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The Character of Jesus
by Horace Bushnell


  1.       The Character of Jesus:   Part 1
  2.       The Character of Jesus:   Part 2
  3.       The Character of Jesus:   Part 3
  4.       The Character of Jesus:   Part 4
  5.       The Character of Jesus:   Part 5

The Character of Jesus
Part 1

Forbidding His Possible Classification With Men

Publisher's Advertisement

In this little volume we reprint, with consent of the Author, the tenth chapter of his Treatise, Nature and the Supernatural.

This chapter, taken as a sketch of the self-evidencing, superhuman character of Christ, has attracted much attention; and we have solicited, many times over, in the various notices and reviews of the book, as well as by private readers, to give it to the public by itself. This, too, we do more readily, that it makes a complete whole by itself, and is in a style to be read by multitudes who probably will not undertake to master the more elaborate and difficult argument, of which it is only a subordinate member.

The Character Of Jesus

It is the grand peculiarity of the sacred writings, that they deal in supernatural events and transactions, and show the fact of a celestial institution finally erected on earth, which is fitly called the kingdom of God; because it shows Him reigning, as a Regenerator and Restorer of the broken order of the world. Christianity is, in this view, no mere scheme of doctrine, or of ethical practice, but is instead a kind of miracle, a power out of nature and above, descending into it; a historically supernatural movement on the world, that is visibly entered into it, and organized to be an institution in the person of Jesus Christ. He, therefore, is the central figure and power, and with him the entire fabric either stands or falls.

To this central figure, then, we now turn ourselves; and, as no proof beside the light is necessary to show that the sun shines, so we shall find that Jesus proves himself by his own self-evidence. The simple inspection of his life and character will suffice to show that he cannot be classified with mankind (man though he be), any more than what we call his miracles can be classified with mere natural events. The simple demonstrations of his life and spirit are the sufficient attestation of his own profession, when he says," I am from above","I came down from heaven."

Let us not be misunderstood. We do not assume the truth of the narrative by which the manner and facts of the life of Jesus are reported to us; for this, by the supposition, is the matter in question. We only assume the representations themselves, as being just what they are, and discover their necessary truth, in the transcendent, wondrously self-evident, picture of divine excellence and beauty exhibited in them.

We take up the account of Christ, in the New Testament, just as we would any other ancient* writing, or as if it were a manuscript just brought to light in some ancient library. We open the book, and discover in it four biographies of a certain remarkable character, called Jesus Christ. He is miraculously born of Mary, a virgin of Galilee, and declares himself, without scruple, that he came out from God. Finding the supposed history made up, in great part, of his mighty acts, and not being disposed to believe in miracles and marvels, we should soon dismiss the book as a tissue of absurdities too extravagant for belief, were we not struck with the sense of something very peculiar in the character of this remarkable person. Having our attention arrested thus by the impression made on our respect, we are put on inquiry, and the more we study it, the more wonderful, as a character, it appears. And before we have done, it becomes, in fact, the chief wonder of the story; lifting all the other wonders into order and intelligent proportion round it, and making one compact and glorious wonder of the whole picture; a picture shining in its own clear sunlight upon us, as the truest of all truths,Jesus, the Divine Word, coming out from God, to be incarnate with us, and be the vehicle of God and salvation to the race.

On the single question, therefore, of the more than human character of Jesus, we propose, in perfect confidence, to rest a principal argument for Christianity as a supernatural institution; for, if there be in Jesus a character which is not human, then has something broken into the world that is not of it, and the spell of unbelief is broken.

Not that Christianity might not be a supernatural institution, if Jesus were only a man; for many prophets and holy men, as we believe, have brought forth to the world communications that are not from themselves, but were received by inspirations from God. There are several grades, too, of the supernatural, as already intimated; the supernatural human, the supernatural prophetic, the supernatural demonic and angelic, the supernatural divine. Christ, we shall see, is the supernatural manifested in the highest grade or order; viz., the divine.

We observe, then, as a first peculiarity at the root of his character, that he begins life with a perfect youth. His childhood is an unspotted, and, withal, a kind of celestial flower. The notion of a superhuman or celestial childhood, the most difficult of all things to be conceived, is yet successfully drawn by a few simple touches. He is announced beforehand as "that Holy Thing"; a beautiful and powerful stroke, to raise our expectation to the level of a nature so mysterious. In his childhood, everybody loves him. Using words of external description, he is shown growing up in favor with God and man, a child so lovely and beautiful, that heaven and earth appear to smile upon him together. So, when it is added that the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and, more than all, that the grace or beautifying power of God was upon him, we look, as on the unfolding of a sacred flower, and seem to scent a fragrance wafted on us from other worlds. Then, at the age of twelve, he is found among the great learned men of the day, the doctors of the temple, hearing what they say, and asking them questions. And this, without any word that indicates forwardness or pertness in the child's manner, such as some Christian Rabbi, or silly and credulous devotee, would certainly have added. The doctors are not offended, as by a child too forward or wanting in modesty; they are only amazed that such a degree of understanding can dwell in one so young and simple. His mother finds him there among them, and begins to expostulate with him. His reply is very strange; it must, she is sure, have some deep meaning that corresponds with his mysterious birth, and the sense he has ever given her of a something strangely peculiar in his ways; and she goes home keeping his saying in her heart, and guessing vainly what his thought may be. Mysterious, holy secret! which this mother hides in her bosom; that her holy thing, her child whom she has watched, during the twelve years of his celestial childhood, now begins to speak of being "about his Father's business," in words of dark enigma, which she can not fathom.

Now we do not say, observe, that there is one word of truth in these touches of narrative. We only say that, whether they be fact or fiction, here is given the sketch of a perfect and sacred childhood, not of a simple, lovely, ingenuous, and properly human childhood, such as the poets love to sketch, but of a sacred and celestial childhood. In this respect, the early character of Jesus is a picture that stands by itself. In no other c case, that we remember, has it ever (lit red the mind of a biographer, in drawing a character, to represent it as beginning with a spotless childhood. The childhood of the great human characters, if given at all, is commonly represented, according to the uniform truth, as being more or less contrary to the manner of their mature age; and never as being strictly one with it, except in those cases of inferior eminence where the kind of distinction attained to is that of some mere prodigy, and not a character of greatness in action, or of moral excellence. In all the higher ranges of character, the excellence portrayed is never the simple unfolding of a harmonious and perfect beauty contained in the germ of childhood, but it is a character formed by a process of rectification, in which many follies are mended and distempers removed; in which confidence is checked by defeat, passion moderated by reason, smartness sobered by experience. Commonly a certain pleasure is taken in showing how the many wayward sallies of the boy are, at length, reduced by discipline to the character of wisdom, justice, and public heroism, so much admired.

Besides, if any writer, of almost any age, will undertake to describe, not merely a spotless, but a superhuman or celestial childhood, not having the reality before him, he must be somewhat more than human himself, if he does not pile together a mass of clumsy exaggerations, and draw and overdraw, till neither heaven nor earth can find any verisimilitude in the picture.

Neither let us omit to notice what ideas the Rabbis and learned doctors of this age were able, in fact, to furnish, when setting forth a remarkable childhood. Thus Josephus, drawing on the teachings of the Rabbis, tells how the infant Moses, when the king of Egypt took him out of his daughter's arms, and playfully put the diadem on his head, threw it pettishly down and stamped on it. And when Moses was three years old, he tells us that the child had grown so tall, and exhibited such a wonderful beauty of countenance, that people were obliged, as it were, to stop and look at him as he was carried along the road, anti were held fast by the wonder, gazing till he was out of sight. See, too, what work is made of the childhood of Jesus himself, in the Apocryphal gospels. These are written by men of so nearly the same era, that we may discover, in their embellishments, what kind of a childhood it was in the mere invention of the time to make out. While the gospels explicitly say that Jesus wrought no miracles till his public ministry began, and that he made his beginning in the miracle of Cana, these are ambitious to make him a great prodigy in his childhood. They tell how, on one occasion, he pursued in his anger, the other children, who refused to play with him, and turned them into kids; how, on another, when a child accidentally ran against him, he was angry, and killed him by his mere word; how, on another, Jesus had a dispute with his teacher over the alphabet, and when the teacher struck him, how he crushed him, withered his arm, and threw him down dead. Finally, Joseph tells Mary that they must keep him within doors, for everybody perishes against whom he is excited. His mother sends him to the well for water, and having broken his pitcher, he brings the water in his cloak. He goes into a dyer's shop, when the dyer is out, and throws all the cloths he finds into a vat of one color; but, when they are taken out, behold, they are all dyed of the precise color that was ordered. He commands a palm-tree to stoop down and let him pluck the fruit, and it obeys. When he is carried down into Egypt, all the idols fall down wherever he passes, and the lions and leopards gather round him in a harmless company. This the Gospel of the Infancy gives, as a picture of the wonderful childhood of Jesus. How unlike that holy flower of paradise, in the true gospels, which a few simple touches make to bloom in beautiful self-evidence before us!

Passing now to the character of Jesus in his maturity, we discover, at once, that there is an element in it which distinguishes it from all human characters, viz., innocence. By this we mean, not that he is actually sinless; that will be denied, and, therefore, must not here be assumed. We mean that, viewed externally, he is a perfectly harmless being, actuated by no destructive passions, gentle to inferiors, doing ill or injury to none. The figure of a Lamb, which never was, or could be applied to any of the great human characters, without an implication of weakness fatal to all respect, is yet, with no such effect, applied to him. We associate weakness with innocence, and the association is so powerful, that no human writer would undertake to sketch a great character on the basis of innocence, or would even think it possible. We predicate innocence of infancy; but to be a perfectly harmless, guileless man, never doing ill even for a moment, we consider to be the same as to be a man destitute of spirit and manly force. But Christ accomplished the impossible. Appearing in all the grandeur and majesty of a superhuman manhood, he is able still to unite the impression of innocence, with no apparent diminution of his sublimity. It is, in fact, the distinctive glory of his character, that it seems to be the natural unfolding of a divine innocence; a pure celestial childhood, amplified by growth. We feel the power of this strange combination, but we have so great difficulty in conceiving it, or holding our minds to the conception, that we sometimes subside or descend to the human level, and empty the character of Jesus of the strange element unawares. We read, for example, his terrible denunciations against the Pharisees, and are shocked by the violent, fierce sound they have on our mortal lips; not perceiving that the offence is in us, and not in him. We should suffer no such revulsion, did we only conceive them bursting out, as words of indignant grief, from the surcharged bosom of innocence; for there is nothing so bitter as the offence that innocence fee]s, when stung by hypocrisy and a sense of cruelty to the poor. So, when he drives the moneychangers from the temple, we are likely to leave out the only element that saves him from a look of violence and passion. Whereas, it is the very point of the story, not that he, as by mere force, can drive so many men, but that so many are seen retiring before the moral power of one, a mysterious being, in whose face and form the indignant flush of innocence reveals a tremendous feeling, they can no wise comprehend, much less are able to resist.

Accustomed to no such demonstrations of vigor and decision in the innocent human characters, and having it as our way to set them down contemptuously, without further consideration, as incapable and shallow innocents, we turn the indignant fire of Jesus into a fire of malignity; whereas, it should rather be conceived that Jesus here reveals his divinity, by what so powerfully distinguishes God himself, when he clothes his goodness in the tempests and thunders of nature. Decisive, great, and strong, Christ is vet all this, oven the more sublimely, that he is invested, withal, in the lovely, but humanly feeble garb of innocence. And that this is the true conception, is clear, in the fact that no one ever thinks ,of him as weak, and no one fails to be somehow impressed with a sense of innocence by his life. When his enemies are called to show what evil or harm he hath done, they can specify nothing, save that he has offended their bigotry. Even Pilate, when he gives him up, confesses that he finds nothing in him to blame, and, shuddering with apprehensions he cannot subdue, washes his hands to be clear of the innocent blood! Thus lie dies, a being holy, harmless, undefiled. And when he hangs, a bruised flower, drooping on his cross, and the sun above is dark, and the earth beneath shudders with pain, what have we in this funeral grief of the worlds, but a fit honor paid to the sad majesty of his divine innocence?

We pass now to his religious character, which, we shall discover, has the remarkable distinction that it proceeds from a point exactly opposite to that which is the root or radical element in the religious character of men. Human piety begins with repentance. It is the effort of a being, implicated in wrong and writhing under the stings of guilt, to come unto God. The most righteous, or even self-righteous men, blend expressions of sorrow and vows of new obedience with their exercises. But Christ, in the character given him, never acknowledges sin. It is the grand peculiarity of his piety that he never regrets anything that he has done or been; expresses, nowhere, a single feeling of compunction, or the least sense of unworthiness. On the contrary, he boldly challenges his accusers, in the question,Which of you convinceth me of sin? and even declares, at the close of his life, in a solemn appeal to God, that he has given to men, unsullied, the glory divine that was deposited in him.

Now the question is not whether Christ was, in fact, the faultless being, assumed in his religious character. All we have to notice here is, that he makes the assumption, makes it not only in words, but in the very tenor of his exercises themselves, and that by this fact his piety is radically distinguished from all human piety. And no mere human creature, it is certain, could hold such a religious attitude, without shortly displaying faults that would cover him with derision, or excesses and delinquencies that would even disgust his friends. Piety without one dash of repentance, one ingenuous confession of wrong, one tear, one look of contrition, one request to heaven for pardon,let any one of mankind try this kind of piety, and see how long it will be ore his righteousness will prove itself to be the most impudent conceit! how long before his passions sobered by no contrition, his pride kept down by no repentance, will tempt him into absurdities that will turn his pretenses to mockery! No sooner does any one of us begin to be self-righteous, than he begins to fall into outward sins that shame his conceit. But, in the case of Jesus, no such disaster follows. Beginning with an impenitent or unrepentant piety, he holds it to the end, and brings no visible stain upon it.

Now, one of two things must be true. He was either sinless, or he was not. If sinless, what greater, more palpable exception to the law of human development, than that a perfect and stainless being has for once lived in the flesh! If not, which is the supposition required of those who deny every thing above the range of human development, then we have a man taking up a religion without repentance, a religion not human, but celestial, a style of piety never taught him in his childhood, and never conceived or attempted among men: more than this, a style of piety, withal, wholly unsuited to his real character as a sinner, holding it as a figment of insufferable presumption to the end of life, and that in a way of such Unfaltering grace and beauty, as to command the universal homage of the human race! Could there be a wider deviation from all we know of mere human development?

He was also able perfectly to unite elements of character, that others find the greatest difficulty in uniting, however unevenly and partially. He is never said to have laughed. and yet he never produces the impression of austerity, moroseness, sadness, or even of being unhappy. On the contrary, he is described as one that appears to be commonly filled with a sacred joy; "rejoicing in spirit," and leaving to his disciples, in the hour of his departure, the bequest of his joy," that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves." We could not long endure a human being whose face was never moved by laughter, or relaxed by humorous play. What sympathy could we have with one who appears, in this manner, to have no human heart? We could not even trust him. And yet we have sympathy with Christ; for there is somewhere in him an ocean of deep joy, and we see that he is, in fact, only burdened with his sympathy for us to such a degree, that his mighty life is overcast and oppressed by the charge he has undertaken. His lot is the lot of privation; he has no powerful friends; he has not even where to Jay his head. No human being could appear in such a guise, without occupying us much with the sense of his affliction. We should be descending to him, as it were, in pity. But we never pity Christ, never think of him as struggling with the disadvantages of a lower level, to surmount them. In fact, he does not allow us, after all, to think much of his privations. We think of him more as a being of mighty resources, proving himself only the more sublimely, that he is in the guise of destitution. He is the most unworldly of beings, having no desire at all for what the earth can give, too great to be caught with any longing for its benefits, impassible even to its charms, and vet there is no ascetic sourness or repugnance, no misanthropic distaste in his manner; as if he were bracing himself against the world to keep it off. The more closely he is drawn to other worlds, the more fresh and susceptible is he to the humanities of this. The little child is an image of gladness, which his heart leaps forth to embrace. The wedding and the feast and the funeral have all their cord of sympathy in his bosom. At the wedding he is clothed in congratulation, at the feast in doctrine, at the funeral in tears; but no miser was ever drawn to his money, with a stronger desire, than he to worlds above the world.

Men undertake to be spiritual, and they become ascetic; or, endeavoring to hold a liberal view of the comforts and pleasures of society, they are soon buried in the world, and slaves to its fashions; or, holding a scrupulous watch to keep out every particular sin, they become legal, and fall out of liberty; or, charmed with the noble and heavenly liberty, they run to negligence and irresponsible living; so the earnest become violent, the fervent fanatical and censorious, the gentle waver, the firm turn bigots, the liberal grow lax, the benevolent ostentatious. Poor human infirmity can hold nothing steady. Where the pivot of righteousness is broken, the scales must needs slide off their balance. Indeed, it is one of the most difficult things which a cultivated Christian can attempt, only to sketch a theoretic view of character, in its true justness and proportion, so that a little more study, or a little more self-experience, will not require him to modify it. And yet the character of Christ is never modified, even by a shade of rectification. It is one and the same throughout. He makes no improvements, prunes no extravagances, returns from no eccentricities. The balance of his character is never disturbed, or readjusted, and the astounding assumption on which it is based is never shaken, even by a suspicion that he falters in it.

There is yet another point related to this, in which the attitude of Jesus is even more distinct from any that was ever taken by man, and is yet triumphantly sustained. I speak of the astonishing pretensions asserted concerning his person. Similar pretensions have sometimes been assumed by maniacs, or insane persons, but never, so far as I know, by persons in the proper exercise of their reason. Certain it is that no mere man could take the same attitude of supremacy towards the race, and inherent affinity or oneness with God, without fatally shocking the confidence of the world by his effrontery. Imagine a human creature saying to the world," I came forth from the Father", "ye are from beneath, I am from above"; facing all the intelligence and even the philosophy of the world, and saying, in bold assurance," behold, a greater than Solomon is here","I am the light of the world","the way, the truth, and the life"; publishing to all peoples and religions," No man cometh to the Father, but by me"; promising openly in his death," I will draw all men unto me "; addressing the Infinite Majesty, and testifying," I have glorified thee on the earth "; calling to the human race," Come unto me "; "follow me"; laying his hand upon all the dearest and most intimate affections of life, and demanding a precedent love," he that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me." Was there ever displayed an example of effrontery and spiritual conceit so preposterous? Was there ever a man that dared put himself on the world in such pretensions ?,as if all light was in him; as if to follow him and be worthy of him was to be the conclusive or chief excellence of mankind! What but mockery and disgust does he challenge as the certain reward of his audacity! But no one is offended with Jesus on this account, and what is a sure test of his success, it is remarkable that, of all the readers of the gospel, it probably never even occurs to one in a hundred thousand, to blame his conceit, or the egregious vanity of his pretensions.

Nor is there any thing disputable in these pretensions, least of all, tiny trace of myth or fabulous tradition. They enter into the very web of his ministry, so that if they are extracted and nothing left transcending mere humanity, nothing at all is left. Indeed, there is a tacit assumption, continually maintained, that far exceeds the range of these formal pretensions. He says," I and the Father that sent me." What figure would a man present in such language,I and the Father? He goes even beyond this, and apparently without any thought of excess or presumption; classing himself with the Infinite Majesty in a common plural, he says , We will come unto him, and make our abode with him. Imagine any, the greatest and holiest of mankind, any prophet, or apostle, saying we, of himself and the Great Jehovah! What a conception did he give us concerning himself, when he assumed the necessity of such information as this," my Father is greater than [1] "; and above all, when he calls himself, as he often does, in a tone of condescension," the Son of Man.' See him also on the top of Olivet, looking down on the guilty city and weeping words of compassion like these,imagine some man weeping over London or New York, in the like," How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" See him also in the supper, instituting a rite of remembrance for himself, a scorned, outcast man, and saying," this is my body","this do in remembrance of me."

I have dwelt thus on the transcendent pretensions of Jesus, because there is an argument here for his super-humanity, which can not be resisted. For eighteen hundred years, these prodigious assumptions have been published and preached to a world that is quick to lay hold of conceit, and bring down the lofty airs of pretenders, and yet, during all this time, whole nations of people, composing as well the learned and powerful as the ignorant and humble, have paid their homage to the name of Jesus, detecting never any disagreement between his merits and his pretensions, offended never by any thought of his extravagance. In which we have absolute proof that he practically maintains his amazing assumptions! Indeed it will even be found that, in the common apprehension of the race, he maintains the merit of a most peculiar modesty, producing no conviction more distinctly, than that of his intense lowliness and humility. His worth is seen to be so great, his authority so high, his spirit so celestial, that instead of being offended by his pretensions, we take the impression of one in whom it is even a condescension to breathe our air. I say not that his friends and followers take this impression, it is received as naturally and irresistibly by unbelievers. I do not recollect any skeptic or infidel who has even thought to accuse him as a conceited person, or to assault him in this, the weakest and absurdest, if not the strongest and holiest, point of his character.

Come now, all ye that tell us in your wisdom of the mere natural humanity of Jesus, and help us to find how it is, that he is only a natural development of the human; select your best and wisest character; take the range, if you will, of all the great philosophers and saints, and choose out one that is most competent; or if, perchance, some one of you may imagine that he is himself about upon a level with Jesus (as we hear that some of you do), let him come forward in this trial and say," follow me","be worthy of me","I am the light of the world","ye are from beneath, I am from above","behold a greater than Solomon is here "; take on all these transcendent assumptions, and see how soon your glory will be sifted out of you by the detective gaze, and darkened by the contempt of mankind! Why not? is not the challenge fair? Do you not tell us that you can say as divine things as he? Is it not in you, too, of course, to do what is human? are you not in the front rank of human developments? do you not rejoice in the power to rectify many mistakes and errors in the words of Jesus? Give us then this one experiment, and see if it does not prove to you a truth that is of some consequence; viz., that you are a man, and that Jesus Christ is, more.

But there is also a passive aide to the character of Jesus which is equally peculiar, and which likewise demands our attention. I recollect no really great character in history, excepting such as may have been formed under Christianity, that can properly be said to have united the passive virtues, or to have considered them any essential part of a finished character. Socrates comes the nearest to such an impression, and therefore most resembles Christ in the submissiveness of his death. It does not appear, however, that his mind had taken this turn previously to his trial, and the submission he makes to the public sentence is, in fact, a refusal only to escape from the prison surreptitiously; which he does, partly because he thinks it the duty of every good citizen not to break the laws, and partly, if we judge from his manner, because he is detained by a subtle pride; as if it were something unworthy of a grave philosopher, to be stealing away, as a fugitive, from the laws and tribunals of his country. The Stoics, indeed, have it for one of their great principles, that the true wisdom of life consists in a passive power, viz., in being able to bear suffering rightly. But they mean by this, the bearing of suffering so as not to feel it; a steeling of the mind against sensibility, and a raising of the will into such power as to drive back the pangs of life, or shake them off. But this, in fact, contains no allowance of passive virtue at all; on the contrary, it is an attempt so to exalt the active powers, as even to exclude every sort of passion, or passivity. And Stoicism corresponds, in this respect, with the general sentiment of the world's great characters. They are such as like to see things in the heroic vein, to see spirit and courage breasting themselves against wrong, and, where the evil can not be escaped by resistance, dying in a manner of defiance. Indeed it has been the impression of the world generally, that patience, gentleness, readiness to suffer wrong without resistance, is but another name for weakness.

1) Neander's Memorials of Christian Life, p. 19.


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