Let me conclude this lecture by touching briefly on one other important point, In history absolute judgments are impossible. This is a truth which in these days—I say advisedly, in these days—is clear and incontestable. History can only show how things have been; and even where we can throw light upon the past, and understand and criticize it, we must not presume to think that by any process of abstraction absolute judgments as to the value to be assigned to past events can be obtained from the results of a purely historical survey. Such judgments are the creation only of feeling and of will; they are a subjective act. The false notion that the understanding can produce them is a heritage of that protracted epoch in which knowing and knowledge were expected to accomplish everything; in which iv was believed that they could be stretched so as to be capable of covering and satisfying all the needs of the mind and the heart. That they cannot do. This is a truth which, in many an hour of ardent work, falls heavily upon our soul, and yet—what a hopeless thing it would be for mankind if the higher peace to which it aspires, and the clearness, the certainty and the strength for which it strives, were dependent on the measure of its learning and its knowledge.
Our first section deals with the main features of the message delivered by Jesus Christ. They include the form in which he delivered what he had to say. We shall see how essential a part of his character is here exhibited, for “he spoke as one having authority and not as the Scribes.” But before describing these features I feel it my duty to tell you briefly how matters stand in regard to the sources of our knowledge.
Our authorities for the message which Jesus Christ delivered are—apart from certain important statements made by Paul — the first three Gospels. Everything that we know, independently of these Gospels, about Jesus’ history and his teaching, may be easily put on a small sheet of paper, so little does it come to. In particular, the fourth Gospel, which does not emanate or profess to emanate from the apostle John, cannot be taken as an historical authority in the ordinary meaning of the word. The author of it acted with sovereign freedom, transposed events and put them in a strange light, drew up the discourses himself, and illustrated great thoughts by imaginary situations. Although, therefore, his work is not altogether devoid of a real, if scarcely recognisable, traditional element, it can hardly make any claim to be considered an authority for Jesus’ history; only little of what he says can be accepted, and that little with caution. On the other hand, it is an authority of the first rank for answering the question, What vivid views of Jesus’ person, what kind of light and warmth, did the Gospel disengage?