The tension between the early Christians and the world

From the beginning, Christians felt themselves in opposition to what they called "the world." They recognized the antagonism between Jesus on the one hand and, on the other hand, the state in which they were set and which had brought about the crucifixion of Jesus and the chronic persecution of his followers. This contrast found dramatic expression in Augustine's City of God with its sharply drawn distinction between the city of the world and the city of God, but that famous book was the more important because it was an amplification by a first-class mind of views already cherished by Christians.

Many tended to identify the Church with the city of God. Even Augustine seemed at times to do so. Certainly as it grew the Catholic Church became a distinct society, within the Empire but not fully of it, a kind of imperium in imperio. It had its rules and laws, the beginnings of its canon law, administered by its own officers, the clergy, alongside the state. This contributed to the contrast between Christians and the society in which they were immersed.

Moreover, as we pointed out in a previous chapter, the Christian view of human history differed radically from that of the Grsco-Roman world. It was the contrast between fate and destiny. The Greeks, and in this Roman thinkers followed them, regarded history as endlessly repeating itself in a series of cycles, so that what is now had been in some earlier stage of man's career and would be again in later eras. Blind fate determined it. Here was a weary, pessimistic appraisal of man's course. To the Christian, in striking contrast, human history has God as its sovereign, begins with God's creation of man, and will go on to a climax in which God will still be master. Christians saw in history a cosmic drama, centring about man's creation with freedom of will, man's sin, and the redemption of man through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Through Christ, so Christians believed, fallen, sinful man could be transformed and grow into fellowship with God and in likeness to Him. This gave to man a dignity and a worth and to history a meaning which Grsco-Roman thought had not known.

Christians differed as to when the climax to history would arrive and as to its precise nature. Yet the early Christians held that God was even now master, that, while the climax had not yet come, it was near. Paul said that "the day is at hand" and that Christians should even now "walk honestly as in the day" where God's will is perfectly done. Jesus seemed to say that here and now men could enter that kingdom where God's will is the rule, in a "realized eschatology," the end of history, which for them had already dawned. Many believed that the climax would be in a second coming of Christ. Some sought to discover the precise date of that coming, while others, while convinced that it would be, held that no man could know the day or the hour. Origen was convinced that the Word, the Logos, would "prevail over the entire rational creation, and change every soul into His own perfection" and that "the consummation of all things is the destruction of evil, although as to the question whether it shall be so destroyed that it can never anywhere arise again, it is beyond our present purpose to say." Many, among whom was Augustine, taught that perfection could never be realized within history, but only beyond it, in heaven.

The opposition between Christians and "the world" was partially allayed, as we have suggested, as the centuries wore on. Leaders of the Church held the latter to be like Noah's ark, in which were all, both good and bad. Christianity tended to fuse with Platonism and Stoicism. Stoicism was utilized by Christian thinkers to afford a theoretical foundation to ethics. To the Stoic there was in the universe a dominant Divine Reason from which came a moral natural law. Some of the Christian intellectuals held that this natural law of the Stoics was identical with Christian moral law. Yet this convenient accommodation did not entirely erase the contrast between Christianity and "the world" in which it had to operate.

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