By Robert Anderson
THE exegetical system of "old-fashioned orthodoxy," "received by tradition from the Fathers," I once again repeat, leaves the Bible an easy prey to the sceptical attacks of the "Higher Criticism." In view of that movement, the defence of the Bible on the old lines is as hopeless as it would be to meet modern ordnance with the weapons which won the battle of Waterloo! If, for example, we persist in regarding the present Christian dispensation as the last aeon of God's dealings with mankind, and in ignoring Israel's place in the Divine counsels and purposes, the numerous eschatological passages in the Gospels and Epistles seem to be a tissue of wholly irreconcilable predictions. And an attempt to harmonize them serves only to bring their utter incongruity into stronger relief. And the clear and fearless thinker is thus tempted to jettison belief in the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures.
One of the saddest effects of this sceptical crusade is that, under its evil influence, the writings of Christian expositors are often as profane as those of avowed rationalists. Here, for example, is a sentence culled at random from the most recent Commentary of this school. Referring to the events predicted in Matthew 24:34, the writer says, "Jesus was quite certain that they would happen within the then living generation."1
To the Christian it is "quite certain" that the Lord Jesus was the Son of God, and that His words were the words of God -- words that shall never pass away. Just as a spiritually devout Roman Catholic may be a true believer in Christ, though clinging to belief in the Virgin Mary and the saints, so these "critics" may unfeignedly believe in the deity of Christ; but in freely acknowledging this, we pay homage, not to their intelligence, but to their piety.
A well-taught child could understand what seems to be hidden from the wise and prudent of this kenosis theology. For the study of God's recorded dealings with His people, from Eden to Pentecost, will teach us that no Divine promise of blessing is ever marred by words to indicate the Divine foreknowledge that it will be rejected. At the beginning of His ministry, therefore, the Lord proclaimed that His kingdom was at hand, albeit, in this twentieth century of the Christian era, His people are still praying that it may come. And so also when, at the close of His ministry, He warned His people of the events that "must first come," He still spoke of it as near at hand; for He had in view the Pentecostal amnesty so soon to be proclaimed.
The First Gospel does not contain a single word that is inconsistent with its scope and purpose in the Divine scheme of revelation, as a record of the Lord's mission and ministry as Israel's Messiah; and it will be studied by believing Israelites in days to come as if the present Christian dispensation had never intervened. And on account of their ignoring this, some Christians suppose that the world must be evangelized before the return of Christ. It is "the gospel of the kingdom" that the Lord specified in His words in that connection, and "the end" to which He pointed is that of the age which will be brought to a close by His coming as Son of Man. At a missionary meeting long ago, when Charles Simeon sat down after speaking on behalf of missions to the Jews, Edward Bickersteth, the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, put a pencilled note into his hand, with the question, "8,000,000 Jews, 800,000,000 heathen -- which is the more important?" To which Simeon promptly penciled the reply: "But what if the 8,000,000 Jews are to be 'life from the dead' to the 800,000,000 heathen?"
Although so plainly stated in Scripture, it is a forgotten truth that the full and final evangelization of the world awaits the restoration of Israel. And "the receiving" of Israel is necessarily deferred until after the coming of Christ to bring the present dispensation to a close. A forgotten truth, I call it, for in common with the "mystery" truths of the distinctively Christian revelation, it was lost in the interval between the Apostolic age and the era of the Patristic theologians. And our standard theology is so dominated by the writings of the Fathers that it is still unillumined by the light of the Evangelical Revival.
It may be remarked in passing that if the leaders in that revival had waited for the "Christian Church" to promote missions to the heathen, the heathen would possibly be still in midnight darkness. When, a few years before he sailed for India, William Carey rose in an assembly of Ministers of his own communion, to plead the cause he held so dear, he was peremptorily silenced as a troublesome fanatic. And the Church Missionary Society was the offspring of the despised and hated "Clapham Sect." The meeting at which it was founded was not held in either Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's, but in a small hired room in a poor sort of City inn. It was not till forty years afterwards that the ecclesiastical dignitaries accorded it their patronage.2
A brief recapitulation of the argument and contents of the preceding pages may fitly bring this final chapter to a close. If the sham "Higher Criticism" gains acceptance with Christians, it is certainly not because of the infidel element which permeates its teaching. Its success is due to prevalent ignorance of the distinctive truths of the Christian revelation. Redemption and forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, justification by faith, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment - these and other kindred truths are not Christian in any exclusive sense they are in the warp and woof of the Divine religion of Judaism. And we need not doubt that they pertained to the primeval revelation which preceded the call of Abraham. For one of the great purposes of that "call" was that the oracles of God, which men had corrupted, might be entrusted to the Covenant people.3
And although that people were often made subject to Gentile rule, first in the Servitudes, and again during all the centuries which followed the Babylonian conquest, yet, from Genesis to Malachi, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that they would ever lose their privileged position as the people of God. Their being "cast off" was a crisis unparalleled since the call of Abraham -- a crisis which, as we have seen, was a New Testament "mystery." And yet, in spite of the Apostle's warning, the exponents of Christendom religion are so "wise in their own conceits" that they not only regard the result as a matter of course, but in effect they accept the figment that God "has cast away His people whom He foreknew." But the intelligent Christian rejoices in the knowledge that "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance," and that Israel is yet to be restored to Divine favour, and to regain their normal place of privilege and testimony. And the "mysteries" of the Christian revelation are truths relating to the present abnormal economy of Israel's rejection.
No error is more common than that of supposing that the position from which the Jew has been dispossessed is now assigned to the Gentile. Gentiles, as such, whether professing Christians or pagan idolaters, share with Jews the common doom of sinful men. But "God has concluded them all under sin in order that He might have mercy upon all." For He to whom all judgment has been committed is now exalted as Saviour, and the Divine throne has thus become a throne of grace; "grace is reigning through righteousness unto eternal life."
But it is not merely as lost sinners that Jew and Gentile stand upon the same level. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ both are raised to the same heavenly glory, and the same relationship as members of His Body. As the reign of grace is the basal "mystery," so this is the crowning "mystery" of the Christian revelation.
We have seen, however, that these "mysteries" are wholly incompatible with the special position and peculiar privileges Divinely accorded to Israel by the Abrahamic covenant. And this being so, the restoration of that people, so plainly foretold in Scripture, involves as definite a change of dispensation, as that which ushered in the present economy. And thus we are prepared for another "mystery," namely the Coming of the Lord, which will bring this economy to a close; and which, by calling His heavenly people home to heaven, will clear the way for the restoration of His earthly people to their normal position under the covenant. The "mystery" of the Coming is indeed a forgotten truth. And yet, apart from its influence on Christian life and character, no truth is more important in our defence of Scripture against the "learned ignorance" of the "Higher Criticism." For it is the pivotal truth of New Testament eschatology; and in the light of it -- to change the figure -- we can find perfect harmony in the teaching of the Gospels and Epistles on the subject of the Advent, where the sceptics see nothing but confusion. And lastly, the truth of the judgment-seat of Christ has received prominence in these pages. Even if Scripture were silent on this subject, a true spiritual instinct might teach a Christian to refuse the belief, which indeed the light of nature would lead us to reject, that when "we pass within the veil" all memories of earth will be effaced, and that as regards our future it is a matter of no practical importance whether we are faithful or unfaithful to the Lord. A revolt against such a false belief has betrayed very many into letting slip the truth that eternal life is a gift assured by Divine grace to all who come to Christ.
Others fall back upon the old heresy of a purgatory of some kind; though with pharasaical blindness they assume that the better sort of Christian will escape the fiery discipline. Others again, ignoring the "mysteries" both of grace and of the Coming, would have us believe that, although 1 Corinthians 15:51 assures us that at the Coming of the Lord we shall ALL be changed and called to heaven, those who have failed to attain some undefined standard of saintship will be punished by being left behind to await a later resurrection. And the newest and strangest theory of this class is that erring Christians, though destined to enjoy an eternity of heavenly glory, are to be denied a share in the millennial kingdom upon the earth.4 But in marked contrast with all such vagaries of exegesis, the teaching of Scripture is clear. We are saved by grace through faith, and that (salvation) is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8, 9) And for the elect of this dispensation, salvation includes the resurrection and the glory. In this respect, therefore, the least worthy stands upon the same level with the most worthy of His people. But the judgment-seat of Christ will deal with every question which these human expedients are designed to solve.
In words as profoundly true as they are simple, the Westminster Divines have taught us that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever." And this end will be realized when the redeemed of earth shall stand in heavenly glory, the whole record of their past having been laid bare before Him who "died for their sins according to the Scriptures." And every attribute of God -- not merely His grace and love, but His holiness and righteousness -- will be so displayed and vindicated that the unfallen of heaven will unite with the redeemed of earth in ascriptions of eternal praise.
But the chief burden of these pages is the truth of the Lord's Coming. This subject is too often treated as a mere bypath of Christian doctrine. My aim has been to show that it is not merely the true hope of the Christian life, but that it is of such central importance in the New Testament revelation that ignorance or neglect of it leaves the Scriptures open to sceptical attack. And I have suggested that the seeming failure of the promise may be explained by the apostasy of Christendom, and the unfaithfulness of the people of God within the Professing Church. The great fact which claims our most earnest attention is that in Apostolic days the Christians were Divinely taught to look for the Lord's return as a present hope, and yet that it is still unfulfilled in this twentieth century of the Christian era. It is a fact which tries the faith of the believer, and supplies the sceptic with a plea for his unbelief.
It may be said, perhaps, that the Lord's promise that He would come "quickly" must be read in the light of the truth that with God "a thousand years are as one day." This I have already dealt with. And let us remember that these words are the complement of the other statement, "that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years." That is to say, time is not an element with Him in working out His purposes; and therefore all that these many centuries of the Christian era will bring of glory to Christ, and of blessing to us, might have been attained without this long delay. And this consideration should quiet the fears and solve the difficulties of any who think that a shortening of the Christian age would have clashed with the truth of the Body of Christ, and of our election to that position of glory. The promise of the Coming is identified with that very truth. And to say that, were it not for this two thousand years' delay, God could not have fulfilled all His purposes to usward, is a flagrant denial of the very truth upon which the above noticed objection is based.
These well-intentioned efforts to defend Divine truth by searching into the "unsearchable counsels" of God savour of Uzzah's fault in putting forth his hand to protect the ark.5 And in these days of eager thought and earnest scepticism, it is perilous in the extreme to suggest that when the Lord declared He would come quickly, He meant that He would come in two thousand years! If this be so, then let us treat the promise as a secret to be spoken of in whispers, and only when no unbelievers are within earshot. For it would lead the profane to rejoice; and many a reverent and earnest seeker after truth would be stumbled and repelled. "What should we think of a fellow-man (they might exclaim) who makes a plain statement in simple words which he knows will be accepted everywhere in their ordinary acceptation, while he is using them in a mystical sense that entirely destroys their meaning!"6
The only adequate answer to this taunt is a repudiation of the suggestion which gives rise to it.
And if, rejecting that suggestion, we fall back upon the alternative offered in the preceding pages, we can plead the teaching of Scripture, from Eden to Patmos, that whenever Divine purposes or words have seemed to fail, the failure has been due to human sin, and almost always to the sin or unfaithfulness of the people of God. And we may plead also that, if this alternative solution of the difficulty be erroneous, the error is not one that can give occasion to the unbeliever to cavil at the faithfulness or truth of our Lord and Saviour. Every other word, without exception, that comes from His Divine lips is received by us with simple and unquestioning faith; let us accord a like faith to the promise of His Coming.