Theology Based on Experience

Col. 1:16.---' For in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him.'

Two things require to be said at the outset. First, we are not concerned to defend all the language that St. Paul uses or the precise form of thought which he employs in his description of Christ. Thought-forms change from age to age. The Apostle had to work with the ideas current in his day, and some of his ways of putting deep theological truths may not appeal to us in the twenty-first century with our different mental outlook. Theology is only the attempt to give intellectual shape to Christian experience and certain facts of history connected with Christianity. And each age must form its own theology. That does not mean that we are to throw over our historic creeds or our traditional theological doctrines, but only that we should not be afraid, if occasion arises, of reinterpreting them or possibly restating them if we can find a better way of doing so. The important thing is St. Paul's estimate of Christ, not the precise language in which he expresses it.

The second preliminary thing is this: that those who criticize St. Paul for illegitimately deifying Jesus---for that is what the charge comes to---must ask themselves the question why it should ever have entered the head of the Apostle to do so. He must have seen something very remarkable in Jesus to make him want speak of Him as he does. Nor is he alone in his estimate of the crucified Galilean. The Fourth Gospel uses language just as high about Him when it describes Him as the Word which from all eternity was with God. We have also to take into account the Epistle to the Hebrews---very different from the Fourth Gospel or St. Paul's Epistles, and yet exalting Christ in much the same manner. And there are other writings in the New Testament which teach the same kind of exalted Christology. In a word we have to deal with a GENERAL ESTIMATE of Christ, and not simply with the estimate of one man.

It took a little time for the Early Church to think out who Jesus Christ was; and there is surely nothing strange about that. Are his contemporaries always able to give a statesman or a poet his proper place in history or in literature? We can trace clearly in the New Testament stages in the growth of the disciples' appreciation of Jesus. Always there was that about Him which puzzled them and woke their wonder. But at first, while He was with them, in the early stages of His ministry, He was to them a prophet or a teacher with a Divine mission. As the ministry was drawing to an end, Jesus revealed Himself to them as the Messiah. The Jews were expecting a political Messiah who must suffer in their estimate of His Person. Then came the Crucifixion and the falling to the ground of all their hopes. But, after a brief interval, the scene is entirely changed. The despairers are filled with joy and courage and go out to preach the gospel of the Risen Christ. Whatever difficulties there may be about the story of the Resurrection or the mode of it, the fact that Christ rose is the basis on which the Christian Church is built. It was the Resurrection that helped more than anything else to give the disciples a higher estimate of Christ.

But even with their certainty about the Resurrection, it was still as the Messiah that they thought of Him. In those early days they had not reached St. Paul's thought of Him. This is, for example, how He is described in St. Peter's sermon in Acts 2.: 'Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you.' That has not got the ring of the triumphant assertion of the Apostle in our text. We can trace a development in St. Paul's conception of Jesus, though after his conversion his thought of Christ was always very high. Thus in his earliest Epistle, First Thessalonians, he brackets Christ with God, writing to 'the Church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.' In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians he uses the familiar devotional formula: 'the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,' which shows clearly that Jesus had for him the value of God. At the end of his life, when he was in prison in Rome, he writes to the Colossians and gives to Jesus the highest possible place, attributing to Him a Cosmic or world-significance, identifying Him with the creative principle of the universe, and speaking of Him as 'the image of the invisible God.'

The question which we have to consider is, why the Apostle reached this lofty conception about Jesus. The fact that He rose from the dead cannot entirely account for it, though it is easy to see what an immense difference in their estimate of His Person must have been caused by their assurance that He had really triumphed over the last enemy. Surely what accounts for it all is Christian experience, experience of Christ's power, the realization that, though physically absent, He was spiritually present. The writer of the Fourth Gospel describes his purpose in writing in this way: 'Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, ye may have life in his name.' It has a double purpose, doctrinal and practical. He wants to show that Jesus is to be interpreted in terms of Godhead, and he wants his readers to realize that Jesus is a life-giver and can make a difference to them in their daily life.

Theology is based on experience. Now, we have got abundant evidence in the Epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles that to those early Christians came a marvelous spiritual experience. We read in Acts of the great joy which filled those early believers. We read of the spirit of unity and fellowship which possessed spirit of unity and fellowship which possessed them. They knew themselves to be one body animated by a common hope. A great enthusiasm seized them, and they went out boldly to preach the Good News. And all their experience centers round Jesus Christ. They became aware that He was still present with them and that from Him streamed out life-giving and regenerating forces which transformed them. Jesus Christ was then and there making a real difference in their lives. And it is the same in St. Paul's Epistles. The message which he preaches is the message of a Christ who is alive, and, through His Spirit working in men's hearts, can change them. The Apostle himself underwent a revolutionary spiritual change, and the dominating certainty of his life is that Jesus Christ is molding and shaping him and giving him power to do and to endure. He writes his Epistles in order that his converts may share his own experience. His Christology, his doctrine of Christ, is simply the attempt to render intellectually what he had experienced practically in the depth of his own soul. He grew in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. As his experience deepened, so did his estimate of Christ expand, until at last he opens this letter to the Colossians from his prison and says that Christ is the creative power or principle of Godhead.

After all, is there any satisfying explanation, worthy of Paul, worthy of his moral dignity and the height of his inspiration, apart from this, that he believed what he did because, face to face with Jesus Christ, he could do no other? Are we not at length led to see that that Life of Christ which was being lived in Paul's broken and renewed heart was a life to which there was for him no ultimate conclusive explanation in Nazareth or Bethlehem or anywhere else soever, save in the eternities with God Himself? Jesus Christ, as Paul had come to know Him, had about Him the rumor and mystery of the Godhead; and the Holy Spirit testified within Paul that this was so.

It is a scientific principle that the true nature of a cause becomes apparent only in its effects, and so the Divinity, or more accurately the Deity, of Jesus is truly realized only through the experience of His saving working in surrendered lives. As the Reformers put it, "to know Jesus truly is to know Him in His benefits." It was their experience of these benefits, of the moral and spiritual influence of Jesus in their lives, their finding that in Him the living God met them and touched them and made them new creatures---it was this, rather than any particular sayings or assertions of Jesus, that led the Apostles themselves, Jews though they were, with this as the fundamental article of their creed, 'the Lord our God is one,' to take Jesus out of the series of mere men and place Him within the Godhead and say, 'God was in Christ.' And these 'benefits' or saving effects are borne ever-increasing witness to down the ages in the lives of those who commit themselves unto Him, so that Jesus proves Himself to be no mere fact of past history but a super-historical figure, the living contemporary and Savior of men in every age.

We cannot really begin to answer the question, Who is Christ? until we have taken into consideration THE WORK of Christ, what He has done and is doing by way of redeeming man. Christianity is not just simply a system of theological doctrine or a code of ethical principles. It is a life, and a life sustained by Another, a life which finds its springs in Jesus, risen, ascended, and present now as spiritual power. St. Paul found it to be that; and the only reasonable explanation he could give of the fact was to put Jesus Christ into the Godhead and see in Him the creative and redeeming life of God at work in the world. And he gazes out into the distant future and dreams of the day when God's purpose in Jesus Christ shall have received complete fulfillment and all things shall be summed up in Him, when God's purpose of good shall be accomplished and a sin-saddened humanity shall have become a humanity redeemed by Christ.

Now, did St. Paul estimate Jesus too highly, and do our creeds estimate Him too highly? Surely not, if we take account of the whole range of Christian experience, which is simply a commentary on the power of Jesus Christ. There is indeed inspiration in the memory of the great and good men of the past. But we cannot explain Christian experience by saying that it is the result of a cherished memory. Jesus, the hope for the future, the hope of a world torn by sin and strife and in its best moments longing for a better state of things---let us store that hope as a very precious thing. But that hope will not account for Christian experience. Sinners are not made saints by hope. Jesus as a present source of life and power, the maker of character, the friend here and now of the sad and heavy-laden, the pardoner and encourager, the fount of creative spiritual energy---there we are on better ground. Memory, hope, power---Jesus is all three. But He is remembered so vividly because He is power; and He is the hope of humanity because of what He has already done. Take away the power and the hope will vanish and the memory slowly fade as His figure moves further and further away into the receding past.

And if our theology is to be living, if it is not to be just a matter of acceptance by the head of certain traditional beliefs about Jesus Christ, we must try to enter into the experience of Christ's power and presence which came to St. Paul and to those early Christians. The only way in which we can do that is to live here and now in friendship with Him, trying to live as if He were with us, reproducing in ourselves His spirit of love and goodness and self-sacrifice. If we do that, then we shall become increasingly aware that He can go with us on the road of life. and to be a Christian means to company daily with Jesus Christ.

In Christ. timothy maranatha