|IS THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION DECLINING?|
PROFESSOR OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY.
THE question whether the Christian religion is declining is agitating the public mind in some measure at the present time. This is due to the many changes that are taking place in the forms of religion, the types of doctrine, and the methods of action in the numerous religious organizations which bear the name of Jesus Christ. Are these changes symptoms of disease and decay in the Christian religion, or are they evidences of renewed vitality and enlargement by growth? It is quite evident that many things which have been regarded as important and even essential in the past have declined in importance, and some of them seem to be on the eve of disappearing altogether. It is not surprising that those who have been trained to regard these as essential to Christianity should think that the Christian religion is declining with them. If, however, these things are not so important as has been supposed, but have gained for a time an exaggerated importance, then their decline to their normal position and the advance of other things to their rightful place, as more important things than has hitherto been supposed—all this is evidence of a healthful advance in Christianity. This question, therefore, will be answered in accordance with the point of view of the one who considers it. If it is to be answered correctly we must put aside all prejudice, and examine the whole situation candidly and with a critical scientific spirit. It is impracticable within the bounds of this article to examine this question on all sides. We can only make a few suggestions relating to it.
It is necessary at the outset to approach the question aright. We must distinguish between what is essential to the Christian religion and what is non-essential. This is not so easy a task as one might imagine. We can only make this distinction generally, and not with scientific precision. In the study of religions we have to distinguish (1) the more fundamental things in the historical institutions and experience in life; (2) the doctrines which express the popular belief or scientific knowledge of the adherents of the religion; and (3) the expression of the religion in ethical principles and moral conduct. The order of development is always life, doctrine, morals. The earlier stages of the Christian religion and of Christian experience at any time and in any community is the vital experience and the institutional organization. Doctrines of faith and knowledge presuppose the vital relation, and morals