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A LAYMAN’S THEOLOGY.
BEYOND his promise and his claim the author of the Apocalypse pursues no ulterior aim. He feels no need for theological thought and has no time to spare for it. This does not preclude his possessing very definite—though in no wise original—conceptions about God and the things of God. Even though he is layman, he is, after all, a learned layman, who has both read and heard a great deal. Like all laymen, he accepts the most obvious contradictions and does not strive after any inner harmony. His thoughts are never abstractions: they are all fancies calculated for the eye and the ear. It will not be without value to examine the conceptions of a man such as this. For he represents the average Christian, both in his thoughts and in his hopes.
We saw above how pessimistic was his estimate of the political position of the age. Satan is the present ruler of this world. He has given the beast power over all the kings of the earth. As in the letter to the Ephesians, so here: we Christians fight not against flesh and blood, but against the demoniac 380rulers of the world. One would expect as a consequence of this a strictly dualistic system. The contrary is our author’s opinion. God is to him above all the Creator and Lord of this present world. Jubilant psalms sing His praises for His acts of creation: “Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord our God, the Almighty. Righteous and true are Thy ways, thou King of the nations.” It is one of the prophet’s fundamental doctrines, as to which he never for one moment entertains any doubt, that this world is God’s world. He insists upon this almost more than does St Paul. All alike, Nature and history, have come forth from God. Such is his opinion, in agreement with the prayer of the Jewish apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra. It will be just in the signs of the last days that God will prove His power over Nature; then every eye shall see that all these natural forces are at His command to do His will. In heaven God’s praises are sung without ceasing, and in like manner the author of this book never wearies in giving vent to his feelings of thanksgiving. No tribulation can cause that stream to cease flowing. On this point his conviction is not to be shaken.
“A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That in our days shall happen.”
This fundamental faith in a present living God is the basis upon which all the optimistic hope for the future rests.
But how, then, can the power of the dragon and of the Gentiles be explained? The author gives no answer to this, because he has no interest in untying 381knotty problems. He leaves that to Ezra and his friends. He is content with the fact that the Gentiles are the enemies of God’s people and that Satan has given them their great power. But the near future will see the end of this state of things, which is hateful in God’s eyes. He who knows that, knows quite enough. That is just a layman’s theology, quite unsystematic but full of strength and energy.
God Himself is, it is true, a very distant mysterious Being. It is significant that He is described for the most part in accordance with Ezekiel’s vision. In His immediate neighbourhood stand the elders of Isa. xxiv., now twenty-four in number, the original twelve tribes having been doubled since the entrance of the Gentiles into the Church. Thunder and lightning proceed from God’s throne without ceasing. Before it are seven lamps which are the seven Spirits (archangels), and still nearer Ezekiel’s four living creatures. The picture which all this leaves in our mind is neither very clear nor very consistent. Indeed there is only one impression which we plainly derive from it, and that is, that God is unapproachable. Nor do the concluding chapters of the book enable us satisfactorily to unite in one picture the conception of the unapproachable God surrounded by His court of angels and His dwelling upon earth among men. Next, and as a consequence of this inaccessibility, God is described as one to be feared. He is no being in whom one can feel any confidence. He is never called by the name of Father. It is fear and trembling that we feel in the main in the presence of this God.
No wonder, then, that His behests are so exclusively 382carried out by means of angels. God does nothing Himself. It is angels that bring all the plagues and all the signs, that vanquish Satan in heaven and bind him in the abyss. All God’s revelations to men are likewise conveyed by the mediation of angels and explained by angels. From this fact alone one might infer that for many of our author’s co-religionists living religion consisted in communion with angels rather than with God. In fact, he twice energetically protests against the worship of angels. It is very significant that this is necessary. Things have already come to such a pass that Christianity has to defend itself against the Jewish and heathen worship of angels. The prophet is of course far removed from anything like polytheism: the angels are no independent beings, but the servants of God. His monotheism, however, would be lifeless were it not for the assumption of these intermediate agencies.
Christ appears as the chief of this great host of intermediate beings, and Christ is everything to our writer, therefore possessed of all titles also, only not God. This distinct subordination beneath God is maintained throughout the whole book. Twice in the letters to the Churches Jesus Himself is made to speak of His God. The visions in chaps. iv. and v. clearly distinguish Jesus and God. The Lamb there appears by the side of God between the throne and the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. In the concluding chapters the Lamb is never God. He only stands near Him. All our prophet’s practical interests are here centred upon this subordination, for only if Jesus is not God can He be 383conceived of as a pattern for the struggling and victorious Christians—the martyrs. And everything depends upon this for him. “He that overcometh I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father in His throne.” That is the Christology of adoption—Jesus has His merits, and in consequence of that His dignity is assigned to Him.
But then, how very little our author feels himself bound by these, his own words. All the divine predicates are again heaped upon Jesus almost immediately afterwards, and He is placed high above the angels, and that from the beginning, not only after His exaltation. He is the beginning of the creation of God, the first and the last and the living one, the Α and the Ω, the beginning and the end. He is the Redeemer, and will also be the judge over Christian and Gentile. It is especially in the letters to the Churches that one can see that our author has discovered in Christ, to his great comfort, a substitute for the dread and inaccessible God. That, again, is a sign of the layman’s theology. God is too far distant, too high for him: one cannot hold intercourse with Him after a friendly fashion. Christ, on the other hand, is known, and can be brought quite near to one. The name for Christ which occurs most frequently in the book is “The Lamb” (taken from Isa. liii.). As a lamb that was slain Jesus has been one of us. If this Lamb sits at God’s right hand, then we have a trusty advocate in the highest court of appeal. The want of taste in the figure which he here employs did not trouble him in the least. And after all, “The Lamb” is merely a name for Jesus, just as Babylon is 384for Rome. Such playing with secret names is a mark of the apocalyptic literature.
What has Jesus done, then, upon earth? As answer to this we are merely told He died and His blood has redeemed us. Thereby we have been legally delivered from the bondage of the heathen and of the devil, and have become members of the people of God. This does not preclude the writer having many other thoughts besides as to Jews’ work. But this is practically the most important to him, because he always has to picture the Christians to himself as a people.
He did not know Jesus, and so he cannot start from any personal impression. But he is now in the midst of the struggle with the Roman people, and then Jesus must be the king, the leader in this struggle, who has redeemed us for His host. The victory is ours because our King possesses such divine power high above all angels. The future will bring us the terrible and bloody victory, and the reward for those that have died the hero’s death. Judaism—the Old Testament and Paul too—have furnished their attributes of Jesus. The author has taken these various heterogeneous elements, and has just placed them side by side. They are only harmonized by his temperament.
It is interesting to see how this layman’s book agrees with St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians in the highest attributes of the Christology. The Epistle to the Colossians is directed against heretical teachers who preached the worship of angels. The Apocalypse likewise rejects angelolatry. In both cases Jesus is exalted high above all angels. First of all, Jesus was 385compared with the Scribes and the prophet John, and set above them as Messiah. Now He is measured with the Spirits and placed at their head. Soon afterwards follows the comparison with the gods of the heathen, and contrasted with them Jesus appears as the higher God. That is the beginning of the great apologetic of later times. The development of the Church keeps pace therewith: the inner Jewish sect, a religion competing with Judaism, a world religion by the side of the heathen religions.
But what now is the origin of all this Christianity of the Apocalypse? Can it be traced back to Jesus Himself, or to the first apostles, or to Judaists, or to St Paul and his companions, or to what other source?
Every direct development from the primitive Palestinian form of the Gospel is excluded. Nothing reminds us of Jesus and His disciples. Scarcely ever do we meet with even a faint echo of any saying of Jesus, the gospel faith in the Fatherhood of God is entirely wanting. There is not even a single instance of the use of the phrase kingdom of God. Whoever knew Jesus Himself or even only His words, could never have suffered these wild fancies of vengeance to hold dominion over him.
On the other hand, Paulinism is certainly the presupposition of this form of Christianity. St Paul’s universalism, his entire annulling of the law, his strict separation from the Jewish synagogue, are all taken for granted in this book. The Christology, however, best shows the dependence upon Pauline formulas: Jesus is the Son of God who has descended from heaven. He is highly exalted above all angels, the beginning of the creation of God. He only 386descended for our redemption and afterwards ascended, and because of His obedience He was highly exalted and shall come again as judge. Such is the unchanging outline of the Pauline Christology. It cannot possibly have originated twice over in different persons, unless indeed there were two appearances on the road to Damascus.
The Christianity of the Apocalypse is a development of that form of Christianity which St Paul presented to the Gentiles.
An entirely different element was, however, added to it, viz., Judaism with its apocalyptic literature and all the belief in God, angels and demons and the cosmology which this implies. It is still an open question in what form the Christian prophet appropriated this Judaism, whether he edited an already completed Jewish writing, just inserting a few Christian additions, or whether he independently combined all manner of literary and oral Jewish traditions from the standpoint of his Christian faith. But this question is of secondary importance. In any case he has completed digested Judaism and made it his own before he has uttered his prophecies. It is not improbable that he was himself of Jewish extraction; his style, and especially his knowledge of the Hebrew Old Testament, almost seems to prove this. He then, according to our supposition, would have entered one of the Pauline Churches, and would have assimilated the new world of thought as far as it suited him. Be that as it may, his Christianity presents a complete fusion of the most heterogeneous materials (we cannot call them hostile: cf. 2 Thess.)—Pauline Christianity and Jewish apocalyptic theory.387
But out of these materials he created something that was his own. He saw the struggle between State and Church on the point of breaking out; he saw it in the light of an illumination from above: it was the struggle of spirits, and as a Christian he foresaw the victory of his faith under all circumstances. This lifted him high up above his fellow churchmen into the ranks of the prophets. From this prophetic height he issued his instructions for the struggle that was about to begin, like a practised general, who, above all, pays attention to the weak points in his own troops. That which he thus places in the forefront is neither Pauline nor Jewish, but simple Christian commands for the period of persecution. This now succeeds to the missionary period properly so-called, but this change involves a corresponding one in the Christian line of defence and attack.
One evil legacy he did indeed bequeath to us: Christianity was drowned in a sea of Jewish fancies and feelings. That was a misfortune from which the new religion was destined to suffer grievously.
Christianity is the result of the labours of men. John is the forerunner as prophet. Jesus comes next, with a consciousness more than human as Son of God. The apostles transmit His message. Prophets and teachers join their fellowship. Paul—stamped as it were out of the ground—brings about the great transition from the Jews to the Greeks under the sense of a divine calling. Finally, on the outbreak of the struggle with Rome, the Christian 388prophet writes his wild book as the word of God. All of these men live in the firm conviction that God imparts Himself through them, and acts through them. Jesus occupies the first place as leader; His Spirit is to control all the others.
All have one and the same message—it is eschatology transformed into a practical demand. It is the message of the judgment and the coming of the kingdom of God in the immediate future. That is the aim of their cry—“Repent ye”; “Watch ye.” Be ye saved from the coming judgment. Upon this earth there is nothing left that abideth forever. The Jewish Church is tottering to its fall. The Roman empire is doomed to decay. There is no thought of any new great world-organization. Hence the minimum of ecclesiastical forms.
And if, after all, there is even in this present world something new and that endureth—then it is the life of the disciples of Jesus. Their Church is but miserable to look at; their theology setting aside St Paul’s alone—is a wretched jumble of Jewish words and conceptions and Christian insertions and additions. But the new life in these communities is of surpassing greatness: to be a disciple of Jesus means to be a redeemed man—one who exercises self-control, who loves the brethren, and clings to God above all else. It was Jesus who gave them this new life, and therefore they were ready to stand up for Jesus, and if need be to die for Him. Paul alone speculated about the redemption. But even with him possession is the really important matter. “He that hath not the Spirit of Christ is none of His.”389
These three points, the presence of men of God, the longing to leave this present world, the new life of the children of God, are the signs of this first creative period. When they are present no emphasis is laid upon the Church. Is not the spirit in the leaders, the spirit that creates and destroys forms; and does not the longing for heaven imply the longing to quit the Church on earth, and is not the new life of more importance than church membership?
And what did this enthusiasm produce? It separated Christianity from Judaism, and started it on its independent course. It began the evangelization of the whole world. It took up the struggle with Rome’s world-power. And so within. It produced the first great theology, formed a new kind of literature—the Gospels—created the Apocalpyse; at bottom, all of them unfixed undogmatic creations. How often Paul produces new formulas, and alters the outlines of the whole of his theology.
But at the same time the first beginnings of the Church are developed out of this same enthusiasm: there is the organization of the communities, fixed forms of worship, discipline, church officers, creed, moral regulations; more important than all, St Paul’s great theory: no salvation outside of the faith. But all is still provisory—means to the great end. Every Christian wished from the bottom of his heart that his Church might perish, and the kingdom of God begin.
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