Chapter 3 - Is "Christian Religion" True?

One of the most obvious consequences of the conclusion reached in the preceding chapter is neglected or refused by many who profess to accept that conclusion most unreservedly. If it be the spiritual side of man's complex being that has suffered most by the disaster which has befallen him, it is here that the result will be most apparent. And while his moral nature may be capable of self-adjustment, we shall expect to find that, in the spiritual sphere, he is absolutely dependent upon a Divine revelation. In fact, nothing relating to man should be regarded with so much distrust as his religion, and yet this is precisely the sphere where self-satisfaction most prevails.

The phenomenon is all the stranger because every one is convinced that all religions are wrong save one; the exception of course being the particular cult of which he himself is a votary.

And, the unanimity felt by people who agree becomes to them a strong confirmation of their faith. After shouting "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" "with one voice, about the space of two hours," the worship of Diana is raised to the level of "things that cannot be spoken against."

At the close of his Essays on Religion, John Stuart Mill states thus the result of his argument:
"It follows that the rational attitude of a thinking mind towards the supernatural, whether in natural or revealed religion, is that of scepticism as distinguished from belief on the one hand and from atheism on the other." This position is generally regarded as hostile to faith; but our nature being what it is, it becomes a test and safeguard of faith. No matter how excellent my chronometer may be, I am glad at all times to test it by the sun in the heavens. And as I belong to a fallen race, and it is in the sphere of religion that the effects of the catastrophe are most felt, I ought to be ever ready to test my religious tenets by whatever standard is the true one. Men may differ as to the standard, and as to how the testing process should be carried out, but all will agree upon the principle here enunciated."

What guarantee have we that the religion which prevails in Christendom to-day is true? To many the very statement of the question will seem scandalous and profane. They will set themselves angrily to shout it down, as the Ephesian Diana worshippers treated what they deemed to be the Christian heresy. But thoughtful people will welcome the inquiry. Assuming that Christianity is a Divine revelation, the question still remains, How far may we not have departed from "the faith once for all delivered"? We know how we can test our chronometers. Is there any standard by which we can test our religion?

"All who profess and call themselves Christians" will reply with united voice in pointing us to the Bible. But this unanimity is merely apparent, not real. The vast majority of Christians will object to our appealing to the Bible directly and immediately. We must, in turning to it, subject our minds to an authority that claims to be its interpreter. Every citizen is supposed to know the laws of his country; but though the statute-book is the standard of authority, the interpretation of the statutes does not depend on the citizen's private reading of them, but on the decisions of competent tribunals. So also in the religious sphere. The Bible is the only, as it is the infallible, standard of faith and practice, but the Church claims to be its authorised exponent.

At first sight nothing can be simpler than this, nothing more reasonable, nothing more practical. But no sooner do we attempt to act upon it than difficulties overwhelm us. What is the Church? and where are we to find it? There are rival claimants to the title; to which of them shall it be accorded? Answer will be made that the Eastern Church is heretical. But what tribunal has so decided? And by what standard? The tribunal, we shall be told, was the Catholic Church, and the standard was the common faith. But this is a most transparent begging of the question. What took place was that the head of the Western Church excommunicated the Eastern Church for refusing to acknowledge his supremacy, which supremacy the Eastern Church denounces as "the
chief heresy of the latter days." Which, then, is in the right?

If we appeal to the Church of England, her answer will be definite and clear, that both are wrong, and that they have "erred, not only in their living and manners of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith." Nor need we look to the Church of England to claim for herself the place she refuses to accord to any other Church, of being "the witness and keeper" of the truth. Hers is the humbler position of being "a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ"; and to that supreme authority she appeals as the only sanction for her practice and her teaching.

But, we are told, Christ did not write a book; He founded a Church; and He speaks in and through the Church; our part, therefore, is to commit ourselves to the Church's teaching and guidance.

This is merely an attempt to get behind the question which it pretends to solve. How do I know that Christ founded a Church? And how do I know that I can trust myself to the teaching of what claims to be the Church? The only, possible answer to these questions is an appeal either to the Church itself or else to the New Testament. IF the former, then I am to trust the Church because the Church claims my confidence - a flagrant case of what in another sphere is known as "the confidence trick." If the latter, then by all means let me turn to the New Testament. But no "thimble-rigging" can be tolerated here. If the Church speaks with inherent authority, I must render unreasoning obedience to her teaching; but if she appeals to Holy Scripture, she must place an open Bible in my hands.

If we accept the former alternative we find ourselves again at the point from which the argument has moved away. What, and where, is the Church? Is this question to be decided by a plebicite? Are we to be content to settle it by blindly joining the biggest crowd? Or are we to yield to whichever authority presents its claims with the greatest arrogance? It is not thus that in sublunary affairs the thoughtful direct their conduct. But it is precisely thus that in highly-favoured England, in this enlightened age, people of culture decide a question which concerns their eternal destiny!

If our choice must be limited to one or other of the two most ancient Churches, it is extraordinary that educated Englishmen, acquainted with the history of both, should hesitate for a moment which to choose. That Rome should loom greater in our view is natural, but that Rome should engross our attention can be accounted for only by our insular ignorance and prejudice. For, as Dean Stanley writes- "That figure which seemed so imposing when it was the only one which met our view, changes all its proportions when we see that it is overtopped by a vaster, loftier, darker figure behind. If we are bent on having dogmatical belief and conservative tradition to its fullest extent, we must go, not to the Church which calls itself Catholic, but to the Church which calls itself Orthodox."' And yet the fact is clear that in a book addressed to English readers the Eastern Church may be ignored as absolutely as though it had no existence.

Papal supremacy is the special characteristic of the Western Church. Even if the history of Christendom had run differently, and this dogma were accepted by Christians of every name, a sceptic would be none the less entitled to ask on what authority it rests. Christ, we are told, entrusted to the Apostle Peter the keys of the Church, thus conferring upon him the primacy of the Church. Peter became Bishop of Rome, and every after occupant of the See of Rome has succeeded to the Primacy. The Bishop of Rome, therefore, is supreme Pontiff, Christ's Vicar upon earth.

By all means let us investigate this without prejudice or passion. Let us refuse to be influenced by the fact that some of those who have filled the Papal throne were shameless profligates of infamous character. Let us refuse also to take account of the high personal qualities of its present occupant. And his environment is nothing to us. Gorgeous vestments, a magnificent ceremonial, regal dignity and pomp - all these serve but to prove the faith of those who accept his claims. What concerns us is the evidence on which those claims are based.

Suppose it be conceded that the Apostle Peter held the place thus claimed for him, what ground is there for believing that his successors in the See of Rome had equal precedence and power? The only ground is that they themselves have asserted it, and that half Christendom has yielded them the position. Evidence there is absolutely none. What ground, again, is there for believing that the Apostle Peter was ever the Bishop of Rome? The only ground is that the Roman Church asserts it. Evidence there is absolutely none.

Indeed the very statement itself implies an anachronism as glaring as if it were asserted that the apostle was a cardinal. Of course there must have been bishops in the Church in Rome, as in the other Churches, but the thought of a bishop with a diocese or see, belongs to post-apostolic times; the New Testament knows nothing of it. And as Dean Alford bluntly says, "The episkoftoi of the New Testament have officially nothing in common with our bishops." Moreover bishops were appointed by an apostle, and therefore if Peter was a bishop in Rome he must, instead of being superior to any of his brethren, have become subordinate to them - a complete reductio ad absurdum. It is proverbially difficult to prove a negative; but the absence of all reference to Peter in Romans makes it reasonably certain that he had no relations with the Church in Rome when that Epistle was written : the last chapter of The Acts makes it practically certain that he was not in Rome during Paul's first imprisonment; and the last chapter of 2 Timothy leaves no doubt whatever that he was not there during Paul's last imprisonment. And to turn to a witness of post-apostolic times, Clement of Rome will confirm us in this conclusion. He was admittedly bishop of the Church in Rome before the end of the first century, and his Epistle to the Corinthians is admittedly genuine. Can any honest-minded man believe that his Epistle was written with the knowledge that the Apostle Peter had ever preceded him in the bishopric? (Footnote - The letter in question was written in the name of the Church of Rome. The only reference which it contains to Peter is in the following passage: "Peter by unjust envy underwent not one or two, but many labours, and thus having borne testimony unto death, he went unto the place of glory which was due to him).

Lastly, what ground is there for supposing that the Apostle Peter was entrusted with the." keys of the Church? The only ground is the fact that to him were given "the keys of the kingdom of heaven," and the Church which proudly boasts of being the keeper of Holy Writ is so ignorant of Scripture that it confounds "the kingdom of heaven" with the Church!

Every well-instructed Sunday-school child is aware that the book which records these words is the Hebrew Gospel, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" - in a word, the book which presents Him as Israel's Messiah. It deals only with the favoured nation - the covenant people - to the exclusion of Gentiles altogether. The gospel of the Grace is not in it. The very word "Grace" does not occur in it even once. And the reason why the Apostles were twelve in number was because the "tribes of Israel" were twelve in number. And among the twelve, Peter held the foremost place. To him were committed "the keys of the kingdom of the heavens "-an expression that is found only in connection with Israel. To him, therefore, it was that, at Pentecost, the proclamation of the great amnesty to Israel was entrusted.' And when "the word which God sent unto the children of Israel" was to be carried to Gentile proselytes, he was the appointed messenger. Throughout what theologians describe as "the Hebraic portion" of the Acts, his ministry is pre-eminent. He is the foremost, the commanding figure. But when Israel proved again impenitent and finally rejected the gospel of the kingdom, the very name of "the Apostle of the Circumcision" disappears from the narrative. Nay, more, it disappears from the New Testament, save for his two Epistles addressed to "the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion" (that is of Israel), and for a passage in the Epistle to the Galatians, which proves to demonstrate that he had no precedence whatever except in relation to Israel. In the Church of this Gentile dispensation the pre-eminence is with "the Apostle of the Gentiles."

We are not dealing here with deep theological problems beyond the power of common men to investigate. And the conclusion is clear; first, that even if it could be shown that Peter was "the Vicar of Christ on earth," the fact would give no such precedence or dignity to the Roman Popes - a bishop might as well claim to be a cardinal or a marquis because his predecessor in the see wore the hat of the one or the coronet of the other; secondly, that the story that Peter was ever Bishop of Rome is the merest legend, and absolutely inconsistent with his office of Apostle; and, thirdly, that the figment of his having had a position of supreme authority in the Church is not supported by the Scripture to which appeal is made in its support.

Some errors are based on misread passages of Scripture. Others grow up apart from Scripture altogether, and Scripture is afterwards perverted to support them. In this latter category is the figment of the supremacy of Rome. It had its origin in the pride begotten of citizenship in the Imperial city - in what Augustine himself described as "the insolence of the city of Rome." Such is the foundation upon which rests the claim of the Pope to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. And yet his pretensions are acknowledged, not merely by ignorant peasants and superstitious women, but by educated and sensible men; by men reputed to be thinkers and scholars; by some even who are trained lawyers, holding high judicial offices. How, then, is the phenomenon to be accounted for? In presence of such facts evolution - talk is idle. When human ingenuity can suggest an answer, it will claim consideration. Meanwhile the story of the Eden fall holds the field.

Until I came to pen these pages I had not read any Roman Catholic work on this subject; and I have always supposed that a fair prima facie case could be made out for the Papal claims. But a perusal of Rev. Luke Rivington's Primitive Church and the See of Peter - work of high repute, to which Cardinal Vaughan contributed a preface - has destroyed that illusion. Any one who is either versed in Holy Scripture or accustomed to deal with evidence will search these 480 pages in vain for either. All that the writer proves may be freely conceded - namely, that the Pope has been acknowledged by vast numbers of people from very early times.