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“On earth peace, goodwill toward men."--LUKE ii. 14.
THERE is considerable difference of opinion 1 as to what is the best reading and the best rendering of this passage. According to Dean Alford and the Revised Version, we should understand it to mean, peace among men towards whom God has a goodwill—that is, in whom He is well pleased. According to the Vulgate the meaning should be, peace to men who exhibit a goodwill. This is the sense adopted by Keble in his Christmas Hymn. The reading of the Authorised Version is not, perhaps, the best ; but as being more familiar, and at the same time so thoroughly in harmony with the spirit of the day, I will venture to take it as a motto.
It must be confessed that the conduct of professing Christians has often been such as to make the angel's song sound like an ironical sarcasm on Christianity, rather than a eulogy. Church history, for example, to a passionate lover of peace and goodwill, must be very melancholy reading. On nearly every page of it we find accounts of the quarrels of the clergy - not discussions, mark you, but downright quarrels — about abstruse theological dogmas. Think of the fierce warfare that once raged as to whether Christ were homoousios or homoiousios—that is, whether He were in substance the same as the Father, or only similar. This word “substance," you must know, means in metaphysics not what it ineans in common language, but just the opposite. It stands, not for what is tangible and palpable, but for what is intangible and impalpable. It represents, not what appears to the senses, but what does not so appear. The substance of anything is, roughly speaking, that which it is conceived to be in itself, in contradistinction to our perception of it. You will observe the difficulty of the idea. And not only is it difficult, but it is one about which there has always been the greatest possible disagreement. The word “substance” has been the most serious battle - ground of metaphysicians from the beginning until now. It may still be considered an open question as to what its exact positive meaning should be. Men are at one as to what they do not mean by the word; but when they attempt to define precisely what they do mean by it, there is endless diversity and confusion. And yet, as if Christianity were nothing more than a logomachy, it was round this word “substance” that the fourth century expended the greater part of its enthusiasm. Can you conceive of a sadder spectacle 2 There was the whole world lying in wickedness, waiting to be converted to Christ; and His ministers, the bishops and pastors of the Church, were jangling as to whether His substance, whatever that might be, were homoousios or homoiousios The one thing which He had most strongly insisted upon, they utterly forgot. They talked and acted as if no new commandment had ever been enjoined on them. Why, a bishop in the olden time was in a chronic state of excommunicating other bishops, or being excommunicated by them. Poor Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was expelled ten times from his see, and sometimes nearly lost his life in the tumult that attended his expulsion; and the only accusation against him was, that on certain points of theology he differed from the party that happened for the moment to be in the ascendant.
But I hear some one say, things are improved nowadays. Well, yes, I suppose they are, a little. But don't you think, my friend, that it is rather dishonourable in us to be so easily satisfied in regard to moral improvement ? A little of it goes such a very long way with us. If this nineteenth century were half as anxious about character as it is about sanitary regulations, it would be extremely dissatisfied with very much that goes under the name of Christianity. Many of those who call themselves Christians seem to be characterised by the very opposites of peace and goodwill. If you asked me where in these times you would find the most venomous vituperation, the most bitter exhibitions of hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, I am afraid I should have to say, in the rival columns of certain ecclesiastical newspapers. I remember that in the preface to the second edition of his Belfast Address, Professor Tyndall said he was not surprised at the bitter things which had been uttered against him by Christians, when he remembered how bitterly they were in the habit of recriminating one another. “'Tis true, 'tis pity; pity 'tis, 'tis true.” They have been $0 busy shouting their party shibboleths, and wrangling over their little points of doctrine or of ritual, that they have altogether forgotten their chief business in the world. But this is not Christ's fault. Any one who reads His New Testament intelligently, must see that it was a very different result at which Christ aimed. We noticed in a previous sermon that His endeavour was to redeem men from selfishness, and to create in them a universal sympathy for their fellows. Of this sympathy, peace and goodwill are the invariable characteristics :- peace, or the absence of quarrelsomeness; goodwill, or the actual performance of deeds of kindness. These are essential characteristics of genuine discipleship. Without them, any profession of religion is but hypocrisy and cant. St John does not mince matters, but declares plainly“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.”