is the primary claim of Christianity that it is "the truth."
Jesus Christ, its founder, calls himself significantly "the
truth" (John xiv. 6), and sums up his mission in the world as
a constant witness-bearing to "the truth" (John xviii. 37).
It is accordingly as "the truth" that the gospel offers itself
to men; and it seeks to propagate itself in the world only as
"truth," and therefore only by those methods by which "truth"
makes its way. Not the sword but the word is Christianity's
weapon of defense and instrument of conquest. "Cut me off that
old man's head" was Caliph Omar's answer to the arguments with
which the aged Christian priest met him as he triumphantly entered
Jerusalem: and in this scene we have revealed the contrast between
Christianity and all other religions. "That old man," says Dr.
James MacGregor, "with no shield but faith, no sword but the
word, setting himself alone to stem the then raging lava-torrent
of fanaticism, with its brutish alternative of the Koran or
death, is typical of the fact that Christianity is an apologetic
religion." Confident that it is the only reasonable religion,
it comes forward as preeminently the reasoning religion. The
task it has set itself is no less than to reason the world into
acceptance of the "truth."
the world were only as eager to receive the truth as the truth
is to win the world, the function of Christian men might well
be summed up in the one word, proclamation. But the typical
responses of the world to the proclaimed truth are the cynical
sneer of Pilate, "What is truth?" and the brutal commend of
Omar, "Cut me off that old man's head!" So, proclamation must
needs pass into asseveration, and asseveration into contention,
that the truth may abide in the world. "Bear witness to the
truth"; "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for
all delivered to the saints": these are the twin exhortations
by which every Christian man's duty is declared for him. How
early did the Christian proclamation produce its double fruitage
of martyrdom and controversy! The old Greek word "martyr,"
"witness" soon took on a specific Christian meaning, and became
more and more confined to those who had sealed their testimony
with their blood; and everywhere the irritated world complained
of these persistent reasoners that they were turning the world
and "controversy!" If the collocation sounds strange in our
ears it can only be because we have failed to realize how
inevitable is their connection, how necessarily they appear
as twin fruits of the one fair tree of faithfulness. There
never was a martyrdom save as the result of controversy. The
spirit which would still contention for the truth never yet
went to the stake. There is a sentiment abroad indeed which
decries controversy. The same sentiment should certainly decry
martyrdom also. An anemic Christianity which is too little
virile to strive for the truth can never possess the nerve
to die for it. And the contradiction of loving the one and
hating the other is glaring. Says Dr. Mandell Creighton strikingly:
"The age of the martyrs has a powerful attraction even to
the casual reader; the age of the heresies leaves him bewildered
and distressed. Yet the agents in both were discharging an
equally necessary function. Both were upholding the truth
of the gospel; the one against the power of the world, the
other against the wisdom of the world. The martyrs had this
advantage, that the force of their testimony was concentrated
in one supreme moment, was expressed in one heroic act, which
commands universal sympathy. The controversialists had to
live through a protracted struggle and are judged by all their
utterances, and all their human weaknesses which the conflict
spirit of the martyr and the spirit of the controversialist
are therefore one. Both alike are the sport of the indifferent,
and the scorn of the worldly-wise to whom opportunism is the
last word of wisdom, and "convictions" the disease of fools.
"Conviction," cries the "Master-Devil" of Gilbert Parker's
The Seats of the Mighty-"conviction is the executioner of
the stupid. When a man is not great enough to let change and
chance guide him he gets convictions and dies a fool." Christian
men may call him a martyr: but the world at best a fanatic,
at worst a well-punished disturber of the peace. The issue
does not seem to the world worth fighting for and certainly
not worth dying for. If it did, the verdict would assuredly
be different. At least whenever the issue seems to it worth
fighting and dying for, even the worldly-wise can find ground
enough for admiration and praise of that spirit of faithfulness,
by which it is that the martyr and the controversialist alike
are dominated. We find this anecdote in General Sir John Adye's
Recollections of a Military Life: "An English soldier coming
on duty was heard to say to his comrade, 'Well, Jim, what's
the orders at this post?' Jim replied, 'Why, the orders is
you're never to leave it till you're killed, and if you see
any other man leaving it, you're to kill him.' " There burns
(in its own coarse form) the spirit both of the martyr and
of the controversialist-or, to put it in one word, the spirit
of the faithful man ready to do his duty, all his duty, and
his duty to the end. Let us permit one who himself trod the
thorny path to its goal make for us the application. "In Tynedale,
where I was born, not far from the Scottish border,' writes
Nicholas Ridley, "I have known my countrymen watch night and
day in their harness, such as they had, that is, in their
jacks, and their spears in their hands (you call them northern
gads), especially when they had any privy warning of the coming
of the Scots. And so doing, although at every such bickering
some of them spent their lives, yet by such means, like pretty
men, they defended their country. And those that so did, I
think that before God they died in a good quarrel, and their
offspring and progeny, all the country loved them the better
for their fathers' sakes. And in the quarrel of Christ our
Savior, in the defense of his own divine ordinances, by the
which he giveth us life and immortality, yea, in the quarrel
of faith and Christian religion, wherein resteth our everlasting
salvation, shall we not watch? Shall we not go always armed,
ever looking when our adversary (which, like a roaring lion,
seeketh whom he may devour) shall come upon us by reason of
our slothfulness? Yea, and woe be unto us, if he can oppress
us unawares, which undoubtedly he will do, if he find us sleeping."
Ridley would fain persuade us then, of the duty of controversy.
He walked in that path himself and it led him to the stake.
Was he a "martyr?" Or, as many prudent men of his day declared,
only an inextinguishable firebrand? It is greatly to be feared
that today also he would be judged by the wise among us merely
"a stirrer up of strife." It is certain that there are many
in our midst who fear controversy more than error. These assuredly
do not stay to remember that Christianity's sole weapon is
reasoning, its supreme effort to reason itself into the acceptance
of the world. What then will happen if it renounces the duty
of reasoning? To be sure constant reasoning is a weariness
to the flesh, and the temptation lies very close to purchase
longed-for and needed peace by calling a halt for a time and
resting on what is already attained. This were much like seeking
rest from the labors of life by ceasing to breathe for a season.
Let us learn here from a remark of Coleridge's. "For a nation
to make peace only because it is tired of war," he says, "in
order just to take breath is in direct subversion to the end
and object of the war, which was its sole justification. 'Tis
like a poor waysore foot-traveler getting up behind a coach
that is going the contrary way to his." Christianity is in
its very nature an aggressive religion; it is in the world
just in order to convince men; when it ceases to reason, it
ceases to exist. It is no doubt the truth; but the truth no
longer proclaimed and defended rots quickly down. The lawyers
have a very instructive maxim which it will do us all no harm
to heed: "A lie well stuck to," they say, "is better than
the truth abandoned." "I have often asked my Radical friends,"
Mr. Froude writes in one of his latest books, "what is to
be done if out of every hundred enlightened voters two-thirds
will give their votes one way but are afraid to fight, and
the remaining third will not only vote but will fight too
if the poll goes against them. Which has the right to rule?
I can tell them," he adds, "which will rule. … The brave and
resolute minority will rule. The majority must be prepared
to assert their Divine Right with their hands, or it will
go the way that other Divine Rights have gone before." Mr.
Froude is dealing with political matters, and speaks of that
strife with the sword which the Christian religion has renounced.
But strife it has not renounced: and whenever it shall have
renounced strife against its perennial foe with its own appropriate
weapon-the Word-it will have renounced hope of ruling over
the hearts and thoughts of men. Controversy is in this sense
and to this degree the vital breath of a really living Christianity.
there then to be no limits set to the controversial spirit?
Assuredly there are. These limits are, however, not to be
sought in motives of convenience or prudence. Christianity
thrives on controversy, and exists only by virtue of it-it
is in the world to reason the world into acceptance of itself,
and it would surely be vain to expect the world to take its
reasonings without reply. "It is the native property of the
divine word," says Calvin, rather "never to make its appearance
without disturbing Satan, and rousing his opposition. This
is the most certain and unequivocal criterion by which it
is distinguished from false doctrines, which are easily broached
since they are heard with general attention and received with
the applause of the world." "If the presence of controversy,"
therefore, adds Vinet, "is not in itself the criterion of
the truth of a doctrine, a doctrine which arouses no contradiction
lacks one of the marks of truth." And surely subjective motives
cannot exonerate us from bearing our witness to the truth.
Indeed it may be fairly argued that even subjective considerations
would rather bid us advance valiantly to the defense of the
truth, if it be at all the case as Dr. Hort tells us it is,
that "smooth ways" in this sphere too "are like smooth ways
of action … truth is never reached or held fast without friction
and grappling." And surely we will give quick assent to the
same writer's dictum that "there are other and better kinds
of victory than those that issue in imperial calm." Even a
certain amount of heat in controversy may thus find its justification-in
the consideration, to wit, that it is not merely the chill
logical intellect which may well be enlisted in this war.
The poet's line, "And God's calm will was their burning will,"
is no libel on the spirit of God's true martyrs and saints.
limits of controversy for the saving truth of God must be
sought then solely in objective considerations. Aristotle
perhaps as well as another, lays down the principles which
should govern the matter. "It is not necessary," he remarks,
in his formal manner, "to examine every proposition or every
thesis; but only those concerning which there really exists
doubt in someone's mind, so that it is instruction and not
rather rebuke or sense that is needed; for (for example),"
he adds, "it is rebuke that is needed when doubt is expressed
whether the gods should be served, and it is sense that is
lacking when doubt is expressed as to whether snow is white."
His meaning is apparently that there are some opinions which
are so senseless that those who broach them proclaim themselves
by that very fact beyond the reach of argument; and some so
immoral that those that broach them exhibit in them an evil
heart beyond the cure of reason: with these controversy may
well be declined because from the outset useless. But whenever
opinions are broached which do not argue utter depravity or
utter senselessness-they claim, of right, instruction from
those who are in the world for the express purpose of bearing
witness to the truth. Questions beyond this concern only the
manner of controversy and the tone of controversy: they cannot
touch the duty of controversy. He that declines controversy
"on principle," or from motives of convenience or prudence,
has thereby renounced his confidence in the truth-that truth
of which it has been truly said, that it is "like a torch,
the more it's shook, it shines."