RETURN TO HOMEPAGE
OBERLIN QUARTERLY REVIEW.
VOLUME II---No. IV.
Retyped by Rick Friedrich in May 1999.
The Sufferings of Christ.
"THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST, BY A LAYMAN--SECOND EDITION,
REVISED AND ENLARGED. HARPER & BROTHERS."
BY PRES. ASA MAHAN.
WHEN a long established article of the common faith has been successfully assailed, and the new truth supplants the ancient error, without embittered controversy, or disastrous convulsions of Zion, such an occurrence may be regarded as a happy omen in respect to the condition and prospects of the church. Such a desirable result is apparently about to be realized, in regard to the great truth elucidated in the work before us. It is but a short period since it appeared; yet the first edition has already been disposed of, and a second, improved, enlarged and corrected from the first, is passing off with such rapidity, that a third edition, as the author informs us, will undoubtedly be called for the present Spring. With great strength and power of thought and argument, and as we judge, with the most entire success, the work assails one of the long established articles of the common faith pertaining to the subject named. The interest excited in the work, on I account of the subject of which it treats, and the manner in which that subject is therein elucidated, is already great, and is constantly increasing. Yet as the darkness of night silently disappears, without any convulsions of the elements, as the opening light dawns on; so the new truth here set forth, is, in the minds of the ministry and lay members of the church, supplanting the ancient error which it combats, without any embittered agitation of the public mind. The appearance of this work, we doubt not, will, in coming generations, be regarded as a marked era in the progress of light in the nineteenth century. It is destined, we judge, to do more than any other work that has appeared, to bring back the great doctrine of Atonement to the heart of the church.
Every evangelical denomination holds, in theory at least that the doctrine of Atonement is the main pillar of the whole scheme of redemption, and that the sufferings of Christ, in connection with the mysteries of the incarnation, constitute by far the greatest and most heart-moving event that have yet transpired in the universe of God. Yet, as a matter of fact, that great transaction does not now affect the hearts of even those whom we cannot but regard as sincere christians, as it manifestly did the hearts of those by whom it was at first proclaimed. To a reflecting mind, the question would naturally come home with the deepest interest,—what is the cause of this difference of impression ? Nor can the question hardly fail to arise in such a mind,—whether this difference is not owing to some err which has crept into the modern view, and has thereby to a great extent neutralized the impression which the subject in itself adapted to make upon the mind ? Such an error our author professes to have discovered, and to its influence he attributes the evil of which we are speaking. For centuries, the common faith of the church has been, that in those fearful sufferings constituting the Atonement, Christ's human natured and that exclusively, partook. The divine nature, to be sure, deeply sympathized with the sufferings of the human, but in no sense partook of them, even the sympathy exercised, so far from implying anything in the form of pain, contained no element not implied in a state of perfect, uninterrupted an infinite felicity. Such sufferings, were therefore mere human sufferings, and nothing else. In them exclusively, according to the theory under consideration, the Atonement consisted. It may readily be admitted that the union of the divine with the human nature of Christ, enabled the former to endure a degree of suffering otherwise impossible. Still, those sufferings were, and must have been limited, and as they were endured exclusively by the human nature of Christ, they could have been nothing else than human sufferings. It is a contradiction in terms to affirm otherwise.
Such a view of the work of Atonement; is totally unadapted to make a deep, permanent and all-transforming impression upon the mind. No conception of mere human suffering of a few hours continuance, however intense in itself, has any adaptation to the production of such results. We may assume what we please in respect to the subject, we make the most strenuous efforts, to impress our own minds with the conviction that there is a power here to produce such transformations ; still the heart lying comparatively unbroken, and Unmelted under the pressure of such an apprehension of the subject, affirms continually that the work of Atonement is not what the Bible asserts it to be, or that an essential error has been somewhere introduced into our view of that work. The divine declaration, "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature," can never become, in its full sense, a reality in actual experience, so long as Gethsemane and Calvary present a no more melting spectacle to the mind, than that of a human sufferer.
Equally impossible is it for us to feel, however we may reason upon the subject, that such sufferings, whatever relation they may sustain to the divine nature of Christ, can constitute an adequate Atonement for human guilt, or lay an adequate foundation for the redemption of lost men. The declaration may be reiterated in our ears again and again, that the divine nature of our Savior could impart infinite dignity and worth to the sufferings endured by the human. We may assume that it must be so of a truth. Still we cannot but feel it to be otherwise. All admit that there must be infinite merit in the sufferings of our Savior. Else they can never constitute an adequate Atonement for the sins of men. Still when it is asserted that such merit does, or can lie in any human sufferings, our feelings, however we may reason upon the subject, can never respond to this assertion as presenting any thing else than shadow, instead of substance to the mind. It is an intuition of the universal intelligence, that the merit of sufferings, under any conceivable circumstances, can never transcend the dignity and worth of the sufferer, in the same circumstances. If the latter are finite, so must the former be. Here then, the question forces itself upon us ;—does the divine impart infinite dignity and worth to the human nature of our Savior ? If so, the latter, as well as the former, is an object of worship, and the finite has equalled the infinite. Who believes that? Who does not know that it would be gross idolatry in us to worship the mere human nature even of the Son of God ? If then the union of the divine with the human nature of Christ, cannot impart infinite dignity and worth to the latter, it cannot impart corresponding merit to any sufferings which this human nature has endured. How can God himself make that in any sense infinite, which from its own nature, is, and must be in all respects finite? The necessary consequence of the theory pertaining to the sufferings of Christ which we are now considering, is, that we have no Atonement adequate to the necessities of fallen humanity.
In opposition to such a view of the subject, our author takes the ground that in the work of Atonement, the divine as well as the human nature of our Savior suffered, and that it was the sufferings of the former, that in a pre-eminent sense constituted that Atonement. The spectacle of the garden, and of the cross, is no less awful and soul subduing than that of the agony of "God manifest in the flesh,"—that of the Incarnate Word, who "In the beginning was with God, and was God," travailing in the Greatness of his strength in the: work of man's redemption. The Son of God, not merely in his human nature, but "through the eternal Spirit," that is the divine spirit or nature which he possessed, "offered himself without spot to God," for us. When the church in her soul melting hymns exclaims—
"Agonizing in the garden,
Lo ! your Maker prostrate lies
On the bloody tree behold Him,
Hear Him cry before He dies,"
our author affirms that she is not uttering a glorious untruth, but an awful yet blessed reality.
If we consider this as the true exposition of the sufferings of Christ, one thing is quite certain. Neither time nor eternity can weaken the power of these sufferings to melt, subdue and transform the heart. If in the garden and on the cross, I really and truly behold my God agonizing there for my redemption,
"Then am I dead to all the world
And all the world is dead to me."
Here is the "mystery of godliness," into which, throughout, endless ages, even angels will desire to look. One fact in confirmation of the adaptation of this view of the subject and of this only, to move and melt the heart, should not be omitted here. While the church has in theory adopted the opposite view, this is the only one presented in her soul-melting hymns. The special object of sacred poetry, is to melt and dissolve into love and tenderness, the sensibilities of our nature. But one view of the sufferings of Christ, has real poetry or melting power in it. The common view has neither.-- Hence the creed and the hymns of the church, have for centuries stood in palpable contradiction to each other. In the former, we have only the spectacle of a human sufferer. As presented in the latter,
"God the mighty Maker dies
For man the creature's sin."
Such a contradiction can be accounted for, but upon one supposition,—the universally felt adaptation of this one view only of the sufferings of Christ, permanently to melt and subdue the heart.
Assuming this as the true view of the sufferings of Christ also, we not only know, but deeply feel, that in him we have an Atonement for sin, fully adequate to all our necessities as sinners. The infinite dignity and worth of the sufferer cannot but impart corresponding merit to the sufferings He endured in our stead. We not only see, but deeply feel that God can be "just and justify the believer in Jesus." In this wondrous plan, "Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other." "Truth has sprung out of the earth, and righteousness has looked down from heaven."
An enquiry of no little interest and importance here suggests itself; to wit: what has been the real basis of the opinion so long entertained by the church in respect to the sufferings of Christ ? Whence did the sentiment originate, that the divine nature of our Savior did not at all partake of those sufferings? It certainly did not take its rise in a careful study of the Scriptures, with the simple enquiry—what do they teach on this subject? We think we are quite safe in the assertion, that there is not a solitary passage in the Bible, that can be shown even to look towards a revelation of such a sentiment. We believe that none of its advocates even profess to adduce any thing from "the law and the testimony" in its support. It is not then as a revealed truth, that this doctrine has ever been received by the church. The basis of her convictions, or rather, assumptions in respect to it, is not any thing found in the Bible.
On the other hand, this sentiment has obtained in the church in opposition to the plainest teachings of Inspiration, to the whole tenor of the Bible in respect to this subject. The most impressive and heart-moving passages of scripture pertaining to the Atonement and sufferings of Christ, lose all their force and meaning when construed according to this view. Take a few, as examples. "For in that He Himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted." Every one knows that it is to the divine and not to the human nature of Christ, that we are to look for succor in temptation. How then must this passage read, in order to assert the sentiment under consideration? It must read thus: Because the human nature of Christ "suffered, being tempted," his divine nature, which was all the while during the conflict in a state of absolute and infinite felicity, and consequently was not tempted at all, is "able to succor them that are tempted." Is the passage before us adapted to express any such sentiment as that? Does not a different and opposite sentiment most undeniably lie upon its surface? Is not all its beauty and impressive force annihilated by such a construction? Can another sentiment be drawn from it than this, that the very nature to which we are in the hour of temptation to look for succor, did itself "suffer, being tempted"? But the true meaning of this passage will be still more plain and impressive, if it is read in connection with seyeral preceding verses:
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He a Himself took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil: and deliver them who through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily He took not Him the nature of angels, but He took on Him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto his brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people; for in that He Himself hath suffered, being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted."
It would he the height of absurdity to suppose that it is, the human nature of our Savior, to which the apostle refers in the declaration, "he took not on him the nature of angels but he took on Him the seed of Abraham," &c. Now what Perfect violence is done to the whole passage, by the construction which makes the apostle refer to the human instead of the divine nature of Christ, in the phrase, "In that he Himself hath suffered, being tempted." What unbiased mind can read this entire passage, and avoid the full conviction, that, reference to the same divine nature is had throughout the whole of it? Yes, reader, the same divine being who "took part of the same," that is, became a "partaker of flesh and blood," and who by taking upon him, not "the nature of angels," but the "seed of Abraham," was "made like unto his brethren," it was this same being that "suffered being tempted," and is therefore "able to succor them that are tempted" The most obvious meaning, as well as the tender beauty and impressive force of the entire passage, is destroyed by any other construction. "Had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." The dogma against which we are contending, if admitted as true, would make this passage read thus :—had they known it they would not have crucified the human nature of him who in his divine nature, a nature which in no form partook of the sufferings referred to, is the Lord of glory. Can any one who would not be wise above what is written, draw such a meaning from such a passage ? Is not the obvious meaning of the sacred writer, this : that the "Lord of glory" himself, that is, as these words must mean, Christ in his divine, as well as human nature, actually endured the pains of crucifixion ?
"Looking Unto Jesus, the author end finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God."
The words "author and finisher of our faith," must, as all admit, refer especially to the divine nature of Christ. how perfectly must the passage be perverted from its obvious meaning, to make it imply any thing else, than that it was the same nature in which he appears as "the author and finisher of our faith," that he endured the cross. "As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father, and I lay down my life for he sheep." The phrase, "even so know I the Father," as all admit, must refer to the divine nature of Christ. What if, as the sentiment under consideration requires, we construct this passage thus; As the Father knoweth me, even so, my divine nature, know I the Father, and in my human nature, "I lay down my life for the sheep," a transaction in which my divine nature partakes in no sense, not implying not only total absence from all suffering of every kind, but the uninterrupted fruition of infinite felicity. What a monstrous distortion of the obvious meaning of the passage, have we in that case. How totally have its glorious beauty and impressive force disappeared. Let us go through "that dearest of books that excels every other," and thus construct all its melting declarations pertaining to the sufferings of our Savior, and their glory has departed. You have taken away our Lord from our hearts, and laid him no where. We have then another Bible, and in very many essential particulars, another gospel." Let the reader attentively consider the following passages, taken from among many others of similar character that might be adduced, and then ask himself, what aspect of the sufferings of Christ do they obviously present to our contemplation? Do they present to our hearts a mere creature, or the incarnate God enduring the agony of death for our redemption ?
"He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things."
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."
"For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich."
"Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
"Awake, O sword, against my Shepherd, and against him that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts; smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones,"
If the sword of Jehovah, in the sufferings of Christ for our redemption, fell only upon the human nature of our Savior, in what sense did it awake against God's "fellow," that is, his equal?
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall, be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."
"Surely he bath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."
Who can read these two passages together, without receiving from them the deep impression that he who is, in the first, presented to our contemplation as the "Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God and Everlasting Father," is the same person, who, in the second, is unveiled to our hearts, as wounded for our redemption?
From whence then did the opinion for ages so prevalent in the church, that in the work of Atonement, Christ suffered in his humanity exclusively, take its rise? A conviction pertaining to this subject not only not sustained by direct testimony from the Bible, but in manifest opposition to its plainest teachings, must, we should suppose, have some where, a very firm and imposing basis on which to rest. What is this foundation of many generations! We answer, it is an assumption in respect to what is possible and impossible to the divine nature; an assumption that God is absolutely impassible, that is, He cannot by any possibility actual or conceivable, from any cause out of himself, or from any choice or act of his own, come, for a single moment, from a state of infinite blessedness to one of suffering. This is assumed, not as a truth revealed by the light of inspiration, (for all acknowledge that the Bible is perfectly silent on the subject,) but as an intuition of reason in respect to the divine nature. God, if Himself should choose and for reasons of infinite weight, cannot for a single instant be the subject of suffering, in any form or degree whatever. The sufferings of Christ therefore must have been endured exclusively in his human nature. His deity in no sense or degree could for a single instant have participated in them. Now we may very properly ask for the authority of such a wide-sweeping assumption. God, it is admitted, has never revealed the fact that such is the truth in respect to himself. Has the human mind, unaided as it must have been, and unguided by the light of inspiration, attained to such an understanding of the divine nature, that it is authorized to make any such assumption in respect to it ? "Such knowledge," we confess, "is too wonderful for us ; it is high, we cannot attain unto it." Till we have "found out the Almighty unto perfection," we dare make no such affirmations or assumptions in respect to what is possible or impossible with God ; especially so, when such assumptions are in manifest contradiction to what God has positively taught us in respect to himself. When inspiration affirms that the "Mighty God," having become flesh and dwelt among us, was "wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities," have we obtained, or can we, unaided by inspiration, obtain such an insight into the mysteries of the divine nature, as to set aside such affirmations, as not meaning what they directly assert? One thing we are quite assured of. It is much better for our hearts, to say the least, to sit down to the study of the blessed word, with the assumption that no "man knoweth the things of God, but the Spirit of God," and there with childlike simplicity, enquire what that Spirit has revealed in respect to what is "possible with God." If that Spirit should affirm that the Mighty God" can suffer, and has suffered for our redemption, of one thing we shall feel the most undoubted assurance.— Our hearts, our inner being, our entire fallen nature, too imperiously needs that truth as an omnipresent reality, ever to doubt it. If he should teach us otherwise, if He should affirm the absolute impossibility of the divine nature's suffering, then our souls will sink down under the gloomy consciousness that the rock within us can never be melted and dissolved.
One good of infinite moment, in addition to that of bringing hack to the heart of the church, the great doctrine of the Atonement, will, we have no doubt, result from reading the work before us. It will induce far greater caution and modesty than now commonly exists, in determining what the Scriptures must mean, and determining this fact from pre-formed assumptions in respect to what must be true or false, possible or impossible with Deity. We would by no means be understood as affirming that there are no truths which the mind does and must recognize as necessary intuitions pertaining to God. The thing upon which we would insist is, greater caution than is commonly manifested in determining what such truths are, and their proper influence as lights in the interpretation of the divine word. How many of the most precious truths of the Bible have been almost totally neutralized in their influence upon the human mind, by human assumptions, unauthorized alike by reason and revelation both.
We believe also, that the general reading of, this work will do much to prepare the way for a new era in the progress of the church, which we have long desired to see. We refer to this—the study of the character of God through the, mysteries of the incarnation, as the church has hitherto not been accustomed to do. "The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him," that is, led Him out or revealed him as he is, to the human mind. But how hath the Son revealed the Father ? We answer, the Father is revealed in the acts of the Son. The compassion manifested towards the widow of Nain, is a real manifestation of the present feelings of the whole Deity towards every individual bowed down under the weight of affliction. In the melting scene at the grave of Lazarus, we behold the divine sensibility as it now exists towards all the sons and daughters of fallen humanity; we behold there, we say, the divine sensibility brought in contact with a fountain of tears. As long as we hold that Deity though incarnate cannot suffer for us, we can never feel that he can weep for us. The acts of Christ therefore are not to us real revelations, as they were designed to be, of the heart of God. When the heart of the Father is thus read in the acts of the Son; when to the faith of the church, the Father thus dwells in the Son, and is thus manifested to us, then will the whole Deity come to the believer and abide with him forever.