Ecce Homo; a Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ (by John Robert Seeley, 1866)
First Notice, June 1866
Ecce Homo is nearly the first attempt which has been made to write in English a life of Christ like those which have exercised so much influence in France and Germany. Its great popularity shows how deeply the English public are interested in the subject, and with what an intense feeling of expectation they are awaiting the advent of those great questions which have hitherto been discussed in this country, as it were, under the breath and by a minority of writers almost infinitesimally small. It is as strange as it is true that whilst in almost every respect England has always been by far the freest of European countries, and also, notwithstanding some commonplaces to the contrary, the most intellectually active, it has also been in possession of a far larger amount of bond fide orthodoxy—if by that phrase we understand a genuine national belief in the supernatural order of facts connected with the Christian religion—than any other country whatever in which there has been any free discussion at all.
It is not necessary on the present occasion to make more than a passing allusion to this remarkable fact, but it is a natural introduction to the consideration of the work before us, as it tends to explain its popularity and to some extent to account for its principal defects. The names of Strauss and Renan have been for many years familiar to a considerable section of English people, but neither their works nor the principles upon which they write have made much way amongst us. Plenty of English writers, Mr. F. Newman and Mr. Greg for instance, to say nothing of Theodore Parker and other Americans, have denied the truth of the gospels, but they have almost always done so in a controversial way, and have never taken them up simply as historical documents to be examined upon the same principles and in the same manner as would be generally considered proper with respect to any other set of incidents. Unorthodox English writers on these subjects have occupied more or less the position of Voltaire. They have set themselves to prove that the Christian miracles, for instance, could not have happened, or in point of fact did not happen; but no Englishman of any considerable eminence, with the exception of Gibbon, who wrote under cover and confined himself to irony and insinuation, has ever set himself to inquire seriously into the problem, what we must suppose to have happened if we assume that the evidence before us is to be dealt with on common historical principles.
It is, however, gradually becoming more and more plain to every understanding, that this is the problem upon which all theology hangs, and which must be solved so far as it can be solved or be given up as insoluble, if the debates which agitate men’s minds so deeply are to come to any practical result. The author of Ecce Homo would probably describe his book as an attempt to solve this problem. He tells us that feeling dissatisfied with the current conceptions of Christ, he felt ‘obliged to reconsider the whole subject from the beginning, and placing’ himself ‘in imagination at the time when he whom we call Christ bore no such name, but was simply, as St. Luke describes him, a young man of promise, popular with those who knew him and appearing to enjoy the Divine favour, to trace his biography from point to point, and accept those conclusions about him . . . . which the facts themselves, critically weighed, appear to warrant.’ The work, he tells us, is a mere fragment meant ‘to furnish an answer to the question, What was Christ’s object in founding the society which is called by his name, and how is it adapted to attain that object?’ It is to be followed by an attempt to describe Christ as ‘the creator of modern theology and religion.’ Such is the object of the book as announced in the preface.
The book itself is divided into two parts. The first describes Christ’s baptism and temptation, the character of the society which he founded, the conditions of membership in it, and its general nature and objects. The second part, which is called ‘Christ’s Legislation,’ begins by comparing Christ’s society to other societies, and its laws to their laws, and then proceeds to discuss a variety of laws which, as the author believes, Christ gave to his society; viz. the general law of love, which he calls the ‘ enthusiasm of humanity,’ and the specific laws of philanthropy, edification, mercy, resentment, and forgiveness; the whole concludes with a summary from which any one may, in a few minutes, get an idea of the main purpose of the book.
It is not necessary to say much of its literary characteristics. It is obviously the work of a man of taste and cultivation, and it shows acuteness of mind and much power of expression. It does not in our judgment show any considerable range or depth of study, and there is a superfine air about the morality and sentiment in general which often degenerates into sentimentality. For instance, there is a passage (pp. 102-105) about the woman taken in adultery, where the writer spins out the nine verses in which the story is told into four pages of the style of which the following sentences are a fair sample:
‘Some of the leading religious men of Jerusalem [the scribes and Pharisees, says St John] had detected a woman in adultery. . . . What became of the criminal appeared to them wholly unimportant; towards her crime or her character they had no feeling whatever, not even hatred, still less pity or sympathetic shame.’
Then follows half a page about what they 'might have said,' and 'probably would have argued,' and 'might fluently and plausibly have urged.' Christ on the other hand was utterly shocked:
‘The effect upon him was such as might have been produced upon many since, but perhaps upon scarcely any man that ever lived before. He was seized with an intolerable sense of shame. He could not meet the eye of the crowd. . . . In his burning embarrassment and confusion he stooped down so as to hide his face, and began writing with his finger on the ground, &c. &c.’All this is mere invention which would not be in good taste in a novel, but which, in what claims to be a grave historical criticism on the most solemn of all subjects, is something worse than a fault of taste.
It would not have been worth while to notice at length a defect of style, if it had not afforded at the same time an excellent illustration of the fundamental and incurable defect of the whole book, which in a few words may be stated thus: the book is a novel, and not a good novel, under a critical disguise. It gives the impression of being written by a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The skin is the skin of the rationalist wolf, but the voice is the voice of the tamer and more orthodox animal. The author will assume nothing. He will take up the evidence before him. He will study the facts themselves, and accept the conclusions which, when critically weighed, the facts will warrant. This is all very well, but how does he redeem these pledges? There is not a word, or hardly a word, of criticism in the whole book. He makes no attempt to estimate the value or character of his materials, and he writes throughout under the influence of a delusion which has not been without its effect on much more considerable men—M. Renan for instance. This delusion is neatly expressed in the following passage:
‘Only a well-trained historical imagination, active and yet calm, is competent so to revive the circumstances of place and time in which the words were delivered as to draw from them, at a distance of 1800 years, a meaning tolerably like that which they conveyed to those who heard them.’Only part of one word of this is true, and that is the word ‘only,’ in so far as it is negative. Nothing else certainly is competent to ‘perform the task suggested, but neither is the ‘historical imagination’ competent, however well it may be trained. You cannot make bricks without straw. No human creature knows, or ever can or will know, how men thought and felt in Palestine between A.D. 1 and A.D. 33, and when the ‘historical imagination ’ sets to work on the subject it gives us only at best a nineteenth-century conception of the sort of person who, according to our views, and with our subsequent knowledge, we choose to imagine as the first author of the changes which Christianity has produced in the world. It appears to us that the task undertaken from very different points of view by M. Renan and the author of Ecce Homo is simply hopeless upon one supposition, and presumptuous, as well as hopeless, on another. If Jesus Christ was a mere man, and if the rules of criticism require us to set aside as fabulous or legendary all the miraculous events related in the four gospels, which is M. Renan’s view, then the only witnesses from whom we learn anything whatever on the subject are so entirely discredited that we cannot trust anything they say. The Apostles’ Creed ought to be reduced to the words: ‘I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate,’ but the rest of the history would become the domain of the ‘historical imagination,’ and would be filled with pictures, satisfactory, no doubt, and edifying to the mind which produces them, but probably offensive to every one else. [Some years ago the author of the present article asked a Savoyard guide whether he ever read the Bible, and being informed that the priests objected to it, advised him to do so observing that the Old Testament was the history of the Jews, and that the New Testament the history of Jesus Christ. The guides face brightened up at once, ‘L’histoire de Jésus-Christ—oui, monsieur, je connais bien ca, Isaac Laquedem, roman par Alexandre Dumas.’ This suggests the proper title-page for such works as M. Renan’s or Ecce Homo.]
On the other hand, if Jesus Christ was God Incarnate it is obvious that the ‘historical imagination’ is utterly out of place, and for this plain reason. The imagination, historical or otherwise, cannot create —it can only reproduce and combine the materials which it already possesses, but such a fact as a divine incarnation lies altogether beyond the sphere of all former or subsequent experience, and the attempt to discover, by the aid of the historical imagination, what kind of being an Incarnate God, of whom we have only imperfect accounts, really was, is like trying to imagine the creation of the world, or any other fact which lies altogether beyond our reach. Whatever view, therefore, is taken, or is ultimately to be taken, of the character and nature of Christ, such an inquiry as that which forms the subject of Ecce Homo is equally out of place.
Whoever tries to write a life of Christ must make his choice between attempting the solution of an obviously insoluble problem, and extracting historical truth from documents which he himself convicts of being tissues of delusion and credulity. There is no escape from the horns of this dilemma.
We will proceed to illustrate the impossibility of the undertaking of the author of Ecce Homo by an examination of some parts of the book itself. The whole amount of the knowledge now existing in the world in relation to Jesus Christ is contained in the New Testament; and all but a very small amount is contained in the four gospels. The claims set up to traditionary knowledge on the subject do not deserve serious discussion. Indeed, these claims are now admitted to be claims to legislative power, under a thin disguise, and not to any special knowledge of matters of fact derived from hearsay, which is the true meaning of the word tradition. Substantially, then, our whole knowledge on the subject is contained in the four gospels; and that knowledge cannot possibly be increased. Whatever in them is incomplete, obscure, or ambiguous, must remain so to the end of time, and can never receive any but a conjectural explanation. This being so, it would be natural to suppose that a person intending to go back to the fountain head, and take ‘a survey of the life and work of Jesus Christ,’ would begin by inquiring what the four gospels are; —who wrote them ?——when were they written ? —what means of knowledge had the writers?—how far are they accurate?—is every part of every gospel of equal authority?—do our copies fairly represent the originals? These and other questions of the same sort imperatively require an answer before the work, which the author proposes to himself, can be under taken with any sort of prospect of a satisfactory result.
In prosecuting this inquiry there is one question which takes precedence of all the rest. What view, for critical purposes, does the author take of the question of miracles? Will he discard all miraculous stories as fabulous, as he would in dealing with common history, or does he believe miraculous narratives to be credible if asserted on good evidence? If so, what evidence does he consider good enough for the purpose? What are the grounds of his opinion? How does he apply it to the case of the gospels? Both Strauss and Renan deal boldly and clearly with this subject. The author of Ecce Homo deals with it in a hesitating and partly fallacious and sophistical manner. His book, in fact, appears to be an attempt to ascertain what account the four gospels give of Christ, whether truly or falsely. This is a perfectly legitimate inquiry, though we do not think it is handled successfully in Ecce Homo. However, it is mixed up at least in one leading passage with what appears to us to be sophistry. In a chapter headed ‘Christ’s Credentials,’ the author says:
‘To deny that Christ did undertake to found and to legislate for a new theocratic society, and that he did claim the office of Judge of mankind, is indeed possible, but only to those who altogether deny the credibility of the extant biographies of Christ. If those biographies be admitted to be generally trustworthy, then Christ undertook to be what we have described; if not, then of course this, but also every other, account of him falls to the ground.’A little further on he says:
‘The present treatise aims to show that the Christ of the gospels is not mythical, by showing that the character those biographies portray is in all its large features strikingly consistent, and at the same time so peculiar as to be altogether beyond the reach of invention. Now if the character depicted in the gospels is in the main real and historical, they must be generally trustworthy, and, if so, the responsibility of miracles is fixed on Christ. In this case the reality of the miracles themselves depends in a great degree on the opinion we form of Christ’s veracity, and this opinion must arise gradually from the careful examination of his whole life.’This appears to us a cumbrous way of saying that the veracity of Christ proves the truth of the gospels, whilst the truth of the gospels proves the veracity of Christ.
Let us draw this argument into form. It will stand thus:
1. All biographies which portray characters strikingly consistent and beyond the reach of invention are generally trustworthy.
But the four gospels do so. Therefore, they are generally trustworthy.
2. All biographies which are generally trustworthy correctly report all important sayings attributed by them to the person to whom they relate.
But the four gospels are generally trustworthy. Therefore, all the important sayings which they ascribe to Christ were really uttered by him.
3. Important sayings of Christ’s are related in the gospels which would pledge his veracity, if they really were uttered, to the fact of his performing miracles.
But the gospels being generally trustworthy, report these sayings correctly. Therefore, the veracity of Christ is pledged for the truth of the miracles related in the gospels.
The majors of the two first arguments stated above are obviously false. It frequently happens that fabulous incidents find their way into the lives of real persons, and it is by no means true that the sayings ascribed to such persons are reported with greater fidelity than the acts which they are alleged to have done. Hardly any historical incident has escaped from a certain degree of accretion of a picturesque kind. ‘Up guards, and at them,’— ‘La garde meurt et ne se rend pas,’ ‘Messieurs de la garde francaise, tirez les premiers,’—the scene at the sinking of the Vengeur, are incidents related in histories which beyond all doubt describe real events, and are generally trustworthy, yet every one of them is false. There has even been a great controversy whether or not Nelson gave the famous signal at the battle of Trafalgar, yet, beyond all doubt, Southey’s Life of Nelson is the biography of a real man, is generally trustworthy, and portrays a character strikingly consistent and beyond the reach of invention. It is idle to try to separate the account of Christ’s sayings about miracles from the accounts of the miracles themselves, and then to make the one support the other. They stand on precisely the same footing, and the whole question is as to the weight of the evidence by which they are attested. The objection to the miracles goes to the whole credit of those who report them. It affects their credit in the character of reporters of what was heard, at least as much as in the character of reporters of what was seen, and it must be fully dealt with before any use is made of their evidence, either as to facts or sayings. If a man of good character presented for payment at a bank a cheque of which the signature was suspected to be forged, would the banker be at all more willing to pay the money because the person presenting it offered to swear not only that he had seen the cheque signed, but that he had heard the person who signed it say that he had signed it? —and what would be thought of a clerk who justified himself for having paid under such circumstances on the ground that by this statement, the credit of the drawer was pledged for the authenticity of the signature? The attempt to obtain the veracity of Christ as a guarantee for the truth of the miraculous narratives in the gospels by statements of the making of which the same gospels are the only evidence involves precisely the same absurdity. The whole question is whether or not the evangelists are to be believed when they relate miraculous histories, and our complaint of the author of Ecce Homo is, that he neither faces nor declines this question expressly, though he at times approaches it.
It divides itself into two branches, first, the general credibility of miraculous histories, and secondly, the weight of the particular evidence in favour of the miraculous histories contained in the four gospels. As to the first, no doubt any one is perfectly justified in saying that the result of the elaborate controversies which have taken place on the subject has been to satisfy him of the possibility of miracles; and this the author of Ecce Homo does say (p. 10):
‘Miracles are, in themselves, extremely improbable things, and cannot be admitted unless supported by a great concurrence of evidence.’This is a sensible observation, but why not go a little further, and give us a general account of the sort of evidence which is given by the evangelists? In the passage just referred to it is said:
‘For some of the evangelical miracles there is a concurrence of evidence which, when fairly considered, is very great indeed; for example, for the resurrection, for the appearance of Christ to St. Paul, for the general fact that Christ was a miraculous healer of disease. The evidence by which these facts are supported cannot be tolerably accounted for by any hypothesis except that of their being true.’Why not follow this up and make it out clearly? Why not state who, in the author’s opinion, wrote the four gospels? When they were written?—in what language? At what distance of time from the events which they record? Were the writers eyewitnesses or not? and if not through how many hands had the story passed before they told it, and were their materials written or verbal? If written what has become of the writings? If verbal who were the persons who gave them information, were they eyewitnesses or not, and how was their evidence checked and compared? Again, are the first three gospels independent, or are they only variations upon one common original? If they are independent, how are we to account for the identity of a great part of their language, that language not being the one in which the first Christians talked and thought? If they are not independent, who wrote the original from which they are derived, and what has become of it? Is the fourth gospel authentic as M. Renan thinks, or spurious as Strauss asserts, or is its authenticity doubtful, and if so what degree of doubt does this throw over its statements? These questions may be answered, or may be given up as unanswerable, as some of them obviously are; but a man who does not specifically tell us what his own view of this is, and upon what grounds he rests his opinion, is merely trifling with his readers when he promises them the result of a ‘critical weighing of the facts themselves.’ You cannot possibly weigh the facts till you have decided what they are, and you cannot decide what they are till you have tested your authorities. What the author of Ecce Homo has in fact done, is nothing more than this—he has taken the three first gospels as three independent narratives of the life of Christ, written by eye and ear-witnesses, whose statements especially as to words spoken may be taken in all cases as substantially true; and by combining their words with a great deal of matter which he has got out of his own imagination, he has devised a picture of Jesus Christ, and this he calls ‘a survey of his life and work.’
This fault appears to us to destroy altogether the solid value of the book, and to reduce it to the rank of a mere work of imagination, and not, as we should say, very historical imagination either; for though the book shows a considerable amount of that kind of classical knowledge which supplies a man with pointed illustrations, and though it is full of observations on the ancient world, it is not the work of a learned man, nor is it the work of a man who has so studied the state of thought, feeling and opinion which existed in the world, and especially in Palestine, when Christ was born, as to be able to give a satisfactory and well-authenticated account of it. The book is full of remarks about the ancient world, summary statements about its ways of thought and standards of morals, and ingenious quotations from particular authors which more or less support the view which the writer happens for the moment to be advancing, but this is not what was wanted. In order to estimate Christ’s work, it is necessary to know the materials on which he worked; and in order to know that, it is necessary to have studied, and to give an account of such materials as are still extant and throw a light on the state of Judaea at the time in question. The first two or three pages of the book give a summary sketch which it required hardly any knowledge or study to write, and which does not mention a single authority upon this subject. Something very different from this is absolutely indispensable to a just appreciation of the degree in which Jesus Christ's teaching altered and introduced new elements into the then existing theology and morality of his country. We ought to have been told one of two things. Either it should have been said—Such and such authorities, in such and such passages, inform us that the moral code and theological belief of the Jewish people at the time in question was so and so; or it should have been expressly stated that there are no materials from which such an account is to be got. Now, that there are materials is notorious to every one who has even looked into common books on the subject. Any one who pretends to ‘weigh critically’ the facts relating to Christ, ought to have begun by weighing critically the books from which we may learn something as to the time and people amongst whom he lived and worked.
In the place of what would have been 'desirable upon this head, we have only summary statements of the most audacious kind, backed up by a certain number of classical quotations. The most important of these is, that the ‘precise addition’ made by Christ to morality consisted in the replacing of negative by positive morality. He says: ‘The Christian moral reformation may indeed be summed up in this— humanity changed from a restraint to a motive.’ This is insisted on and illustrated repeatedly, as if Christ had first taught men to love each other and to act upon that feeling. A very few quotations will show how crude and false this is:
‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord. . . . And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.—Lev. xix. 17, 18, 33. 34.’
‘When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me: because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor—Job xxix. 11-16.’
‘Get thyself the love of the congregation, and bow thy head to a great man. Let it not grieve thee to bow down thine ear to the poor, and give him a friendly answer with meekness. Deliver him that suffereth wrong from the hand of the oppressor; and be not fainthearted when thou sittest in judgment. Be as a father unto the fatherless, and instead of an husband unto their mother: so shalt thou be as the son of the most high, and he shall love thee more than thy mother doth.—Ecclus. iv. 7-10.’
‘Sed quoniam (ut praeclare scriptum est a Platone) non nobis solis nati sumus, ortusque nostri partem patria vindicat partem amici: atque ut placet Stoicis quae in terris gignantur ad usum hominum omnia creari, homines autem hominum causa esse generatos ut ipsi inter se aliis alii prodessc possent: in hoc naturam debemus ducem sequi, communes utilitates in medium afferre, mutatione officiorum, dundo, accipiendo, tum artibus, tum opera, tum facultatibus devincire hominum inter homines societatem.—Cic. De Off. i. 7.’
Speaking of the virtue of friendship, Aristotle says:—‘φύσει τ’ ένυπάρχειν ξοικε . . . . μάλιστα τοίς άνθρώποις, δθεν τούς φιλανθρώπους έπαινοΰμεν. ισοι δ’ άν τις καί έν ταίς πλάναις ώς οίκείον άπας άνθρωπος άνθμώπψ καί φίλον. ξοικε δέ καί τάς πόλεις συνέχειν ή φιλία, καί οί νομοθέται μάλλον περί αύτήν σπονδάζειν ή τήν δικαιοσύνην.’ ‘It appears to subsist naturally,’ in all animals, ‘and especially in men, whence we praise those who love mankind. A man may see in journeys how kind and friendly every man is to every man. And friendship seems to keep states together, and legislators are more anxious about it than about justice.’— Eth. Nicom. viii. I.’It would be both easy and useless to multiply quotations, to show that in all times and places there has been a positive as well as a negative side to morals, and that men have admired mercy and kindness whilst they have hated vindictiveness and cruelty. The burden of a great many of the psalms is, that God is good because he provides for all the wants of men and beasts and cares for the poor and wretched. How came men to view these qualities as perfections in God, if they did not value them in men? What, again, is to be said of the standard virtue of hospitality which was certainly practised in the days of Abraham; and which is nothing but general philanthropy exhibited on a small scale and under special circumstances? What again is the meaning of the ancient myth of Prometheus, who was punished for his love to man by the jealousy of the gods?’—
‘δράτε δεσμώτην με δύσποτμον θεδνSo large a subject as the state of ancient morals is not to be summed up in a few phrases, nor is the knowledge necessary for discussing the subject in a competent manner easy to be obtained by any one. The author of Ecce Homo has not proved that he has any right to speak upon such a subject at all. He does not even show that he knows that the materials for a full discussion of it exist no longer. The moral tone of any large society at any given time is a complicated thing and cannot be inferred from a few detached books, each of which, after all, represents the peculiar feelings of the author more than anything else. What poor guesswork it would be to attempt to draw any inference as to the moral tone of the last two generations of Englishmen from a study of Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, Rogers, and Miss Martineau‘s History of the Thirty.Years’ Peace. We can see at once what a very little way we could go with such materials. The discovery of the works of Byron or Walter Scott would completely change the whole face of a theory constructed out of them, and a very little acquaintance with specimens of the millions of men and women who never read any one of the works of any one of these authors would show how utterly inadequate such a foundation is for any such superstructure. Yet the historical imagination is perfectly ready on no better authority to sum up the moral state of a world in a few lines, and to specify in a phrase the precise addition which the founder of a new religion made to it.
δια τήν λίαν φιλότητα βροτών.’
To try to infer the moral condition of Palestinein the first century from a few Greek and Latin books, or from the Old Testament, the latest book of which had been written centuries before, is rather more absurd than to try to describe the moral atmosphere of Reading in the nineteenth century on the strength of a study of Victor Hugo, Chaucer, the Venerable Bede, and the statute book of the Plantagenets. At the time of Christ’s birth there were in the world hundreds of millions of human beings, each of whom had a separate set of thoughts and feelings in his head, and of the incalculable majority of them we know just as much and just as little as the Dorsetshire labourers know of the tailors in Pekin. For these general reasons we view Ease Homo as a mere work of imagination; but it is easy, and may for various reasons be expedient, to give detailed proof of this.
The first part of the book says that Christ founded a great theocratic society, and gave it a constitution by which its objects were to be attained. It also describes at length the nature of this society. The main outline of this statement is as follows:
The author begins with John the Baptist, about whom he has much private information: as, for example, that he ‘was a sagacious and contemporary observer’ of Christ, ‘that his restlessness had driven him into the desert, where he had contended for years with thoughts he could not master ;’ that he ‘felt his own baptism to have something cold and negative about it,’ and that he was like the Emperor Nerva. This is followed by a romance about the temptation, the story of which we are told rests ‘on no very strong external evidence, and there may be exaggeration in the details, but in its substance it can scarcely be other than true, because it is so much stranger than fiction,’ and also because it has ‘a certain inimitable probability of improbability.’ If a man will only get his historical imagination well in hand he may detect the presence of these tests of truth everywhere. He has only to spin a narrative out of a guess, founded upon a hint, and then to assert that the narrative must be true, because it is so beautiful and so ‘strikingly consistent’ with the rest of his own conception of the hero.
The next chapter is entitled ‘The Kingdom of God,’ and is meant to show how Christ founded the theocratic society whose constitution is next to be examined. Christ, it is said, carried everywhere John’s proclamation, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ The Jews, we are told, were familiar with this phrase, and understood by it that God was the invisible King of the nation, and that their happiness and greatness depended on acknowledging this. Therefore, when Christ preached the kingdom of God, he proposed to revive the theocracy, and as times were much altered since the days of the old prophets, he must have proposed to revive it on a plan fitted for the altered state of things. The old theocracy began by the absence of any human king, and ended in the establishment of an hereditary kingdom.
‘These were the two forms which the ancient theocracy had assumed. Now under which form did Christ purpose to revive it? The vision of universal monarchy which he saw in the desert suggests the answer. He conceived the theocracy restored as it had been in the time of David, with a visible monarch at its head, and that monarch himself.’It is somewhat singular, by the way, that a temptation of the devil should supply the key to the work of Christ, and that we should be told that that work consisted in doing, under a different form, the very thing the devil suggested. However, the author continues:
‘We are concerned at present simply with the fact that Christ laid claim to the royal title. The fact itself cannot be denied without rejecting all the evidence before us.’It is evident, we are further told, that Christ—
‘clung firmly to the title [of king], and attached great importance to it. . . . This assumption of royalty was the ground of his execution. The inscription which was put upon his cross ran, ‘This is Jesus the king of the Jews.’In the following chapters this view is expanded and insisted on at great length. We are told, with a strange assumption of special knowledge, that Christ ‘deliberately proposed to himself to supersede’ the Mosaic legislation ‘by a new one, promulgated on his own authority.’ ‘He undertook to be the father of an everlasting state, and the legislator of a world-wide society,’ and upon the whole claimed the character—‘first of Founder, next of Legislator, thirdly, in a certain high and peculiar sense, of Judge, of a new divine society.’
These are the fundamental propositions of the book, and an examination of them will set its fundamental defect in the clearest light. What is the evidence that Jesus Christ entertained and announced the scheme, and assumed the character here ascribed to him with so much confidence and such elaborate detail? We will waive for the present the preliminary questions which must be answered before this question can be seriously asked, merely referring to them for the sake of indicating their importance. They are as follows:
Who wrote the gospels? At what distance of time from the events recorded? In what language? How far did that language correspond with the original? Through how many hands had the narrative travelled before it was recorded? How far is it accurate? How far is it complete? How far are the different books independent?
Passing over this, let us look at the books themselves. The first fact which presents itself to the most superficial reader who does not interpret them in the light of subsequent events, is their summary character and their obvious incompleteness. Look, for instance, at the sermon on the mount. Can any one who reads it with the least experience of preaching or speaking suppose that it was spoken at one place and one time in the words in which it now stands? Not to insist on differences of arrangement, expression and circumstance, the report, as we should say, in Luke is far shorter than it is in Matthew; and whichever report we take, it is so full of matter, so weighty, so condensed, as irresistibly to suggest the conclusion that it forms the concentrated essence of many discourses probably delivered at different times and to different audiences, and no doubt enforced with such explanations and illustrations as might be necessary. [‘And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, &c.’—Matt. v.1. ‘He went into a mountain to pray. . . . and when it was day, he called unto him his disciples . . . . And he came down with them, and stood in the plain . . . . and said,’ &c.—Luke v. 12, 13, I7, 20.]If it was a single discourse delivered once for all on one specific occasion, and forming a systematic exposition of a universal legislation—if, in a word, it is correct to represent it as the Magna Charta or Decalogue of the Christian Church, how came Mark and John to omit all notice of it? The sermon as reported in St. Matthew consists of no verses; and, if delivered verbatim, would perhaps have occupied a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes; but it is so full of matter, that a person hearing it once for all would hardly remember a word of it. To those who have been familiar with it from childhood it would no doubt be very different; but a mixed multitude, listening for the first time and once for all to just those words and no more, would learn from them nothing at all. It is thus most reasonable to suppose that the sermon itself, as we have it in each of its shapes, is a compilation giving in a short form the substance of its author’s preaching in various parts of the country during his ministry.
If this be true then, although it would be most unreasonable to doubt that the discourses in question correctly represent the general effect of Christ’s teaching, it is equally unreasonable to lay great stress upon their phraseology, and to draw from it those refined and elaborate conclusions of which Ecce Homo is almost entirely made up.
Subject to this observation, let us see what the gospels say as to the claim of Christ to found a universal and everlasting society. The passages most to the purpose are those which speak of the ‘kingdom of God,’ and ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ Perhaps as strong a text as any is Mark i. 14.: ‘Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.’ This is repeated almost verbatim in Matt. iv. I7. Consider for a moment the difference between such a statement as this and an explicit announcement to the following effect: ‘I am God Incarnate, and I am come upon earth for the purpose of founding and legislating for a spiritual society which will last as long as the human race, and will ultimately comprehend the whole of it.’ If from other sources we knew that the person using the first phrase had entertained the plan stated in the second, it might be reasonable to connect the plan and the phrase ; but it is very different where the use of the phrase is the only evidence for the existence of the plan. Of course, if we are to assume that the expressions attributed to Christ are not only correctly reported, but were prophetic, and must be interpreted by the light of subsequent events, another element is introduced into the question; but to make such an assumption is altogether to surrender the functions of criticism.
This reflection is much strengthened if we compare together the various passages in which the phrases ‘kingdom of God,’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ are to be found. Various observations arise, upon their use, of which the following amongst others may be found deserving of notice. In the first place it is obvious, as the author of Ecce Homo truly observes, that the phrase was familiar to the Jews independently of Christ. Joseph of Arimathaea ‘waited for the kingdom of God’ (Mark xvi. 4.3). One of the guests at the entertainment of the Pharisee said, apparently as if quoting a proverb—‘Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God’ (Luke xiv. 15), and other instances might be mentioned which look as if there was amongst the Jews of that day an anticipation of some approaching golden age, which they described as the kingdom of God. Their past history would naturally suggest such language, though we can see no reason whatever to suppose that it was anything else than a vague account of a vague feeling, or that they had the smallest notion of all the elaborate theorie's about theocracy and its two forms as illustrated in the Old Testament which are expounded in Ecce Homo.
Few things are more singular than the delusion which our own way of using the Bible is apt to produce in our minds as to the state of the Jews in the time of Christ. We carry on in imagination the state of things described in the Old Testament to the date of Christ’s birth, and we quite overlook the fact that the Old Testament history was then a remote antiquity. The Jews then living were as far from Solomon as we are from Alfred, and the return from the captivity was in Christ’s time an event as remote as the reign of Edward I. is now. We must remember too, that in the interval changes had taken place as fundamental as, to use a faint comparison, the Reformation and the Revolution. The growth of philosophy, and the belief in a future life were subsequent to the time when the last of the prophets prophesied, and in the political world Alexander first and the Romans afterwards had completely revolutionised all old institutions. To refer to Chaucer to discover what an Englishman of the nineteenth century means by progress is the same sort of mistake as to assume that ‘kingdom of God’ in A.D. 1, meant something which is to be discovered from reading the historical books of the Old Testament.
It would appear then that, in preaching the kingdom of God Jesus Christ adopted a phrase already in use, and of a signification which is unknown to us. Did he, so far as we learn from the gospels, use it in one sense or in several? Any one who will consult the different passages will find that it is used in many senses. Sometimes it seems to be used to describe a state of mind, ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ Sometimes as a future state of existence—‘There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.’ Sometimes it seems to stand for an approaching dispensation or order of things, as in the proclamation, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand;’ but in these passages Christ seems to speak rather as a prophet than as a legislator or founder of a new society. Sometimes it is made the subject of parables which those who heard them did not understand, and the explanation of which when given, does not explain this particular point, though the author of Ecce Homo happily suggests that they would well describe the working of a new idea introduced into an old society. Sometimes it refers to a day of judgment, a miracle on a stupendous scale in which Christ is to appear in the clouds of heaven and all mankind are to be judged, ‘There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.’ Lastly, the phrase is often used in reference to the temporal kingdom, which it was expected Christ would restore against the Romans. Upon this last use of these words the author of Ecce Homo makes a singular remark. He says:
‘It is clear that this assumption of royalty was the ground of [Christ’s] execution. The inscription which was put upon his cross ran, 'This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.’ He had himself provoked this accusation of rebellion against the Roman government; he must have known that the language he used would be interpreted so. Was there then nothing substantial in the royalty he claimed? Did he die for a metaphor?’This is one of several instances which we shall have to notice in which the author of Ecce Homo seems to have strangely misunderstood his materials. It is surely obvious from the accounts, both of St. John and St. Luke, that Pilate was satisfied with Christ’s account of the sense in which he claimed royalty, for it was after he had made the claim that Pilate said to the Jews, ‘I find no fault in him’ (Luke xxiii. 3,4.; John xviii. 35—38), and it was the threat of the Jews, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend,’ that induced him to consent to his punishment. The construction which the Jews put upon Christ’s claim, and which they might report to Rome, and not the claim itself as explained by Christ to Pilate, was the proximate cause of the crucifixion. It is not therefore true that Christ died for a metaphor. He died, although Pilate himself believed his claim to be metaphorical, because Pilate feared that it might be represented as being substantial.
Passing from this, what are we to infer, as to the point at issue, from the great variety of senses in which the phrases in question are used? Surely the legitimate inference is, that they had no determinate meaning which can now be specified; that they meant many different things, as to which we can now form only a very general conjecture; and that we have not, in the use of these phrases, any clear, unequivocal record of the view which Jesus Christ took of his own work upon earth, or of its results on the subsequent history of mankind. If, however, no such inference is to be drawn from these phrases, can it be drawn from any other source? The author of Ecce Homo refers us to none, and, indeed, there is none. There is much in the four gospels which tends to explain how the Christian Church came to be formed after the time of Christ. There is not in any one of them a single explicit, unequivocal declaration attributed to Christ, to the effect that he had come to found a universal church and to give it laws. There is much moral and theological instruction, the theology being conveyed chiefly in an allegorical form. There is in St. John’s gospel much matter on a mystical union between Christ and his disciples, but there are no explicit, positive words founding or legislating for a. regular institution with definite objects, constitution and laws; and as we are left entirely in the dark on this subject by the evangelists themselves, such speculations as those of Ecce Homo are a mere romance.
It is worth observing, before leaving this subject, that the ‘kingdom of God,’ the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ and all other phrases of the same sort abound in Matthew and Mark, are less common in Luke, are almost unknown to John, except in reference to the temporal kingdom, and are not to be found, except in one verse, in the Acts of the Apostles. Christianity throughout the Acts is uniformly treated, not as an organised society with special institutions, but as a creed, the professors of which associated themselves together in bodies, of the constitution, rules, and mutual relations of which we have only incidental glimpses, and which appear to have differed greatly amongst themselves both in their opinions and in their practices. If Christ’s great object was to found a society and give it laws, how came his first disciples to say so very little about it?
Having repeatedly and confidently asserted in various forms that the great object of Christ was to found a society for the reception of the whole human race, the author of Ecce Homo goes on to describe the constitution of the society and its general objects. Differing from him as to the foundation of his whole scheme, it is not easy, perhaps, to do justice to the superstructure. But we will give a slight sketch of his theory, and make one or two observations upon it. The subject is discussed in five chapters, entitled Christ’s Credentials, Christ’s Winnowing Fan, Conditions of Membership in Christ’s Kingdom, Baptism, and Reflections on the Nature of Christ’s Society. The following are the leading propositions of these chapters, as nearly as possible in the author’s own words. Christ’s scheme of founding a new theocratic society was prodigious in its originality, in the confidence with which it was carried out, and in its success. The miracles account partially for the success of the scheme, which would not have succeeded without them; but that success was secured by the ‘ inimitable unity,’ which was made up of the existence of miraculous power, temperance in its use, the ‘winning personal character’ of its possessor, his persecutions, and his martyrdom. All this produced ‘an agitation of gratitude, sympathy, and astonishment’ in the minds of the first disciples, and disposed them to adopt, by his orders, as the principle which was to guide their lives, ‘the self-denial which had guided his own life.’
The chapter fancifully called ‘Christ’s Winnowing Fan’ contains much rash assertion as to matters of fact; as, for instance, that ‘almost all the genuine worth and virtue of the nation 'was gathered into the Christian Church;’ that ‘to obey John’s call was easy—it involved nothing but submission to a ceremony; and when the prophet had acquired a certain amount of credit, no doubt ’ (these words in Ecce Homo mean, it is just possible that) ‘it became the fashion to receive baptism from him.’ The gist of the chapter is that Christ called on all who heard him to be prepared to change all their prospects and to adopt a new mode of life, which call was obeyed at once by some and neglected by others, whilst ‘the greater number were placed by it in a state of painful suspense and hesitation, which lasted a long time—first, to understand distinctly what was proposed to them; next, to make up their minds as to the character of him who made such novel proposals.’
This call distinguished the good from the bad by the effect it produced, and the quality which enabled a man to obey it was faith, which the author describes as the peculiar quality of a man ‘who, when goodness is impressively put before him, exhibits an instinctive loyalty to it, starts forward to take its side, trusts himself to it. Such a man has faith, and the root of the matter is in such a man. He may have habits of vice, but the loyal and faithful instinct in him will place him above many that practise virtue.’
The next question is, To what was this call a call? With the first converts we are told it was a call ‘to mere fidelity and loyalty to Christ’s person;’ but ‘after the Church had received its Founder’s laws’ it was a call to ‘practical obedience to his rules of life and unquestioned acceptance of his teaching.’ This is followed by some excellent remarks on the parallelism between the difficulties of faith and the difficulties of practice, and the importance of being as tolerant in the one case as in the other; but this passage, which is very good, is a digression. The result is that the acceptance of Christ’s call involved on the part of those who accepted it—
‘an obligation of personal loyalty to him. On the ground of this loyalty he proceeded to form them into a society, and to promulgate an elaborate legislation, comprising and intimately connected with certain declarations, authoritatively delivered, concerning the nature of God, the relation of man to him, and the invisible world.’
Next follows, perhaps, the most curious chapter in the whole book: it is a chapter on Baptism. Christ, it is said,
‘did not retain every one who accepted the call about his person; some he dismissed to their homes, laying upon them no burdensome commands. It was necessary, therefore, that some mark should be devised by which the follower of Christ might be distinguished.’Baptism, already known amongst the Jews, was chosen for the purpose. ‘This ceremony, then, Christ adopted, and he made it absolutely binding upon all his followers to submit to it.’ He afterwards says:
‘The initiatory rite of baptism, with its publicity and formality, was pronounced as indispensable to membership as that spiritual inspiration which is membership itself.’This is a pretty theory, but even its author feels that there is not a morsel of evidence of its truth. He is accordingly driven to most wonderful shifts to make out a case for it. First, he says that ‘Christ regards those who had received John’s baptism as being already members of the theocracy,’ and that ‘we may presume that the bulk of the first Christians received baptism from John.’ As we were told by the author a few pages before, on the strength of that private information which he possesses about John, that John felt that his baptism had something cold and negative about it, and that it became the fashion to receive the rite from him, this presumption is surely a very strange one. The object was to distinguish the followers of Christ by a public and formal act. The means was to reckon a ‘cold and negative’ act, performed by another person for another purpose, to another class of people, as an equivalent. It is also unfortunate for the theory that John was in prison apparently soon after Christ began to teach, and that one of the few references to baptism in the gospels contrasts Christ’s baptism with John’s baptism: ‘When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples),’ &c.
Feeling the ground thus taken somewhat insecure, the author relates ‘a story which illustrates in the most striking manner the importance which Christ attached to baptism.’ This is the story of Nicodemus, which contrasts in the strangest way with the same history as told by St. John. St. John says: ‘There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles which thou doest, except God be with him.’ The author of Ecce Homo is far more copious.
‘A man of advanced years and influential position, named Nicodemus, visited Christ, we are told, in secret, and entered into conversation with him. He began by an explicit avowal of belief in Christ’s divine mission. What he would have gone on to say we may conjecture from these two facts.’And he accordingly does conjecture that Nicodemus wished to be excused from being publicly baptized, in consideration of the influence which he possessed.
‘He could push the movement; . . . he could cautiously dispose the Pharisaic sect to a coalition with Christ, &c. When we consider the contempt which Christ constantly expressed for forms . . . . we are prepared to find him readily acceding to the request of Nicodemus. Instead of which he shut the petitioner’s mouth by an abrupt declaration that there was no way into the theocracy but through baptism.’All this is built upon the verses quoted above, followed by Christ’s answer, ‘verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ There is not a word to show that Nicodemus ever said one word about his influence, or about being baptized. It is, indeed, obvious from the rest of the conversation that he did not in the least understand what was said to him; and, if conjecture upon the subject were allowable at all, the most natural conjecture would be that he came privately to Jesus because he believed him to be a prophet, and wished to have a fuller explanation of his mission than he had seen fit to make in public. A man who can torture this story into a proof of the importance which Christ attached to baptism can get anything out of anything.
The first part of the book concludes with a chapter of reflections on the nature of Christ’s society. Its object, he says, was the improvement of morality, and he contrasts the mode in which it aimed at attaining that object with the mode adopted towards the same end by moral philosophy. He says that in philosophical schools the school was subordinate to the doctrine taught in it, the association was an accident and the teaching everything. In Christianity, the reverse was the case.
‘To organise a society, and to bind the members of it together by the closest ties were the business of Christ’s life. What Christ required was a certain personal attachment to himself, a fidelity or loyalty. . . If we isolate Christ’s teaching from his life, we may come to the conclusion that it contains little that could not be found elsewhere, and found accompanied with reasoning and explanation.’Christ’s life, and the personal devotion which it claimed, gave the point, as it were, to his teaching. The great result of moral philosophy was a definition of right and wrong. The great result of Christianity was a motive power by which men might be made good, and this motive power was personal affection for a transcendently good person. On the other hand, philosophy ‘does something towards paralysing and destroying good impulses.’
These are the principal points in the account given by the author of Ecce Homo of the Christian theocracy founded, as he says, by Christ. Perhaps the best way of explaining the reasons why we differ from him will be by saying a few words successively on the different topics which he handles; and first, what was it, according to the gospels as we have them, that Christ did preach? Can his teaching, as it is preserved to us, be fairly summed up by saying that his great] object was to bind together the whole human race in one great society, by the tie of a passionate attachment and loyalty to himself shared by them all? In the first place, the information before us is altogether incomplete, and leaves unsatisfied numerous questions, the answers to which would throw great light on the whole subject, but which must now remain for ever unanswered. Knowing hardly anything .of the state of feeling in Judaea at the time, we can only guess at the meaning of such phrases as ‘kingdom of heaven,’ ‘kingdom of God,’ ‘the gospel,’ and the like. Suppose that the whole of the current literature of London had utterly perished, and that a Chinese were to form an estimate of our politics and religion from free French translations of summaries of contemporary speeches. What would he make of such phrases as ‘the spirit of progress,’ ‘Conservative principles,’ ‘saving faith,’ ‘experimental religion,’ ‘latitudinarianism? ’ The distance between us and many of the phrases in the gospel is quite as great. We have a sort of general notion about the scribes and Pharisees, but how little we really know about them, and how hopeless it is to attempt to appreciate the true meaning and occasion of the terrible reproaches directed against them. The first preliminary to making any observations at all upon the teaching of the gospels is a confession of the scantiness of our information, and of the immense importance of many things wrapped in impenetrable darkness, and of the futility of drawing wide consequences from the use of particular phrases.
Subject to this general remark, the history told in the first three gospels, so far as it bears upon the point under consideration, is somewhat as follows:—Jesus Christ preached throughout the whole of Judaea to great multitudes of people, and was assisted in so doing by a small number of selected apostles and disciples, who would appear to have followed him from place to place. During the greater part of his ministry he appears to have avoided any direct public claim to the character of the Messiah, and to have confined himself, so far as our information goes, to miracles and exhortations which were addressed, not to the members of a peculiar society, but to the Jews at large. The sermon on the mount does not consist of exhortations to all who heard it to receive the preacher as their king, to love him passionately, to form a vast theocratic society centred upon him individually, and apart from the general order of things. It is composed from first to last of precepts for which the word ‘moral’ is an inadequate description, as they aim at giving the principles upon which morality depends, but which a person might take for the guide of his life without ever having heard the name of Christ. It would appear as if for a considerable time Christ’s teaching had excited no serious opposition either from the Roman or from the Jewish authorities. If his main object had been to found a theocracy, to claim implicit obedience to his commands and passionate loyalty to his person from all mankind, and especially from the Jews, this could hardly have been the case. To judge from the discourses recorded, he never commanded people to love or obey him. To love God and man, and to keep God’s commandments, was his message to men. He never says to any one, ‘Your duty is summed' up in love and loyalty to me. I am your king.’ Language specifically claiming obedience is always addressed to his own immediate disciples, and not to the general body of his hearers. The words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus exactly convey the idea which, to us at least, the gospel narratives appear to give. ‘Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.’ With this, no doubt, much else was mixed up. No doubt great part of his hearers, like the disciples at Emmaus, ‘trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel.’ No doubt, too, the gospels indicate other claims of a mysterious kind, such as moved the Jews to take up stones to stone him, or led them to regard him as blasphemous for claiming the power of forgiving sins; but important as these claims were, both in themselves and in their consequences, they are not stated in such a full and categorical manner as to enable us to say, from the gospels alone, precisely what they were. The same remark applies, with perhaps greater force, to the prophetical part of Christ’s teaching. It certainly appears—to judge from the mere words of the gospels—as if he had foretold the destruction of the existing world and his own second advent in the clouds of heaven, surrounded by angels, within the lifetime of the generation then living; but misconceptions in reporting prophecies, or what are taken as such, are so easy, men are so much acted on by their imagination, and slight changes of language may make such a material difference, that we cannot be' sure that he really did make such predictions. The mistaken report which ‘went abroad amongst the brethren’ as to what was said about John show how easily misunderstandings might arise, and constitute a warning against laying too much stress on particular expressions.
There is one circumstance which makes it next to impossible to believe that the author of Ecce Homo is right in supposing that to form a universal and permanent theocracy was the leading object of Christ‘s life. It is the unquestionable fact that the apostles had the gravest doubts whether they were justified in preaching to the Gentiles. One great subject of the Acts is the controversy which took place amongst them upon this topic, and upon the cognate question whether or not the ceremonies of the Jewish law were binding on themselves and on the Gentile converts. Now if Christ had really preached what the author of Ecce Homo supposes him to have preached—if he had claimed to be the king who was to be universally obeyed, and who was to bind mankind into one vast society by their common devotion to him, how could the doubt whether he was anything more than a divinely appointed reformer of Judaism have ever arisen?
It may, no doubt, be said that the apostles were at first mistaken as to their master’s teaching, and that it was only by degrees that they appreciated its full extent and bearing; but as all our knowledge of him comes through them, how can we be sure either that they were mistaken in the first instance or that they afterwards corrected their mistake? Look at the matter how you will, the conclusion always returns that we know far too little about it to warrant the historical or unhistorical imagination in drawing an elaborate picture of Christ and his preaching, and saying this is what really did occur, and this is what Christ proposed to do, translated into the language of the nineteenth century.
It may be said that this is a meagre and cold view of the subject, and that it leaves out entirely its brighter colours. How, it may be said, does such a restricted view account for the passionate enthusiasm which, in point of fact, Christ’s preaching did 'produce— for the intense love and admiration with which he came to be regarded by his own generation—for the growth of the Christian Church and all that followed upon it ? The answer is, that it neither accounts nor claims to account for any one of these things; but it does not, therefore, deny their existence. The gospels and epistles, to say nothing of the Acts, prove conclusively that the personal influence of Christ was something unlike what has ever been exercised by any one else. No one can doubt that he was loved, served, and worshipped in a manner altogether peculiar and marvellous; and it is at least equally certain that this fact was in itself of vital importance to mankind, and was the first link of a chain of effects of greater magnitude and interest than any others in human history. All this, however, does not enable us to say specifically what manner of being Christ was, or what he taught which men did not know before, any more than the greatness and utility of the Nile enabled people to describe its source. You cannot supply the absence, or fill up the deficiencies of positive information by reference to subsequent events. Suppose we had only one biography of Oliver Cromwell, would the subsequent history of England enable us to fill it up? Shakespeare’s plays have influenced the English nation deeply, but who would think of trying to infer what he was from the present condition of English literature?
If with this general view of the subject we look back to the different points referred to in the chapters of Ecce Homo of which we have indicated the nature, we should say as to Christ’s royalty that it appears clear that he exercised in various ways a vast infiuence over men, and preached to them in an unexampled manner, but that it does not in any degree appear that he founded any definite society, or gave it any special code of laws.
As to what is fancifully described as Christ’s winnowing fan, we should say that the sense of the original metaphor used by John the Baptist is now lost, and that it is impossible to say what specific classes of persons did or did not listen to his teaching, or to assert that those who did had faith—an instinctive loyalty to goodness when impressively put before them—and that those who did not had none. Human nature is so complex, and the circumstances in which men are placed so various, that it is highly probable that bad men may have listened to the teaching of Christ and become his disciples by reason of their vice, and that good men may have rejected it by virtue of their goodness. We know that the most virtuous of the Emperors deliberately persecuted Christianity, and that Judas Iscariot was an apostle, though it is not conceivable that he should have had anything to gain by being one. All that is revolutionary and enthusiastic is naturally attracted to a new religion; orthodoxy and sobriety are averse to it, but it does not follow that all that is revolutionary is good, or that all that is orthodox and conservative is bad. Christianity was a good thing, and Christ was one to whom it is a kind of presumption to address words which sound like praise: but it does not follow that all Christ’s followers were good and all his enemies bad.
As to the question—‘What was involved in obeying Christ’s call?’ the answer, as far as we can give it, appears to be that to the world at large Christ enjoined nothing else than the love of God, and the love of man, which he illustrated and explained in various ways without demanding of them any general submission to himself, or any theological belief whatever. Of particular individuals, he asked more— ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and come and follow me;’ but this was not demanded of all, nor even in these special cases does he appear to have given more than an invitation. He does not demand obedience on pain of damnation, but asks for help, which might be given or refused, but which would be accepted only where given zealously. To his disciples he gave a commission to preach; but if asked what specific doctrines they were to preach, we can only answer that we do not know. There are a few scattered passages (the power to bind and to loose, ‘Thou art Peter,’ ‘Go and teach all nations,’ &c..) which hint vaguely at some sort of hierarchical or priestly power; but they are so slight and vague that it is impossible to form out of them any general system at all.
As to baptism or any other external form by which people were to be initiated into the supposed kingdom, we can only say that the gospels appear to us to be profoundly silent on the whole subject, with exceptions which are altogether insignificant.
Lastly, as to the general reflections which the nature of Christ’s society suggests to our author, we think that he is right in saying that the preaching of Christ is rather an exhortation to be good than a philosophical exposition of the difference between good and evil; and that he is also right in laying great stress (though he does it in rather a luscious way), on the great effect which personal sympathy with a transcendently holy person has in producing goodness; nor do we quarrel with his account of the character of Christ’s influence, but we think that in this chapter he displays more clearly than elsewhere the fallacy which runs through every line of his book. This fallacy lies in attributing to a positive definite institution consciously adapted beforehand by Christ for that purpose, all the effects which in the course of centuries did as a fact result from the movement which he began. No doubt it is as a society governed by laws that the Christian Church has influenced mankind, and personal feelings of various kinds, analogous to patriotism, have been the great levers by which it has worked on the world and by which it has been distinguished from schools of philosophy. It is also true, that the life, character, and death of Christ were main causes of these results, but to go further, and say that Christ expressly organised a society upon principles adapted to produce them, and gave it the necessary laws for that purpose, is to give us guesses instead of facts, and to substitute false and artificial light for an honest confession of ignorance.
On a future occasion we hope to examine the second part of Ecce Homo.
Second Notice, July 1866
The second part of Ecce Homo is called ‘Christ's Legislation,’ and is larger and more elaborate than the first part, which we examined last month. As it is founded upon the theory to which we have already stated our objections, it is not necessary to discuss it throughout, but its general purport may be shortly stated as follows:
The Christian commonwealth is based upon the kindred of every human being to every other, and is absolutely open to all human beings who choose to become members of it. In ordinary states there arises out of the union, the relationship, the intercourse, and the common interests of the citizens, a sense of duties towards each other and of justice. This sense expresses itself in laws, which laws react upon the sense of justice which produced them, and under this reaction the sense of justice produces more and juster laws. Laws are negative, being essentially prohibitory, but they foster a spirit of sympathy which is positive. This is true of all commonwealths. In the Christian commonwealth also the sense of duty gives birth to laws, but the laws themselves are not considered as very important, whereas the sense of obligation from which they proceed is inexpressibly important, and ‘every expedient is used to increase the keenness of this sense to such a point that it shall instantly and instinctively suggest the proper course of action in any given case.'
This increased moral sensitiveness produces in the Christian commonwealth a sort of morality altogether different from that of other states. Morality in other states is negative; in the Christian commonwealth it is positive, and enjoins men to promote actively each other's welfare. ‘Extraordinary services to humanity become ordinary and imperative in the Christian commonwealth. As, however, morality supersedes law, so conscience in the Christian commonwealth supersedes morality. “The rule of the Christian commonwealth is, that though the feeling be not necessary to discover the right act, yet the act must always be accompanied by the feeling.’ ‘To perform any right act whatever from interested motives, or from any other motive except the moral sense, is to break the fundamental law of the Christian commonwealth. The Christian, therefore, ‘must arrive at the right practical conclusion by an instantaneous impulse.’ This moral sensitiveness, which is consistent with any amount of intellectual misconception, is the absolute and ultimate ‘test of true membership in the Christian commonwealth.’ It is caused by enthusiasm. ‘There exists an enthusiasm which makes all sin whatever impossible,’ just as ardent love for a particular woman, or passionate patriotism, would make sensuality or treason impossible to a given person at a given time. This enthusiasm the author calls the enthusiasm of humanity, ‘because it is that respect for human beings which no one altogether wants raised to the pitch of enthusiasm.’ This enthusiasm was shown to men in its most perfect form in Jesus Christ. ‘All virtues perpetuate themselves in a manner. When the pattern is once given, it will be printed in a thousand copies. Since Christ showed it to men it ‘is kindled constantly in new hearts.’ ‘The conception of morality Christ gave has now become the universal one, and no man is thought good who does not in some measure satisfy it.’
This ‘enthusiasm of humanity’ branches out into a variety of subordinate forms which the author discusses in a succession of chapters under the names of the laws of philanthropy, edification, mercy, resentment and forgiveness. Between these chapters and the one on the enthusiasm of humanity, he interposes a chapter on the Lord's supper, which he says sacramentally expresses the union of mankind. In connection with this he dilates upon the ‘unbounded personal pretensions which Christ advances,'— ‘Christ's discovery is himself. To humanity struggling with its passions and its destiny, he says, “Cling to me, cling ever closer to me.””
This is a highly condensed, but not unfaithful account of the second part of Ecce Homo. We cannot follow the author in his details, and we will content ourselves with observing in general that the evidence on which he ascribes to Christ a system of legislation so refined and complicated appears to us less satisfactory than the evidence on which he ascribes to him an intention to found a universal and everlasting society. All this discourse about the moral sense, the origin of law, the enthusiasm of humanity, the law of edification, and the rest, is essentially modern. It is possible, no doubt, to weave it all out of the sermon on the mount and the parables; but the greater part of the materials of such a web must be provided out of the resources of the author himself. We will therefore change our method, and, instead of discussing the preliminary question, whether Christ ever laid down any such scheme at all, or any other scheme distantly resembling it, we will attempt to criticise the merits of the scheme itself, as one advanced by the author of Ecce Homo on his own authority. It is fair to do this, inasmuch as the author presents his views to us, not merely as being Christian, but also as being true. It appears to us for a variety of reasons that they are both false and mischievous.
A confusion and also an omission may be noticed in the book which run through the whole of it, and vitiate all its theories. The confusion is the confusion between law and advice. The omission is the omission of all distinct reference to the subject of future punishments. It is by no means easy to understand what the author's notion of a law is, for he uses the word in a variety of inconsistent senses. Laws he tells us in all societies originate in a certain instinct in human nature, ‘which we may call the law-making power in men. In the Christian state, instead of a system of laws given once for all to the whole society, Christ ‘would give to every member a power of making laws for himself.’ This law-making power is the ‘enthusiasm of humanity, and leads, as we have seen already, to all sorts of further refinements which supersede the necessity of law. But what is a law? What do people usually mean by that word? Surely it is a command enforced by a sanction. In other words, it is a threat; but threats are uttered by those who are stronger than the person threatened; and you want nothing to make a law except intelligence directing superior force. To refer the origin of laws to a mysterious ‘lawmaking power’ in men, is like referring knives to a knife-making power. Laws began as soon as men learnt to combine for common objects, and saw that they could coerce others by threatening them.
No special power or instinct is wanted to suggest to a body of men living together the possibility of preventing crimes and securing rights by saying to those who are within their power, “If you do this or that you shall be put to death.' But men cannot threaten themselves, hence no man can make laws for himself. Coercion ab extra is of the very essence of a law. This being so, it is hard to understand what the author of Ecce Homo means by saying that the distinctive peculiarity of the Christian state is that in it every man is his own legislator. Nor is much light thrown upon it by his explanation. He says that the philosophers of old placed the lawmaking power in reason, which, according to them, ought to control passion, and that Christ placed the passions under the control of a master passion, namely, love for mankind at large. Now, that moral philosophers taught that men ought to regulate their passions by reason, and that Christ preached to men the doctrine that love to God and our neighbour summed up all human duty is true; but to say that it follows from this that either reason or love is a law-making power is the same error as to say that the fact that bad smells are unwholesome passed the Public Health Act. Neither reason nor love can make laws, though laws may be made in accordance with reason and love, or in contradiction to them. For instance, Whoever does not regulate his passions in a reasonable manner, and indulge them only to such an extent and under such circumstances shall be hanged, fined, or sent to prison-or Whoever does not love God with all his heart shall be eternally damned are laws. ‘Be moderate in all things,’ ‘Love God with all your heart,” may be mere advice, and the difference between the two is all-important. To set a transcendent example; to enlist personal affection in the highest degree; to show in a concrete shape the beauty of goodness; to deliver maxims and parables, which are a possession for ever to the human race,—all this is only to advise under different forms. The adviser may be a moral philosopher, or may be Jesus Christ, but whatever he may be the characteristic of his position is that he appeals to men's feelings and consciences, and not to their fears. As soon as he begins to threaten systematically he becomes a legislator and not an adviser; but legislation differs generically from advice. It appeals to quite a different class of feelings, and unless it is contradictory and stultifies itself, must be contented with a different set of results. Now the main object of the author of Ecce Homo is, as we have already shown, to exhibit Christ in the character of a legislator, and the fault that we find with the author is that he never tells us clearly, though he frequently approaches the subject, whether he views Christ as a legislator proper, or merely as an adviser. If he views him as a legislator proper, does he mean to say that every one who has not an unerring instinct by which he distinguishes right from wrong, and who is not enthusiastically in love with the whole human race, and who does not live up to the standard described in other respects will be eternally damned? If, on the other hand, he views Christ as an adviser and not as a legislator, does he recognise the existence of any laws in the proper sense of the word, i.e. commands enforced by sanctions addressed by Christ to men? If so, what are the laws? And if not, why does he persist in calling him a legislator? Distinctmess upon this point is eminently desirable for the most obvious reasons, but we never get it, however much we might wish for it. The two following passages show what a strange difficulty and obscurity this throws over the whole book. We are told first that Christ—
‘did not leave a code of morals in the ordinary sense of the word—that is, an enumeration of actions prescribed and prohibited. Two or three prohibitions, two or three commands, he is indeed recorded to have delivered, but on the greater number of questions on which men require moral guidance he has left no direction whatever.’Then follows the explanation given above about the law-making power, and the necessity of enthusiastic love, and then the author asks how love can be commanded:
‘Yet if this position [i.e. the position that it can be commanded] be really untenable, how is it possible to obey Christ's command? The difficulty seems to admit of only one solution. We are not commanded to create by an effort of will a feeling of love in ourselves which otherwise would have had no existence; the feeling must arise naturally or it cannot exist at all. But a number of causes which are removable may interfere to prevent the feeling from arising or to stifle it as it arises, and we are commanded to stifle these hindrances.’The result of the two passages is that one of the few commands which Christ gave was to stifle all hindrances to love for mankind. Without insisting on the questions when, where, and in what words this command was issued, let us ask, what was the sanction which converted it from advice into a command? Suppose we do not stifle these hindrances, are we to be damned eternally for not doing so? and suppose when we have stifled the hindrances the love does not come, are we to be damned eternally for that? If yes, there is certainly plenty of law, but one would think that the enthusiasm of humanity and the other virtues described, would be only fine words for terror in the fawning and luscious shape. If no, then where is the sanction for these supposed laws? How is the Christian church a commonwealth or society at all, or anything else than a voluntary collection of people animated by common feelings?
Wherever you look closely into Ecce Homo it dissolves into mist. We hear a great deal about laws and a kingdom, but the laws have either no sanctions or sanctions inconsistent with their essence. The kingdom is something so vague that its existence has to be proved by refined arguments, the very language of which implies that nobody ever understood its constitution, and that it never existed anywhere in particular; and the greater part of the evidence that such laws or such a kingdom ever existed at all is nothing else than guesses, assumptions, and glosses upon language at once very simple and vague enough to mean many different things. The author ought to have felt that, in order to exhibit to mankind a consistent and credible image of the head of a theocratic government it is necessary to do two things, namely, first, to tell us plainly what he commanded and what he forbade and under what penalties; and next, to tell us what he advised and what will be the effect of taking or neglecting that advice. If he cannot do this, then either he is drawing a picture of some other character than a king, or his picture is incomplete in essential particulars, and in either case he ought to say so. It is obvious that fervent love for the character of Christ and enthusiastic imitation of his example are the characteristics of an infinitesimal minority of Christians. Does this minority constitute Christ's kingdom? If so, in what relation do the rest of mankind stand to it, and why are such tremendous sanctions applied when there is no need of them? If not, and if the kingdom of Christ includes all those who call themselves Christians, then under what law do they live, and how is the kingdom a kingdom at all? The author of Ecce Homo has not even realised these difficulties, which have brought so many more considerable men than he to a standstill. Reform is one thing and government another. The character of a moral renovator gradually elevating the human race from its present level to a higher one is barely consistent with the character of a king enforcing a system of law in an existing state of things; and is altogether inconsistent with a system of laws which is habitually infringed by the majority of the persons bound by them, and which is sanctioned by eternal damnation.
We have said that the author at times appears to catch a glimpse of these difficulties. He tells us in one place that in the proper sense of the word the Christian commonwealth has no laws, because ‘Every Christian has a divine inspiration which dictates to him the right course of action,’ for which reason ‘we cease to speak of a Christian law and endeavour instead to describe in its large outlines the Christian character.’ This is very well in its way, but look at the consequences. A law is a command enforced by a threat or a promise. If then there is no Christian law Christ gave no orders enforced by threats or promises. If so, then what about heaven and hell? and what becomes of the author's repeated assertions when dwelling on the legislatorial character of Christ, that he spoke as one who held heaven and hell in his hand? To say that it is quite true that Christ did command and threaten, but that he gave no laws, is like saying that a man did put up walls, and a roof, and staircases, and doors, and windows, &c., but that it is false to say that he built a house. The Christian church may be regarded as a state or as a mutual improvement society, but to shift about from the one point of view to the other, to say at one time, ‘You must, or you shall be damned,’ and at another ‘Pray do, it's all love and enthusiasm,’ is to blow hot and cold, and darken counsel by words without consistency.
These considerations set in a clear light the visionary, unsubstantial, indefinite character of the whole speculation, and of the supposed society or kingdom to the nature of which it relates. Passing from it, we will return to the general argument as stated above, and, as before, attempt to make a short counter-statement as to the principal points which it comprises.
First, then, we should altogether deny that laws originate in any ‘law-making power,’ or that they are, as the author of Ecce Homo seems to think, secreted, as it were, out of a supposed sense of duty and justice. How laws did originate is a question of fact; and inasmuch as they, or at least some of them, are more ancient than history itself, the question is insoluble, except by conjectures which must proceed upon very scanty evidence. But all the laws which we see actually existing and influencing mankind are made by superior power, generally in the shape of a public government, which threatens all persons who refuse to obey with unpleasant consequences. If we view God as a legislator, it is because he is stronger than we, not because he is better. The stronger can always give laws to the weaker, but the better cannot always give laws to the worse. If it were not so, there could be no such things as bad laws, which is absurd. The moral qualities of man—love, hatred, fear, hope, in a word, his passions—are not the law-making, but the law-receiving faculties. They are the parts of our nature by which he who is stronger than we has a hold upon us, and can compel us to do his will. The Church is a commonwealth only in so far forth as it is subject to laws, and Christ is a legislator only in so far as he made laws. If it can be shown that he systematically threatened a certain set of persons with certain consequences for certain acts, then he was a legislator over that set of persons. Even this, however, wants further explanation. It is one thing to make a law and another thing to reveal its existence. In order to show that Christ was a lawgiver proper, and founded a real society, it must be shown that he gave laws to that society and to no others, and that he did not confine himself to revealing to the world at large the laws which God Almighty had already made for the whole human race. To make his case good, the author of Ecce Homo ought to show that Christ commanded certain persons whose places in due time were to be filled by other persons to stifle in themselves all impediments to love, and that other persons not being members of the class so threatened are not exposed to the same penal consequences if they do not stifle in themselves all impediments to love. No one would attempt to prove or allege as a fact the existence of anything of the kind.
If this view of the nature of laws and states is correct, then it follows that the greater or less sensibility of the moral feelings, except in so far as it is the direct result of their laws properly so called, distinguishes the members of different states only accidentally; and that to take as the specific differentia of the Christian commonwealth from all others the moral peculiarities of Christians is a mistake. Moral superiority, whether you call it holiness or virtue, is not and hardly can be wedded to a particular set of laws. In so far as Christ was a moral reformer his moral teaching and moral discoveries enured to the benefit of all mankind and not to his own followers only. Grant for the sake of argument, though it is not true in fact, that Christ first exhorted men to love one another; grant further (which undoubtedly is true in fact and is one of the most important truths in all history) that his life and death exercised over the feelings, conduct, and sympathies of men an unexampled influence; grant moreover that he and his disciples first persuaded men, upon a large scale, to believe that the will of God with respect to them is that they should love him and one another, that obedience to that leads to all good, and disobedience to it to all evil here and hereafter: and you are as far as ever from having shown that Christ founded any special state or society, or that this belief and the feelings and habits of mind which spring from it are necessarily associated with any particular organisation.
The importance of this reflection is that, if fully accepted and carried out to its legitimate conclusions, it greatly simplifies human life, and tends to relieve men from a sort of shadowy double or treble standard of right and wrong, good and evil, which perhaps does more than any other single cause to confuse all our notions upon moral subjects. A belief in God and in the general proposition that God has so arranged the world that in the long run virtue succeeds and vice fails, which is the same as saying that God has commanded men to be good, is the common starting-point of all who have any religion at all which rises above the level of a philosophical speculation. It obviously implies the further belief that the general course of affairs and events is an index to God's will, that by observing the results of different undertakings, the working of different institutions, the practical consequences of different principles and the like, we may infer whether or not they are in accordance with God's will and commands. This, of course, is in no way inconsistent with the belief that it did, in fact, please God to make a special declaration on a particular occasion, by particular persons, either as to his own existence and nature, or as to his laws for men; and it is, of course, possible that he might institute a special society, with laws of its own, to be the depositary of such declarations and commands. Whether this happened or not is a mere question of fact, to be decided by evidence, like any other. Of course, if such a society was, in fact, instituted, we must enter upon the inquiry, where it is, what it is, what are its powers, how it was constituted, whether it had any and what legislative power, how far it is liable to corruption, and fifty other matters of the same kind, as to which we must give the best answer we can; but if there is no such society, if all the societies, in the proper sense of the word, that ever claimed such a character, have shown themselves in a hundred ways to be human inventions, full of traces of human passion and frailties, and utterly unable to produce anything like proof of the validity of their claims, then it is most unwise to conjure up, mainly out of your own head, a sort of ghost of a society in which every man is his own legislator, guided by an unflagging enthusiasm and illuminated by an unerring instinct, which is everywhere and nowhere, and is at once eternal and in a state of continual progress. It is unwise, because it obscures and complicates all the relations between men and God; because it withdraws men's eyes from the plain and intelligible question, whether a certain course of conduct will produce such results as would agree with God's general implied command to men to make each other happy, and confuses them by the collateral and really insoluble question, whether or not such a course of conduct or such a principle of action is in accordance with the principles of this shadowy legislation of an imaginary society.
Once permit the mind to be entangled with the notion that God is not merely the author of the world and of human nature, and of a revelation or express statement of facts necessary or useful to be known; but also of a sort of special state within all other states, and a legislation overriding, or, at all events, collateral to all other legislation and moral inquiry, and you set up that contrast between secular good and religious good, secular evil and religious evil, secular men and religious men, which, in its full-blown condition, develops itself into asceticism, monasticism, and ultimately manichaeism. Certainly the degree in which Ecce Homo tends towards this result is much less than that in which other schemes have tended to it. The airy, shadowy character of the society about which its author writes, the fact that it is rather a society in which various kinds of impulses are generated and propagated than a kingdom governed by laws, and the superfine indifference with which all definite questions of right and wrong, and of church government, are melted away into questions to be settled by instinct and sentiment, makes the scheme comparatively unobjectionable by making it nearly unmeaning; still, as far as it goes, the book does set up a distinction between ecclesiastical and temporal right and wrong. It does claim for mere impulses of a particular kind, guided by what the author views as instincts, a sort of sentimental superiority over the more calculating and systematic part of human nature.
It is difficult to sum up the characteristics of many chapters in a single sentence, but it would not be altogether unjust to describe the second part of Ecce Homo as a claim on behalf of the impulsive part of human nature to a pre-eminence to which it is not entitled. This in various forms constitutes the key-note of several chapters. We are told, for instance, that ‘the healthy mind of the philosophers is in a composed, tranquil, and impartial state; the healthy mind of Christ is in an elevated and enthusiastic state.’ The enthusiasm of humanity—or respect for men raised to the passionate pitch—is, we learn, the essence of Christian morals, and when fully imparted renders all intentional harm to men impossible, and also makes it a sort of moral necessity to consult their interests directly in every conceivable manner. The Christian is to be guided by a subtle instinct gradually developed, and which, it appears, is to supply the place of calculation; and for this reason active philanthropy and edification, which the author uses to include everything which in these days would be called social reform, are pre-eminently Christian, and are the Christian duties of the present time. Passing over the question whether by any sort of torturing of phrases these subtle refinements are to be got out of the New Testament, or could have been made intelligible in the age of the world in which it was written, let us consider whether they are true. To us it appears that they contain a certain proportion of truth, but that they state it so crudely and omit so many other, and such important, branches of truth, that they are almost more dangerous than error.
Take what system of moral philosophy you please, and explain good and evil as you please, and it will still in any event be an indisputable truth that all the different elements of human nature will have to be represented in goodness. The presence of certain conditions of intellect, of feeling, may even of the animal nature, are absolutely essential to its existence. To be extremely stupid, extremely unfeeling, or to be afflicted in an eminent degree with those bodily defects, whatever they may be, which constitute excessive physical cowardice, are conditions highly unfavourable to goodness, and hardly compatible with any high form of it; but to single out one set of these conditions as being the only ones is to strike at the very root of all sound theories of morals. The passionate or impulsive and the reflective or, if the word is preferred, the intellectual elements of morality (for the physical elements, though real, need not at present be considered) play into each other and make up the whole which we describe as the moral worth of a man. He is good or bad, as they upon the whole and taken together work well or ill. A perfectly good man would be a man to whose mind every thought relevant to the subject matter of his conduct presented itself, who arranged those thoughts in perfect order, who saw them in their exact relation to all other subjects by which they might be modified, who felt in relation to them exactly those feelings which would induce him to act in a manner calculated to promote goodness—whatever that means: say the greatest happiness of the greatest number—and who finally did act upon those impulses. A man who always thought and felt and acted thus would be a perfectly good man, and men are more or less good according to the degree in which they approximate to this ideal.
We cannot undertake to use such large phrases as the author of Ecce Homo, and to say whether ‘moral philosophy’ in general has sanctioned or dissented from this view of the subject. We should doubt much whether any philosopher, in ancient or modern times, ever supposed that it was desirable that men should reduce themselves to bare intellect, without feeling of any kind, because to hold such an opinion would be like saying that there ought to be no fire in a steam engine. Mere calculation would never lead to action at all. The ‘sedate mind’ surely is not a passionless, but a duly regulated mind; therefore when the author contrasts it with an enthusiastic mind, which he said is the frame of mind which Christ preferred, he must suppose that the right frame of mind is one in which a man is not only animated, but also guided by love to the race at large. We thus get three separate principles as to morality which are closely connected together, and which pervade by far the greater part of the second half of the book.
There is a form of enthusiasm which kills all vice in its root, and extinguishes all bad desires.
Men's minds ought to be guided by this enthusiasm and not merely affected by it.
Moral philosophy has about it something chilling and injurious to the moral tone of those who study it. It ‘does something towards paralysing and destroying good impulses.’
These doctrines may be stated and summed up in the mystical form by the passage which represents Christ as saying to struggling humanity, ‘Cling closer to me, ever closer to me;’ and that thus the essence of all Christianity is enthusiastic personal devotion to Christ, and so to men.
Now, in opposition to this, we assert that neither enthusiasm nor any other feeling whatever does kill all vice in the manner suggested; that no feeling can or ought to be a guide to conduct; that moral philosophy in one form or another is and ought to be the guide of conduct; and that the mystical way of putting the case recommends a frame of mind which is far from being so desirable as it is generally supposed to be; and which, though it has its advantages, requires to be guarded and qualified as carefully as all other passions, perhaps more carefully. By developing these assertions, we shall point out incidentally our objections to the views to which they are opposed.
To begin, then, with the question of enthusiasm and its effects. It arises thus: Christ, we are told, demands virtue of the ardent enthusiastic kind. He pronounces it unlawful to have unlawful desires. Natural appetites, in themselves perfectly innocent, are to be altogether destroyed when the gratification of them would be unlawful, and a feeling of aversion is to be substituted for it by the enthusiasm of virtue within the soul. This is illustrated by saying that ‘the enthusiastic patriot is incapable of treason. He who passionately loves one woman may be made by that love incapable of a licentious thought; and an elevated self-love may make it impossible for a man to lie.' That it is unlawful to have an unlawful desire is an identical proposition, as it may be thrown into the form that, if it is unlawful to feel a particular desire it is unlawful to feel that desire; but what desires are unlawful, and how far will enthusiasm of any kind whatever destroy them? Desires, in our view, are never unlawful until they are in some measure indulged; and it is most important to distinguish between these two things. I may feel a strong physical inclination to eat or drink a particular thing. I may feel that it would give me extreme pleasure to kill a man who has injured me. So long as I feel such inclinations merely as inclinations, so long as I resist and turn my thoughts away from the subject, so long I do no wrong whatever; I am suffering under temptation, and may be in every respect a better man than one who never feels the temptation. The desires are not unlawful, though their gratification is, even if that gratification is merely internal, and is not testified by and does not tend to any external act. No moralist would doubt that it was a wicked thing solitarily to picture to one's self the gratification of some forbidden act and to derive pleasure from doing so, though this might and probably would in most cases be a less offence than to do that forbidden act itself, or even to form the design of doing it; but this is the extreme limit of morality. To make a mere appetite criminal, or to consider a man's moral worth as dependent upon the degree of force which may belong to his appetites, is to vitiate and confuse all our notions of morality together. Nor does it by any means mend the matter that this is to be done by means of what we are told is to be a master passion, overpowering the rest. How can we make it a master passion? The relative strength of our passions is a matter over which we can exercise control only by an elaborate self-education, which must be founded first on two intellectual principles — the principle, namely, that some one passion, say the enthusiasm of humanity, ought to be artificially elevated into the position of a master passion; and the principle that such and such means are the proper ones for that purpose. Passion, in fact, is so ill-fitted to be a guide, that, before it can be made into one, moral philosophy must be called in first to prove that this is desirable, and secondly, to show how it can be done.
If this consequence is not admitted, Christianity fades away into a mere inclination of a mystical kind. If it happens to be strong enough to be a master passion in a particular person, that person has fulfilled Christ's ideal. If not, so much the worse for him: but he has no remedy.
When we consider what enthusiasm is, and what are its functions, how far do they correspond to the strange pretensions put forward on behalf of it by the author of Ecce Homo? Enthusiasm we are told destroys the unlawful appetite itself. ‘He who passionately loves one woman, may be made by that love incapable of a licentious thought.’ Quite true, but then also he may not. It all depends upon temperament and circumstances. If a married woman whose husband ill-treated her fell passionately in love with somebody else, and he with her, would their position be one of security, or of the strongest possible temptation? We can imagine a writer giving a morbid interest to an unwholesome novel by working out the author of Ecce Homo's view of the case, but in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand the position would be one of temptation proportioned to the ardour of the passion of the parties, and we do not believe that, as a rule, that state of things would tend to purify their minds. In point of fact the enthusiastic lover is apt to break the seventh commandment. Why was Francesca sent to hell? The enthusiastic patriot is just the man who commits treason. Why was Emmett hung? It may of course be said for some super-celestial reason, that the one act was not adultery, nor the other treason, but Dante and Lord Norbury were of a different opinion, and if they were wrong every existing theory on the subject is thrown into bottomless confusion and bewilderment.
We have admitted that enthusiasm may have the effect ascribed to it, and have also proved that it may not, let us try to determine the conditions by which this will be decided. They are by no means simple and to a great extent intellectual. In order that enthusiastic love may produce perfect purity, it is necessary that the person who feels it should be endowed by nature, improved by habit, and strengthened by reflection, with a strong perception of the beauty of purity, great power of self-restraint and self-denial, and other qualities intellectual and moral of a similar kind. How is he to get all this? Not from enthusiasm, for it is the rudder by which his enthusiasm is to be steered, and the skill which is to guide the rudder. He must get it partly from nature, partly from education, and very largely indeed from study and reflection, and when he has got it, if he knows anything of himself and of the world, he will know perfectly well that the temper which enthusiasm will produce is of all securities the weakest and most treacherous; the one which requires the most constant watching and care for its reinforcement. A man guarded by enthusiasm alone is just the person to be carried off his legs by a sudden temptation if it comes in rather a subtle form, just as the man whose truthfulness is based on intense self-love will be very likely to lie if the temptation to do so addresses itself to his ruling passion, if for instance truth required him to own not only to the world but also to himself that in a particular case he had acted a base and dishonourable part, and to regulate his conduct accordingly. And the reason of this is plain. When a man acts from enthusiasm he gratifies the strongest desire present to his mind at the moment; he thus exercises no self-command or self-denial, and thus if he is taken in reverse, if for any reason the immediate force of enthusiasm upon him is suspended, and some other strong desire springs up, he has practically no choice but to give way to that.
It would be an injustice to the author of Ecce Homo to suppose that he was altogether unaware of such objections to his scheme. He deals with them in about three lines. He says:
‘The Christian law is the spirit of Christ, that enthusiasm of humanity which he declared to be the source from which all right action flows. What it dictates, and that alone, is law for the Christian.’He goes on—
‘But, say the cautious, is it safe to follow a mere enthusiasm? If Christ is to be believed, it is not safe to follow anything else. According to him this Spirit was expressly given to guide men into all truth. But they will rejoin—and here the truth comes out—we like to feel the stay of a written precept; we are not conscious of any such ardent impulse directing us infallibly what to do. In reply to which what can we do but repeat the question of St. Paul, 'Into what then were ye baptized?’’By a long train of refined arguments and assumptions, we at last get out the result that the gist of Christianity is that all Christians ought to have within themselves an infallible guide to all truth. On this it is observed that most Christians have nothing of the sort. The reply is a vague question for which if the author's theory were true there might be some pretence, but which it is impossible to answer in accordance with his theory, simply because his theory is false. If Christianity implies the possession in your own heart of an infallible monitor on all moral subjects, then no doubt hardly any one, perhaps no one is a Christian, but it is more easy to believe that the author's theory about infallible monitors is wrong than that Christianity has perished out of the world.
If enthusiasm always requires a guide, as no doubt it does, there is no form of it which requires one so imperatively as what the author of Ecce Homo calls the enthusiasm of humanity. A more terrible enemy, a more intolerable bore, a more irritating annoyance to the human race can hardly be conceived than one who loves it not wisely but too well. Ally the enthusiasm of humanity with superstition and fanaticism, and you have Dominic and Loyola. Ally it with self-sufficiency and vanity verging on madness, and you have Rousseau or Robespierre. Ally it with puerility and narrowmindedness, and you have the philanthropic and religious busy-body—the world-betterer, who never can either let his neighbours alone, or interfere with them to any good purpose; in short you have a passion which in its different modifications may lead to almost any result, good, bad, or indifferent, according to circumstances. Now it is certainly an intelligible proposition that every one who has any form of this passion, no matter what evils he may cause to the human race, is better than every one who has it not, be he as useful as he may. There is no difficulty in understanding the meaning of a man who asserts that Robespierre and Marat were generically superior to Lord Stowell and William Pitt, and, that the gist and essence of Christ's preaching was to announce that fact to the world. Such propositions, however, require strict proof. The second can never be proved unless and until we are able to get a complete systematic account of the moral doctrines which Christ held upon all subjects, including those on which he did not, as well as those on which he did express himself; the first can never be proved at all except by arguments which must form part of the province of moral philosophy. Unless therefore the doctrine about the enthusiasm of humanity is to be put forward as a first truth proving itself, you always come round to moral philosophy, which is only another name for reason reflecting upon feelings and actions, and their relations and consequences, as the ultimate guide of human conduct.
It is curious to see how in point of fact the author of Ecce Homo himself, with all his views about the enthusiasm of humanity and the infallible guide and instinct to do right, which is implanted in the heart of every Christian, continually falls into philosophising, and does practically take moral philosophy as his real guide, though when he has found out by experience and reflection that a particular thing is good, he always adds that Christ commanded it. We will take a few specimens which set this in a clear light from the principal chapters of the second part. The chapter on positive morality says that to ‘do good’ in the sense of ‘the relief of ordinary physical evils’ was ‘the great work’ of Christ's life.
‘It may sometimes strike us that the time which he devoted to acts of beneficence and the relief of ordinary physical evils might have been given to works more permanently beneficial to the race. . . . . The whole amount of good done by such works of charity could not be great, compared with Christ's powers of doing good; and if they were intended, as is often supposed, merely as attestations of his divine mission, a few acts of the kind would have served this purpose as well as many. Yet we may see that they were in fact the great work of his life; his biography may be summed up in the words ‘he went about doing good;’ his wise words were secondary to his beneficial deeds.’This, by the way, is a strange view of the miracles, and suggests the question why, if it is the true view, Christ worked so few? If ‘the relief of ordinary physical evils' was the great object of his life, and if he was endowed with unlimited miraculous power, why did he leave any disease at all in Judaea, or indeed in the world; and, for that matter, why did he leave any sin? Assume that Christ was God, and it becomes presumptuous to ask such questions; but hold up Christ's employment of his miraculous powers as an example to men, and they become relevant and practical in the highest degree. If I pass my time in study, I may discover a cure, say for small-pox, which will relieve millions. If I go out into the streets of London, I may in the same time meet with and relieve a considerable individual number of cases of distress which would otherwise go unrelieved. Does the example of Christ point out the second as the more excellent way? If no, what is the meaning of the passage quoted? If yes, then answer the questions suggested before you call on me to follow his example. This, however, is a digression. The author goes on in the next chapter (on the law of philanthropy) to ‘consider what are likely to be the characteristics, the modes of life and action of a person in whom the enthusiasm of humanity has been kindled. He says that Christ enjoined his followers to apply themselves to relieving physical distress, to adding new members to the Christian church, and to forgive personal injuries. He infers these general injunctions from various isolated sayings and actions, speculates upon them at considerable length, and, so to speak, adapts them to the present state of society. Thus, after much discourse about the relief of distress, he observes that much progress has been made in philanthropy in the course of 1800 years:
‘It is not now enough to visit the sick and give alms to the poor. We may still use the words as a kind of motto, but we must understand under them a multitude of things which they do not express. If we would make them express the whole duty of philanthropy in this age, we must treat them as preachers sometimes treat the Decalogue, when they represent it as containing by implication a whole system of morality. Christ commanded his first followers to heal the sick and give alms, but he commands the Christians of this age, if we may use the expression, to investigate the causes of all physical evil, to master the science of health, to consider the question of education with a view to health, the question of labour with a view to health, the question of trade with a view to health; and while all these investigations are made, with free expense of energy and time and means, to work out the rearrangement of human life in accordance with the results they give.’This is an excellent specimen of the author's method. The chapters on the laws of edification, mercy, resentment and forgiveness, are only applications of it to other subjects. We may therefore discuss, under this one head, the common principles of them all. His method is to idealise Christ's character by stretching and developing the words ascribed to him so as to give them, so to speak, in terms of the nineteenth century. This is not criticism, as it professes to be. It is merely clothing modern thoughts in theological language. It is turning Christ into a mythical being— the impersonation of modern philanthropy. No doubt, from a well-founded dread of being sentimental, and making his portrait too luscious, he throws in some darker shades, and says that certain forms of resentment, &c., are pre-eminently Christian; but the whole is in the same vein. Take modern views of philanthropy, forgiveness, edification, mercy and resentment in such proportions as the taste of a cultivated Englishman of the nineteenth century approves, mix them up together in the form of an ideal, and call that being Christ; and having done so, get by an inverse process, out of the New Testament, the best evidence you can find to prove that this view of the case is true in fact. What is this, after all, but personifying moral philosophy and social science (as it is called) under the name of Christ, and then making Christ enjoin the practice of moral philosophy and social science under the name of the enthusiasm of humanity?
We do not deny that to idealise the character of Christ, and the words of the New Testament, for some purposes, and to a limited extent, is justifiable and inevitable; but such a process ought not to pretend to be criticism, and if performed at all it ought to be performed with a full consciousness of the nature of the process and of the objects which ought to be attained by it. We will try to illustrate our meaning on this point by explaining to what extent we consider the process in question justifiable.
To public instructors—above all, to the clergy—and to many persons in their private devotions, the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is in the position of an authorised moral and religious handbook, which is read, not for the purpose of obtaining instruction upon matters of fact, but for the purpose of exciting religious emotion. When thus used, no doubt the words which it contains suggest, by way of association, very much more than they actually contain; and great part of their value arises from the fact that they form the nucleus of a great mass of sentiment and reflection which, in the course of ages, has collected about particular parts of the Bible, and they thus excite a vast variety of feelings in the mind which have the greatest value, and which would certainly perish by degrees if they were not excited at stated times; and this property is altogether independent of the meaning which they had in the mouths of those who first used them. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land, may possibly have been originally meant to convey the notion of a promise of miraculous longevity to dutiful children; and men who thus interpreted the text, and who thought it false in fact, might nevertheless value the words as a weighty intimation to mankind of the undoubted and indisputable truth that reverence for parents is one of the great conditions of national stability. No one would blame a clergyman for preaching a sermon against lying, on the ninth commandment, although there is no reason to suppose that the words actually meant more than they say. To take an illustration of a different kind: a man might have got far enough from the common belief about St. Paul, and especially from the view which he gives of the resurrection of the body, and still think that nothing more appropriate and more touching to some of his most sacred feelings could be found, than the reading of the 15th chapter of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians, at a funeral.
We idealise all popular writings, more or less, and even attach to particular expressions a meaning which their authors never had in view. ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’ means to us: Every one sympathises in expressions of natural emotion, though this was not what Shakespeare meant by it. ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk' is generally read as an exhortation to tenderness, but it is probably an injunction not to boil sucking kids.
It is impossible to discover otherwise than by actual experiment the extent to which the process of idealising the meaning of passages of Scripture may be carried in this way, not only without injury either to knowledge, or to honesty, but with great advantage. Everything depends upon the way in which it is done, and on the temper of mind of the preacher or teacher and his audience. It is in principle the same as in the process of allegorical interpretation adopted by so many of the fathers; and this principle becomes objectionable only when it is consciously employed for the purpose of concealing or distorting the real truth. If the truth is neither concealed nor distorted, there is no harm and much good in using familiar and sacred words as the vehicles of truths which they are well adapted to convey, though they may not have been originally intended for that purpose. [The late Archdeacon Hare's works contain a curious illustration of this. Some one had been trying to confuse a pious old French peasant by quoting the passage about dashing children against stones from the 135th Psalm. The old man replied, ‘You don't understand it; the text means to say, “Blessed shall he be who taketh thy children and brings them to the true Church,” la pierre c'est St. Pierre, il faut bien attacher les enfants à St. Pierre. This would have been dishonest in a commentator, but was touching and beautiful in the mouth of a simple old man who reverenced the Church and the Bible because they were to him as they are to millions, the channels through which truth and goodness flow.]
When we come to ‘critical weighing’ of facts, such adaptations and expressions are improper; but for the sake of our argument, let us concede to the author of Ecce Homo that they are proper, and ought to be employed; and that he is justified in his conclusion that in commanding his disciples to give alms and visit the sick and the prisoners, Christ virtually commanded us to undertake all the investigations and to carry out all the measures which he enumerates. The question will still arise—why stop there? If you are going to idealise and develop, why do you not carry out your developments to the full extent? If you get general philanthropy out of the fact that Christ went about doing good in the sense of miraculously healing disease, why not get general morality out of the fact that he commanded general philanthropy?, The desire to relieve suffering is not a thing which can be indulged without restriction. You see a soldier being flogged. Christ went about doing good. Therefore, cut him down. But is it for the general advantage that he should be cut down? If not, to cut him down would be to do not good, but harm. Before you can decide the question whether your proposed act is good or not, you must have a whole system of morals with special reference to all sorts of political, military, and international questions: To say that Christ's life was passed in a protest against pain as pain, and that, therefore, Christians in the present day ought to pass their lives in a systematised protest against pain as pain, and not against such pain as moral philosophy in its ripest form shows to be generally injurious, is to argue upon an arbitrary guess. If, on the other hand, you say the example of Christ teaches us to do in every sphere of life that which moral philosophy declares to be right, then moral philosophy is our real instructor, and not the enthusiasm of humanity derived from the contemplation of Christ. This is opposed to the whole theory of Ecce Homo, though we believe it to be perfectly true.
The fact is that, like many other people, the author of Ecce Homo falls into the mistake of making a false division of morality. He arranges it under two heads. One comprehends all the gentler virtues; everything which has an obvious immediate tendency to diminish the sufferings of mankind, or to indulge kindly feelings towards them. Under the other head are included virtues of a less immediately and obviously amiable class. The first are the specially Christian qualities, and are to be discharged because of the love of Christ; the second are to stand on their own ground. You are to relieve a sick man because of the enthusiasm of humanity; you are to invest your money securely because it is an act of prudence: but the enthusiasm of humanity has nothing to do with prudence, and moral philosophy, which inculcates prudence, has nothing to do with the relief of sick people. It is perfectly true, as we have already observed, that the author, for fear of making his picture too luscious, derives from certain parts of the character of Christ exhortations to the sterner class of virtues. He infers from the vehemence of Christ's invectives against the Pharisees," that neither war nor capital punishment are necessarily unchristian. [Great part of this chapter consists of assertions founded on the supposed fact, that ‘scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, means ‘actors, and many inferences are drawn from Christ's supposed use of the word ύποκριτάί. Does the author think that Christ spoke Greek?] The enthusiasm of humanity, we are told—
‘creates an intolerant anger against all who do wrong to human beings, an impatience of selfish enjoyment, a vindictive enmity to tyrants and oppressors, a bitterness against sophistry, superstition, self-complacent heartless speculation, an irreconcilable hostility to every form of imposture, such as the uninspired inhumane soul could never entertain.’We agree in the opinion that there is a fierce vein in Christianity, as indeed the history and character of every body and of every theological system that has ever claimed the Christian name abundantly prove. We also agree in the belief that the fierce passions are a most important part of human nature, and ought, on certain occasions, to be permitted to have full play, and to guide our conduct in important particulars. The soldier, the judge, and the hangman are necessary members of human society, and ought to do their respective tasks effectively; but in their department of affairs more than any other is displayed the truth of the doctrine that enthusiasm is merely a motive power and not a guide, that reason is to judge of the extent, the occasions, and the manner in which such passions are to be indulged. A man who deliberately measures out the degree in which he will allow his natural and proper feelings of anger to have their way on such an occasion, for instance, as that of the suppression of the Indian mutiny, acts well. A man who, on such an occasion, merely tries to throw himself into the attitude in which he supposes Christ to have been when he rebuked the Pharisees, and allows himself to be guided by a supposed divine instinct urging him to feel ‘vindictive enmity’ against one class, ‘bitterness’ against a second, ‘irreconcilable hostility’ to several more, will probably act the part, not of a strong deliberate self-restraining king or general, but that of a flighty hysterical fanatic, ready, according to circumstances, to slobber over his neighbours, or to cut their throats. It is not because Christ went about doing good that we ought to relieve distress. It is not because Christ levelled unsparing invectives against the scribes and Pharisees that we ought, in case of need, to exercise the utmost severities, in order to maintain lawful authority. We ought to do these things if necessary calmly, deliberately, with a minimum of excitement and passion, because they are, according to the best tests of right and wrong which we can discover, the right things to do under the circumstances. In regard to morals, feeling and reason are like the steam and the machinery in an engine. Without the steam you would have no power, without the machinery you would have no resistance, and you want both to get motion. The mere following of Christ, the enthusiasm kindled by the contemplation of his example, will not in the least degree enable people to dispense with moral philosophy. On the contrary, it will increase the necessity for it in proportion to the vigour of the impulse which it gives to the general character. For how can the enthusiasm of humanity tell you which precedent you are to apply in a particular case, and when it is to be limited by others? Apply in the wrong place the reflection that Christ went about doing good, and you get indiscriminate almsgiving or the old poor-law. Apply in the wrong place ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ and you get the Inquisition, the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the penal laws against the French Protestants or the Irish Roman Catholics. What then is to guide you, and to tell you which is the right place for the one, and which for the other reflection? Not Christ, but reason, that very moral philosophy which the author of Ecce Homo underrates.
This leads us to say a few words on the last part of the argument of Ecce Homo which we think it necessary to examine. The author appears to us to attach far too great a degree of weight to personal devotion to Christ as a panacea for all moral evils. Christ, he tells us, says to struggling humanity, ‘Cling to me, cling ever closer to me,’ and the greater part of his argument is directed to prove that this is the one thing needful to make bad men good. Mysticism, of course, must not be pressed too closely. When you ask what ‘clinging to Christ’ specifically means, you must not expect a categorical answer; but, no doubt, the general signification of the phrase is, that by forming to themselves an image of Christ, and by then conceiving of him as always present, always invisibly interfering and communicating good impulses to the soul, men will become good, and that to do this is the real essence of Christianity. Of course, it cannot be denied that a belief in the possibility of a personal intercourse with God through prayer is of the essence of what may be called personal religion. A man who does not believe that he can, by prayer, keep up such an intercourse might, no doubt, retain a belief in the existence of God, and in his moral government of the world; and these beliefs are of immense importance, but he would certainly entirely leave out that department of Christianity which is usually supposed to exercise the greatest influence over individual character, and this shows the enormous practical importance of the question to which we have referred, namely, whether the advice to ‘cling to Christ’ in the sense above explained is a sufficient answer to human beings, asking how they are to be guided and supported in their various affairs.
The connection of this question with the general scope of Ecce Homo may not be apparent at first sight, but a little reflection will, we think, make it clear. To ‘cling to Christ’ is to pray to Christ, to make Christ your God; and as a man's God is, as his ideal, that to which he tends, which he recognises as the supreme good, and seeks to attain—so will be the man’s life, the man himself. If therefore, Christ is to be our God, our ideal, books like Ecce Homo are attempts to give us an image and description of our God, and when they tell us to cling to Christ they mean ‘Pray to such a being as I describe, as the ultimate object of all reverence, the ultimate source of all goodness. Model yourself on him. He is to be your God, and you are to be his people.’
Such an exhortation differs widely from the doctrines of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. Their doctrine is that not the man Jesus, but the person Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect man, is the object of worship, and that this being is one, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God. Let us try to translate this technical phraseology into its equivalents in every-day life. To us, at least, it appears to suggest some such meaning as the following: When you worship Jesus Christ, beware against idolising a human creature. You are not to worship Jesus of Nazareth. You are to worship Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ was God. Whatever Christianity was or was not meant to do, its theology was a standing protest against idolatry, especially against the idolatry of Jesus. Christ is in all Christian churches an object of worship, not as man, but as God and man. The practical difference between the two is enormous. If you are required to worship a being who is made up in some mysterious way of God and man, you can always bear in mind, in acts of worship, that the object of your worship is not a particular man but God, and that if Jesus Christ is to be worshipped it is not as a man who preached the sermon on the mount, or worked miracles, or rose from the dead, but because in him were in some way or other united so as to form one person man and God, so that the object of worship is a being infinitely wise and good, omnipotent and omnipresent. These are the only terms on which the worship of Jesus Christ can be anything else than the worship of a human being—a representative man; and unless the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds are heretical from end to end it is hard to dispute the orthodoxy at least of this assertion.
With reference to this matter, it is important to observe that the gospels as we have them are, as we have already pointed out, exceedingly imperfect if they are regarded as biographies of a human being, and leave a number of gaps which must be filled up by those conjectures and exercises of the ‘historical imagination’ which make up so large a part of the substance of Ecce Homo. Now, the more definite, the more human, the more conceivable the character of Christ is made, the further he recedes from the position of ‘an historical character, with incomprehensible motives and feelings,’ the less divine he becomes, and the more difficult is it to worship him. It cannot be denied, for instance, that the character which the author of Ecce Homo draws falls very far short of divinity. We refuse altogether to recognise the Christ of the gospels in the Christ of this book. The character as we have it here appears to us to be in several respects open to just exception: the doctrines which Christ is alleged to have taught appear to us to be in many particulars untrue, and the conduct ascribed to him to be in some points sentimental (as in the case of the woman taken in adultery), and in others rash and violent (as in the case of the rebukes levelled against the scribes and Pharisees). So long as the human character of Christ is left as the evangelists leave it—that is to say, incomplete and mysterious—and so long as we are told that he was in point of fact God Incarnate, our mouths are closed. We cannot, of course, presume to criticise the acts of such a being. We say these acts were, no doubt, right under the circumstances; these words were, no doubt, wise and true, and therefore they cannot have meant anything foolish or wrong, although we may not be in a position to say precisely what they did mean; but when the historical imagination fairly takes the whole matter in hand, and says Jesus thought this and that, and acted thus and thus, and you are to cling to him, cling ever to him, if you wish to be good and happy, the reply is, ‘You wish me to cling to a being whom you represent as imperfect and mistaken. It would be idolatry to worship such a Jesus as you describe, and that not merely in the technical but in the practical sense of the word. The pattern which you hold up is not the highest which my imagination can conceive. I worship God as being the creator, maintainer, and disposer of the whole world, physical and moral. If it pleased that being to unite himself to man (which is a question of fact) it is justifiable to worship him under that form; but it is the superhuman, the divine being which is the object of worship.’ This question is in the highest degree practical, for worship is the setting up of an ideal which is to be your guide and aim in cases of difficulty. Now, there are large departments of human duties and affairs on which the example of Christ throws no light whatever, and in which the direction ‘cling to Christ’ is an unmeaning phrase. The duties of the writer, the philosopher, the artist, the legislator, the magistrate, and the lawyer, except on particular occasions and in certain departments of their affairs, are not much enlightened by the sermon on the mount. The great efforts of the intellect, the great efforts of the imagination, may be sustained and excited by the reflection that the universe is cosmos and not chaos, conceivable by the human mind, bearing in itself the traces of being, so to speak, the thought of a mind of which the human mind is a kind of reflection; but such thoughts, though not inconsistent with the parables and the sermon, on the mount, are not contained in them. It is only by violent metaphors and strained constructions that you can connect what may be called the business part of life, political economy, law, commerce, and the principles by which they are regulated, with Christ's example. ‘Cling to me, ever closer to me,’ would have been strange advice to give to Adam Smith when anxious to discover the principles of the wealth of nations; or to Tribonian and his associates when they arranged the chaos of the Roman law; or to the founders of the British empire in India; yet these were items, and not trifling items either, in that collective whole which makes up ‘humanity struggling with its destiny; and if there be a God at all who cares for men and treats them as accountable moral agents, it is inconceivable that he should not have viewed the due discharge of the tasks which we have mentioned as duties of the highest and most sacred kind, quite as high and sacred (though there is no need to be sentimental about them) as preaching, or praying, or administering the sacraments.
It is hardly, perhaps, necessary to observe that these observations by no means impugn the divinity of Christ. Their object is to show the danger of converting the human nature of Christ into an idol by magnifying the importance of the particular qualities which he displayed till they are made by development and expansion to fill the whole sphere of human life. The inveterate tendency of men and women to do this constantly leads them to regard everything which does not fall within the limits of Christ's example as carnal and worldly; and this tendency to separate the common business of life from that department of it which is specially illustrated by the teaching and example of Christ reacts upon the character of persons engaged in those other pursuits, and leads them to take an irreligious view of occupations which, so to speak, are unsanctified by one who is supposed to have summed up in himself every form and kind of human holiness.
These are the principal observations which Ecce Homo suggests to us. We can foresee that the remarks which we have felt bound to make will provoke an obvious retort. You, it will be said, you who see so many difficulties in other men's views—what think you of Christ? We will try to give a general answer to this question, though, of course, in a compressed form. In a few words, we think that the evidence as to the nature and character of Christ is sufficient to enable an honest man to join in worshipping him in the ordinary forms. We do not think the evidence is sufficient to compel every honest man to do so. We see no reason why a man born and bred a worshipper of Christ should feel himself called upon to cease to worship him, but we cannot see that any moral guilt is of necessity involved in a suspense of the judgment on the credibility of the gospel history. We are of opinion that people in general are not under any moral obligation to arrive at any determinate conclusions on the subject, but that those who know in general how the evidence stands are under a decided moral obligation not to permit themselves to speak or think contemptuously of those who do worship Christ, as if to do so were an irrational superstition, or reproachfully of those who do not, as if the omission were a crime.
We will conclude this article by an attempt to state in general the grounds of these opinions.
The question whether the history related in the four gospels is true in the main depends, like all other such questions, on the proportion between the antecedent or intrinsic probability of the story and the credit of the witnesses. The question as to the antecedent or intrinsic probability of the story has been discussed ad nauseam. It is urged on the one hand that to those who believe in a God who cares for men miracles are not incredible per se, and on the other that miracles are impossible; and it is further urged that unless our experience applied not to this world only but to many worlds, we could not be in a position to say that it was contrary to experience that a communication attested by miracles should once in the course of the history of a world be addressed to it by its maker.
Such controversies always leave on the mind an unsatisfactory feeling. Those who contend that miracles are impossible almost always deify a mere fact under the name of a law of nature, and those who declare them to be possible found their argument on premises so enormously large and general that it is hard to say whether they are true or false. The only mode of dealing with the question which affords any chance of a satisfactory conclusion is to come to the facts and to see what the evidence really does point to before we consider the question whether, if it points to the conclusion that miracles were performed, that conclusion ought in any case to be admitted. The argument on the facts (which the sagacity of Paley and other writers of the last century, whom it is now the fashion to underrate, perceived to be the vital point of the whole controversy, although their critical apparatus for its solution was much inferior in extent to our own) has been by this time pretty nearly exhausted. Indeed, notwithstanding the enormous amount of discussion which it has received, it falls at last into a very small compass, for the evidence on the subject is not extensive and can never be enlarged. We will try to give a very summary view of it.
The argument against the truth of the miracles is, that even if the possibility of miracles be admitted, the improbability of the truth of any miraculous story must also be admitted. False accounts of miracles are common, and if the Christian miracles did really occur they are the only ones in the history of the world. In every other case we reject miraculous stories without hesitation. We ought, therefore, to reject these, unless they are warranted by strong evidence. Now, the histories of the four evangelists were written by unknown authors at an unknown time; we have no proof that any of the authors were eye-witnesses. Of the four, one only distinctly asserts that he was an eye-witness, and the authenticity of the gospel attributed to him is matter of grave doubt. We have evidence that the testimony of three of them, at least, is not independent, and there is in the histories themselves an amount of disagreement and inconsistency which proves to demonstration that they were not exempt from the mistakes and imperfections of common writers. These mistakes alone certainly would not be sufficient to shake their general credibility if the story which they told was not miraculous, but the question is, why on the authority of evidence like this, you should believe statements which you certainly would not believe if you found them anywhere else? This, expanded and illustrated in various ways, is the substance of the argument against the general credibility of the gospels.
The strongest answer to it may be thus expressed: It is true that if the truth of the gospel history rested solely on the gospels, as we now have them, the evidence would not be sufficient to warrant belief. If Christianity had altogether died out, and if we knew nothing of it except what is contained in the four gospels, no one would believe them to be true; but this is not the case. Whatever else is true or false, there can be no manner of doubt of the fact that the Christian religion began and the Christian church was founded about A.D. 33. There can, moreover, be no doubt that the first Christians believed the facts stated in the Apostles' Creed, and it is equally clear that the four gospels, though containing a full share of mistakes, imperfections, and incompleteness, were accepted as substantially true accounts of Jesus Christ within a period of time which cannot be exactly fixed, but which cannot have been very long—say half a century, or less, after his crucifixion. The whole history of the church and the world has shown the force and tenacity of this belief. The alleged facts, if true in the main, would account for its being entertained, and our experience of mankind does not warrant the belief that so great, so lasting, and so beneficial a movement originated in credulity or fraud. If the whole story of Christ as related by the evangelists had been a delusion and a lie, would the Christian religion and the Christian church have played such a part as they have in the world? Does such a theory as that of M. Renan, or any theory proceeding upon the same assumption, explain the facts which history presents to us?
It is hardly necessary to say that this theory in no way recognises or countenances the notion of an infallible church. It merely deals with the broad and well-known historical fact of the growth, the influence, and the character of the Christian religion and of the various bodies by which it has been professed, and with their influence in the world; and it rests the case on the support which that fact gives to the general credibility of the gospels themselves, though it admits their imperfections.
To this argument it may be replied that Christianity certainly owes its success to the truth which it contains, but that it does not follow that because it contains a large amount of truth, mixed up, as every candid person must admit, with much error and corruption, the miracles attributed to Christ are part of the truth and not part of the error. It may be added that other religions — Mahometanism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, &c. —have also gained a great hold on mankind, and have also got their sacred stories, which we, who do not profess those religions, reject, although we acknowledge the portion of truth which the religions themselves contain.
It is rejoined that the truths which are said to have supported Christianity are not its peculiar and distinctive characteristics, and that the main facts of the life of Christ are. The doctrines of a God, a future life, a future judgment, have been and still are preached, apart from any belief in the history of Christ, and have not succeeded in influencing mankind in the same way. There would have been no Christianity without Christ, and if Christ was a mere man he was a man of whom we have no accounts at all. The accounts which make him out to be something more explain what followed, and no others would. As to other religions, Mahomet preached an eternal truth as far as he went, and was to those whom he addressed the prophet or proclaimer of God; and a person born and bred a Mahometan ought to believe and practise Mahometanism subject to further information. As to Buddhism, the origin of the creed is lost past recovery in immemorial antiquity; and Brahmanism contains no historical element at all; and in general our information on these subjects is very imperfect.
The argument might no doubt be carried further, but this gives a sufficient notion of the general course of the debate upon the general credibility and truth of the main outline of the history of Jesus Christ, to raise the question what conclusion a prudent man, brought up as a Christian and accustomed as such to join in the public worship of Christ, would draw from these arguments. We think he is fairly entitled to say, There is a case on each side, and the arguments for and against the truth of the history are of a sort which it is neither possible nor desirable to decide upon at once. They are matters to weigh deliberately, and they will produce their effect by degrees and insensibly. ‘Securus judicabit orbis.’ Men will make up their minds as time goes on if they keep the matter before them, for the question is now raised for decision under circumstances infinitely more favourable to a full, fair, and intelligent discussion of it than ever existed before in the whole history of the world. But what, such a man will say, is my duty in the meantime? It is to act as prudence and experience direct. Now, independently of the whole of this question, I believe in God and in the necessity of prayer and worship. The universe and the human soul lead me to believe in this with a faith different in kind and degree from any which I can possibly feel in the four gospels. That there is a God, that virtue is God's law for man, that the human soul can have intercourse with God,—are propositions which may be false, but which may also be true; and I am willing to regulate the whole course of my life on the latter probability. But experience shows that God must be worshipped, and that in express words and set forms, and it also shows that to find a form of worship in which any considerable number of persons will be willing to join, and in which they will be able to join with advantage to their moral condition,--to find a fitting expression for our feelings towards God, one that shall not be presumptuous and conceited on the one hand, or superstitious and grovelling on the other, is a supremely difficult thing, not the less difficult because at first sight, and experience apart, it might be expected to be easy and simple. Experience further shows that, as in all other matters, so pre-eminently in this, man is a social being. He cannot separate himself from his fellows, and ought not to try to do so. Worship, to be useful, must be conducted by bodies of men sufficiently large to allow the interchange of feelings and ideas to produce a common religious sentiment, analogous to the moral and political sentiment which grows up in political and social life. For this purpose we must have churches, and churches of a considerable extent, containing both sexes, and all ages and ranks. The Christian churches which exist amongst us provide for these wants; and they have shown their vitality, as a fact, by the powerful influence which they have exercised, and still do exercise, over large bodies of men and women. The history which is the common foundation of all their creeds and all their services undoubtedly may be false, but then also it may be true; and so long as I have an honest doubt in the positive as well as in the negative direction on this subject I feel myself justified in joining in the worship of the Christian body to which I belong, so long as it is not oppressive to myself or to others. On the other hand I do not think myself morally justified in throwing upon others the responsibility which must belong to myself of taking my own course, and governing my own conduct and my own thoughts; still less should I be morally justified in imposing such a yoke upon others, even if it were only by expressing disapproval, or by allowing myself in my own mind to feel disapproval of those who go further than I, and who honestly and in good faith repudiate and abstain from all public profession of religious belief.
To those who think this a very low standard to set up, and consider that such a qualified assent to the truth of the gospel histories, and to existing forms of worship is hardly worth having, several considerations may be addressed. We will confine ourselves to one which is frequently put forward by Bishop Butler in many parts of the Analogy, and particularly in the last page of it:
‘With regard to Christianity it will be observed that there is a middle between a full satisfaction of the truth of it, and a satisfaction of the contrary. The middle state of mind between these two consists in a serious apprehension that it may be true joined with doubt whether it be so. . . . . Now a serious apprehension that Christianity may be true lays persons under the strictest obligation of a serious regard to it throughout the whole of their life; a regard not the same exactly, but in many respects nearly the same, with what a full conviction of its truth would lay them under.’For the word ‘Christianity,’ which is somewhat vague and general, substitute the words ‘belief in the substantial truth of the history told in the gospels,’ and this is exactly the state of mind which we have been describing, and the practical inference which we have said a reasonable man would draw from it. ‘Doubting,’ he would say, ‘whether these things are true or not, but seeing that the institutions founded on the supposition of their truth are beneficial, and that some such institutions are absolutely necessary, and that there are no others to be had, I will act upon the supposition of the possible truth of the matters in dispute, clearly avowing to myself and to others whom it may concern on proper occasions, the exact position of my own mind upon the subject. If Christ was God Incarnate, then I shall have acted right. If not, the worst I have done has been to pray to God under a form which I did not make, but which I found established and approved by the general practice of my time and country. Whilst, however, I go thus far, I will go no further. Doubtful assent is not the same thing as full and distinct assent; and I will not by “an ever-widening spiral ergo” heap article on article, and practice on practice, till I have manufactured an elaborate theological system out of a set of probabilities each dependent on, and therefore in geometrical progression less weighty than, the one that went before; neither will I allow my own or any other man's imagination to fill up the gaps which the evidence has left. To use the language of Chillingworth, my belief shall always be “proportionable to the credibility of its motives.””
Fully to work out and display all the consequences of this view of the case upon thought, feeling, and practice would require a volume. It might, we think, be shown to be not only consistent with, but even conducive both to morality and to piety. That it would be conducive to morality is obvious. That it would or might be conducive to piety, may be inferred from the consideration that when a man has decided to act upon a particular view of a doubtful subject, and has acted upon it vigorously, and for a length of time he derives from that very fact a stronger confidence in its truth than he had at first. Whether and under what limitations this additional confidence is evidence of the truth of that which it affirms, is a very difficult question which we cannot now discuss; but that in point of fact it is the cause of a very large proportion of the sincere religious belief which exists in the world, admits of no doubt at all.
We have only one more observation to make, and that has reference to the view which a person holding such opinions naturally takes of books like Ecce Homo. As matters stand, Jesus Christ is the object of divine honours. Critical inquiries may certainly throw light on the question whether this is right or wrong, for there is much room for further examination as to the growth of the early Church and its doctrines, and as to the connection of those doctrines with contemporary systems of philosophy and morals. Modern writers have added something to the stock of knowledge on these topics, and they may ultimately succeed in showing either that the Christian revelation formed a part of the general progress of events, or that it stands by itself as a sort of new era, the commencement and gradual success, of which can be accounted for only on the hypothesis which has hitherto prevailed. The result of these inquiries, be it what it will, will no doubt have a great effect on the religious belief and practice of the next generation, but the process itself will probably be slow and its effect gradual. Such works as M. Renan’s and Ecce Homo may perhaps have a place in it, but we think it is a very subordinate one. They are in reality historical novels, comprising more or less history as the case may be. Now the historical novel plays an important part in history. Novelists, French and English, have contributed largely to the great development of that sympathising appreciative treatment of history, which has been one of the best marked characteristics of the literature of the last forty years. But the value of such works depends principally on the historical genius and special knowledge of the author, and in these qualities the author of Ecce Homo seems to be eminently deficient. He appears to us to have failed altogether in an undertaking which nothing but the most complete success could have justified, and we think it most unlikely that any one should really be able to succeed in it.
Frasers Magazine, June-July 1866.