Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
285
CHRISTIANITY

which presupposed the Pauline movement, are a protest against the hyperspiritualizing tendency. They insist that the Son of God has been incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and that our hands have handled and our eyes have seen the word of life. This same purpose, namely, to hold fast to the historic Jesus, triumphed in the doctrine of the Trinity; Jesus was not to be resolved into an aeon or into some mysterious tertium quid, neither God nor man, but to be recognized as very God who redeemed the soul. Through him men were to understand the Father and to understand themselves as God’s children. Thus the doctrine of the Trinity satisfied at once the philosophic intelligence of scholars and the religious needs of Christians. Only thus can its adoption and ultimate acceptance be explained. Its doctrinal form is the philosophic statement of beliefs held by the common people, who had little interest in theology, but whose faith centred in Jesus. It marks the naturalization of Christianity in the Greek world for the common people who believed in Christ, and for the philosophers who justified the faith to reason.

The historic and religious values of the doctrine of the Trinity may be illustrated by way of contrast. The Mahāyāna systems are the union of Buddha’s teaching with the forms of the Brahman philosophy. The historic Buddha—the man Gautama—is taught as only one of a limitless series of incarnations or (better) appearances. For his life on earth with his material body was only an appearance, a seeming, a phenomenon, and simultaneously with its activities the true Buddha existed unmoved and eternal. Thus the way was opened for other apparitional Buddhas, and different sects take different ones as the objects of faith and worship. Moreover, our true nature is also Buddha. The conscious life of all men is apparitional and illusive. Salvation is the comprehension of this fact, and in the apprehension of our essential oneness with the absolute. Hence the way of salvation is by knowledge. In the Mahāyāna gnosticism was triumphant, and the historic values of Gautama’s teaching and personality are lost. The Mahãyãna illustrates in part what would have followed the triumph of gnosticism in Christianity, for not only would the historic value of the life and teaching of Jesus have been lost, but with it the significance of humanity.

It is apparent that such a doctrine as the Trinity is itself susceptible of many explanations, and minds differently constituted lay emphasis upon its different elements. Especially is this true as its Greek terminology was translated into Latin, and from Latin came into modern languages—the original meaning being obscured or disguised, and the original issues forgotten. For some the first thought of God, the infinite and ultimate reality lying beyond and behind all phenomena, predominates. With these the historic manifestation of Jesus becomes only a guide to lead us to that immediate apprehension of God which is the end of theology, and to that immediate union with God which is the end of religion. Such an end is accomplished either by means of pure thought or by a oneness of pure feeling, giving as results the theological or philosophical construction of the concept God, or a mystical ecstasy which is itself at once immediate, inexplicable and indescribable. On the other hand, minds of a different and more concrete character so emphasize the distinctions God, Son and Holy Spirit, that a tritheistic construction appears—three individuals in the one Godhead: these individuals appearing, as for example in the Father and the Son, even in opposition to each other. In general we may say then that the Trinity takes on four differing aspects in the Christian church: in its more common and easily apprehended form as three Gods, in its ecclesiastical form as a mystery which is above reason to be accepted by faith, in its philosophic form as the highest reason which solves the ultimate problems of the universe, and finally, as a mode by which the spirit through an emotional content enters into communion with God himself.

To some Christians the doctrine of the Trinity appeared inconsistent with the unity of God which is emphasized in the Scriptures. They therefore denied it, and accepted Jesus Christ, not as incarnate God, but as God’s highest creature by whom all else was created, or as the perfect man who taught the true doctrine of God. The first view in the early Church long contended with the orthodox doctrine, but finally disappeared, and the second doctrine in the modern Church was set forth as easily intelligible, but has remained only as the faith of sects relatively small in number.

Allied with the doctrine of God which seeks the solution of the ultimate problem of all philosophy, the doctrine of salvation has taken the most prominent place in the Christian faith: so prominent, indeed, that to a large portion of believers The doctrine of the cross.it has been the supreme doctrine, and the doctrine of the deity of Jesus has been valued only because of its necessity on the effect of the atonement. Jesus alone of the great founders of religion suffered an early and violent death, even the death of a criminal. It became therefore the immediate task of his followers to explain this fact. This explanation was the more urgent because under the influence of Jewish monotheism the rule of God was accepted as an undoubted presupposition, so that the death of Jesus must be in accordance with his will. The early Church naturally used the terms and phrases of the prophets. He died the death of a criminal, not for his sins, but for ours. Isaiah liii. was suggested at once and became the central explanation: Christ is the suffering servant who is numbered with the transgressors and who bears the sins of many.

Jesus faced this problem perhaps before the opening of his ministry, certainly from his break with the ecclesiastical authorities. As his violent death drew near, his words indicated how he preserved his deep faith unshaken while yet recognizing the seeming failure of his mission. He devotes himself more exclusively to the little body of his faithful friends and commits his mission to them. As his work is sealed by his death his body is broken and his blood is shed for them. Through this is to come the victory which is denied to his life, as the seed cast into the ground and dead brings forth fruit. Our hints are few of Jesus’ teaching, but this much, at least, we cannot doubt unless we suppose that death took him unawares, or that his explanation of the impending fact took on some un-Jewish form; and further, that the earliest tradition misrepresents him. But these hypotheses do not commend themselves, and we accept the tradition that Jesus taught that his death was an atonement for others.

Beyond this the gospel does not go. Why vicarious suffering is needed, or why the God who is the loving Father does not simply forgive, as in the parable of the prodigal son, is not asked. For after all it is not theory which is central, but the fact of the death, and the reason assigned is simply “for others.”

In St Paul we find the beginnings of explanation, indeed of two explanations, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews the whole sacrificial system is found to culminate in Christ, of whom all priests and sacrifices are symbols, so that they are abolished with the coming of the great reality.

In the Greek world further questions are raised and the thought of the death as a ransom is prominent. To whom was the ransom paid? For a thousand years the answer was “to the devil.” He had gained control of man by man’s sin, and Christ set man free. God then, who is love, delivers us from evil through Christ, who pays the penalty of our transgression to the enemy of God and man. There were other theories also, indeed the germs of all later theories existed even in the second century, but this one prevailed. The heretic Marcion taught a variant, namely, the existence of two Gods, one of the Old Testament of law, the other of the New Testament of grace. Christ, unjustly condemned by the God of law, is given as reparation for all men who put their trust in him. From Anselm’s time (12th century A.D.) this theory of Marcion’s is held as orthodox in substance but is made monotheistic in form. St Anselm denied that any penalty was due to the devil, and in terms of feudal honour restated the problem. The conflict here is in God himself, so to speak, between his immutable righteousness and his limitless grace. In the sacrifice of Jesus these are reconciled. This doctrine of St Anselm’s attaches itself readily to texts of St Paul, for his teachings contain undeniably the vicarious propitiatory element.

These theories have to do with the being to whom the ransom is paid or the sacrifice offered. Another group of theories deals