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THE WORD ECCLESIA.
THE subject on which I propose to lecture this term is The early conceptions and early history of the Christian Ecclesia. The reason why I have chosen the term Ecclesia is simply to avoid ambiguity. The English term church, now the most familiar representative of ecclesia to most of us, carries with it associations derived from the institutions and doctrines of later times, and thus cannot at present without a constant mental effort be made to convey the full and exact force which originally belonged to ecclesia. There would moreover be a second ambiguity in the phrase the early history of the Christian Church arising out of the vague comprehensiveness with which the phrase ‘History of the Church’ is conventionally employed.
It would of course have been possible to have recourse to a second English rendering ‘congregation’, which has the advantage of suggesting some of those 2elements of meaning which are least forcibly suggested by the word ‘church’ according to our present use. ‘Congregation’ was the only rendering of ἐκκλησία in the English New Testament as it stood throughout Henry VIII.’s reign, the substitution of ‘church’ being due to the Genevan revisers; and it held its ground in the Bishops’ Bible in no less primary a passage than Matt. xvi. 18 till the Jacobean revision of 1611, which we call the Authorized Version. But ‘congregation’ has disturbing associations of its own which render it unsuitable for our special purpose; and moreover its use in what might seem a rivalry to so venerable, and rightly venerable, a word as ‘church’ would be only a hindrance in the way of recovering for ‘church’ the full breadth of its meaning. ‘Ecclesia’ is the only perfectly colourless word within our reach, carrying us back to the beginnings of Christian history, and enabling us in some degree to get behind words and names to the simple facts which they originally denoted.
The larger part of our subject lies in the region of what we commonly call Church History; the general Christian history of the ages subsequent to the Apostolic age. But before entering on that region we must devote some little time to matter contained in the Bible itself. It is hopeless to try to understand either the actual Ecclesia of post-apostolic times, or the thoughts of its own contemporaries about it, without first gaining some clear impressions 3as to the Ecclesia of the Apostles out of which it grew; to say nothing of the influence exerted all along by the words of the apostolic writings, and by other parts of Scripture. And again the Ecclesia of the Apostles has likewise antecedents which must not be neglected, immediately in facts and words recorded by the Evangelists, and ultimately in the institutions and teaching of the Old Covenant.
In this preliminary part of our subject, to say the least, we shall find it convenient to follow the order of time.
I am sorry to be unable to recommend any books as sufficiently coinciding with our subject generally. Multitudes of books in all civilised languages bear directly or indirectly upon parts of it: but I doubt whether it would be of any real use to attempt a selection. In the latter part of the subject we come on ground which has been to a certain extent worked at by several German writers within the last few years, and I may have occasion from time to time to refer to some of them: they may however be passed over for the present.
The sense of the word in the Old Testament.
The Ecclesia of the New Testament takes its name and primary idea from the Ecclesia of the Old Testament. What then is the precise meaning of the term Ecclesia as we find it in the Old Testament?
The word itself is a common one in classical Greek 4and was adopted by the LXX. translators from Deuteronomy onwards (not in the earlier books of the Pentateuch) as their usual rendering of qāhāl.
Two important words are used in the Old Testament for the gathering together of the people of Israel, or their representative heads, ‘ēdhāh [R.V. congregation] and qāhāl [R.V. assembly].
Συναγωγή [Synagogè] is the usual, almost the universal, LXX. rendering of ‘ēdhāh, as also in the earlier books of the Pentateuch of qāhāl. So closely connected in original use are the two terms Synagogue and Ecclesia, which afterwards came to be fixed in deep antagonism!
Neither of the two Hebrew terms was strictly technical: both were at times applied to very different kinds of gatherings from the gatherings of the people, though qāhāl had always a human reference of some sort, gatherings of individual men or gatherings of nations. The two words were so far coincident in meaning that in many cases they might apparently be used indifferently: but in the first instance they were not strictly synonymous. ‘ēdhāh (derived from a root y‘dh used in the Niphal in the sense of gathering together, specially gathering together by appointment or agreement) is properly, when applied to Israel, the society itself, formed by the children of Israel or their representative heads, whether assembled or not assembled.
On the other hand qāhāl is properly their actual 5meeting together: hence we have a few times the phrase qehăl ‘ēdhāh ‘the assembly of the congregation’ (rendered by the LXX. translators in Ex. xii. 6 πᾶν τὸ πλῆθος συναγωγῆς υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ in Num. xiv. 5 where no equivalent is given for qehăl πάσης συναγωγῆς υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ) and also qehăl ‘ăm ‘the assembly of the people’ (rendered in Judg. xx. 2 ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ λαοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ, in Jer. xxvi. (LXX. xxxiii.) 17 πάσῃ τῇ συναγωγῇ τοῦ λαοῦ). The special interest of this distinction lies in its accounting for the choice of the rendering ἐκκλησία: qāhāl is derived from an obsolete root meaning to call or summon, and the resemblance to the Greek καλέω naturally suggested to the LXX. translators the word ἐκκλησία, derived from καλέω (or rather ἐκκαλέω) in precisely the same sense.
There is no foundation for the widely spread notion that ἐκκλησία means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind. In itself the idea is of course entirely Scriptural, and moreover it is associated with the word and idea ‘called,’ ‘calling,’ ‘call.’ But the compound verb ἐκκαλέω is never so used, and ἐκκλησία never occurs in a context which suggests this supposed sense to have been present to the writer’s mind. Again, it would not have been unnatural if this sense of calling out from a larger body had been as it were put into the word in later times, when it had acquired religious associations. But as a matter of fact we do not find that it was so. The original calling out is simply the calling of the 6citizens of a Greek town out of their houses by the herald’s trumpet to summon them to the assembly and Numb. x. shews that the summons to the Jewish assembly was made in the same way. In the actual usage of both qāhāl and ἐκκλησία this primary idea of summoning is hardly to be felt. They mean simply an assembly of the people; and accordingly in the Revised Version of the Old Testament ‘assembly’ is the predominant rendering of qāhāl.
So much for the original and distinctive force of the two words, in Hebrew and Greek. Now we must look a little at their historical application in the Old Testament.
‘ēdhāh is by far the commoner word of the two in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Joshua, but it is wholly absent from Deuteronomy. The two words are used in what appears to be practically the same sense in successive clauses of Lev. iv. 13; Num. xvi. 3; and they are coupled together, ἐν μέσῳ ἐκκλησίας καὶ συναγωγῆς, in Prov. v. 14 (LXX.). Both alike are described sometimes as the congregation or assembly of Israel, sometimes as the congregation or assembly of Jehovah; sometimes as the congregation or the assembly absolutely. In the later books ‘ēdhāh goes almost out of use. It is absent from Chronicles except once in an extract from Kings or the source of Kings (2 Chr. v. 6). It recurs (in the sense of congregation of Israel, I mean) but two or three times in the Psalms and the same in the Prophets.7
In these, and in the poetical books, qāhāl is hardly more common, but it abounds in Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. It would seem that after the return from the Exile this, the more definite and formal word, came to combine the shades of meaning belonging to both. Thus ἐκκλησία, as the primary Greek representative of qāhāl would naturally for Greek-speaking Jews mean the congregation of Israel quite as much as an assembly of the congregation.
In the Apocrypha both συναγωγή and ἐκκλησία are to be found: but it would take too long to examine the somewhat intricate variations of sense to be found there11There is an indication that συναγωγή was coming to mean the local congregation in Sir. xxiv. 23 and especially in Ps. Sal. x. 7. 8.. But with regard to these words, like many others of equal importance, there is a great gap in our knowledge of the usage of Greek Judaism. Philo gives us no help, the thoughts which connect themselves with the idea of a national ἐκκλησία being just of the kind which had least interest for him; and Josephus’s ostentatious classicalism deprives us of the information which a better Jew in his position might have afforded us. For our purpose it would be of peculiar interest to know what and , how much the term ἐκκλησία meant to Jews of the Dispersion at the time of the Christian Era: but here again we are, I fear, wholly in the dark.8
The sense of the word in the Gospels.
It is now time to come to the New Testament and its use of ἐκκλησία, bearing in mind that it is a word which had already a history of its own, and which was associated with the whole history of Israel. It is also well to remember that its antecedents, as it was used by our Lord and His Apostles, are of two kinds, derived from the past and the present respectively. Part, the most important part, of its meaning came from its ancient and what we may call its religious use, that is from the sense or senses which it had borne in the Jewish Scriptures; part also of its meaning could not but come from the senses in which it was still current in the everyday life of Jews. We may be able to obtain but little independent evidence on this last head: but it needs only a little reflexion to feel sure that in this as in other cases contemporary usage cannot have been wholly inoperative.
The actual word ἐκκλησία, as many know, is in the Gospels confined to two passages of St Matthew. This fact has not unnaturally given rise to doubts as to the trustworthiness of the record. These doubts however seem to me to be in reality unfounded. If indeed it were true that matter found in a single Gospel only is to be regarded with suspicion as not proceeding from fundamental documents common to more than one, then doubtless these passages would 9be open to doubt. But if, as I believe to be the true view, each evangelist had independent knowledge or had access to fresh materials by which he was able to make trustworthy additions to that which he obtained from previous records, then there is no a priori reason for suspecting these two passages of the First Gospel.
It is further urged that these passages have the appearance of having been thrust into the text in the Second Century in order to support the growing authority of the Ecclesia as an external power. An interpolation of the supposed kind would however be unexampled, and there is nothing in the passages themselves, when carefully read, which bears out the suggestion. Nay, the manner in which St Peter’s name enters into the language about the building of Messiah’s Ecclesia could not be produced by any view respecting his office which was current in the Second Century. In truth, the application of the term ἐκκλησία by the Apostles is much easier to understand if it was founded on an impressive saying of our Lord. On the other hand, during our Lord’s lifetime such language was peculiarly liable to be misunderstood by the outer world of Jews, and therefore it is not surprising if it formed no part of His ordinary public teaching.
It will be convenient to take first the less important passage, Matt. xviii. 17. Here our Lord is speaking not of the future but the present, instructing 10His disciples how to deal with an offending brother. There are three stages of ἔλεγξις, or bringing his fault home to him; first with him alone, next with two or three brethren; and if that fails, thirdly with the ἐκκλησία, the whole brotherhood. The principle holds good in a manner for all time. The actual precept is hardly intelligible if the ἐκκλησία meant is not the Jewish community, apparently the Jewish local community, to which the injured person and the offender both belonged.
We are on quite different ground in the more famous passage, Matt. xvi. 18. At a critical point in the Ministry, far away in the parts of Cæsarea Philippi, our Lord elicits from Peter the confession, “Thou art the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and pronounces him happy for having been Divinely taught to have the insight which enabled him to make it: “Yea and I say to thee,” He proceeds, “that thou art Peter (Πέτρος, kēphā’), and on this πέτρα I will build my Ecclesia and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Here there is no question of a partial or narrowly local Ecclesia. The congregation of God, which held so conspicuous a place in the ancient Scriptures, is assuredly what the disciples could not fail to understand as the foundation of the meaning of a sentence which was indeed for the present mysterious. If we may venture for a moment to substitute the name Israel, and read the words as 11‘on this rock I will build my Israel,’ we gain an impression which supplies at least an approximation to the probable sense. The Ecclesia of the ancient Israel was the Ecclesia of God; and now, having been confessed to be God’s Messiah, nay His Son, He could to such hearers without risk of grave misunderstanding claim that Ecclesia as His own.
What He declared that He would build was in one sense old, in another new. It had a true continuity with the Ecclesia of the Old Covenant; the building of it would be a rebuilding22Cf. Acts xv. 16, where James quotes Amos ix. 11, “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old.”. Christ’s work in relation to it would be a completion of it, a bestowal on it of power to fulfil its as yet unfulfilled Divine purposes.
But it might also be called a new Ecclesia, as being founded on a new principle or covenant, and in this sense might specially be called the Ecclesia of Messiah, Messiah actually manifested; and under such a point of view building rather than rebuilding would be the natural verb to use. It is hardly necessary to remind you how these two contrasted aspects of the Gospel, as at once bringing in the new, and fulfilling and restoring the old, are inseparably intertwined in our Lord’s teaching.
Hence we shall go greatly astray if we interpret 12our Lord’s use of the term
Ecclesia in this cardinal passage exclusively by
reference to the Ecclesia known to us in Christian history. Speaking with
reference to the future, He not only speaks (as the phrase is) “in terms of”
the past, but emphatically marks the future as an outgrowth of the past. Here
however a question presents itself which we cannot help asking, — asking in all
reverence. How came our Lord to make choice of this particular word, or a word
belonging to this particular group? Common as are the two Hebrew words which we
have examined, ‘ēdhāh and qāhāl, they do not occur in any of the important
passages which describe or imply the distinctive position of Israel as a
peculiar people. Their use is mainly confined to historical parts of the
historical book. They have no place in the greater prophecies having what we
call a Messianic import. From all parts of the book of Isaiah they are both
entirely absent. ‘People,’ ‘ăm, λαός, is the term which first occurs to us as
most often applied to Israel in this as well as in other connexions, and which
has also, under limitations, considerable Apostolic sanction as applied to the
Christian Ecclesia. But on reflexion we must see, I think, that ‘people’ was a
term which, thus applied, belonged in strictness only to that past period of the
world’s history in which the society of men specially consecrated to God was
likewise a nation, one of many nations, and in the main a race, one of many
races. It would have been a true word, 13but, as used on this occasion, liable to be misunderstood. This impression is
confirmed by examination of the passages of the New Testament in which λαός
(people) is applied to the Christian Ecclesia. It will be found that they almost
always include a direct appropriation of Old Testament language33 Rom. ix. 25; 2 Cor. vi. 16; Tit. ii. 14;
1 Pet. ii. 9, 10; Heb. viii. 10; Ap.
xviii. 4; xxi. 3.
In Heb. iv. 9; xiii. 12 the term includes the ancient people, and is in fact suggested by the purpose of the Epistle as being addressed exclusively to Christians who were also Jews.
In Acts xv. 14 ὁ θεὸς ἐπεσκέψατο λαβεῖν ἐξ ἐθνῶν λαὸν τῷ ὁνόματι αὐτοῦ (Revised Version paraphrastically “God did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name”), the paradox of a people of God out of the Gentiles explains and justifies itself.
Nor lastly is it a real exception when the Lord tells St Paul in a dream at Corinth that He has “λαός πολύς in this city” (Acts xviii. 10)..
If the term ‘people’ was not to be employed, qāhāl (ἐκκλησία) was, as far as we can see, the fittest term to take its place. Although, as we saw just now, the use of the two words which we translate ‘congregation’ and ‘assembly’ in the Old Testament, is almost wholly historical, not ideal or doctrinal, there is one passage (Ps. lxxiv. 2) in which one of them wears practically another character. It is not a conspicuous passage as it stands in the Psalter; but the manner in which St Paul adopts and adapts its language in his parting address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts xx. 28) amply justifies the supposition that it helped directly or indirectly to facilitate the use of ἐκκλησία to denote God’s people 14of the future. “Remember thy congregation which thou didst purchase of old, didst redeem to be the tribe of thine inheritance.”
The original here is ‘ēdhāh, and the LXX. rendering for it συναγωγή. St Paul substitutes ἐκκλησία as he also substitutes περιεποιήσατο (‘purchased’) for the too colourless ἐκτήσω (‘acquired’) of the LXX., while he further gives the force of the other verb ‘redeem’ by what he says of the blood through which the purchase was made. The points that concern us are these. Not ‘people’ but ‘congregation’ is the word employed by the Psalmist in his appeal to God on behalf of the suffering Israel of the present, with reference to what He had wrought for Israel in the time of old, when He had purchased them out of Egypt, ransomed them out of Egyptian bondage, to be a peculiar possession to Himself; these images of ‘purchase’ and ‘ransom’ as applied to the Divine operation of the Exodus being taken primarily from the Song of Moses (Exod. xv. 13, 16); and then fresh significance is given to the Psalmist’s language by the way in which St Paul appropriates it to describe how God had purchased to Himself a new congregation (now called ἐκκλησία) by the ransom of His Son’s lifeblood. This seventy-fourth Psalm is now generally believed to be a very late one; it is not unlikely that in speaking of God’s congregation rather than God’s people, the Psalmist was following a current usage of his own time. If so, there would be an additional 15antecedent leading up to the language which we read in St Matthew. But to say the least, the Psalm shews that such language was not absolutely new44The four passages of the Talmud quoted by Schürer [Eng. Tr. II. ii. p. 59] to shew that qāhāl came to have a high ideal character do not at all bear him out..
But the fitness of this language by no means depends only on the Psalm or on what the Psalm may imply. These words denoting ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’ had belonged to the children of Israel through their whole history from the day when they became a people. In the written records of the Old Testament they first start forth in this sense in connexion with the institution of the Passover (Ex. xii.): they continue on during the wanderings in the wilderness, in the time of the Judges, under the Kings, and after the Captivity when the kingdom remained unrestored. Moreover they suggested no mere agglomeration of men, but rather a unity carried out in the joint action of many members, each having his own responsibilities, the action of each and all being regulated by a supreme law or order. To Greek ears these words would doubtless be much less significant: but what they suggested would be substantially true as far as it went, and it was not on Greek soil that the earliest Christian Ecclesia was to arise.
This primary sense of ἐκκλησία as a congregation 16or assembly of men is not altered by the verb “build” (οἰκοδομήσω) associated with it. It is somewhat difficult for us to feel the exact force of the combination of words, familiar as we are with the idea of building as applied to the material edifice which we call a church, and natural as it is for us to transfer associations unconsciously from the one sense to the other. To speak of men as being built is in accordance with Old Testament usage. Thus Jer. xxiv. 6; I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up (cf. xlii. 10); xxxiii. 7, I will cause the captivity of Judah and the captivity of Israel to return, and will build them, as at the first; and elsewhere. But no doubt the singular μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν is meant to imply more distinctly the building up of the whole body in unity.
What our Lord speaks of however is not simply building, but building “upon this rock.” It is impossible now to do more than say in the fewest words that I believe the most obvious interpretation of this famous phrase is the true one. St Peter himself, yet not exclusively St Peter but the other disciples of whom he was then the spokesman and interpreter, and should hereafter be the leader, was the rock which Christ had here in view. It was no question here of an authority given to St Peter; some other image than that of the ground under a foundation must have been chosen if that had been meant. Still less was it a question of an authority which should 17be transmitted by St Peter to others. The whole was a matter of personal or individual qualifications and personal or individual work. The outburst of keenly perceptive faith had now at last shown St Peter, carrying with him the rest, to have the prime qualification for the task which his Lord contemplated for him.
That task was fulfilled, fulfilled at once and for ever so far as its first and decisive stage was concerned, in the time described in the earliest chapters of the Acts. The combination of intimate personal acquaintance with the Lord, first during His Ministry and then after His Resurrection, with such a faith as was revealed that day in the region of Cæsarea Philippi, a faith which could penetrate into the heavenly truth concerning the Lord that lay beneath the surface of His words and works, these were the qualifications for becoming the foundations of the future Ecclesia. In virtue of this personal faith vivifying their discipleship, the Apostles became themselves the first little Ecclesia, constituting a living rock upon which a far larger and ever enlarging Ecclesia should very shortly be built slowly up, living stone by living stone, as each new faithful convert was added to the society.
But the task thus assigned to St Peter and the rest was not for that generation only. To all future generations and ages the Ecclesia would 18remain built upon them, upon St Peter and his fellow disciples, partly as a society continuous with the Society which was built directly upon them in their lifetime, partly as deriving from their faith and experience, as embodied in the New Testament, its whole knowledge of the facts and primary teachings of the Gospel.
The Ecclesia (without the name) in the Gospels.
We must not linger now over the other details of our Lord’s words to St Peter; though the time we have already spent on those points in them which most directly concern our subject is hardly out of proportion to their importance in illustration of it. But we have not yet done with the Gospels. Though they contain the word ἐκκλησία but twice, and refer directly to the Christian Ecclesia but once, in other forms they tell much that bears on our subject, far more than it is possible to gather up within our limits. This is one of the cases in which it is dangerous to measure teaching about things by the range of the names applied to things. Much had been done towards the making of the elements of the Ecclesia before its name could with advantage be pronounced otherwise than under such special circumstances as we have just been considering.
One large department of our Lord’s teaching, sometimes spoken of as if it directly belonged to our subject, may, I believe, be safely laid aside. In the 19verse following that which we have been considering, our Lord says to St Peter “ I will give thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Without going into details of interpretation, we can at once see that the relation between the two verses implies some important relation between the Ecclesia and the Kingdom of Heaven: but the question is, what relation? The simplest inference from the language used would be that the office committed to St Peter and the rest with respect to the Ecclesia, would enable him and them to fulfil the office here described as committed to him, with respect to the Kingdom of Heaven. But the question is whether this is a sufficient account of the matter. Since Augustine’s time the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God, of which we read so often in the Gospels, has been simply identified with the Christian Ecclesia. This is a not unnatural deduction from some of our Lord’s sayings on this subject taken by themselves; but it cannot, I think, hold its ground when the whole range of His teaching about it is comprehensively examined. We may speak of the Ecclesia as the visible representative of the Kingdom of God, or as the primary instrument of its sway, or under other analogous forms of language. But we are not justified in identifying the one with the other, so as to be able to apply directly to the Ecclesia whatever is said in the Gospels about the Kingdom of Heaven or of God.
On the other hand, wherever we find disciples and 20discipleship in the Gospels, there we are dealing with what was a direct preparation for the founding of the Ecclesia. We all know how much more this word ‘disciples’ sometimes means in the Gospels than admiring and affectionate hearers, though that forms a part of it; how a closer personal relation is further involved in it, for discipleship takes various forms and passes through various stages. Throughout there is devotion to the Lord, found at last to be no mere superior Rabbi, but a true Lord of the spirit; and along with and arising out of this devotion there is a growing sense of brotherhood between disciples.
Chief among the disciples are those Twelve who from certain points of view are called Apostles, but very rarely in the Gospels; sometimes ‘The Twelve’, more often simply ‘The Disciples’. We do the Evangelists wrong if we treat this use of terms as fortuitous or trivial. It is in truth most exact and most instructive. Not only was discipleship the foundation of apostleship, but the Twelve who were Apostles were precisely the men who were most completely disciples. Here we are brought back to the meaning of the building of Christ’s Ecclesia upon St Peter and his fellows. The discipleship which accompanied our Lord’s Ministry contained, though in an immature form, precisely the conditions by which the Ecclesia subsisted afterwards, faith and devotion to the Lord, felt and exercised in union, and consequent brotherly love. It was the strength, so to speak, of St Peter’s 21discipleship which enabled him, leading the other eleven disciples and in conjunction with them, to be a foundation on which fresh growths of the Ecclesia could be built.
This point needs a little further examination, the exact relation of the Apostles to the Ecclesia, according to the books of the New Testament, being a fundamental part of our subject.22
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