“The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology” by James Freeman Clarke
“And thou shalt make . . . five pillars, and overlay them with gold, . . . and shalt cast five sockets of brass for them.” — Exodus xxiv.,37
THE number five has acquired as great significance in theology as it has in nature. The largest family of plants is that of which the flowers have five petals; and the most popular theology of modern times is that of Calvin with its five points of doctrine, which relate to Absolute Decrees, Atonement by Christ for the Elect only, Original Sin, Effectual Calling, and the Perseverance of Saints.
Such have been the main and essential doctrines of Orthodoxy in the past. These doctrines have revolved around the ideas of sin and salvation. The creeds are as remarkable for what they omit as for what they assert. They scarcely allude to those truths which Jesus makes the chief burden of his teaching, — love to God, love to man, forgiveness of enemies, purity of heart and life, faith, hope, peace, resignation, temperance, and goodness. It is certain that the theology of the future will dwell on something else than the five points of Calvinism, and I have thought it well to consider the counterparts of this ancient system in five points of the coming theology. Let us endeavor to see what they will be.
1. I believe the first point of doctrine in the theology of the future will be the Fatherhood of God. The essence of this is the love of the father for his children. Fatherly love is a wise love, a firm love, and a pure love, which seeks the best good of the child. Thus this idea of fatherhood includes that of the holiness, the truthfulness, and the justice of God, in a word, all the divine attributes. The justice of God as a Father is not, as in the old theology, an abstract justice, which has no regard to consequences. God’s justice is only another form of mercy. It is the wise law which brings good to the universe, and is a blessing to every creature.
Jesus has everywhere emphasized this truth, that God is a father. We find it pervading the Gospels and coloring all his teaching. We find it already in the Sermon on the Mount, which tells us that we are to let our light shine, not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify our Father in heaven; that we are to love our enemies, that we may be like our heavenly Father, who loves his enemies, and makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. Jesus tells us that, when we pray, we are to pray to our Father, not to infinite power or abstract justice or far-off sovereignty. We are to forgive others, because our Father in heaven forgives us. We are not to be anxious, remembering that our heavenly Father feeds the little birds of the air. We are to pray, confident that our heavenly Father will give good things to those who ask him. Thus, this idea of God pervades the earliest as it filled the latest teachings of Jesus.
This idea of the divine fatherhood goes down so deep into the human heart that it becomes the source of a childlike obedience, trust, submission, patience, hope, and love. It brings consolation to us in our trials, gives us earnestness in prayer, makes it less difficult to repent when we have done wrong. We look up out of our sin and weakness and sorrow, not to an implacable law, not to an abstract king, but to an infinite and inexhaustible tenderness. Thus, this doctrine is the source of the purest piety.
2. The second point of doctrine in the new theology will be, I think, the Brotherood of Man.
If men are children of the same father, then they are all brethren. If God loves them all, they must all have in them something lovable. If he has brought them here by his providence, they are here for some important end. Therefore, we must call no man common or unclean, look down upon none, despise none, but respect in all that essential goodness which God has put into the soul, and which he means to be at last unfolded into perfection.
As from the idea of the fatherhood of God will come all the pieties, so from that of the brotherhood of man will proceed all the charities. This doctrine is already the source of missions, philanthropies, reforms, and all efforts to seek and save those who are surrounded by evil. It leads men to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to teach the blind, to soothe the madness of delirium, to diffuse knowledge, and carry glad tidings to the poor. And this doctrine, when fully believed, will be the source of purer moralities and nobler charities.
This truth, also, Jesus has taught by his words and his life. He went about doing good, feeding the hungry, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, cleansing the leper, preaching the gospel to the poor. He was the friend of publicans and sinners, of the Roman centurion, the woman of Phoenicia, the woman of Samaria. He was the friend and helper of all who needed him. In the story of the Good Samaritan, he taught that all men are brethren. And his last recorded words were the command to preach the gospel to every creature.
3. The third point of doctrine in the new theology will be, as I think, the Leadership of Jesus.
The simplest definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ. This was his own definition: “My sheep hear my voice, and follow me.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden.” When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, and heard his words, he said that she had chosen the good part, and had done the one thing needful. A Platonist is one who studies the teachings of Plato, and takes him for his teacher and guide in philosophy. A Swedenborgian is one who studies the teachings of Swedenborg, and takes him for his guide in theology. A Christian is one who takes Jesus as his guide in religion, and who goes directly to his teachings for religious truth.
But hitherto, instead of considering those as Christians who have studied the words of Jesus, and sought to know the truth, the name has usually been given to those who accepted some opinion about him. Not what he himself teaches, but what the Church says he teaches, has been made the test of Christian fellowship. Men have been told to go to Jesus, but on the understanding that they shall learn from him only the same thing which the Church has already learned. Instead of sending us to the teacher himself, we are sent to our fellow-students. We, therefore, in reality take them, and not Jesus, for our leader.
The Athanasian Creed asserts as unquestioned verities certain metaphysical statements in regard to the nature of the Deity and the relations which existed between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before the creation. These speculations are read four times a year in the Church of England, and the people are told that those who do not believe these superhuman mysteries shall without doubt perish everlastingly. Is it not evident that the Church, in doing this, takes the unknown author of the creed as its leader and teacher instead of taking Christ himself? All human creeds which are made the tests of what Christ taught are in reality put in his place. Compared with his teaching, they are all narrow and unspiritual. They emphasize some purely intellectual statements which chanced to be popular when they were written. The makers of these creeds tell us to call Jesus teacher, but to learn from themselves what he teaches. They show thus that they dare not trust us to go to him; and they show that they have no real faith in him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Of course there is no harm in a creed, when it merely states what a man believes at the present time or what any number of men believe at any particular period. The harm comes from making the creed a perpetual standard of belief, a test of Christian character, and a condition of Christian fellowship. Such creeds, instead of uniting the Church, have divided it into endless sects and parties. Let men take Jesus himself as their leader and teacher, and the Church will be again one. Then Christians will come into communion not only with the mind, but also with the heart of the Master. When the whole Church is like Mary sitting at the foot of Jesus and hearing his words, it will be more full of his spirit. Bigotry and sectarianism, which have cursed Christianity, will disappear, and be replaced by the large generosity and ample charity of Jesus himself. We shall then, according to his striking Oriental image, eat his flesh and drink his blood. Instead of merely accepting propositions about him, we shall assimilate his character and feed on it in the depths of our heart. Then will be fulfilled his saying: “My sheep hear my voice, and follow me. I know my sheep, and am known of mine.”
4. The fourth point of the new theology will be Salvation by Character.
Salvation means the highest peace and joy of which the soul is capable. It means heaven here and heaven hereafter. This salvation has been explained as some thing outside of us, — some outward gift, some outward condition, place, or circumstance. We speak of going to heaven, as if we could be made happy solely by being put in a happy place. But the true heaven, the only heaven which Jesus knew, is a state of the soul. It is inward goodness. It is Christ found within. It is the love of God in the heart, going out into the life and character. The first words which Jesus spoke indicated this belief. The poor in spirit already possess the kingdom of heaven. The pure in heart already see God. “This is life eternal, to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” He who has the faith which Jesus possessed has eternal life abiding in him. The water that Jesus gives becomes a spring of water within the soul, “springing up into everlasting life.” Do not look for a distant heaven, saying, “Lo! here,” or “Lo! there”; “for the kingdom of heaven is now with you.” When we come to study the words of Jesus as we study human theologies, we shall find that he identifies goodness with heaven, and makes character the essence of salvation. As long as men believe that heaven is something outward, to be attained by an act of profession or belief, they will be apt to postpone such preparation as long as possible. But when we apprehend the inflexible law of consequences, and know that as a man soweth so shall he reap; when we see that spiritual tastes and habits are not to be formed in an hour; and that all formal professions, prayers, and sacraments avail nothing, unless the heart is pure, the soul upright, and the life one of integrity, — then a new motive will be added to increase the goodness of the world. Then the formation of character will be the fruit of Christian faith to an extent never before realized.
5. The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.
Progress is the outward heaven, corresponding to the inward heaven of character. The hope of progress is one of the chicf motives to action. Men are contented, no matter how poor their lot, so long as they can hope for something better. And men are discontented, no matter how fortunate their condition, when they have nothing more to look forward to. The greatest sufferer who hopes may havenothing, but he possesses all things: the most prosperous man who is deprived of hope may have all things, but he possesses nothing.
The old theology laid no stress on progress here or progress hereafter. The essential thing was conversion: that moment passed, the object of life was attained. A man converted on his death-bed, after a life of sin, was as well prepared for heaven as he who had led a Christian life during long years. And there was no hint given of farther progress after heaven should be reached. Eternity was to be passed in perpetual thanksgiving or in perpetual enjoyment of the joys of paradise. Such, however, was not the teaching of Jesus. The servant, in the parable, who earned two pounds, was made ruler over two cities: he who earned five pounds had the care of five cities. And the Apostle Paul tells us that one of the things which abide is hope. If hope abides, there is always something to look forward to, — some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God. And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of man; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age; with the gradual diffusion of knowledge, advancement of civilization, growth of free institutions, and ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth. The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator.
Some such views as these may constitute the theology of the future. This, at least, we see,that many of the most important elements in the teaching of Jesus have had no place, or a very inferior place, in the teachings of the Church in past times. As the good Robinson foretold, “more light is to break out from the Word of God.” The divine word, revealed in creation, embodied in Christ, immanent in the human soul, is a fuller fountain than has been believed. No creed can exhaust its meaning, no metaphysics can measure its possibility. The teaching of Jesus is not something to be outgrown; for it is not a definite system, but an ever unfolding principle. It is a germ of growth, and therefore has no finality in any of its past forms. “Of its fulness,” says John, “we have all received, and grace added to grace.” The Apostle Paul regarded his own knowledge of Christianity as imperfect and partial. “We know in part,” said he, “and we teach in part.” Christianity in the past has always had a childlike faith, which was beautiful and true. But its knowledge has also been that of a child. It has spoken as a child, it has understood as a child, it has thought as a child. This was all well while it was a child. The innocent prattle of an infant is sweet, but in a youth or man it is an anachronism. Let us have a child-like faith, but a manly intelligence. “In malice be children, but in understanding be men.” Let us endeavor to see God and nature face to face, confident that whoever is honestly seeking the truth, though he may err for a time, can never go wholly wrong.