If the old wineskins were broken by agents other than the new wine of Christianity and that wine actually preserved something of the wineskins, what happened to the wine? Was It lost or fatally denatured? Or, to change the metaphor, was the "exceeding greatness of the power" weakened by the "earthen vessels" in which it was at work? To put the question less figuratively, how tar, if at all, was the Gospel compromised by elements in the culture, in many ways so in contradiction with it, into which it moved and in which it appeared to be victorious?
That the Gospel was in grave danger of being lost among those who professed to adhere to it must be obvious. It was launched into a hostile world with none of the safe guards which human prudence would have counseled. As we have more than once reminded ourselves, Jesus wrote no book, but trusted his teachings and the record of his deeds to the memories of men and women who, though loyal, while he was with them in the flesh failed really to understand him. He did not utter his words in systematic form, but spoke as the occasion seemed to demand. So far as our evidence goes, he gave almost no thought to an organization to perpetuate his mission. Certainly he did not create an elaborate organization. Under these circumstances it would have been natural to expect that, coming into a world which was either misunderstanding or hostile, or both, the Gospel, as it spread, would be hopelessly distorted and lost. That this happened, indeed, has repeatedly been said. There have been many, some of them of great erudition, who have declared that Jesus is at best a shadowy figure, early obscured by his reporters and interpreters, and that we can be certain of almost none of his deeds and sayings. They see him hidden by layers of tradition and believe the Christianity of the fifth century to have been compounded of Judaism, Grsco-Roman polytheism, appropriations from the mystery cults, and Greek thought.
That Christianity was influenced by all these phases of its environment is indubitable. We have had occasion to note some of the contributions from these several sources. But that it remained distinct and owed its outstanding qualities to Jesus is both certain and important.
From Judaism issued the larger part of the Scriptures which Christians revered as the inspired word of God. From Judaism came also the belief in one God, much of the ethical standards, the seven day week with its day of rest and worship, portions of the early forms of worship, the conviction of being a chosen community distinct from the world about it, something of the dream of becoming the universal religion of mankind, baptism, much of the conception of history, and the precedents for a priesthood and of regarding Christ's death as a sacrifice which became outstanding characteristics of Christianity.
Yet it is one of the striking features of these Jewish legacies that they were thought through in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and were interpreted in terms of these and of the teachings of Jesus. The temptation to become simply a variant of Judaism was successfully resisted and those groups which most nearly conformed to Judaism dwindled and perished. Moreover, the figure of Jesus, his teachings, and the main events of his life, death, and resurrection stand out so clearly in the records contained in the New Testament as to preclude any possibility of their invention or serious distortion.
Although some striking similarities to the mystery religions are seen in the story of a divine being slain and risen again, of immortality acquired by sharing symbolically in his death and resurrection, of initiatory rites, and of a sacred meal, there is, as we have suggested, no proof of conscious or even unconscious copying and the differences between Christianity and the mystery cults are greater than the similarities. We have also seen that Catholic Christianity fought free of absorption into the current non-Christian Gnosticism. While here and there some transfer from Greek and Roman polytheism may have occurred, as in the cults of some of the saints and in a few of the festivals, all of these contributions were profoundly altered to conform with Christian convictions. A major peril was one of attitude, for converts were inclined to expect Christianity to do for them what they had demanded of their pre-Christian gods but to do it better. Yet the trend of the teaching of the Church was towards the progressive weakening of these attitudes and the inculcation of conceptions more nearly in accord with the Gospel.
In some ways, more serious than any of these threats to Christianity from its environment was the belief in the sharp disjunction between the material and the spiritual world, or, in human terms, between flesh and spirit, which was prevalent and which appeared axiomatic to many, perhaps the majority, in those elements of the population in which Christianity first made its chief gains. In some of its most extreme forms, notably those represented by the Marcionites, the Gnostics, and the Manicheans, it was rejected by the Catholic Church. Yet it made itself felt in theology and in the attitude of the rank and file of Christians, notably in the East, and was particularly potent in monasticism and in clerical celibacy. Through these channels, especially through the last two, it has remained a permanent feature of the churches in which the majority of Christians have been members. As we have noted, it distorted the teachings of Jesus. Yet, as we have seen and are to see repeatedly in later chapters, among many of those who espoused it, Christian monasticism was not merely the negative denial of the flesh but also carried with it the propulsion to go out into the world in an effort to serve and transform individuals and society.
Probably an even greater peril came from Greek philosophy. This was the temptation to regard Christianity as a philosophy, better than that of the Greeks, but not essentially different, truth to be arrived at by the application of the human mind and of man's rational processes. Fully to yield would be to ignore the fundamental contrast which we have noted and to denature the Christian faith. Fortunately for Christianity its intellectuals who most profoundly influenced the future course of the faith never entirely succumbed to this tendency. For example, Augustine, while retaining much of the Neopla-tonism which had once captivated him, held it to be basically defective in not taking cognizance of the incarnation. Moreover, as we have said, Augustine, in his famous "believe in order that you may understand," while by no means repudiating reason, was giving to it a different place than that accorded it in Greek philosophy, and, along with other Christian thinkers, was taking account of data which were unknown to the pre-Christian Greeks and which were rejected as "foolishness" by those who continued to adhere to Greek philosophy.
Yet Christians made substantial appropriations from Greek philosophy. Clement of Alexandria and Ambrose of Milan based much of their ethics on what they had learned from Stoicism. The writings of the Stoic Epictetus, somewhat modified to make them more palatable, had a wide circulation in Christian circles. To be sure, Christians took over from Stoicism only what they believed to be consistent with their faith and would have nothing to do with the basic pantheism of that philosophy which would deny the opposition of God to sin, and looked forward to the consummation of the kingdom of God, rather than backward to a Golden Age, as did the Stoics. But Christian ethics were long to give evidence of Stoic contributions. Platonism had a marked influence on Christianity. It entered from many channels, among them the Hellenistic Jew Philo, who was utilized by some early Christian writers, and through Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and the writings which bore the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. The term Logos, which was extensively employed by Christians as they thought about the relation of Christ to God, came from Greek philosophy, perhaps by way of both Stoicism and Pla-tonism. We have seen how the Christian creeds employed technical terms from Greek and Latin. With these, as with the word Logos, pre-Christian connotations would inevitably enter.
However, as we earlier suggested, the creeds never became really Greek. They sought to express convictions which were central in the Gospel and peculiar to it. They were distinctively Christian and not Hellenistic. Moreover, it has been suggested that Christian thinkers solved the problems of order and change, reason and emotion, the physical and the intellectual with which classical philosophy had wrestled, and did so without denying the validity of the changing, the emotional, or the physical. They thereby provided a basis for individual salvation in a world of dislocated individuals and a principle on which a stable but not a rigid society might be based.
What in many ways proved the menace which was most nearly disastrous was that presented by the kind of power on which the Roman Empire was founded, a kind of power, as we have seen, which was in complete contradiction to that seen in the cross. From the very beginning, pride of place and the desire for control in the Christian community were chronic temptations. On the very eve of the crucifixion, first on the way to Jerusalem and then at the final supper, in the inner circle, among those who were to be the apostles of the Good News, there were some who sought superior rank and recognition as "the greatest," incidents which led to characteristically vivid sayings from Jesus and which may have been the reason for the assumption by him of the menial role of washing the disciples' feet. By word and by deed Jesus put in stark contrast the two kinds of greatness, that esteemed by the "kings of the Gentiles," namely, the one in vogue in the Roman Empire, and that which should characterize his disciples. It was the contrast between those who from the vantage of visible power established and maintained by crude force professed to seek to do good and were called benefactors and those who humbly served in tasks which were. despised in the other kind of society.
In one of the letters preserved in the New Testament there is evidence, as we have said, of sharp conflict between the author, who believed himself vested with authority in one of the churches, and another "who loveth . . . preeminence." Again and again, even in the brief summary of the preceding pages, we have caught glimpses of similar incidents. The various churches, including the Catholic Church, creations of Christianity and the visible vehicles by which it was transmitted, were clearly institutions. Even before Christianity was accorded toleration by the state and while it was still subject to chronic or intermittent persecutions, not a few of its bishops were accused of striving for prestige and were entering into intrigues and exerting the kind of power which was akin to that of the dignitaries of the state. Some of the bishops were surrounded by pomp and maintained households and a manner of life which rivalled those of civil officials. Indeed, it is a question whether any visible institution, especially if it becomes large, can avoid falling victim in part to trends in the direction of the power which crucified Jesus.
The danger to Christianity was augmented when the state made its peace with the Church. Until then, as we have seen, Christians tended to keep aloof from government and many, perhaps the majority of the Christians believed that loyalty to Christ was inconsistent with holding civil or military office or serving in the army. Beginning with Constantine, that attitude was weakened. The Emperors and an increasing proportion of the officials and of the troops assumed the Christian name. In these positions they, perforce, exercised the sort of power on which the state rested. Christian officials had to make choices for the state among courses none of which was in full conformity with Christian principles and to take action which entailed the use of the kind of force on which the state was built. Emperors exercised their power to interfere in the affairs of the Church. To be sure, they did this primarily in an effort to bring unity to the Church and through the prestige of their position more than through naked force, and in this may be seen something of the ameliorative influence of Christianity. Yet here was still power which was in contrast with that vividly displayed in the cross.
This peril, as we are to see, became more marked in the succeeding centuries. In the West as the Roman Empire declined, the Catholic Church took over many of the functions previously performed by the state. In the East in the area where the Empire continued, the tie between Church and state was very close and the Church was in large degree controlled by the state and was used to serve the latter's purposes.
It is clear that the Church was the product of the Gospel. It is also clear that the visible, institutionalized church, whether Catholic or one of the bodies which dissented, was shot through and through with contradictions to the Gospel. As Augustine frankly recognized, the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, are intermingled. He held that they are to continue to be entangled until the last judgement effects their separation.
In view of these facts, necessarily succinctly stated, was the new wine being dissipated? Where was the exceeding greatness of the power? It will be remembered that the power was characterized as that which, having faced seeming defeat in the cross, was displayed in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is a power which is associated with seeming weakness. It is a power which does not at once destroy the religion or the state which nailed Christ to the cross, but which, by a kind of paradox, achieves a victory which would have been impossible without defeat. It is a basic Christian conviction that Christ was glorified through his death and resurrection and became far more potent than he had been in the days of his flesh.
The exceeding greatness of the power was displayed primarily in the transformation of those men and women who became followers of Christ, who put their trust in him. Even now, so Jesus had said, men might enter the kingdom of God, and, indeed, were entering it. To use other figures employed in the New Testament, men could be born again, they could die to sin and, by the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, they could he raised to walk in newness of life. The proof that they had experienced this new birth, this resurrection to a new life, was to be seen in their "fruits," in the "fruits of the Spirit." These fruits were described in one place as "love" (the Greek word is agape, namely, the kind of love displayed by God in Christ and by Christ in his self-giving), "joy, peace, longsuflering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." Paul, who coined this list, was quite aware that these qualities would not at once be realized in any one life in their perfection and said of himself that he had not fully attained. Years after his conversion, as we have more than once said, Augustine made a similar confession. They are qualities which are not susceptible to precise measurement, at least not by men. They do not achieve complete expression in any visible institution or organization. Perhaps it was something like this which Jesus had in mind when he declared that the kingdom of God was not to come in such fashion that it can be seen or in such a manner that men could point to it and say, "Lo here or lo there" and yet that "the kingdom of God is among you" (or, in an alternative translation, "within you"). As Jesus saw it, the kingdom of God is both present now and is also a future hope. Part of the Good News is, so the New Testament documents disclose, that the exceeding greatness of the power is in the fresh creation of sinful men and the dying to sin, the sin which through man's perverse misuse of the free will with which he is endowed has brought on him, individually and collectively, the tragic aspects of human history. This fresh creation issues in the beginning of a new life.
Although that new life cannot be measured, its presence can be observed. Even in the fragmentary documents which have reached us from the first five centuries of Christianity, it is clear that the fruits of the Spirit were to be seen in many individual lives. We have pointed to a few outstanding examples, such as Paul and Augustine. Were there space, we could name many more. From the few the records of whose lives have been preserved across the wreckage of the centuries we are on safe ground in assuming that for every one of whom we know there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of whom we do not know, for most of them were very humble folk who left no written documents behind them. The testimony of the apologists, although given with a pro-Christian bias, bears this out. They appeal to what is to them obvious fact, the moral and spiritual changes wrought through conversion. Even though in the majority of those bearing the Christian name the alteration was either slight or had not occurred, the honour accorded by the Church to the minority in whom the fruits of the Spirit were seen was indicative of a persistently held ideal and of the reality of the new life in those who had experienced it.
It was chiefly through such lives that the creative impulse was released which produced the Church and Christian literature, theology, and worship, which swept away the pagan cults of the Roman Empire, which wrestled with the problems of war and with the relation to the state, property, marriage, and the popular amusements. It was through these lives that within the Church the position of women and children was lifted, dignity was given to labour, and much of the sting was taken from slavery. No individual attained fully to the "high calling of God in Christ." The churches were by no means identical with the city of God: there was in them much of the earthly city. Yet here, in earthen vessels, was a power at work which, in spite of what looked like chronic frustration, out of human material apparently hopelessly and basically marred and twisted, was achieving the seemingly impossible, the re-creation of thousands of men and women until they displayed something of the quality of life which was seen in Jesus Christ.
It was these men and women who were, to use the language of Jesus, "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world," In the succeeding sections of this work we will see that, as Christians have multiplied and converts have been won from more and more peoples, these characterizations have been increasingly demonstrated to be true. They do not hold for all who have borne the Christian name, but they are valid for a minority in whom "the exceeding greatness of the power" has been palpably at work.
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