the Cross of Christ tells us that that power of sacrifice is not a mistake or an accident but the most divine thing in man. It was because Christ was in very truth God that he revealed to us sacrifice as an attribute of the Godhead.

When I wrote about the Holy Spirit I said that it was a doctrine which appealed directly to our religious life. I think no one will doubt that, because there are very few people who have not religious experience. On its practical side the doctrine of the Spirit may be looked at from two aspects. There is the individual aspect and the corporate aspect.

The individual aspect is the feeling that all religious people have, although they may express it in many different ways, that God speaks to them in their heart. That there is a divine power which helps our infirmities, and gives us in a real sense a knowledge of God. I suppose the most conspicuous example of that belief would be a meeting of the Society of Friends, but that body has no monopoly of such belief or experience. A consciousness of the power of the Spirit in our life is one of the most fundamental facts of religion.

But some of those who are most influenced by this belief in the individual work of the Spirit fail to realize the corporate side – the Spirit as inspiring and guiding the Church. Just as the individual Christian may be thought of as the temple of the Spirit, so also may the Christian Church be so inspired. God's spirit leads men into all truth. So it has done in past ages, and so it still does. It is because we believe that the Spirit has guided the Church in ages gone by that we accept the fundamental truths that have always been taught on the authority of the Church, but we cannot limit the action of the Holy Spirit to the past. The Jews at the time of our Lord believed that the work of the Holy Spirit had been entirely confined to the past. They shut their ears to all new teaching, and so they rejected the Messiah. Whenever old-fashioned people shut their eyes to progress, progressive people become revolutionary. Church history shows that progress is made not by plunging into new ideas any more than by clinging obstinately to tradition, but by the thoughtful moderation which steadily sifts new and old truths. That is why in the Whitsuntide collect we pray that we may have a right judgement in all things, and why we believe that the particular gift of the Spirit is wisdom.

God works now as always in the past through inspired human intellects. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of godly wisdom which teaches us to learn what is true and to reject what is false. It is the Spirit which worked in the Church in past ages and works in it now. We believe not in the infallibility of any age or person, or any body of persons, but in the Holy Spirit gradually revealing God's truth through what is highest in every age. The belief in the Spirit is vital to the Church.

Now it is because the doctrine of the Trinity guards carefully all these truths – God transcendent, and God immanent, God incarnate, God the Creator, and God living on earth as man, God as our Father, and God in us – that the Church adheres so closely to what some have thought an irrational creed; but even in itself the doctrine of the Trinity has always made an appeal to the religious consciousness as guarding the mysteriousness of the universe. I would ask to be allowed to conclude my argument in words that I wrote some little time ago and cannot improve upon.
What it means to be a Christian, by the Rt. Rev. Arthur C. Headlam (London, Faber & Faber, Ltd.), pp. 128, 129.

'I have spoken throughout of the doctrine of the Trinity as an abstract doctrine, as one which whatever its implications might be did not in itself make an appeal to our religious sense. There are many who would agree with that statement. I believe that it is not really true. I think that to a sincere and believing Christian the doctrine of the Trinity makes a direct appeal. I would only point out this, that the greatest hymn of praise in the Christian Church is the Te Deum, which is a hymn to the Trinity, and that our English hymnary contains few more magnificent hymns than that of Bishop Heber in which he combines the imagery of Isaiah and the Apocalypse with that of the Trinity in a great ascription of praise.

'Holy, Holy, Holy! all the Saints adore thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and Seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert and art and evermore shall be.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.'

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