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The Character of Jesus: Part 4

By Horace Bushnell


      The most conspicuous matter, therefore, in the history of Jesus, is, that what holds true, in all our experience of men, is inverted in him. He grows sacred, peculiar, wonderful, divine, as acquaintance reveals him. At first he is only a man, as the senses report him to be; knowledge, observation, familiarity, raise him into the God-man. He grows pure and perfect, more than mortal in wisdom, a being enveloped in sacred mystery, a friend to be loved in awe--dies into awe, and a sorrow that contains the element of worship! And exactly this appears in the history, without any token of art, or even apparent consciousness that it does appear--appears because it is true. Probably no one of the evangelists ever so much as noticed this remarkable inversion of what holds good respecting men, in the life and character of Jesus. Is this character human, or is it plainly divine?

      We have now sketched some of the principal distinctions of the superhuman character of Jesus. We have seen him unfolding as a flower, from the germ of a perfect youth: growing up to enter into great scenes and have his part in great trials; harmonious in all with himself and truth, a miracle of celestial beauty. He is a Lamb in innocence, a God in dignity; revealing an impenitent but faultless piety, such as no mortal ever attempted, such as, to the highest of mortals, is inherently impossible. He advances the most extravagant pretensions, without any show of conceit, or even seeming fault of modesty. He suffers without affectation of composure and without restraint of pride; suffers as no mortal sensibility can, and where, to mortal view, there was no reason for pain at all; giving us not only an example of gentleness and patience in all the small trials of life, but revealing the depths even of the passive virtues of God, in his agony and the patience of his suffering love. He undertakes also a plan, universal in extent, perpetual in time; viz., to unite all nations in a kingdom of righteousness under God; laying his foundations in the hearts of the poor, as no great teacher had ever done before, and yet without creating ever a faction, or stirring one partisan feeling in his followers. In his teachings he is perfectly original, distinct from his age and from all ages; never warped by the expectation of his friends; always in a balance of truth, swayed by no excesses, running to no oppositions or extremes; clear of all superstition, and equally clear of all liberalism; presenting the highest doctrines in the lowest and simplest forms; establishing a pure, universal morality, never before established; and, with all his intense devotion to the truth, never anxious, perceptibly, for the success of his doctrine. Finally, to sum up all in one, he grows more great and wise, and sacred, the more he is known--needs, in fact, to be known, to have his perfection seen. And this, we say, is Jesus, the Christ; manifestly not human, not of our world--some being who has burst into it, and is not of it. Call him for the present, that "Holy Thing," and say, "by this we believe that thou camest from God."

      Not to say that we are dissatisfied with this sketch, would be almost an irreverence of itself, to the subject of it. Who can satisfy himself with any thing that he can say of Jesus Christ? We have seen, how many pictures of the sacred person of Jesus, by the first masters; but not one, among them all, that did not rebuke the weakness which could dare attempt an impossible subject. So of the character of Jesus. It is necessary, for the holy interest of truth, that we should explore it, as we are best able; but what are human thoughts and human conceptions, on a subject that dwarfs all thought and immediately outgrows whatever is conceived. And yet, for the reason that we have failed, we seem also to have succeeded. For the more impossible it is found to be, to grasp the character and set it forth, the more clearly it is seen to be above our range--a miracle and a mystery.

      Two questions now remain, which our argument requires to he answered. And the first is this--did any such character, as this we have been tracing, actually exist? Admitting that the character, whether it be fact or fiction, is such as we have seen it to be, two suppositions are open; either that such a character actually lived, and was possible to be described, because it furnished the matter of the picture, itself; or else, that Jesus, being a merely human character as he lived, was adorned to set off in this manner, by the exaggerations of fancy, and fable, and wild tradition afterward. In the former alternative, we have the insuperable difficulty of believing, that any so perfect and glorious character was ever attained to by a mortal. If Christ was a merely natural man, then was he under all the conditions priva0tive, as regards the security of his virtue, that we have discovered in man. He was a new-created being, as such to be perfected in a character of steadfast holiness, only by the experiment of evil and redemption from it. We can believe any miracle, therefore, more easily than that Christ was a man, and yet a perfect character, such as here is given.

      In the latter alternative, we have four different writers, widely distinguished in their style and mental habit--inferior persons, all, as regards their accomplishments, and none of them remarkable for gifts of genius--contributing their parts, and coalescing thus in the representation of a character perfectly harmonious with itself, and, withal, a character whose ideal no poet had been able to create, no philosopher, by the profoundest effort of thought, to conceive and set forth to the world. What is more, these four writers are, by the supposition, children all of credulity, retailing the absurd gossip and the fabulous stories of an age of marvels, and yet, by some accident, they are found to have conceived and sketched the only perfect character known to mankind. To believe this, requires a more credulous age than these writers ever saw. We fall back, then, upon our conclusion, and there we rest. Such was the real historic character of Jesus. Thus he lived; the character is possible to be conceived, because it was actualized in a living example. The only solution is that which is given by Jesus himself, when he says--" I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world."

      The second question is this: whether this character is to be conceived as an actually existing sinless character in the world? That it is I maintain, because the character can no otherwise be accounted for in its known excellences. How was it that a simple-minded peasant of Galilee, was able to put himself in advance, in this manner, of all human teaching and excellence; unfolding a character so peculiar in its combinations, and so plainly impossible to any mere man of the race? Because his soul was filled with internal beauty and purity, having no spot, or stain, distorted by no obliquity of view or feeling, lapsing, therefore, into no eccentricity or deformity. We can make out no account of him so easy to believe, as that he was sinless; indeed, we can make no other account of him at all. He realized what are, humanly speaking, impossibilities; for his soul was warped and weakened by no human infirmities, doing all in a way of ease and naturalness, just because it is easy for clear waters to flow from a pure spring. To believe that Jesus got up these high conceptions artistically, and then acted them, in spite of the conscious disturbance of his internal harmony, and the conscious clouding of his internal purity by sin, would involve a degree of credulity and a want of perception, as regards the laws of the soul and their necessary action under sin, so lamentable as to be a proper subject of pity. We could sooner believe all the fables of the Talmud.

      Besides, if Jesus was a sinner, he was conscious of sin as all sinners are, and, therefore, was a hypocrite in the whole fabric of his character; realizing so much of divine beauty in it, maintaining the show of such unfaltering harmony and celestial grace, and doing all this with a mind confused and fouled by the affectations acted for true virtues! Such an example of successful hypocrisy would be itself the greatest miracle ever heard of in the world.

      Furthermore, if Jesus was a sinner, then he was, of course, a fallen being; down under the bondage, distorted by the perversity of sin and its desolating effects, as men are. The root, therefore, of all his beauty is guilt. Evil has broken loose in him, he is held fast under evil. Bad thoughts are streaming through his soul in bad successions; his tempers have lost their tune; his affections have been touched by leprosy; remorse scowls upon his heart; his views have lost their balance and contracted obliquity; in a word, he is fallen. Is it then such a being, one who has been touched, in this manner, by the demon spell of evil--is it he that is unfolding such a character?

      What, then, do our critics in the school of naturalism say of this character of Christ? Of course they are obliged to say many handsome and almost saintly things of it. Mr. Parker says of him, that "He unites in himself the sublimest precepts and divinest practices, thus more than realizing the dream of prophets and sages; rises free from all prejudice of his age, nation, or sect; gives free range to the Spirit of God, in his breast; sets aside the law, sacred and true--honored as it was, its forms, its sacrifice, its temple, its priests; puts away the doctors of the law, subtle, irrefragable, and pours out a doctrine beautiful as the light, sublime as Heaven, and true as God." (5) Again--as if to challenge for his doctrine, the distinction of a really supernatural excellence--" Try him as we try other teachers. They deliver their word, find a few waiting for the consolation who accept the new tidings, follow the new method, and soon go beyond their teacher, though less mighty minds than he. Though humble men, we see what Socrates and Luther never saw. But eighteen centuries have passed since the Sun of humanity rose so high in Jesus; what man, what sect has mastered his thought, comprehended his method, and so fully applied it to life." (6)

      Mr. Hennel, who writes in a colder mood, but has, on the whole, produced the ablest of all the arguments yet offered on this side, speaks more cautiously. He says, "Whilst no human character, in the history of the world, can be brought to mind, which, in proportion as it could be closely examined, did not present some defects, disqualifying it for being the emblem of moral perfection, we can rest, with least check or sense of incongruity, on the imperfectly known character of Jesus of Nazareth." (7)

      But the intimation here is, that the character is not perfect; it is only one in which the sense of perfection suffers "least check." And where is the fault charged? Why, it is discovered that Jesus cursed a fig-tree, in which he is seen to be both angry and unreasonable. He denounced the Pharisees in terms of bitter animosity. He also drove the money changers out of the temple with a scourge of rods, in which he is even betrayed into an act of physical violence. These and such like specks of fault are discovered, as they think, in the life of Jesus. So graceless in our conceit, have we of this age grown, that we can think it a point of scholarly dignity and reason, to spot the only perfect beauty that has ever graced our world, with such discovered blemishes as these! As if sin could ever need to be made out against a real sinner, in this small way of special pleading; or as if it were ever the way of sin to err in single particles or homceopathic quantities of wrong! A more just sensibility would denounce this malignant style of criticism, as a heartless and really low-minded pleasure in letting down the honors of goodness.

      In justice to Mr. Parker, it must be admitted that he does not actually charge these points of history as faults, or blemishes in the character of Jesus. And yet, in justice also, it must be added that he does compose a section under the heading-- "The Negative Side, or the Limitations of Jesus,"--where these, with other like matters, are thrown in byinsinuation, as possible charges sometimes advanced by others. For himself, he alleges nothing positive, but that Jesus was under the popular delusion of his time, in respect to devils or demoniacal possessions, and that he was mistaken in some of his references to the Old Testament. What, now, is to be thought of such material, brought forward under such a heading, to flaw such a character! Is it sure that Christ was mistaken in his belief of the foul spirits? Is it certain that a sufficient mode of interpretation will not clear his references of mistake? And so, when it is suggested, at second hand, that his invective is too fierce against the Pharisees, is there no escape, but to acknowledge that, "considering his youth, it was a venial error?" Or, if there be no charge but this, "at all affecting the moral and religious character of Jesus," should not a just reverence to one whose life is so nearly faultless, constrain us to look for some more favorable construction, that takes the solitary blemish away? Is it true that invective is a necessary token of ill-nature? Are there no occasions where even holiness will be most forward in it? And when a single man stands out alone, facing a whole living order and caste, that rule the time--oppressors of the poor, hypocrites and pretenders in religion, corrupters of all truth and faith, under the names of learning and religion--is the malediction, the woe, that he hurls against them, to be taken as a fault of violence and unregulated passion; or considering what amount of force and public influence he dares to confront and set in deadly enmity against his person, is he rather to be accepted as God's champion, in the honors of a great and genuinely heroic spirit?

      Considering how fond the world is of invective, how ready to admire the rhetoric of sharp words, how many speakers study to excel in the fine art of excoriation, how many reformers are applauded in vehement attacks on character, and win a great repute of fearlessness, just because of their severity, when, in fact, there is nothing to fear--when possibly the subject is a dead man, not yet buried--it is really a most striking tribute to the more than human character of Jesus, that we are found to be so apprehensive respecting him in particular, lest his plain, unstudied, unrhetorical seventies on this or that occasion, may imply some possible defect, or "venial error," in him. Why this special sensibility to fault in him? save that, by his beautiful and perfect life, he has raised our conceptions so high as to make, what we might applaud in a man, a possible blemish in his divine excellence?

      The glorious old reformer and blind poet of Puritanism--vindicator of a free commonwealth and a free, unprelatical religion--holds, in our view, a far worthier and manlier conception of Christ's dealing with the Pharisees, and of what is due to all the usurpations of titled conceit and oppression in the world. With truly refreshing vehemence, he writes--" For in times of opposition, when against new heresies arising, or old corruptions to be reformed, this cool, impassion-ate mildness of positive wisdom, is not enough to damp and astonish the proud resistance of carnal and false doctors, then (that I may have leave to soar awhile, as the poets use,) Zeal, whose substance is ethereal, arming in complete diamond, ascends his fiery chariot, drawn by two blazing meteors figured like beasts, but of a higher breed than any the zodiac yields, resembling those four which Ezekiel and St. John saw--the one visaged like a lion, to express power, high authority, and indignation; the other of man, to cast derision and scorn upon perverse and fraudulent seducers--with them the invincible warrior, Zeal, shaking loosely the slack reins, drives over the heads of scarlet prelates and such as are insolent to maintain traditions, bruising their stiff necks under his flaming wheels. Thus did the true prophets of old combat with the false; thus Christ, himself the fountain of meekness, found acrimony enough to be still galling and vexing the prelatical Pharisees. But ye will say, these had immediate warrant from God to be thus bitter; and I say, so much the plainer is it found that there may be a sanctified bitterness against the enemies of the truth." (8)

      Probably Christ himself had no other account to give of his conduct, on the occasion referred to; and no other was needed, than that he felt a zeal within him (answering to Milton's picture), which could not, must not be repressed. His disciples felt his terrible severity, and were going to be shocked by it, but they remembered the Scripture--" The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up." After all, it was, when rightly viewed, the necessary outburst, only, of that indignant fire, which is kindled in the sweet bosom of innocence, by the insolence of hypocrisy and oppression.

      I conclude, then, (1.) that Christ actually lived, and bore the real character ascribed to him in the history. And (2.) that he was a sinless character. How far off is he now from any possible classification in the genus humanity!

      Here, then, is a being who has broken into the world, and is not of it; one who has come out from God, and is even an expression to us of the complete beauty of God--such as he should be, if he actually was, what he is affirmed to be, the Eternal Word of the Father incarnate. Did he work miracles? This now is the question that waits for our decision--did he work miracles? By the supposition, he is superhuman. By the supposition, too, he is in the world as a miracle. Agreeing that the laws of nature will not be suspended, any more than they are by our own supernatural action, will they yet be so subordinated to his power, as to permit the performance of signs and wonders, in which we may recognize a superhuman force? Since he is shown to be a superhuman being, manifestly nature will have a relation to him, under and by her own laws, such as accords with his superhuman quality, and it will be very singular if he does not do superhuman things; nay, it is even philosophically incredible that he should not, and that without any breach upon the integrity of nature. Thus an organ is a certain instrument curiously framed or adjusted in its parts, and prepared to yield itself to any force which touches the keys. An animal runs back and forth across the key-board, and produces a jarring, disagreeable jumble of sounds. Thereupon he begins to reason, and convinces himself that it is in the nature of the instrument to make such sounds, and no other. But a skilful player comes to the instrument, as a higher presence, endowed with a super-animal sense and skill. He strikes the keys, and all-melodious and heavenly sounds roll out upon the enchanted air. Will the animal now go on to reason that this is impossible, incredible, because it violates the nature of the instrument, and is contrary to his own experience? Perhaps he may, and men may sometimes not be wiser than he. But the player himself, and all that can think it possible for him to do what the animal can not, will have no doubt that the music is made by the same laws that made the jargon. Just so Christ, to whose will or touch the mundane sys.. tern is pliant as to ours, may be able to execute results through its very laws subordinated to him, which to us are impossible. Nay, it would be itself a contradiction of all order and fit relation if he could not. To suppose that a being out of humanity, will be shut up within all the limitations of humanity, is incredible, and contrary to reason. The very laws of nature themselves, having him present to them, as a new agent and higher first term, would require the development of new consequences and incidents, in the nature of wonders. Being a miracle himself, it would be the greatest of all miracles if he did not work miracles.

      NOTES:

      5) Discourses of Religion, p. 294.
      6) Discourses of Religion, p. 303.
      7) Inquiry, p. 451.
      8) Apology for Smectymnus, Sect. I

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

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