The task before us in the second half of these lectures is to exhibit the history of the Christian religion in its leading phases, and to examine its development in the apostolic age, in Catholicism, and in Protestantism.
The Christian Religion in the apostolic age.
The inner circle of the disciples, the band of twelve whom Jesus had gathered around him, formed itself into a community. He himself founded no community in the sense of an organised union for divine worship—he was only the teacher and the disciples were the pupils; but the fact that the band of pupils at once underwent this transformation became the ground upon which all subsequent developments rested. What were the characteristic features of this society? Unless I am mistaken there were three factors at work in it: (i.) The recognition of Jesus as the living Lord; (ii.) the fact that in every individual member of the new community—including the very slaves— religion was an actual experience, and involved the consciousness of a living union with God; (iii.) the leading of a holy life in purity and brotherly fellowship, and the expectation of the Christ’s return in the near future.
By keeping these three factors in view we can grasp the distinctive character of the new community. Let us look at them more closely.
1. Jesus Christ the Lord: in thus confessing their belief in him his disciples took the first step in continuing their recognition of him as the authoritative teacher, of his word as their permanent standard of life, of their desire to keep “everything that he commanded them.” But this does not express the full meaning attaching to the words “the Lord”; nay, it is far from touching their peculiar significance. The primitive community called Jesus its Lord because he had sacrificed his life for it, and because its members were convinced that he had been raised from the dead and was then sitting on the right hand of God. There is no historical fact more certain than that the apostle Paul was not, as we might perhaps expect, the first to emphasize so prominently the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, but that in recognising their meaning he stood exactly on the same ground as the primitive community. “I delivered unto you first of all,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that lie rose again the third day.” Paul did, it is true, make Christ’s death and resurrection the subject of a particular speculative idea, and, so to speak, reduced the whole of the Gospel to these events; but they were already accepted as fundamental facts by the circle of Jesus’ personal disciples and by the primitive community. In these two facts it may be said that the permanent recognition of Jesus Christ, and the reverence and adoration which he received, obtained their first hold. They formed the ground on which the whole Christological theory rested. But within two generations from his death Jesus Christ was already put upon the highest plane upon which men can put him. As men were conscious of him as the living Lord, he was glorified as the one who had been raised to the right hand of God and had vanquished death, as the Prince of Life, as the strength of a new existence, as the way, the truth, and the life. The Messianic ideas permitted of his being placed upon God’s throne, without endangering monotheism. But, above all, he was felt to be the active principle of individual life: “It is not I that live, but Christ that liveth in me”; he is “my” life, and to press onwards to him through death is great gain. Where can we find in the history of mankind any similar instance of men eating and drinking with their master, seeing him in the characteristic aspects of his humanity, and then proclaiming him not only as the great prophet and revealer of God, but as the divine disposer of history, as the “beginning” of God’s creation, and as the inner strength of a new life! It was not thus that Mahommed’s disciples spoke of their prophet. Neither is it sufficient to assert that the Messianic predicates were simply transferred to Jesus, and that everything may be explained by Jesus’ expected return in glory throwing its radiance backwards. True, in the certain hope of Jesus’ return, his “coming in lowliness” was overlooked; but that it was possible to conceive this certain hope and hold it fast; that in spite of suffering and death it wa3 possible to see in him the promised Messiah; and that in and side by side with the vulgar Messianic image of him, men felt and opened their hearts to him as the present Lord and Saviour, that is what is so astonishing! It was just the death “for our sins,” and the resurrection, which confirmed the impression given by his person, and provided faith with a sure hold: he died as a sacrifice for us and he now lives.