The Faith and its Interpretation

[Jude 3]---'Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints.'

It is not enough for us to know how a truth was read with the best knowledge of a bygone day; we must read it in the light of our own if it is to illuminate us. It is not enough that an interpretation of some fragment of Christ's teaching harmonized with the moral sense of the past; it must harmonize with ours if it is to have over us a real and moving power. We must be able to identify our Christianity with our best. We cannot suffer the suspicion that we accept as Christians anything that is below the level of the highest knowledge and the best morality of our day. Loyalty to the faith, and profound confidence in its truth, cannot endure the thought that there can be anything in the finest light or highest moral feeling of the age which Christianity shirks and is unable to face.

Thus we cannot regard the faith once delivered as a kind of fossil thing, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, to be passed on by us to others, a lifeless heirloom. Loyalty to the faith is conventionally thought to consist in trying to hold unchanged the aspects it had of old. We look back to some far off time, and see that to our fathers the Creed was a power for truth and life, and we assume that the security for its being the same to us lies in holding it exactly as they held it; and thus we ally the Christian faith with intellectual positions that have become obsolete and with stages of moral culture that have been outgrown. Somewhere in the past we feel there was a golden age of orthodoxy, and a vision arises before us of saintly Fathers and medieval monks, and reverence for the great and good other days, and for their service to Christ, comes to mean that we must think like them on the religious facts that are common to them and to us. Differences of race, temperament, intellectual outfit, moral and spiritual atmosphere are ignored, and we fail to see how impossible it really is for, say, a modern Person, though he holds the same truths, to think of them and believe them as did a Jew of the first century, a Greek of the fourth, or an Italian monk of the thirteenth. That they may be to us the power they were to them, that they may enlighten our minds and stir our moral aspiration, they must speak to us in the tongue of our own day. There must be an adjustment to changed intellectual and moral conditions. Their appeal must come in a form intelligible to us ourselves, and there must be such translation of ancient truth that its light can be felt by modern Christians to be the truest, and its morality the very highest we can see.

Christianity is God's great message in the past, but is fullness is inexhaustible and it is equally His message to the present. The march of science is part of His teaching now and through all the centuries, nor can we interpret ancient revelation and read its meaning for ourselves uninfluenced by the lessons He has given to our time. The Christian revelation means life and truth for us as well as for those to whom it first came; but we thwart its living reality to us if we encumber it with intellectual or moral views that may indeed have helped men of other days, but are not an essential part of the truth and have now been left behind. This linking of eternal truth with changing views is always a peril to Christian belief. We know how Christianity was once identified with a particular view of the physical world, and it was assumed that men could not be Christian unless they believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Then those who loved Christ and loved truth had to face the trying problem of an antagonism between the two, and it was thought that the new science must involve the downfall of Christianity. There was the need for intellectual revision in Christian faith, and it was accomplished, and the faith is with us still.

It was believed once that little children dying unbaptized were condemned to unending woe. Men were able to fit this in with the current thoughts, of God, and there was no revolt of the moral sense to convince them that such a view was wrong. Such belief is impossible for us. There has been a great development and refinement in our interpretation of the character of God as crude and imperfect. We could not reconcile such ideas with our moral consciousness. There came the necessity for a moral revision in the way men held the faith, and it was accomplished, and the faith is with us still. And so we get back to the thought that larger knowledge and a more developed moral feeling cannot be reconciled with many of the views held by our ancestors in the faith, and that our traditional belief needs constant intellectual and moral revision if it is to be to us a fresh and living power. Faith is always in danger where it gets in any way severed from what that intellect accepts. When Christianity becomes associated with intellectual positions which are seen to be untrue, or the moral aspects of a Christian doctrine clash with our highest ethical feeling, then Christianity begins to lose its power over us, there is an ever-widening breach between it and what we really revere, and the supremacy of Christianity over the individual is taken by something else that is really his best. [And I am not talking about the lies of the new age movement]

Let us repudiate all assumption that Christianity is condemned by any advance of knowledge, an that no intelligent and reasonable men can hold the great convictions that have enlightened and empowered myriads of souls through sixty five Christian generations. We do not believe that "the best yield of the latest time" in knowledge or in ethical conviction can find a stumbling-block or disappointment in Christianity. Where it is so it is not Christianity but our interpretation of it, and our interpretation needs revising. It is hard to sympathize with the wailings that are sometimes heard about bygone ages of faith, as though faith were better where there was more credulity. There may be a very true service of faith in rejecting some teaching offered in Christ's name, if it contradicts one's convictions of goodness, justice, and love, and in reading old beliefs only in the light of His newest lessons. Thus, orthodoxy becomes not the stereotyped repetition of any one century's doctrines, but the truest interpretation of Christian truths in the thought and language proper to the age.

That the principle of orthodoxy has its rightful place and use is clearly enough manifested in the New Testament. When St. Paul bids Timothy 'Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me,' he is clearly enough declaring that for immediate use the truth, so far as it is at present known, may and must cast itself into a definite and available expression, but his prayer in the next chapter, 'The Lord give thee understanding in all things,' is not therefore a meaningless or hopeless prayer. When St. Jude exhorts his hearers that they should 'earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints,' he is beyond all doubt asserting that there is an accepted substance of the religion which he and they believe. But no one surely reads that overburdened text aright who does not ever hold in his remembrance that the faith of which Jude speaks is more moral, than doctrinal, more personal than abstract, and that being the word of life it can be effectively contended for only as it is constantly expected to open new riches in the advancing relations to the life of men. In that great text truth and orthodoxy meet and blend, not by the limiting of truth to that which the disciple has already consciously appropriated, but by the enlargement of orthodoxy till it potentially posses all that is included in, and to be unfolded from, the Word of God, the Christ who is the inexhaustible possession of the Christian and the Church. On the other hand, the evil disposition of orthodoxy was never more perfectly displayed than when St. John himself said to the Lord, ' Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and we forbade him, because he followeth not us.'

In Christ, timothy