So much for the general character of the Russian critics.
Foreign critics started from the same premises, but their discussions of my book were somewhat different from those of Russian critics, not only in being less bitter, and in showing more culture, but even in the subject-matter.
In discussing my book and the Gospel teaching generally, as it is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, the foreign critics maintained that such doctrine is not peculiarly Christian (Christian doctrine is either Catholicism or Protestantism according to their views) – the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is only a string of very pretty impracticable dreams du charmant docteur, as Renan says, fit for the simple and half-savage inhabitants of Galilee who lived eighteen hundred years ago, and for the half-savage Russian peasants – Sutaev and Bondarev – and the Russian mystic Tolstoy, but not at all consistent with a high degree of European culture.
The foreign freethinking critics have tried in a delicate manner, without being offensive to me, to give the impression that my conviction that mankind could be guided by such a naïve doctrine as that of the Sermon on the Mount proceeds from two causes: that such a conviction is partly due to my want of knowledge, my ignorance of history, my ignorance of all the vain attempts to apply the principles of the Sermon on the Mount to life, which have been made in history and have led to nothing; and partly it is due to my failing to appreciate the full value of the lofty civilization to which mankind has attained at present, with its Krupp cannons, smokeless powder, colonization of Africa, Irish Coercion Bill, parliamentary government, journalism, strikes, and the Eiffel Tower.
So wrote de Vogüé and Leroy Beaulieu and Matthew Arnold; so wrote the American author Savage, and Ingersoll, the popular freethinking American preacher, and many others.
"Christ's teaching is no use, because it is inconsistent with our industrial age," says Ingersoll naïvely, expressing in this utterance, with perfect directness and simplicity, the exact notion of Christ's teaching held by persons of refinement and culture of our times. The teaching is no use for our industrial age, precisely as though the existence of this industrial age were a sacred fact which ought not to and could not be changed. It is just as though drunkards when advised how they could be brought to habits of sobriety should answer that the advice is incompatible with their habit of taking alcohol.
The arguments of all the freethinking critics, Russian and foreign alike, different as they may be in tone and manner of presentation, all amount essentially to the same strange misapprehension – namely, that Christ's teaching, one of the consequences of which is non-resistance to evil, is of no use to us because it requires a change of our life.
Christ's teaching is useless because, if it were carried into practice, life could not go on as at present; we must add: if we have begun by living sinfully, as we do live and are accustomed to live. Not only is the question of non-resistance to evil not discussed; the very mention of the fact that the duty of non-resistance enters into Christ's teaching is regarded as satisfactory proof of the impracticability of the whole teaching.
Meanwhile one would have thought it was necessary to point out at least some kind of solution of the following question, since it is at the root of almost everything that interests us.
The question amounts to this: In what way are we to decide men's disputes, when some men consider evil what others consider good, and vice versa? And to reply that that is evil which I think evil, in spite of the fact that my opponent thinks it good, is not a solution of the difficulty. There can only be two solutions: either to find a real unquestionable criterion of what is evil or not to resist evil by force.
The first course has been tried ever since the beginning of historical times, and, as we all know, it has not hitherto led to any successful results.
The second solution – not forcibly to resist what we consider evil until we have found a universal criterion – that is the solution given by Christ.
We may consider the answer given by Christ unsatisfactory; we may replace it by another and better, by finding a criterion by which evil could be defined for all men unanimously and simultaneously; we may simply, like savage nations, not recognize the existence of the question. But we cannot treat the question as the learned critics of Christianity do. They pretend either that no such question exists at all or that the question is solved by granting to certain persons or assemblies of persons the right to define evil and to resist it by force. But we know all the while that granting such a right to certain persons does not decide the question (still less so when we are ourselves the certain persons), since there are always people who do not recognize this right in the authorized persons or assemblies.
But this assumption, that what seems evil to us is really evil, shows a complete misunderstanding of the question, and lies at the root of the argument of freethinking critics about the Christian religion. In this way, then, the discussions of my book on the part of Churchmen and freethinking critics alike showed me that the majority of men simply do not understand either Christ's teaching or the questions which Christ's teaching solves.
Meaning of Christian Doctrine, Understood by a Minority, has Become Completely Incomprehensible for the Majority of Men – Reason of this to be Found in Misinterpretation of Christianity and Mistaken Conviction of Believers and Unbelievers Alike that they Understand it – The Meaning of Christianity Obscured for Believers by the Church – The First Appearance of Christ's Teaching – Its Essence and Difference from Heathen Religions – Christianity not Fully Comprehended at the Beginning, Became More and More Clear to those who Accepted it from its Correspondence with Truth – Simultaneously with this Arose the Claim to Possession of the Authentic Meaning of the Doctrine Based on the Miraculous Nature of its Transmission – Assembly of Disciples as Described in the Acts – The Authoritative Claim to the Sole Possession of the True Meaning of Christ's Teaching Supported by Miraculous Evidence has Led by Logical Development to the Creeds of the Churches – A Church Could Not be Founded by Christ – Definitions of a Church According to the Catechisms – The Churches have Always been Several in Number and Hostile to One Another – What is Heresy – The Work of G. Arnold on Heresies – Heresies the Manifestations of Progress in the Churches – Churches Cause Dissension among Men, and are Always Hostile to Christianity – Account of the Work Done by the Russian Church – Matt. xxiii. 23 – The Sermon on the Mount or the Creed – The Orthodox Church Conceals from the People the True Meaning of Christianity – The Same Thing is Done by the Other Churches – All the External Conditions of Modern Life are such as to Destroy the Doctrine of the Church, and therefore the Churches use Every Effort to Support their Doctrines.
Thus the information I received, after my book came out, went to show that the Christian doctrine, in its direct and simple sense, was understood, and had always been understood, by a minority of men, while the critics, ecclesiastical and freethinking alike, denied the possibility of taking Christ's teaching in its direct sense. All this convinced me that while on one hand the true understanding of this doctrine had never been lost to a minority, but had been established more and more clearly, on the other hand the meaning of it had been more and more obscured for the majority. So that at last such a depth of obscurity has been reached that men do not take in their direct sense even the simplest precepts, expressed in the simplest words, in the Gospel.
Christ's teaching is not generally understood in its true, simple, and direct sense even in these days, when the light of the Gospel has penetrated even to the darkest recesses of human consciousness; when, in the words of Christ, that which was spoken in the ear is proclaimed from the housetops; and when the Gospel is influencing every side of human life – domestic, economic, civic, legislative, and international. This lack of true understanding of Christ's words at such a time would be inexplicable, if there were not causes to account for it.
One of these causes is the fact that believers and unbelievers alike are firmly persuaded that they have understood Christ's teaching a long time, and that they understand it so fully, indubitably, and conclusively that it can have no other significance than the one they attribute to it. And the reason of this conviction is that the false interpretation and consequent misapprehension of the Gospel is an error of such long standing. Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup which is already full.
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.
The Christian doctrine is presented to the men of our world to-day as a doctrine which everyone has known so long and accepted so unhesitatingly in all its minutest details that it cannot be understood in any other way than it is understood now.
Christianity is understood now by all who profess the doctrines of the Church as a supernatural miraculous revelation of everything which is repeated in the Creed. By unbelievers it is regarded as an illustration of man's craving for a belief in the supernatural, which mankind has now outgrown, as an historical phenomenon which has received full expression in Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, and has no longer any living significance for us. The significance of the Gospel is hidden from believers by the Church, from unbelievers by Science.
I will speak first of the former. Eighteen hundred years ago there appeared in the midst of the heathen Roman world a strange new doctrine, unlike any of the old religions, and attributed to a man, Christ.
This new doctrine was in both form and content absolutely new to the Jewish world in which it originated, and still more to the Roman world in which it was preached and diffused.
In the midst of the elaborate religious observances of Judaism, in which, in the words of Isaiah, law was laid upon law, and in the midst of the Roman legal system worked out to the highest point of perfection, a new doctrine appeared, which denied not only every deity, and all fear and worship of them, but even all human institutions and all necessity for them. In place of all the rules of the old religions, this doctrine sets up only a type of inward perfection, truth, and love in the person of Christ, and – as a result of this inward perfection being attained by men – also the outward perfection foretold by the Prophets – the kingdom of God, when all men will cease to learn to make war, when all shall be taught of God and united in love, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. Instead of the threats of punishment which all the old laws of religions and governments alike laid down for non-fulfillment of their rules, instead of promises of rewards for fulfillment of them, this doctrine called men to it only because it was the truth. John vii. 17: "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." John viii. 46: "If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? But ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Keep my sayings, and ye shall know of my sayings whether they be true." No proofs of this doctrine were offered except its truth, the correspondence of the doctrine with the truth. The whole teaching consisted in the recognition of truth and following it, in a greater and greater attainment of truth, and a closer and closer following of it in the acts of life. There are no acts in this doctrine which could justify a man and make him saved. There is only the image of truth to guide him, for inward perfection in the person of Christ, and for outward perfection in the establishment of the kingdom of God. The fulfillment of this teaching consists only in walking in the chosen way, in getting nearer to inward perfection in the imitation of Christ, and outward perfection in the establishment of the kingdom of God. The greater or less blessedness of a man depends, according to this doctrine, not on the degree of perfection to which he has attained, but on the greater or less swiftness with which he is pursuing it.
The progress toward perfection of the publican Zaccheus, of the woman that was a sinner, of the robber on the cross, is a greater state of blessedness, according to this doctrine, than the stationary righteousness of the Pharisee. The lost sheep is dearer than ninety-nine that were not lost. The prodigal son, the piece of money that was lost and found again, are dearer, more precious to God than those which have not been lost.
Every condition, according to this doctrine, is only a particular step in the attainment of inward and outward perfection, and therefore has no significance of itself. Blessedness consists in progress toward perfection; to stand still in any condition whatever means the cessation of this blessedness.
"Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." "No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God." "Rejoice not that the spirits are subject to you, but seek rather that your names be written in heaven." "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." "Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness."
The fulfillment of this precept is only to be found in uninterrupted progress toward the attainment of ever higher truth, toward establishing more and more firmly an ever greater love within oneself, and establishing more and more widely the kingdom of God outside oneself.
It is obvious that, appearing as it did in the midst of the Jewish and heathen world, such teaching could not be accepted by the majority of men, who were living a life absolutely different from what was required by it. It is obvious, too, that even for those by whom it was accepted, it was so absolutely opposed to all their old views that it could not be comprehensible in its full significance.
It has been only by a succession of misunderstandings, errors, partial explanations, and the corrections and additions of generations that the meaning of the Christian doctrine has grown continually more and more clear to men. The Christian view of life has exerted an influence on the Jewish and heathen, and the heathen and Jewish view of life has, too, exerted an influence on the Christian. And Christianity, as the living force, has gained more and more upon the extinct Judaism and heathenism, and has grown continually clearer and clearer, as it freed itself from the admixture of falsehood which had overlaid it. Men went further and further in the attainment of the meaning of Christianity, and realized it more and more in life.
The longer mankind lived, the clearer and clearer became the meaning of Christianity, as must always be the case with every theory of life.
Succeeding generations corrected the errors of their predecessors, and grew ever nearer and nearer to a comprehension of the true meaning. It was thus from the very earliest times of Christianity. And so, too, from the earliest times of Christianity there were men who began to assert on their own authority that the meaning they attribute to the doctrine is the only true one, and as proof bring forward supernatural occurrences in support of the correctness of their interpretation.
This was the principal cause at first of the misunderstanding of the doctrine, and afterward of the complete distortion of it.
It was supposed that Christ's teaching was transmitted to men not like every other truth, but in a special miraculous way. Thus the truth of the teaching was not proved by its correspondence with the needs of the mind and the whole nature of man, but by the miraculous manner of its transmission, which was advanced as an irrefutable proof of the truth of the interpretation put on it. This hypothesis originated from misunderstanding of the teaching, and its result was to make it impossible to understand it rightly.
And this happened first in the earliest times, when the doctrine was still not so fully understood and often interpreted wrongly, as we see by the Gospels and the Acts. The less the doctrine was understood, the more obscure it appeared and the more necessary were external proofs of its truth. The proposition that we ought not to do unto others as we would not they should do unto us, did not need to be proved by miracles and needed no exercise of faith, because this proposition is in itself convincing and in harmony with man's mind and nature; but the proposition that Christ was God had to be proved by miracles completely beyond our comprehension.
The more the understanding of Christ's teaching was obscured, the more the miraculous was introduced into it; and the more the miraculous was introduced into it, the more the doctrine was strained from its meaning and the more obscure it became; and the more it was strained from its meaning and the more obscure it became, the more strongly its infallibility had to be asserted, and the less comprehensible the doctrine became.
One can see by the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles how from the earliest times the non-comprehension of the doctrine called forth the need for proofs through the miraculous and incomprehensible.
The first example in the book of Acts is the assembly which gathered together in Jerusalem to decide the question which had arisen, whether to baptize or not the uncircumcised and those who had eaten of food sacrificed to idols.
The very fact of this question being raised showed that those who discussed it did not understand the teaching of Christ, who rejected all outward observances – ablutions, purifications, fasts, and sabbaths. It was plainly said, "Not that which goeth into a man's mouth, but that which cometh out of a man's mouth, defileth him," and therefore the question of baptizing the uncircumcised could only have arisen among men who, though they loved their Master and dimly felt the grandeur of his teaching, still did not understand the teaching itself very clearly. And this was the fact.
Just in proportion to the failure of the members of the assembly to understand the doctrine was their need of external confirmation of their incomplete interpretation of it. And then to settle this question, the very asking of which proved their misunderstanding of the doctrine, there was uttered in this assembly, as is described in the Acts, that strange phrase, which was for the first time found necessary to give external confirmation to certain assertions, and which has been productive of so much evil.
That is, it was asserted that the correctness of what they had decided was guaranteed by the miraculous participation of the Holy Ghost, that is, of God, in their decision. But the assertion that the Holy Ghost, that is, God, spoke through the Apostles, in its turn wanted proof. And thus it was necessary, to confirm this, that the Holy Ghost should descend at Pentecost in tongues of fire upon those who made this assertion. (In the account of it, the descent of the Holy Ghost precedes the assembly, but the book of Acts was written much later than both events.) But the descent of the Holy Ghost too had to be proved for those who had not seen the tongues of fire (though it is not easy to understand why a tongue of fire burning above a man's head should prove that what that man is going to say will be infallibly the truth). And so arose the necessity for still more miracles and changes, raisings of the dead to life, and strikings of the living dead, and all those marvels which have been a stumbling-block to men, of which the Acts is full, and which, far from ever convincing one of the truth of the Christian doctrine, can only repel men from it. The result of such a means of confirming the truth was that the more these confirmations of truth by tales of miracles were heaped up one after another, the more the doctrine was distorted from its original meaning, and the more incomprehensible it became.
Thus it was from the earliest times, and so it went on, constantly increasing, till it reached in our day the logical climax of the dogmas of transubstantiation and the infallibility of the Pope, or of the bishops, or of Scripture, and of requiring a blind faith rendered incomprehensible and utterly meaningless, not in God, but in Christ, not in a doctrine, but in a person, as in Catholicism, or in persons, as in Greek Orthodoxy, or in a book, as in Protestantism. The more widely Christianity was diffused, and the greater the number of people unprepared for it who were brought under its sway, the less it was understood, the more absolutely was its infallibility insisted on, and the less possible it became to understand the true meaning of the doctrine. In the times of Constantine the whole interpretation of the doctrine had been already reduced to a résumé– supported by the temporal authority – of the disputes that had taken place in the Council – to a creed which reckoned off – I believe in so and so, and so and so, and so and so to the end – to one holy, Apostolic Church, which means the infallibility of those persons who call themselves the Church. So that it all amounts to a man no longer believing in God nor Christ, as they are revealed to him, but believing in what the Church orders him to believe in.
But the Church is holy; the Church was founded by Christ. God could not leave men to interpret his teaching at random – therefore he founded the Church. All those statements are so utterly untrue and unfounded that one is ashamed to refute them. Nowhere nor in anything, except in the assertion of the Church, can we find that God or Christ founded anything like what Churchmen understand by the Church. In the Gospels there is a warning against the Church, as it is an external authority, a warning most clear and obvious in the passage where it is said that Christ's followers should "call no man master." But nowhere is anything said of the foundation of what Churchmen call the Church.
The word church is used twice in the Gospels – once in the sense of an assembly of men to decide a dispute, the other time in connection with the obscure utterance about a stone – Peter, and the gates of hell. From these two passages in which the word church is used, in the signification merely of an assembly, has been deduced all that we now understand by the Church.
But Christ could not have founded the Church, that is, what we now understand by that word. For nothing like the idea of the Church as we know it now, with its sacraments, miracles, and above all its claim to infallibility, is to be found either in Christ's words or in the ideas of the men of that time.
The fact that men called what was formed afterward by the same word as Christ used for something totally different, does not give them the right to assert that Christ founded the one, true Church.
Besides, if Christ had really founded such an institution as the Church for the foundation of all his teaching and the whole faith, he would certainly have described this institution clearly and definitely, and would have given the only true Church, besides tales of miracles, which are used to support every kind of superstition, some tokens so unmistakable that no doubt of its genuineness could ever have arisen. But nothing of the sort was done by him. And there have been and still are different institutions, each calling itself the true Church.
The Catholic catechism says: "L'Église est la société des fidéles établie par notre Seigneur Jésus Christ, répandue sur toute la terre et soumise à l'authorité des pasteurs légitimes, principalement notre Saint Père le Pape,"2 understanding by the words "pasteurs légitimes" an association of men having the Pope at its head, and consisting of certain individuals bound together by a certain organization.
The Greek Orthodox catechism says: "The Church is a society founded upon earth by Jesus Christ, which is united into one whole, by one divine doctrine and by sacraments, under the rule and guidance of a priesthood appointed by God," meaning by the "priesthood appointed by God" the Greek Orthodox priesthood, consisting of certain individuals who happen to be in such or such positions.
The Lutheran catechism says: "The Church is holy Christianity, or the collection of all believers under Christ, their head, to whom the Holy Ghost through the Gospels and sacraments promises, communicates, and administers heavenly salvation," meaning that the Catholic Church is lost in error, and that the true means of salvation is in Lutheranism.
For Catholics the Church of God coincides with the Roman priesthood and the Pope. For the Greek Orthodox believer the Church of God coincides with the establishment and priesthood of Russia.3
For Lutherans the Church of God coincides with a body of men who recognize the authority of the Bible and Luther's catechism.
Ordinarily, when speaking of the rise of Christianity, men belonging to one of the existing churches use the word church in the singular, as though there were and had been only one church. But this is absolutely incorrect. The Church, as an institution which asserted that it possessed infallible truth, did not make its appearance singly; there were at least two churches directly this claim was made.
While believers were agreed among themselves and the body was one, it had no need to declare itself as a church. It was only when believers were split up into opposing parties, renouncing one another, that it seemed necessary to each party to confirm their own truth by ascribing to themselves infallibility. The conception of one church only arose when there were two sides divided and disputing, who each called the other side heresy, and recognized their own side only as the infallible church.
If we knew that there was a church which decided in the year 51 to receive the uncircumcised, it is only so because there was another church – of the Judaists – who decided to keep the uncircumcised out.
If there is a Catholic Church now which asserts its own infallibility, that is only because there are churches – Greco-Russian, Old Orthodox, and Lutheran – each asserting its own infallibility and denying that of all other churches. So that the one Church is only a fantastic imagination which has not the least trace of reality about it.
As a real historical fact there has existed, and still exist, several bodies of men, each asserting that it is the one Church, founded by Christ, and that all the others who call themselves churches are only sects and heresies.
The catechisms of the churches of the most world-wide influence – the Catholic, the Old Orthodox, and the Lutheran – openly assert this.
In the Catholic catechism it is said: "Quels sont ceux qui sont hors de l'église? Les infidèles, les hérétiques, les schismatiques."4 The so-called Greek Orthodox are regarded as schismatics, the Lutherans as heretics; so that according to the Catholic catechism the only people in the Church are Catholics.
In the so-called Orthodox catechism it is said: By the one Christian Church is understood the Orthodox, which remains fully in accord with the Universal Church. As for the Roman Church and other sects (the Lutherans and the rest they do not even dignify by the name of church), they cannot be included in the one true Church, since they have themselves separated from it.
According to this definition the Catholics and Lutherans are outside the Church, and there are only Orthodox in the Church.
The Lutheran catechism says: "Die wahre Kirche wird darein erkannt, dass in ihr das Wort Gottes lauter und rein ohne Menschenzusätze gelehrt und die Sacramente treu nach Christi Einsetzung gewahret werden."5
According to this definition all those who have added anything to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, as the Catholic and Greek churches have done, are outside the Church. And in the Church there are only Protestants.
The Catholics assert that the Holy Ghost has been transmitted without a break in their priesthood. The Orthodox assert that the same Holy Ghost has been transmitted without a break in their priesthood. The Arians asserted that the Holy Ghost was transmitted in their priesthood (they asserted this with just as much right as the churches in authority now). The Protestants of every kind – Lutherans, Reformed Church, Presbyterians, Methodists, Swedenborgians, Mormons – assert that the Holy Ghost is only present in their communities. If the Catholics assert that the Holy Ghost, at the time of the division of the Church into Arian and Greek, left the Church that fell away and remained in the one true Church, with precisely the same right the Protestants of every denomination can assert that at the time of the separation of their Church from the Catholic the Holy Ghost left the Catholic and passed into the Church they professed. And this is just what they do.
Every church traces its creed through an uninterrupted transmission from Christ and the Apostles. And truly every Christian creed that has been derived from Christ must have come down to the present generation through a certain transmission. But that does not prove that it alone of all that has been transmitted, excluding all the rest, can be the sole truth, admitting of no doubt.