The Readiness of the Ancient World to Receive Christianity
Yesterday we discussed the meaning and development of the doctrinal expression of Christianity, and described especially the concept of dogma. I tried to remove some of the fears and resentments every modern man has when he hears the word “dogma.” I hope I succeeded. Now I come to the “preparation”of Christianity in the ancient world.
According to Paul, there is not always the possibility that that can happen which, for instance, happened in the appearance of Jesus as the Christ. This happened in one special moment of history, and in this special moment everything was ready for it. I will talk now about this “readiness.” Paul speaks of kairos to describe the feeling that the time was ripe, mature, prepared. It is a Greek word which, again, witnesses to the richness of the Greek language and the poverty of modern languages in comparison with it. We have only the one word “time.” The Greeks had two words: chronos (still used in “chronology,” “chronometer,” etc.): it is clock time, time which is measured. Then there is the word kairos , which is not the quantitative time of the watch, but is the qualitative time of the occasion: the “right” time. “It is not yet kairos ,” the hour; the hour has not yet come. (Cf.. in the Gospel stories. . ..) There are things in which the right time, the kairos, has not yet come. Kairos is the time which indicates that something has happened which makes an action possible or impossible. We all have in our lives moments in which we feel that now is the right time for something: now I am mature enough for this, now everything around me is prepared for this, now I can make the decision, etc: this is kairos. In this sense Paul and the early Church spoke of the “right time,” for the coming of the Christ. The early Church, and Paul to a certain extent, tried to show why this time in which the Christ appeared was the right time, why it is the providential constellation of factors which makes His appearance possible.
What we therefore must do now is to show the preparation of Christian theology in the world situation into which Jesus came. From this point of view – which is only one point of view: the theological – the understanding of the possibilities of a Christian theology is provided. It is not, as some theologians want to believe – contrary to Paul – -that the revelation from Christ fell like a stone from heaven: here it is, and now you must take it or leave it – But there is a universal revelatory power going through all history and preparing that which is considered by Christianity to be the ultimate revelation.
The genuine situation into which the New Testament event came was the universalism of the Roman Empire. This meant something negative and something positive, (as do all these things I will now mention) at the same time. Negatively it meant the breakdown of national religions and cultures. Positively it meant that the idea of mankind as a whole could be conceived at that time. The Roman Empire produced a definite consciousness of world history, in contrast to accidental national histories. World history is now not only, in the sense of the prophets, a purpose which will be actualized in history, but now it has become an empirical reality. This is the positive meaning of Rome. Rome represents the universal monarchy in which the whole known world is united. This idea has been taken over by the Roman church, but applied to the Pope, and is still actual within the Roman church, and still means that Rome claims the monarchic power over all the world – following the Roman Empire in this. It is perhaps an important remark generally that we should never forget that the Roman church is Roman, that the development of this church is not only influenced by Christianity but also by the Empire which was Rome, by the greatness that was Rome, by the idea of law that was Rome. All this is embodied also in the Roman church, after it took over the heritage of the Roman Empire. We should never forget this situation; and we should ask ourselves; if we are tempted to evaluate the Roman church more highly than we should: how much Roman elements are there in it, and how much are they valid for us in our culture? – as we should do the same with Greek philosophical concepts which created the Christian dogma, and we should also ask: to what degree are they valid? It is not necessary to reject something because it is Roman or Greek, but it is not necessary, either, even if sanctioned by a dogmatic decision, to accept something because the church has accepted it, from Rome or Greece.