RELIGION WITHOUT THEOLOGY
“Religion without theology” is a phrase meant to sound well;
yet, after all, a deception. There can be no such thing. A tree must have a root. The phrase implies that theology has been the prison-house of religion, and that there must be emancipation from theology before religion can exercise her functions. It looks at religion as a beautiful flower embedded in a block of ice; and demands the melting of the ice, and the liberation of the flower. And yet while willing to sweep away Christian theology, the inventors of the above watchword revel in the pagan theology of ancient Greece, and see in the thirty thousand gods of old Olympus the excellency of the religion of Homer and Plato. Religion is regarded as a sentiment, to be classed with other sentiments, such as the poetic, the pictorial, the amatory; one of the luxuries, or perhaps one of the necessaries of life; whether embodied in solemn music, or ritual performances, or showy vestments, or mythological pictures, or hymns to Mary, Venus, or Jupiter. Liberty is accordingly claimed for each man to gratify the religious sentiment in his own way; the Egyptian to hew mountains, the Greek to chisel statues, the Hindu to cast brazen images, the philosopher to shape ideal gods, which, most likely he never after all means to worship.
Christianity, say many among us, is a life not a dogma; and they reckon this the enunciation of a great and unappreciated truth. It is, however, a mere truism or it is an unmeaning antithesis or it is an absolute falsehood. It sounds oracular and great; it is only pompous.
Christianity is both a life and a dogma; quite as much the one as the other.
But it is a dogma before it is a life; it cannot be the latter till it has been the former. It is out of the dogma that the life emerges;
not the dogma out of the life; and the importance that is attached in Scripture to knowledgeÂ—right knowledgeÂ—should make us cautious in disparaging doctrine, as if it were harmless when wrong and impotent or uninfluential when right. The mystics of different
ages have tried hard to depreciate doctrine, to praise what they call “the spirit” at the expense of “the letter”; and it is somewhat remarkable that infidelity has generally taken their side, joining with them in their jests at creeds and their sneers at dogmas. Many of the statements which we hear from advocates of the “advanced Christianity” of our day are a mere variation of the old infidelity which told us, in the last century,
For modes of faith let fools and bigots fight,
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
The object of thus opposing life to dogma is obvious enough, though not generally avowed. These theological revolutionists dislike trammels. Free-thinking in its widest sense is what they hold to be the creature’s birthright. “Our lips are our own, who is lord over us?” is their maxim. Our thoughts are our own, who shall fetter them? Our pens are our own, who shall constrain them? Thus, secretly at feast, do many reason. Creeds, they say, are dungeons for the old; catechisms are fetters for the young; and doctrine in general, at least if precise and defined, is inconsistent with liberty of thought and expansion of intellect. “Life” is a pliable thing; it is an unfenced common; it may be anything a man likes to call it or to fancy it; there is no imperilling of human liberty in calling Christianity a life; the men of “progress” and “freshness” are safe in making this their standard; for Christianity equals life may mean just Christianity equals nothing; at least it is an equation capable of being so manipulated as to bring out any result which the theological algebraist may desire.
The exultation expressed in many quarters at the variety of opinions afloat, specially in the ecclesiastical world, is indicative of anything but goodness. It is sheer love of discord or anarchy that seems to prompt this exuberant glee. Every new utterance of scepticism, especially on religious subjects, and by so-called “religious” men is cheered as another howl of that storm that is to send all creeds to the bottom of the sea; the flowing or receding tide is watched, not for the appearance of truth above the waters, but for the submergence of dogma. To any book or doctrine or creed that leaves men at liberty to worship what god they please, there is no objection; but to anything that would fix their relationship to God, that would infer their responsibility for their faith, that would imply that God has made an authoritative announcement as to what they are to believe, and what they are not to believe, they object, with protestations in the name of injured liberty. Their dislike of an inspired or even an accurate Bible sufficiently exhibits the dread they have of any such pressure upon the conscience as would result from & perfect revelation.
And then there is the advantage of having a popular and high-sounding watchword. “Christianity a life, not a dogma,” sounds nobly. It convinces hundreds without further inquiry or argument;
it is plausible; it is in harmony with the spirit of the age; it is so
catholic and comprehensive; it would enable us to believe any one to be pious,Â—Moslem, Hindu, Romanist, Pantheist, or Sceptic,Â—who could produce a worthy and earnest life.
It is, however, too comprehensive to satisfy. Suspicions come in as to the latitude thus allowed. The question rises; ‘Must there not be a limit, and must not that limit come in the shape of dogma after all? Must not this thing called “Christian life” or “religious life” be defined by some kind of doctrine, and have its basis in some fixed truth? Circumscription to some extent is felt to be necessary; for it is surmised that “life” cannot be altogether abandoned to self-will and self-judgment, or intuition, without some safeguard; and that life may become so loose doctrinally as to be in danger of becoming loose morally. For, as yet, it is only dogmatical free-thinking that has been held legitimate; moral free-thinking is discouraged; nay, is supposed to be condemned by the formula, “Life, not dogma.” It will, however, tax the ingenuity of the ablest to shew why there should not be the latter if there be the former, and wherein anarchists are wrong in the liberty which they claim for humanity to do as well as to believe what it pleases or finds convenient.
Thus we are forced back upon dogma by that very formula which disallows it. It is acknowledged that the “life” so lauded must be defined, else it is a nonentity, and that in proceeding to define,Â—however vaguely the limits may be drawn,Â—we must have recourse to dogma. In the investigation of the dogma, we are brought into contact with the life; for truth quickens, error kills;
truth feeds, error poisons; and without truth life is an impossibility. The amount of truth which may be requisite to sustain life, or the quantity of error which will prove fatal to it, is not for man to determine. But truth there must be, else “life” is a mere air-bubble.
Now, disguise it as we may, truth is dogma. Let men sneer at catechisms and creeds as bondage and shackles, let them call them skeletons or bones or something more offensive still, these formularies are meant to be compilations of truth. In so far as they can be shewn to contain error, let them be amended or flung aside;
but in so far as they embody truth, let them be accepted and honoured as most helpful to the Christian life; not simply sustaining it but also giving it stability and force; preventing its being weakened or injured by change, caprice, love of novelty, or individual self-will.
The Bible is a book of dogmas and facts; these two parts making up the one book, as soul and body make up the one man. The facts are the visible embodiment of the dogmas, the dogmas the spiritual interpretation of the facts. Religious life or piety is the result or product of these; the effect produced upon man by the right knowledge and use of these. Faith transfers them from the exterior region of our being to the interior; and, thus transferred, they issue in religious life,Â—life comprehending both the inner spirituality and the outer walk. To oppose life and dogma to each
other, is not so much to depreciate creeds as to misunderstand the Bible and to represent life and the Bible as antagonistic to each other.
It is true that these dogmas are, in Scripture, frequently gathered up into, and represented by living men. Specially are they exhibited in the great life, which may be said to be the one biography of the Bible, the life of Him who is both “the truth and the life.” Yet this personification or incarnation of dogma or truth does not confound life and doctrine, but rather gives to each its own position and worth.
Solomon said, “a wise man is strong,” and in this knowledge or wisdom, which is but another name for doctrine, are contained the dynamics of all true religious life.
Though divine truth is deposited in the person of “the Christ,” the “Word made flesh,” yet the truth is not thereby sunk or lost sight of; nor does it become a trivial matter to know or not to know the truth, provided we love the Lord Jesus. The error of some religionists on this point is specious but it is full of peril. As truly as exclusive regard to abstract doctrine lands us in rationalism or an unliving orthodoxy, so does exclusive regard to the person of Christ land us in mysticism. The doctrine and the person mutually reveal each other. It is evil to say, I have the person, let the doctrine go; for how can that person be understood, appreciated, loved, honoured, confided in, unless illuminated by the truth, which shews us who and what he is in himself; who and what he is to us? Remain ignorant of the doctrine, and you remain ignorant of the person; nay, that person becomes a mysterious shadow,Â—vague, unintelligible, and unloveable.
New falsehoods are more insidiously working their way into the minds of men in our day than this, of setting life and dogma, religion and theology, the heart and the mind, in opposition to each other. Religion without a creed, religion without truth, religion without the Bible, religion without Christianity, religion without Christ,Â—is set down now not simply among things possible but amongst things desirable. Religion as a sentimentalism, an abstraction; religion without reference to any book, or any church, or any particular God, is to have our homage paid to it as a necessity or at least a propriety; but no more. “Unconditioned” religion is to be accepted as not inconsistent with philosophy or liberty, but conditioned or defined religion is to be regarded as bondage or imbecility. It seems to be reckoned a discovery of modem philosophy (though it is but a reproduction of the idea embodied in the Roman pantheon), a felicitous discovery; the only preservative against atheism. For under such names as the
silences,” the “solemnities,” the “darknesses,” the “eternities,” everybody can worship what god they think best without “irreligion” and yet without “superstition.”
The intellect (it is said) can have nothing to do with the supernatural; and as revelation professedly deals with the supernatural, it can only be received as poetry is received and
dealt with! It appeals to certain religious tastes or instincts in man;
let it be used to gratify these, but let it be understood that, as the declaration of truths claiming submission from intellect and conscience, it is now out of date! Let men, if they please, gratify their religious taste by reading the Bible; but let no one deliver himself over to the baseness of believing what it says!
The “mind” or “understanding” occupies large space in all inspired directions for the instruction of either young or old. “A people of no understanding” (Is. 27.11) is God’s name of reproach to Israel in the day of their apostasy and his description of their return from their evil ways is, “they that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured (the rebellious) shall learn doctrine” (Is. 29.24). “That the soul be without knowledge is not good,” says the wise man (Prov. 19.2) and acting on his own proverb, “the preacher still taught the people knowledge;” he sought to find out “acceptable words”Â—”words of truth” (Eccles. 12.9-10). And though knowledge and wisdom are not identical, yet he places them side by side as of one kindred one brotherhood. There may no doubt be knowledge without wisdom but there cannot be wisdom without knowledge. Errors, falsehoods, uncertainties, are as much at war with sound wisdom as with sound knowledge, are as inconsistent with truth as with goodness. “A man of wisdom, but without the knowledge of God;” or “a good man, but far gone astray in error;” these are not formulae which Scripture anywhere allows, though so common even among those who name the name of Christ.
Our Reformers, following Scripture, abhorred error. They regarded it as sin, as in itself evil, and as the root of almost every evil. They loved truth, upheld it, sought to spread it. They eschewed error as poison; they prized truth as medicine containing in it the world’s true health. They knew that men might have it and yet not use it, that they might abuse it, that they might “hold it in unrighteousness;” but they loved it still and refused to believe that any untruth, however beautiful, however well argued or well adorned, however recommended by authority, or antiquity, or genius, could be available for the revivification of collapsed prostrate Europe, for expelling the poison of ages from the veins of humanity, for bracing the constitution of the race, even apart from the great purpose of saving the lost, of gathering in the chosen of the Father, the purchased of the Son.
Our Reformers, working on the model of the Bible, laboured to set truth before the nations. They did not despise “head knowledge.” They were careful that head knowledge should be true knowledge; and, in so far as it was so, they urged its widest propagation; undeterred by the thought which acts as a drag or damper on some, “What is the use of head knowledge without heart knowledge?” They had confidence in truth, because it was of God, and because it was the representative of Him who is the wisdom and the truth of God. They felt that truth could be trusted to do its own work and to fulfil its heavenly mission among the
sons of men; and so they launched it forth as seamen do the lifeboat; they spread it far and wide, as husbandmen do the precious seed, believing in its vitality and its power to spring up and cover the broad fields of earth with its summer green and autumn gold.
They had faith in the truth because they had faith in the Bible, and they had faith in the Bible because they had faith in God and in his almighty, all-quickening Spirit.
Are we not often traitors to the truth under the pretext of cautioning men against “head knowledge?” In decrying the latter, do we not often disparage the former? Are we not cowards in our propagation of the truth? Are we not but half in earnest, playing with the sword, not wielding it; or wielding it with a timid unbelieving arm, as those who have no confidence in its edge or power?
Truth is one, not many; truth is sure, not doubtful. There is but one true creed, one gospel, one revelation; there is but one faith that saves and blesses; “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
Let us honour the truth as God has done, as his apostles did, as our Reformers did. Let us fearlessly wield it; let us give it fair play and full swing everywhere. It is “quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.” It is a fire, melting the iron; it is a hammer, breaking the rock in pieces.
Truth is not the feeble thing which men often think they can afford to disparage. Truth is power; let it be treated and trusted as such. We need not discuss the question as to the frequent divorcement of head and heart, in the matter of knowledge. Let us beware of undervaluing either; but still more let us beware of that unscriptural, unphilosophical sentimentalism which affirms that the heart may be all right when the head is all wrong.
It was this noble confidence in the truth that led the Reformers to compile their confessions and catechisms. Not that they worshipped dogmas and abstractions, whether bare or jewelled;
but they clave to thv truth; and they, like men of straightforward understandings, knew that truth requires to be defined, gathered up, condensed, presented in different forms, so as to suit, as much as may be, all classes, all ages, all minds. Hence they compiled their “forms of sound (wholesome) words,” their “moulds of doctrine;” not to stereotype truth after one exclusive pattern; not to compress and stiffen it into fixed human shapes, or to destroy the divine order in which it is given us, by confining it to a human classification, or to alter its divine proportions and large amplitude of sweep by expanding unduly that which God has not expanded, or narrowing that to which he has given breadth and fulness according to his own purpose and knowledge; but to facilitate the expulsion of error and the entrance of truth; to present God’s testimony to man in such aspects, or proportions, or fragments, as would make forgetfulness or erasure from the mind and memory all but impossible.
Extracted from the Preface to Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation edited by Horatius Bonar in 1866.