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Jesus all that Christian devotion has believed Him to be. So far we have seen that the personality of Jesus is central for Christian faith. We deny nothing about Him that Christian devotion has ever affirmed, but we affirm the same things of humanity as a whole in a differing degree. The practical dualism which regards Jesus as coming into humanity from something that beforehand was not humanity we declare to be misleading. Our view of the subject does not belittle Jesus but it exalts human nature. Let this be clearly understood and most of the objections to it will vanish. Briefly summed up, the position is as follows: Jesus was God, but so are we. He was God because His life was the expression of divine love; we too are one with God in so far as our lives express the same thing. Jesus was not God in the sense that He possessed an infinite consciousness; no more are we. Jesus expressed fully and completely, in so far as a finite consciousness ever could, that aspect of the nature of God which we have called the eternal Son, or Christ, or ideal Man who is the Soul of the universe, and “the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world;” we are expressions of the same primordial being. Fundamentally we are all one in this eternal Christ. This is the most difficult statement of all to make clear, for the average westerner cannot grasp it; it is different from his ordinary way of looking at things. The best way of demonstrating it, as I have already shown, is to draw attention to the fact that Christian orthodoxy has all along been affirming the mystic union between Christ and the soul, and that the limited earthly consciousness of Jesus did not prevent Him from being really and truly God. Why should we not speak in a similar way about any other human consciousness? If we could only get men to do so habitually and sincerely, it would be the greatest gain to religion that could possibly be imagined. In the third chapter I have pointed out that psychological science is doing much to help us toward this realisation. We are beginning to see, however hard it may be to understand it, that our limited individual consciousness is no barrier to the true identification of the lesser with the larger self. What Christian doctrine, therefore, has been affirming of Jesus for hundreds of years past is receiving impressive confirmation from modern science and is being seen to be true of every human being that is, the lesser and the larger are one, however little the earthly consciousness may be able to grasp the fact. To me this is a most helpful and inspiring truth, one of the most important that has ever found a place in Christian thought; it elucidates much that would otherwise be obscure. It enables us to see how the human and divine were blended in Jesus without making Him essentially different from the rest of the human race; it enables us to realise our own true origin and to believe in the salvability of every soul that has ever come to moral consciousness. If this truth will not lift a man toward the higher life, I do not know one that will. It is the truth implied in all redemptive effort that has ever been made, and in every message that has ever gripped conscience and heart; it is, as the Nicene creed has it, “the taking of the manhood into God.”

The preeminence of Jesus. Lest anyone should think that this position involves in the slightest degree the diminution of the religious value and the moral preeminence of Jesus, let me say that it does the very opposite. Nothing can be higher than the highest, and the life of Jesus was the undimmed revelation of the highest. Faith to be effective must centre on a living person, and the highest objective it has ever found is Jesus. He is no abstraction but a spiritual reality, an ever-present friend and guide, our brother and our Lord. No one will ever compete with Jesus for this position in human hearts. When I speak of the eternal Christ, I do not mean someone different from Jesus, although I certainly do mean the basal principle of all human goodness; Jesus was and is that Christ, and we can only understand what the Christ is because we have seen Him. Whole-hearted faith in Him has proved itself to be the most effective means to the manifestation of our own Christhood.

Jesus and the incarnation. This thought at once opens up another great question to which we have already alluded, that of the incarnation of this eternal Christ or Son of God in the finite universe. According to the received theology the incarnation of God in human life was limited to the life of Jesus only, and through Him to mankind. I purposely say popular theology because the best Christian thought has always known better. Popular theology has it that Jesus, the only-begotten eternal Son of God, took human flesh and a human nature, was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of a virgin, and was born into the world in a wholly miraculous way a way which stamps Him as different from all that were ever born of woman before or since. It seems strange that belief in the virgin birth of Jesus should ever have been held to be a cardinal article of the Christian faith, but it is so even to-day. There is not much need to combat it, for most reputable theologians have now given it up, but it is still a stumbling-block to many minds. Perhaps, therefore, a brief examination of the subject may not be altogether out of place.

The virgin birth not demonstrable from Scripture. The virgin birth of Jesus was apparently unknown to the primitive church, for the earliest New Testament writings make no mention of it. Paul’s letters do not allude to it, neither does the gospel of St. Mark. “In the fulness of time,” says the great apostle, “God sent forth His Son born of a woman.” He was “of the seed of David according to the flesh,” but nowhere does Paul give us so much as a hint of anything supernatural attending the mode of His entry into the world. Mark does not even tell us anything about the childhood of the Master; his account begins with the baptism of Jesus in Jordan. The fourth gospel, although written much later, ignores the belief in the virgin birth, and even seems to do so of set purpose as belittling and materialising the truth. The supposed Old Testament prophecies of the event have nothing whatever to do with it. The famous passage, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel,” is a reference to contemporary events, and the word translated “virgin” simply means a young woman. It is a prophecy of the birth of a prince whose work it should be to put right for Judah what the reigning king Ahaz had been putting wrong. The story in the seventh of Isaiah is as follows: Ahaz, a rather weak ruler, was greatly concerned by the news that Rezin, king of Syria and Pekah, king of northern Israel, had formed an alliance against him and were marching on Jerusalem. In his extremity this monarch of a petty state turned toward the mighty ruler of Assyria, the greatest military power in the world, and asked his help against the combination. Isaiah, statesman as well as prophet, saw that this was a wrong move. Assyria was aspiring to universal dominion, and to form an alliance with the military master of that mighty state would be to supply him with an excuse for further interference. The policy of Ahaz was therefore as suicidal as that of John Balliol when he called in Edward the First to adjudicate on his claim to the crown of Scotland, or the policy of Spain when she called in Napoleon. Sargon, king of Assyria, was overturning thrones in all directions, profiting by the divisions and jealousies of his foes. The great empires of Egypt and Babylonia went down before him as well as the smaller states. The condition of things in this ancient world was just like that of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the star of Napoleon was in the ascendant. For Ahaz to turn for help to Sargon was to court disaster in the end. Isaiah saw this and went out to meet Ahaz one day “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” a vivid descriptive touch. The king was apparently preparing to stand a siege in his capital and was making sure of the water supply. Isaiah’s remonstrance was in substance: You need not take so much trouble with your preparations; Syria and Israel will have more than enough to do presently to defend their own borders from Sargon. Besides, men like Rezin and Pekah are not men to be afraid of in any case; they have neither strength nor skill. But do not for heaven’s sake call in Sargon; if you do you will supply him with an excuse for meddling and we shall never get rid of him. This was good counsel, but Ahaz was too short-sighted and panic-stricken to take much notice of it, so in oriental fashion Isaiah goes on to paint a picture of future disaster. The land, he says, will soon be laid waste, and future generations will rue the policy now being determined upon. In the end, of course, things will come all right, for God will not abandon His people. A better and wiser prince shall arise who shall restore prosperity to Judah. That prince is not yet born, but when he is, his name shall be called Immanuel, God with us. In another place he describes him as Wonderful Counsellor, Divine Hero, Father Everlasting, Prince of Peace. “Butter and honey shall he eat,” because there will be nothing else left after Assyria has swept over the country, but the discipline may have good results in the end, and will serve to bring Judah to her senses.

There is something strikingly modern about all this, and it is a good example of the way in which the same conditions arise over and over again in the course of human history. It is plain to be seen that the prophecy here indicated was only the shrewd common sense of a wise and patriotic man who loved his country and believed in God. But what on earth have his words to do with the birth of Jesus? It is only by a very long stretch of the pious imagination that they can be held to apply to Christianity at all. They have an interest of their own, and a very considerable interest, too, even from the point of view of religion; but Isaiah would have been considerably astonished to be told that they would have to wait seven hundred years for fulfilment. To a certain extent they were fulfilled soon afterward in the advent of the well-meaning but not very brilliant king Hezekiah. I have dwelt upon this passage at some length because it is a fair example of the way in which Old Testament literature has been pressed into the service of Christian dogma. What I am now saying, as I need hardly point out, is not my ipse dixit; expert biblical scholarship has been saying it for a long time, but somehow or other its bearing upon generally accepted dogmas is not popularly realised. It can hardly be maintained that Christian preachers who know the truth about these matters and refrain from stating it plainly are doing their duty to their congregations. No Old Testament passage whatever is directly or indirectly a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus. To insist upon this may seem to many like beating a man of straw, but if so the man of straw still retains a good deal of vitality.

The virgin birth in the gospels. The only two gospels in which the virgin birth is alluded to are Matthew and Luke, and the nativity stories contained in these are very beautiful, especially those peculiar to Luke. But the two gospels are mutually contradictory in their account of the circumstances attending the miraculous birth. Each contains a genealogy which professes to be that of Joseph, not of Mary, and these are inconsistent with each other. What has the genealogy of Joseph got to do with the birth of Jesus if Jesus were not his own son? The conclusion seems probable that in the earlier versions of these gospels the miraculous conception did not find a place, or else that two inconsistent sources have been drawn upon without sufficient care being taken to reconcile them. But this is not the only discrepancy. Matthew gives Bethlehem as the native place of Joseph and Mary, Luke says Nazareth. Matthew says not a word about the census of Cyrenius as the motive for the journey to Bethlehem, but leads us to suppose that the holy family were already in residence there. Then again he tells us of the coming of the wise men from the East, their public inquiry as to the whereabouts of the holy child, the jealousy of Herod, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Luke says nothing about these things, but gives us an entirely different set of wonders, including the attendance of an angelic host and the annunciation to the shepherds. So far from recording any massacre, or any hasty flight, he tells us that some time after His birth the babe was taken to the Temple at Jerusalem to be presented to the Lord, and that afterwards He and His parents “returned into Galilee to their own city Nazareth.” According to Matthew Nazareth was an afterthought and only became the residence of the holy family after the return from Egypt. These accounts do not tally, and no ingenuity can reconcile them. The nativity stories belong to the poetry of religion, not to history. To regard them as narrations of actual fact is to misunderstand them. They are better than that; they take us into the region of exalted feeling and give us a vision of truth too great for prosaic statement. Christianity would be poorer by the loss of them, but they are not indigenous to Christianity. They have their parallels in other religions, some of them much older than the advent of Jesus. The beautiful legends surrounding the infancy of Gautama, for example, are startlingly similar to those contained in the first and third gospels. Like Jesus, the Buddhist messiah is stated to have been of royal descent and was born of a virgin mother. At his birth a supernatural radiance illuminated the whole district, and a troop of heavenly beings sang the praises of the holy child. Later on a wise man, guided by special portents, recognised him as the long-expected and divinely appointed light-bringer and life-giver of mankind. When but a youth he was lost for a time and was found by his father in the midst of a circle of holy men, sunk in rapt contemplation of the great mystery of existence. The parallel between these legends and the Christian version of the marvels attending the birth of Jesus is so close as to preclude the possibility of its being altogether accidental. There must have been a connection somewhere, and indeed there is no need to think otherwise, for nothing is to be gained or lost by admitting it.

Christianity not dependent on a virgin birth. But why hesitate about the question? The greatness of Jesus and the value of His revelation to mankind are in no way either assisted or diminished by the manner of His entry into the world. Every birth is just as wonderful as a virgin birth could possibly be, and just as much a direct act of God. A supernatural conception bears no relation whatever to the moral and spiritual worth of the person who is supposed to enter the world in this abnormal way. The credibility and significance of Christianity are in no way affected by the doctrine of the virgin birth otherwise than that the belief tends to put a barrier between Jesus and the race and to make Him something which cannot properly be called human. Those who insist on the doctrine will find themselves in danger of proving too much, for, pressed to its logical conclusion, it removes Jesus altogether from the category of humanity in any real sense. Like many others, I used to take the position that acceptance or non-acceptance of the doctrine of the virgin birth was immaterial because Christianity was quite independent of it, but later reflection has convinced me that in point of fact it operates as a hindrance to spiritual religion and a real living faith in Jesus. The simple and natural conclusion is that Jesus was the child of Joseph and Mary and had an uneventful childhood.

The truth in the doctrine of the virgin birth. And yet, as with every tenet which has held a place in human thought for any considerable length of time, there is a great truth contained in the idea of a virgin birth. It is the truth that the emergence of anything great and beautiful in human character and achievement is the work of the divine spirit operating within human limitations. This idea is very ancient, and there is no great religion which does not contain it in some form or other. One form of it, for example, can be discerned in the Babylonian creation myth with its parallel in the book of Genesis. The home of the primitive Chaldeans, the stock whence Israelites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other Semitic communities sprang, was in the low-lying territory surrounding the Persian gulf. During the rainy seasons these lands were flooded by the overflow of the great rivers. The sun of springtime, rising upon this mass of waters which stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, drew forth from their bosom the life and beauty of summer flowers and fruit. From observation of this regularly recurring phenomenon the primitive Semites constructed their creation myth, one version of which appeared in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, a version much later than the Babylonian, but an outgrowth of the same idea. They thought of a primeval waste of water covering everything. As the writer of the Genesis account has it: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In the Babylonian version this primeval water was personified as a woman Tiamat. They thought of the sun of heaven as impregnating this virgin matrix with the seeds of cosmic life quite an accurate conception from the modern point of view. Later on this idea became spiritualised in a much higher degree. The religious mind came to regard the physical, mundane, or distinctively human principle as the matrix upon which the spirit of God brooded, bringing to the birth a divine idea. And this is perfectly true too, as anyone can see. Nothing great and noble in human experience can be accounted for merely in terms of atoms and molecules. That is where materialism always comes to grief, for on its own premises it cannot account for the emergence of intelligence and all the higher qualities of human nature. A divine element, a spiritual quickening, is required for the evolution of anything Godlike in our mundane sphere; it is a virgin birth. Lower acting upon lower can never produce a higher. It is the downpouring and incoming of the higher to the lower which produces through the lower the divine manhood which leaves the brute behind. This is the sense in which it is true that Jesus was of divine as well as human parentage. We do not account for Him merely by saying that He was the son of Joseph and Mary and the descendant of a long line of prophets, priests, and kings; we have to recognise that His true greatness came from above.

True of all higher human experience. The same thing holds good in a lesser degree of everything worthy of Jesus in human experience. We do not account for any man’s goodness or greatness by pointing to his ancestry. Heredity may account for a great deal, but it is inadequate as an explanation of genius or high moral achievement. If we go back far enough, we shall find that our ancestry was barbarous, and, judging from its tendencies, not at all likely to produce the Christ-man of future ages. Wherever the Christ-man appears, we have to acknowledge that the principal factor in his evolution is the incoming of the divine spirit. It is only another way of stating what has already been stated above, that the true man or higher self is divine and eternal, integral to the being of God, and that this divine manhood is gradually but surely manifesting on the physical plane. The lower cannot produce the higher, but the higher is shaping and transforming the lower; every moral and spiritual advance is therefore of the nature of a virgin birth a quickening from above. The spiritual birth described in the conversation between our Lord and Nicodemus as given in the third of John is, properly speaking, a virgin birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” “Ye must be born anew,” or, literally, “quickened from above.” Every man who deliberately faces towards the highest, and feels himself reenforced by the Spirit of God in so doing, is quickened from above; the divinely human Christ is born in him, the Word has become flesh and is manifested to the world.

Human history one long incarnation. If now we can turn our thoughts away for a moment from the individual to the race and think of humanity as one being, or the expression of one being, we shall read this truth on a larger scale. All human history represents the incarnation or manifesting of the eternal Son or Christ of God. The incarnation cannot be limited to one life only, however great that life may be. It is quite a false idea to think of Jesus and no one else as the Son of God incarnate. It is easy to understand the loving reverence for Jesus which would lead men to regard Him as being and expressing something to which none of the rest of us can ever attain, but in affirming this we actually rob Him of a glory He ought to receive. We make Him unreal, reduce His earthly life to a sort of drama, and effect a drastic distinction in kind between Him and ourselves. If He came from the farther side of the gulf and we only from the hither; if we are humanity without divinity, and He divinity that has only assumed humanity, perfect fellowship between Him and ourselves is impossible. But it is untrue to say that any such distinction exists. Let us go on thinking of Jesus as Christ, the very Christ of glory, but let us realise that that same Christ is seeking expression through every human soul. He is incarnate in the race in order that by means of limitation He may manifest the innermost of God, the life and love eternal. To say this does not dethrone Jesus; it lends significance to His life and work. He is on the throne and the sceptre is in His hand. We can rise toward Him by trusting, loving, and serving Him; and by so doing we shall demonstrate that we too are Christ the eternal Son.

To think of all human life as a manifestation of the eternal Son, renders it sacred. Our very struggles and sufferings become full of meaning. Sin is but the failure to realise it; it is being false to ourselves and our divine origin; it is the centrifugal tendency in human nature just as love is the centripetal. There is no life, however depraved, which does not occasionally emit some sign of its kinship to Jesus and its eternal sonship to God. Wherever you see self-sacrifice at work you see the very spirit of Jesus, the spirit of the Christ incarnate. I find it everywhere, and it interprets life for me as nothing else can. Take up any work of fiction, no matter what, and you will find the author instinctively preaching this truth. Look into any commonplace, everyday life, no matter whose, and you will find it exemplified. Many a selfish bad man has one tender spot in his nature, his affection for his child, and for the sake of that child he will deny himself as he has never dreamed of doing for anything else; so far as that one influence is concerned he actually reverses the principle which governs the rest of his life. I have read of an African negress who on one occasion was beaten nearly to death by the brute to whom she was slave and paramour. Her murderer, for such he was, was arrested and placed on trial for his misdemeanour, in accordance with the rough justice of the white man in his dealings with the native. In the night the poor dying woman crawled painfully to the tree against which the ruffian lay bound, cut his cords, and set him free. It was her last act in this life; in the morning she was found lying dead on the spot whence the prisoner had fled. This particular story may or may not be true, but the same kind of thing has been true a million times in human history. What was the spirit in this benighted woman of the African wilds but the Christ spirit, the self-giving spirit seen with such unique sublimity in the life of Jesus?

Look abroad all through the world, look back upon the slow, upward progress of humanity to its home in God, and you will read the story of the incarnation of the eternal Son. Never has there been an hour so dark but that some gleams of this eternal light have pierced the murky pall of human ignorance and sin; never have bitter hate and fiendish cruelty gone altogether unrelieved by the human tenderness and self-devotion that testify of God. Indeed without the limitation, the struggle, and the pain, how would this Christ spirit ever have known itself? Granted that self-surrender had never been called for by the conditions of life, granted that our resources had always known themselves infinite, and that which is worthiest and sublimest in the nature of God and man alike could never have been revealed. This is why the eternal Son has become incarnate; this is what we are here to do, and upon the faithful doing of it depends our experience of the joy that the world can neither give nor take away. The life and death of Jesus are the central expression and ideal embodiment of this age-long process, a process the consummation of which will be the glorious return and triumphant ingathering of a redeemed and perfectly unified humanity to God. “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”