I have been following Darryl and Calebâ€™s interaction under Calebâ€™s Protestant Ethics post with much interest. Caleb poses a challenge we Protestants must wrestle with honestly. This long quotation by John Nevin is offered as an alternative to the view that the Gospel is somehow insignificant forâ€”or incompatible withâ€”the life of the world as now constituted. I believe that Jesus Christ is the substance and fulfillment of all that is good, true, and beautiful in the world.
Christianity is not simply a divine doctrine. It does not consist in this, that a certain system of truths, made known by extraordinary revelation, has come to be embraced and professed openly by a body of people styling themselves the Church, who are at the same time more or less influenced by such faith in their character and life. The religion of Christ does indeed include doctrines, vast and momentous as eternity itself, such as the world has had no knowledge of under any other form of revelation; but these, after all, do not constitute its primary character. It is deeper than all doctrine.
Christianity again is not simply a divine law. It does not consist in this, that by means of the gospel, a body of people styling themselves the Church, have come to a clearer apprehension than the world ever had before, of the moral relation in which men stand to one another and to God, and of the duties that grow properly out of these relations. The religion of Christ is indeed a perfect system of ethics in this view; but this is not in the end its fundamental distinction. It is broader and deeper than any conception of this kind.
Christianity is not mere doctrine for the understanding, or mere law for the will, but a power which is formed to lay hold of the inmost consciousness of the world as the principle of a new creation. In this view, it comes to us in the character, not of a theory or rule, but primarily of a divine FACT. It is something which has taken place in the constitution of the worldâ€¦
Christianity, as a Fact, is not to be confounded with the idea of a mere Event. In this case, it must be considered the produce simply of such natural and spiritual forces as were at work in the world before its appearance. It would be a mere historical occurrence, of the same nature of the building of Rome or the destruction of Jerusalem; grand and stupendous, of course, and worthy to constitute the grandest epoch in the onward flow of time, but still one only, at last, among ten thousand other events that have taken place and continue to be followed still with important consequences, in the general movement of our human life. The rise of Mohammedanism may be fully resolved, in this way, into the action of resources and powers which were previously at hand in the process of history. But to conceive of the rise of Christianity, as a parallel product of the worldâ€™s earlier life, a mere reformation of Judaism, or a simple evolution of what was comprised in causes previously at work, is to overthrow its true nature altogether. It challenges our faith as a strictly supernatural fact.
On the other hand, however, Christianity must not be confounded, in this view, with the idea of a mere passing Miracle. It is not the supernatural, as brought to reveal itself in the way of outward, startling phenomena simply, the presence of the invisible forced abruptly, for a short season, on the sense of the visible world, and then withdrawn again into its own awful retirement. The miraculous, in such form, cannot be said to add any thing to the real contents of history. It falls over, at last, to the character of a naked occurrence, and can be felt at best only as an outward occasion, in its influence on the course of life. But Christianity, as already said, is the principle of a new creation in the life of the world. It is the supernatural, then, brought into real, organic, abiding union with the natural, raising it into its own sphere, and filling it thus with powers it never possessed before. It forms no contradiction, in this way, to the constitution of the world, as it stood previously, but accomplishes rather its inmost meaning, by revealing itself, in the â€œfullness of time,â€ as the great mystery of humanity, which had been the desire of nations through all preceding ages; while it becomes, from the period of its revelation onward, the central force of history itself, which may be said to comprehend and rule as such all other forces embraced in the process. It challenges our faith as a strictly historical fact.
As distinguished thus from a mere event, on the one hand, and a transient miracle on the other, Christianity must be regarded as a WORLD-FACT, in the broadest sense of the term. Thus to transcend the constitution of nature, and at the same time to fall in with it harmoniously and complete its sense, is necessarily to be more deep and comprehensive than this from the beginning. Christianity is not part of the world as it stood before, but for this very reason, more than the whole of it, as now exalted, through Christ, into a new and higher order of existence. The New Testament rests not upon the Old as its basis, but on the contrary, the Old Testament could never come to any true and solid reality till it was made to rest finally upon the New. We have a right to say, accordingly, that the second creation is more universal or catholic than the first. [emphasis added] It must be so, in the very nature of the case, to unite with this organically, without being the continuation simply of the same life. To suppose it less comprehensive, less world-embracing in its own inward meaning and power, is either to rob it of its supernatural character altogether, or else to thrust it out from the actual course of history, as the magical action simply of forces that come to no real union with our general life whatever. Christianity is the broadest and deepest form of humanity. As a world-fact, it is parallel with the creation of man in the beginning, only going beyond it in the depth, and compass, and far-reaching significance of its contents.
Christianity in the sense now described, is, of course, a single Fact. Innumerable particulars are indeed comprehended in its evolution, reaching as this does from the first and second advent of the divine Savior; but all make up, in the end, the power of one and the same glorious life, the process and completion of the new creation in Christ Jesus.
All begins in the mystery of the incarnation. The whole Gospel is enunciated in that overwhelming declaration, The Word became flesh. The declaration is not, itself, however, the Gospel. This meets us primarily in the living person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in which is comprehended, for all time, the actual reality of the great mystery now named. He stood among men not as the proclaimer simply of truth and life, but as the very principle of both in his own person. He was not the prophetical organ only of the evangelical revelation, but the sum and substance of this revelation itself. As the constitution of the world, in its first form, served not merely to herald the name of God, but was itself an act of self-revelation, by which he came, to a certain extent, into actual view, so also the mystery of the incarnation is to be regarded, not simply as the medium of divine grace in its highest character, but as the very form under which this grace was brought to light. The person of Christ forms the last and most perfect act of self-revelation on the part of God, by which the process of all revelation became complete, and the deepest idea of the universe passed over from shadow to reality, in the actual inward and full union of the divine nature with the human, as one and the same life. The life of God, in the person of the incarnate Word, incorporated itself with the life of the human race, and became, in this way, the principle and fountain of the new creation for the world at large. This act itself brought righteousness and salvation, life and immortality, into the sphere of our fallen humanity; for it was not possible that the divine element, thus â€œmade flesh,â€ should not in the end triumph over sin and hell, and thus accomplish all the grand and glorious results that are comprehended in the idea of the Gospel. Christianity, the whole vast mystery of the Church, the new heavens and the new earth replete with righteousness, all rest originally included as a single fact in the mystery of the incarnation. Christ is himself the light and life of the world. The last ground of its salvation is his person, not his work. All resolves itself into what he is, and not simply what he does. The great truths of the Gospel hold only in the new order of life, which is constituted and unfolded by the fact of the incarnation itself, and beyond this they have no reality whatever. The resurrection and immortality which Christ proclaims spring forth directly from the power of his own life. The atonement finds all its value in the theanthropic mystery with which it is supported from behind. The ultimate, specific distinction of Christianity, as compared with all other systems of religion, is neither the doctrine nor the work of Christ, but the economy of his person, as the indispensable basis of both. It is constituted here, once forever, by the perfect everlasting union of the human nature with the divine. This fact, apprehended and appropriated in the way of faith, (which in such case is the consciousness of a true life-union with the Savior himself), carries along with it, to the end of time, the whole force and value of the Christian redemption.
â€“John W. Nevin, Antichrist; or the Spirit of Sect and Schism (1848), Augustine Thompson, O.P., Ed. Wipf and Stock (Eugene, OR: 2000). pp. 17-20.