You're here: oChristian.com » Articles Home » Horace Bushnell » The Character of Jesus » Part 3

The Character of Jesus: Part 3

By Horace Bushnell


      At the same time, he never reveals the infirmity so commonly shown by human teachers, when they veer a little from their point, or turn their doctrine off by shades of variation, to catch the assent of multitudes He never conforms to an expectation, even of his friends. When they look to find a great prophet in him, he offers nothing in the modes of the prophets. When they ask for places of distinction in his kingdom, he rebukes their folly, and tells them he has nothing to give, but a share in his reproaches and his poverty. When they look to see him take the sword as the Great Messiah 'of their nation, causing the people to his standard, he tells them he is no warrior and no king, but only a messenger of love to lost men; one that has come to minister and die, but not to set up or restore the kingdom. Every expectation that rises up to greet him, is repulsed; and yet, so great is the power of his manner, that multitudes are held fast, and can not yield their confidence. Enveloped as he is in the darkest mystery, they trust him still; going after him, hanging on his words, as if detained by some charmed influence, which they can not shake off or resist. Never was there a teacher that so uniformly baffled every expectation of his followers, never one that was followed so persistently.

      Again, the singular balance of character displayed in the teachings of Jesus, indicates an exemption from the standing infirmity of human nature. Human opinions are formed under a law that seems to be universal. First, two opposite extremes are thrown up, in two opposite leaders or parties; then a third party enters, trying to find what truth they both are endeavoring to vindicate, and settle thus a view of the subject, that includes the truth and clears the one-sided extremes, which opposing words or figures, not yet measured in their force, had produced. It results, in this manner, that no man, even the broadest in his apprehensions, is ever at the point of equilibrium as regards all subjects. Even the ripest of us are continually failing into some extreme, and losing our balance, afterward to be corrected by some other who discovers our error, or that of our school

      But Christ was of no school or party, and never went to any extreme--words could never turn him to a one-sided view of any thing. This is the remarkable fact that distinguishes him from any other known teacher of the world. Having nothing to work out in a word-process, but every thing clear in the simple intuition of his superhuman intelligence, he never pushes himself to any human eccentricity. It does not even appear that he is trying, as we do, to balance opposites and clear extravagances, but he does it, as one who can not imagine a one-sided view of any thing. He is never a radical, never a conservative. He will not allow his disciples to deny him before kings and governments, he will not let them renounce their allegiance to Caesar. He exposes the oppressions of the Pharisees in Moses' seat, but, encouraging no factious resistance, says--" do as they command you." His position as a reformer was universal; according to his principles almost nothing, whether in church or state, or in social life, was right., and yet he is thrown into no antagonism against the world. How a man will do, when he engages only in some one reform, acting from his own human force; the fuming, storming phrenzy, the holy rage and tragic smoke of 'his violence, how he kindles against opposition, grows bitter and restive because of delay, and finally comes to maturity in a character thoroughly detestable--all this we know. But Christ, with all the world upon his hands, and a reform to be carried in almost every thing, is yet as quiet and cordial, and as little in the attitude of bitterness or impatience, as if all hearts were with him, or the work already done; so perfect is the balance of his feeling, so intuitively moderated is it by a wisdom not human.

      We can not stay to sketch a full outline of this particular and sublime excellence, as it was displayed in his life. It will be seen as clearly in a single comparison or contrast, as in many, or in a more extended inquiry. Take, then, for an example, what may be observed in his open repugnance to all superstition, combined with his equal repugnance to what is commonly praised as a mode of liberality. He lived in a superstitious age and among a superstitious people. He was a person of low education, and nothing, as we know, clings to the uneducated mind with the tenacity of a superstition. Lord Bacon, for example, a man certainly of the very highest intellectual training, was yet harmed by superstitions too childish to be named with respect, and which clung to him despite of all his philosophy, even to his death. But Christ, with no learned culture at all, comes forth out of Galilee, as perfectly clean of all the superstitions of his time, as if he had been a disciple, from his childhood, of Hume or Strauss. "You children of superstition think," he says, "that those Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, and those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, must have been monsters, to suffer such things. I tell you, nay; but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." To another company he says--" You imagine, in your Pharisaic and legal morality, that the Sabbath of Moses stands in the letter; but I tell you that the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath; little honor, therefore, do you pay to God, when you teach that it is not lawful to do good on this day. Your washings are a great point, you tithe herbs and seeds with a sanctimonious fidelity, would it not be as well for you teachers of the law, to have some respect to the weightier matters of justice, faith, and benevolence?" Thus, while Socrates, one of the greatest and purest of human souls, a man who has attained to many worthy conceptions of God, hidden from his idolatrous countrymen, is constrained to sacrifice a cock to Esculapius, the uneducated Jesus lives and dies superior to every superstition of his time; believing nothing because it is believed, respecting nothing because it is sane-tilled by custom and by human observance. Even in the closing scene of his life, we see his learned and priestly associates refusing to go into the judgment-hall of Caiaphas, lest they should be ceremonially defiled and disqualified for the feast; though detained by no scruple at all as regards the instigation of a murder! While he, on the other hand, pitying their delusions, prays for them from his cross--" Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

      And yet Christ is no liberal, never takes the ground or boasts the distinction of a liberal among his countrymen, because it is not a part of his infirmity, in discovering an error here, to fly to an excess there. His ground is charity, not liberality; and the two are as wide apart in their practical implications, as adhering to all truth, and being loose in all. Charity holds fast the minutest atoms of truth, as being precious and divine, offended by even so much as a thought of laxity. Liberality loosens the terms of truth; permitting easily and with careless magnanimity variations from it; consenting, as it were, in its own sovereignty, to overlook or allow them; and subsiding thus, ere long, into a licentious indifference to all truth, and a general defect of responsibility in regard to it. Charity extends allowance to men liberality, to falsities themselves. Charity takes the truth to be sacred and immovable; liberality allows it to be marred and maimed at pleasure. How different the manner of Jesus in this respect from that unreverent, feeble laxity, that lets the errors be as good as the truths, and takes it for a sign of intellectual eminence, that one can be floated comfortably in the abysses of liberalism. "Judge not," he says, in holy charity, "that ye be not judged"; and again, in holy exactness, "whosoever shall break, or teach to break, one of these least commandments shall be least in the kingdom of God "--in the same way, "he that is not with us is against us "; and again, "he that is not against us is for us "--in the same way also, "ye tithe mint, anise, and cummin "; and again, "these things ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone "--once more, too, in the same way, "he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone "; and again, "go, and sin no more." So magnificent and sublime, so plainly divine, is the balance of Jesus. Nothing throws him off the center on which truth rests; no prejudice, no opposition, no attempt to right a mistake, or rectify a delusion, or reform a practice. If this be human, I do not know, for one, what it is to be human.

      Again, it is a remarkable and even superhuman distinction of Jesus, that, while he is advancing doctrines so far transcending all deductions of philosophy, and opening mysteries that defy all human powers of explication, he is yet able to set his teachings in a form of simplicity, that accommodates all classes of minds. And this, for the reason that he speaks directly to men's convictions themselves, without and apart from any learned and curious elaboration, such as the uncultivated can not follow. No one of the great writers of antiquity had even propounded, as yet, a doctrine of virtue which the multitude could understand. It was taught as being   [the fair], or [the becoming], or something of that nature, as distant from all their apprehensions, and as destitute of motive power, as if it were a doctrine of mineralogy. Considered as a gift to the world at large, it was the gift of a stone, not of bread. But Jesus tells them directly, in a manner level to their understanding, what they want, what they must do and be, to inherit eternal life, and their inmost convictions answer to his words. Besides, his doctrine is not so much a doctrine as a biography, a personal power, a truth all motivity, a love walking the earth in the proximity of a mortal fellowship. He only speaks what goes forth as a feeling and a power in his life, breathing into all hearts. To be capable of his doctrine, only requires that the hearer be a human creature, wanting to know the truth.

      Call him, then, who will, a man, a human teacher; what human teacher ever came down thus upon the soul of the race, as a beam of light from the skies-- pure light, shining directly into the visual orb of the mind, a light for all that live, a full transparent day, in which truth bathes the spirit as an element. Others talk and speculate about truth, and those who can may follow; but Jesus is the truth, and lives it, and if he is a mere human teacher, he is the first who was ever able to find a form for truth, at all adequate to the world's uses. And yet the truths he teaches outreach all the doctrines of all the philosophers of the world. He excels them a hundred-fold more, in the scope and grandeur of his doctrine, than he does in his simplicity itself.

      Is this human, or is it plainly divine? If you will see what is human, or what the wisdom of humanity would ordain, it is this--exactly what the subtle and accomplished Celsus, the great adversary of Christianity in its original promulgation, alleges for one of his principal arguments against it. "Woollen manufacturers," he says, "shoemakers and curriers, the most uneducated and boorish of men are zealous advocates of this religion; men who can not open their mouths before the learned, and who only try to gain over the women and children in families." (1) And again, what is only the same objection, under a different form, assuming that religion, like a philosophy, must be for the learned, he says, "He must be void of understanding who can believe that Greeks and barbarians, in Asia, Europe, and Lybia--all nations to the ends of the earth--can unite in one and the same religious doctrine." (2) So also, Plato says, "it is not easy to find the Father and Creator of all existence, and when he is found it is impossible to make him known to all."(3) "But exactly this," says Justin Martyr, "is what our Christ has effected by his power." And Tertullian, also, glorying in the simplicity of the gospel, as already proved to be a truly divine excellence, says, "Every Christian artisan has found God, and points him out to thee, and in fact, shows thee every thing which is sought for in God, although Plato maintains that the Creator of the world is not easily found, and that, when he is found, he can not be made known to all." (4) Here, then, we have Christ against Celsus, and Christ against Plato. These agree in assuming that we have a God, whom only the great can mount high enough in argument to know. Christ reveals a God whom the humblest artisan can teach, and all mankind embrace, with a faith that unifies them all.

      Again, the morality of Jesus has a practical superiority to that of all human teachers, in the fact that it is not an artistic, or theoretically elaborated scheme, but one that is propounded in precepts that carry their own evidence, and are, in fact, great spiritual laws ordained by God, in the throne of religion. He did not draw long arguments to settle what thesummum bonum is, and then produce a scheme of ethics to correspond. He did not go into the vexed question, what is the foundation of virtue? and hang a system upon his answer. Nothing falls into an artistic shape, as when Plato or Socrates asked what kind of action is beautiful in action? reducing the principles of morality to a form as difficult for the uncultivated, as the art of sculpture itself. Yet Christ excels them all in the beauty of his precepts, without once appearing to consider their beauty. He simply comes forth telling us, from God, what to do, without deducing any thing in a critical way; and yet, while nothing has ever yet been settled by the critics and theorizing philosophers, that could stand fast and compel the assent of the race, even for a year, the morality of Christ is about as firmly seated in the convictions of men, as the law of gravity in their bodies.

      He comes into the world full of all moral beauty, as God of physical; and as God was not obliged to set himself to a course of aesthetic study, when he created the forms and landscapes of the world, so Christ comes to his rules, by no critical practice in words. He opens his lips, and the creative glory of his mind pours itself forth in living precepts--Do to others as ye-would that others should do to you--Blessed are the peacemakers--Smitten upon one cheek, turn the other--Resist not evil--Forgive your enemies--Do good to them that hate you--Lend not, hoping to receive--Receive the truth as little children. Omitting all the deep spiritual doctrines he taught, and taking all the human teachers on their own ground, the ground of perceptive morality, they are seen at once to be meager and cold; little artistic inventions, gleams of high conceptions caught by study, having about the same relation to the Christian morality that a statue has to the flexibility, the self-active force, and flushing warmth of man, as he goes forth in the image of his Creator, to be the reflection of His beauty and the living instrument of his will. Indeed, it is the very distinction of Jesus that he teaches, not a verbal, but an original, vital, and divine morality. He does not dress up a moral picture and ask you to observe its beauty, he only tells you how to live; and the most beautiful characters the world has ever seen, have been those who received and lived his precepts without once conceiving their beauty.

      Once more, it is a high distinction of Christ's character, as seen in his teachings, that he is never anxious for the success of his doctrine. Fully conscious of the fact that the world is against him, scoffed at, despised, hated, alone too, in his cause, and without partisans that have any public influence, no man has ever been able to detect in him the least anxiety for the final success of his doctrine. He is never jealous of contradiction. When his friends display their dulness and incapacity, or even when they forsake him, he is never ruffled or disturbed. He rests on his words, with a composure as majestic as if he were sitting on the circle of the heavens. Now the consciousness of truth, we are not about to deny, has an effect of this nature in every truly great mind. But when it has had an effect so complete? What human teacher, what great philosopher, has not shown some traces of anxiety for his school, that indicated his weakness; some pride in his friends, some dislike of his enemies, some traces of wounded ambition, when disputed or denied? But here is a lone man, a humble, uneducated man, never schooled into the elegant fiction of an assumed composure, or practised in the conventional dignities of manners, and yet, finding all the world against him, the world does not rest on its axle more firmly than he upon his doctrine. Questioned by Pilate what he means by truth, it is enough to answer--" He that is of the truth heareth my voice." If this be human, no other man of the race, we are sure, has ever dignified humanity by a like example

      Such is Christ as a teacher. When has the world seen a phenomenon like this; a lonely uninstructed youth, coming forth amid the moral darkness of Galilee, even more distinct from his age, and from every thing around him, than a Plato would be rising up alone in some wild tribe in Oregon, assuming thus a position at the head of the world, and maintaining it, for eighteen centuries, by the pure self-evidence of his life and doctrine! Does he this by the force of mere human talent or genius? If so, it is time that we begin to look to genius for miracles; for there is really no greater miracle.

      There is yet one other and more inclusive distinction of the character of Jesus, which must not be omitted, and which sets him off more widely from all the mere men of the race, just because it raises a contrast which is, at once, total and experimental. Human characters are always reduced in their eminence, and the impressions of awe they have raised, by a closer and more complete acquaintance. Weakness and blemish are discovered by familiarity; admiration lets in qualifiers; on approach, the halo dims a little. But it was not so with Christ. With his disciples, in closest terms of intercourse, for three whole years; their brother, friend, teacher, monitor, guest, fellow-traveler; seen by them under all the conditions of public ministry, and private society, where the ambition of show, or the pride of power, or the ill-nature provoked by annoyance, or the vanity drawn out by confidence, would most certainly be reducing him to the criticism even of persons most unsophisticated, he is yet visibly raising their sense of his degree and quality; becoming a greater wonder and holier mystery, and gathering to his person feelings of reverence and awe, at once more general and more sacred. Familiarity operates a kind of apotheosis, and the man becomes divinity, in simply being known.

      At first, he is the Son of Mary and the Nazarene carpenter. Next, he is heard speaking with authority, as contrasted even with the Scribes. Next, he is conceived by some to be certainly Elias, or some one of the prophets, returned in power to the world. Peter takes him up, at that point, as being certainly the Christ, the great mysterious Messiah; only not so great that he is not able to reprove him, when he begins to talk of being killed by his enemies; pro-. testing "be it far from thee, Lord." But the next we see of the once bold apostle, he is beckoning to another, at the table, to whisper the Lord and ask who it is that is going to betray him; unable himself to so much as invade the sacred ear of his Master with the audible and open question. Then, shortly after, when he comes out of the hail of Caiaphas, flushed and flurried with his threefold lie, and his base hypocrisy of cursing, what do we see but that, simply catching the great Master's eye, his heart breaks down, riven with insupportable anguish, and is utterly dissolved in childish tears. And so it will be discovered in all the disciples, that Christ is more separated from them, and holds them in deeper awe, the closer he comes to them and the more perfectly they know him.

      The same, too, is true of his enemies. At first, they look on him only as some new fanatic, that has come to turn the heads of the people. Next, they want to know whence he drew his opinions, and his singular accomplishments in the matter of public address; not being, as all that knew him testify, an educated man. Next, they send out a company to arrest him, and, when they hear him speak, they are so deeply impressed that they dare not do it, but go back, under a kind of invincible awe, testifying-- "never man spake like this man." Afterward, to break some fancied spell there may be in him, they hire one of his own friends to betray him; and even then, when they come directly before him and hear him speak, they are in such tremor of apprehension, lest he should suddenly annihilate them, that they reel incontinently backward and are pitched on the ground. Pilate trembles visibly before him, and the more because of his silence and his wonderful submission. And then, when the fatal deed is done, what do we see but that the multitude, awed by some dread mystery in the person of the crucified, return home smiting on their breasts for anguish, in the sense of what their infatuated and guilty rage has done.

      NOTES:

      2) Neander's Memorials of Christian Life, p. 33.
      3) Timaeus.
      4) Neander's Memorials of Christian Life, p. 19.

Back to Horace Bushnell index.

See Also:
   Part 1
   Part 2
   Part 3
   Part 4
   Part 5

Loading

Like This Page?


© 1999-2016, oChristian.com. All rights reserved.