The Westward Movement Of Christianity
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE purpose of this course of lectures is to study Christianity as the religion of power in relation to its Graeco-Roman background. In shaping the materials I have kept steadily in mind the requirements of a number of people who desire to put behind the sentiments and impulses of religious experience a body of rich and deep conviction.
The need of religious convictions develops from experience. We begin with a simple and uncritical faith in the facts of Christianity as they are presented to us by environment. The influence of the home and the church usually determines such matters for us. But as experience develops, it brings our faith into comparison with the beliefs and life of the world, and this makes a fresh interpretation necessary. We begin to ask ourselves if what we were taught to believe is really true. We wish to know if there is a reasonable basis for faith, and ordinarily we seek additional information by examining the sources of our experience.
The range of such an inquiry will vary according to the desire of the individual, but the result will be a growth of convictions on what we regard as essential points. If we care to pursue the inquiry further we may reduce our beliefs to system and get theology; and if we wish to go still further we may extract the essence from our theology and get a creed, which would be a clear statement of all that we believe concerning Christ and Christianity.
Most people are content with a simple faith, being willing to follow the teaching and example of their religious environment. Few people become theologians, and very few have a definite idea of a personal or self-selected creed.
There is, however, a minority that requires something more than a simple faith. People of this type are obliged by their intellectual necessities to investigate the basal significance of experience. They are unable to trust so important a matter to impulse. They need ideas as well as emotions. They do not require a complete theology, but they must have clear cut, conscientious convictions on essential points. Their passion is to "get to know Christ." This was a Pauline ambition and should be encouraged. Any one who knows this modern world realises the urgency and sincerity of such a demand. An. intelligent man without religious convictions is as helpless as a passenger ship in midocean without a navigator. The nurture of the intelligence is as important an element in spiritual growth as the cultivation of the affections or the discipline of the will.
It is this class to which I make my appeal. We are in this world not simply to hold or to enjoy a faith, but to propagate a faith. We are, or ought to be, the passionate advocates of salvation through Jesus Christ. But we cannot ask others to be Christians unless we are reasonably sure of our own status. It is not enough to have spiritual emotions : we must have ideas that explain these emotions, for without ideas faith cannot be propagated. Ideas are the hooks of faith that stick into the intelligence; they are the framework around which emotions grow, and character forms. Naturally we believe that what is true for our-selves must be important for others; and if we have convinced ourselves that we have a reason-able basis for faith, we shall not hesitate to challenge the world's intelligence in the effort to impart it.
If convictions are important, it is the better part of wisdom to select the best possible method of forming them. Shall we develop them in the interest of a philosophy of religion, or shape them round the historic facts of Christianity? Shall our interest lie chiefly in the relation of propositions to each other in behalf of a system, or in a series of events in human history? Both methods are important, but I prefer the historical to the philosophical approach to the question, and for what seems to be a very practical reason.
Whatever philosophy of religion one may hold, must always be determined by the view one has of its historic significance. We must begin with history. But the peculiar temptation that waits on philosophy is the exaggeration of theoretic explanations. It is easier to suit the facts of history to one's theory than to bring one's theory into harmony with historic facts. And if we adopt the historic approach, it might turn out that we can not only begin, but end our view of religion in its history; we might get along without philosophy, because we should get an adequate view of religious truth from an historical stand-point. Most assuredly the power of religious conviction does not depend on one's ability to systematise religious truth. The realism of conviction is derived from actual contact with historic events. For history reveals something more than reasons ; it reveals causes; it exhibits the causal significance of Christianity. It shows us a religion of power, dynamic unto the saving of souls. If we can. shape our convictions on the causal aspect we may dispense with system.
It is clear that the intelligent man of to-day is not asking for a complete system of religious truth. He cannot be interested, save in a superficial way, in a philosophy of religion. Philosophies of religion are more admired than read. But the modern man does believe in power; he knows power when he sees it, and he has a very clear notion that power makes history.
It is upon the causal significance of Christianity that I wish to lay the emphasis. I am not indifferent to its philosophy, but I believe that appreciation of its power in history is sufficient to give reality and strength to faith, and to stabilise life in the face of many speculative problems which we may never be able to solve.
And I am encouraged to take this position by a recent statement of Mr. Balfour. In his Gifford lectures he has called attention to the double aspect of beliefs: "All beliefs have a position actually, or potentially, in a cognitive series ; all beliefs, again, have a position, known or unknown, in a causal series. All beliefs, in so far as they belong to the first kind of series, are elements in one or more collections of interdependent propositions. They are conclusions, or premises, or both. All beliefs, in so far as they belong to the second kind of series, are elements in the temporal succession of interdependent events. They are causes, or effects, or both." 1 This is an important distinction. We may regard our beliefs about Christianity as belonging either to a cognitive or to a causal series. Our aim may be either a complete system of religious truth, or an adequate interpretation of religious experience. The first is the legitimate object of the theologian, the latter is the practical demand of ordinary intelligence. The average man is not interested in the more or less successful attempt to systematise a series of interdependent propositions ; but he is tremendously concerned with the effort to understand his relation to the causal aspect of religion. For whatever we may think of religious experience one thing is clear and that is that it is caused. Our experience is an effect; and the greater the spiritual maturity, the keener is the conviction that we are what we are by the grace of God.
To believe in the causal aspect of Christianity; to have a few clear ideas of its function in individual experience seems to me to be the chief demand of the time among those whose intellectual requirements force them to seek for something more than a simple and uncritical faith.
The power of Christianity is revealed in history. It has produced a series of interdependent events in the domain of man's life, and there is always something quite definite about history. Historic events are real. Let it be frankly admitted (since I have no disposition to deny it) that our personal attitude towards the claims of Jesus Christ will in some measure determine our view of the facts of Christianity; still it remains true, and on this alone I wish to insist, there is a certain fixed minimum of unchangeable fact, a definite deposit of indestructible truth in history, on which to base one's conclusions. I am far from saying that a complete system of religious truth is unattainable; to many it may appear quite desirable or even necessary; but what I do maintain is that we need not wait for this to become Christians. In my judgment we have enough in the history of Christianity to justify faith, and a closer contact with its causal significance will enable us to be strong and stable believers, in spite of the want of a complete theory of religion.
The most convincing facts of history are the ethical facts. Professor Meyers has recently defined history "as past ethics." The degree in which the moral ideal is expressed in history, is the measure of our confidence in the explanations given by those who shared in the experience of its power. It cannot be questioned that Paul's account of the power that transformed his life is more convincing than an explanation coloured by present-day philosophy. For one thing, he was closer to the facts, and for another, his account resembles the one usually derived from our own experience.
The Christian knows that his experience is an effect, and his intelligence demands some explanation of its cause. He does not ask for a complete theory; he wants an interpretation of the power that is functioning in his conscious life.
And it is a great step in the direction of simplicity to remember that Christianity is deeply rooted in history; and that its history is interpreted in a series of trustworthy documents written for the most part by those who from the first were experimentally acquainted with its transforming power.
The need for religious conviction is met in the New Testament by doctrines. We may think of religious doctrines as belonging either to a cognitive or to a causal series. In the one case we have a series of interdependent propositions, in the other a series of causal explanations.
I believe that doctrine belongs to both series.
On the one hand doctrines are revelations of obj ective truth. They may be, and ought to be worked up into a system, simply because they are organically related. The church must have a systematic theology, if it is to furnish adequate instruction to its members. In addition to theology the church requires a creed ; but the plain truth is that the church does not succeed in making theologians of its members. Few are capable of understanding a theological system; and fewer still have ever felt the necessity of holding a definite credal statement of all religious beliefs. Most people are content to accept the creed made and provided by the church of their preference.
But this conventional position by no means indicates the real attitude of the individual towards Christ and Christian truth. His real interest is not in a series of inter-related beliefs, so much as in the causal significance of Christianity. He is more interested in causes than in reasons because he is usually more impressed with power than with theories. I believe religious doctrines have this additional aspect. They belong not only to a cognitive but to a causal series. They are not only true, but useful, and were in some measure devised to meet the need of growing intelligence, with specific reference to this point, namely : to explain the function of the power which in the beginning had originated a divine life within the soul. Doctrines are descriptive of function; they explain how Christ's redemptive power functions in individual experience.
If Christianity is the religion of power it will manifest itself in individual life. Knowledge of its function is necessary to a stable faith because it explains the utility and practical necessity of ideas on the main subject of religion. We do not know the nature of electricity; we do not need to understand the theory of the dynamo, that of course is professional knowledge ; but we must know something of the function of electricity if we are to use it safely. We must study its habits and learn how to control it in the interests of our practical needs. Now the habits of this mysterious power are its functions. Increased knowledge of function means enlarged utility. Electricity has a lighting function, but it is capable of other uses. It has a heating function, it is useful as motive power, and above all it has a therapeutic function. The great utility of this mysterious force is due to a growing knowledge of function, or in other words to the doctrines of electricity. It is even so with the power of Christianity. It is rooted in the mysterious nature of the eternal God. The finite mind can never fully comprehend the Infinite intelligence. Theories of religion are limited by this essential fact. But stability in faith turns, not on theory, but on a reasonable knowledge of the functional significance of divine power in the experience of the individual. The more he knows of function, the stronger and more vital will be his experience. From this standpoint there is a vast need of teaching doctrine. I believe there is an intense desire among intelligent people for a clearer knowledge of their religious experience. The teaching of doctrines will meet this need, for they are descriptions of function; a knowledge of function is an element in a stable faith. Moreover the realisation of the truth that Christianity is power will come, I think, from a functional interpretation of religious teaching.
Such an interpretation will gain vividness from a study of the background of early Christianity. It is easy to contrast Christianity with the religious and ethical views current in the Graeco-Roman world at the time of the Advent. The importance of such a study has long been recognised by scholars I believe that such an investigation will prove a valuable discipline for growing Christians.
The study of the background brings into clear relief the originality of the new religion. Christianity is not a philosophy, neither is it a ritual; it is fundamentally the religon of power. Its unique significance does not lie in the novelty of its ideas, but in its motive force. Its power has made history; it has created and sustained a community of representative persons, and transmitted a tradition which a sound Biblical criticism has never disturbed. Moreover, it has offered a Person as the object of faith, who is able to impart moral and spiritual vitality to every one who is willing to receive Him. Man's mind craves ideas but man's soul longs for communion with the living God. We can never be content to trust ourselves to a series of concepts however true they may be; we need and must have personal contact with a Person. Jesus Christ stands there, the one luminous spot in the world's darkness, a fixed and indestructible fact of history. He cannot be explained away. The philosophic tides of the world have for centuries surged round His base, but He stands out above them all like a great rock in a restless sea. He is the Desire of all the nations, and holds in His hands the key to the human heart, and is the final and complete adjustment of the human spirit to the issues of eternity.
The chief purpose of this series is to present Christianity as the religion of power, as it is revealed in certain of its characteristic documents ; to observe its function in the unique experience of its community life, and to set forth its originality as it appears on its Graeco-Roman background.
In the first lecture we shall consider the westward movement of Christianity. To the background we shall devote the next four lectures, wherein we shall study the passion for adjustment between God and man, which manifested itself in certain historic quests for safe conduct. In one lecture we shall take up the conception of power and show how it was expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, and in the creation of the Christian community. In two lectures we shall consider the functional aspect of three characteristic Christian doctrines. In the concluding lecture we shall give some reasons for believing in the finality of Christianity, and its importance for the present age.
The study of the westward movement of Christianity brings to our attention the interesting condition of the world at the time of the Advent. This movement is explained by the fact that while the way was closed towards the Jew, it was open towards Rome and the gentile world.
The Jew was fated to mistake his destiny. God intended him to be a missionary of religion, but he persistently misconceived his calling and al-lowed political ambitions to confuse his spiritual outlook so as to preclude the possibility of accepting his Messiah. No people have ever loved freedom more than the Jewish race, yet no people have so profoundly confused political with spiritual liberty. At the time of the Advent it was practically impossible for the Jew to think of a spiritual experience apart from political freedom. Ile wanted a Messiah whose kingdom was of this world, and this secular aim was responsible for his tragic failure.
A more specific reason for the failure of Christianity to move eastward is to be found in the divisions among the Jewish people. The dominant parties in church and nation were Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisee was a religious patriot, and his remarkable influence over Israel was due to the peculiar development of Jewish religion that followed the Babylonian exile. Prior to the exile the Jew never thought of questioning his religious status because he was a child of Abraham and a member of the covenant race; but after the exile religion became a more intimate and personal matter. The old communal morality was set aside in favour of individual morality; and with the col-lapse of the Jewish city-state the need of a definite and personal way of salvation became paramount. The question before the Jew was how to get in right relations with God, and how to keep himself in right relations? The answer was given in terms of legal obedience to the revealed law. But since the law required interpretation the order of Scribes arose, and with them a body of oral tradition which shortly was added to the written law, and this composite of revelation and tradition was the authoritative standard of Jewish religion. This tendency to exalt the law, by the end of the second century, B. C., had developed into the party of the Pharisees, who through the synagogue worship attained a vast influence over Jewish life and opinion. Believing as they did that spiritual freedom was conditioned by political freedom, the Pharisees were consistent opponents of foreign influences and in the time of Christ their ruling passion was to drive the Roman out of Palestine. Their patriotic ambitions tempted them to interpret the Messianic hope in a national and secular way they believed that Messiah's mission would be to establish the law and nation and give the Jew spiritual and political authority over the world. It is hardly necessary to suggest how utterly unlike to the real kingdom of Christ this notion was. The complete difference between the ideals of Jesus and those of the Pharisees sufficiently explains why this class could not welcome Christianity.
The Sadducees were religious liberals. Their interest in tradition was limited by the desire to preserve their priestly privileges intact. They were men of the temple just as the Pharisees were men of the synagogue. In politics, they were opportunists. They did not object to foreign influences ; in fact their fixed policy was to preserve the status quo. Above all they had no wish to antagonise Rome, and were willing that the nation endure any sort of political bondage, provided they were unmolested in the enjoyment of their privileges. The chief fear of the Pharisees was heresy, that of the Sadducees was sedition. The Pharisees opposed Christ because of His attitude towards the law; the Sadducees opposed Him be-cause His dominion threatened the political and ecclesiastical supremacy of their order.
Under these circumstances it was impossible for either of these powerful orders to accept Christianity. Their opposition was inevitable. At first they were not able to form an opinion of the facts ; but when they did realise the drift of Christ's teaching they were perfectly willing to sacrifice Him rather than give up their pretensions. These parties controlled the Jewish church and effectively closed the way towards Judaism.
There was a class among the Jews deserving the highest consideration. They were called the "devout in Israel." This was the Godly remnant spoken of by the prophets that waited the advent of a spiritual Messiah; but they had little influence on the policies of the nation. Among this class we find such as Simeon and Nathaniel, the parents of John the Baptist, and the mother of Jesus. They were ready to receive the Messiah and welcomed the missionary character of the new religion, but they could not vitally change the attitude of the nation.
But while the door was closed towards Judaism and the East, it was open towards Rome and the gentile world. It was a world of violent and vivid contrasts and its outstanding features are easily grasped.
In the first place it was an age of profound confusion and disappointment. It was a time of political disenchantment. The last century be-fore Christ was distinguished by the breakdown of the Roman republic. The ancient political organisation was found to be inadequate for the new needs. The failure of the old safeguards had developed a wide spread feeling of insecurity in all departments of life, and nowhere was this so evident as in moral and spiritual matters. For several centuries the native faith had been on the decline. This religion was so closely identified with the fortunes of the state, that whatever in-stability appeared in political relationships was immediately reflected in the religious attitude.
The Roman religion depended on the city-state; but as the city-state gave way to the Roman commonwealth, and eventually developed into an empire, faith in the native religion was permanently impaired. The views of the intelligent Roman of the last days of the republic are reflected in the writings of Cicero. Cicero had no personal faith in the native religion, but he believed its revival to be a political necessity. Government needed a religious sanction, and politicians of Cicero's type were quite willing to restore the old religion; or even to improve it by the addition of the best elements of current philosophies or desirable features of the Oriental religions which were then very popular in Rome. But in spite of this the pessimism of the time is expressed in the passionate scepticism of Lucretius, or even in the gracious humanism of Virgil, that best of poets; while the need for stability is quite apparent in the strenuous efforts made by Augustus to revive interest in the native faith.
In the second place it was an age of intense religious inquiry. Eras of political disillusion have usually been eras of religious revival. Political disturbances ordinarily set men on fresh spiritual adventures, for where faith in government is impaired the need for protection becomes acute, and it is natural to seek for it in religion. In the ease of the Romans, when they could no longer trust themselves to the native gods, they turned eagerly to other and newer cults. This accounts for the wide spread influence of the Oriental mystery religions in the time of Christ. Magna Mater and Isis were especially influential.
The intelligent classes, while not indifferent to religion, usually sought peace in some sort of philosophy. The philosophies of Greece, especially as they had been interpreted by such men as Panaetius and Posidonius, were accessible to the intelligent man, and the influence of Stoicism and Epicureanism was far reaching. In all walks of life men were willing to discuss religion or religious philosophy. It was felt that an epoch of history was closing; the world was on the threshold of fresh departures and every one needed spiritual guidance.
These conditions make it easy to understand that the gentile world was ready for the Christian propaganda, and the readiness to receive the new religion was aided by two factors of the first importance. The first factor was the influence of the Jew of the dispersion, the second, the religious aspirations of God-fearing gentiles.
The first factor directly favourable to the expansion of Christianity was the wide spread dispersion of the Jew. For centuries the world had been in a state of flux. Since Alexander's conquests peoples and races mingled freely, and when the Roman rule was firmly established it was almost as easy to travel about the world as it is today. At the Advent there were between five and eight million Jews resident in the Roman empire. The Jew was the most clannish of peoples, and he made his racial solidarity evident everywhere. Judaism was a "religio licita" in the empire during the early days of the Christian propaganda. Freed from the burdensome restrictions thrown round other foreign faiths, and protected by law in the exercise of his peculiar forms of worship, the Jew naturally attained a considerable influence as a religious factor, wherever his worship was established. The religious bond of the Jew was the synagogue. In every town and hamlet, as well as the metropolis, you would find the spiritual interest of the Jew centring in the synagogue. He always selected a commanding site for his house of worship, and the peculiarity of this religion naturally attracted the attention of the gentile peoples.
The religion taught in these provincial synagogues differed in many important particulars from that of the Palestinian Jew. It was more liberal ; less limited to ritual expressions and apt to emphasise ethical monotheism. Moreover the Jew revealed to that melancholy age a contented and on the whole a happy life. The worship of the true God gave him a foothold beyond time and he was able to stand out above his age as a strong and stable force. Furthermore, he was full of missionary zeal and laboured to propagate his faith among the gentiles. This faith was the expression of the highest type of ethical monotheism known in those times, and the propaganda was aided by the Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of such a factor in preparing the way for Christianity.
The second factor of importance favourable to the spread of the new religion was the spiritual aspirations of God-fearing gentiles. This class is frequently mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul makes specific reference to them in his speech at Pisidian Antioch; Cornelius, the first uncircumcised gentile admitted to the church, Lydia, the seller of purple, and Justus, in whose house at Corinth Paul organised a church, were Godfearers. We hear of them in Thessalonica and Athens. The Greeks who came to Jesus in the passion week probably belonged to this class. The centurion of the gospels, who loved his servant, was also of the number. He is said to have loved the Jewish nation, and to have built them a synagogue. They are variously described as "those that feared God," "those that worshipped God"; sometimes as "the devout" and once as "religious proselytes."
Up to recent times the God-fearers were identified with proselytes of the gate, and their significance was not clearly recognised; but recent 'investigations have conclusively shown that they were not proselytes at all. They never submitted to the distinctive rite of circumcision, but constituted what Schurer, our chief authority, has described as a "fringe of devout heathenism round the Jewish synagogue." The God-fearer never intended to become a regular proselyte, but he accepted the monotheism and ethical standards of the synagogue worship. In some respects he observed the ceremonial law, notably that of tithing or of Sabbath keeping; he gave moral and often material support to the Jewish propaganda, and in many other ways aided in the spread of ideas favourable to Christianity.
But the God-fearing gentile is significant of much more than this. His religious aspiration shows that there were many in that age passionately seeking the true God. They had outgrown the native religion, they were too high minded to fall under the sensuous spell of the Oriental cults; moreover they were not content with current philosophies, but had grouped themselves round the Jewish synagogue, a body of receptive learners.
They represent on gentile soil the ideal Jew after God's own heart and may properly be classed with those who were looking for the world's Saviour.
It was from this class that the largest and most influential accessions to Christianity came. They eagerly welcomed the new faith. When Paul was preaching in Corinth, in spite of Jewish protests, the majority of the God-fearers went over to the new religion and organised a Christian church in the house of Justus, one of their number. What took place in Corinth frequently happened in other places. If Paul felt it important to make a special appeal to this class in his speech at Pisidian Antioch, it is natural to suppose that he would do it elsewhere. It was the wholesale desertion of these powerful auxiliaries as much as the strangeness of the new teaching that occasioned the bitter hostility of the Jews towards the Christian propaganda.
This explains the rapid spread of Christianity over the gentile world. Granted a people suffering from political and religious disillusion, in passionate search of a way of life, and keenly interested in religious discussions; granted an age increasingly under the influence of two powerful factors, such as the Jew of the dispersion and the God-fearing gentile, and all that was needed for a rapid spread of the new religion would be an enthusiastic presentation of its central message. It was the concurrence of these notable factors : a passionate missionary propaganda and a world eager for its message that carried the gospel from its provincial surroundings in Jerusalem to the heart of the world's metropolis, and transformed it from a small Jewish sect into a religion of conscious power and universal mission.
The story of the westward movement is told in the Acts of the Apostles, a book of first rate historical importance not only because it is the only account we have of the beginnings of church history, but also because it was written by a man who had the historic sense developed in a remarkable degree. Recent investigations have practically demonstrated the fact that this book was writ-ten by Luke, a gentile physician and companion of Paul, at Rome during Paul's first imprisonment.' Luke alone among New Testament writers had a genuine historical spirit. He is not an annalist but a biological historian. His aim is to describe a great movement and he selects his facts with special reference to its development. He was intensely aware of the dramatic qualities of history, and masses his facts so as to reveal the under-lying principle of growth and enable the reader to follow the story to a logical conclusion.
Luke's aim is to tell the story of how Christianity moved out of Jerusalem and the Jewish world to become a world religion in the metropolis of gentile civilisation. It is a story so vividly told that it captures the imagination, yet of such clarity and massive strength as to produce in a reasonable mind the strongest sort of persuasion of its truth.
The story falls into three divisions : first there is the stage of beginnings, centring at Jerusalem, in which Peter is the leader; second there is the stage of transition centring in Antioch of Syria, in which Barnabas and Saul are the leaders; and third there is the story of culmination centring at Rome, in which Paul is the leader.
Beginning in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, we get the primitive conception of Christianity. The new faith is still organically related to the old, and the teaching is offered solely to Jews and proselytes under the shadow of the temple. The testimony of the infant church is given in Peter's sermon and is concerned with Jesus of Nazareth. This teaching was limited to three things : first, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, second, the resurrection was proof of His Messiah-ship, and third, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a demonstration of Messiah's power to save.
At first the propaganda occasioned no decided break with the Jewish authorities. Futile efforts under the lead of the Sadducees failed for want of support from the Pharisees. The latter were disposed to let well enough alone. Jesus was dead, the movement could not last, and in so far as the resurrection teaching was concerned, this was in some respects in sympathy with their own beliefs. The disciples seemed to be a band of mistaken re-formers : why not let them alone? This view was reflected in the speech of Gamaliel. It was true that the enthusiasm of the disciples was disconcerting, but the authorities were little disposed at that time to interfere.
But an incident occurred shortly after that made it imperative that the two great parties in the Jewish church should forget their differences and unite to suppress the new faith. Rapid growth in the church occasioned a division of labour and certain deacons had been chosen, among whom was Stephen, a Jew of the dispersion, with profound insight into the radical character of the new religion and considerable ability as an orator.
The speech of Stephen was the beginning of the period of transition and brought the infant comunity to a full consciousness of the significance of its faith. Stephen's sermon reflects the thinking of a Jew of the dispersion, who while loyal to ancient traditions is still broadminded and catholic in his view of truth. He asserted his belief in the divine significance of ancient tradition. Undoubtedly both law and temple were divine institutions; and of course this was the conviction of a true child of Abraham. But he asserted in addition that since Jesus had come, both law and temple had been superseded; and that all that was essential to Judaism had been taken over into the new religion.
The radical nature of such teaching is obvious since it at once set aside everything that Pharisee and Sadducee believed Judaism to be. The immediate effect was the martyrdom of Stephen, the closing up of the ranks among contending factions, and the beginning of an organised movement to suppress the new faith. It is a dramatic example of poetic justice that the man selected to lead this campaign of extermination should have been destined to become the chief advocate of the despised religion.
The historian proceeds to describe the effect of persecution on the fortunes of the infant church. We see the birth of missionary zeal, and the spread of the gospel through Samaria into Syria.
We hear of a notable ministry of Philip, and of an unprecedented admission of an uncircumcised gentile into the membership of the church. With dramatic fulness, Saul's conversion is described, but little is said of his long retirement in Tarsus.
Resuming the main thread of his narrative, Luke tells of the rapid development of the church in Antioch of Syria. This movement was so important that it was deemed best to 'supervise it from Jerusalem, and Barnabas, a Cypriote Jew, was sent to direct the work. Barnabas was a discerning man and from the outset had been Saul's friend. He now summons him from his retreat in Tarsus and under the joint leadership of these two men the church attained to such distinction that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Hitherto they had been known as "people of the way," a sect of Judaism, but it was now evident that this was a mistake.
The difference between Judaism and Christianity at once raised the question as to terms of ad-mission for gentiles. Were they to be admitted to church fellowship on terms of faith and repentance, or must they first become proselytes to Judaism? Cornelius it is true had entered the church on the simple terms of faith and repentance, but this was regarded as an exception. The church at Antioch had been founded on the same terms, but this had been done by certain name-less disciples without the authority of the church in Jerusalem. Should the authorities of the parent church insist upon the more rigid terms, or accept the inevitable and allow gentiles to become Christians without becoming proselytes?
At first the question was allowed to drift; a private agreement between Saul and the Jerusalem authorities opened the way for a foreign mission and the church at Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul as the first missionaries to heathen lands.
But this gave great offence to Jewish Christians of the stricter sort, and when Paul returned from the first mission journey the need for an official deliverance on the question was paramount. Such a deliverance was made by the great council of Jerusalem, in favour of the liberal policy. Gentiles were to be admitted to church fellowship on faith and repentance, without reference to their attitude towards Judaism. This was a far reaching decision, for it enabled Christianity forever to cast off its Jewish limitations ; but it was not accepted as final by the stricter type of Jewish Christian, and the opposition finally developed an anti-Pauline missionary society known as the Judaizers, whose pernicious activities troubled the church for years after.
The council of Jerusalem closed the period of transition and opened that of culmination. Freed from the hampering influence of Palestine, Paul came to his own as the Apostle to the gentiles; one by one the great centres of population fell under the spell of his wonderful ministry, and churches sprang up in Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth and Ephesus. Paul wisely followed the trade routes and planted Christianity in places from which it would quickly spread to Rome. The glorious church which had grown so influential in the metropolis is evidence of the quick dispersion over the gentile world.
Paul's ambition was world-wide. At the end of his third journey he contemplated a fourth which should carry him to Spain, at that time supposed to be the end of civilisation. During this journey he proposed to realise a long cherished desire to see Rome. The rest of Luke's story is taken up with the partial realisation of this plan. It is a story of Jewish intrigue : of tumults in Jerusalem, of narrow escapes and night alarms ; of disputations and imprisonments in Caesarea, culminating in thrilling adventures by land and sea, and Paul's arrival at last in Rome, a prisoner of the Lord. Here the story fittingly ends.
This thing was not done in a corner. At every point the movement was in contact with the life and opinion of the world. The gospel interested all sorts of people. It came into a welter of races and religions. It touched superstition, intellectual confusion and insistent need.
What was the temper of those times? What were the intellectual forces the new religion had to meet? What of the rival faiths with which it was compared? What were the moral and spiritual aspirations of that changeable and all too-human age? In a word, what was the background of life and opinion upon which the gospel was projected? These are some of the questions upon a study of which we are about to enter.