Holy Mysteries (Sep 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Leonard Allen
September, 1994

The modest audience in the small Bethany church building on that Sunday morning in 1848 waited eagerly as Dr. Robert Richardson rose from his seat, walked slowly to the communion table, then turned to face the congregation. Alexander Campbell had just delivered the morning sermon, as usual. But now the audience awaited a special treat – a communion meditation from Richardson. These meditations, delivered from time to time over the years, were memorable events, and the Bethany Church of Christ – made up mostly of students and faculty – eagerly anticipated them.

The doctor stood facing the congregation for several moments. There was utter silence. He was a thin, dignified man standing somewhat taller than Campbell.

“How truly incomprehensible and beyond comparison is the love of God for man!” he began in his high-pitched, reticent voice.

“Inscrutable are his ways, unsearchable as his judgments, deep as the exhaustless mines of his wisdom and knowledge, his love but partakes of the infinitued of his nature.” He paused slightly. “How, then, can we hope to fathom its depths, to estimate its value, or to realize its power!”

Richardson spoke further of the magnitude of that love and of how weak and small seem our noblest efforts in comparison. “But, alas! how shall man return a love of which he cannot even adequately conceive?” he asked. “It is as high as heaven; it is vast as the universe! How can he attain to it? How can he compass it?”

These exclamations and questions point to the heart of the spiritual life as Richardson conceived it. “True religion” meant entering into spiritual union with God. It meant contemplating the divine glory and the “ever-opening mysteries of redeeming love.” It meant allowing oneself to be renovated into a living temple for the Holy Spirit.

Throughout his life Richardson addressed these themes with a quiet passion and eloquence. In a time when doctrinal, polemical, and organizational matters preoccupied the movement, he remained a persistent – at times almost solitary – advocate of a deeper, richer spirituality. It was here, he felt, that the movement was most lacking. In 1842 he noted, for example, “a dull insensibility in respect to spiritual things, which seems to arise from an ignorance of there being any such thing as a true and spiritual union with God and Christ.”

A few other voices had raised such concerns before him. John Rogers of Carlisle, Kentucky, for example, had written to Campbell in 1834, noting that “many of us, in running away from the extreme of enthusiasm, have, on the other hand, passed the temperate zone, and gone far into the frozen regions.” “There is, in too many churches,” he added, “a cold-hearted, lifeless formality, that freezes the energies.”

And Campbell himself, on a few occasions, could raise such concerns. Religion certainly was an intellectual matter, he wrote in 1837, “but religion dwelling in the heart, rooted in the feelings and affections, is living, active, and real existence.” This is what fills the soul with divine life. “This is religion,” he concluded; “all the rest is machinery.”

Richardson picked up such concern and made it a life-long focus. His writings resound with the call to the spiritual life. But nowhere is his vision of that life more powerful and eloquent than in his many communion meditations delivered to the Bethany church.

J.W. McGarvey was a student at Bethany College in 1847-48 and heard many of them. “The richest service of all,” he later wrote, was when they had a sermon by Mr. Campbell followed by Dr. Richardson in a five- or ten-minute talk at the Lord’s table.” These talks were gems of beauty, he said.

Between 1847 and 1850, Richardson published a series of the talks in the Millennial Harbinger under the title “Communings in the Sanctuary.” Later, at the urging of McGarvey and others, he collected 24 of them into a small book of the same title. That book remains the first and greatest of the devotional books written in the Restoration Movement.

At the heart of the book lies a constant sense of the awesome mystery of things human and things divine. Three themes predominate.

1. The mystery of the holy. In Richardson’s view, recognition of the divine mystery is fundamental to Christian faith. Far from hindering one’s vision or obstructing one’s spiritual progress, the recognition of mystery brings “truer and nobler” views of God. “In proportion as the mysteries presented to us deepen, they approach nearer to God,” Richardson said. “He is the great mystery of mysteries, and we draw nearer to him as we approach the veil that conceals his inner temple.”

In one of the talks, Richardson contrasted the “religion of the imagination” and the “religion of the intellect.” The first, he said, focuses on nature and its beauties. To its devotees, the world becomes “an emanation from the Beautiful, which is their deity and idol.” Their great error, he said, lies in thinking that true religion consists in reverence for God’s beautiful creation.

But, Richardson said, a “thousand charms” mark such religion when one compares it with the “barren and undecorated religion of the intellect.” For these devotees are obsessed with analyzing the organisms of the spiritual system and dissecting its outward forms – squeezing out their life and beauty in the process. In this view, Richardson says, “to think right is to do right, and to worship reason is to worship God.”

But in the sanctuary of God, with the “Lamb that was slain” lifted up and the emblems of divine love spread, both errors find their corrective. There one can neither “bow in the chambers of imagery nor yield to the idolatry of reason.” Indeed, how poor and feeble do those things seem “when the heart feels the love of God, and the soul rejoices in the Beloved!”

“Before the cross of Jesus,” Richardson continued, “the magnificence of earth is vanity, and the power of intellect but pride.” Before the cross one must exchange the “religion of the imagination” for the great promises of Christian hope and subject human reason to the “mysteries of Revelation.” And it is a great and happy exchange. For Christian hope opens more glorious scenes that anyone can imagine and the “mysteries of Faith are more sublime than those of Reason.”

In pointing to the mysteries of faith, Richardson did not cast out reason. The Christian faith contains intellectual depths, to be sure, and the mind seeks to plumb them. Reason especially plays an important role in the “preliminary examination of the facts and evidences of the gospel.” But reason’s power is sharply limited. It simply cannot purify the heart and bring human passions under control. Only the gospel can do that. In purifying and transforming the heart, the gospel reveals its greatest power and profoundest mysteries – here one finds that “a ‘deeper deep’ speedily exhausts the plumb line of reason and philosophy.”

2. The mystery of Christ’s atoning death. Because Richardson prepared these talks for the communion service, they invariably centered in Christ’s death. Though the coming of Christ into the world was a great mystery, he said, “how much greater the mystery of his death! What new and wonderful developments it gives of the divine character! What startling thoughts it suggests of things invisible!”

So inscrutable was the mystery of the atonement, many preachers in the movement thought, that dwelling on it or trying to explore it yielded little profit. One did better to affirm the simple historical facts, then turn to more practical and understandable matters – like what people must do to be saved.

Richardson thought otherwise. To him the events of Jesus’ death were “transcendant facts” full of meaning and mystery. By fixing one’s eyes there, troubled consciences and rough desires were stilled by the “potent charm of Jesus’ love.” By entering its dark places and exploring its deeps time and again, one grew ever more captivated by holy things and higher loves. Indeed, in contemplating such mysteries, one came to “see more of God than angels knew before!”

3. The mystery of union with God and Christ. In Richardson’s view the Christian fiath was not “a mere system of salvation from sin,” with the cross being one part of that system. Neither was Jesus’ death simply a removal of sin’s penalties. Its purpose rather was “to effect a renovation – a regeneration of the soul.”

many believers, he tough, view redemption as a kind of commodity “which they may obtain upon certain terms, of which the ministers of the Gospel are supposed to be the negotiators.” But redemption is no negotiable commodity. Rather, it involves nothing less than a transforming union with God and Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This union is one of faith’s great mysteries. Through it the believer develops entirely new spiritual sensibilities. As those senses are cultivated, the believer grows “as fully alive to the things of the spiritual world, as is the natural man to the things of the natural world.” he develops “a fellowship with spiritual existencies and objects of whose very existence he was formerly wholly inconscious.” In a word, the believer becomes fit for life in heaven with God.

Standing behind the communion table on that Sunday morning in 1848, Richardson brought his talk to a close. “How shall man return a love of which he cannot even adequately conceive?” he had asked.

“Oh! how joyful the reflection,” he now answered, “that however weak our powers, however imperfect our efforts, the Divine Comforter can shed abroad the love of God in our hearts, enlarge our capacities, transform all our feeble nature, and render us partakers of the divine fullness.”

In front of him the table was spread and ready. He looked down at it for a moment, then back to the audience.

“Inscrutable and sublime mystery,” he exclaimed, his voice trembling slightly, that “the glorious Being, of whom our unequal powers can form no adequate conception, and whose glory fills both earth and heaven, can yet find a dwelling place in the human heart!”

Richardson turned and walked quickly back to his seat. Servers came forward and the congregation communed together, sharing the sacred emblems of divine suffering and glory.

Adapted from Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church, forthcoming from Abilene Christian University Press.

Further Reading

Goodnight, Cloyd and Dwight E. Stevenson, Home to Bethphage: A Biography of Robert Richardson. St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1949.
Richardson, Robert. Communings in the Sanctuary Cincinnati, date unknown.
____________. “Pure and Undefiled Religion – No. 1” Millenial Harbinger 5th series, 2 (November 1859), 622-26.Wineskins Magazine

C. Leonard Allen

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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