A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 3



ASK what Christianity is and we get a score of answers, each differing from the others. It will help us if, first of all, we consider Christianity as a historical movement. In so doing we shall discover three stages, the first that of preparation marked especially by a People; the second, its central creative point as marked by a Person; the third, its continuing life as represented by a Fellowship.

1. To understand Christianity we must begin with the People, the Hebrews. Many other influences entered into the forming of the new religion, but this has a unique place. The Jews were never a great nation. Their land was small; it could have been dropped down within the borders of any one of a score of states in the United States. They had no great power; almost their whole history can be told in terms of those ancient empires to which they were in turn subjected: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Macedonia, Syria, Rome. They had no art or philosophy of their own, and no great men of letters. But they had something more significant: they had prophets, seers, saints, men with deep insight and a hunger for God. Long centuries have passed. The whole shape of life has been changed. But when we ask the great questions that concern man, the questions about righteousness and mercy and God, then these prophets are still our teachers, their prayers and hymns are still our inspiration and help. The Old Testament is the background and basis of Christianity. It was the Bible and hymnal and prayer book of the primitive Church. There were, of course, "Hebrew old clothes" that needed to be gotten rid of. The Old Testament is not all on one level; Jesus selected and corrected in his use of it, but he himself was nurtured in the faith of the prophets and the piety of the psalms. You cannot understand the New Testament without the Old.

2. The second stage and central point of this history is marked by a Person, Jesus. What went before had its consummation in him; all who came after look to him as Lord. Many influences bore upon growing Christianity: the mystery religions with their passionate desire for redemption from this world and their belief in the power of sacramental rites, Greek philosophy whose ideas the early theologians used, Rome with its stress on rule and organization, and the varied social and economic conditions of that age. But Christ was the creative source. It was round him that the first disciples gathered. He gave them their faith and led them into fellowship with God. He gave them their hope for the future and his spirit was their rule of life. And he has remained center and source and inspiration through the ages, not as a memory of the past but as a living presence.

3. The third stage is that of the Fellowship which we call the Church. In the strict sense, historical Christianity began only when Jesus left and the Church arose. We must be careful lest the word "Church" give us a wrong picture; for Church suggests an institution, forms of organization, central authority, clerical orders, creeds, and ritual. But Christianity did not begin that way. It was first a fellowship, rather loosely united so far as outward bonds were concerned, but consciously one through the ties of the spirit, one in a common faith, love, and loyalty, one in the deep sense of a divine Presence. We watch this fellowship spread through the Roman world. It creates its own sacred writings, the New Testament, and sets them beside the Old Testament to form one sacred book. It defines its faith and formulates creeds. From the beginning, as the New Testament makes plain, there are different groups and varying points of view. There is no prescribed creed or organization. It was a vigorous life that could not be kept in rigid molds or held to one pattern. The fellowship gradually divided into separate "churches," often with bitter conflicts. Leaders tried to establish authoritative forms of organization and belief which should remain unchanged; but even apart from its divisions, the Church itself never remained exactly the same in any two generations.


It was inevitable that among these Christians the question should arise as to the essence of Christianity. No Christian body ever looked at this history as merely a human affair. It was history but more than history; it was a revelation of God and a way of salvation. So men asked: Just what is the divine element in this religion? Or, put in another way, What is the essence of Christianity? Of the many answers given we may select a half dozen that are representative.

(1) Christianity is the Church, says Roman Catholicism, this specific visible organization with the Pope of Rome at the head. That was what Christ established to represent him upon earth. To this institution he committed the divine and infallible threefold power which he possessed, that is, the power of teaching, of rule, and of salvation. The Church is the Christian religion. (2) The ancient Greek Orthodox faith likewise holds much the same view, but its conception of the Church is more mystical and less legalistic. Sometimes it has put supreme emphasis on the creeds—hence the name "Orthodox." But more vital and significant is the thought as set forth by certain of its leaders today of the Church as a living organism, the body of Christ, animated by the divine life and mediating that life to men through the sacraments. (3) The Bible is Christianity, some Protestants have said; at least, here is its divine and absolute element and men have simply to believe what it teaches and do what it says. (4) Some, accepting this conception of the Bible, have found the essence of Christianity in a sum of teachings which God has revealed through the Bible, in certain doctrines which are the absolute and unchanging "fundamentals of the faith." (5) Christianity is the religion of the spirit, others have said, and especially the Quakers. Not organization or doctrine or ritual is essential, but the Spirit which God gives to men for strength and guidance, and a certain inner quality of spirit which is the true religion in man. (6) For still others the mystical seems vague and creed and ritual incidental, or even an obstacle; for them the essential element in Christianity, as in all religion, is practical, and the Church is to be "the union of those that love in the service of those that need."


It is not likely that Christian men will ever agree as to just what is the divine essence in Christianity. The question is whether men have not been approaching the whole matter from the wrong standpoint. There is a deeper problem involved here, and that is how we are to think of God in his relation to the world. Christianity, all these agree, is something divine; but how does the divine enter the world? There are two ways of answering this question, and they determine largely the answer to the other query as to what Christianity is.

1. The first way we may call, for convenience, dualism and institutionalism. It is dualistic in its idea of God's relation to the world. It emphasizes strongly the transcendence of God and the idea of God as the "wholly other." God stands over against his world and works directly and from without. What he does is in no way dependent upon man, nor is it conditioned by the slow movement of history. It is God's deed and God's alone, and therefore it is absolute and perfect.

From this dualism there comes what we may call the "institutional" idea of Christianity. It recognizes, of course, the human and historical side of Christianity, and so the element of imperfection and change. But if Christianity is divine, then, it is assumed, there must be something in it that is perfect and unchangeable, something which God himself has instituted, which he has given directly to man. The traditional theology of both Catholics and Protestants agreed at this point. They differed in their ideas of what this was that God had given to men. The "Catholic" groups found it in the Church, the Protestants in the Bible or some sum of doctrines. Both sought for something objective, definite, tangible. Both felt that it must be infallible and unchanging because it was strictly supernatural, coming direct from God.

But to this position, in whatever form it is held, three objections must be raised, and these become more and more clear as men face the problem with open minds.

(1) History nowhere shows us any such infallible and unchanging element which we can separate out of the historic movement of Christianity. What we see is a new and powerful spiritual life, a profound conviction that God had come in Jesus Christ, and a faith and love which bound men together in a great fellowship. Now, life always needs a body through which to function; that is true of the group life as it is of the individual. The Christian fellowship had to have organization and leadership; it had to have forms of worship, ritual, and sacraments; out of its life there grew certain writings, like the Gospels and the letters of Paul, and these were kept as serving a permanent need; and from the beginning men sought to interpret to themselves and others what this life and faith meant, and so there were confessions, theologies, and creeds. These four factors form the institutional side of Christianity, or, to use a better figure, the body shaped by the spirit and expressing its life. Because this was something definite, because men found God through fellowship and Scriptures and worship and teaching, it was natural that these should be called divine; and because men thought of them as divine, they naturally conceived them in time as being infallible. But the plain facts are to the contrary. The creeds of the Church are man's attempt to set forth the truth of his faith; they are fallible and changing. The Bible is human as well as divine; it did not drop complete and perfect from the skies, but came forth out of man's life. The New Testament gives no basis for the "Catholic" idea of the Church as a super-naturally established institution, with legally prescribed form of organization, to whose hierarchy all was committed; history shows, rather, that in every aspect there was a gradual development, with a full share of human fallibility in teaching and rule.

(2) There is a misconception here as to how God works in the world. It was very simple and natural that men should think of God as above the earth, external to it, moving upon it by direct and irresistible action; that they should suppose that if Christianity were divine, we should be able to put our finger upon something which God himself had wrought, which he had handed down to men, and which as such was infallible, whether Bible, creed, or Church. But in actual fact, God does not work that way. Wherever we find him, in the Bible, in the Church, in the life of men today, he works in and through human life and experience.

(3) The emphasis on the "institutional" brings certain dangers to religion. The heart of religion is spiritual and ethical: an inner attitude of reverence, faith, and devotion, and a way of life; the institutional tends to turn the attention to something that is at least relatively external: submission to authority, acceptance of beliefs, and performance of ritual. Religion means something living and therefore growing and advancing, whether you think of the living God at work in the world or of the divine life in man; institutionalism tends to make religion static, to let it petrify in fixed ideas and forms, or stagnate in a formal routine of words and action. So men come at last to care more for the institution than the life, to overlook real religion while acting as zealous "defenders of the faith," of Bible and creed and Church, and in doing this to reveal the closed mind and the narrow, intolerant, and even vindictive spirit.

2. There is a second way of conceiving God's relation to the world. He is still the transcendent God, more than the world; but he is not apart from the world, not set over against it or external to it. Whether he works to reveal himself, to guide men into the truth, or to give men life, it is not through something that he hands over: a creed, a book, or an organization. It is, rather, as indwelling Spirit, as a divine life working in history and human experience. Christianity is the religion of the living God, but he is a God who works patiently, slowly, from within, not in a "direct action" that is external, irresistible, and absolute.

From all this there follows the spiritual, or vital-historical, conception of Christianity. It has its dangers also, the danger that Christianity shall become vague and uncertain, that we shall lose the divine in emphasizing the historical and human, that all shall become relative and men shall never be sure of God. These dangers are avoided if we hold to a God who is transcendent as well as immanent, who is personal and no impersonal force or tendency, and, above all, if we find in Jesus Christ at once a definite historical point of reference and a supreme revelation of God and the way of life. There is need too of realizing the value of tradition, not as something dead and gone, but as that which brings the high experience of the past, and which lives on in the present. Finally, the place of the fellowship in Christianity and the nature of religion as corporate must be clearly held. Thus the dangers of relativism, individualism, and subjectivism will be overcome.

Holding this historical-spiritual conception of Christianity, we believe in a living God, creative, self-revealing, redeeming, working in human life and history. He is a God concerned with all nations, present in all life, and in every race and every religion, wherever truth and goodness and reverence and faith are found. But what God has been able to say to men and do for men has depended upon the human response. That explains the slow progress, the long way we still have to go in apprehending God's truth and realizing his will. In one people, however, he found a response as in no other, and through one group of men, the Hebrew prophets, he was able as through no other to speak to men. And then, "in the fullness of time," there was one Life wholly given to him, a life in which divine and human became one. So Jesus Christ became the creative center of the new faith, which was yet old, and so he remains its abiding guide and inspiration. This position must now be set forth in the discussion of "The Religion of a Person," "The Religion of Redemptive Good Will," and "The Religion of the Spirit."


Christianity means Jesus Christ—that is its briefest definition. We have spoken of God moving in history. That movement has not ended; it will not end while man is here on earth, for God will always be revealing more of himself, lifting humanity higher toward its goal. But history is more than a slow and steady ascent. There was one point for which all that went before was a preparation, it was a fulfilling of time, a crisis. Just how or why we can never fully know, but God spoke his word to men in Jesus as it had not been uttered before. Here was a revelation of God's own spirit; men saw "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Here was a judgment on sin; here was a disclosure of how sin might be conquered, of what man might become, and of how this life might be gained. Jesus has been acclaimed a great moral example, a unique religious genius, a master teacher. He is all of these, but he is more. The center of Christianity is not the man Jesus but the God who speaks to us through him, who comes to us in him. That was his task, to show God to men, to bring men to God.

Jesus remains central for Christianity today. There is a widespread assumption today that endless change is the mark of all life and that there is nothing which the future will not transcend, but the facts refute this. Science steadily advances, but there are great discoveries which, once made, remain a permanent possession. We learn new truths, but truth itself, so far as we gain it, is not transcended. There is an eternal world of beauty and truth and goodness; man does not create it, he discovers it, and so far as he really discovers it, it abides. Greek sculpture, the paintings of the masters, the work of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven will never be left behind. So there are insights in religion which can never alter. Twenty seven centuries ago the Hebrew prophets saw that religion meant, not sacrifices to placate God or gifts to win his favor, but humble trust, simple obedience, and justice and mercy shown to man. No coming years will ever make obsolete the word of Micah, already quoted, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

We have many things yet to learn, and a still longer road to travel in translating truth into life; but the word of God to man which has come in Jesus Christ so far from being transcended still moves far in advance of human progress. The God whom he made known is still the God of our faith—no higher vision has been given to us. We have endless problems to solve in our individual and social life, but he has showed us the kind of men that we should be and the spirit that should govern our life together.


We have found the unique character of the Christian religion, its divine element, not in the letter of the Bible, or in a sum of doctrine, or in any given institution, but in the spirit that was in Christ seen as the revelation of what God is, of what man is to be, and of the way of man's salvation. Scholars tell us that we cannot be absolutely certain that Jesus' words have been correctly reported to us in any given passage, or that we have exactly or in order the details of his life story; yet clearly, definitely, and with convincing reality his spirit stands forth from the pages of the Gospels. But just what is that spirit? No one word can express it, nor, indeed, all our words. The best single word is love, if only that word had not been so much sentimentalized and de-moralized in common use. Without giving up that great word, let us call it the spirit of holy and redemptive good will: holy because it is something transcendent, divine, and righteous; good will because it seeks nobly and highly as well as unselfishly the supreme good of its object; redemptive because there is in it not simply a high goal but a power to transform. Or, more briefly, we might call Christianity the religion of creative good will. The meaning of this is clear if we consider this in relation to the three great life questions with which religion deals: the God in whom we trust, the life that we must lead, the power on which we depend for help.

1. Through Christ we learn, and dare to believe, that God is redemptive good will. The Power that is back of this universe of ours is holiness and righteousness; but it is more. It is love that is constantly seeking to win men from evil, to call them into its own life. What Jesus was and did in his life of love and sacrifice, that we believe God was and is and is now doing.

2. This is the life that men must lead. It is not the only word to use but it is the central word. Paul said this in his great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. Jesus declared, "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"; and this word follows a matchless passage in which he describes the love of God that draws no lines, and that no disobedience or ingratitude of men can change. The rule of life for the Christian religion is nothing less than the Spirit of God as seen in Christ.

3. And good will is the way of salvation. Here is the only power that can save us. That is the "good news/ 7 the gospel, which Christianity has declared from the beginning. God does not save men by commandment or might or wisdom, but by his forgiving love that wins them, and by that same love as a transforming force in their hearts. What we have been slower to learn is that this good will, and this alone, as practiced in human relations between man and man, between nation and nation, can heal the world's wounds and save it from disaster. Christianity stands inflexibly for that way as against all national pride and international rivalry, against all militarism and imperialism, against all the ways of selfishness and force. Here is the test of a Christian faith: to surrender our own life in unfaltering trust and obedience to the God of saving good will, and then, with equal courage and confidence, renouncing force and selfishness and guile, to build the individual life and our social order upon this same principle.


The Christian religion as seen in the New Testament reveals two striking features which makes it deserve the name of the religion of the spirit.

1. The emphasis of the New Testament is upon the inner spirit in religion. Jesus goes back of laws and forms and institutions and opinions. Humility, reverence, faith, obedience, unconquerable good will— these determine whether men are children of their Father. If any man have not the spirit of Christ, Paul says, he is none of his, but if he have this spirit, which is God's Spirit, then he has life and joy and peace, then he can say, "Abba, Father." This does not deny the place of form and organization in religion. Christianity means a fellowship, it means work in the world; and so forms of worship, confessions of faith, organized activity, and leadership are needed. But all this is secondary. It is here to express and advance the life of the spirit, as instrument and not as end.

2. The New Testament shows us the religion of the Spirit in a second sense; this higher spirit in man which it demands is the creation of the Spirit of God. New Testament religion is an ellipse drawn about two foci, Christ and the Spirit. In Christ God has come to man; in the Spirit God works creatively in men. But the two foci sometimes move so close together, especially in Paul, that it looks like a circle with one center: Christ is present with men as Spirit, and the Spirit is that of Christ. So Paul says flatly: "Now the Lord [Christ] is the Spirit." But the important fact is this: God is not distant power but living Presence; religion is no mere human effort, it is God's gift. And so Christianity appears as a religion of inspiration and power, as a gift and not a mere task, as a life given to men as well as one to be lived.


From this there have followed two facts of greatest importance for the movement of Christianity through the centuries, facts which seem to form a paradox: Christianity has been a religion of freedom and change and advance; Christianity has maintained its identity in all the centuries and has not lost its true self.

1. Christianity has been a religion of freedom and advance because it is a religion of the spirit and not one of hard and fixed institution and form. Our God is the God of the spirit, working here and now, the God of life that ever moves on, the God at work ever achieving anew, the God of truth to whom all truth belongs. And he guides us into new life and truth by his Spirit. We do not live in the past. If there is truth from science, truth found in other faiths, we take it, for it all belongs to the God of truth. The faith we have through Christ is not an enclosure to which we retreat for safety and rest; rather, it is an open highway along which we adventure, knowing that the living God leads the way.

2. In a very true sense, however, Christianity has remained the same. We have not gone beyond Christ, not gone off on another way; we have followed him. We do not stop with Christ but he gives us the line of advance. Our organization, our theologies, our rules, our life—none of these has been perfect or final. But one thing has been certain and has not changed: it is the faith that in Jesus Christ there is revealed to us what God is and what man must be. All our life has confirmed this. The ages have shown us no higher vision of God, no truer way of life. Still we turn to Christ and say:

"We own thy sway, we hear thy call,

We test our lives by thine."

Let us sum up what Christianity is in three different forms of statement which yet are one. (1) Historically, Christianity is that ongoing and ever-renewed fellowship that had its origin in Jesus Christ, and that finds in him its continuing inspiration and guidance. (2) Essentially, Christianity is the religion of redemptive good will: it believes in the God of good will, in the life of good will for men, and in the final triumph of the spirit of good will on earth. (3) In one word, Christianity is Christ, the Christ through whom we know what God is and what man is to be.


  • The tendency to institutionalism (ecclesiasticism) in religion and the defects and dangers of this type of Christianity.
  • Individualistic, subjective, and liberalistic trends, and their dangers.
  • What do you consider the primary elements which go to make up the Christian religion?
  • What should be our attitude toward non-Christian faiths? What should be the grounds, the spirit, and the method of Christian work in non-Christian lands?
  • Can we have a religion which is final and yet leaves room for progress in thought and life?


  • E. R. E.: Articles, "Jesus Christ," "Christianity"
  • Edwyn Bevan: Christianity
  • H. R. Mackintosh: The Originality of the Christian Message
  • E. Stanley Jones: The Christ of the Indian Road
  • Oscar Buck: Christianity Tested
  • Edwin Lewis: A Christian Manifesto
  • H. F. Rall and S. S. Cohon: Christianity and Judaism Compare Notes
  • Karl Adam: The Spirit of Catholicism
  • Adolf Harnack: What Is Christianity?
  • John Baillie: The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity
  • T. R. Glover: The Jesus of History; Jesus in the Experience of Men
  • C. E. Raven: Jesus and the Gospel of Love
  • D. Elton Trueblood: The Essence of Spiritual Religion
  • H. T. Andrews and others: The Lord of Life
  • W. P. Paterson: The Rule of Faith
  • Nicholas Arseniev: We Beheld His Glory