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EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE

CHAPTER I

CHRISTIAN DOCTINE IN ITS SIMPLEST FORM

Introductory.-- It is the distinctive feature of early Christian theology that it fastened upon the person of Christ as the centre of Christianity. We can conceive that a different line of thought might have been adopted. The Church might conceivably have made the moral precepts contained in the Sermon on the Mount or a belief that God is the Father of all mankind, or the experience of conversion, the dominating principle of Christianity. But while these and other great religious truths were not forgotten, they were believed to depend upon the doctrine of the person of Christ. From the very nature of the case it followed that this doctrine had an enormous influence. Every other doctrine radiated from it, and it seems to have been assumed that any one who intelligently grasped the truth about Christ would be able to anticipate or approve the rest of the teaching of the Church.

Now this distinctive feature of ancient theology can be traced in the teaching of Christ himself. It is derived from an impression of a truth which was felt by the companions of Jesus. His words and His actions gradually convinced them that there was an unutterable difference between themselves and Him. At least two of our first three Gospels were probably written before A. D. 70, and not one of them can possibly be more than a very few years later than that date. St. John's Gospel can be shown by countless proofs to be the work of the beloved disciple of our Lord, and the opponents of Christianity, instead of maintaining their old theory that it was written 2 about A.D. 160, now admit that it may have been written some years before A.D. 100, and that it contains large elements of the genuine teaching of Christ. All the four Gospels are united in recording that Christ appeared before men with a unique claim and a unique method.

The Claim of Christ.--There is a certain amount of reserve in our Lord's teaching about himself. It was not until His ministry was drawing to a close that He openly declared that He was the Christ the Messiah expected by the Jews as their deliverer and king. But He had steadily prepared His disciples to believe this. He makes repeated claims upon the allegiance of mankind, which suggest that He has a supernatural authority. Even in the Sermon on the Mount He revises and abrogates not merely the traditional doctrines of the Jewish scribes, but even the law of Moses itself. He not only draws a contrast between the true literal meaning of the fifth commandment and the glosses which had obscured that meaning, but He also replaces a literal adherence to the commandments against murder and adultery by an obedience to laws of a far more stringent character. His commands run thus: 'It was said to them of old time, . . . But I say unto you '(Matt. v. 21, 28). He here preaches the highest moral truth without appealing to any higher sanction than himself.

Similarly, He teaches that He has a right over each individual soul. An ancient legend tells us that the founder of Buddhism said to his followers, 'Be yourselves your lamp, yourselves your refuge.' The Buddha assumed that it was quite possible for men to value his precepts without paying any particular veneration to his person. Our Lord speaks quite otherwise. He preaches himself as being 'a greater than Solomon' (Matt. xii. 42). He offers himself as the greatest comfort of the human soul--'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Matt. xi. 28). He requires that unlimited devotion which a man may not lawfully require of his fellow-man--'Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's shall save it' (Mark viii. 35). 'Every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or 3 lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life' (Matt. xix. 29). It was inevitable, therefore, that our Lord's person should have been a problem to His hearers, and so He asks, ''Who do men say that I am?' and then tests His disciples by asking, 'Who say ye that I am?' (Mark viii. 27, 29).

Christ as Judge.--Before He asked the above decisive question of His disciples, Jesus had expressly asserted that He would judge men after their death, and reward them according to the works which they had done in this life. He gave a vivid picture of the manner in which He would make a separation between those who had served Him and those who had rejected Him--'Many will say to me in that day. Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out devils, and by thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity' (Matt. vii. 22, 23). And again He said, 'Every one therefore who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven' (Matt x. 32, 33). This stupendous assertion on the part of Christ corresponds with the forgiveness which He grants here and now to the repentant. To the woman who anointed His feet He says, 'Thy sins are forgiven,' and He rouses the indignation of the scribes by saying to the man sick of the palsy, 'Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven' (Matt. ix. 2).

Christ as Son of Man.--Christ very frequently calls himself 'the Son of Man.' This phrase is a Hebraism which denotes the possession of a truly human nature, true experience of human life and sorrow, and true dependence upon God. It is used in Ps. viii. 4 as a poetical name for mankind in general, and it is also employed by the prophet Ezekiel to describe himself. In Dan. vii. 13 Israel is symbolically personified under the name of 'Son of Man,' and from signifying Israel as a whole the phrase came to signify the Messiah who was to be the perfect Israelite. In part of the Jewish Book of Enoch, written in the century before our Lord's coming, this use of the 4 title is common, and it has therefore been supposed that our Lord took the title from that book in consequence of the Messianic character which He had previously assumed. But our Lord expands the meaning of the title in such a way as to make it doubtful whether He had any intention of recalling to the minds of His hearers the somewhat fanciful descriptions of the Book of Enoch.

It is true that in that book the Son of Man is represented as sharing with God in the judgment of the worlds and that Christ speaks of himself under this title when He prophesies His glorious return and His judgment of all mankind (Mark viii. 38). But there are other passages in which our Lord uses the title without introducing any of the apocalyptic scenes of judgment and splendour with which it had become associated. The title still implies sovereignty, but it is a sovereignty of an entirely new order, it is the rule of the ideal Man who represents all that is best in human character and is in perfect sympathy with every rank and every nation. The Book of Enoch contains no suggestion that the Son of Man was expected to live a life of service and die to redeem the world. But this is the peculiar function of the Son of Man described by Jesus Christ himself (Mark x. 42-45).

Christ as Son of God.--Near Caesarea Philippi our Lord asked of His disciples, 'Who say ye that I am?' It is plain from the context (Mark viii. 27-30) that He was not satisfied to be numbered simply among the great prophets, and that He accepted the answer given by St. Peter, 'Thou art the Christ.' Immediately afterwards it is added that 'He charged them that they should tell no man of him.' He did not desire that His Messiahship should be taught hastily. To have done this would have been to raise the hopes of His hearers not towards a moral renovation but towards material prosperity. Jesus would not permit men to believe that He was such a Messiah as the Jews ordinarily expected. At the same time He knew that He was the true Messiah, and declared it in the most solemn manner at the supreme moment when the high priest asked Him, 'Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' (Mark xiv. 61)

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He taught that He was not only as great as the Messiah whom the Jews expected but greater. He is himself the King of that divine kingdom, which He came to found, and through all His Messianic claims there is the suggestion that He is in a unique sense the Son of God. When He was discovered by His mother in the Temple at the age of twelve, He showed that He was conscious of being the real Son of God; the same truth was repeated in the voice heard from heaven at His baptism, and, although He taught His disciples to call God 'Our Father,' He called God His own Father in a special sense (Matt. xvi. 17). The Jews interpreted Ps, ii. 7 and Ps. lxxxix. 27 as Messianic, but it was only in a titular and honorific fashion that they applied the phrase 'Son of God' to the Messiah. They were willing to believe that the Messiah, as the head of a theocratic state, sufficiently resembled God to be called His Son. They were not willing to allow that any teacher could literally share in the Divinity of God.

But our Lord claimed to be literally divine. In the synoptic Gospels He asserts that He stands in a relation to God which no man could possibly occupy, He alone adequately reveals and knows God (Matt. xi. 27). He accepts the title of 'the Son of the living God' (Matt., xvi. 16) from St. Peter's lips, and will not save His life by disowning it when addressed by the high priest He had previously suggested it in an unmistakable manner when He uttered the parable about the one son, the 'beloved,' who was killed by the wicked husbandmen (Mark xii. 6). If we carefully consider the statements recorded by the Synoptists, we shall welcome the light which is thrown upon them by the statements recorded in St. John's Gospel. For in the synoptic Gospels Christ claims to be the perfect Saint, the supreme Lawgiver, and the final Judge. He declares himself to be the sole Master of His disciples (Matt. xxiii. 10), He inserts His own name between that of the Father and that of the Spirit (Matt. xxviii. 19) and promises to be wherever two or three are gathered together in His name (Matt. xviii. 20).

St. John represents Jesus as saying that He had the life of God within himself (John v. 26) and that 'the Father hath given all judgment unto the Son; that all 6 may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father' (John v. 23). He co-ordinates His work with the work of God when He commands an impotent man to carry his bed on the Sabbath day. He teaches that there is a unity, not only of co-operation, but also of omnipotence, in the passage where he declares, 'I and the Father are one thing' (John x. 30). He asserts that He existed before Abraham was born, and in such a manner as to show that His existence had no beginning and could have no end (John viii. 58). The Jews understood Him and attempted to kill Him. They detected blasphemy in His assertions, for they perceived that He regarded himself as God (John x. 33). St. Mark shows that the high priest assumed that the Sanhedrim would condemn Him the moment that Jesus stated that He was the Son of God. St. John does nothing more than logically continue the synoptic narrative when he says that the Sanhedrim declared to Pilate, 'We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God' (John xix. 7). All the Gospels agree in proving that the history of Christ's death is unintelligible unless He called himself the Son of God, not merely in an ethical sense, nor merely in the official sense of 'Messiah,' but also in the deeper sense that He claimed to be a divine Person who had clothed himself with human nature (cf. Luke i. 35).

The Fatherhood of God.--The teaching of our Lord revealed to men the true nature of the Fatherhood of God. The more devout Jews had some conception of God acting as a Father to His chosen people, pitying His children 'like as a father' (Ps. ciii. 13). But in the teaching of Christ this idea is central and dominant. It carries with it the thought of a love which creates and teaches, which plans and gives, and is bestowed upon all God's children freely. But it must be remembered that Christ does not teach that His disciples are or can be sons of God in the same unique sense as himself. He speaks to them of 'your heavenly Father' (Matt. vi. 14) in a manner which marks a distinction between His own Sonship and theirs. Nor does Christ teach that we are the children of God if we reject His Son (John viii. 42). 7 It is only through submission to Christ that we become God's children (John xiv. 6 ff.; Rom. viii. 15).

Christ's Teaching about Salvation.--When Christ began His ministry He said, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor' (Luke iv. 18). He makes salvation depend upon the acceptance of His message from God. He is the Sower who scatters the word of God; the word contains the power of fruitfulness in itself, though its actual fruitfulness depends upon the soil which receives it. The great subject of this message is the Kingdom of God. The Jews expected that the theocracy or Kingdom of God which had nourished among them in the times of David and Solomon would return in a more glorious form. This expectation nerved them to maintain their nationality and their religion. At the same time the interpretation of the Kingdom of God which was current among them was so secular that it was necessary for Christ to transform it.

(1) The Jews expected that it would be a kingdom of material prosperity and success. Christ opposes this by specially promising a share in it to the 'poor in spirit' (Matt. v. 3). He describes it as the highest good which men can seek and as a spiritual sphere of life.

(2) The Jews thought that it had not yet come. Christ teaches that the final stage has not yet come (Luke xxii. 18), but He says that it is already here and suffering violence (Matt. xi. 12). Christ himself has brought it (Luke xi. 20).

(3) The Jews believed that it was a national Jewish kingdom, to which the Jews had a hereditary right. Christ assured them that it would be taken from them (Matt. xxi. 43). He opened it to all who would recognise Him as their King, and by a sincere repentance or 'change of mind' (Luke xxiv. 47) forsake sin and fulfil His commands in the spirit of little children (Mark x. 15).

Our Lord never ceased to preach the Kingdom of God, which is also His own Kingdom (Matt. xiii. 41). But when He had sufficiently trained His followers to believe absolutely in His message, and declared that it was 8 necessary not only to trust His message but to receive Him as God himself. He showed that the Kingdom of God was henceforth to be identical with the Christian Church.

When Peter confesses that He is 'the Son of the living God,' Christ rewards him by sayings 'Upon this rock I will build my Church . . . I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven' (Matt. xvi. 18, 19). The word 'Church' had been used by the Jews as a name of God's chosen people. Christ now founds what He calls 'my Church.' It is His own institution, and He describes it in terms which show it to be visible and imperishable, and opened by an appointed human guardian. In Matt. xviii 15-20, He further describes His Church as the home of brothers whose brotherhood depends upon submission to Christ. The brother who persists in sin and refuses to hear the Church is to be excluded, and this exclusion will be ratified in heaven. After this solemn statement our Lord declares that He is personally present with the members of the Church who gather together in His name. His language on this occasion implies His true Divinity as much as any language used by Him in the Gospel of St. John.

It finally became necessary for Jesus to tell His disciples that He must die. He could not reveal this to them until they were firmly rooted in their faith. The Jews did not imagine that their Messiah would die or even suffer. But when His disciples had learnt that He was indeed the Son of God, He was able to suggest to them the full truth. He says, 'I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be a accomplished' (Luke xii. 50). With greater clearness He tells them that He must 'give his life a ransom for many.' By this He means that man is a prisoner who cannot purchase freedom from sin for his soul, and that the Son of God pays the precious ransom which sets man free. A year before His death, in the great discourse recorded in John vi., He declared that He would give to men a living bread which is the flesh which He would give for the life of the world.

The night before He died. He made plain what He 9 meant by His former language about this life surrendered to God and imparted to men. While celebrating the Passover with His disciples, He consecrated a portion of the unleavened bread and a cup of wine mingled with water, saying, 'This is my Body'--'This is my Blood.' He apparently wished to recall to His disciples the blood of the Paschal lamb which was sprinkled on the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt, and saved them from the visitation of the destroying angel.

He also claimed to found that new Covenant between God and His servants which Jeremiah had foretold. The shedding of His blood secures deliverance from evil, and makes a new and closer relation between God and man. The Lord's Supper was therefore meant to be a sacrificial feast of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation made possible by the death of Jesus. It was also meant to be a means of receiving from Jesus that life of which He is the Source, and which He derives from the eternal Father (John vi. 57).

After He was risen from the dead, Christ ordered Christian Baptism, directing that the converts made by His disciples should be baptized 'into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.' When the Jews made proselytes, these proselytes were not admitted to the full privileges of sons of Israel until they were baptized. If they had children at the time, these children appear to have been baptized also. John the Baptist baptized his disciples to prepare them for the new Covenant of Christ. But our Lord himself instituted another cleansing to be an actual means of entrance into His own kingdom. Some modem critics have asserted that our Lord could never have used such a formula as 'the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.' But although the early Christians perhaps baptized sometimes only 'into the name of the Lord Jesus' (Acts viii. 16), there is no real reason to doubt that Christ used the above formula. St. Paul uses the same formula in 2 Cor. xiii. 14, and the synoptic Gospels and St. John's Gospel agree in mentioning a Trinity of divine persons (John xiv. 26; cf. Eph. v. 18-20; Hebr. x. 29).

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That the cleansing which Christ meant to be bestowed by His apostles in Baptism is a cleansing from sin by the Holy Spirit is evident, and it is further illustrated by His words to Nicodemus (John iii. 5). Our Lord could not have used the language in which He commanded this rite, unless He had been conscious that He was divine and able to say, 'Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world' (Matt. xxviii. 20). And this once more reminds us that the centre of all Christian doctrine is 'Jesus only,' and that no Christian can be indifferent to anything which implies a true view of Jesus Christ.

Doctrine in the Acts of the Apostles.--Our Lord died and rose again in A.D. 29, and according to an ancient tradition, the apostles remained together in Jerusalem for twelve years afterwards. The earliest form of their teaching has been faithfully preserved for us in Acts i.-xii., where St. Luke, who wrote Acts about A.D. 75, has made use of a very early Jewish Christian document. The Christians have no wish to break with Judaism, but regard themselves as the true Israel. They worship in the Temple and in the synagogues, although they meet in private houses for the celebration of the Lord's Supper. They still observe the precepts of the Jewish Law. They are under the authority of the apostles, who appoint a successor to Judas, and then appoint seven ministers to attend to the temporal needs of the poorer brethren. It is uncertain how soon the ministry was completed by the appointment of presbyters, but these officials are mentioned in the later chapters of the book.

The doctrine of Christ's person is very simple, but very deep. The apostles are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Resurrection of Jesus has removed any doubts which they may once have entertained. In discoursing to the Jews the utmost stress is laid upon the Resurrection, and St. Peter declares that the suffering, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Messiah were foretold in the Old Testament (Acts ii. 27, 34; iii. 18). Jesus is declared to be the Messiah, anointed by God, the Holy One. He is also in a special sense the Holy Servant or Child of God. He is not a merely human Messiah; He 11 is Lord, Prince of life, and Saviour. He is not at first called God (as in Acts xx. 28), or even Son of God (as in Acts ix. 20). At the same time He is declared to fulfil divine functions. It is He who has poured out the Holy Spirit (ii. 33), and His name or revealed personality is declared to have just restored a lame man to soundness (iii. 16), signs and wonders are expected to be done through Him (iv. 30). There is 'salvation' in none other (iv. 12), and He is to be 'the Judge of quick and dead' (x. 42). St. Stephen in his dying moments addresses the Lord Jesus in prayer. We have here the simplest kind of theology. There is nothing metaphysical on its surface. Jesus is the Messiah who takes part in the work of God and is worshipped and is expected to return in the near future. The Holy Spirit is divine and personal.

St. James acted as bishop of Jerusalem until his martyrdom in A.D. 62. His Epistle shows us the simple doctrines of the first Jewish Christians. The book contains no mention of the observance of Jewish ordinances. And yet Christianity is represented under the aspect of a law, a law of liberty, the observance of which, with the love and mercy which it involves, will be rewarded by a merciful judgment from God. Great stress is laid upon the necessity of good works, and this has led many modern writers to suppose that the Epistle is opposed to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. But St. James when he urges his readers to regard works as essential has the same object in view as St. Paul when he urges his readers to regard faith as essential. Both have the character of men at heart; St. Paul opposes works which are done in the spirit of a business contract with God, St. James opposes a faith which is only a lifeless orthodoxy. St. James keeps very closely to the principle of our Lord, which was not to destroy the law but to emphasise its inner meaning.

The main difference between St. Paul and St. James is that St. Paul regards the religious life as the working out of the life of Christ in the Christian, while St. James defines it as consisting in acts of charity and self-control (i. 27). The two doctrines are quite compatible, and although St. James says nothing explicitly about the 12 union of the believer with Christ, he does regard Christians as sharers in the life of God through Christ (i. 18). St. James also generally uses the word 'faith' of that kind of faith which may be common to both Jew and Christian while St. Paul generally uses it of faith in Jesus Christ a complete devotion and adhesion to Christ.

St. James says little about our Lord's person, but speaks of Him as 'Lord of glory' (ii. 1), as able to raise the sick, and about to come to judgment. By describing himself as the 'bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ' (i. 1), the writer shows that he believes himself to stand in the same relation to Jesus Christ as to God.

The Epistle of St. Jude, who, like St. James, was called a brother of our Lord, is directed against a lascivious sect whose principles bore some resemblance to the teaching which St. Paul rebuked in his letter to Colosssæ. This sect apparently denied the reality of the incarnation and the unique Lordship of Christ (Jude 4). The writer, like St. James, calls himself the bond-servant of Christ. The Holy Spirit, God, and the Lord Jesus Christ are mentioned together (Jude 20, 21) in a manner which suggests to us that the writer was familiar with the Trinitarian formula. This Epistle, in spite of its simple character, was probably written late in the apostolic age, as the word 'faith' is used in the sense of a system of belief, the faith for which the readers are asked to contend being a full and definite confession of Christ.

The two Epistles of St. Peter are of rather uncertain date, but were probably written late in the apostle's lifetime, and therefore after A.D. 60. While the tone of the first Epistle is distinctly practical, it contains a rich theology. The rebuke which St. Paul administered to St. Peter at Antioch for pretending that he agreed with the narrow-minded Jewish Christians who would not eat with the Gentiles, shows us that St. Peter in his heart agreed with St. Paul. He really believed in a universal Gospel, meant for all mankind and not for Jews only. This Epistle shows us a thorough comprehension of this great principle. The privileges of God's 13 ancient people belong to the whole body of those who believe in Christ. They are called the royal priesthood and the holy nation. St. Peter lays great stress upon the reality of Christ's manhood and the value of His example. As in the early chapters of Acts, the Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ and His return to judge the world (v. 4) are made prominent.

It is taught that Christ existed in heaven before He was born on earth, for He was not only 'foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world' (i. 20), but His Spirit was in the prophets before His incarnation (i. 11). The thought of reconciliation with God through the precious blood of Christ is much cherished by St. Peter. Christ the righteous Judge, 'his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness' (1 Pet. ii. 24). He suffered in order to 'bring us to God.' He removes the barrier between man and God which sin has created. To Christ, as unto a divine Being, glory and dominion are ascribed (1 Pet. iv. 11). In consequence of His Resurrection He is able to renew our souls in baptism (1 Pet. iii. 21; cf. i. 3).

The authenticity of the Second Epistle of St. Peter has been more questioned than that of any other Epistle in the New Testament. The external evidence for it is meagre, and the Epistle has frequently been assigned to the second century. The allusion to St. Paul's Epistles points to a date which is not likely to be earlier than A.D. 60, but the absence of any allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem makes it improbable that the Epistle is later than A.D. 70. The doctrine agrees with that of the apostolic age. In the polemical part of the Epistle there is a reference to heretics who will deny the Master who bought them, but there is nothing to show that the author lived among the heresies of the second century. The Divinity of Jesus Christ is repeatedly implied. The writer describes himself as the 'bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ' (i. 1), and the practical knowledge of Jesus, like the knowledge of God, is described as the source of spiritual peace and the crowning point of Christian perfection. This knowledge secures an 14 escape from the defilements of the world (ii. 20) and an entrance into the eternal Kingdom of Christ (i. 11).

It has been thought that a late date is implied in the statement in 2 Pet. i. 4, that through the promises of God granted to us in Christ we 'become partakers of the divine nature.' But if we reject the authenticity of the Epistle on this ground we shall logically be compelled to deny an apostolic origin to almost every book in the New Testament. For it is repeatedly taught in the New Testament that the Christian receives the infusion of a new and divine life. We have already noticed it in James i. 18, and the undisputed Epistles of St. Paul are steeped in this doctrine of communion between God and man through Christ. It follows quite naturally from the doctrine that Christ is himself divine. Throughout this Epistle Jesus Christ is frequently named where we should expect to see the name of God. He is called 'our Lord,' 'the Lord and Saviour,' and even 'our God and Saviour Jesus Christ' (i. 1).

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