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Beliefs That Count by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: We Believe in Jesus Christ


Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal divine Word made flesh and dwelling among men. In His sinless life He revealed the nature of His Father and our Father. His infinite wisdom is our guide. His sacrifice upon the cross is our redemption, and His resurrection from the dead is our pledge of eternal life. He lives today, unseen though ever present, and in the acceptance of Him as Saviour and as Lord lies humanity’s hope for the present and for the future.

 

The Quest For Authority

Deep within man is implanted the desire to know the truth. This does not imply, of course, that everybody has a keen intellectual curiosity. There are many persons who are quite content to let others do their thinking for them! Nevertheless, it was this desire to know and to understand the universe that gave rise to Greek philosophy some six centuries before Christ. It was this quest for factual certainty that prompted Aristotle in the fourth century before Christ to become, for his day, a great scientist as well as philosopher. It also led to the emergence of modern scientific method as set forth by Sir Francis Bacon 350 years ago. Furthermore, it has undergirded the marvelous advances in scientific discovery in the period since that time. Though much of today’s science is applied science -- the: discovery of new processes and the making of new products to satisfy human wants -- it all rests on the desire to find out with certainty what can be known about the world of nature.

This quest for certainty belongs to religion also. A person cannot really worship a being about whose very existence he feels uncertain. Doubt is not wholly bad, for it can drive us to serious inquiry. But when doubt possesses the mind and dominates it, faith fades away and persons lose much of the vitality of their religion.

This situation creates a serious problem for many minds. On the one hand, the whole climate of our time is directed toward a trust in science. The popular clamor for more science and mathematics in the public schools lest the Russians outdistance us in military achievements and in the conquest of outer space is a symptom of the common assumption that science has the answer. On the other hand, Christian faith is often; defended by repeated assertions that "the Bible says . . .’’ without any attempt to recover the historical situation in which the books of the Bible were written or to get beneath the surface to find out what God really is saying through it. If Christian faith is to be vital, our knowledge of God must rest on firmer ground than either of these procedures.

But the desire to know the truth is not the only form of man’s quest for authority. He wants to know what he ought to do. Life is full of decisions; they crowd upon us daily if not hourly. Many of these are moral in nature. Some are overtly so, as is the decision whether to lie or to tell the truth, to cheat or to be honest, to maintain sexual purity or to surrender to lust. There are other moral decisions, which frequently are not recognized as such. Among them are those that we make concerning the right use of our time, energy, or money; those regarding how to treat persons whose lives touch ours; and those concerning when to speak and when to be silent when convictions are at stake. The very fact that we are created as responsible beings necessitates that we must choose.

Today there is a widespread loosening of moral standards that formerly held society to something like a common moral code. Therefore, to great numbers of people, doing wrong means only doing something at which they may get caught. There are various reasons why persons take these views and we cannot discuss them here. But the net result is this: All the way from the street gang of juvenile delinquents through the free-and-easy sex life of many adolescents and adults to the income tax evasion of many a "respectable" member of society -- to do right is to do what one can get away with; to do wrong is to do what is not safe.

Yet, inwardly, people are not really satisfied with these conclusions. Now that older strait-laced ideas are passé, or passing, life has much freedom in it; but in spite of this persons would like to have something to cling to.

This brings us to a third and even deeper element in the quest for authority. Persons want to know how to live. In short, they want ground to stand on. To adapt the language of a familiar parable that stands at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, man wants to build the house of his soul not on shifting sand that will crumble and melt away when the rains fall, the floods come, and the winds blow; instead, he wants an edifice that will stand firm amid personal adversities and the uncertainties of time because it is founded on a rock.

Some persons have such stability. They are usually persons of Christian faith, though in fairness we must realize that Christian faith is not the only source of security. But insecurity is everywhere apparent in our society. This is evident in the current trek to psychiatrists, the fullness of the mental hospitals, the frequency of alcoholism, and the appalling number of suicides in America -- sixteen thousand in one year. Great numbers of persons, although not "cracking" to this extent, have a pervading sense of emptiness and unrest in the inner areas of life which they try manfully to conceal. It is apparent that the soul of man cries out for certainty -- for something solid to stand on -- and too often the answer seems not to be forthcoming.

Our Belief in Jesus Christ

In one of the greatest passages in the Bible the author of the fourth Gospel quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. . . ." (John 14:6-7.)

In the previous section we have noted that the mind and soul of man deeply yearn for knowledge of the truth, for a basis of moral decisions, and for foundations for living. This closely parallels the great declaration, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," though not in the same order. Let us look now at what answer is given in Jesus Christ to these basic yearnings of the soul.

First, Jesus Christ is the Truth. "Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal divine Word made flesh and dwelling among men. In His sinless life He revealed the nature of His Father and our Father."

There is more than one approach to the knowledge of God. There is the approach through nature, wherein the marvelous intricacy and orderliness of the physical world bespeak the handiwork of the all-wise Creator. Because it is not the function of science to deal with what lies beyond the observable world that is open to scientific investigation, science does not seek to prove the existence of God. Yet every science gives evidence of an orderly world that cannot be the product of accident or chance. The uniformity of natural law, on which science rests, is unexplainable except as the work of an infinite Lawgiver.

Likewise, there is an approach to God through the moral strivings of mankind. These are often feeble and futile, but still discernible as they are unrolled before us in the pageant of history. Because consciences are often wrongly trained and have a curious way of accommodating to our wishes, we cannot say glibly that the voice of conscience is the voice of God. In spite of this, however, it is still true that conscience itself is unexplainable apart from God. The fact that some men do deny themselves and take up their crosses in the service of others without hope of personal reward is evidence of an other-regarding impulse that marks sinful man as still bearing in some degree the image of God.

There is also an approach to God through the spiritual strivings of mankind. Paul explained to the people of Lystra, who wanted to make gods of him and Barnabas, that God in past generations had not left himself without a witness. Instead, he gave men "rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying [their] hearts with food and gladness." (See Acts 14:17) Because God has been doing this among every people ever since the beginning of mankind’s existence on earth, men have many times worshipped him without finding him through Christ. Such gropings after a deity we do not disparage as wholly false. Rather, we say, as Paul said to the Athenians in the Areopagus, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17:23.)

Nevertheless, there is a deep sense in which our hearts respond to Christ’s affirmation, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me," No one does come to the Father -- the God of the Christian faith, the Father of Jesus and our Father -- except through Jesus Christ his Son.

Science can point the way to the Source of order and unity; but not to the God of love. Moral endeavor and the impulse to altruistic action can tell us that self-love brings disharmony and strife, but it cannot show us love incarnate. Other faiths point upward in worship, but they lack the clear vision of a God who not only stands above us but who comes down to us in love and ever-present, ever-lifting compassion. There were many "gods" and many "lords" in men’s minds and hearts before Jesus came, and there are many today. Idolatry is by no means limited to graven images or foreign faiths. But only in Jesus of Nazareth, "the Son of God, the eternal divine Word made flesh and dwelling among men," do we see God as he really is.

The central stream of the Christian tradition has always insisted that Jesus was truly a man. It has emphasized the facts that he was born as a baby in a manger, that he grew up in a humble carpenter’s home, accepted baptism from his cousin John the Baptist, and engaged in a brief ministry during which he taught and healed in a most remarkable manner. Furthermore, it insists that he shared our human lot of hunger, thirst, and fatigue; that he experienced anger before evil and endured agony at the need to die. Some in their desire to protect the divinity of Jesus have denied or questioned his humanity and thus have fallen into the heresy of Docetism, or the belief that Jesus’ humanity was only an appearance, not a reality. But to hold this belief is to cut the foundations from under the basic Christian doctrine of the Incarnation -- the doctrine that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) in a truly human life within the course of history.

Yet while we must say that Jesus was truly a man, this is not all we must say. There are many millions of God’s sons in the world today, and many millions more have lived and long since died. There is, was, and, we may well believe, will be, only one Son of God. Our Christian faith affirms that in a unique way, which prompts our writing of "Son" with a capital letter, the eternal God became manifest in history in Jesus Christ. In his sinless life; in his perfect obedience to the Father’s will; in his willingness to die that men might live in the love of God; in his victory over death through the glory of the first Easter morning -- in all these we see that which prompts us to say with the apostle Thomas, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28.)

Second, Jesus Christ is the Way. His infinite wisdom is our guide.

It is significant that in the church of New Testament times the early Christians were called "those of ‘the Way.’" We are told that Saul (before he became Paul and while he was bent on persecuting Christians) asked for letters to the synagogue at Damascus "so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." (Acts 9:2.) To the present, to be of the Way of Jesus Christ is the primary mark of being a Christian.

Jesus gave no precise set of rules for following his way of life. We often wish we could find a verse that would settle all the complex issues of family life, economic competition and tension, international order, and war. This he did not give and it is good that he did not, for in the changing currents of human society new applications of his way of life must be found for each new age. But Jesus did something far better. In his teaching, in his ministry, and in his death he showed us how to live.

The teaching of Jesus is epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount, although it is found throughout the Gospels in his parables and in sayings upon particular occasions which, in their main outlines, have been preserved for us. Biblical scholars no longer believe that the Gospels are exact accounts of the words of Jesus, since these writings were compiled forty to seventy years after his death and thus reflect only the memories and interpretations of the early church. (As will be explained more fully in Chapter 4, Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written about A.D. 70 and John, probably around A.D. 100.) Yet this does not alter the fact that the general picture is clear and that "his infinite wisdom is our guide."

In the teachings of Jesus the key-note is the two great commandments: the call to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is not a calculating, selfish love inspired by the hope of return. It is the outgoing and self-giving love that is born from our trust in the Father’s care. Yet it has high rewards. According to the Beatitudes the "blessed" ones are not the superficially happy persons but the persons who are divinely approved and inwardly blest. They are the persons who, in simplicity of spirit, in comforted sorrow, in humility, in yearning aspiration after goodness, in compassion for others, in purity of heart, in peace-making, and in faithful devotion even to the point of persecution, seek after God and his kingdom. Such living requires more than outward conformity to the law. If we will observe God’s higher law, we must not be angry, lustful, irreverent, or retaliatory. We must love even our enemies. In such injunctions Jesus sets forth clearly enough for all time the requirements of the Way -- the nature of the God-centered life.

In Jesus’ own ministry he demonstrated this kind of living. His works of healing -- whether of the bodies or souls of men -- were always prompted by compassion for persons as he sought to do the will of God. He could become angry at the defilement of his Father’s house and adopt stern measures, but there is no evidence that he ceased to love even sinners. Of his own persecutors he could say as he was dying on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23 :34.)

After a few brief years of teaching and living this message of the Way, Jesus came to his cruel and infamous death which, with the Resurrection, was to embody the central meaning and glory of our faith. In this was to be our life. So let us now turn to look at it.

Third, Jesus Christ is the Life. His sacrifice upon the cross is our redemption, and His resurrection from the dead is our pledge of eternal life. He lives today, unseen though ever present, and in the acceptance of Him as Saviour and as Lord lies humanity’s hope for the present and for the future.

The cross is rightly the eternal symbol and focus of the Christian faith. All that God was doing for man’s redemption and all that Jesus did in suffering love to bring us to God centers here. Though we may not fully probe the mystery of its great meaning, we know that because of it life has been different since the first Good Friday. In it we see how we ought to live; through it God imparts power for living.

To take the cross by itself out of the context of Jesus’ total life and ministry is to attach an artificial meaning to it. Yet to think of it simply as the death of a martyr who was misunderstood and persecuted is not enough. We should not observe Good Friday in deep solemnity around the world if the cross simply represented the death of a great, good man like Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, or Mohandas Gandhi. The cross gets its supreme meaning from our faith that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

The cross of Christ gives us a pattern, a power, and a symbol of eternal love. As a pattern it marks the meeting point of suffering with love, and hence it bids us take up our crosses and follow Christ in fidelity to the call of God. As power it is the focal point at which God has released to men the power to feel their sins forgiven, their spiritual burdens lifted, and a way opened to the new life in Christ. As a symbol it is our clearest evidence and surest pointer to what God did not only for men on Calvary but of what God has always been seeking in love to do for his erring children. Because of the life and death of Christ, in which we see in its fullness God’s reconciling love, life can be different for us.

The cross and the Resurrection belong together like two sides of a shield. The first Good Friday did not seem very good to Jesus’ shattered band of followers, most of whom had run away and all of whom were apparently discouraged and downcast. Then something happened! We do not know exactly the details, for though the accounts appear in all four Gospels and in Paul’s letters, there are variations. But the fact is certain. Because the little company knew that their Lord was risen from the dead, they "came alive" with new hope. Armed with this faith and the certainty of Christ’s victory over death, they established the church and became flaming witnesses to the love and the power of God in Christ. Eventually this witness was to encircle the globe, and we, today, are the inheritors of this faith.

Rightly we celebrate on Easter God’s gift of eternal life. But as John’s Gospel repeatedly assures us, eternal life begins here --where we are -- as we "believe" in Christ. It begins as we accept him as our Lord and find our lives anchored to God through him. His risen Presence is still experienced by all those who seek to be his followers. "He lives today, unseen though ever present, and in the acceptance of Him as Saviour and as Lord lies humanity’s hope for the present and for the future."

There is much that our troubled, chaotic world needs for its salvation. New motives must be instilled; new outlooks engendered; not a few evil elements in personal, social, economic, and political structures must be challenged and changed. But what our world needs most -- if these changes are to take place -- is persons with dedicated, joyous, and blessed new life in Christ. It is a life that any may have for the taking. But it costs a great deal. We must surrender all that we have to God.

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