Genuine Christian Love

Lessing concluded On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power with the enigmatic words, "May all who are divided by the Gospel of John be reunited by the Testament of John. Admittedly it is apocryphal, this testament. But it is not on that account any the less divine."43 To clarify these words, we need to consider The Testament of John, for this testament and Lessing's On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power form a set. In order to understand the real point of On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power, it is important to take a brief look at this small work, which takes the form of a dialogue between "he" and "I."

What is The Testament of John? According to Lessing, it is "John's last will," "the last remarkable words of the dying John, words he repeated over and over again."44 That is why it is called his "testament." In the dialogue, the "he" seems to be a professional theologian. He asks about the source of The

Testament of John. The "I," who undoubtedly signifies Lessing, refers him to Jerome's Commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 6. From this text we learn that the blessed apostle and evangelist John stayed at Ephesus until his old age. Every day he spoke to the assembled community. At length he became so old that even with the assistance of his disciples he could hardly attend the assembly, but he would not neglect his ministry. He still wished to give his daily address to the community. Day by day his address became simpler and shorter. Finally, he reduced it to the words, "Little children, love one another." At first these words had a wonderful effect on the people who heard him, but as he only repeated the same words again and again, they eventually became bored and asked him, "But, Master, why do you always say the same thing?" John replied, "Because it is the Lord's command; because this alone, this alone, if it is done, is enough, is sufficient and adequate."45

From this anecdote it appears that what Lessing calls The Testament of John is summed up in the words "Little children, love one another" (Kinderchen, liebt euchIf6—the Christian commandment of love. Lessing contrasted The Testament of John to the Gospel according to John with its famous opening words, "In the beginning was the Word ... " Of the two, Lessing attaches greater importance to The Testament of John.4 This does not mean that he devalues the Fourth Gospel. On the contrary, the following statement shows that he held it in high esteem:

It was only his [namely, John's] Gospel that gave the Christian religion its true consistency. We have only his Gospel to thank if the Christian religion, despite all attacks, has continued in this consistency and will probably survive as long as there are men who think they need a mediator between themselves and the Deity: that is, forever:48

There can be no question about the importance of the Gospel of John because, together with its teaching on the incarnation of the preexistent Logos or the divinity of Christ, it has played a decisive role in forming the doctrines of Christianity. In Lessing's eyes, however, it is also undeniable that the Gospel of John has been a remote cause of doctrinal oppositions and schisms. It is for this reason that John's command, "Little children, love one another," must be set alongside it. No, it must, rather, be placed before it. This is the context that makes understandable Lessing's wish that all who are divided by the Gospel of John may be reunited by The Testament ofJohn.

The contrast between the Gospel of John and The Testament ofJohn is, to use the terms Lessing employs in this tract, a contrast between "Christian dogmas" (die christliche Glaubenslehren) and "true Christian love" (die wahre christliche Liebe).49 Lessing, as will now be evident, attaches priority to true Christian love. To be sure, the "priority of ethics over dogmatics" (Prioritat der Ethik vor der Dogmatik)50 is one of the basic characteristics of modern Protestant theology. But it does not follow that Lessing merely went along with this general tendency. We should, rather, remind ourselves once again of that famous letter which the twenty-year-old freelance journalist wrote to his pastor-father:

Time will tell whether I have respect for my parents, conviction in my religion, and morality in my path through life. Time will tell whether the better Christian is one who has the principles of Christian teaching memorized and on his tongue, often without understanding them, who goes to church, and follows all the customs because he is used to them; or whether the better Christian is one who has held serious doubts and, after examining them, has attained conviction, or at least is still striving to attain it. The Christian religion is not something to be swallowed blindly and taken in good faith from parents. Most of us simply inherit it from them, as we do their possessions, but our parents too show by their behavior the kind of honest Christians they are. As long as I see that one of the most important commandments of Christianity, "Love thine enemy" is observed no better than it is now, I shall continue to doubt whether those people who say they are Christians, really are Christians. (Letter to his father of 30 May 1749.)51

Here Jesus' command of love in Matt. 5:44 is declared to be "one of the most important commandments of Christianity." What is more, its observance, the practice of "genuine Christian love," is declared to be the hallmark of true Christianity. As we saw in chapter 2, this idea of Lessing's is impressively expressed in his earliest comedy The Jews. Further, as we shall see in chapter 5, the same idea manifests itself in his dramatic masterpiece Nathan the Wise. In its parable of the three rings, the modest judge gives the following counsel to three sons who are fighting with each other:

"Well, then! Let each aspire / To emulate his father's unbeguiled, /Unprejudiced affection! Let each strive / To match the rest in bringing to the fore / The magic of the opal in his ring! / Assist that power with all humility, / With benefaction, hearty peacefulness, / And with profound submission to God's will!"52

His counsel suggests that constant striving to emulate the father's unbeguiled, unprejudiced affection will demonstrate the genuineness of the ring in due course. In other words, the practice of genuine love proves the truth.

These observations show that for Lessing the quintessence of Christianity is to be found in the teaching and practice of genuine Christian love. John's words, "Because it is the Lord's command; because this alone, this alone, if it is done, is enough, is sufficient and adequate," carry weight. For, as indicated in yet another book by Jerome, a book that Lessing cites, John is the apostle "who leaned on the Lord's breast and drew the stream of teachings from the purest well spring."53 In any event, it is interesting and important not only for the interpretation of his thought but also for the study of European intellectual history to observe that Lessing thrust John's Christianity to the fore, the Christianity that emphasizes the supremacy of love. For in his last work, The Education of the Human Race, Lessing announces the coming of a new age, the age of the "new, eternal Gospel" promised in Revelation 14:6. In the early Christian churches, it should be noted, the apostle John was believed to be the author of all the Johannine literature, including Revelation.54 In Lessing's day, only a small number of people held such a naive view, but the notion that the author of Revelation was a successor to the tradition of the apostle John was still deeply rooted among the people. This being taken into consideration, it might be conceivable that there was an essential connection between Lessing's emphasis on The Testament of John and his appeal to the "new, eternal Gospel" in the book of Revelation.55

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