If one turns, now, in the third place, in fulfilment of the positive problem of seeking reality for the spiritual life, from the rational argument for the existence of God, and the problem of personal relation to God, to ask for the way in which single Christian doctrines may become to him most real, he must see that this can be possible for the modern man only as these individual doctrines are associated in the closest way with assured fact and undoubted personal experience.
Has not the time fully come when we are to say unhesitatingly that any manual of vital and even true theology must be, at the same time, a manual of practical religion? For in any inquiry concerning single Christian doctrines, we are only asking: What does such an assured relation to God in Christ, in the realm of the morally infinite, mean as to God, as to Christ, as to men and their redemption? The individual doctrines, that is, must grow directly out of the individual's experience of communion with God; grow without pretense, and in all honesty, yet with modest open-mindedness as to the experience of others, just as one tries to keep both this honest and modest attitude in the realm of art and literary criticism.
The individual doctrine, too, must not only grow naturally out of the individual's own experience, but, based on that experience, it must come to the man with assured conviction. In the revelation of God in Christ, the Christian must see that he has relation to undoubted fact. And that means, first, that he must find in Christ not merely-what he may be thoroughly convinced that he finds in the case of a given portrait or story-a sure reflex of life, but, rather, the sense of God as now reaching him in Christ, because the inner spirit of the life of Christ is found to be in the highest degree rational and ethical, both in itself and in its implications.
And the Christian conviction means, in the second place, that the Christian finds in Christ, again, not merely that which he feels that he could not produce out of his own resources, as one has said, but rather that he finds in Christ the present, undoubted assurance and call of God and the spiritual world, just as, upon the Christian view, we feel the will of God in every demand of duty.
It follows that those doctrines will seem to us inevitable and Christian, which grow, in just this indubitable and individual way, out of a communion with God which we cannot question. But this will also mean, in turn, that, while doubtless certain Christian doctrines follow more directly than others from the Christian experience, we shall not be able consistently to draw hard and fast lines between the doctrines, as the full followers of Ritschl seem inclined to do. If doctrine is simply the outcome and expression of experience, then what we shall be able to reach in doctrine will depend upon the breadth and depth of our experience. It would be hazardous, for example, for us to set the exact limit of assured doctrine that might grow out of the depth and clearness of the consciousness of Christ. And with every true Christian we are dealing with growing life. Therefore, upon the very conception of doctrine which we are urging, the growing life ought to mean growing doctrine.
Is Herrmann, for example, perfectly clear as to the lines of separation between those doctrines which are a direct expression of a personal experience of God's self-revelation to us in Christ, and those which are "a thought or doctrine arising from and expressing faith in our redemption," and those which he regards as speculative additions (as the preexistence of Christ, theories of the atonement, etc.)? And where do we find the doctrines, which express the consciousness that "the Christian life contains depths which cannot be fathomed," and those which are "corollaries" from Christian experience? Are his distinctions clear? On his own theory, can he be so sure in the drawing of these sharp lines? Is it not quite certain that some doctrines would seem speculative for some, and for others will seem to be directly connected with their experience? And there will be, likewise, differences for the same individual at different periods in his growth. May not growing experience of the meaning of Christ make some further propositions seem like immediate expressions of one's faith? Let one think, for example, of the way in which John and Paul both seem to have come to their thought of Christ's preexistence; or, still better, if the doctrine is to be ascribed to Christ himself, of the way in which we may suppose it arose in Christ's own consciousness.
In this attempt to express in rational and definite statements the content of the Christian experience, it seems evident that we must make our ideal at least a final unity; though this final unity, doubtless, is to be sought with the most careful avoidance of common and serious errors at this point. That is, in the endeavor after unity in his own thought-expression of his Christian faith, one must steadily avoid the mistakes of dogmatism concerning any single doctrine, of putting all doctrines on a level, of making all those doctrines of various degrees, which we seem to ourselves to have reached, into a test for others, and especially of using any doctrinal statements as a way to life, instead of simply the expression of the life already there. As to this last point, however, the Christian needs continually to remember that life, too, grows through clear and definite expression, even in thought; although, no doubt, in life and its complex experience there is much that must always transcend such expression. But it is a lazy, and in my judgment a finally immoral, way for the Christian simply to rest back upon a more or less emotional experience, which he refuses to try, either for himself or for others, to express in clear and definite thought as well as in action.
Once more, with reference to all the individual doctrines we should be able in much to cut under questions of merely historical criticism, or of philosophical speculation, in recognition both of the fundamental likeness and of the unique contribution of the Christian experience, through undoubted relation to fact in that experience.
Let us ask, then, just how certainty might come to one, as to any doctrine, through the facts of his religious experience.