Chapter 1: The Cosmic Setting as Presented in the Christian Scriptures
The Scriptures which Christians believe to be divinely inspired open with the affirmation “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This includes the entire cosmos — of dimensions far more extensive than the writer could know and presumably larger than even present-day science reveals, breathtaking though that is. Here is the conviction that God was before the creation –“eternal,” as Christians and Jews have declared. The opening chapters of the Scriptures state that as the apex of life on the planet God created man in His own image. This means that to man God gave a degree of free will. Freedom was conditioned by man’s physical body, heredity, and environment. But with all these limitations, it was real. That free will was demonstrated in the placing of temptation before man with the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree which would give him a knowledge of good and evil, with the disturbing moral conflict to which that awareness would give rise. The account also describes the fashion in which man, seeking in his pride to be equal with God, disobeyed the command.
From there the Scriptures go on to narrate how God sought to save man and bring him into that likeness to Himself for which he had been created. God was seeking to create sons and not robots –automata whose responses were pre-determined by the stimuli playing upon them. Always, in His effort, God respected man’s free will. By judgement He endeavored to restrain man and to bring him to repentance. He strove to bring that purpose to fruition by choosing Abraham with the promise, the Scriptures report, that in him should “all families of the earth be blessed.” From Abraham sprang a people, so the story continues, through whom God willed to fulfill His purpose. Only once, and then briefly and in a small segment of the earth’s surface, did that people create an important state. Moreover, the vast majority of that people were chronically disloyal to the covenant God had made with them. In that covenant, as in His dealings with the first man, God gave to His “chosen people” sufficient freedom of will to obey or disobey and the overwhelming majority disobeyed. Only a very small minority, led by an even smaller minority in a distinctive succession, the prophets, through whom God was believed to speak, were sufficiently responsive to the impulse coming from God to discern His voice. To these prophets, as our records of their words show, response to that voice was accompanied by intense pain; they were only intermittently able clearly to discern what the voice was saying.
Eventually, from this seemingly unpromising preparation but in reality, as one of the early Christians declared, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” and “born under the law” — that is, among the people through whom God had sought to make preparation for that sovereign act. In sending His Son God purposed out of the unpromising human material to give birth to sons who would respond to His initiative and cry, “Abba, Father.” True to His respect for the degree of man’s freedom of choice, limited but still authentic, God’s Son came in weakness, cradled in a manger because no inn would make room for the young mother in her hour. He grew to maturity in a small village. Then, after a few months, at best only three years, of a public career in which He was hailed by a crowd which proved fickle and had won the adherence of a coterie of men and women who did not fully understand Him, He ran afoul of the leaders of the organized religion of His people, was accused by them of fomenting rebellion against the civil government, that of Rome, and was crucified by the order of the local representative of that government. But, so the Scriptures narrate, the crucifixion was not the end. The body laid by sorrowing and hopeless hands in a tomb was raised from it and, triumphant, met with the disciples for forty days, “speaking of the Kingdom of God”– His main theme in the brief period of His public career. Even then His disciples did not completely understand Him; they thought of the Kingdom in terms to which their earlier education had conditioned them, the restoration of that realm in which, centuries before, their ancestors had had a few decades of political prominence. Yet, they remembered, they had received the breath-taking command from Him to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them. In other words which they recalled as having received from Him, even when they failed to grasp what He meant by the Kingdom of God, He had charged them to be His witnesses in all the earth. They reported that He had calmly assured them that “all authority” had been given to Him “in heaven and on earth,” that they would receive power, and that He would be with them always, to the close of the age.
Very shortly, in fulfillment of that promise, so the Scriptures say, power did descend upon them. A little later, we are told, Jesus Himself appeared to one of their persecutors, Saul (Paul), won his allegiance, and from time to time continued to speak to him. Within less than a generation little groups of disciples appeared, not only in Judea and the eastern parts of the Mediterranean basin, but also at least as far west as the Bay of Naples and the city of Rome.
Within a generation, moreover, from several of the disciples who, admittedly, in the days of His flesh had never really understood Jesus and who at the crucifixion were frustrated and discouraged, came insights which, they believed, opened the cosmic significance of what they had seen and experienced. We need remind ourselves of only a few of the most startling insights recorded in the New Testament to give an indication of what a full survey would reveal. We are told that “in many and various ways God spoke of old . . . by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, Whom He appointed the heir of all things, through Whom also He created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by His power.” Essentially the same is another passage: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God. . . . The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”
Here are astounding assertions, all the more so in view of the earlier disillusionment of the disciples. They declare that He Who on that first Good Friday seemed to be a discredited and frustrated dreamer had made known the incomprehensively great God Who created and infills all that universe which to men is immeasurably vast and of which they know only fragments. The more elaborated of the two assertions insists that the Word which became flesh was “full of grace and truth.” By “truth” is meant at least that in the Word, become flesh in a man Who was born and lived in a particular time and in a cultural environment and religious heritage which He reflected, we are given an authentic and sufficient view of the nature and purpose of the universe and are enabled to call God “Father.” Moreover, it says that of the essence of “truth” is “grace.”
Again and again in the New Testament the changes are rung on “grace.” “Grace” expresses the attitude which governs the dealings of the eternal God with man. Although man, using such freedom of will as he has been given, rebels against his Creator and aspires to arrogate to himself the power which characterizes his Creator, God seeks through His self-giving love, which man had forfeited and never had deserved or could deserve, to win him to Himself. “Herein is love not that we loved God but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins.” “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” “Everlasting life” is described not merely as continued existence, for that could be an intolerable burden, but as knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ and “fellowship” with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ.
“Grace” is described as shown in ways which human prudence deems foolish. Thus the crucifixion appeared to the Jews to be weakness, for they had conceived of the establishment of God’s Kingdom, for which they hoped, by the kind of force employed by David, their king, to whom they looked back with reverence. To the Greeks, the intelligentsia of the Mediterranean world into which Jesus was born, who sought a solution to the riddle of existence through philosophy, the crucifixion was irrational. Yet Paul, the most prominent of the early Christian missionaries, declared the cross to be both the “power of God and the wisdom of God; because the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” In the concluding book the New Testament the risen and glorified Son of God, before Whose overpowering majestic presence the prophet fell down as dead, is described as saying to one of the early churches which, like many of its successors across the centuries, was self-contented, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, that He stood at the door and knocked, not forcing it, but waiting for it to be unlocked, and promising, if those inside would open it, to come in, eating with them and they with Him.
We shall see, as we proceed with our narrative, that the way the Scriptures picture God as dealing with man characterizes the history of Christianity, not only in the preparation for the coming of His Son in the flesh and in the reception of His Son, but as well in the subsequent record of the religion named after the traditional designation of His Son. Through the long centuries in which God was seeking to prepare the way for the “incarnation” — the coming in human flesh of Himself through the “Word,” the self-expression of Himself in the creation of the cosmos — He was seeking men who would willingly respond to “the light which lighteth every man” and slowly was finding some in the small minority of His “chosen people” who were struggling to understand what His Spirit, respecting their free will, was trying to say through them. Then, as might have been expected and as God clearly foresaw, when the Word became flesh the incarnation provoked man to his greatest crime, the crucifixion of the Son of God. But God was not defeated. The resurrection followed. Soon came a fresh outburst of the Spirit which empowered men and women, filled with amazed wonder and transformed by His love. These men and women were still imperfect, but one of the greatest of the early Christians was confident that “He Who began a good work” in them “would bring it to completion.” Yet again and again the ecclesiastical institutions springing from the impulse given by Christ and professing loyalty to Him contradicted His Spirit in action. Fully as thought-provoking, as we are to see, has been the fact that some of the chronic evils which have plagued the human race have reached their most colossal dimensions through peoples which have borne the Christian name and have been longest under the influence of Christianity. Yet from men and women inspired by the Christian faith have come efforts, unprecedented and unequaled, to counter the evils, so that where “sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
Those calling themselves Christians, as well as others, have wrestled with the question of why this contradiction should exist, seemingly so strange, in a world in which the opening chapter of the Bible declares that after God had created it “everything” was “very good.” Thus, in Paul’s words, the “whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” As we see it on this planet, nature is red in tooth and claw. But, Paul also affirms, while “the creation was subjected to futility” that was “not of its own will but by the will of Him who subjected it in hope, because the creation . . . will be set free from its bondage to decay “into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Repeatedly the writers of the New Testament insist that the contradiction is eventually to be overcome. Thus it is confidently said that the “mystery” of the will “of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is “in the fullness of time” to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth.” Similarly the sweeping assertion is made that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and that through Christ God purposed “to reconcile all things unto Himself, whether on earth or in heaven.” We also read that God has given to Christ Jesus “a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In both the presence of evil and the eventual triumph over evil the sweep is cosmic. It embraces the entire universe, what to man is both seen and unseen. The victory is to be accomplished through Christ.
Precisely when and exactly through what process this consummation is to be reached the writers of Scripture do not specify in terms which the historian can pin down to exact details. However, they are agreed that it is to be a reality.
Obviously he who would attempt to write the history of Christianity cannot do more than recognize that from the standpoint of the Scriptures the story he essays to write has cosmic significance. The facts at his disposal are only the events on this planet, and this planet is a relatively tiny speck in a physically vast universe. The historian cannot know whether life in physical forms exists elsewhere or, if it exists, what its characteristics are. Nor can he wisely seek to penetrate that, to him, unseen world of spirits, good and bad, which the Scripture writers declare surround and condition man. Neither can he, as an historian, embrace in his narrative what has taken place beyond the physical death of the billions who have inhabited this planet. As a Christian he must believe that he lives in a universe. The natural scientists, he is aware, are confident that the forces which their instruments detect operate uniformly as far as they can glean information in the vast reaches into which they enable them to peer. Presumably, therefore, the God Who created and sustains the universe is everywhere the same. Always, so the New Testament declares, God is creative love. Everywhere His Word operates consistently in the manner in which the Christian believes He has acted and continues to act on this planet. But that the historian cannot prove. Nor can he hope to do more than narrate such fragments of the past on this globe as the records available to him enable him to discern.