The Restitution of all Things
Part 1: The Nature of Scripture
MY DEAR C-----
The account you give of your perplexity, and of the answers with which it has been met by some around you, reminds me, (if one may refer to it in such a connection,) of what happened some months ago in a Sunday-school. The boys in one of the classes were reading the chapter which records how David, as he walked on the roof of his house, saw Bathsheba. One of the boys, looking up through the school-room window at the steep roofs of the houses opposite, after a pause, said,--“But, Teacher, how could David walk on the roof of his house?” The teacher, on this point as ignorant as his scholar, at once checked all enquiry by saying, “Don’t grumble at the Bible, boy.” Meanwhile the teacher of an adjoining class had overheard the conversation. Leaning over to his fellow-teacher he whispered, “The answer to the difficulty is, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God, for with God all things are possible.’” Such was the solution of “the difficulty;” too true a sample, I fear, of the way in which on the one hand honest doubts are often met, as though all enquiry into what is perplexing in Scripture must be criminal; and on the other, of the absurdities which are confidently put forth as true expositions of God’s mind and word.
Your difficulty is, how are we, as believers in Scripture, to reconcile its prophetic declarations as to the final restitution of all things, with those other statements of the same Scripture, which are so often quoted to prove eternal punishment. Scripture, you say, affirms that God our Father is a Saviour, full of pity towards the lost, seeking their restoration; so loving that He has given for man His Only-Begotten Son, in and by whom the curse shall be overcome, and all the kindreds of the earth be blessed; and yet that some shall go away into everlasting punishment, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. How is it possible, you ask, to reconcile all this? Are not the statements directly inconsistent? And if so, must not the statements of the Bible, as of other books, be corrected by that light of reason and conscience, which is naturally or divinely implanted in every one of us?
Now I grant at once that there is a difficulty here, and further that the question how it is to be solved is one deserving our most attentive consideration. I entirely agree with you also, that “though indifference or devout timidity, calling itself submission, may set aside such enquiries as unpractical or even dangerous, though indolence under the guise of humility may refuse to look at them, and spiritual selfishness, wrapt in the mantle of its own supposed security, may forbid such investigations as presumptuous, Christ-like souls can no more be unconcerned as to what may or may not be God’s mind as to the mass of humanity, than they can stand by unaffected when the destitute perish from hunger, or the dying agonize in pain.” All this to me seems self-evident.
But agreeing with you in this, I cannot grant that the difficulty you urge is unanswerable, or that, even if it were, you would be wise for such a reason to reject the Scriptures.
Is there any revelation which God has given free from difficulties? Are there not even difficulties as to the present facts of life which are quite inexplicable? Is it not a fact that man comes into this world a fallen creature; and yet that God who made man is just, holy, and merciful? But how do you reconcile the facts? You think that man is not a sinner only because he does evil. You rather believe that he does evil because he is a sinner, and that, guard and train him as you will, evil will come out of him because it is already in him; that in the best there is an inability to do the good they would; that in all there is a self-will and self-love, the pregnant root of sin of every kind. And yet you say that God is good. Say that the evil came through Adam’s disobedience; yet how is it just to make us suffer for a trespass committed thousands of years before we were born? That there is a difficulty here is evident from the many attempts which have been made to solve it. Yet you and I believe both sides of the mystery. We believe that man by nature is corrupt, his heart wrong from his mother’s womb, a dying sinful creature, who cannot change or save himself, utterly hopeless but for God’s redeeming mercy; and yet that God is good, and that He does not mock us when He declares that not He, but we are blameable.
Why then, see in that life is such a mystery, and that there are contradictions in it which seem irreconcilable, and for the true answer to which we have often to wait, should you take the one difficulty you urge as a sufficient reason for hastily rejecting those Scriptures, which you have often found to be as a light in a dark place? Rather look again and again more carefully into them. Then you will see, as I think I see, how these Scriptures, rightly divided open out far more exalted and glorious hopes for man than his own unaided imagination or understanding has ever yet dared to guess or been able to argue out.
I. The Nature of Scripture
But before I come to the testimony of Scripture, let me clear my way by a few words as to its nature and inspiration. The mystery of the Incarnate Word, I am assured, is the key, and the only sufficient one, to the mystery of the Written Word; the letter, that is the outward and human form, of which answers to the flesh of Christ, and is but a part of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word. The Incarnation, instead of being, as some have said, different in principle to the other revelations of Himself which God has given us, is exactly in accordance with, and indeed the key to, all of them, in one and all the unseen and invisible God being manifested in or through His creatures, or in some creature-form; and this because thus only could God be revealed to creatures like us. Whether in Nature, or Scripture, or Christ’s flesh, the law is one. The divine is revealed under a veil, and that veil a creature-form.
(1). Let me express what I can on this subject, though in these days what I have to say may lie open to the charge of mysticism. The blessed fact, which we confess as Christians, is that the Word of God has been made flesh,--has come forth in human form from human nature. Jesus of Nazareth is Son of God; not partly man and partly God, but true man born of a woman, yet with all the fullness of the God-head bodily.
So exactly is Holy Scripture the Word of God; not half human and half divine, but thoroughly human, yet no less thoroughly divine, with all treasures of wisdom and knowledge revealed yet hidden in it. And just as He, the Incarnate Word, was born of a woman, out of the order of nature, without the operation of man, by the power of God’s Spirit; so exactly as the Written Word come out of the human heart, not by the operation of the human understanding, that is the man in us, but by the power of the Spirit of God directly acting upon the heart, that is, the feminine part of our present fallen and divided human nature. It is of course easy to say this is mere mysticism. God manifest in the flesh is a great mystery. And the manifestation of God’s truth out of man’s heart in human form is of course the same, and no less a mystery. And those who do not see how our nature like our race is both male and female, may here find some difficulty. But the fact remains the same, that our nature is double, male and female, head and heart, intellect and affection. And it is out of the latter of these, that is the heart, that the letter of Scripture has been brought forth, the human form of the Divine Word, exactly as Christ was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Ghost, without an earthly father. In no other way could God’s Word come in human form. In no other way could it come out of human nature. But it has humbled itself so to come for us, out of the heart of prophets and apostles; in its human form, like Christ’s flesh, subject to all those infirmities and limitations which Christ’s flesh was subject to—thoroughly human as He was; yet in spirit, like Him, thoroughly divine, and full of the unfathomed depths of God’s almighty love and wisdom.
Now just as the fact that Jesus was man, and as such grew by degrees in wisdom and stature here, and lived our life, which is a process of corruption, and had our members of shame, and was made sin for us, by no means disproves that He was also Son of God, but is only a witness of the love which brought Him here in human form; so the fact that Holy Scripture is human proves nothing against its being divine also, exactly as Christ was.
I would that those who are now dissecting Scripture, and finding it under their hands to be, what indeed it is, thoroughly and truly human, would but pause and ask themselves, what they could have found in Christ’s flesh, had they tortured it as they now are torturing the letter. Had it been possible for them to have dissected that Body,--I must say it when I see what men are doing now,--would they have found, with the eye of sense at least, anything there which was not purely human? The scourge, the nails, the spear, the bitter cry, and death at last, proved that that wounded form was indeed most truly human. The Bishop of Natal has dissected the letter of Scripture till it is to him as the flesh of Christ would have been to a mere anatomist. It is not to him a living thing to teach him, but a dead thing to be dissected and criticized. He has proof that it is human; he has proof that it has grown; he has proof that death works in it, or at least touches it; he has seen its shameful members; he does not wish to lead any to despise the true teachings given by this human form; for he says it has been the channel through which he has received much blessing; he only wishes men to see that it is really human, which of course it must be, seeing it came out of the heart of man; but, consciously or unconsciously, he is leading men, not from the letter to the spirit, which would be well, but merely to reject and judge the letter, not seeing how that letter, like Christ’s flesh, is incorruptible and shall be glorified. After all, this too perhaps must be done: it was needful that Christ should suffer and be put to death; but woe to him who rejects and slays the human form, in which, for us, God’s truth has been manifested. Yet for this, too, mercy is in store, for they do it ignorantly in unbelief.
The Bible then resembles, yet differs from, other books, just as the flesh of Christ, resembles and yet differs from the flesh of other men. All the utterances of good and true men are in their measure aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation, being partial revelations in human form of God’s eternal Truth and Wisdom; even as every good and true man also in his measure is another aspect of the same mystery, for God has said, “I will dwell and walk in them,” and so human forms and flesh and blood are by grace God’s tabernacles. But the Incarnation and Manifestation of the Divine Word in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ was pre-eminent, and infinitely beyond what the indwelling of the Word is in other good men, though Christ took our flesh and infirmities, and we may be filled with all the fullness of God. In like manner the Incarnation and Manifestation of the Word of God in the letter of Scripture is pre-eminent, and differs from other books exactly as the flesh of Christ differs from the flesh of other men.
Instead of believing therefore, that, because Scripture is human, and has grown with men, and has marks of our weakness and shame and death upon it, therefore it must perish and see corruption, I believe it can never perish or see corruption. I see it is human; I see that it has grown; I see it can be judged and wounded. I believe too that it has in its composition exactly so much of perishableness as Christ’s flesh had when He walked here with His apostles. But it is like Christ’s body, the peculiar tabernacle of God’s truth. And those who walk by it day and night know this, for they have seen, as all shall one day see, it transfigured.
(2). I proceed to shew that like Christ's flesh, and indeed like every other revelation which God has made of Himself, the letter of Scripture is a veil quite as much as a revelation, hiding while it reveals, and yet revealing while it hides; presenting to the eye something very different from that which is within, even as the veil of the Tabernacle, with its inwoven cherubim, hid the glory within the veil, of which nevertheless it was the witness; and that therefore, as seen by sense, it is and must be apparently inconsistent and self-contradictory. Both these points are important; for if God's revelations of Himself are veils, even while they are also manifestations; and if therefore they are and must be open to the charge of inconsistency and contradiction; this fact will help us to understand, not only why Scripture is what it is, but also how to interpret its varied truths and doctrines.
And here, that we may see how all God's revelations are alike, let us look for a moment at those other revelations of Himself, the books of Nature and Providence , which God has given us. Are they not both veils as well as revelations, the first sense-readings of which are never to be relied on?
First, as to Nature, which has been called God's formed word, and which beyond all question is a revelation of God. Yet how does it reveal Him? Is it not also a veil, hiding quite as much as it reveals of Him? Is it not a fact that our sense-readings, even of the clearest physical phenomena, such as the rising and setting of the sun, are opposed to the truth, and need to be corrected by a higher faculty? Is it not further a fact that Nature hides almost more than it reveals of God our Saviour? Does it not seem even to misrepresent Him? Does it not seem also to contradict itself, with force against force, heat against cold, darkness against light, death against life, its very elements in ceaseless strife everywhere? On one side shewing a preserver, on the other a destroyer: here boundless provision for the support of life; there death reigning. We know that this contradiction has been so strongly felt by some, that on the ground of it they have denied that the world is the work of one superintending mind, and have argued that it must be either the result of chance or the work of eternally opposing powers. Are there not here exactly the same contradictions and the same difficulties which we find in Scripture? Either therefore we must say, Nature is an inconsistent and lying book, and therefore we will not believe the testimony either of its barren rocks or smiling cornfields; or else we must confess some veil or riddle here. It is precisely the same riddle which we find in every other revelation.
For the book of Providence , which I may call God's wrought word, has the very same peculiarity. Providence surely is a revelation of God; and yet is it not, like Nature, a veil quite as much as a revelation? Look not only at those things which David speaks of, that God's servants suffer, while the wicked are in great prosperity and not plagued like other men; but look at born cripples and idiots, the deaf and dumb and blind, who, as far as we know, cannot be suffering for their own sake;--look at the fact that in one instance crime is punished, in another unpunished, here. Is not this inconsistent? Where is the justice of it; and where, as judged by sense, is the love of sending souls into the world whose life throughout is one of suffering? Certainly here is a text in God's providential book of rule, (which I may say answers to the books of Kings, or Rule, in Scripture,) quite as hard as any of those texts in the book of Kings, which some would cut out of Scripture, as presenting us with false and unworthy views of Him. But can these critics blot the selfsame text out of God's book of rule in Providence ? There it stands, just as it stands in the book of Nature also. Shall we therefore say that the revelation of God in Providence is an inconsistent one? No—the fact is, it is a veil as well as a revelation, and all its apparent inconsistencies and contradictions can be cleared up, if not to sense, yet to faith, in the light of God's sanctuary (Psa. lxxiii. 3-17).
Even so it is with those two other revelations, which, much as they have been gainsaid, the Church has received and yet believes in, I mean the flesh of Christ and Holy Scripture. The flesh of Christ, the Incarnate Word, is beyond all question a veil (Heb. x. 20). How much did it hid, even while to some it revealed God. How few knew what He was: how many misunderstood Him. And how inconsistent did that feeble form appear with the truth that it was God's chosen dwelling-place. The apparent inconsistency may be gathered from the fact that those to whom He came stumbled at it.
And from that day to this that human form, that birth of a woman, that growth in years and stature, those tears, that sweat, that weariness, those bitter cries, those members of shame, that dying life, all this, or part of this, has to the eye of sense seemed so inconsistent with divinity, that thousands have denied that that Form was or could be a revelation of God, even while they allow that it has done what mere humanity never did. The fact is, it was, and was intended to be, a veil as well as a revelation: and as such there could not but be apparent contradiction.
The same is true of Scripture, that is, the written word, which like Nature has gone through six days of change, and like Christ's flesh has grown in wisdom and stature. Throughout it is a veil while it is a revelation; and therefore, like Nature, Providence , and the flesh of Christ, it is and must be open to the same reproach, not only of inconsistency, but of setting forth unworthy and even untrue statements of God. For indeed Scripture is a veil, which when taken in the letter, that is, as it appears to sense, makes out God to be just as far from what He really is as Nature and Providence seem to make Him; and yet all the while it reveals Him also, as nothing else has ever revealed Him. For though in Christ's flesh the revelation is complete spite of the veil, its very completeness and compactness keep us from seeing the various parts, which are set before us in Holy Scripture piecemeal (Heb. i. 1.), and in a way that neither Nature nor Providence at present shew Him to us. For the law and the prophets tell us more of God and of His purposes, as to the restitution of all things and the promised times of rest and Sabbath, than Nature yet declares to our present understanding; though indeed Nature may be, and probably is, saying far more to us than any mere human eye or ear has yet apprehended.
Now if Nature and Providence, Christ's flesh and Scripture, have all this same characteristic peculiarity of being veils as well as revelations, and are therefore open to the charge of inconsistency, as read by sense, seeming to declare what is opposed to fact, may we not conclude that they have all come from the same Hand, especially when it is seen that the apparent contradictions, which are found in any of these revelations, like the tabernacle veil, invariably cover some deeper truth, which cannot safely be expressed, to fallen men at least, in any other way.
(3). The deeper question, why God has thus revealed Himself should not be passed by; for it opens the heart of God. God alone of all teachers has had two methods, law and gospel, flesh and spirit,--one working where we are, the other to bring us in rest where He is,--one to be done away, the other to abide (2 Cor. iii. 11),--which at least looks like inconsistency. The reason is that God is love, and that in no other way could He ever have reached us where we were, or brought us where He is. God therefore was willing to seem inconsistent, and for awhile to come into man's likeness, to bring man back to His likeness. Here is the reason for law before gospel, for Christ's flesh before His Spirit, for all the different dispensations, and for all the types and shadows which for awhile veiled while they revealed God's living Word. Here is the reason for the human form of the Divine Word in Scripture. Had that Word come to us as it is in itself, we should no more have apprehended or seen it than we see God. Had it come to us even in angelic form, only a very few, the pure and thoughtful ever could have received it.
But it stooped to reveal itself to creatures through a creature, and to come to us out of the heart of man in truly human form, so that all men, Gentile or Jew, polished or savage, might through its perfect humanity be able to receive it. God more than any of His most loving servants has become a Jew to gain the Jews, and weak to gain the weak, and under law to gain those under law; because He is love, and love must sacrifice itself, if by any means it can save and bless others. If therefore men are in the flesh, God comes to them in flesh; if they are in darkness and shadows, God comes for them into the shadows; because they cannot comprehend the light, and because the darkness and light are both alike to Him (Psa. cxxxix 12.).
If this is not the way of His revelation, how, I ask, has He ever revealed Himself? Will any dare to say that He has not revealed Himself? Has God who is love been content to leave poor man in perfect ignorance? Or if He has told man what He is, as most surely He has, how has He done so? Did He, does He, can He, plainly tell out to all what He is? And if He did not, why did He not? Why have men always heard God first speaking in law before a gospel dawned on them? Why must it be so, or at least why does He allow it? Is it a mistake of His, which we must avoid, when we attempt to make Him known; or shall we be wise, if, in doing what He is doing, that is, in revealing Him, we imitate His way of revelation? Surely from the days of Adam, seeing what man is, and our delusions about Him, God must have desired, and we know has desired, to make Himself known; and being Almighty, All-wise, and All-loving, surely He has taken the best method of doing it. Again I ask, how has He done it, how must He do it, man being what He is? Could God consistently with our salvation have done it otherwise than it has been done? To shew Himself as He is would to man be no shewing of Him. It was needful that He should shew Himself under the forms and limitations of that creature in and to whom He sought to reveal Himself, that is by shadows before light, by law before gospel, by a letter before a quickening spirit, in a word, by the humiliation of His eternal Word stooping to come out of man's heart and in human form.
And yet this could not be done without the Truth by its very humanity laying itself open to the charge of being merely human and not divine, and to the humiliation of being rejected for having our infirmities upon it. Love can bear all this, and God is love, and the truth can bear it, for truth must conquer all things. And therefore while it submits to take a human form, in which it can be judged and die, (for it must die, and to some of us has died, in the form we first apprehended it,--a trial of faith sooner or later to be known by all disciples, who, like apostles of old in the same strait, are sorely perplexed at this dying, for they have trusted that this is He which should have redeemed Israel,--) it must also live and rise again, and glorify that human form for ever. But because it has stooped to come in human form, out of the heart of man, even as Christ came forth from Mary, for us, therefore like Him it shall be stripped and mocked. But those who are stripping it know not what they do.