Theology and Human Nature

IT is still true that “the heart makes the theologian.” That is, his efficiency and even his accuracy depend on his personal qualities. It is highly desirable that he should know something about theology, but it is absolutely necessary that he should be fairly acquainted with human nature. Lacking such acquaintance, he will be both uninteresting and unconvincing; and he will probably be found to be in error.

The student of theology deals with a theme for which the mind alone is as inadequate as in the case of music or of art. The artist and the musician have need of intellectual ability of a high order; but they have need also of imagination, of feeling, of vision, of sympathy, of the qualities of the heart. The valedictorian may be able to paint, a good picture, but not because he is a valedictorian. The idea that anybody who has an informed mind is thereby competent to arrive at valid conclusions in theology is as absurd as the classic instance of the man who was asked if he could play the violin, and who replied that he thought he could, though he had never tried. A man of science may compose a symphony; but his success in that undertaking will depend on his possession of qualities other than those which lead to successful investigation. A man of science may write a book of theology, and the book may be filled with learning and with sound logic; but it will be as hard and cold as the technique of the player who has no soul, unless the writer is also a man of religion; and with all its learning and its logic it may be wholly mistaken, because it begins without the first premise of a right point of view. In order to know the truth of God, it is necessary to do the will of God; and that implies not only the love of God but the love of our neighbor. It is an assertion of the essential place of human nature in the right study of theology.

This is equally true as regards the teaching of theology. For teaching is the process whereby one takes the ideas of his own mind and puts them into the mind of his neighbor. For the success of this process the neighbor is absolutely necessary. The truth must be spoken so that he may hear it, so that he may understand it, and so that he may be persuaded to receive it. If the teacher fails to gain attention, or if he speaks in a language which his hearer does not understand, he may be trying to teach; but he is not teaching. So it is also if he states his own conviction in such a way as to repel rather than to convince his neighbor.

For example, England was made Protestant by the arguments of Queen Mary. The people had no great desire to break with Rome; they had no strong enthusiasm for the Reformation; they had not been convinced either by Henry or by Cranmer. But Mary convinced them. She maintained the Catholic cause in such a way that the nation hated it. Also, New England was made Puritan by the arguments of Archbishop Laud. There was, indeed, a Puritan party in the Church of England, as there is a “low church” party to this day; but they had no wish to leave the Church. They had no wish to associate themselves with Brownists or Baptists or such “factious humorists.” It was Laud who persuaded them that that was the proper thing to do. John Knox was preaching ecclesiastical revolution with the voice of thunder, but he was making little progress in England until Laud came to his assistance. It was Laud who founded the Presbyterian and Congregational churches of England and of Now England. And he did that thing which he desired to prevent, because he did not take human nature into account.

Dr. Brown, in his Social Message of the Modem Pulpit,1 has a passage on the right attitude of the minister toward Socialism, which illustrates both the method and the value of the other way. “With many of the abstract ideas proclaimed by the socialists, I,” he says, “with all other humane people, am in most hearty sympathy. But I do not follow with them in their advocacy of the economic programme put forward as the best method of attaining these ideals. At the very moment when mv heart responds eagerly to many of the ideals themselves, my sober economic judgment withholds its endorsement of the plan proposed for the realization of them. The poetry of socialism is, to a considerable extent, acceptable to all men whose sympathies are alive and active; but the prose of socialism remains open to serious questions at the hands of discriminating intelligence and age-long experience.” Here are the qualities of friendliness and appreciation which make profitable and convincing discussion possible. In the main, we are in agreement; we desire the same things; but let us see now about some of the details. Thus shall the debate begin, into which both sides may enter without the entanglements of pride or prejudice. From such a debate both the parson and the socialist may come with changed minds, each having imparted some of his own convictions to his neighbor. This is the effect of a recognition of human nature.

Dr. Brastow, in The Modem Pulpit,2values various contemporary preachers according to this test. They are convincing or conventional in proportion as they lay hold on human nature. Thus he criticises a good deal of Anglican preaching on the ground that it is external and unessential. “There is often a suggestion of the artificial, the mechanical, about the preacher, as if he were accustomed to deal with things that are a little foreign to him, because they come from without and not from within. It suggests the clerical habit of mind. Things of small import, things that do not concern the larger interests of men, that do not touch the weightier matters of life, are exploited in the most extraordinary, painstaking manner.” “The Anglican pulpit in general,” he says, “lacks breadth of humanity.” I am not concerned so much with the validity of the criticism as with the validity of the method of the critic. There is somewhat to be said for the gentle dullness of a good deal of Anglican preaching. It is better than a certain obtrusive individualism. But the test is a true test. A preaching which lacks breadth of humanity is lacking also in practical results. Dr. Brastow thinks more highly of American preaching. “Theology,” he says, “is less abstract and speculative than it was formerly. With ever-increasing earnestness of desire and purpose the true preacher recognizes his vocation to adapt Christianity to the actual conditions of the people. Hence, the prevailing tendency of the American preach - erin interpreting Christianity to appeal to human experience.”

A signal instance of the need of appreciating human nature, and of the inevitable failure of all teaching which lacks such appreciation, is given by Dr. Hall in his Noble Lectures, Christ and the Human Race.3 He quotes from the preface of a book on the Parsi religion, written for Parsi readers by an ardent and devoted Christian missionary, who was much better acquainted with theology than he was with human nature. After speaking in the first sentence of the “puerilities and absurdities” of the religion of the Parsis, he says that it affords “an illustration of the almost unbounded scope which the human mind will, indolently or actively, give to the device and practice of vanity, and, I will add, folly and impiety, in connection with its proposed intercommunion with the powers of the unseen world.” After thus insulting his readers, he labored, of course, in vain to persuade them to accept his convictions. Probably the things which he said in his various arguments were true; his theology was excellent; but he had defeated his purpose before he began, by his bad manners. Dr. Hall himself is an illustration of the very opposite of this. He approaches the East with a courtesy equal to that for which the East is eminent. He is a student as well as a teacher, and expects to receive as well as give. The purpose of these lectures is to urge upon us the duty of considering the ancient Oriental religions with deference and regard, as sincere endeavors after truth, and as ministering to the higher life. He would have the missionary deal with them in a modest and appreciative spirit. Thus shall Christian truth be added to Buddhist truth, and there shall result an Indian Christianity paying its own distinctive contribution to our understanding of the truth, such as was brought first by the Greeks and then by the Latins. But the missionary who is an ecclesiastical person rather than a friendly person, who is strong in theology, but weak in human nature, would better stay at home. For purposes of spiritual success, courtesy is better than orthodoxy.

These illustrations assert the fact which appears in one way or another in most of the theological writing of the past year.

The initial theme of theology is the doctrine of the existence of God. This doctrine was formerly approached by students from the side of the world without. They perceived that back of every fact is a cause, and behind all causes is a First Cause. They perceived also that the marvels of nature, especially in the adaptation of means to ends, declared that the First Cause is both intelligent and beneficent. But these arguments left them at a remote distance from the God of religion, and even then were open to the attacks of counter arguments. Other students, beginning with the same facts, arrived at very different conclusions. Mr. Romanes, for instance, found that this road led to atheism. The fallacy, as Mr. Romanes afterwards discovered and proclaimed, was the omission of man. The entrance of this factor brought with it a whole new series of arguments, whereby the doctrine of God was approached from the side of the world within. The student now deduced the being of God from the being of man. He found God personal and righteous and loving, because these are human qualities, and if God lacks them, man is greater than God. Thus the consideration of man corrected and assisted the knowledge of God.

This is what is implied in the title of Dr. Gordon’s book of sermons, Through Man to God.4 It is the most characteristic note of our contemporary theological thinking. And it is contributed, if one may so say, not by the study but by the street; not by the experiences of the man of God among his books, but by the illuminative and interpretative experiences of the man of God among his people.

A like change of theological reasoning is that which was worked out long ago in regard to the doctrine of the atonement. It is a significant example of the profitable alliance between human nature and theology. After some centuries of conventional acceptance of the theory that the death of Christ was paid to the devil for the ransom of our souls, and some further centuries of acceptance of the theory that the death of Christ was paid to God on account of the penalty due from us by reason of our sins, it was perceived that neither of these theories paid any attention to man. In either case, the atonement was a transaction carried on in heaven, without the coöperation of our will. Sin was treated as a burden, such as Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress carried on his back. But as theologians began to consider human nature, they saw that sin is a malady of the soul, and that in order to be rid of it we must somehow set ourselves against it. Then it was suggested that whatever of truth the previous doctrines of the atonement had contained needed some addition, and the theory appeared that the death of Christ was not so much for the sake of the devil, or for the sake of God, as for the sake of us. And the text was remembered which says that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Accordingly, Dr. Beckwith in his Realities of Christian Theology,5 traces the import of the death of Christ to the principle of love. “Since the glory of the Messiah was to be the bursting forth of the splendor of love, the way to it was simple, — the way of love. If Jesus is the shepherd into whose hands the Father has intrusted the safety and well-being of the flock, then there is no point short of death at which his self-surrender may be arrested.” Dr. Beckwith says that “we must behold in the suffering of Christ the suffering of God. Otherwise God remains unknown to us. Suffering is the symbol by which is measured the identification of Christ with sinners; and if ‘ God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself,’ then the suffering of Christ was also God’s suffering,— the revelation of fatherhood.” Here the doctrine of the atonement is stated in terms of human facts and qualities.

The atonement was the central doctrine of our fathers; with us the central doctrine is the incarnation, the doctrine of the philanthropy of God. It is at the heart of the divine immanence, of the indwelling God, of God evident in the world, without and within, which is at this moment affecting theology as profoundly as the kindred doctrine of evolution is affecting science. It is at the heart of the higher criticism, of the idea of God speaking in the book, but by the lips of men and under the limitations of human knowledge and experience. It is at the heart of the social settlement and of the institutional church, and of all our recognition of the dignity of men as sons of God, and of our resulting fraternal responsibilities.

The doctrine of the incarnation has been beset by many heresies, on this side and on that, but by no heresy more destructive than that which denies or impairs the true humanity of Christ. This error is the more dangerous because it is the misbelief of the orthodox, the mistake of the devout, the heresy of the saints. Regarding the human life of Christ as symbolical rather than actual, and considering him in terms of theology only, it is in peril of making him a doctrine rather than a person. Dr. Du Bose, in his book The Gospel in the Gospels,6 and Mr. Slattery in The Master of the World,7 have emphasized rather than minimized their faith in Christ as the revelation of God by dwelling with particularity upon his kinship with men.

It is the human element in Christian faith which keeps it sane and sober. The moment this is dismissed by the theologian, theology soars like a balloon released, into the clouds, driven by the winds. The vagaries, the absurdities, the impossibilities of belief have arisen in great part in the minds of men who have secluded themselves from their neighbors. They have been the theories of the cloister and the study. They have lacked the wholesome correctives of common experience and common sense. The theologian sits by himself among his books, having shut his door upon the world, and there in solitude, by process of logic, he elaborates his system of divinity. But such a system proceeds in ignorance of one of its essential factors. The solitary theologian is unacquainted with the people. Thus he is unprejudiced by any intimate acquaintance with the human facts, and ventures with unconscious audacity into the regions of dogmatic generalization. It is said, for example, of Jonathan Edwards, that “his nature was so rare and fine, with its interest in things remote, unseen, and holy, that the detachment from earth was so complete that his feet were as the feet of an angel when he touches the ground.” These conditions made the doctrine of total depravity easy enough. For this is an academic doctrine, constructed without any reference to the facts of common life. The same writer says, Edwards was not a model pastor, and except when the need was urgent he made no calls.” One would infer that from his theology. The errors of Edwards were mainly due to the fact that he was not interested in the divine book of human life. His was the theology which is unaffected by pastoral calls. He is the classic example of what theology comes to under such conditions.

A reading of the theological books of the past year finds the human element pervasive and almost universal. There is very little writing of the old academic sort. The new books are for the most part interesting, and one source of their interest is in the freedom with which the writers handle their materials. And this comes from the consciousness that they are both dealing with human nature and appealing to human nature. The reaction from the old conventionalism may sometimes startle the conservative reader, but he reads on, and is in sympathy writh the spirit of the book even while he dissents from some of its details. The interpretation of the Acts in Dr. Hall’s Paul the Apostle8 and Dr. Ropes’s Apos-tolic Age,9 and of the Gospels in Dr. Pfleiderer’s Christian Origins10 and Dr. Schmidt’s Prophet of Nazareth,11 is a living and breathing matter, a real thing, seeking honestly and earnestly for truth, and bringing us the truth thus found with all frank generosity. Some of these gifts we may accept and some we may decline, but the courtesy and sincerity of the givers is evident. The new books, even when they deal with controverted questions, do not make the reader angry. They are filled with a fine, persuasive human nature. Professor Gwatkin’s Knowledge of God12 is uncommonly readable and convincing, not only by reason of its abundant learning but by reason of its unfailing fairness, and its habitual restraint. The argument is never overstated, and the difficulties are never undervalued. This is the temper which the theologian gains by the wholesome discipline of free debate, by the gradual perception of the facts of human nature.

This note in the new books is both significant and encouraging, because it implies a clearer perception of the function of the religious teacher, and particularly of the way in which religious teaching may be made effective. The purpose of the church as a teacher of the truth is to implant certain convictions in the mind and heart and life of the community. When the church fails to do this, the result is sometimes called schism, sometimes heresy, according to the lesson which the church was endeavoring to teach. If it was a lesson in method, — that is, in ritual or in polity, —the unconvinced pupil is a schismatic. If it was a lesson in doctrine, the unconvinced pupil is a heretic. Heretics and schismatics are evidences of ecclesiastical incompetence. Occasionally, but rarely, they mean that something is the matter with the lesson. Commonly, they mean that something is the matter with the teacher.

Take, for example, the fact of schism. It begins with a difference of opinion as to a non-essential matter. The individual says, “I do not wish to do that.” But the church believes that it ought to be done. There is the problem. If now the church rises up in mighty indignation, with vigor and rigor, with the book in one hand and the stick in the other, and says, “You must,” the individual, if he has any decent self-respect, replies, “I won’t.” And the result is schism, for human nature works that way. If, on the other hand, the church says, “This is a non-essential matter, and although uniformity is good, peace and unity are better; try your own way and let the fittest survive,” the chances are that the individual will do as the church wishes. His central objection was not to the thing itself but to the compulsion of his free will. The preacher in the college to whom they brought the customary black gown, said, “Must I wear this thing? Because if I must I won’t.” And when they said, “You may wear it or leave it, as you please,” he put it on. After the Reformation, in England, there was a long and bitter contention as to the use of the sign of the cross in baptism; but when a rubric was inserted in the book, permitting the omission of the sign of the cross, if the parents or sponsors so desired, nobody from that day on asked that it be omitted. A like use of a wise alternative, a like perception of the procedure of human nature, would have kept all the Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Methodists and Baptists in the Episcopal Church to this day. On the other hand, our Puritan forefathers hated the Book of Common Prayer, simply because they had been compelled to use it; they had been banged about the ears with it by the bishops.

Or take the fact of heresy. Let us grant that the heretic is wholly mistaken. Here he is, teaching his erroneous doctrine, and here are we, considering what we ought to do about it. It seems to be a problem in theology, but the solution of it depends chiefly upon our understanding of human nature.

One element in this problem is the nervousness of the orthodox. I mean the uneasy feeling that something may happen to the truth; the idea that truth is of a very delicate constitution, and must be shielded and nursed like a sick child. This nervousness results in a panic fear, which on the one hand abandons reason, and on the other hand is capable of great cruelty. The nervous theologian is as incapable of competent discipline as a nervous teacher. The first thing which he needs to do is to take himself in hand. He needs to reassure himself as to the substantial foundations of the faith, and by prayer and patience to recover the serenity of his mind. Commonly, he preaches a fierce and imprecatory sermon, or writes an irreligious letter to a church paper. He is angry and afraid because he is nervous about the everlasting truth; and being afraid, he scares his sensitive neighbors; and being angry, he stirs up a like anger in the heretic whom he attacks. And there it is.

Another element in the problem is the privilege of error. We are all bound to make mistakes, and we all have a right to make mistakes. It is a part of the process whereby we arrive at truth. Whoever is living an active life, if he has any emotion, if he has any enthusiasm, if he has any gift of speech, is sure to say some things to-day which he will desire to modify to-morrow. It is a matter of temperament. Your safe man who is always right is an unprofitable citizen; he is forever criticising and never doing anything. Your safe parson who makes no mistakes preaches the dullest of sermons to the sleepiest of congregations. Bishop Hobart used to say, in the face of this passive and monotonous accuracy, “Give me a little zealous imprudence.”

But the privilege of error carries along with it the right to change one’s mind with self-respect. That is made possible and easy by the courtesies of debate. Under these Christian conditions the heretic is shown his heresy, and is shown, at the same time, the way out of it. By fairness, by friendliness, by gentle force of reason, he is convinced of error. Sometimes the same result is reached by patiently leaving him alone, and letting him follow the wrong road till he finds out his mistake, or gets tired. Most of the heresies which have distressed the Christian world would have ceased in the parish in which they began if they had been dealt with according to the plain facts of human nature.

For when the arguments of the heretic are answered with the argument of the club, two consequences follow; one is the confirmation of the heretic, the other is the dissemination of the heresy. In the sight of the club, the heretic cannot decently change his mind; he is forced into defenses and replies which serve to strengthen him in his error. And also at the sight of the club, the crowd comes; the thing is common property; and the new doctrine or the new denial is taught to the community by the very process by which it is sought to stop it. Then with pain, amid scandal and division, wise men remember how the Master said of the tares, “ Let both grow together till the harvest.” The eager servants came and said to the householder, “Wilt thou that we go and gather them up ? ’ But he said, “Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.”

In order either to learn or to teach the knowledge of God aright, theology must be tempered with human nature. The student of theology, the teacher or the writer of theology, must be a friendly and fraternal person, acquainted with human nature, and sympathetic with the souls of men. The other way is towards the heresy of Cain. This is the way of peace and truth.

  1. The Social Message of the Modern Pulpit, By CHARLES REYNOLDS BROWN. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906.
  2. The Modern Pulpit. By LEWIS O. BRASTOW. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1906.
  3. Christ and the Human Race. By CHARLES CUTHBERT HALL. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1906.
  4. Through Man to God. By GKORGE A. GORDON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1906.
  5. Realities of Christian Theology. By CLARENCE AUGUSTINE BECKWITH. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1906.
  6. The Gospel in the Gospels. By WILLIAM PORCHER DU BOSE. New York : Longmans, Green & Co. 1900.
  7. The Master of the World. By CHARLES LEWIS SLATTERY. New York : Longmans, Green & Co 1900.
  8. Paul the Apostle. By EDWARD H. Hall. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1906.
  9. The Apostolic Aye. By JAMES HARDY ROPES. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906.
  10. Christian Origins. By OTTO PFLEIDERER. New York: B. W. Huebsch. 1000.
  11. The Prophet of Nazareth. By NATHANIEL SCHMIDT. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1906.
  12. The Knowledge of God. By HENRY MELVILL GWATKIN. New York ; Imported by Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906.