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THE CHRISTIAN MODE OF LIFE.
FROM the very first there was a sharp distinction between the Christianity that was actually lived in the churches and the Christianity which the teachers of the Church postulated in their writings. It is the old chasm between the real and the ideal. The higher and the purer the ideal, the greater the divergence was bound to appear the more severe the criticism to be applied. That which is called worldliness did not make its way into Christianity through decay from some high level of excellence. It came through the mission itself as each new convert brought in a portion of the world along with him, and could not be raised at once to the level of the morality of the Gospel. Even in the apostolic age the world thus obtained a firm footing in the congregations, only it was, as a rule, still more or less concealed by the enthusiasm of the first love. There may of course have been isolated ideal congregations, but never an ideal Church. The First Epistle of St Clement gives us, it is true, a picture of the Church 315 of Corinth which is painted in an altogether ideal light; everything was perfect in this church—faith, piety, hospitality, knowledge, order, humility, unity, and charity—a magnificent picture. The descent from these heights to the actual reality a little later appears truly lamentable. But we may consider most of this description to be due to the vivid colouring of Greek rhetoric, the aim being to accentuate the contrast as much as possible. It is Paul and not Clement who presents us with a true picture of the Christianity of the Corinthians. It is true that in the sub-apostolic age we shall have to speak of an increase of worldliness. Enthusiasm, the first love, grew cold, and the position was rendered still more critical by the entrance of great multitudes into the Church. In some places worldliness flaunts about without either shame or attempt at concealment, so that the sharp line of distinction between the world and the congregations was obliterated at a very early date. Then came the distraction consequent upon the Gnostic controversies, which completely disorganized the congregations and often produced actual schism. The subsequent persecutions should have favoured a moral renovation; instead of this they frequently rather encouraged apostasy and hypocrisy. Nearly all the writings of our period bear witness to the great damage wrought by this process of worldliness, most of all the Pastoral epistles, the epistle of St James, and the “Shepherd” of Hermas. Decay set in among the leaders, and thence made its way through the whole of the congregation down to the newly-converted proselytes. Many of the old itinerant preachers, no longer exposed to the privations 316 of a missionary’s life in a heathen country, were the first to deteriorate in the shameless enjoyment of their privileges and in fanatical insubordination. This brought the ‘Spirit’ into discredit, and the place of the free teacher was taken by the permanent official. It soon became evident, however, that the presbyters were themselves in many cases too degenerate to be equal to the new and exacting claims that were made upon them. The author of the Pastoral epistles has to remind them of the elementary claims made by decency and order. Drunkenness, covetousness, coarseness, impurity, disorder in their own households, seem to have been found only too often even amongst the ruling elders. Such men exposed the Christians to the mockery of the heathens, and could acquire no authority in the congregations. It some times happened that proselytes were made bishops immediately after baptism, and then “being puffed up, fell into the condemnation of the devil.” It is possible that the earnest admonitions of the Pastoral epistles contributed to bring about a real improvement in the state of the officials. A comparison with the demands which Polycarp makes of them points to this conclusion. But examples of bad shepherds were not wanting even in later times, and it is from Polycarp himself that we hear how a certain presbyter named Valens and his wife caused great scandal at Philippi, especially by their covetousness, but also in other ways. Hermas complains at Rome of deacons who deprived widows and orphans of their means of subsistence and contrived to profit thereby themselves. It was indeed a calamity for the Christian Church that from the very first the 317 officials in the congregations frequently fell so far short of the ideal of their office. Complaints against priests and bishops are as old as Christianity itself. With the Gnostic movement came recrimination and competition amongst the office-bearers. Many congregations split asunder. Conventicles of the Gnostic prophets were held by the side of the principal assembly under the bishop. Even where there were no Gnostics, as in Hermas’ time at Rome, there were other false prophets of a similar nature who prophesied in secret and worked against the bishops. When the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy had been clearly drawn and peace thereby restored to the Catholic congregations, it turned out that the bishops had serious rivals in their own congregations in the shape of the saints. Amongst all non-ascetic admirers of the ascetic ideal the ascetic was esteemed more highly than the priest. But the sanctity of these saints themselves—and the widows were counted as belonging to their number—was often of a somewhat fragile character. At a very early date we hear of widows in receipt of the charity of the congregation by reason of their honourable title, who nevertheless lived in luxury or simply went out in quest of a husband. It was so comfortable and profitable to be called widow that many women had themselves enrolled in the sacred order though they possessed means enough to support themselves and their children. Later on, the bishops had to meet yet another form of competition. Able teachers founded schools which became the intellectual centres of the congregations, to the great annoyance of many of the official leaders.318
If the leaders instead of resisting the progress of corruption had often enough themselves given way to it, we cannot be surprised if we find that the condition of the congregations had, speaking generally, deteriorated considerably at a very early date. We can already see the different classes of Christians with their special class sins. Amongst the women, the love of dress and finery increases to such an extent that it passes the bounds of decency. They are great gossips into the bargain. The warning of the letter to Titus addressed to the older women, that they should not suffer themselves to be enslaved by drink, gives rise to serious reflections. The rich and well-to-do soon degenerate into a merely nominal worldly Christianity. St James attacks them with such vehemence that the reader of his epistle is bound to ask himself whether his severe strictures are not intended for people outside the Church altogether. But St James is not writing for such; he really means rich Christians. They blaspheme the Christian name, for they do violence to the poorer brethren of the faith, and drag them before tribunals because they love gold more than God. They keep back the wages of the labourers who have reaped their fields, and so are the cause of the sighs of vengeance which mount up to God from these men. But they continue their life of careless extravagance and luxury. Such is the picture of the rich men of his day drawn by a brave teacher of the Church not quite one hundred years after Christ. Hermas confirms the statements of this call to repentance by the description which he gives of the state of things at Rome. For him, too, the rich and the merchants 319 are the chief representatives of worldly Christianity. When the merchants are on their journeys they are engrossed in their business and do not consort with the brethren. The rich do likewise, for fear lest they should be importuned for charity. It often happens that Christians suddenly become rich through some lucky turn of affairs, and gain reputation among the heathen. Then they assume an overbearing demeanour, they cease to attend the meetings, and henceforth consort with the heathen. Nor is the argument invalidated by the fact that Hermas very possibly borrowed it from some Jewish author. He applied it to his Christians. The conclusive consideration in this judgment of Hermas is the fact that association with the mostly poorer and less honoured Christians is felt to be a burden by the rich. The lower classes, however, are seen to have their signs of worldliness just as much as the upper. It was especially the slaves who caused serious-minded preachers to feel much anxiety. You might often have sought in vain for the most elementary morality. Slaves robbed their masters, or they cheated them and so endangered the good reputation of the congregation. Even if a Christian slave belonged to a Christian master the difficulties of the situation were rather aggravated than diminished. The slaves began to long for emancipation; they looked upon themselves as on a level with their masters, or even superior to them if they were better Christians.
In addition to these sins peculiar to separate classes, were the signs of increasing worldliness common in a greater or less degree to all Christians in general. It would seem to be natural to assign the first place 320 here to unchastity, seeing that in so many writings of this period this is the first sin against which Christians are warned. If we remember that the demand of the Gospel for the strictest chastity now came into collision with the tolerance extended by heathen antiquity to every form of impurity, and even of bestiality, we should not be surprised to find that unchastity in every shape and form caused the Churches a great deal of serious trouble. Yet this is not the case, or at any rate not to any considerable extent. The place assigned to the demand for chastity is due to the influence of Jewish tradition. In itself it does not afford us any proof as to the actual condition of the congregations. In the Christian writings themselves the struggle against the coarser sins of the flesh appears to be far less prominent than in St Paul’s writings. We hardly ever meet with excuses such as he had to rebuke at Corinth. It was not so much immorality as the excessive chastity of many Christians which was the danger that threatened the congregations. For it was not only the Gnostics who looked upon entire continence as the sign of Christian perfection. It was the ideal of a good many orthodox Christians as well. Ignatius urges Polycarp to admonish the Christian women not to refuse the performance of their conjugal duty. This presupposes a struggle between the ascetic ideal and family life in many houses. We know that in St Paul’s time there were spiritual betrothals at Corinth between a Christian man and a maiden. In the sub-apostolic age we come across the dangerous custom of Christian brothers and sisters sharing one bed. Hermas plainly 321 alludes to the practice, and there is also a somewhat enigmatic passage in the Didache which appears to presuppose it. Surely the only result of such ascetic tours de force was that a new gate was thereby opened for immorality. How often, indeed, are impure tendencies concealed under the cloak of religion. Or if devotional literature began to busy itself with the fabrication of stories of the conversion of great sinners—men and women—or of the preservation of chastity amid all temptations, then it took the enemy whom it combated into its own bosom. The introduction of the “Shepherd” of Hermas, too, betrays a curious kind of devotional taste. He sees his former mistress bathing and helps her in her ablutions. Then the thought occurs to him, “Had I but a wife of such beauty and such a character.”
This excessive chastity, however, was probably only the aim of individual members of the congregations. On the other hand, the opposite reproach of the so-called διψυχία, the weak half-heartedness which could not come to any clear decision either for or against Jesus, affected whole classes. The Christian hope, the life of prayer, Christian morality, all suffered grievous loss through this indecision and hesitation. The dividing line between Christianity and the world was thereby often obliterated even more than by gross sins.
Another marked sign of worldliness was the decrease in public-spiritedness in many Christians. The apostolic age had been characterized—so St Paul himself tells us—by a deep concern for the good of the community. The apostle’s congregations were nurseries of the love which Jesus had brought into the world. In the sub-apostolic age complaints are 322 rife concerning the poor attendance at public worship and the separation of this person or group of persons from the other. Gnostic theories exercised a pernicious influence in this direction. They incited Christians to a kind of religious epicurism: they were to cut themselves loose from all worldly ties and live in complete isolation of the soul. They gave no thought to love, i.e., to the poor, the sick, prisoners, the hungry; works such as these were good enough for ‘respectable’ Christians who had not the Spirit. But even where there were no Gnostics there was not very much more public spirit. Those for the most part kept faithfully together who were in need of support. The others, the worldly-minded, frequently went their own way in search of honours or of riches. There was, however, a certain element of necessity in this decay of the concern for the public weal. The life of the community flourished at a time when there were as yet no Christian families, no Christian slave-owners, and the individual could therefore only live and subsist in the community. But as soon as Christianity penetrated deeper into the world, and consequently into the natural forms of association which had existed long before, the common life gradually lost its central signification. In such times of transition the great disadvantage of the change is often all that is noticed, whilst men’s eyes are blinded to the ground that has been won. And yet this was the way which the development of Christianity followed. Little by little the communities became superfluous, subsisting only as associations for worship, until the need for them arose spontaneously again later on under altered circumstances.323
The rapid increase in the Hellenization of Christianity, a process which was greatly accelerated by the Gnostic confusion, brought with it a danger of a quite peculiar nature. Greek Christians lost, or rather they never acquired, the sense that Christian piety is something altogether practical and simple. They took an exaggerated delight in speculation and disputation. These Greeks made the objects of the Christian faith the aim of their intellectual devices, just as every rhetorician chose his subject. They found something at once instructive and amusing in the fact that they had now received new problems from these barbaric Orientals. Hence it was that so many crowded into the profession of teacher. Given a certain amount of fluency, and a man might hope to become a celebrated Christian teacher. Even in those classes which were destitute of any real kind of rhetorical training the vice of pious gossip increased apace. Many Christians praised the clever preacher as they left the assembly without giving one moment’s thought to the fact that the practising of what was preached was more important than all else. The stupid idle chatter about faith and justification arose in consequence of the public reading of St Paul’s letters. It was Catholic Christians and not Gnostics who made use of the saying as to saving faith in such a way as to undermine morality. But the worst feature of all was the contrast presented between this gossip about spiritual things and the miserable condition of the elementary moral life. Jealousy and wrangling, slander and party strife, were all endured without any feeling of the contradiction to the ethical ideal that was thereby involved. Such was the 324 beginning of later Greek Christianity. After the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the Pastoral epistles and the Epistle of St James afford us some glimpses into this the earliest period of its history.
Such was the Christian life of the sub-apostolic age in many quarters. Of course there is a bright side as well as a dark to the picture. If it were not so, the attraction which Christianity continued to exercise would not be intelligible. The severe criticism to which the above-mentioned faults are subjected in the Christian writings should itself be regarded as a formidable sign. For it is entirely the Christians themselves to whom we are indebted for our knowledge of the dark side of the life of the congregations, and together with this knowledge we have in each case the vigorous reaction of the Christian conscience presented to us.
What we have to do is to endeavour to realize the Christian ideal of life itself, as it was maintained by the teachers of the Church in so pleasing a contrast to all these aberrations.
On the whole it is the ideal of the first great age, only it has been enriched—and that not to its advantage—by a dogmatic and ecclesiastical outwork. This outwork is in a great measure—not wholly—the result of the Gnostic controversy. Perhaps the development of the Church would itself have produced it, The confession of the orthodox faith is claimed as the essence of Christianity and the presupposition for every recognition of Christian life. Christians were, it is true, the faithful, even in the time of St Paul and earlier, but the formulas of the faith were as yet very simple. The expansion of the 325 Christological confession shows us how an even greater importance was attached to the scope and contents of the faith, how faith came to be a formulated knowledge, a primitive kind of gnosis. Then the strict conception of orthodoxy was evolved in the course of the Gnostic controversy; the creed came to be the distinctive mark amongst Christians. He that cannot repeat the orthodox creed is of the devil. Nor was it long before this new orthodoxy brought forth a whole system of uncharitableness, censoriousness, and slander, such as was scarcely capable of increase. Enmity to the unbelieving Christian comes to be the mark of the true Christian. That was the first defection from the Gospel.
In the next place, a prime importance was attached to ecclesiasticism, to subordination to the bishop and his jurisdiction. Originally the Christian care for the common weal furthered the mutual rendering of the services of love amongst the brethren and made them give heed to the voice of the Spirit in the prophets. As the new episcopal constitution was developed in the course of the sub-apostolic age, obedience to the officials of the Church came to be more and more regarded as of the greatest consequence. The First Epistle of St Clement shows us how the claims of the Church would have come to be urged above all else even without the Gnostic struggle. The author, writing on behalf of the Roman Church, endeavoured to restore ecclesiastical peace at Corinth, when the younger had stirred up strife against the older. To effect his purpose, he writes as though Christianity and ecclesiastical order were identical. Every defection from this order, every disturbance of ecclesiastical 326 unity, is to be taxed as a heinous sin, for ecclesiastical order is of divine origin. Subordination to the presbyters comes to be an essential characteristic of Christianity. In a long series of homilies which are apparently but loosely connected with the principal subject of the letter, the value and the blessing of the discipline of the Church are held up to the Corinthians, and proved by the authority of the Old Testament, by their harmony with the order of Nature. Among the subjects of these homilies are jealousy, the cause of the disturbances at Corinth; repentance, i.e., return to ecclesiastical discipline; obedience, i.e., subjection to the divine order (that of the Church); humility, the opposite of the exalting oneself above ecclesiastical discipline; peace, i.e., the harmony which is gradually to prevail, as in God’s creation, so also in the Church; and, generally speaking, discipline. We here learn how these oldest Christians interpreted the Pauline panegyric of love. For them it is the panegyric of ecclesiastical unity. It is of course quite true to say that it was only the actual condition of things at Corinth which caused the personal duties of Christians to be so entirely subordinated in this letter to their ecclesiastical obligations. There is no doubt, however, that we here see the first steps on the road towards Catholicism. The struggle with the Gnostics accelerated this development of ecclesiasticism, and almost threw it into confusion. The Christian’s first duty is now above all to be the faithful subject of the bishop, and to undertake nothing without him. Whoever does anything without the bishop serves the devil, so it is 327 said henceforth. It is especially in Ignatius that we find that the hierarchy has obtained a firm footing in the Christian life. We have gone back again to where Jesus began. That was the second great defection from the Gospel.
Both orthodoxy and ecclesiasticism are henceforth essential elements in the Christian ideal. No one refusing to give ear to their claims can be said to be in possession of the ideal. But at the same time it would not be fair to be blind to the great fidelity shown throughout this age to the old Christianity. One result of the struggle against the Gnostics was to sharpen the insight of the teachers into the practical and ethical characteristics of the Gospel. And be sides, men like the author of the Epistle to St James show us that even without this struggle, the chief thing needful was not forgotten by earnest minds.
Most of the representatives of the Catholicism that is in process of development are unanimous in their enthusiastic proclamation: Christianity is practical piety, a new ethical life, a walking in righteousness, a doing of good works—nothing extraordinary, but just those of the every-day life—and love to the brethren. Speculations, mysticism, idle dreams and pious prattle—none of these nor yet asceticism is Christianity: they are something entirely foreign to it. This excellent principle is set forth with all conceivable clearness by the teachers of the Church.
The Pastoral letters, the writings of St John and the Epistle of St James, afford us the completest proof of this practical understanding of the Gospel.
The author of the Pastoral letters manifests an instinctive hatred for every kind of speculation and 328 controversy. He can clearly see that these things have nothing whatever to do with Christianity. What he wants is piety, i.e., a purely ethical realization of religion. He describes its utility in perfectly simple language. God would not have controversy, but good works, for these alone are profitable to men. Piety, personal religion, is a great source of gain—a somewhat commonplace remark, but it saves religion from moral corruption. Where there are no fruits, corruption has doubtless set in. Our author combats ascetic tendencies such as celibacy, abstention from food and wine, bodily exercise which profiteth little, no less vigorously than the craving for discussion. Thereby, too, he saves simple morality and the faith in Providence, which are incompatible with asceticism. He goes to such lengths in his polemic against asceticism that he would have bishops married, and forbids Timothy to drink only water. He shows his sound and sober anti-asceticism, too, in his treatment of the widows. He limits the vita religiosa as much as possible, and leads women back to the tasks of every-day life—above all, to the education of children. Young widows are to marry again, other wise they will fall a prey to Satan in the end. No ‘superior ‘morality is demanded of the bishop, except that he is only permitted to marry once. He is to be a thorough Christian, and a pattern of Christian life—that is enough. Hence weight is attached to his Christian marriage and household, to his honesty, modesty, freedom from love of gold, sobriety and kindliness. Thus the clergy are to be reformed on the foundation of the simple Gospel. The Pastoral epistles by no means represent a low level of Christianity, 329 a Christianity of just an average nature. On the contrary, the aversion shown for speculation and asceticism—the monkish ideal—is the presupposition of the genuine conception of Christian life. It must be admitted that these letters breathe a somewhat Philistine sobriety: there is an absence of any very great warmth or fervour of language. But in combating a number of extravagant fanatics and sophists, this sobriety was the salvation of Christianity. The author was a thoroughly sound Christian who was entitled—none more so—to the claim that he possessed the sound doctrine.
The author of the Johannine writings took good care that no reader of his Gospel should be in any doubt as to the practical character of Christianity. For him, as for the author of the Pastoral epistles, Christianity is faith and love. Faith comes first. The aim of the first twelve chapters is to recommend it to us, and to defend it from attacks from without. Then the last discourses of Jesus reveal the real essence of discipleship which presupposes faith as something purely practical. First comes the washing of the disciples feet as an example of ministering love, then the new commandment, the testament of the love of the brethren. But the parable of the vine and the branches in the fifteenth chapter, affords us the clearest insight of all into the character of Christian discipleship. The disciple’s aim is to bring forth fruits, to realize religion in good works. This bringing forth of fruit is only possible through communion with Jesus, or, as John says, by ‘abiding’ in Jesus. There is a mystic ring about the expression, and it is even possible that John borrowed it from the Gnostics. 330 But he himself immediately adapts the mystical expression to ethical requirements. Communion with Jesus consists in the faithful keeping of His words. Our only guarantee for its persistence is the keeping of His commandments, and the chiefest of these is love to the brethren, which is to go as far as the laying down of one’s life for their sakes. So, too, there is no friendship with Jesus unless “ye do that which I command you.” The sequence of thoughts is, it is true, illogical. Communion with Jesus is on the one hand said to be the condition for the bringing forth of fruits, and on the other, it is itself conditioned by the keeping of the commandments—in other words, by the fruits. Nevertheless, the aim of these exhortations is perfectly clear. Faith and a life in righteousness form one indivisible whole, and the righteous life is God’s aim in uniting us with Jesus. Exactly the same current of thought runs through the first epistle, only the contrast with the Gnostic terms of expression causes them to be rather more accentuated. Nothing can be more magnificent than the opening words of his polemic against his adversaries, the purely moral conception of the knowledge of God. If God is light, then our duty is plain: it is to walk in the light.
There is no knowledge of God unless we do His commandments.
There is no love of God unless we keep His words.
There is no being in God unless we walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
There is no being in the light unless we show love to the brethren.
A Christian is a child of God if he does righteousness 331 and loves the brethren. That is the only criticism both before God and men. Love does not consist in the mystic flight of the soul to God; God is invisible: we cannot love Him, therefore, directly. All love of God must show itself forth as love of the brethren, and that not in words but in deeds, beginning with the ungrudging gift right up to the laying down of one’s life. The ethical character of the Gospel cannot be expressed more magnificently than in the solemn adjuration: the world with its cravings is passing away, but those who do God’s will live for ever. It is only the constant repetition of the claim for the orthodox confession as the presupposition of all morality that reminds us of the difference between these statements and the sayings of Jesus. No man is less of a mystic than this John, for whom the ethical alone is eternal. True, he often uses mystical words; so, e.g., in the celebrated passage of the entrance of the Father and the Son into the hearts of the disciples. The reason for that is that in his time such expressions were very frequent among Christians, echoes of the former doctrine of the indwelling of the Spirit. But whenever John adapts a mystical expression of this kind, he emphasizes the ethical demand, the keeping of the commandments, far more than the promised blessedness. The vision of God is reserved for the future. The road that leads to it passes through simple morality and love, not through speculation, and not through religious epicurism. Such is the motto of St John’s practical Christianity.
The authors of the Pastoral epistles and of the Johannine writings were led to emphasize the 332 practical element in Christianity by their controversy with the Gnostic teachers who recommended speculations, mysticism and asceticism. The Epistle of St James has the same aim in view, though not occasioned in the same manner. At first sight it consists of a number of loosely arranged and loosely connected sentences, as though it were a congeries of Jewish and Christian proverbs. And yet there is an underlying unity. Throughout, the author strikes a clear and dominant note—the cry to be up and doing, Christianity is something practical—the fight against everything that is corrupt, torpid, morbid in the congregations. The ideal Christian—so he appears to the author’s mind—is the active, energetic man who toileth terribly. This ideal he does not preach systematically, but sets it forth in a number of antitheses to the defects of his day. No mere hearing, but doing of the word. No service of God which consists solely in ceremonial observances, but a practically divine service, deeds of mercy to widows and orphans, and the keeping oneself pure from the contamination of the world. No boasting of faith and justification; works belong to faith or else it is dead. No pious prattle about spiritual things, but silence and action. No pluming oneself on the theoretical possession of wisdom. Wisdom is to be recognized by a man’s walk, by the fruits of chastity, peaceableness, and goodness. The author of this epistle was certainly no spiritually profound teacher, far indeed from being a match for St Paul, whose misunderstood formulas he combats. But what a splendid, sound Christian he is, after the mind of Jesus, for all that! A truly comforting appearance 333 in the sub-apostolic age, completely untouched by the Hellenic and Gnostic spirit; no intellectual giant, but a hero in moral excellence.
Would that they had written in their own names, these simple saviours of Christianity in its darkest hour! They understood the Gospel of Jesus better than all later Catholic and Protestant dogmatists. The pseudo-James is, besides this, entirely untouched by orthodoxy and ecclesiasticism. Both the other authors, however, afford a good proof that the heart of practical Christianity remained untouched by those outworks of dogmatism and ecclesiasticism. Orthodoxy and ecclesiasticism were the necessary armour for the substance of the Gospel of Jesus. It needed a protection such as this, capable of resisting the world both within and without. They were not the main thing—not even for those who fought for them. The main thing even now was the fruit of good living, the doing of God’s will, as John says, in Jesus’ words. The authors of the Epistle to the Hebrews, of the First Epistle of St Peter, of the First and Second of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, all thought and wrote in the same strain. In this main point they are all evangelical Christians.
The only question now is, What transformation did the practical ideal itself undergo, what aspects were bound to acquire prominence in consequence of the altered historical position? The one thing needful is still, at bottom, that which it was in the Gospel of Jesus—to be in the right relation to the three great realities, to one’s own soul, to one’s brother, and to God. Only—as we already have seen was the case in St Paul—certain special claims have to be emphasized 334 in consequence of the formation of communities and the contrast to the heathen surroundings; and besides this, an even greater attention has necessarily to be paid to the outer forms of the life of the community.
Sanctification is the watchword for the individual in relation to himself. As before, the word signifies renunciation of the sinful world and consecration of the entire personal life to God. Included in this is naturally a decided abjuration of all elementary sins, such as drunkenness, thieving and lying, all forms of idolatry, of magic and the like. But the resolve to live a life of purity excels all other demands. It often appears to be absolutely the most important element in the conversion to Christianity. Justin tells us of a Roman woman who had lived a life of vice. The very first thing that she did after her conversion by a teacher named Ptolemaus was to renounce her unchaste life. The case is a typical one. The dividing line between the Christian and the non-Christian is above all else a difference of attitude and of judgment with regard to the laxity and the filth of the sexual life amongst the heathen. The reaction against the prevailing immorality soon passed over into asceticism. The first commencements of the monkish ideal date from the age with which we are now concerned. In like manner more value was attached in many instances to external purity than to the purity of the heart. The strict ecclesiastical discipline which inexorably excluded fornicators and adulterers, but naturally could not control impure thoughts, was bound to play directly into the hands of hypocrisy in many cases. Nevertheless the strictness with which the early Christians 335 pressed this claim above all others was fully justified. All other Christian virtues, love to the brethren, trust in God, patience, peaceableness, can neither flourish, or are rightly regarded as tainted with hypocrisy where the individual has not yet gained control over his natural impulses. And again, how could the Christians have possibly engaged in their struggle against the whole world without including in their ideal the most absolute demand for chastity? The greatness of this, the earliest age, just consists in the refusal on the part of the Christians to make any compromises—without abatement of one jot or tittle they press their lofty ideal upon a world which, it must be admitted, is not yet equal to such an exalted standard. In spite of much backsliding on the part of individuals, the Christian congregations could honestly claim to be the homes of a pure and healthy life. And that meant a great deal.
Naturally, then, the chiefest concern of the Christian teachers in laying down their prescriptions for marriages, Christian as well as mixed, was to see the ideal of purity and fidelity realized in them. Hence their campaign against luxury and the love of dress. The custom of concluding the marriage ceremony before the bishop dates from the time of Ignatius, and proved salutary and beneficial in encouraging publicity and preventing precipitancy. The author of the First Epistle of St Peter endeavours to elevate the position of women and to ennoble marriage by his sensible admonitions addressed to Christian husbands. At the same time he warns the wives of heathen husbands against a mistaken spirit of proselytising, and urges them to 336 gain influence by their conduct without a word being said. The Pastoral epistles lay great emphasis on good order in the household and an honest education, and would have the women be good housewives. Nearly all the teachers of the sub-apostolic age recognize it as their duty to apply the principles of the gospel to the married state, without forgetting unmarried women and widows—the simplest and most natural of requirements, one would think. But we must remember that their task was to create a firmly-established Christian tradition in quarters where the most primitive conceptions of what was right and decent were often to seek. All the blessings of pure and healthy ideas and habits which it is still in our power to enjoy to-day are derived from this Christian tradition.
The restriction of brotherly love to the members of the congregation dates from the establishment of the congregations as organized bodies. It was necessary, and not in itself injurious. Reminiscences of Jesus commandment of love without limits, and especially of love to one’s enemies, are not wanting. The First Epistle of St Peter, Ignatius and Polycarp, dating from the period of persecution, admonish us to this love in splendid words which might just as well have stood in the gospel. Unfortunately the Gnostic controversy introduced a hostile and censorious spirit into the Church itself, and so brotherly love was restricted to orthodox believers. In the Johannine writings this restriction meets us in an altogether un-Christian form. “Not for the world do I pray,” says Jesus in the high-priestly prayer. And how poor a thing after all is the new commandment 337 of love to each other—i.e., of Christians to Christians—compared with the absolute boundless love enjoined in the Sermon on the Mount. As the Gospel of St John limits the frontiers of love in the direction of the world with a downright narrow-mindedness, so do the epistles against the heretics within the Church. Even the friendly greeting—the outward token of humanity—is to be refused to the man who holds not the doctrine “Jesus Christ come in the flesh.” The duty of intercessory prayer is not to extend as far as those who have committed deadly sin. None of these propositions breathe the spirit of the gospel, for the simple Christian conscience cannot reconcile itself to them. But when once we have come within St John’s narrow circle there is some thing great, it must be admitted, in the intensity of his love. From that narrow heart of his nothing but warmth and fervour shines forth. In fact, it may be said generally that love of the brethren, manifesting itself especially in works of charity and mercy, is reckoned as the essential element of religion in all the writings of our period. Sanctification and brotherly love are often mentioned together as making up the sum and substance of all the claims of the religious life. In controversy with the Gnostics, love is claimed as the characteristic of orthodox Christianity, for the Gnostic theories sanctioned religious egoism. And a further indication of the immense esteem in which love was held may be found in the fact that the saying “Love covers a multitude of sins” directly or indirectly colours the writings of the sub-apostolic age, and almost rivals in importance the statement as to the faith that forgives all sins. 338 Whoever has distinguished himself by works of mercy may hope to find grace with God in the day of judgment. However much we may be forced to admit that this conception paved the way even now for the later Catholic doctrines of salvation by works and human merit, there is yet much that gladdens one in it, for it exalts love, the truly divine element in us, above all else. The striking conclusion of the eschatological discourse of Jesus in St Matthew, wherein everlasting blessedness is promised all those who have given either food or drink, lodging or raiment, to one of the least of His brethren, or visited them in sickness or imprisonment, while those who did not do so are condemned, is surely more in accordance with the mind of the Master than all the statements as to faith and unbelief which the evangelist John puts into His mouth.
The principal direction in which this brotherly love was manifested in the sub-apostolic age may be gathered from the concrete instances mentioned by St Matthew in the verses just quoted. Hospitality, the lodging and caring for missionaries and the many other brethren on their journeys, usually comes first. Here, too, is the place to notice the custom of the washing of the feet which the Pastoral letters and St John presuppose as firmly established. If we next consider the single congregation in itself, we have the duties of the care for the poor, the support of widows and orphans with food, drink, and clothing, the visiting and caring for the sick. Later on there was a church fund for widows who were under the bishop’s special care, though the Epistle of St James and Hermas still enjoin upon all Christians the duty 339 of visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction. In certain localities we find the custom of the ransoming of Christian slaves from their masters prevalent. A new duty was added to these in the age of persecution, viz., the visiting of imprisoned Christians, the earliest description of which is given us by the satirist Lucian. All these services of love were rendered personally in the oldest time, not by the bishop alone, but by every member of the congregation. Rich and fashionable people were especially expected to perform such duties and thereby prove the sincerity of their Christianity. At a very early date, however, personal service came to be compounded for by almsgiving, whereby the principal importance was attached to the amount given. The Lucan writings, Hermas, the Didache and the Second Epistle of St Clement, introduced this form of piety from Judaism into the Christian Church, and enhanced its reputation. One can already hear the ominous watchwords: “Almsgiving alleviates the burden of sins or releases a man from sin and from death.” Luke and Hermas uphold the theory that the rich man can acquire heaven by his charities to poor Christians. Hermas maintains that he can even gain blessing on earth thereby. According to the second parable of Hermas, it is only the poor Christian who has religion in the strict sense of the word, and that as a poor man. His prayers alone find access to God, and not those of the rich man. If the rich man would have any share in religion he must obtain the poor man’s mediation by his charities. That was of course the caricature of the evangelical ideal of love. Nor can we find much 340 consolation in the thought that this second parable was perhaps written by a Jew and was taken over unchanged by Hermas. It is bad enough that a Christian could appropriate such a writing. But most Christian teachers knew that the bestowing of money or of goods formed but a little fraction of that all-embracing requirement. Be he rich or poor, much more is expected of the individual member by the Church—mutual forbearance and forgiveness, sympathy and comfort, while each gives way to the other, and thinks only of his neighbour’s well-being with patience and meekness. How far this ideal of love was realized in the churches we cannot tell. But the maintenance of the old ideal was a blessing in itself. Many proselytes were attracted by the rich manifoldness of the Christian love of the brethren more than by anything else. And on the contrary, nothing injured a congregation so much as when rich individuals abstained from works of love. The strength and the beauty of Christian love were most strikingly confirmed in the days of distress and persecution. It was then that the members of a congregation felt that the whole of Christendom prayed and suffered with them; money was gathered, letters were exchanged, good counsel and comfort freely given.
A special signification is now also attached to the summons to Christians to show trust in God: it is the duty to approve their constancy and their valour in suffering, and if need be in death. No other admonition is of greater importance in relation to God. The love of the brethren provides against all necessities both within and without. But when face to 341 face with the foe, the individual must depend upon God’s comfort and promises. The Apocalypse and then the First Epistle of St Peter are the earliest of a long series of writings intended to comfort and to exhort martyrs. All later writers continue in the same strain. The example of Jesus, the first martyr, now exercised a mighty influence upon the hard-pressed Church. The Apocalypse, the First Epistles of St Peter and St John, hold Him up to the eye of the Christians as their leader in suffering and in death. “Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.” As the Master overcame, so, too, the disciple may overcome. The call to show a heroic trust in God was first of all addressed to the leaders. It is for them that John draws the picture of the true shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, and of the cowardly hireling who abandons them and flies away at the approach of the wolf. There is no lack of instances of apostasy and desertion from the very first. The separation from all one’s relations, the sufferings of imprisonment and of torture, all the dread antecedents of martrydom, caused many a brave Christian to waver for a moment. But all hesitation vanished as he looked forward and beheld the victor’s crown. Make whatever abstractions you like, there is something inexpressibly great in these Christians, none of whom could tell whether he would not have to go forth to martyrdom on the morrow.
The expectation of the Parousia was of the greatest importance for the Christian life. It definitely turned the lives of all serious-minded people in the direction of eternity. They applied the words “the world passeth away and the lust thereof” to all that 342 ancient civilization had to offer. Hence there is scarcely any appreciation whatever of culture in early Christian ethics. It is true the State is judged least severely in spite of the persecutions, because it has both the power and the function of guaranteeing order and peace. And of learning, too, the Christians just took as much as served for edification and defence. Everything else—art, social intercourse, amusement—belongs, in the judgment of most men, to Satan’s kingdom, for it is filled with a hundred temptations to sin. Very rarely indeed do we come across any statement that is free from this narrow restrictedness of view, and that shows us how the Christian is to go through life as master of this world and superior to it. John gives the motto: “Love not the world: all that is in the world is not of the Father.” There was something narrow and sectarian that obtained a firm footing in Christian ethics from the very first. That was the reverse of its strength. The Christians came into the world as rebels against the prevailing religions and customs. They waged war against its faith and fashions, against long-standing habits and tolerance of evil. The world was their enemy; how could they have loved it? The time had not yet come for a positive appreciation of the benefits of culture and civilization. It was martyrs that were now needed, men who valued death for their faith more highly than all that the world had to offer.
It was a great achievement—this clear recognition of the Gospel’s claims which maintained itself till the middle of the second century. A Christian—there is no doubt about this—is one who is master 343 of himself, who loves the brethren, and trusts God even unto death. This clear vision is about to be dimmed, it is true: Catholic aberrations, the extreme value attached to alms, fasting, celibacy, are near at hand, but as yet they have left the main points untouched. The preacher who composed the so-called Second Epistle of St Clement at a fairly early date had indeed no bad understanding of the Gospel of Jesus. Apologists such as Aristides and Justin hold up the moral greatness of Christianity to the heathen. But these were in themselves mere words, theories, and the real condition of many congregations by no means corresponded to the ideal. They were tainted by the canker of worldliness. It is a question even now whether the Churches can in the long run fulfil their function, which is to be the means of redemption. But this is not the really essential matter. The Christianity which Jesus brought into the world is something personal. In the strict sense, therefore, it can never be realized save in individuals. All outward forms of association entangle it with the world and produce a confusion between the ideal and the real. Christians are at all times single individuals. Such individuals existed in the sub-apostolic age; probably they existed in greater numbers then than later. It was only through these individuals that the Christianity of that age as a whole was impregnated with the Christian character.344
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