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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
PROGRESS.—Christ and the essential truth of His teaching as preserved in the Gospels are entirely identified with the fact of human progress. Man’s progress is a fact, a fact and not an idea, a fact, however, in which ideas are embedded and come to manifestation. This, moreover, is the greatest and most complex fact in the history of the individual and social life of humanity. It is of the highest importance, therefore, that Christ and His teaching should be set in the light of this fact; that not only His teaching, but Christ Himself should be examined and tested in this light. He and His teaching have nothing to lose, but everything to gain thereby.
1. In order to understand Christ and His teaching from the standpoint of progress, there are several historical facts as to the latter which require to be noted and kept in mind. (1) Man’s history has been upon the whole a history of progress ever since he entered upon the course of his civilization. (2) But this fact does not imply that the idea of his progress in the path leading towards his destiny has been familiar to man ever since he began his career of advancement. The truth is that even at so late a date in history as the time of Christ’s advent in it, the mind of pagan antiquity had nowhere been awakened to the clear consciousness that man had been pursuing, and that he had still for unknown ages to continue pursuing, a progressive destiny. The only historical instance slightly, not entirely, at variance with this general statement is the Zoroastrian theory as to the existence of good and evil, their hostile relations to each other, and the eventual subjugation and extinction of evil by the triumph of good. (3) Further, it is only within recent times that the general mind of the more advanced civilized races of mankind has become possessed by the idea and moved by the sentiment of the progressive destiny to which man is called in this world, and those men constitute a small minority who have begun in any true sense to realize the momentous importance of the meaning with which the fact of human progress is charged. (4) Again, it is of consequence to state expressly what is implied in the general truth just indicated, that neither the fact nor the importance of the fact of human progress, in any true sense of the word, was admitted for many centuries to a place of recognition in the ecclesiastical and theological developments of traditional Christianity; and this remark is true even of Augustine’s Civitas Dei.
These facts, then, seem to encourage the conclusion, which is too often, but most unfairly, adopted, that Christ concerned Himself very little, if at all, with the fact of human progress on the earth, and that His teaching sheds little or no light upon this subject, which in reality is—as the modern mind has begun to see—a subject of urgent importance for every man and for the whole human race. But this conclusion is groundless. For in the Gospels there is abundance of evidence not only to show that the fact of man’s progressive destiny had due recognition paid to it by Christ Himself and in His teaching, but also to make it manifest that in Himself and in His teaching there is a revelation of all the essential principles of human progress, and also an adequate provision of the moral conditions necessary to bring these principles to realization in the individual and social life and destiny of humanity.
2. But at this point notice requires to be taken of two other historical facts with which the position of Christ and His teaching came inevitably into immediate and important relations. First, the Jewish people occupied a unique and preeminent place among all the peoples of antiquity as regards the fact of human progress. Among them there had been developed, many centuries prior to Christ’s time, ideas and sentiments, aspirations and hopes relative to the progressive destiny of mankind, which were entirely phenomenal, and which possessed immense value, partly because in many points they were highly enlightened, partly because of their profound moral significance, and partly because of the service they rendered in the preparation of the way for the new, progressive era to be ushered into the life of humanity by Christ’s advent (e.g. Genesis 22:15-18, Isaiah 2:2-5; Isaiah 10:1-9; Isaiah 42:1-11; Isaiah 62; Isaiah 65:17-25, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Ezekiel 36:22-28, Micah 4:1-4, Psalms 67; Psalms 72; Psalms 102:13-22; Psalms 145:1-13). The people of Israel, as the passages referred to show, conceived of their own ‘golden age’ and that of the Gentile peoples as lying not behind but ahead of them in the less or more distant future, and they were the first people in whose mind this idea shaped and rooted itself. In this outlook of theirs on the future all those elements which formed their general idea of the fact of progress came into play. What those elements were need not be stated here. But one other word may be added, viz., that if conditions had favoured the free and full development of all the ideas of progress and of all the progressive sentiments and strivings to which the worthiest leaders and teachers of the nation had attained in the noontide of the prophetic age, and if this development had continued until the fulness of the times had arrived for Christ’s appearance, two things would have happened: the task of His Mission, on the one hand, would have been immensely lightened; and, on the other, the task of Christianity in evolving the moral progress of mankind would have been less difficult, and its success greatly accelerated.
But, Secondly, the progressive developments in the earlier stages of the nation’s history had an arrest put upon them in various directions, and that while they were still immature. When Christ appeared, He found that the religion of Israel, transformed into Judaism, had departed from the path of progress and committed itself to the position of finality. The religion of the Prophets, which in its ideas, sentiments, and strivings had begun to cross the boundaries of exclusive nationality, had been changed, as a system of law, as a method of Divine worship and service, as a way of salvation, and as a political ideal, into a narrow, rigid, national institution; and this institution, it was claimed, had a right to exist throughout all ages, although it was, in effect, a wall of separation not only between Jews and Gentiles, but also between the latter and God.
It was in these circumstances, then, that Christ appeared to reveal the principles of progress and to become a moral power making for their perfect realization in the life and destiny of man. And towards the two facts thus indicated He had necessarily to relate Himself, His teaching, and, indeed, His entire work and influence. Towards the first fact and the progressive elements and tendencies, He took up an attitude of appreciation and sympathy, and made it His aim and endeavour to promote their development to higher and wider forms of realization. Towards Judaism, on the other hand, so far as its anti-progressive vices were concerned, He took up what He knew would prove to be eventually an attitude of effective reaction. It is evident, however, that the finality which Judaism claimed for itself must have rendered it necessary for Him to put some restrictions on Himself as to His method of communicating and developing His ideas on the subject of progress. For any outspoken and persistent attack on Judaism on the point in question would have been sure to arouse against Him overwhelming opposition, as is manifest from what happened to Stephen the proto-martyr. This may have been one of His reasons for His persistent noninterference as a teacher either with the nature or the administration of any of the civil or political institutions that He found existing in Palestine, or knew to exist in the Roman Empire generally.
But He had another, a deeper, a much farther-reaching reason for silently letting civil and political institutions alone. It was not that He was indifferent to them, or that He considered them as not belonging to the nature and objects of His mission as the Saviour of the world. The civil and political state of society as He knew it was a matter of profound and sorrowful interest to Him (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 20:25). He must have been quite aware of the fact that the renewal of the civil and political life of mankind was needed everywhere in the existing civilized as well as uncivilized world. He was fully conscious of the fact that His own perfect self-devotion to the service of God and man endangered His life, and would bring Him to His cross to a large extent because of the vices of the civil and political condition of things under which He conducted His ministry (Matthew 20:17-19, John 18:28 to John 19:16). He also anticipated the fact that the continuance of this evil order of things, after He was gone, would involve His servants and His cause in suffering (Matthew 24:1-13).
Lastly, He never uttered a word to indicate directly and explicitly that He entertained any hope of the regeneration of the civil, or political, or economical conditions and organizations of human society. Why was this? Why did He keep Himself so entirely and persistently aloof from these and all other great interests of a kindred nature pertaining to the external relationships and well-being of human life, declining to interfere with them even when requested to do so? (Luke 12:13-14, Matthew 22:17-22). He assumed and maintained this attitude because of the perfect understanding He had of the necessary conditions and requirements of human progress in every one of its departments. He had to consider what it was possible and what it was impossible for Him to accomplish during the short period of His lifetime on earth. In doing this He had to keep in view the existing state of society in all the various developments of its life at the time. And He must have known, as any one knowing and correctly interpreting the facts can see was actually the case, that if He had attempted to initiate or to achieve a reformation within any of the domains of human life in question, the result would inevitably have proved worse than useless for Himself and His cause, and for humanity. Knowing this, moreover, He, in the exercise of marvellous faith and patience, left, meanwhile, the renewal of man’s social life in all its diversified forms of manifestation, in the hands, and to the times and ways, of God as the moral Governor of the world. For the time being He devoted Himself wholly and exclusively to the moral task which His Father had given Him to do; and in doing this, and doing it successfully, He rendered to the cause of human progress a service which will never cease increasing the glory of His name.
3. All that has been said makes it easy to show now how Christ Himself, His teaching, and, indeed, the whole of His work on earth and in heaven, can be explained in terms of progress. This explanation was adopted in effect and often used by Himself. So true is this that a great deal of His teaching—the most of it, indeed, when properly understood—can be construed into a theory of what is meant by the progress of humanity,—a theory never stated by Himself in abstract terms, but embodied in the general order of ideas that found such diversified forms of expression in His teaching. Briefly, the theory in question was this—(1) His teaching was all related to the cardinal facts of the moral nature of God and the moral nature of man. (2) A great deal of His teaching was concerned with the moral relations between God and men and between man and man. (3) In His teaching He dwelt much upon the inward and direct moral relations of men to God, which in every instance are relations of men to Him as individuals. For it is only in the individual that the moral conditions exist which make inward and direct relations of God to men possible. And this must have been one of Christ’s reasons for the immense importance and value that He attached to men as individuals. (4) He also dwelt much on the subject of the rectifying and the perfecting of the moral relations of men to God and to one another. (5) He announced, and often alluded to and explained in various ways and connexions, the fact that it was His predestined task as man’s Saviour to occupy the position and to exercise the function of Mediator within the sphere of the moral relations of God to men, and of men to Him and to one another. Though He never used the word ‘Mediator’ in this connexion, He often spoke of His relation to God and men in expressions meaning the same thing. And He taught also that His work of mediation would be continued after His work on earth had been finished (e.g. Matthew 11:27; Matthew 28:18-20, John 14-17). (6) It was within the domain of the order of these great facts and ideas, which are all of an essentially moral nature, that Christ conceived the fundamental need of human progress as lying. Here also He saw the essential nature of the progress needed, and found the grounds on which to His mind man’s progress was guaranteed. (7) But it was not Christ’s idea that the progressive realization of these moral facts and ideas would come to manifestation only within the invisible moral sphere of the individual and social life of mankind. He cherished the certain conviction and hope that they would come gradually, in the course of their realization, to manifestation in the regeneration of all the various external relations of men to one another in the conditions, organizations, and activities of their social life. (8) He was fully persuaded that the course of human progress, such as He conceived its nature to be and the conditions on which it would proceed in the individual and social life of humanity, would strictly and persistently follow the laws of evolution. It may be added, finally, that it is within the region of these facts that the greatness of the extent of Christ’s originality as a teacher is to be seen, and also the momentousness of the position and task He claimed for Himself as Mediator between God and men.
4. But did Christ’s teaching as to human progress actually follow the lines just indicated? It did. In Matthew 5:17 He identified His position in history and His work with the essentially moral nature, and with the cause and the evolution of the progress of the individual and social life of humanity. That in the Law and the Prophets which had supreme interest and value for Him, was the nature and the extent of the revelation they contained of the will and purpose of God with reference to the moral relations between God and men and between one man and another, and with reference to the historical development of human destiny. He saw that this revelation was very incomplete and imperfect. And in strict accordance with the Law of Continuity, which is one of the greatest laws of evolution and of human progress, He sympathetically put Himself and His work in direct organic relations with it, in order to complete and perfect the revelation of the Divine will and purpose to mankind, and in order so to mediate, by means of His moral power, the moral relations of men to God and to one another, that the Divine will and purpose would eventually attain to full and universal realization in their life and destiny. And so, when He said He had come not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil, He must have had the thought in His mind that the fulfilling in question, and His task in achieving it, would be continued after the work of His earthly ministry was done. In Matthew 6:9-10 His mind is to be seen moving within the order of the same ideas and facts: ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ These words of prayer, as Christ understood them, are rooted in the truth of the moral nature of God and of man, and of the moral relations of God to men, and of men to Him and to each other. They imply that the sphere of the direct and inward moral relations of men to God and to one another in Him is the essential domain of God’s Kingdom on the earth. They imply that the Kingdom of God on earth is predestined to arrive at universal realization in the individual and social life of mankind, and that pervasively, so that the Divine will and purpose will be manifested in all the external forms of man’s existence and activities. They imply that this consummation will be reached by a progressive process of historical development; for the Kingdom of God is an order of things that is coming. And they imply that the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man will be the supreme governmental principles in the perfected conditions of human existence, which Christ hoped would be ushered in in answer to His prayer.
But these were not the only forms in which Christ expressed His great and rich order of ideas as to human progress. Man’s progress is evolved in the course of his history, and nothing is more wonderful or beautiful than the parabolic forms in which Christ embodied His ideas as to the various phases that human progress assumes in the history of its evolution. (1) The gradual realization of God’s will and purpose in the lives of men as individuals is everywhere and always the basis of moral progress in the social life and history of humanity; and therefore our Lord—no doubt designedly—illustrated the evolution of the Kingdom of God in its relation to the individual’s heart and life in His first parable, that of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-8; Matthew 13:18-23).—(2) The progressive realization of the will and purpose of God in the moral relations of men to Him and to one another in the various social forms and manifestations of life may be conceived as a fact, which indeed it is, without taking into consideration the entanglements and dangers in which the process is involved from the existence in the world of moral evil. As so conceived, the evolution of man’s moral progress is destined gradually and surely to attain to complete and manifest realization in the Kingdom of God. It was from this point of view that our Lord illustrated His ideas of human progress in His parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29).—(3) But the progressive fulfilment of God’s will and purpose in the history of man’s social life and destiny may also be conceived as a process of historical evolution, and as actually entangled and endangered, which is the case, by the presence and developments of moral evil in the individual and social life of men. As thus conceived, then, the history of man’s social progress towards the perfect and universal realization of God’s will and purpose has the character of a conflict between moral good and moral evil. But this conflict, at every stage and in every section of its history, is presided over by the moral government of God, and is certain under His judgment to issue in a final crisis in which evil will be entirely and for ever separated from good, and in which righteousness will reign universally in the relations of men to God and to one another in His Kingdom. From these points of view also our Lord contemplated the evolution of human progress; and He so couched His ideas on the subject in His parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:37-43).—(4) Again, the history of man’s moral progress starts from a very small and simple beginning, and eventually develops into a result of vast dimensions and great complexity. This fact as to man’s progress our Lord likewise fully realized, and He expressed His sense of its truth and value in His parable of the Mustard-seed (Matthew 13:31-32)—(5) Finally, the end of moral progress in the life and history of humanity will be a destiny in which every department of its individual and social life, external as well as internal, will be interpenetrated and regulated by the will and purpose of God as perfectly realized and manifested in a universal and established order of righteousness and love. Could it be anything else than this that our Lord meant by His parable of the Leaven and the three measures of meal? (Matthew 13:33).
Thus it becomes manifest that our Lord’s teaching embodied a philosophy of human history and progress. In this point of view His teaching was absolutely original. Nor can it ever be superseded. His ideas of human progress and His faith in it are a large part of essential Christianity. This part of His gospel is urgently needed by the present age. And multitudes are waiting to welcome it as a message from Him as the world’s Saviour.
Literature.—Buckle, Hist. of Civilization; Lux Mundi, ch xi.; Loring Brace, Gesta Christi; Janet, Theory of Morals, 416; P. Granger, The Soul of a Christian, 246; Westcott, Chr. Social Union Addresses, 66; W. D. Mackenzie, Christianity and the Progress of Man, 217; A. R. Wallace, Studies, Scientific and Social, ii. 493; W. L. Davidson, Chr. Ethics, 56; Liddon, Serm. on Some Words of St. Paul, 246, Serm. before Univ. of Oxford, 1st ser. p. 25.
W. D. Thomson.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Progress'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/progress.html. 1906-1918.