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THE RELIGION WHICH PASSES AWAY,
AND THAT WHICH ABIDES.
IN every century since Christ came there have
been those who predicted the speedy downfall of his religion. It would be curious to collect a catena, or chain, of such statements. There always have been opposers of the gospel of Jesus, who believed that its power was exhausted, its life coming to an end, and that some larger, deeper, better form of religion was arriving to take its place. Gnosticism, Manicheeism, New-Platonism, Mohammedanism, poured in successive waves of thought over Christendom. But always the ark, which bore the simple story of Jesus, rose anew, and floated above the deluge; always the sun of righteousness poured out again its light and heat over the world of human life and human thought.
Christianity, as to its essence, survives all the storms of time; but Christianity, as to its forms, changes from age to age. It leaves behind many things which once seemed to be important, but
which are found to be unnecessary and unessential. The ceremonies and ritual, formerly believed vital, have come to an end; the creeds of the early centuries are ontgrown. Our religion may say, as Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Many widespread beliefs of the Church were childish beliefs, and have been forgotten. It believed the world was coming to a speedy end; that Christ was coming immediately to judge the living and the dead. Figurative expressions were taken literally. Men, it was said, were saved by being baptized, and by the other sacraments. The Pope had the keys of heaven and hell. All these opinions were transient; and as one after another disappeared, many supposed that Christianity was disappearing too. So “the burning of a little straw on the earth may hide for a time the everlasting stars; but the stars are there, and will reappear.”
Paul states, in a very broad way, that all religious beliefs are transient, none permanent. Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. We know in part, and teach in part; but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." He thus proclaims very distinctly what has been regarded as a discovery of modern thought, -the doctrine of "the relativity of knowledge.” This, however, does not mean that all truth is transient, but that our forms of
expressing truth change. Faith holds to the eternal truth behind all statements; and thus faith abides, while belief changes.
The conviction, once universal, in the reality of witchcraft has passed away. The similar belief in possession by demons has gone by. The confidence, attested by much evidence, that the king's touch could cure disease, has disappeared. Persecution for opinion's sake, once thought a duty both by Roman Catholics and Protestants, has virtually come to an end in both religions. Other opinions are following fast after these. Many of those which were once held to be so orthodox that no man could be saved who did not believe them, are neglected and forgotten. No one is so poor as to do them reverence. They still remain imbedded in the old creeds, like fossils in some ancient stratum of rock, to show us what sort of monsters once inhabited our earth. The Athanasian Creed, which the law of England requires to be said or sung several times a year in the churches, declares that those who do not believe its mediæval statements about the Trinity “shall, without doubt, perish everlastingly." But not many years ago, in a meeting of the bishops of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he supposed not one of the bishops present believed in that damnatory clause, and no one said that he did. Yet a short time ago some of my family, attending a service in a children's hospital in London, heard the little children sing
sweetly that those who did not believe the Trinity should, without doubt, perish everlastingly. So far, the Church of England has not put away childish things.
Other doctrines, worse than this, are fast passing away. The doctrine that the heathen, who make three fourths of the human race, must necessarily be punished everlastingly, is now becoming obnoxious to the orthodox believer. He still holds to the doctrine that no one can be saved except by faith in Christ. Therefore the heathen, who never have heard of Christ, must, as it would seem, perish everlastingly. “Not so," replies modern orthodoxy, "for they may have a probation in the other life.” I observe that the Boston Monday lecturer met the difficulty in a more rational and liberal way. He declared that every man has in his conscience a revelation of Christ, and therefore the heathen who believe in the teachings of their conscience, and obey its laws, are really accepting and obeying Christ.
And this view would seem to accord remarkably well with the account of the Day of Judgment given by Jesus himself (in the twenty-sixth chapter of Matthew), when he says that all the heathen shall be gathered before him, and that the test applied shall be this: “Did they, or did they not, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be hospitable to the stranger, and visit the sick and the prisoner ?” By and by, perhaps, the Christian Church may advance so far as to believe Christ's
own account of the principles of probation and judgment.
Another belief which is passing away is that of the infallible inspiration of the whole Bible. A curious instance of this is to be found in a late issue of “The Independent,” a New York liberal-orthodox journal. There are in this number two articles. One of them declares it to be a sign of the downward tendency of Unitarianism that it has no adequate faith in the Bible. This article objects to Unitariaus that they put the Bible on a level with other books, when they ought to regard both the Old and New Testaments as the only and infallible rule of faith and practice. The other article is upon a life of Jesus, by a German theologian, Bernard Weiss, whom it praises as the most thorough and excellent of modern critics. The writer of this article agrees with Weiss that the theory of verbal inspiration is an unnatural one; declares that the differences in the four Gospels cannot be reconciled by any theory of inspiration, and tells us that the Gospels are to be viewed as human writings, though, as they were written by the apostles or their pupils, they are essentially credible. But he adds that our Christian belief would remain the same if we did not possess the Gospels, but only the Epistles.
Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away." So declares the Apostle Paul, pushing the subsoil plough of his philosophy so deep as to turn