From “Fire on the Earth” (1885)
If the whole object of Christ’s advent had been to unfold to mankind truths which they could not have discovered for themselves, and thereby to supply motives and hopes stronger and loftier than they could have devised, we might have fitly demanded that every stone should be taken out of the path of belief, ever rough place made smooth, every obstacle to conviction avoided. But if, on the other hand, the coming of Christ, like the gift of life itself, had the double purpose of blessing and proving, then I can understand why the evidence of great spiritual verities should almost always stop short of demonstration.
This has been very simply put by Bishop [Joseph] Butler. “Perhaps,” he says, “it will be objected that if a prince or common master were to send directions to a servant, he would take care that they should always bear the certain marks of whom they came from, and their sense should be always plain; so that if he could help it there should be no possible doubt concerning the authority or meaning of them.” There is, the bishop replies, a full answer to this objection, from the very nature of religion. “For the reason why a prince would give his directions in this plain manner is that he absolutely desires such an external action should be done without concerning himself with the motive or principle for which it is done. But if a prince desires to exercise, or in any sense prove the understanding or loyalty of the servant, he would not always give his orders in such a plain manner.”
We may perceive, at any rate, in some measure, that the difficulties of belief are classed with difficulties of practice as an integral portion of our trial.
Hence, we may learn not to recoil from the obscurities hanging about the construction of Holy Scripture; the mixture of the human element and the divine, incapable of disentanglement by any sharply drawn definitions…And what holds with regard to revelation might be show to hold also of individual doctrines: the doctrine of sin and atonement, of the Incarnation and the sacraments; there have not been wanting attempts to reduce these doctrines, and so to make them easier of acceptance. But, says Coleridge, the great articles of corruption and redemption are propounded to us as spiritual mysteries, and every interpretation which pretends to explain them into comprehensible notions does by its very success furnish presumptive proof of its failure.
And, indeed, there is not a little to induce us to believe that in this twofold power of the Gospel lies one great source of inexhaustible vitality. It is not a mere sweetener of human existence; such a definition sacrifices completeness to simplicity. Had it been only this, like some enervating climate, it might so have relaxed the moral fiber of its proselytes to have rendered weak their grasp of itself. It is the territory which lies in the midst of foes, which requires the sword and the shield to be ever in hand, which retains the strongest hold upon the affections of its population, and thus the fact that Christianity was so framed as to be in the hour of its first acceptance and its after-retention a continued spiritual trial may be one of the seven locks of its strength.
What if well-nigh every article of the Creed is the battleground of departed heroes of the faith, if around each sublime unveiling of heavenly things hands, as around some mountain peak, an atmosphere which tries, but at the same time braces the man? Here, it may be, we touch that secret force of the one absolutely true religion which, in spite of failures and apostasies, in spite of whole churches swept away, has repaired every loss by a compensating gain, and produced an ever-widening Christendom.
The Rt. Rev. James R. Woodford (1820-1885) was Bishop of Ely in the Church of England, a great builder of church institutions, and one of the most celebrated Anglican preachers of the Victorian era. This sermon was preached at Cambridge shortly before his death.