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LECTURE IX

THE task before us in the second half of these lectures is to exhibit the history of the Christian religion in its leading phases, and to examine its development in the apostolic age, in Catholicism, and in Protestantism.

THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION IN THE APOSTOLIC AGE

The inner circle of the disciples, the band of twelve whom Jesus had gathered around him, formed itself into a community. He himself founded no community in the sense of an organised union for divine worship—he was only the teacher and the disciples were the pupils; but the fact that the band of pupils at once underwent this transformation became the ground upon which all subsequent developments rested. What were the characteristic features of this society? Unless I am mistaken there were three factors at work in it: (i.) The_ recognition of Jesus as the living Lord; (ii.) the fact that in every individual member of the new community—including the very slaves—165religion was an actual experience, and involved the consciousness of a living union with God; (iii.) the leading of a holy life in purity and brotherly fellowship, and the expectation of the Christ’s return in the near future.

By keeping these three factors in view we can grasp the distinctive characters of the new community. Let us look at them more closely.

1. Jesus Christ the Lord.—In thus confessing their belief in him his disciples took the first step in continuing their recognition of him as the authoritative teacher, of his word as their permanent standard of life, of their desire to keep “everything that he commanded them.” But this does not express the full meaning attaching to the words “the Lord”; nay, it is far from touching their peculiar significance. The primitive community called Jesus its Lord because he had sacrificed his life for it, and because its members were convinced that he had been raised from the dead and was then sitting on the right hand of God. There is no historical fact more certain than that the apostle Paul was not, as we might perhaps expect, the first to emphasise so prominently the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, but that in recognising their meaning he stood exactly on the same ground as the primitive community. “I delivered unto you first of all,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “that 166which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day.” Paul did, it is true, make Christ’s death and resurrection the subject of a particular speculative idea, and, so to speak, reduced the whole of the Gospel to these events; but they were already accepted as fundamental facts by the circle of Jesus’ personal disciples and by the primitive community. In these two facts it may be said that the permanent recognition of Jesus Christ, and the reverence and adoration which he received, obtained their first hold. They formed the ground on which the whole Christological theory rested. But within two generations from his death Jesus Christ was already put upon the highest plane upon which men can put him. As men were conscious of him as the living Lord, he was glorified as the one who had been raised to the right hand of God and had vanquished death; as the Prince of Life, as the strength of a new existence, as the way, the truth, and the life. The Messianic ideas permitted of his being placed upon God’s throne, without endangering monotheism. But, above all, he was felt to be the active principle of individual life: “It is not I that live, but Christ that liveth in me”; he is “my” life, and to press onwards to him through death is great gain. Where can we find in the history of 167mankind any similar instance of men eating and drinking with their master, seeing him in the characteristic aspects of his humanity, and then proclaiming him not only as the great prophet and revealer of God, but as the divine disposer of history, as the “beginning” of God’s creation, and as the inner strength of a new life! It was not thus that Mohammed’s disciples spoke of their prophet. Neither is it sufficient to assert that the Messianic predicates were simply transferred to Jesus, and that everything may be explained by Jesus’ expected return in glory throwing its radiance backwards. True, in the certain hope of Jesus’ return, his “coming in lowliness” was overlooked; but that it was possible to conceive this certain hope and hold it fast; that in spite of suffering and death it was possible to see in him the promised Messiah; and that in and side by side with the vulgar Messianic image of him, men felt and opened their hearts to him as the present Lord and Saviour,—-that is what is so astonishing! It was just the death “for our sins,” and the resurrection, which confirmed the impression given by his person, and provided faith with a sure hold: he died as a sacrifice for us, and he now lives.

There are many to-day who have come to regard both these positions as very strange; and their attitude towards them is one of indifference—towards 168the death, on the ground that no such significance can be attributed to a single event of this kind; towards the resurrection, because what is here affirmed to have happened is incredible.

It is not our business to defend either the view which was taken of the death, or the idea that he had risen again; but it is certainly the historian’s duty to make himself so fully acquainted with both positions as to be sensible of the significance which they possessed and still possess. That these positions were of capital importance for the primitive community has never been doubted; even Strauss did not dispute it; and the great critic, Ferdinand Christian Baur, acknowledged that it was on the belief in them that the earliest Christian communion was built up. It must be possible, then, for us in our turn to get a feeling and an understanding for what they were; nay, perhaps we may do more; if we probe the history of religion to the bottom, we shall find the truth and justice of ideas which on the surface seem so paradoxical and incredible lying at the very roots of the faith.

Let us first consider the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was one of expiation. Now, if we were to consider the conception attaching to the words “expiatory death” in the alien realm of formal speculation, we should, it is true, soon find 169ourselves in a blind alley, and every chance of our understanding the idea would vanish. We should be absolutely at the end of our tether if we were to indulge in speculations as to the necessity which can have compelled God to require such a sacrificial death. Let us, in the first place, bear in mind a fact in the history of religion which is quite universal. Those who looked upon this death as a sacrifice soon ceased to offer God any blood-sacrifice at all. The value attaching to such sacrifices had, it is true, been in doubt for generations, and had been steadily diminishing; but it was only now that the sacrifices disappeared altogether. They did not disappear immediately or at one stroke,—this is a point with which we need not concern ourselves here,—but their disappearance took place within a very brief period and was not delayed until after the destruction of the temple. Further, wherever the Christian message subsequently penetrated, the sacrificial altars were deserted and dealers in sacrificial beasts found no more purchasers. If there is one thing that is certain in the history of religion, it is that the death of Christ put an end to all blood-sacrifices. But that they are based on a deep religious idea is proved by the extent to which they existed among so many nations, and they are not to be judged from the point of view of cold and blind rationalism, but from that of vivid emotion. 170If it is obvious that they respond to a religious need; if, further, it is certain that the instinct which led to them found its satisfaction and therefore its goal in Christ’s death; if, lastly, there was the express declaration, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that “by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified,” we can no longer feel this idea of Christ’s sacrifice to be so very strange; for history has decided in its favour, and we are beginning to get in touch with it. His death had the value of an expiatory sacrifice, for otherwise it would not have had strength to penetrate into that inner world in which the blood-sacrifices originated; but it was not a sacrifice in the same sense as the others, or else it could not have put an end to them; it suppressed them by settling accounts with them. Nay, we may go further; the validity of all material sacrifices was destroyed by Christ’s death. Wherever individual Christians or whole churches have returned to them, it has been a relapse: the earliest Christians knew that the whole sacrificial system was thenceforth abolished, and if they asked for a reason, they pointed to Christ’s death.

In the second place: any one who will look into history will find that the sufferings of the pure and the just are its saving element; that is to say, that it is not words, but deeds, and not deeds only but self-sacrificing 171deeds, and not only self-sacrificing deeds, but the surrender of life itself, that forms the turning-point in every great advance in history. In this sense I believe that, however far we may stand from any theories about vicarious sacrifice, there are few of us after all who will mistake the truth and inner justice of such a description as we read in Isaiah liii.: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”—it is in this light that Jesus’ death was regarded from the beginning. Wherever any great deed has been accomplished in history, the finer a man’s moral feelings are, the more sensible will he be of vicarious suffering; the more he will bring that suffering into relation to himself. Did Luther in the monastery strive only for himself?—was it not for us all that he inwardly bled when he fought with the religion that was handed down to him? But it was by the cross of Jesus Christ that mankind gained such an experience of the power of purity and love true to death that they can never forget it, and that it signifies a new epoch in their history.

Finally, in the third place: no reflection of the “reason,” no deliberation of the “intelligence,” will ever be able to expunge from the moral ideas of mankind the conviction that injustice and sin 172deserve to be punished, and that everywhere that the just man suffers, an atonement is made which puts us to shame and purifies us. It is a conviction which is impenetrable, for it comes out of those depths in which we feel ourselves to be a unity, and out of the world which lies behind the world of phenomena. Mocked and denied as though it had long perished, this truth is indestructibly preserved in the moral experience of mankind. These are the ideas which from the beginning onwards have been roused by Christ’s death, and have, as it were, played around it. Other ideas have been disengaged,—ideas of less importance but, nevertheless, very efficacious at times,—but these are the most powerful. They have taken shape in the firm conviction that by his death in suffering he did a definitive work; that he did it “for us.” Were we to attempt to measure and register what he did, as was soon attempted, we should fall into dreadful paradoxes; but we can in our turn feel it for ourselves with the same freedom with which it was originally felt. If we also consider that Jesus himself described his death as a service which he was rendering to many, and that by a solemn act he instituted a lasting remembrance of it—I see no reason to doubt the fact—we can understand how this death and the shame of the cross were bound to take the central place.

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Jesus, however, was proclaimed as “the Lord” not only because he had died for sinners but because he was the risen and the living one. If the resurrection meant nothing but that a deceased body of flesh and blood came to life again, we should make short work of this tradition. But it is not so. The New Testament itself distinguishes between the Easter message of the empty grave and the appearances of Jesus on the one side, and the Easter faith on the other. Although the greatest value is attached to that message, we are to hold the Easter faith even in its absence. The story of Thomas is told for the exclusive purpose of impressing upon us that we must hold the Easter faith even without the Easter message: “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” The disciples on the road to Emmaus were blamed for not believing in the resurrection even though the Easter message had not yet reached them. The Lord is a Spirit, says Paul; and this carries with it the certainty of his resurrection. The Easter message tells us of that wonderful event in Joseph of Arimathaea’s garden, which, however, no eye saw; it tells us of the empty grave into which a few women and disciples looked; of the appearance of the Lord in a transfigured form—so glorified that his own could not immediately recognise him; it soon begins to tell us, too, of what the risen one 174said and did. The reports became more and more complete, and more and more confident. But the Easter faith is the conviction that the crucified one gained a victory over death; that God is just and powerful; that he who is the firstborn among many brethren still lives. Paul based his Easter faith upon the certainty that “the second Adam” was from heaven, and upon his experience, on the way to Damascus, of God revealing His Son to him as still alive. God, he said, revealed him “in me”; but this inner revelation was coupled with “a vision” overwhelming as vision never was afterwards. Did the apostle know of the message about the empty grave? While there are theologians of note who doubt it, I think it probable; but we cannot be quite certain about it. Certain it is that what he and the disciples regarded as all-important was not the state in which the grave was found, but Christ’s appearances. But who of us can maintain that a clear account of these appearances can be constructed out of the stories told by Paul and the evangelists; and if that be impossible, and there is no tradition of single events which is quite trustworthy, how is the Easter faith to be based on them? Either we must decide to rest our belief on a foundation unstable and always exposed to fresh doubts, or else we must abandon this foundation altogether, and with it the miraculous appeal 175to our senses. But here, too, the images of the faith have their roots in truth and reality. Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of the appearances, one thing is certain: This grave was the birthplace of the indestructible belief that death is vanquished, and there is a life eternal. It is useless to cite Plato; it is useless to point to the Persian religion, and the ideas and the literature of later Judaism. All that would have perished and has perished; but the certainty of the resurrection and of a life eternal which is bound up with the grave in Joseph’s garden has not perished, and on the conviction that Jesus lives we still base those hopes of citizenship in an Eternal City which make our earthly life worth living and tolerable. “He delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage,” as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews confesses. That is the point. And although there be exceptions to its sway, wherever, despite all the weight of nature, there is a strong faith in the infinite value of the soul; wherever death has lost its terrors; wherever the sufferings of the present are measured against a future of glory, this feeling of life is bound up with the conviction that Jesus Christ has passed through death, that God has awakened him and raised him to life and glory. What else can we believe but that the earliest disciples also found the 176ultimate foundation of their faith in the living Lord to be the strength which had gone out from him? It was a life never to be destroyed which they felt to be going out from him; only for a brief span of time could his death stagger them; the strength of the Lord prevailed over everything; God did not give him over to death; he lives as the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. It is not by any speculative ideas of philosophy but by the vision of Jesus’ life and death and by the feeling of his imperishable union with God that mankind, so far as it believes in these things, has attained to that certainty of eternal life for which it was meant, and which it dimly discerns—eternal life in time and beyond time. This feeling first established faith in the value of personal life. But of every attempt to demonstrate the certainty of “immortality” by logical process, we may say in the words of the poet:

Believe and venture: as for pledges,
The gods give none.

Belief in the living Lord and in a life eternal is the act of the freedom which is born of God.

As the crucified and risen one Jesus was the Lord. While this confession of belief in him expressed a man’s whole relation to him, it also afforded endless matter for thought and speculation. This conception of the “Lord” came to embrace 177the many-sided image of the Messiah and all the Old Testament prophecies of a similar kind. But as yet no ecclesiastical “doctrines” about him had been elaborated; everyone who acknowledged him as the Lord belonged to the community.

2. Religion as an actual experience.—The second characteristic feature of the primitive community is that every individual in it, even the very slaves, possess a living experience of God. This is sufficiently remarkable; for at first sight we might think that all this devotion to Christ, and this unconditional reverence for him, must necessarily have resulted in all religion becoming a punctilious subjection to his words, and so a kind of voluntary servitude. But the Pauline epistles and the Acts of the Apostles give us quite a different picture. While they do, indeed, attest the fact that Jesus’ words were held in unqualified reverence, this fact is not the most prominent feature in the picture of earliest Christendom. What is much more characteristic is that individual Christians, moved by the Spirit of God, are placed in a living and entirely personal relation to God Himself. Dr. Weinel has lately presented us with a fine work on the Workings of the Spirit and the Spirits in the Post-Apostolic Age. It contains many passages which take us back to the apostolic age and treat in greater detail of 178the matters which Professor Gunkel has so impressively placed before us in his treatise on The Holy Ghost. The neglected problems of the extent to which, and the forms in which, the Spirit exercised an influence on the life of the early Christians, and of the view to be taken of the phenomena connected with this influence, are admirably discussed by Dr. Weinel. In substance, his conclusion is that the expressions “receiving” and “acting by” the Holy Ghost signify such an independence and immediacy of religious life and feeling, and such an inner union with God, perceived to be the mightiest reality, as could not have been expected from strict subjection to Jesus’ authority. To be the child of God and to be gifted with the Spirit are simply the same as being a disciple of Christ. That a man is not truly a disciple unless he is pervaded by God’s Spirit is a point which the Acts of the Apostles fully recognises. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is placed in the forefront of the narrative. The author is conscious that the Christian religion would not be the highest and the ultimate religion unless it brought every individual into an immediate and living connexion with God. This mutual union of a full, obedient subjection to the Lord with freedom in the Spirit is the most important feature in the distinctive character of this religion, and the seal of its greatness. The workings of the Spirit were 179shown everywhere, in the entire domain of the five senses, in the sphere of will and action, in profound philosophical speculation, and in the most delicate appreciation of the facts of the moral life. The elementary forces of the religious temperament, long held in check by systems of doctrine and the ceremonies of public worship, were again set free. They showed themselves in ecstatic phenomena, in signs and wonders, in an enhancement of all the functions of life, down to conditions of a pathological and suspicious character. The fact, however, was not forgotten,—and where it threatened to be obscured it was strongly impressed on people’s attention,—that those strange and violent phenomena were individual, but that side by side with them there are workings of the Spirit which are bestowed upon everyone and with which no one can dispense. But “The fruit of the Spirit,” as the apostle Paul writes, “is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” The other feature in the distinctive character and greatness of this religion is that it does not overestimate the elementary strength which gave it birth; that it makes its spiritual purport and its discipline triumph over all states of ecstasy; and that it holds immovably to its conviction that the Spirit of God, however it may reveal itself, is a Spirit of holiness and of love. But here we have already 180passed to the third feature which characterises early Christendom.

3. The third feature is the leading of a holy life in purity and brotherly fellowship and in the expectation of Christ’s speedy return. The course which the history of the Church followed resulted in the dogmatic details in the New Testament being selected for investigation, rather than those parts of it which depicted the life of the first Christians and exhorted men to morality. And yet not only are the New Testament epistles largely taken up with these moral exhortations, but not a few of the so-called dogmatic portions were also written solely for moral admonition. Jesus directed his disciples to give these exhortations the first place, and the earliest Christians were well aware that the first business of life was to do the will of God and present themselves as a holy community. Upon this their whole existence and their mission in the world were based. There were two points which, in accordance with Jesus’ teaching, they put first and foremost, and they were points which at bottom embraced the whole range of moral action purity and brotherly fellowship. They took purity in the deepest and most comprehensive sense of the word, as the horror of everything that is unholy, and as the inner pleasure in everything that is upright 181and true, lovely and of good report. They also meant purity in regard to the body: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you? therefore glorify God in your body.” In this sublime consciousness the earliest Christians took up the struggle against the sins of impurity, which in the heathen world were not accounted sins at all. As sons of God, “blameless and harmless in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation,” they were to “shine as lights in the world.” It was thus that they were to show of what they were made, and it was thus that they showed it: to be holy as God was holy, to be pure as disciples of Christ. Here, too, we get the measure of the renunciation of the world which this community imposed upon itself. “To keep oneself unspotted from the world” was the asceticism which it practised itself and required of its adherents. The other point is brotherly fellowship. In joining the love of God with the love of neighbour in his sayings, Jesus himself had a new union of men with one another in view. The earliest Christians understood him. From the very first they constituted themselves into a brotherly union, not in word only but in deed—a living realisation of what he meant. In calling themselves “brothers,” they felt all the obligations which the name imposes and tried to come up to them, not by legal 182regulations but by voluntary service, each according to the measure of his own powers and gifts. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that in Jerusalem they went so far as to have a voluntary community of goods. Paul says nothing about it; and if we are to accept this obscure report as really trustworthy, then neither Paul nor the Christian communities among the Gentiles took pattern by the enterprise. They seem not to have been required, nor to have thought it desirable, to order their lives afresh in externals. The brotherly fellowship which “the holy” were to cultivate, and did cultivate, was distinguished by two principles: “Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it,” and “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.”

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