One cannot help wondering what the Christian world would be like today if the Church had kept to the policy and program of Jesus. What if the Church in her ideals and efforts had remained predominantly religious and ethical, instead of becoming, as she did, predominantly doctrinal and speculative?
It is not easy, indeed, to envision it. We are so accustomed to associate the great doctrinal disputes of past ages with the history and activity of the Church, that they almost seem an essential part of her life. But are they really?
As we look back upon the extinct and, as it now often seems, pretty much meaningless controversies of the past, it is not easy to resist the feeling that the Christian Church might have done a greater work and might now present to the world a better representation of the Spirit of Christ if she had observed the terms of his commission and had not undertaken to annex to her province so many foreign territories.
The Sermon on the Mount is a new law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology. Metaphysics is completely absent from it.
The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it.
One belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers.
The absence of ethics from one of the great ecumenical creeds of Christendom, and the metaphysical conditions of salvation prescribed in another, represent one estimate of the relative value of dogma and of character in the Christian world.
This estimate only shows how completely the gospel of Jesus became transformed into an esoteric doctrine as remote from the motives and purposes of Jesus' life-work as the unseemly strifes and alienations which it engendered were unproductive of the fruits of his Spirit in mankind. Jesus was wholly concerned with ethics, with begetting and fostering in men the Godlike life.
The word "character" summarizes the great interest and life-purpose of Jesus Christ.
The primacy of dogma in the Nicene Creed is obvious. More than forty paragraphs are devoted to the dogmas belief in which is declared to be essential to salvation; but two sections at the end are reserved for laying emphasis on a good life, so that this is not completely excluded from the definition of "the Catholic Faith."
Jesus and the apostles also spoke frequently of what men must do to be saved, but we can detect no resemblance between what they said and the propositions contained in these forty-one paragraphs.
The Sermon on the Mount is a typical description of the true righteousness which must characterize the members of the Kingdom — the righteousness which surpasses the legal formalism and ceremonial punctiliousness which the scribes and Pharisees called righteousness.
Meekness, being merciful, aspiration after goodness, purity, peacemaking, humility, patience, charity - these are the constituents of the Christian character as Jesus there portrays it.
How obvious it is that we have here an elaboration of the prophetic conception of righteousness that’s practically synonymous with love.
Micah summarizes God's supreme requirement of us in words which sound the keynote of our Master’s teaching in this Sermon: "to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God." (Micah 6:8)
We are thus brought face to face with the contrast between the biblical conception of righteousness and that which has been most widely current in traditional theology.
The various qualities and activities of the Christian character on which Jesus lays most stress are all consistent with what we have found in his mountain Sermon.
The true righteousness which makes us children of God consists in a love like that of God Himself.
The Christian character, then, as Jesus conceived it, is summed up in the one word "Godlikeness."
Become the children of your Father; be like your Father in love, in purity, in readiness to serve and forgive, and you thereby become members of the Kingdom of heaven; to acquire such a character - to live such a life - IS salvation.
But how are we to know what God's nature and requirements are so that we can understand, desire, and choose them as prescribing the law of their own life? The life and character of Jesus himself are the answer.
The more abstract demand to be like God is translated into the concrete and unmistakable requirement that the disciple should be like his Master.
It is, indeed, the unparalleled marvel of the character of Jesus that we can transfer the qualities of that character, point by point, to God himself with a perfect sense of consistency and truth.
If Jesus seems to set before us a high and abstract law for life, he does not leave us without a clear and definite interpretation of it. If he points us to a distant and apparently unattainable goal, he proves himself to be the way to an ever-closer approximation to it.
The Way of Christ Jesus is the way to the Father.
(Adapted from the writings of Rev. George Barker Stevens)