THE ATONEMENT; ITS EFFICACY AND EXTENT.
THE FORMULARIES OF THE REFORMATION AS DISTINGUISHED, IN REGARD TO THIS SUBJECT, FROM THOSE OF THE PATRISTIC CHURCH.
THE question, or set of questions, with which this treatise is occupied belongs, in an especial manner, belongs, in an especial manner, to the theology of the Reformation, as it is embodied in the symbolic books and academic systems of the sixteenth, and more particularly the seventeenth century.
The truth as it is in Jesus is doubtless essentially the same everywhere and always; and the apprehension of it, for salvation, by those to whom it is presented, must everywhere and always be in substance the same act or process. Christ crucifed, and faith appropriating Christ crucified, are the unchanging conditions of the spiritual life; the outer or objective power, and the inner or subjective principle, uniting to effect what that formula expresses, - " Christ living in me" (Gal. ii. 20). But while thus far Christianity, whether doctrinally or practically considered, is identical in all ages, there is room for diversity in respect of the manner, more or less explicit and articulate, in which its several parts or elements may be developed, recognised, and expressed. Circumstances may cause a greater stress to be laid on certain of its doctrinal aspects, or of its practical applications, at one period than at another; and different habits of mental discipline, as well as different kinds of moral training and experience, may occasion, even where there is real agreement, considerable variety of exposition.
The objective doctrine of the atonement made by Christ, and the corresponding subjective doctrine of belief in that atonement, are, as I think, instances in point. For I am persuaded that such speculations and inquiries as have in modern times gathered round these doctrines can scarcely be understood, or intelligibly dealt with, unless care be taken to keep in view the general character and tendency of the theological era which to a large extent they represent. It is for this reason that I begin, in the outset of my argument, with what in fact originated the train of thought which led to my writing on the subject at all ; - a brief general notice, that is to say, of a certain contrast that may be observed between the formularies of the post-Reformation Church and those of earlier date; and a more particular explanation of the importance which came in consequence to be attached to the precise adjustment and balancing of verbal saements - in a somewhat more evangelical and more spiritual line, however, than that in which the Fathers used to cultivate the art so skilfully. The subject is interesting in itself, as well as it's bearing upon the forms which modern controversies on the Atonement and on Faith have assumed; on which account I hesitate all the less in making some cursory consideration of it commencement or starting-point of the discussion upon which I am entering relative to these great matters.
I have to observe then generally, in the first place, that an important distinction may be noticed between the Patristic and the Reformation formuelaries, as regards the circumstances in which they prepared, and the corresponding character which they came to assume respectively.
And secondly, and more particularly, I have to point out the influence of this distinction, as tending to give a particular turn and direction, in modern times, to the orthodox or doctrinal manner of viewing the atonement, in connection with that evangelical or practical faith of which it is the object. To these topics I devote the first two chapters of this first part of my treatise, as preliminary to the discussion of the method of Scriptural proof.
Of the creeds and confessions current before the Reformation, it may be said in a general view, that they were drawn up while the Church was on her way to the priestly altar, the monkish cell, and the scholastic den. She was on her way out of all the three when the Reformation Formularies were prepared. Religion was becoming ritual and ascetic; theology subtile, speculative, and mystical; when the Apostles Creed passed into the Nicene form, and that again effloresced into the Athanasian. Even the Apostles Creed itself, simple and sublime as it is, may be held in some measure chargeable with a fault, or defect, which afterwards became more conspicuous. It is chiefly, if not exclusively, occupied with the accomplishment of redemption; it says little or nothing about its application. The person and work of Christ, as the Redeemer, are the prominent topics. The Holy Ghost is merely named; his office as the author of regeneration, faith and holiness, is not so much as mentioned; of course, therefore, those inward movements and changes which he effects in the redeemed soul are altogether omitted. For this apparent imperfection, the concise brevity of the document may be pleaded as a reason; and it may be urged, in addition, that even on the subject of the Redeemer's person and work its statements are very meagre. That is true. Still the beginning of that tendency which was soon more fully developed is to be noticed; the tendency, I mean, to exercise and exhaust the intellect of the Church in the minute analysis of such mysteries as the Trinity and the Incarnation; to the neglect, comparatively, of those views of saving grace which, being more within the range of human experience, appeal not to the intellect only,but to the heart as well.
Several causes might be pointed out as contributing to foster this tendency. Abstract speculations about the manner of the Supreme Being's essential and eternal existence, as well as about the sense and mode in which divinity and humanity may become one, were but too congenial to the mixed Grecian and Oriental philosophy then in vogue, and found an apt and ready instrument of logical and metaphysical debate in almost endlessly plastic language in which they were embodied. Hence arose the interminable array of subtle heresies which forced upon the orthodox an increasing minuteness of definition from age to age; successive councils being obliged meet the ever-shifting forms of error with new guards and fences, - new adjustments of words and syllables, and even of letters, fitted to stop each small and narrow gap at which an unscrupulous, hair-splitting ingenuity of sophistry might strive to enter in.
It is not therefore to be imputed as a fault to the Nicene Fathers, or to the followers of Athanasius, that the creeds which they sanctioned set forth the mysteries of the Trinity, and the union of the two natures in one person, with a prolixity of exact and carefully balanced statement, from which we are apt now to recoil, - scarcely understanding even the phraseology or terminology employed. On the contrary, it is to be regarded as, upon the whole, matter of thankfulness, that, at the risk of being charged with prying too presumptuously into things too high for them, men of competent learning, and sufficiently skilled in the philosophic gladiatorship of their day, were led by the keen fencing of adversaries to intrench in a fortress at all points so unassailable, the fundamental verities of the Christian faith.
At the same time the remark holds true that, while rendering this service to doctrinal Christianity, they were far less at home in its experimental departments. It may have been their misfortune, as much as, or more titan, their fault. But certainly the Church which they were guiding so truly among the quicksands of Arian and semi-Arian subtlety, and anchoring so firmly on the "great mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh" (I Tim. iii. 1 6), was fast losing hold, in another direction, of the living spirit of the gospel of Christ. In fact, the growing minuteness of scholastic speculation in the transcendental region of essences, human and divine, simply kept pace a growing ignorance of divine grace in the practical region of Christian experience and the Christian Walk.. Here, ritualism and asceticism divided the feld between them ; - ritualism for the vulgar, ascetism for the initiated ; - ritualism for the body of the baptized, whom it was the business of priestcraft to amuse, to overawe to soothe, to manage, by a system of imposing ceremony and convenient routine; and asceticism, again, for more earnest souls, for whom, if they be managed, something more real than the of ordinary formality must be found. Be- the two, the gospel of free grace, giving mnce of a present, gratuitous, and complete salvation; and the new birth of the soul in the believing of that gospel; were thrust out of the scheme of practical religion. Regeneration and Justification, in the evangelical sense of these terms, were set aside, in favour of the sacramental virtue of the Font and the Altar, the discipline of penance and the mediatorship of the Virgin and the Saints. They find no place, therefore, in the Creeds; which, after going into the nicest details respecting the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the hypostatical union of the two natures in the one person of Christ, leave almost untouched the entire field of the sinner's personal history, in his being turned from sin to the living God, and fitted for glorifying and enjoying him for ever.
Hence these high mysteries are presented in an academic, theoretical form, almost as if they were algebraic signs or expressions, to be adroitly shifted and sorted upon the scholastic board, but with abstractly. little or no reference to the actual business of the spiritual life. It must ever be so, when they are handled in this abstract way. The distinction of persons in the Godhead is a truth which comes home to the heart, when it is viewed ill theology, as it is set forth in Scripture, not theoretically, in itself, but practically, in its bearing upon the change which a man must personally undergo, if he is to be renewed, sanctified, and saved. Then the love of the Father, the righteousness and grace of the incarnate Son, and the indwelling power and fellowship of the Spirit, are felt to be not notions, but facts; - facts, too, that may be matter of human experience as well as of divine discovery. Otherwise it is only the skeleton of divinity that is exhibited, to be dissected and analyzed; without the flesh and blood, - and above all, without the warm breath of life, - which it must have if it is to be embraced.
I might refer, in proof and illustration of this remark, to the Anglican Theology of the last century, and to the manner in which the doctrine of the Trinity, with its dependent truths, was discussed by its ablest defenders, at a time when confessedly salvation by grace alone was not the common theme of the pulpits of our land. With our grateful admiration of those giants in learning and logic - such as Bishop Horsley and others - whose vindication of the faith will never become obsolete, we cannot but be sensible of a certain hard, dry, formal and technical aspect or character imparted to their treatment of the whole subject. The incomprehensible sublimities of heaven were so subjected to the manipulation of the limited human understanding, - that, too, irrespectively of their practical bearing on the wants and woes of earth, - as to be repulsive, in certain quarters, rather than attractive; and, in fact, without excusing, we perhaps thus explain, the difficulty which sensitive minds felt in assenting to those of Trinitarian definition which might seem adapted rather to the subtleties of doubtful books in the schools, than to the anxieties and exigencies of the divine life in the soul. At all events, the analogy now suggested is instructive.And it is fitted, I think, to confirm the truth of the representation which I have been giving of the circumstances in which the Church formularies that arose out of the controversies of the early centuries were compiled; the influences to which the compilers of them were exposed; and the character which, in consequence, they have impressed upon them, - especially in what may be called the latest edition of them, - that which bears the justly honoured name of Athanasius.
The Reformation formularies originated in the life, rather than in the teaching, of Luther. His conversion may be said to be their type and model, as well as their source and parent. They are the issue of it. Joining hands with the Fathers, through Augustine, and with the Apostles, through Paul, he did for theology what Socrates boasted to have done for philosophy ; - he brought heavenly into contact with earthly things. The whole movement with which he was associated was eminently spiritual and practical. It was cast in the mould of our Lord's conversation with Nicodemus, as the principle of that conversation is explained by our Lord himself: "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?" (John iii. 12.) The earthly things, - the facts or doctrines connected with the new birth, its necessity, its nature, and its cause, - however they may be discovered or revealed, are yet such as, when discovered or revealed, fall within the range and cognizance of human thought, and touch a chord in the deepest feelings of human nature. The soul, awakened to reflection upon itself and upon its Maker, recognises, as if instinctively, the solemn truth, that nothing short of a new creative energy or impulse on the part of its Maker, can restore the right relation in which it should stand to him, and re-eablish harmony where otherwise hopeless discord must ever continue to reign.
To a spirit thus convinced, the heavenly things - the facts or of redemption, the love of the Father in and of his Son, and the power that there is to heal in the lifting up of the eyes to Him of whom the Serpent lifted up in the wilderness was the type - come home as not inanimate and abstract speculations in divinity, but living realities bringing life to humanity. The whole plan of salvation now assumes a practical and, if one may say so,a personal character. It is not a theory about God. It is God himself interposing to meet the miserable case of man. There is still, indeed, a need of definitions and propositions, in setting it forth systematically and defending it against the subtilties of error. These, however, are now framed with a far more direct reference than before to the great and urgent business of the sinner's salvation. What God is in himself, and God does out of himself, are considered as questions immediately affecting the lapsed state and possible recovery of the human family; and the particulars of the change effected in and upon the individual man when he is saved, as well as the acts bearing more on or habits of the life to which called, form the main substance of the dogmatic articles in which the truth is henceforth to be embodied.
I am persuaded that a minute comparison of the Reformed Confessions with one another, and with the older Creeds, will fully verify the represention which I have been giving. And the explanation, I am persuaded also, is to be found in the position occupied by the Reformers when they burst the bands of servile subjection to man, and came forth in the liberty with which Christ makes his people free. Religion was then making her escape out of the school, the cloister, and the confessional; and she was making her escape - as her great champion made his escape - not easily and lightly, but through a painful and protracted exercise of soul, amid sin's darkest terrors and the most desperate struggles of the awakened conscience When she began, after the joy of her first direct dealing with the free grace and full salvation of what we may almost call a re-discovered gospel, to realize herself - to ascertain and gather up, as by a sort of reflex or reflective process of faith, the attainments and results of her first love, - it was natural, and indeed unavoidable, that she should give prominence to those views of the origin, accomplishment, and application of redemption, which touch the region of the practical and experimental. Hence the compilers of her formularies, while they entered thoroughly into the labours of their predecessors, and adopted implicitly the Patristic modes of thought and on such subjects as the Trinity and the Incarnation, - thus rendering due homage to the orthodoxy of former generations, - assigned comparatively little space to these mysteries, and dwelt far more largely on those doctrines of saving grace which the earlier creeds scarcely noticed. The Atonement, as the method of reconciliation between God and man, was considered more than before in its connection with the divine purpose appointing it, and the divine power rendering it effectual. Redemption was viewed, not merely as a sort of general influence from above, telling on mankind collectively and universally; but as a specific plan, contemplating and securing the highest good of "such as should be saved."
The sovereignty of God, carrying out his eternal decree, in the person and work of Christ, and in the personal work of the Spirit, was the ruling and guiding idea. The rise and progress of evangelical faith, penitence, and love, in the soul of man, - the dealings of God with the individual sinner, and the dealings of the individual believer with God, - formed in large measure the substance of the theology taught in the divinity halls, and defined in the symbolic books, of the Protestant Churches; and gave a distinctive turn to the questions and controversies which arose among them. These, indeed, were almost as apt as the discussions of the early centuries, to degenerate into hard and dry logomachy, or word-fighting. Accordingly, as the first fresh evangelical life of the Reformation times decayed, and barren orthodoxy to a large extent took its place in the pulpit and in the chair, a certain cold and callous familiarity in handling the counsels of God and the destinies of men began to prevail, - as if it had been upon a dead body that the analyst's knife was ruthlessly operating ; - and this may have contributed to bring the system which took shape in the hands of Calvin into disrepute with sensitive or fastidious minds, acquainted with it only in its hard, dogmatic, logical form, after Calvin's spirit had gone out of it. But the system was in its prime of spiritual life and power when the freshness of nearly all the Reformation Confessions and Catechisms were fashioned in accordance with it. The Westminster Standards, in particular, which were about the last of these compositions, were the product of an agitation as instinct with practical earnestness as it was skilful in controversy and profound in learning. They were elaborated, moreover, in an Assembly in which all the various shades of evangelical opinion were represented, and in which the utmost pains were taken to avoid extreme statements; while the relative bearings of divine revelation and human consciousness were, if not with the formality and ostentation which modern science might desire, yet in fact so carefully weighed and balanced, as to impart a singularly temperate and practical tone to the Calvinism of the ceed which it ultimately sanctioned. This all intelligent students of the Westminster Formularies will acknowledge to be one of their most marked characteristics. It is, indeed, the feature has fitted them for popular use, as well as being the test and the testimony of a Church's profession; so that they may profitably be read for personal edification,as well as erected into public ecclesiastical bulwark of the truth. Of especially, as of the Reformed Confessions generally, it may be truly said that they teach divinity in its application to humanity. The "heavenly" mysteries of the Atonement and of Election are brought into contact with what we venture to call the "earthly" mysteries of conversion and justification, - repentance, faith, and holiness; and all throughout, these heavenly and earthly things are viewed, not with a vague reference to mankind at large, but with a special reference to individuals, as one by one they are to lost or saved.
It is not wonderful that out of this way of handling the doctrines of grace, there should arise questions touching the transcendental problems of to the Atonement and free will, such as cannot but occasion doubt and difficulty and embarrassment in defining these doctrines separately, and still more in adjusting them harmoniously together. Inquiries into the exact nature and extent of the Atonement, and into the nature, office, and warrant of faith, - deep-searching as they must necessarily be, and on that account distasteful to those who will accept nothing but what is on the surface, - may thus be seen to be inevitable. And thoughtful minds may learn to be more and more reconciled to the prosecution of such inquiries, in proportion as they come practically nearer the stand-point, or point of view, from which - instead of a yoke laying all individual life prostrate at the feet of a general crushing tyranny over the thoughts and feelings of mankind - the emancipated soul welcomed the gospel of the sovereign and free grace of God, as a proclamation to each and every one of the children of men, that "whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts ii. 21); in terms of the Lord's own comprehensive saying - " All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (John vi. 87).
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