We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!
« Prev Chapter XVIII. St Paul’s Personal Religion. Next »



WE can recognize the effect of Jesus upon His disciples directly from the Gospels. Here we see all that was great and new in Jesus that seemed worth recording. It was this at the same time that struck root and further developed. The effect of St Paul, on the other hand, we can only discern quite indirectly. We can gather what it was, partly from his letters, and partly from those documents of the succeeding age which were clearly influenced by him. Even though these conclusions are mostly hypothetical, we cannot entirely disregard them. Our present object, then, is to discover the characteristics of the earliest Christianity in heathen countries.

Wherever the Christians are gathered together in fully organized communities, there they feel that they are sharply divided not only from the popular religion of their heathen neighbours, but also from the Jewish synagogue. Both constitute for them that world to which they have bidden farewell. Indeed it is contrast with the world that determines the signification of the term Christian. In the first place comes the 342difference of faith and hope. As compared with the heathen, the Christian confesses the unity of God the Creator, and denies that the gods of the heathens are such to whom worship is due. The great text-book of monotheism is the Old Testament. As compared with the Jews, the Christian confesses that Jesus is the Lord; nay, more, the Son of God who came down from heaven in order to die for our sins, and to guarantee our hope through His Resurrection. This same Jesus shall come again in the near future, as the Saviour of those that believe on Him. Of Him, too, the whole of the Old Testament prophesies. He is now sitting on the right hand of God, and nearest to God, greater than all angels. Besides this, the Christian believes that the Spirit of God or of Christ, called also the Holy Spirit, is given to all believers in the Christian Church. These are the dogmatic propositions which St Paul securely established in all his Churches. He often summarized them as the essence of the faith upon which all depends. As yet the Spirit occupies the least prominent position in the creed, which is natural while he is still an object of experience. There is no need as yet to believe in him first. St Paul himself, however, employs expressions from time to time, in which the threefold formula Father, Son, and Holy Spirit already occurs.

The important point to notice here is the theoretical character of the faith, which is guaranteed by the contents. Neither mystical nor ethical elements are contained therein. It consists in assent to the propositions of the preaching. In this assent a certain amount of trust is contained as well. But the 343question already arises, whether this act of trust was considered as important by the Greeks as it is by us. They believed in the facts of the Gospel, in the fulfilment of the prophecies, in the unity of God, all purely, theoretical objects of belief in the first place. “The devils also believe, and tremble,” we read in a later document. We may much rather add in our thoughts hope to the word faith, for faith in Jesus for the purpose of salvation is as much as hope. Thereby it receives a very great accession of value. He that believes may hope to be saved in the approaching day of judgment. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and thou and thy house shall be saved,” says the Paul of the Acts. Faith saves, justifies, blesses,—expressions such as these obtained currency wherever St Paul had been. Often they were turned into harmful party cries, against the use of which later leaders had emphatically to protest. They went so far as to consider all that were without—the unbelievers—as such, for lost, whatever their works and their character might be.

Other characteristics of the Christian in opposition to the world may be noticed in addition to this the first; e.g., participation in the holy rites of the Church. This would appeal especially to the Greeks, to whom the Christians were, above all else, the saints, i.e., the congregation participating in the true worship. The later ‘Sacraments,’ Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were in very early times valued by the Greeks as mysterious rites connected with the world beyond. In baptism, the new birth is symbolized by a dying and a rising again. An implanting in Christ takes place whilst the convert passes through 344the water. The baptized convert is now a citizen of the world that is above: he has a certain claim upon that which is to come. The Lord’s Supper then leads him to an even closer and more intimate communion with Christ. But the Spirit of God descends even in the ordinary meetings for divine service, and testifies to His presence by mysterious and miraculous manifestations. St Paul never failed to subject these workings of the Spirit to ethical principles, but his Churches did not always follow his example. The Spirit and the miraculous continued to be interchangeable conceptions for them; only the theological mysteries were counted to be just as certain revelations of the Spirit as ecstasy. Thus the apostle’s rich inheritance was at once considerably impoverished. Of all the manifold manifestations of the Spirit two only were in reality preserved, and those the most opposed to each other—ecstasy and theology—both unpractical and morally indifferent.

The way is paved for a radical transformation from this point onwards. The greatness of the earliest form of Christianity was essentially constituted by two historical realities—Jesus and the community which attached itself to Him. All that deserves the name of salvation is the effect of these two realities. They were also the two main factors in St Paul’s missionary work—the incarnation of the grace of God. But in the Pauline Churches the place of the person of Jesus is occupied by statements concerning the Son of God, the Cross and the Resurrection, which are accepted in faith. Where Jesus stood before, there now stands the dogma of Christ. The social 345element finds its expression in the Sacraments in which it is believed the present activity of Jesus is experienced. Dogmas and sacraments therefore have ousted Jesus and His community. Now the dogmatic statements were from the first incomprehensible for the most part; the interpretation, the gnosis, was only a later addition. As for religious ceremonies, incomprehensibility is of their very essence. Hence forth, almost immediately after St Paul’s death, salvation is experienced in the acceptation of mysterious propositions and in participation in mysterious rites. It was only after the laying of this foundation that the second step was reached—the Christianity of those that have the full know ledge. It might then be said: Christianity exists either as a superstition or as a philosophy. But we are as yet a long way from having reached this stage. The early and marked prominence, however, attached to dogma and sacrament instead of to the actual and historical realities—Jesus and the community—was the beginning of Catholic Christianity. This was far indeed from ever having been St Paul’s object, but he did not check the tendency. The Christianity of the earliest Church had been guarded against this perversion.

There was, however, yet one other characteristic which distinguished the Christian from the world, and this constitutes the splendour of the early days of the faith: it was the earnest endeavour to develop the new life of the individual. Conversion was no empty word for great numbers of Christians, but an actual breach with an earlier life which had frequently been stained by vice. The watchful care of the brethren, 346the compulsion exercised by ecclesiastical discipline, the preaching of the ideal, the expectation of the day of judgment, were all means to perfect that which had been begun. The standard was furnished by some few sayings of Jesus, rather more numerous texts from the Old Testament, and the preaching and the letters of the apostle. And so the brethren began to reorganize the social life of the community in every direction. The worship of idols and immorality were laid aside, marriage was sanctified, attention was paid to the education of children, honesty and truthfulness were encouraged, temperance advocated, vengeance and strife suppressed. There was an increasing eagerness to serve, a growing joy in making sacrifices, in forgiveness and patient endurance, and a striving to yield wherever possible and to give a good example to their heathen neighbours. In a word, the foundation was laid for the regeneration of a society that was for the most part diseased and degenerate. Some Churches—that at Philippi, e.g.,—must have been especially bright and shining lights in the midst of their dark surroundings. Paul was a stern judge, but he distributed praise liberally and frequently. And now add to all that has been said the courage and the glad joyfulness of these Churches in supporting petty vexations and trials of every kind, the fervour of their life of prayer, the constancy of their hope—Christians are men that hope, whereas heathen have no hope—and we shall still have but a very weak and imperfect idea of the bright side of this first missionary life which filled the apostle with the fulness of joy.

The dark side to this picture was, of course, not wanting. Even in this first age the forerunners of 347future decadence can be noticed. We may call them ‘extra Christianity’ and ‘average Christianity.’ Either separation from the world is exaggerated till it becomes fanaticism and asceticism, or the old world is carried over into the new Church. The very certainty of the hope in the approaching end of the world often disturbed the quiet course of a normal development of character. Still more often the disgust which a man felt when he thought of his own filthy past, drove him into an opposite extreme. One of the strangest features of the age are those Christian betrothals which the First Epistle to the Corinthians mentions without blame when a maiden entrusted herself to the protection of an older man. Thus far everything had gone on well, but it was a dangerous precipice whereon to walk. There are other instances of ascetic tendencies at Corinth. St Paul was officially asked whether a Christian was bound to practise complete continence in marriage. In Rome, on the contrary, total abstinence and vegetarianism were the favourite practices, only, it is true, amongst the weaker brethren. St Paul had to write more than one letter to Thessalonica in order to urge the people not to abandon their daily work. Generally speaking, it will be found that he treated these ascetic tendencies too leniently, out of sympathy with these Christians, who at least had the merit of entire sincerity in their striving after perfection. Later on, the ascetic ideal of chastity was set up in certain churches, not as a commandment but as an extraordinary virtue. The enthusiasm of those who sought for spiritual gifts at Corinth was surely a great deal less dangerous. It quickly evaporated. At Thessalonica there were 348even some who despised prophesyings. But for all that the opinion remained firmly rooted that the Spirit of God was to be recognized by abnormal manifestations, and that such belong to the Christian perfection.

St Paul’s attitude to average Christianity was one of uncompromising hostility. He still hoped that it would be rooted out. But in vain. It had been present from the very first in the life of the Christian congregations, in the lives of those members who believed that they themselves were converted because of the conversion of others. It had not crept in, therefore, as a consequence of decay. Each congregation had no doubt a heavy task in combating the most formidable vice of the great cities, sexual excesses; and in the East, resistance was doubly difficult. Then came the specially Greek sins, dishonesty and trickery in the lower classes, litigiousness and wrangling in the upper. And then finally all that the Christian calls superstition, participation in secret, mostly immoral rites, magic books, amulets, incantations. All this existed from the very first in the Christian congregations themselves. The establishment of ecclesiastical discipline always involved a certain amount of loss alongside of the indubitable gain. By the suppression of the coarser elements, room was secured for the development of the finer. But the benefit thus secured was speedily counter balanced by the substitution of fixed rules and rigid customs for the free exercise of the apostle’s judgment.

This imperfect state of affairs was not without influence upon the feelings of those individuals who 349had conceived of the task of the new life in the meaning which St Paul had attached to it.

Was there any certainty of salvation, and upon what did it depend? Paul urged his converts to place all their trust in the doctrine of election. Whoever did that placed his reliance upon Christ and upon faith. This could be done either with or without moral earnestness. And there were instances of both these courses, just as there are to-day. Whoever, on the contrary, was more impressed by the fact that Christians fell into sin and were lost, practically abandoned the certainty of salvation, and of such there were very soon a great number. Contrary conclusions were, however, in turn drawn from this fact again. Some would work out their salvation with fear and trembling, and ensure salvation through entire consecration of life. Others suffered things to take their course, and thought it would be time enough in the last hour. Even the Pauline Epistles themselves refer to all these different possibilities, and we also meet with them later on in close connection. A clear distinction between St Paul and Jesus now manifests itself as regards the effects of their labours: both bound up indissolubly—religion, the life as God’s child in God’s love—and the claims of morality; but the emphasis was a very different one. Jesus gives prominence to the moral claim, to the true will of God instead of the false. Hence the danger which threatened His community was legalism. Whereas St Paul, building upon grace and the atonement, had almost from the first to guard against the danger of moral corruption. True he struggles against it with all his might and main, especially in Rom. vi., but 350that is just a proof of the reality of the presence of the danger. Whereas in the earliest Church at Jerusalem one looked down upon the corrupt righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees from the vantage ground of that righteousness which exceeded theirs, in the Pauline communities they who were now reconciled with God as His children regarded the lost heathen with a patronising compassion although they were no better than their neighbours in many points. It must be admitted, however, that St Paul himself gave no excuse for such an attitude. Through his letters he did all that he possibly could to remove every misunderstanding, and to sweep away this idle faith.

We can, after all, best arrive at a correct standard of judgment by contrasting the later with the earlier condition of these Pauline communities. Regarded from this point of view, they always appear again in a favourable light. It was a great step to take, and one attended by no little risk, to find a home for the Gospel, the child of Judaism, in the new world, which was in reality so ill-prepared for it. There was scarcely anyone less able to understand Jesus than these Greeks, whose sole surviving art was that of long-winded disputation. And to attempt to bring Jesus actually to such a city as Corinth, was simply an immense undertaking. But it succeeded. The result of the labours of St Paul and his companions, was that round about the Ægean sea the Christian colonies grew up and developed a new, sound, and healthy life. Demons of vice were turned into respectable citizens, thieves and brawlers became useful workmen, and anxious and distressed souls found 351peace in the love of God. There was a thorough weeding out of all that was foul and corrupt, while the germs of love, patience, chastity, and humility were planted in the soil. True, the clearance was seldom thorough enough; the old roots remained, and were destined soon to put forth new shoots.

Yet we will never forget that our own Christianity was a consequence of St Paul’s missionary labours. Perfection is not to be found in this world. The question was put to the Greeks: Will you have Jesus, or will you not? They answered: We will have His teaching if we may have it as Greeks. And so they obtained it as Greeks, and corrupted it to the best of their ability. We, no doubt, would have done exactly the same. But the great result was, that Jesus held His ground, never suffered Himself to be utterly degraded, and ever again uplifted humanity.

No obscurity rests upon St Paul’s own personal religion, because he possessed that highest of all gifts, the art of speaking about himself and his own inner life. He understood how to describe the unutterable and indefinable moods of his own soul in such a way that they continued to work on in others. It was just the tenderness of his temperament, that often almost morbidly sensitive basis of his soul with its tendency to the ecstatic, that made of him one of the greatest revealers of the inmost recesses of personal religion. There it lies open for all to behold in his letters, and we can speak of a personal impression that St Paul makes upon us, and even of his redemptive work, as though of Jesus Himself.

The change at his conversion was all-decisive. It 352imparted to his personal religion the character of strong contrasts which have to be reconciled, and these merely form the transition to new contrasts. The contrasts of sin and grace, of strength and weakness, are placed by St Paul in the very core and centre of religion.

Although Paul could boast before his conversion of a blameless life as touching the righteousness concerning the law, he had some bitter experiences even then. He must have sounded the misery of sin, and the torture of a divided mind, down to the very depths. The recollection of it still quivers almost convulsively in the concluding verses of Rom. vii.: “Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this sin?” All the greater is the feeling of pardon in the present, of peace with God combined with the consciousness of deliverance from torture, and the confirmation of the good within him. St Paul, as well as every other Christian who was converted, could indicate the hour of the change, and the recollection of this sudden regeneration gave his religion strength and weight. The old is past; lo! it became new! Being justified through faith we have peace with God. God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Through St Paul that personal religion was for the first time firmly established amongst Christians, which starts from the basis of the contrast between sin and grace. But this contrast extends far beyond the feelings to the will. Consolation for sin, and at the same time deliverance from the power of sin, are its chief aim. For sin and grace are to succeed each other, and not to co-exist side by side.


But is this contrast absolute? Is the breach with the past at Damascus so complete that no consequences of his previous condition can be traced in the present? Even as a Christian St Paul had moments of depression. How could it be otherwise? New temptations perpetually arose from his own nature and from his surroundings. The reconciliation between these moments of depression and the feeling of grace is brought about by faith—i.e., the constant abiding in the love of God which has once for all been manifested in Christ. “That life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith in the Son of God who loved me.” “Because Christ hath loved us, no power on earth shall be able to separate us from God.” Thus St Paul was enabled to perpetuate his single experience through faith. It is all repetition, says Kierkegaard. It is no new experience, but constant trust in the old one. Here, too, St Paul is the forerunner of many who lived in later ages.

The other contrast is between strength and weakness. It is of no less importance for him than the former. Through his conversion St Paul was caught up and swept away by the enthusiasm of the earliest Christian Church and learnt to taste of the powers of the great Beyond—a wonderful experience. He fell into ecstasies and saw visions. He was vouchsafed revelations. He saw the Lord. He was caught up into Paradise. He heard heavenly words. Then he was so strong that he felt himself more than man—he was already a spirit. We are not in the flesh—“the life eternal hath begun.” But then, on the other hand, came moments of terrible depression, 354when an angel of the adversary was sent to smite him, when he passed through the “valley of the shadow of death,” when he was filled with fear and trembling, and felt powerless to cope with the tasks of the moment. Hence the alternations of communion with God and the sense of abandonment by God in the apostle’s personal religion—Paul becomes the type of the mystics.

To attain the mastery over these fits of depression is above all the task of that longing and yearning which is nothing but the expression of a heightened feeling of contrast. Out of this longing expectancy St Paul extracts the most wonderful notes in all his letters. The Spirit itself is in bondage to the weakness of creation, so that he prays unconsciously in groanings that cannot be uttered, which God, however, hears. That is the prayer of longing, the groaning and the crying for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Imprisoned in our earthly tabernacle, in a strange country, we long for our home which is with God. “I have the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that were far better.” Once again it is St Paul who was the first to proclaim this feeling of man’s deep, wild longing for his eternal home.

But longing is the constant reminder of one’s necessities, and perpetually awakens one’s consciousness of them. Then St Paul finds the highest comfort of all in a moment of prayer. “My grace is sufficient for thee, for strength is made perfect in weakness. When I am weak then I am strong.” He has found peace in perfect trust in God; that, too, is faith. Thereby he can do all things, and boasts even of his 355necessities. Ecstasy, longing, faith: these are the steps in this religion.

The personal religion which has been sketched thus far is essentially one of moods and feelings. For the alternation as well as the harmonizing of contrasts falls under the sphere of the emotional life. This is one of the reasons why St Paul’s place in the history of religion is so important. He transferred the real life of religion to the feelings, discovered it in the feelings. Religion, according to St Paul, is fear and hope, possessing and seeking, rejoicing and longing, joy in communion with God, and yearning for God; and by surrendering ourselves to the divine influence which comes over us, we are saved—i.e., uplifted out of this world into God’s presence. Hence an unbroken apostolic succession through St Augustine and St Bernard to Schleiermacher. Paul was the first clearly to experience and express for all time the two sets of feelings: sin and grace, strength and weakness; and thereby the inner meaning and depth of religion were immensely increased. The holy of holies is no longer placed in outer effects and consequences, but transferred to communion with God in the innermost heart. For this emotional life the significance of historical events is exceedingly limited. They are simply considered as means to create moods and to excite feelings. This is just what the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus were for St Paul. By this means the historical tradition and the unbroken continuity with the past are indeed preserved, but the true life of religion is in the present; it is the soul’s communion with the living God. Knowledge of the historical fact is but the kindling spark.


The peculiar danger of this emotional form of religion has always consisted in its tendency to allow the field of the active life to lie fallow. Paul escaped this danger, thanks to his calling. As the consciousness of his apostolic calling was fully developed in him, and never for one moment forsook him, it imparted a zeal and a restless energy to him, which made every kind of luxuriating in dreams and visions and every form of idleness a physical impossibility. In this respect Paul became a hero of ethical self-discipline, and of entirely unselfish service to the brethren. He conceived of his especial calling as being at the same time typical. Hence the servile labour to which he compelled his hands, hence the bodily discipline carried to the verge of asceticism, hence his strict temperance and entire sincerity. Paul overcame all obstacles, especially those originating in his own temperament, in a wonderful manner, or used them as stepping-stones. He withstood, too, every temptation to pride, and every tendency to a domineering bearing. But above all he perfected love and self-sacrifice in his calling. He could endure and forgive; he sympathised in every man’s afflictions, he collected money for his enemies. In certain cases he sacrificed the freedom of his conscience to his love. For the Jews’ sake he was ready to be severed from the Christ. In his old age he took an unselfish delight in the progress of the Gospel in spite of the envy and the wrangling of his associates. Notwithstanding his longing for heaven, he preferred to remain on earth, so as to work and to suffer for the brethren. Each one of his letters to them is a proof of his love. Thus he strove with all his might 357so that in his own life the panegyric of love passed from words into deeds; this he likewise demanded of every Christian as the visible proof of his belonging to Christ.

The peculiarity of St Paul’s personal religion becomes still more manifest when it is contrasted with the essentially different form of Jesus religion. This is the exact opposite of a religion of emotion. It may be objected that the relative insignificance of the subjective element in the case of Jesus, is due to the impossibility of extracting the true Jesus from His reporters. But to this we may reply: Had Jesus been a mystic, or in any other way pre-eminently a man of feeling, then this would have found expression in His words in spite of all additions or omissions of these reporters. But it is just a peculiarity of His that the inner life of His soul is rarely, or never, reflected in what He says, and that no value of its own is attached to the emotional life. His personal religion is altogether practical. He went about doing good, helping others, struggling for the right—a life concentrated in present tasks and aims, a religion that looked forward to ideals that were to be realized. All Jesus’ actions are indeed prompted by feelings—i.e., by the childlike certainty of the love of God and by the deep seriousness with which the great future inspires Him. But these feelings do not constitute separate domains of their own, from which the road to action has subsequently to be discovered. On the contrary, whether consciously or unconsciously, they are the ever present substratum of all that He does. There is an entire absence here of the alternation between the sense of sin and of grace, as well as of that 358between strength and weakness, at any rate in that degree with which St Paul is acquainted. True there are days in Jesus’ life when He ascends to the mountain-heights of enthusiasm, and also there are others when He walks in the valley of disappointment and failure. But how entirely this change of mood recedes into the background behind the total impression left us by a life of constant and conscious progress! We can notice this even in the great moderation with which He judges men. He never considers them as either entirely beyond the reach of sin or as inextricably involved therein. Besides, the style of the sayings of Jesus is the expression of an altogether practical and temperate nature.

Both forms of personal religion are justifiable if they have but really been experienced. It is a consequence of the predominance of St Paul’s theology, that his personal religion has likewise come to be regarded as the normal type, though, it is true, only after the excision of the really mystical element. But the deterioration of morality has been the regular and inevitable consequence of an exclusive emphasis of the emotional life. Our task to-day is again to bring into the foreground Jesus’ own personal religion, and to hold this up as a word of warning to our age.

Paul has left a deeper impression upon history than any other of Jesus’ disciples. He transplanted the young religion into the great world of civilization, created its first profound system of thought, and developed a new form of personal religion. In so doing he was the first to introduce Christianity into the world’s history. The whole future development of the Gospel is determined by the form imparted to it 359by St Paul. The measure of his worth lies in the fact that he came to be the greatest minister of the Gospel, and as such has often occupied its place. In more than one instance his work was of a transitory nature: but he himself, the man Paul, is one of the most inspiring and comforting characters in all history, one of those who are an unfailing source of courage and of joy to us a smaller breed of men.

« Prev Chapter XVIII. St Paul’s Personal Religion. Next »

| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |