Essay / Theology

The Biography and the Presence

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“He whose biography is now before us, is himself with us.” This principle is explained and applied by Scottish theologian Hugh Martin (1822-1885) in his 1860 book Christ’s Presence in the Gospel Narrative (republished as The Abiding Presence). The key idea is that we have two factors to reckon with when we read the life of Christ in Scripture: first, the biography set down in print (“before us”); and second, the living presence of the risen Christ (“with us”).

Martin sets out to “ponder…the marvellous advantage of possessing this presence and biography unitedly” (16). He shows the value of their unity by imagining them separately: What if we only had one or the other?

If all we had was a written biography of Jesus, we would use it as a way of recalling his amazing life that took place long ago, and that life would get further away from us with every passing year. “Oh! Would that I had been there!” One fears that this is what many believers are in danger of settling for: a life of Jesus that is not much more than a life of Lincoln or of Napoleon.

If all we had was the presence of the risen Christ, but no written biography, what would we have? A powerful spiritual reality, Christ himself. But what would our thoughts and conceptions of that presence be? What would guide them or shape them? “All is vague and hazy, very solemnizing… very encouraging and consoling; but very indefinite also, and withal, somewhat ghostly.” Before long, instead of concrete knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ, our minds and affections would fill up with “emotions, imaginations, and conceptions” of our own provision; “mere pietistic, sentimental conceptions of his presence, and… perhaps fanatical emotions begotten of the belief that he is present with me” (18). One fears that this is what many believers are in danger of settling for: an unformed and undisciplined sense of Christ’s presence, always shading off into a personal Jesus shaped to fit our own heads or hearts.

But we do not have one without the other. We have the biography and the presence:

With his sure and spiritual presence, then, let it be my privilege to possess his clear and definite biography. Give me the presence of the Lord –not vague, indistinct, and ghostly; silent, oppressive, and almost appalling– but as uttering the very sayings, and achieving the very works of grace and love that the biography details. Let me hear this Saviour, present with me, saying (as in this history) to Peter and James and John, ‘What I say to you I say to all,’ so that I am entitled to hear it as said to me. Let the ever-present Christ make his presence with me definite, intelligible, and most distinct, by proffering to me –as still full of spirit and life, of grace and glory– the very words he uttered and the works he did in the days of his flesh. Let him enshrine his promised presence within the very lineaments and limits of the biography (19).

To have both the presence of the ascended Christ and the inspired, written account of his earthly life is to have something true, and to know Christ. “The presence gives reality, present reality, and life, to the biography: the biography supplies to the otherwise indefinite presence distinct manifestation, action, and utterance” (20).

More concisely: “The biography is enlivened by the presence: the presence is defined by the biography” (20). And Martin concludes his opening chapter with the wish: “Let the biography and the presence be conjoined and coalesce.”

Both senses are contained, if you can hear them, in the phrase, “the life of Jesus.” We might call a book about anybody their “life.” And in another sense we might equally call a living presence a “life.” But readers who encounter the reality of Christ himself in the act of reading the Gospels have both factors at work: The life and the life; the biography and the presence.

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