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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Liberal Orthodoxy of To-day

By Lyman Abbott (1835–1922)

[From his Statement of Belief, before the Council of Clergymen and Laymen assembled to install him as Pastor of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, N. Y., 16 January, 1890.]

MY faith in God rests on my faith in Christ as God manifest in the flesh—not as God and man, but as God in man. It is true that the argument for a Creator from the creation is by modern sciences modified only to be strengthened. The doctrine of a great first cause gives place to the doctrine of an eternal and perpetual cause; the carpenter conception of creation to the doctrine of the divine immanence; the Latin notion of an anthropomorphic Jupiter, renamed Jehovah, made to dwell in some bright particular star and holding telephonic communication with the spheres by means of invisible wires which sometimes fail to work, dies, and the old Hebrew conception of a Divinity which inhabiteth eternity, and yet dwells in the heart of the contrite and the humble, takes its place. But the theological argument is strengthened, not weakened, by the doctrine of evolution; creation is more, not less, creation because it is the thought, not the mere handiwork, of God. It is not possible even to state the doctrine of an atheist creation without using the language of theism in the statement. But the heart finds no refuge in an Infinite or an Eternal Energy from which all things proceed. That refuge is found only in the faith that God has entered a human life, taken the helm, ruled heart and hand and tongue, written in terms of human experience the biography of God in history, revealed in the teaching of Christ the truth of God, in the life of Christ the righteousness of God, in the Passion of Christ the suffering of God….

My eschatology is all summed up in one faith: Christ shall come to judge the world. The dogma of the decisive nature of this world’s probation for every man I repudiate as unscriptural. The hypothesis that Christ will be presented in another life to all who have not known Him here I do not accept, for lack of evidence to support it. I cannot offer to any man a hope of future repentance, whether this side or the other of the grave. But I refuse to believe that the accident of death transmutes God’s mercy into wrath and makes repentance impossible and so closes the door of hope upon the soul forever. What may be the resources of God’s mercy in the future I do not know, and shrink from the dogmatism which attempts to define them. The most awful fact of human life is the power of the human soul to accept God or reject Him as it will. What God may do in the future to overcome the choice of evil I do not know; but I am sure that He will never violate the sacred freedom of the soul and so destroy man in seeming to save him, and never attach other than darkness and death to persistent sin. But I am not less sure that “His mercy endureth forever,” and that no soul will be left in the outer darkness which that mercy can call into light; that the end of Christ’s redeeming work comes not until He delivers up the kingdom to God and the Father, has all things put under His feet, and is Himself subject unto Him that put all things under Him that God may be all in all; and that when that glad day comes, the song of rejoicing will rise from every creature in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea. If there are then any voices not joining in that choral of redeeming love, I believe it will be because they are silent in that second death from which there is no resurrection. Endless conscious sin I do not believe in. I could endure the thought of endless suffering, but not of sin growing ever deeper, darker, more awful. It has grown to me unthinkable; I believe it is unscriptural. For my conception of sin depends also upon and has grown out of my faith in and love for Christ. That conviction of sin which I in vain endeavored artificially to evoke in my childhood’s days has grown unsummoned in my heart. When I joined the church a good elder asked me what I thought of sin in connection with the Lord Jesus Christ. I did not know that it had any connection with the Lord Jesus Christ, and I did not understand his question, and told him so. I understand it now. When I think how sin deranges and destroys such a nature as Christ has made illustrious, that it is sin against such a love as He has manifested, that it estranges and separates from such a God as He reveals, sin seems to me a more awful penalty than any which can be inflicted because of it, and to save from sin an infinitely diviner work than to save from any consequences which it may involve, natural or inflicted, here or hereafter. The motive of my personal life, the inspiration of my Christian activity, is not fear of pain and penalties, but horror for sin and love for Christ.

On my faith in Christ rests also my faith in the Bible. The Bible is the casket which contains the image of my Lord—that is enough; whether it be lead or silver or gold is matter of minor concern. There are modern writers on law that may be as valuable as Moses; there are poems of Browning and Tennyson and our own Whittier which are far more pervaded with the Christlike spirit than some in the Hebrew Psalmody. But there is no life like the life of Christ; and the law and the prophets are sacred because they point to and prepare for Him; and the gospels sacred because they tell the story of His incomparable life; and the epistles sacred because they interpret that life as continuous in the experience of His church. The Bible is unique and incomparable in literature, because it is the history of the revelation of God in human experience, beginning with the declaration that God made man in His own image, bringing out in law, history, drama, poetry, prophecy, that divine image more and more clearly, until it reaches its consummation in the portrait of Him who was the express image of God’s person and the brightness of His glory.

So my faith in the miracles rests also on my faith in Christ—He himself a greater miracle by far than any attributed to Him. That beneficent power should have flashed from such a Christ, that death should be powerless to hold such a Christ in the grave, that angels should have announced His coming and proclaimed His resurrection—all this seems to me natural and easy to believe; as easy to believe in these scintillations of divinity from the Person of Christ as to believe in scintillations of genius from a Shakespeare or a Dante. I accept the Christian miracles as adequately attested by competent witnesses. I count the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the best attested fact of ancient history, itself attesting His divinity and inaugurating that life of His in His church which carries on to its consummation the kingdom of God. But my faith in Christ rests not on the miracles, but on Christ Himself. Even as He wrought them He declared them to be but inferior evidences of His divinity. Their subordinate importance is clearer than ever, now that they are no longer wonders which we witness, but the histories of wonders witnessed by others. To believe in Christ—that the Father is in Him and He is in the Father—this is Christian faith. The spirit which in the modern church has sometimes sought to found Christian faith on signs and wonders appears to me to be almost as much one of unbelief as the spirit which outside the church denies the miraculous altogether. Miracles are witnesses to divinity, revelation is the unveiling of divinity, but Christ is Himself Divinity, and he who accepts Christ—who loves Him, reverences Him, obeys Him, follows Him, lives to be like Him—is Christ’s disciple, however illogical may seem to me to be his philosophy about natural and revealed religion, about nature and the supernatural. My faith in immortality also rests upon Christ—upon His word, His resurrection. I am coming to distrust all mere philosophical arguments for personal immortality and to rely upon one who professed to be a witness, to testify to the things which He had seen and heard, to have come from God and to be going to God. When He tenderly appeals to me, “Ye believe in God, believe also in me,” my heart responds, “I do believe,” and what He says I accept, because He is a faithful and true witness.

On this and on every other spiritual theme I more and more distrust the vaunted “scientific method” and more and more rest upon personal faith in the Christ of God, bearing a witness confirmed by the experience of God in my own soul. And I more and more incline to believe that immortality is not the universal attribute of humanity—that God alone hath immortality; and we have it only as here or hereafter we are made partakers of the divine nature. It can hardly be necessary to add that my hope for myself and for the world rests on Christ; that is, on the helpfulness of God as manifested in Christ. The two theories of life which seem to me to be contending in our age are essentially the same which have been contending ever since the days of Paul—the Pagan and the Christian. Pagan philosophy allows man no higher faculty than the senses and the reason; Christian philosophy endows him with a mystic sense which perceives the invisible. Pagan philosophy casts him on his own resources, if it does not deny him even free will and make him the creature of the forces which environ him. Christianity believes in the power of Infinite Love above, which is drawing humanity to itself. In the Pagan philosophy there is no room for revelation, miracles, atonement, regeneration, divinity of Christ, presence of the Holy Spirit, prayer. Granted the Christian postulate—a God in Christ drawing the world to Himself—and revelation or the unveiling of God, miracles or witnesses to God, atonement or reconciliation to God, regeneration or the beginning of the life of God in the soul of man, the Holy Spirit or the presence of God with men, prayer or the communion of men with God—all follow. The Christian faith is my faith; and because I believe that there is in it a hope for every form of human despair, I have given my life to its proclamation. Redemption is not, to my thought, a mere recovery of man from a fall and his restoration to a primal state of innocence. It is the development of the individual soul, and so of the race, from childhood’s innocence, through fall, temptation, sin, and grace, to a divine and manly virtue. Forgiveness is not a remission of penalty, which may be remitted or may remain, but a remission of sin, a personal cleansing and purification, often through punishment, often without it. Sacrifice is not necessary to induce God to remit penalty—it is not an expiation; nor is it necessary to enable God to remit penalty—it is not a substitution….

I might, brethren, have presented to you a theological statement which would have been both more comprehensive and more compact; but it would have been less my own. My theology has changed in the past and will change in the future; but if the past be an augury of the future, it will change only to make Christ more central. It is imperfect and always will be; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, and the truth of God is known in its entirety by none of us. But as the years go by and creeds are less, faith and hope and love are more to me; the faith that looks with ever clearer vision upon the invisible and eternal, while all things earthly and temporal grow more shadowy; the hope that amid all the wreckage of life hears ever, like a bird-song in the tempest, “All things work together for good to those that love God,” and the love which counts all humanity one great brotherhood, because children of that Father of whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.