The Divinity of Christ – An Argument: Chapter II

cover of the ebook 'The Divinity of Christ: An Argument', by Bishop Louis-Victor-Emile BougaudCertain special features in the physiognomy of Jesus Christ – General agreement of all great minds that this physiognomy points to an unique character

To continue. These are but a few features, and faintly traced, of the physiognomy of Jesus Christ. According as criticism becomes more searching, observation more thoughtful and more exact, features are discovered in the character of Christ which the ancient apologists did not suspect. Christ stands forth under the gaze of criticism, like the firmament when examined with the powerful instruments of modern science.

Beyond the definite qualities of which we have just spoken, and which, carried to their highest perfection and harmoniously blended together, stamp such a royal human beauty on the physiognomy of Jesus Christ, we begin to discover in Him what is less easy to lay hold of, what is without limit and hounds. You feel that He is man, but always that He is more than man. There is something of the universal and the inexhaustible which warns you that the ordinary limits of human nature have been passed. Consider, one by one, His moral perfection, His personality. His mind; you may discover the form, you will never fathom the depth. The depth of His moral perfection! You will find it when you can find anything that can be compared to it. But where will you find this? I will not speak of antiquity: such an ideal was not even imagined. “Jesus by his greatness and goodness,” says Channing, “throws all other human attainments into obscurity.” “And not only the human perfections of those who preceded, but also of those who followed Him. Such perfections even which owed their origin to Him: for His appearance was like a flash of lightning which revealed an ideal unknown till then, and which created an all-absorbing desire to imitate Him. For eighteen centuries has this Ideal been before the world, for eighteen centuries millions of men have tried to reproduce it, and proportioned to the closeness of their copy is the beauty to which they attain; – but to none has it been given to equal it. In these numberless imitations there are many that challenge admiration, some by their purity, some by their strength, but not one that can compare even at a distance with the beauty of Jesus: for the unique beauty of Jesus surpasses not only all created beauty – it is without limit. No ideal prepared the way for it.

You know what happens when we find ourselves face to face with beauty. We contemplate it with delight, and the contemplation gives us wings by which we rise yet higher. We perceive a superior beauty, of which all created beauty, however dazzling it may be, is but the incomplete expression. And however high we rise, however great the effort of the imagination, the ideal still recedes from us, filling us with despair, provoking our efforts by its lofty sublimity, and calling into existence the highest art, because genius can never realize the objects of its contemplation. But when Jesus Christ is in question, all this is reversed. We do not leave the reality to run after the ideal; it is the reality that we cannot reach. All our efforts to find an ideal Jesus Christ, that is to say a beauty distinct from the beauty which He realizes and superior to it, are vain. In contemplating Jesus Christ it is not our ideal that we see rising, escaping from us: it is He, He Himself, He as portrayed in the Gospels, who rises, and escapes from us, whom we cannot reach, either by the pencil or the chisel, either by the pen or by the heart. It was this incapacity of reproducing such beauty, which drew tears from the blessed Angelico of Fiesole; it was this which caused the brush to fall from the powerful hand of Leonardo, it was this which caused a Bossuet and a Pascal to despair. For the first, perhaps for the only time in the history of art, its highest perfection falls short of the truth, and the imagination even of genius fails to idealize the reality.

This reflection alone ought to be sufficient to make every serious mind recognize that the character of Jesus Christ, although truly human and natural, has a superhuman elevation; but I would have you consider something yet more wonderful, a further perfection much more inexplicable. We have found no limit to His moral beauty, to His perfection: let us now seek the limit to His personality. Personality is limited by place, time, and race. However great a man may be, he was born here, he lived there, he sprang from a certain race, he carries the stamp of that race. Look at the greatest men: they belong to their time. They eagerly espouse its interests, passions, joys, and griefs. We observe this in politicians, in lawgivers, in conquerors. On what would they depend to govern the world, and to raise it, if they did not belong to their time? But do not even mere abstract thinkers, solitary speculators, poets, philosophers, artists, those whose life, consecrated to the worship of the ideal, goes deeper into human nature and passes less quickly, do not they also belong to their time? Through the music of their poems, do we not hear mingled with the voice of human nature, the voice of their age: mingled with the sighs of the human soul, do we not hear the sighs of the people, of the century, of the city where that human soul prayed, wept, suffered, and loved. Call over the roll of great men: Homer, Job, Aeschylus, Isaiah, Socrates, Phidias, Sophocles, Plato, Virgil, Tacitus, Dante, Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, Milton, Corneille, Kacine, Bossuet. What are they? The incarnations of Greece, of Arabia, of Judea, of pagan Rome, of Christian Italy, of Spain, of France, of England. And the greater they are, the more perfectly they embody in themselves, with the genius of the human race, the genius of that part of the human race of which they are more directly the offspring. Homer is the great Pelasgian, Aeschylus is the great Greek, Job is the great Arab, Isaias is the great Hebrew, Tacitus is the great Roman, Dante is the great Italian, Shakespeare is the great Englishman, Bossuet is the great Frenchman. And what is Jesus Christ? Neither Hebrew, nor Greek; neither ancient, nor modern. He is a man, or rather Ho is the man. In the others you do not find human nature in its fullness: you meet with a limit; in Jesus Christ you meet no limit.

And remark, that this universality does not imply the absence of individuality. For what individuality was ever so manifest, so sharply defined? Who ever spoke of Himself in such a tone of authority? Where is a more complete independence to be found? On whom is He dependent? Not on the multitude who cheer Him, not on His disciples, not on His century, not on the ideas and the customs in the midst of which He lives. None can claim to have been his master. It is by the sublimity even of His individuality that He attains to that singular universality. Moses is a Jew in his thoughts, his feelings, his manners, and his habits, even more than in his origin. Socrates never raised himself above the Greek type. Mahomet was an Arab. La Fontaine and Molière are French to such a degree, that the English have as much trouble in understanding them as the French have in appreciating Goethe. All these great men have something in them that is local and transient, which cannot be understood beyond the mountain or the ocean, which cannot be everywhere imitated; something which dies with the age, which springs up again sometimes in another age, but again to pass away by a strange vicissitude, which shows that they are but men, although the greatest among men. In Jesus Christ there is nothing of this sort: His physiognomy shows no such limits. Human nature is there, but without anything to circumscribe it. He is the universal model proposed for universal imitation. All copy Him: the child, the maiden, the mother, the old man – all, whatever their condition, whatever their age, come to Him, to find consolation and strength: the poor, as well as the rich, the prisoner in his dungeon, and the king upon his throne. To no purpose are fresh actors brought on the scene by the progress of the world and of civilization: Jesus Christ is a stranger to none – not to the Greek, although he cared little for philosophy, not to the Roman, though he may never have gained a battle; not to the barbarian of the fourth century, nor to the polished citizen of the nineteenth century, although their ideas, their habits, and manners are so wholly dissimilar. He has been adored by the natives of America, of Africa, by Brahmins of India; and this adoration has created in them virtues as pure, and the same as those which sprang up in the degenerate Romans of the Lower Empire: His character so embraces all, touches the sympathies of all, appears to be within reach of all, is imitated by all, in all times, though never equalled! It would be unnecessary to repeat of His influence what we have said of His moral beauty and His individuality. It follows as a matter of course. His influence has no limit, either in time or in space. It has no bounds anywhere, in any direction. Above all, no age has escaped from it. The human race progresses, it presses forward rapidly, like a messenger running in hot haste. It blesses and hails on its path the geniuses which arise to carry the torch before it. Then very soon it leaves these geniuses behind. The philosophy of Plato was once good, but it no longer serves our purpose; the science of Newton was wonderful, but it has been outstripped. The geology of Cuvier effected a revolution, but it has disappeared. The human race advances. Kindle fresh torches! Hippocrates, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Lavoisier, Montgolfier – all have been left behind; but not Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ,” says M. Kenan, “will never be left behind.”

It is the glory, but at the same time the weakness, of great masters that their genius inspires them to dictate formulas which become starting points for further progress. And thus they create disciples who cause them to be forgotten. Although we may be very inferior to Socrates and Plato, to Cicero and Seneca, yet we know a thousand truths of which they were ignorant. We see a great many more which would have astonished Bossuet, Newton, or Pascal. “But,” as Parker very well says, ” eighteen centuries have passed since the tide of humanity rose so high in Jesus: what man, what sect, what church, has mastered His thoughts, comprehended His method, and so fully applied it to life? Let the world answer in its cry of anguish. Men have parted His raiment among them, cast lots for His seamless coat; but that spirit which toiled so manfully in a world of sin and death, which did, and suffered, and overcame the world – is that found, possessed, understood?” After eighteen centuries it is unexhausted, and inexhaustible.

It even seems that the more the human race progresses, the more striking becomes the influence of Jesus Christ. On each new horizon it throws a sudden ray of light: for each new want it provides a remedy till then unknown. What marvels are there not which the Christians of the first century never suspected, yet of which we are compelled to say – they were present to His mind. And what marvels that we do not perceive, of which our descendants will say – He foresaw these also.

And at the same time that it extends thus through centuries, and is renewed with every advance of civilization, this influence of Jesus Christ loses nothing of its intensity. After the lapse of eighteen centuries it masters souls as it did on the first day. “The story of the conquests of Alexander,” said Napoleon, “kindles our enthusiasm: here is a conqueror who conquers and appropriates to Himself, not one nation only, but the entire human race. What a miracle! The human soul, with all its powers, is absorbed in the existence of Jesus Christ.”

If, after having sought in vain the limits of His moral beauty, of His Individuality, and of His influence, we now contemplate His mind, we find ourselves face to face with a phenomenon of the same order, but still more wonderful. The mind of Jesus Christ is not only superior to every human mind, as we demonstrated above: it has no resemblance to other minds. It contains something that is incomprehensible, beyond our gaze.

You are familiar with the Gospel. Have you remarked in its pages, which contain a doctrine at once so pure, and so profound, and yet so definite, a strange sort of light, which resembles, but is not, obscurity; for obscurity could not be conceived in this lofty and vigorous mind: a light so different from the light of reason that some have called it folly, though that cannot be; otherwise in the course of centuries mankind would have demonstrated its absurdity; a light, which certainly is light, for it shines very brightly, although its source is concealed from us; a light, which not knowing how to define, we have called mystery – that is to say, the incomprehensible, the unapproachable?

It may be said that clouds seem to float around these light-giving discourses of the Gospel. From time to time we meet with obscure words; obscure, not from the absence of light, but rather by reason of its intensity. And the proof is, that the greatest geniuses, the friends and foes of religion alike, have studied them for eighteen centuries, and its friends have not succeeded in understanding them, nor its foes in overthrowing them. An Origen, an Augustine, a Thomas of Aquin, a Bossuet, a Leibnitz, a Pascal, have contemplated these mysterious pages with the same attention which had discovered the laws of thought, and the course of the stars; and they have declared that they did not understand them, but that these mysteries, which in themselves they could not comprehend, enabled them to see and understand all else. At the same time another race arose, great minds also, skillful in seizing the weak side of things, in unraveling sophisms, and in casting ridicule and contempt, and they undertook to show that these pages contained nothing but contradictions, follies, and obscurities; but they succeeded no better. In fact, had they proved their assertion, Christianity would have died out in contempt. So that after eighteen centuries of keenest discussion, these pages hold good, unfathomed, and, consequently, unfathomable.

Such is the phenomenon. It is unique. Search the books of philosophers: where will you find the unfathomable? You will find obscurity, but obscurity is but one proof of weakness. You will sometimes find contradictions, and you will be able to give the proof of it. But the incomprehensible, the unapproachable, you will never find. A man cannot be incomprehensible by wishing to be so, nor can he impose a mystery on the world at his pleasure. What one mind conceives, another can conceive, and though it is given to genius to be the first to attain to certain heights, it cannot rise so high but that others rise also, or at least follow in its train. Genius resembles the eagle, who takes her little ones on her wings and soars with them to the sun, whither they would be incapable of going without help. Jesus Christ alone cannot be followed. He is seen soaring over the heights, like the geniuses of this world. Like them He has elevation, depth, fertility: like them, and more than they. He pours down floods of human light. Then suddenly He rises higher; He enters the cloud; He is lost in an intense, impenetrable light, where none can follow Him.

It is this which makes the Gospel an incomparable book. Light, now approachable, now unapproachable, mingling in the same discourse, enraptures you at one moment, and at another strikes you to the ground. At times you feel your footing no longer secure, but there is no fear; you know with whom you are mounting. Those who can no longer see, adore. And then this intense impenetrable light sheds such beautiful rays. It is like the sun, at which one cannot gaze without being dazzled, but one can see the rays which come from it, and which enlighten the world and give it all its beauty.

These characteristics, which have so little that is human in them, though they belong to a nature so humanly beautiful, have forcibly struck all those observers who, particularly during the last two centuries, have begun to study Jesus Christ, no longer as formerly by the exterior of His Being, but by its interior. Rousseau in the eighteenth century, after only a very hasty glance, let his admiration find vent in this celebrated saying, “If the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and the death of Jesus are those of a God.” In our days, Napoleon had but to fix his eagle glance for one moment on Jesus Christ to give utterance to a yet more beautiful expression – “I know something about men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ was no mere man!” Goethe, the most universal and mighty, but at the same time the most pagan of modern poets, calls Christ “the divine man, the saint, the type and model of all men.”

In America, Channing, who took such pains to destroy the idea of the Divinity of Jesus Christ in the minds of his contemporaries, was obliged to confess that He presented features which the presence of mere human nature could not explain. “I believe,” he said, “Jesus Christ to be a more than human being.” And he adds, “Those who suppose Him not to have existed before His birth” (that is to say, who deny His Divinity) “do not regard Him as a mere man. They always separate Him by broad distinctions from other men. They consider Him as enjoying a communion with God, and as having received gifts, endowments, aids, lights from Him, granted to no other, and as having exhibited a spotless purity which is the highest distinction of Heaven. All admit, and joyfully admit, that Jesus Christ, by his greatness and goodness, throws all other human attainments into obscurity.”

After all, even those who in this century have looked most closely, though with hostility, into the character of Jesus Christ, who have declared themselves His avowed enemies, – Strauss in Germany, Parker in America, Renan in France, have been forced to make very significant confessions. “Christ,” says Strauss, “has not been followed by any who surpass Him, nor even by any who can attain after Him, and through Him, to the same perfection of religious life. Never, at any time, will it be possible to rise above Him, nor to imagine any who should even be equal with Him.” Parker is yet more explicit. The Divinity which manifests itself through the beautiful human character of Jesus Christ seems to show itself to him. “Jesus pours out a doctrine beautiful as the light, sublime as heaven, true as God. The Philosophers, the Poets, the Prophets, the Rabbis, He rises above them all. And yet Nazareth was no Athens where Philosophy breathed in the circum-ambient air; it had neither Porch nor Lyceum: not even a school of the Prophets. There is God in the heart of this youth!”

Such is Parker’s conclusion. Listen to that of M. Renan. “Rest now in Thy glory, Thou noble pioneer. Thy work is accomplished. A thousand times more living, a thousand times more loved since Thy death than during the days of Thy earthly life, Thou shalt so become the corner-stone of the human edifice that to take away Thy name from this world would be to shake it to its very foundations. Between Thee and God there is no longer any distinction. Thou hast completely overcome death: take possession of Thy kingdom. Ages of adorers will follow Thee thither by the royal road which Thou hast traced.”

Let us gather up the result. All observers, even the most careless and the most antagonistic, manifest an involuntary veneration, a growing admiration for the spotless purity, for the moral perfection, and for the beauty of this unequaled character. It seems to be more and more felt and admitted that He is the holiest amongst the holy in the history of our race, the greatest and the best that has ever trodden this earth. He is acknowledged to be so great, so good, and after the lapse of eighteen centuries so living, that the deepest thinkers involuntarily ask themselves if He is man, and the question arises in the minds of His enemies in spite of themselves. Now, that the question should arise, that the doubt should spring up of itself, that it should require an effort to put aside a question which does not arise in the case of any other man – is not this a presumption, and as it were, a first proof of his Divinity?

– taken from The Divinity of Christ, by Bishop Emile Bougaud