(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)
The word "God" is often employed as though it had a fixed meaning. His part in an event or His relation to a movement is discussed with the assumption that all who speak have in mind the same Being. "God" is the name a man gives to his highest inspiration, and men vary greatly in that which inspires them. One man's god is his belly, another's his reputation, a third's cleverness. Napoleon reintroduced the cult of the God of authority, by establishing the Concordat with Rome, because as he bluntly put it, "men require to be kept in order." A number of socially minded thinkers, of whom the best known is George Eliot, deified humanity and gave themselves to worship and serve it. "Whatever thy heart clings to and relies on," wrote Luther, "that is properly thy God." A Christian is one who clings to Him in whom Jesus trusted, one who responds to the highest inspirations of Jesus of Nazareth. And a glance over Church history leaves one feeling that few Christians, even among careful thinkers, have had thoroughly Christian ideas of God.
A principal fault has been the method used in arriving at the thought of God. Men began with what was termed "Natural Religion." They studied the universe and inferred the sort of Deity who made and ruled it. It was intricately and wisely designed; its God must be omniscient. It was vast; He must be omnipotent. It displayed the same orderliness everywhere; He must be omnipresent. In epochs when men emphasized the beneficence of nature—its beauty, its usefulness, its wisdom—they concluded that its Creator was good. In an epoch, like the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, they drew a very different conclusion. Charles Darwin wrote, "What a book a Devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature."
Christians never stopped with the view of God drawn from "Natural Religion." They made this their basis, and then added to it the God of "Revealed Religion," contained in the Bible. They selected all the texts that spoke of God, drawing them from Leviticus and Ecclesiastes as confidently as from the gospels and St. Paul, and constructed a Biblical doctrine of God, which they added to the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being of their inferences from Nature. The God and Father of Jesus was thus combined with various, often much lower thoughts of Deity in the Bible, and then further obscured by the Deity of the current views of physical and human nature. It is not surprising that few Christians possessed a truly Christian view of God.
Loyalty to Jesus compels us to begin with Him. If He is the Way, we are not justified in taking half a dozen other roads, and using Him as one path among many. We ask ourselves what was the highest inspiration of Jesus, what was the Being to whom He responded with His obedient trust and with whom He communed. We are eager not to fashion an image of Divinity for ourselves, which is idolatry as truly when our minds grave it in thought as when our hands shape it in stone; but to receive God's disclosure of Himself with a whole-hearted response, and interpret, as faithfully as we can, the impression He makes upon us. "God," writes Tyndal, the martyr translator of our English New Testament, "is not man's imagination, but that only which He saith of Himself." Our highest inspirations come to us from Jesus, and He is, therefore, God's Self-unveiling to us, God's "Frankness," His Word made flesh.
Responding to God through Jesus, Christians discover:
First, that God is their Christlike Father, and that He is love as Jesus experienced His love and Himself was love.
Second, that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. We do not know whether He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent; there is much that leads us to think that He is limited. He can do no more than Love can do with His children, and Love has its defeats, and crosses, and tragedies. But trusting the Christlike Father we more and more discover that He is sufficiently in control over all things to accomplish through them His will. He needs us to help Him master nature, and transform it into the servant of man,—to control disease, to harness elec tricity, to understand earthquakes; and He needs us to help Him conquer human nature and conform it to the likeness of His Son. God's complete lordship waits until His will is done in earth as it is in heaven; but for the present we believe that He is wise and strong enough not to let nature or men defeat His purpose; that He is controlling all things so that they work together for good unto them that love Him.
And third, that God is the indwelling Spirit. The Christlike Father Lord, whom we find outside ourselves through the faith and character of Jesus, becomes as we enter into fellowship with Him, a Force within us. He is the Conscience of our consciences, the Wellspring of motives and impulses and sympathies. We repeat, today, in some degree, the experience of the first disciples at Pentecost; we recognize within ourselves the inspiring, guiding and energizing Spirit of love.
While we find God primarily through Jesus, He reveals Himself to us in many other ways: in the Scriptures, where the generations before us have garnered their experiences of Him; in living epistles in Chris tian men and women, and in some who do not call themselves by the Christian name, but whose lives disclose the Spirit of God who was in Jesus; in non-Christian faiths, where God has always given some glimpse of Himself in answer to men's search. Christ is not for us confining but defining; He gives us in Himself the test to assay the Divine.
Nor do experiences which we label religious exhaust the list of our contacts with God. Our sense of duty, whether we connect it with God or not, brings us in touch with Him. Many persons are unconsciously serving God through their obedience to conscience. It was said of the French savant, Littré, that he was a saint who did not believe in God. He made the motto of his life, "To love, to know, to serve"; and no intelligent follower of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of My brethren, even these least, ye did it unto Me," will fail to admit that in such a life there is a genuine, though unrecognized communion with God. In our own day when conscience is erecting new standards of responsibility, rendering intolerable many things good people have put up with, demonstrating the horror and hatefulness of war and forcing us to probe its causes and motives, discontenting us with our industrial arrangements, our business practices, our social order, God is giving us a larger and better Ideal, a fuller vision of Himself. We know what our Christlike Father is in Jesus; but we shall appreciate and understand Him infinitely better as He becomes embodied in the principles and ideals that dominate every home, and trade, and nation.
Again, our perception of beauty affords us a glimpse of God. The Greeks embodied loveliness in their statues of the Divine, because through the satisfaction which came to them from such exquisite figures their souls were soothed and uplifted. They have left on record how the calm and majestic expression of a face carved by a Phidias quieted, charmed, strengthened them. Dion Chrysostom says of the figure of the Olympian Zeus, "Whosoever among mortal men is most utterly toil-worn in spirit, having drunk the cup of many sorrows and calamities, when he stands before this image, methinks, must utterly forget all the terrors and woes of this mortal life." The Greek Christian fathers often tell us that the same sense of the infinitely Fair, which was roused in them by such sights, recurred in a higher degree when their thoughts dwelt upon the life and character of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria says, "He is so lovely as to be alone loved by us, whose hearts are set on the true beauty." Our æsthetic and our religious experiences often merge; our response to beauty, whether in nature, or music, or a painting, becomes a response to God. Wordsworth says of a lovely landscape that had stamped its views upon his memory:
Oft in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
Shelley, while insistently denying or defying all the gods of accepted religion, finds himself adoring
Which penetrates and clasps and fills the world,
Scarce visible for extreme loveliness.
Surely the God Christians adore is in these experiences, though men know it not. St. Augustine believed that "all that is beautiful comes from the highest Beauty, which is God." They who begin with the cult of Beauty may have a conception of the Divine that has nothing to do with, or is even opposed to, the God and Father of Jesus; but when His God is supreme, inspirations from all things lovely may vastly supplement our thought of Him. "Music on earth much light upon heaven has thrown."
Science, too, has its contribution to offer to our thought of Him who is over all and through all and in all. Truth is one, and scientific investigation and religious experience are two avenues that lead to the one Reality faith names God. Science of itself can never lead us beyond visible and tangible facts; but its array of facts may suggest to faith many things about the invisible Father, the Lord of all. Present-day science with its emphasis upon continuity makes us think of a God who is no occasional visitor, but everywhere and always active; its conception of evolution brings home to us the patient and longsuffering labor of a Father who worketh even until now; its stress upon law reminds us that He is never capricious but reliable; its practical mastery of forces, like those which enable men to use the air or to navigate under the water, recalls to us the old command to subdue the earth as sons of God, and adds the new responsibility to use our control, as the Son of God always did, in love's cause.
Philosophy, too, which Professor James has described as "our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means," helps us to make clear our idea of God. A philosopher is just a thoughtful person who takes the discoveries that his religious, moral, æsthetic, scientific experiences have brought home, and tries to set in order all he knows of truth, beauty, right, God.
In attempting to philosophize upon their discoveries of God, Christian thinkers have arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity. It was, first, an attempt to hold fast to the great foundation truth of the Old Testament that God is One. The world in which Christianity found itself had a host of deities—a god for the sea and another for the wind, a god of the hearth and a god of the empire, and so on. Today it is only too easy to obey one motive in the home and another in one's business, to follow one principle in private life and another in national life, and to be polytheists again. Christian faith insists that "there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things and we unto Him." We adore One who is Christlike love, and we will serve no other. We trust Christlike love as the divine basis for a happy family life, and also for successful commerce, for statesmanlike international dealings, for the effective treatment of every political and social question. The inspirations that come to us from a glorious piece of music or from an heroic act of self-sacrifice, from some new discovery or from a novel sensitiveness of conscience, are all inspirations from the one God. At every moment and in every situation we must keep the same fundamental attitude towards life—trustful, hopeful, serving—because in every experience, bitter or sweet, we are always in touch with the one Lord of all, our Christlike Father.
In this Unity Christians have spoken of a Trinity. Paul summing up the blessing of God, speaks of "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit." He says, "through Jesus we have our access in one Spirit unto the Father." He and his fellow believers had been redeemed from selfishness to love, from slavery to freedom; and they accounted for their new life by saying that, through the grace of Jesus, they had come to experience the fatherly love of God, and to find His Spirit binding them in a brotherhood of service for one another and the world. The New Testament goes no further: it states these experiences of Jesus, of God, of the Spirit; but it does not tell us the exact relations of the Three—how God is related to the Spirit, or Jesus distinct and at the same time one with the Father. So acute a thinker as Paul never seems to have worked this out. At one time he compares God's relation to His Spirit to man's relation to his spirit ("Who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God"); and once he identifies the Spirit with the glorified Christ ("The Lord is the Spirit").
But while Paul and other New Testament writers did not feel the need of thinking out what their threefold experience of God implied as to His Being, later Christians did; and using the terms of the current Greek philosophy, they elaborated the conception of three "Persons" in one Godhead. We have no exact equivalent in English for the Greek word which is translated "person" in this definition. It is not the same as "a person" for that would give us three gods; nor is it something impersonal, a mode or aspect of God. It is something in between a personality and a personification.
Let us remember that this doctrine is not in the New Testament, but is an attempt to explain certain experiences that are ascribed in the New Testament to Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit. Even the hardiest thinkers caution us that our knowledge of God is limited to a knowledge of His relations to us: Augustine says, "the workings of the Trinity are inseparable," and Calvin, commenting on a passage whose "aim is shortly to sum up all that is lawful for men to know of God," notes that it is "a description, not of what He is in Himself, but of what He is to us, that our knowledge of Him may stand rather in a lively perception, than in a vain and airy speculation." But let us also recall that in this doctrine generations of Christians have conserved indispensable elements in their thought of God:—His fatherhood, His Self-disclosure in Christ, His spiritual indwelling in the Christian community. Wherever it has been cast aside, something vitalizing to Christian life has gone with it. But at present it is not a doctrine of much practical help to many religious people; and it often constitutes a hindrance to Jews and Mohammedans, and to some born within the Church in their endeavor to understand and have fellowship with the Christian God.
We may adopt one of two attitudes towards it: we may accept it blindly as "a mystery" on the authority of the long centuries of Christian thought, which have used it to express their faith in God—hardly a Protestant or truly Christian position which bids us "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good"; or we may consider it reverently as the attempt of the Christian Church of the past to interpret its discovery of God as the Father Lord, revealed in Christ, and active within us as the Spirit of love; and use it in so far as it makes our experience richer and clearer, remembering that it is only a man-made attempt to interpret Him who passeth understanding. The important matter is not the orthodoxy of our doctrine, but the richness of our personal experience of God. Dr. Samuel Johnson said: "We all know what light is; but it is not so easy to tell what it is." Christians know, at least in part, what God is; but it is far from easy to state what He is; and each age must revise and say in its own words what God means to it. Here is a statement in which generations of believers have summed up their intercourse with the Divine. Have we entered into the fulness of their fellowship with God?
Do we know Him as our Father? This does not mean merely that we accept the idea of His kinship with our spirits and trust His kindly disposition towards us; but that we let Him establish a direct line of paternity with us and father our impulses, our thoughts, our ideals, our resolves. Jesus' sonship was not a relation due to a past contact, but to a present connection. He kept taking His Being, so to speak, again and again from God, saying, "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." His every wish and motive had its heredity in the Father whom He trusted with childlike confidence, and served with a grown son's intelligent and willing comradeship. Fatherhood meant to Jesus authority and affection; obedience and devotion on His part maintained and perfected His sonship.
Further, we cannot, according to Jesus, be in sonship with this Father save as we are in true brotherhood with all His children. God is (to employ a colloquial phrase) "wrapped up" in His sons and daughters, and only as we love and serve them, are we loving and serving Him. In Jesus' summary of the Law He combined two apparently conflicting obligations, when He said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thou shalt love thy neighbor." If a man loves God with his all, how can there be any remainder of love to devote to someone else? What we do for any man—the least, the last, the lost,—we do for God. We do not know Him as Father, until we possess the obligating sense of our kinship with all mankind, and say, "Our Father."
Do we know God in the Son? There is a sense in which Jesus is the "First Person" in the Christian Trinity. Our approach to God begins with Him. In St. Paul's familiar benediction, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ precedes the love of God. We know God's love only as we experience the grace of Jesus. We cannot experience that grace except as we let Jesus be Lord. Absolute and entire self-commitment to Him allows Him to renew us after His own likeness and equip us for service in His cause. He cannot transform a partially devoted life, nor use a half-dedicated man. Those who yield Him lordship, treating Him as God by giving Him their adoring trust and complete obedience, discover His Godhood. To them He proves Himself, by all that He accomplishes in and through them, worthy of their fullest devotion and reverence. He becomes to them God manifest in a human life.
While in the order of our experience Jesus comes first, as we follow Him, He makes Himself always second. He points us from Himself to the Father, like Himself and greater; "My Father is greater than I." There is a remoteness, as well as a nearness, in God; it is His "greaterness" which gives worth to His likeness. To use a philosophical phrase, only the transcendent God can be truly immanent. We prize Immanuel—God with us, because through Him we climb to God above us. Jesus is the Way; but no one wishes to remain forever en route; he arrives; and home is the Father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God; but the image on the retina of our eye is not something on which we dwell; we see through it the person with whom we are face to face. We know God our Father in His Son. Every aspect of Jesus' character unveils for us an aspect of the character of the Lord of heaven and earth. Every experience through which Jesus passed in His life with men suggests to us an experience through which our Father is passing with us His children. The cross on Calvary is a picture of the age-long and present sacrifice of our God as He suffers with and for us. The open grave is for us the symbol of His unconquerable love, stronger than the world and sin and death. God's embodiment of Himself in this Son, made in all points like ourselves, attests the essential kinship between Him and us—God's humanity and our potential divinity.
Do we know God in the Spirit? His incarnation in Jesus evidences His "incarnability," and His eagerness to have His fulness dwell in every son who will receive Him. To know God in the Spirit is so to follow Jesus that we share His sonship with the Father and have Him abiding in us, working through us His works, manifesting Himself in our mortal lives.
Our Father is the great public Spirit of the universe, the most responsible and responsive Being in existence. The needs of all are claims on His service, their sins are burdens of guilt on His conscience, their joys and woes enlist His sympathy. He has His life in the lives of His children. The Spirit is God's Life in men, God living in them. To possess His will to serve, His sense of obligation, His interest and compassion, is to have the Holy Spirit dwelling and regnant in us. It was so that the Father's Spirit possessed Jesus and made His abode in Him; and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son in the Christian community.
And what a difference it makes whether we feel that the responsibilities our consciences force us to assume, the sympathies in which our hearts go out, the interests we are impelled to take, the resolves and longings and purposes within us, are just our own, or are God's inspirations! If they are simply ours, who knows what will come of them? If they are His, we can yield to them assured that it is God who worketh in us to will and to do of His good pleasure.
Our faith in God as Self-imparting by His Spirit makes possible our confident expectation that He can and will incarnate Himself socially in the whole family of His children, as once He was incarnate in Jesus. Christians who devote themselves to fashioning social relations after the mind of Christ, and inspiring their brethren with His faith and purpose, are conscious that through them the Spirit of God is entering more and more into His world, revealing the Father in the new community of love, which is being born. Sir Edward Burne-Jones once wrote: "That was an awful word of Ruskin's, that artists paint God for the world. There's a lump of greasy pigment at the end of Michael Angelo's hog-bristle brush, and by the time it has been laid on the stucco, there is something there, that all men with eyes recognize as Divine. Think what it means: it is the power of bringing God into the world—making God manifest!" Men and women who are molding homes and industries, towns and nations, so that they embody love, and influencing for righteousness the least and lowest of the children of men, are putting before a whole world's eyes the Divine, are helping build the habitation of God in the Spirit. Through them God imparts Himself to mankind.
God over all—the Father to whom we look up with utter trust, and from whom moment by moment we take our lives in obedient devotion; God through all—through Jesus supremely, and through every child who opens his life to Him with the willingness of Jesus; God in all—the directing, empowering, sanctifying Spirit, producing in us characters like Christ's, employing and equipping us for the work of His Kingdom, and revealing Himself in a community more and more controlled by love: this is our Christian thought of the Divine—"one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
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