Chapter 4: The Teaching of Jesus: God the Remote and the Near
I. The Jewish Conception of God
Here once more, in order to understand Jesus’ conception of God we must show its connection with the Jewish conception, at the same time differentiating between them. The distinguishing peculiarity common to both conceptions is at once clear when we contrast them with the modified conception of the Jews who were, like those in Alexandria, under the influence of Greek philosophy. There God is thought of under the concepts of law and of ideal. This corresponds to Greek thinking. For the Greek it is in the first place axiomatic that God, like other objects of the world, can be examined by the thinking observer; that there can be a theology in the exact, immediate sense. That Judaism has no such theology is due not to any incapacity or lack of development in its thought, but to the fact that Judaism has from the beginning a different conception of God; He does not in any sense belong to the world of objects about which man orients himself through thought.
One should not in this connection let himself be deceived by the observation that the abstract thinking of the Greeks made it possible for them to understand in its purity the essence of the spiritual, and that therefore mythological, anthropomorphic ideas of God were abandoned by the Greeks, while in Judaism naïve mythological and anthropomorphic expressions about God, although they decrease, do not by any means disappear. In reality, Greek thought always regards God in the last analysis as a part of the world or as identical with the world, even when, or rather especially when, He is held to be the origin and formative cosmic principle which lies beyond the world of phenomena For here, too, God and the world form a unity within the grasp of thought; the meaning of the world becomes clear in the idea of God. Greek thought tends therefore to pantheism, which finds its final and most impressive embodiment in the Stoic philosophy. God appears as the law ruling in the universe which gives form to all phenomena -- law which differs from the modern "natural law" because it is not wholly and essentially defined by the concept of cause and effect, but rather by the concept of a creative, active, form-giving power. Such a representation of God corresponds to the conception which the Greek man had of himself as a microcosm, receiving form from a law identical with the great cosmic law, a form which is present as an ideal norm in human will and knowledge.
To the different conception of man which dominates Judaism (this has been previously discussed), there corresponds a wholly different conception of God. As man is here seen to be essentially a being who wills, so God is primarily Will, and moreover sovereign, uncaused Will, which has no need to justify the willing on any rational grounds before the bar of intellect. In His relation to the world God is not the first principle, the origin, intelligible to the intellect, from which the existence of the world can be deduced; not the formative power which is immanent in all its manifestations, not the law of the world, but the creating Will. He commands, and it happens; He decrees, and it exists. (Psalm 33 :9) For His glory He created the world, and all His works must praise Him.
"They all wait for Thee,
that Thou mayest give to them in due season.
Thou givest to them, they gather it,
Thou openest Thine hand, they are satisfied with good
Thou hidest Thy face, they are terrified;
Thou takest away their breath, they perish
and return to the dust, which they were.
Thou sendest forth Thy breath, they are created,
and Thou makest new the face of the earth."
God is the Creator: this does not mean that He gave form to some already existing matter, but that He created the world according to His will. In later Judaism this idea is developed to entire clarity, and it is expressly said that God created the world out of nothing.
In relation to man, God is the sovereign Lord who deals with man according to His will as the potter with the clay, Who rejects whom He will and has mercy on whom He will. His will has prescribed for man what is good and evil. It is not an ideal, simply an expression of all that is potential in man, determining by its formative power the conduct of man. Man has only to ask what the Lord requires; he is not obliged to bring his humanity to its pure form, he must be obedient. This view finds rather crude expression in the assumption that the Law, even where it is wholly incomprehensible to man, requires obedience. There is therefore no distinction made between the physical nature in man and the spiritual, through which the lower physical nature receives its law and form. Instead the man is seen as a unity, determined by his good or evil will.
Also the Jewish idea of God is to be marked off on the negative side from any metaphysical dualism. To be sure, Persian dualism influenced the Jewish thought world in later times; for example, the figure of Satan is a Persian intrusion into Judaism. But the peculiar character of the Jewish concept of God, even when it does not reach full clarity, is preserved. God and the world do not stand over against each other as two hostile natures or substances. The idea of the Creator is never given up, and no inherent law or power is ever ascribed to the world; God is the Almighty, in spite of Satan to whom He permits temporary activity. And though God and man are sharply contrasted as Creator and creature, as the Holy One and the sinner, still this difference is never regarded as a difference between two natures, nor is the redemption of man conceived as deliverance from a lower and endowment with a higher nature. Genuine sacramental piety and genuine asceticism are therefore lacking in true Judaism, since the whole conception of nature which underlies metaphysical dualism is lacking. The world and man are creations of God, and hence not evil by nature; they have been corrupted by sin, and sin is not a condition of nature but the evil will of man. God is not for man something wholly alien by nature, not the "unknown"; He is the Creator, known through His Law, and is therefore the Judge.
All this does not merely present the background for Jesus’ conception of God; it actually characterizes Jesus’ conception. For all these characteristics are self-evident for Jesus as a Jew, and they are clearly assumed in his preaching. However, in what has been said only a negative definition has been attempted, and we must now consider more closely the positive character of the Jewish conception of God and hence also that of Jesus.
The essential element in the Jewish conception is the peculiar conjunction of the supramundane character and transcendence of God with the dependence of the world on God or with God’s direction of the world; more simply expressed, the union of the remoteness and the nearness of God. The thought that God is remote, far above the world and man, is just as necessary an element of the idea of God as the other, that He is nevertheless constantly near. The first idea is especially emphasized in later Judaism, partly because of foreign influences, but also because monotheism became more fully developed. For in ancient Israel, although it was taken for granted that Israel could invoke one God and Lord, it was equally assumed that other nations have other gods, although Yahweh, God of Israel, is the mightiest among them. In later Judaism Yahweh is on the contrary regarded as the only existing God. And this monotheism is not, as in Greece, the result of philosophical reflection, which seeks a single origin and principle, in the interest of an intellectual understanding of the world; it is the belief in the one God which brings the concept of God itself to clear expression. For so long as a plurality of gods is accepted, the idea of God is not clearly thought; God is still a being within the universe, and many such beings are conceivable.
In Jewish monotheism it is not a philosophical world view but the belief in the transcendence of God, in God the Creator, that stands out. It is also significant that the proper name of God, Yahweh, is no longer used, for this has meaning only so long as God appears as a subject among other subjects which must be distinguished from the others by a definite name. Already in the Book of Job and in Ecclesiastes, the proper name of God is lacking. God was now designated as King and Lord, as the Most High and the Holy One, that is, by expressions which were natural to the Oriental mode of speech, and are meant to express the transcendence of God over the world and man. Other epithets indeed were chosen which were based rather on reflection, and which expressed still more strongly the remoteness of God, His distance from the world: "Heaven," "Magnificence," "Majesty," "Glory"; or in reverent awe circumlocutions were used: for example, not "God has determined," but "it was determined." Such expressions appear in many of the sayings of Jesus. (E.g. Luke 15:7, 10, 18; 6:38; 12:20; 16:9)
When reflective imagination, naïve or speculative, turns to the idea of God, images arise in Judaism as well as elsewhere to picture the relation of the transcendent God to the world. God was represented as an Oriental monarch, served by a retinue of angels who carried out His commands in the world; or under the influence of foreign mythology and speculation, semidivine powers were introduced who mediated between God and the world. These latter were confined to limited circles, while the belief in angels was generally accepted and was taken for granted by Jesus.
What is essential in the concept of God is not, however, the way in which His activity in the world was imaginatively conceived; what is essential is that the transcendent, remote God is at the same time near, that He holds in mighty hands the destiny of the world, of His people, and of each individual. This is brought out primarily in the idea of creation, which in Judaism is not a cosmological theory but the expression of the dependence of man upon God throughout his whole existence, the expression of the consciousness of being a creature before God. Moreover it stands out in this belief that God is the Lord of history, who directs it from its beginnings to an end according to His plan. Man does not stand lost in a cosmos remote from God, nor does he comfort himself with the thought that he is included as a member of the cosmic organism, whose rhythmic motion is determined by law. Instead, man stands according to the divine plan at a definite place among temporal events, which are directed toward a determined goal.
Hence the outlook of man is directed on the one hand toward the past, in which the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" allotted blessings and chastenings to His people; and the individual knows that this history immediately concerns him, speaks to him, and determines his life by its instructions and consolations. On the other hand his outlook is directed toward the future, where God is guiding world events to their goal, exercises judgment, and lets His Kingdom appear. The tension between the concepts of the remote and the near God here reveals itself again, for God is God of the future and the present.
The unifying of these two ideas was never achieved in Judaism. The thought of the God of the future stands with one-sided emphasis and definite coloring so in the foreground that it is often not clear how this God can also be the Lord of the present. At this point dualistic imagery which entered from foreign countries, especially from Persia, exercises its influence. The whole course of time is divided into two epochs: the present age (to which past and present belong), and the future age in which the glory of God will appear. The more sharply this contrast is conceived, and the more glorious the future gleams, as the time when all powers hostile to God are annihilated, so much the more does the present appear as forsaken by God, as the time when Satan and his evil spirits work their will. Where then is the God of the present? Obviously this side of the concept of God is suppressed, and thereby the thought of the omnipotence of God is limited under the influence of dualism.
The whole idea of God is hence endangered; for it has lost its meaning, if God is not thought of as the Power which determines man in his present existence. And this danger becomes greater, the more God’s revelation of the future is expected and longed for, the more complaint is made about the suffering of the present. At the same time also the future becomes less a real future -- by which is meant a future which determines the present because as its own future it is indissolubly connected with it. Rather the future is unrelated to the present, something which might possibly not be, and its not being would make no change in the present; something which is coming some time, but which so far as its essential nature is concerned could already have been some time; indeed the speculation is widespread that the blessings of salvation pre-exist and are already present in heaven. And on the other hand the future is still less a real future if man has it already in his control, so that it is subject to his own fantasies and wishes; that is, if he does not take seriously the truth that the future, being new, calls for the new man.
Under these conditions it is easy to understand that a real connection between the God of the future and the God of the present is often not to be found, or that if it is asserted, the prophecies in which God is looked upon as God of the present generally display the character of theoretical speculation. Of course it is asserted that the Creator of the world and the Judge of the world are one, that in the future there will be fulfilled simply what God has already decreed at the beginning of the world, that God rules all times and what happens in time, and is so far God of the present. But how far the God of the future actually rules man’s present, in such a way that man in his present existence is determined by the God of the future -- this does not often appear clearly. Rather, the pronouncements which speak of God’s present activity are often without relation or even in contradiction both to the expectations of the future and to the estimate of the present, dualistic and pessimistic as that estimate is.
But in spite of the figure of Satan in Judaism, the belief in God’s providence as permeating the occurrences of the present world was never given up. The edifying tale of old Tobit and his son Tobias shows how wonderfully God’s providence guides the life of the faithful. Numerous passages praise this providence, which gives food to man and beast, which does not allow a bird to be snared without the will of heaven. Moreover the re- mote God is always accessible to the faithful in prayer, and is addressed as Father by the praying congregation, as well as by individual saints. Such confident faith in the God of the present is shown typically in the fifth Psalm of Solomon:
"Lord God, I will praise Thy name, full of joy,
in the midst of those who know Thy righteous judgments.
For Thou art kind and merciful, the refuge of the poor.
If I cry to Thee, Thou wilt not be silent.
For none take spoil from the mighty,
who then would take from all that Thou hast created,
unless Thou gavest it?
For man and his lot are weighed by Thee,
and he obtains no more than Thou hast determined for
him, O God.
In our tribulation we call upon Thee for aid,
and Thou wilt not refuse our prayer, for Thou art our
Let Thy hand not lie heavily upon us,
lest we in our need fall into sin.
And even if Thou help us not, we do not cease to come
for if I hunger, I cry to Thee, O God, and Thou wilt
give to me.
Thou feedest the birds and the fishes;
while Thou givest rain in the desert, so that grass
Thou providest food in the field for all animals,
and when they hunger, they raise their faces to Thee.
Kings and princes and people Thou feedest, O God,
and who is the hope of the poor and needy except Thee,
Yes, Thou wilt hear, for who is kind and gracious like
Rejoice the souls of the poor, and open Thine hand in
The kindness of man is niggardly and desires reward,
and if he gives twice without grumbling, it is a marvel.
But Thy gift is great, full of goodness, and rich,
and he who hopes in Thee will have no lack of good
Over the whole earth, O Lord, spread Thy mercy and
Man stands, then, in a certain tension between present and future, with no clear unity in his conception of God. This tension between present and future, which is shown in the attempt to combine hope for the future and belief in a present providence, also appears in another form -- a form which allows the possibility of a unified conception of God to be more clearly seen: that is, God is thought of as the future Judge of the present. Primarily of course God, in so far as He is the Judge, is the God of the future. He will one day recompense men according to their deeds; then it is that
"The Age which now sleeps awakes, and the temporal
itself passes away.
The earth gives back those who rest therein,
the dust releases those who sleep in it,
the vaults restore the souls entrusted to them.
The Most High appears on the throne of judgment.
Then comes the end,
and compassion passes away,
pity is far off,
and long-suffering is withdrawn.
My judgment alone will remain,
the truth will stand,
faith will triumph.
The reward follows,
good deeds awake,
evil deeds sleep no more.
Then appears the pit of torment,
and on the other side the place of new life.
The fires of Gehenna become visible,
and on the other side the paradise of blessedness." (4 Ezra 7:31-36)
The outlook of man is here directed to the future which will bring him punishment or reward. God is just, and already shows His justice in the fate of nations and of men; but His justice will be revealed clearly and decisively only on the judgment day. God is also gracious and merciful, and indeed He gives even now, full of kindness and mercy, good gifts to those who ask Him; but His mercy will be revealed fully and decisively only on the judgment day, when He will pardon those who are worthy. But what can a man expect ? with what comfort himself ? Who will be among the condemned, who among the graciously pardoned? Both as just and as gracious, God is essentially God of the future, and the future is wholly uncertain.
This is why the conduct of man, which should be nothing but obedience in the present moment, easily takes on the character of something accomplished for the future, and thereby loses its character of decision. It becomes a good work among other works; for the more good works there are, the more acquittal in the judgment is to be hoped for. Thus the man loses easily the consciousness of standing before God in the decisive "Now," and becomes fearful of the day when he will stand before God. An overwhelming sense of sin therefore takes possession of the religious man; his thought struggles with the problem of sin. How did sin come into the world? Whence comes its power? How is it possible that so many men should be lost? Especially in the apocalypse of 4 Ezra these questions are discussed. And from the feeling of the insecurity of salvation arise the confessions of sin and prayers of repentance which are so typical of later Judaism. Ever and again it is repeated, "We have sinned before Thee!" "With a broken heart and a humble spirit, may we find acceptance." And the last refuge is to regard even this confession of sin, this penitential prayer, as a good work, as a means by which to insure God’s grace.
"We and our fathers have lived in the works of death,
but Thou, even because we are sinners, art called Merci-
For even because we have not works of righteousness,
Thou wilt, when Thou hast compassion on us, be called
For the righteous, who have laid up many works with
will receive reward for their works.
But what is man, that Thou shouldst be angry at him?
What is the race of mortals, that Thou couldst bear
resentment toward it ?
For in truth there is none born of woman who sins not,
no one of those who have lived, who has not trans-
then indeed are Thy justice and Thy kindness manifest,
when Thou pitiest those who have no treasure of good
works." (4 Ezra 8:31-36)
Here it is shown clearly that the idea of sin is not radically conceived, so long as the idea of the possibility of good works persists along with it, so long as the confession of sin can be something which makes sin pardonable, so long as man is not seen as wholly and in everything a sinner before God. The idea of sin is not radically conceived, if along with it there is room for the thought: a man cannot know how great the sins are in proportion to the good works; if the thought prevails that in the future judgment good and evil works are to be weighed against each other. The uncertainty in which a man here finds himself is not the consciousness of his utter nothingness before God, but a wavering between fear and hope. The God of the future is not really God of the present; for in the present the man is still conscious of an effort to escape the judgment of God, of a possibility of justifying himself before God; he does not see himself standing in the present before the God who judges.
Likewise the idea of the grace of God is not radically conceived; for God’s grace appears here as a kindly overlooking of sins, standing in opposition to His justice, as it were overcoming His justice. Radically thought, on the contrary the grace of God belongs inseparably with His righteous judgment; for His grace does not ignore sin, but forgives it. It is precisely to the sinner that God is gracious, that is, to him who stands condemned by His justice. God’s grace is not radically thought, so long as it is conceived as a possibility in the future instead of being grasped as a reality in the present; for what right would a man have to assert the grace of God, if he did not see it revealed as a concrete reality in his own life? Otherwise he is merely representing God as a human being who will perhaps give preference to grace over justice. In the Jewish prayer of penitence, therefore, the man who is hoping for God’s pity is not comforted by laying hold of the revealed grace of God, but is consoling himself by a despairing clutch at a questionable possibility. The God of the future is not really God of the present, for the man does not see the God of grace at all in the present.
And yet precisely when God is seen as Judge and man as sinner, there is a possibility of a unified conception of God; a possibility of closing the chasm between God distant and God near at hand, between future and present, between hope and belief in providence. For then it is understood that the remoteness of God is nothing other than His remoteness from the sinner, and therefore a remoteness into which man is forced by the very fact that here and now he stands before God. Then it can be recognized that the need and suffering of the world are the sinner’s need and suffering, and so do not stand in contradiction to the providence of God, and that the right to affirm the providence of God exists only for him to whom the God of the present is at the same time God of the future.
For Judaism, at all events, pessimistic dualism is endurable because in fact man is regarded as a sinner before God, and God as the Holy One and the Judge. But certainly Judaism did not achieve a really unified idea of God, because neither the idea of sin nor the idea of God’s grace is radically conceived. It is not only mental activity, clear logic, or more persistent thinking that is needed in order to conceive these ideas radically; for the concepts of sin and grace have their origin not in theoretical reflection, they are the expression of man’s experience that the reality of his own existence is determined by sin and grace. And this understanding of himself does not depend on an act of thought, but is a part of life itself.
2. The God of the Future
These observations have already set forth certain fundamental aspects of Jesus’ conception of God, and points at which his view of God differs from the Jewish, in spite of all they have in common. Like strict Judaism his thinking is far removed from the Greek. God is for him in the Jewish sense the remote God, who in no way belongs to the world nor is part of the world. In certain peculiarities of expression, in the habit of sometimes speaking of God in circumlocutions, Jesus resembles the pious Jews, if our record is to be trusted on this point. (Luke 15:7, 10, 18; 6:38; 12:20; 16:9) Likewise he speaks freely of the angels, who are God’s servants. (E.g. Matt. 18 :10, Mark 8:38, Luke 12:8, 9) But just here his own attitude is plainly shown, for he does not make angels and heavenly things objects of speculation, nor impart secret information about them, as Jewish apocalyptists speculate about the names and duties of the angels, about the stars and the winds.
For him God is not an object of thought, of speculation; he does not press into service the concept of God in order to understand the world and comprehend it as a unity. Therefore God is to him neither a metaphysical entity nor a cosmic power nor a law of the universe, but personal Will, holy and gracious Will. Jesus speaks of God only to affirm that man is claimed by the will of God and determined in his present existence through God’s demand, His judgment, His grace. The distant God is at the same time the God near at hand, Whose reality is not to be grasped when a man seeks to escape from his own concrete existence, but precisely when he holds it fast. Jesus speaks of God not in terms of general truths, in dogmas, but only in terms of what God is for man, how He deals with man. He does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of His eternity, unchangeableness, and the like, by which Greek thought strove to describe the transcendent nature of God. He says incidentally that God is merciful and kind (Luke 6 :36, Mark 10 :18); but in this he expresses only man’s experience of God in his own life, he speaks only of God’s dealing with man.
It is not that Jesus distinguishes between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical nature of God, and God’s dealing with us as the expression of this nature; rather the remote and the near God are one. It is impossible to speak of God in Jesus’ sense without speaking of His activity. As with man, in Jesus’ sense, there can be no distinction between his nature and his actions which are the result of his nature, but the actual essence of man is present in action, likewise God is present where He is active. Jesus then does not make known a new conception of God, or revelations of the nature of God; instead, he brings the message of the coming Kingdom and of the will of God. He speaks of God in speaking of man and showing him that he stands in the last hour of decision, that his will is claimed by God.
Hence any conception of God as a higher nature is foreign to Jesus. A man cannot through cultic, sacramental means bring himself into closer relation to the remote God, nor obtain for himself a divine nature. As little as Jesus thinks of cult as a good work, does he think of it as a mysterious means of freeing man from his lower nature. The concept of nature in general is unknown to him, and nothing is for him low or evil except the evil will of man. It is not sacramental washings that make a man pure, but only a pure heart, that is, a good will. (Mark 7:I5) What significance Jesus saw in John’s baptism we cannot now tell. Perhaps he took it for granted that his followers, like himself, had been baptized. The later tradition that he himself baptized (John 3 :22) is not reliable. Probably the baptism of John was an eschatological sacrament, and may have had in the circle of the Baptizer some peculiar sacramental meaning, but Jesus can scarcely have seen more in it than the acknowledgment of penitence before the coming of the Kingdom. Certainly he did not himself institute baptism as a sacramental means of salvation, as the legendary account in Matt. 28:19 says, and as the practice of baptism in the Hellenistic Christian churches suggests.
The Hellenistic Christians saw Jesus also as the founder of a sacramental meal, the Lord’s Supper, and under the influence of this later view the account of the last supper of Jesus with his disciples was modified. (Mark 14: 22-25, etc. ) But this is certainly an intrusion of the sacramental viewpoint of Hellenistic Christianity into the original tradition. The teaching of Jesus and that of the oldest group of his followers contained no trace of any such sacramental conception. All the presuppositions for this are lacking, that is, all ideas of an intrinsic worthlessness of human nature compared with the intrinsic worth of divine holiness.
Jesus no more teaches a mystic relation to God than he conceives of access to God as mediated through cult and sacrament. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30) does not mean man’s loss of himself as an independent personality, a submersion of self in the stream of divine life. Instead, this highest commandment is clearly defined, addressed to the will of man, by the second, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:31) The individual life of man is not annihilated in his relationship to God, but on the contrary is awakened to its own reality, because the man is constrained to decision. God Himself must vanish for the man who does not know that the essence of his own life consists in the full freedom of his decision, that through the decision of his will, through obedience, he can win fellowship with God. Otherwise God would be a universal natural substance, something non-rational; psychological experiences, excitement and ecstasy, devotion and joy, would be interpreted as communion with God. As little as Jesus describes the nature of God in these terms does he speak of spiritual states and experiences. All mystical designations of God are lacking in his teaching, and all talk of the soul and its emotional states. A mystical conception of God can be dualistic or pantheistic, or even both in some peculiar combination.
Just as none of these tendencies are to be found with Jesus, because for him God is visible in His will and activity, so there is no trace of a corresponding conception of man. For Jesus man is not a cosmic being, in whose body and spirit the forces of the divine nature flow and are active, a microcosm and mirror of the divine in miniature. Jesus neither distinguishes sense and spirit, lower and higher, in man, nor does he speak of the divine which is confined in the prison of the body and must be released so that it can free itself from the material and be united with God. The man is wholly evil if his eye is not single, if his heart is not pure, if his will is not obedient. Always a man is conceived only as standing before God, constrained to a decision of will; God is the Will which demands obedience from men.
In this rejection of sacrament and mysticism, Jesus stands within the limits of strict Judaism, and differs from it not because he presents especially original ideas about God and the world, but because he apprehends the Jewish conception of God in its purity and consistency. With the same sureness with which he repudiates all apocalyptic or eschatological speculations, he holds fast to the idea that man stands before God under the necessity of decision. This becomes still clearer when we observe how for Jesus God is God of the future and God of the present, and when we ask whether and how Jesus combines these two ideas into a unity.
Jesus’ God is God of the future, and with Jesus as in Judaism this conception seems to be influenced by the dualistic view of time, which regards the present as the age of corruption. In the petition "Thy Kingdom come" (Matt. 6 :10), God’s rule is evidently seen as not yet sovereign in the present; His name is not yet hallowed, His will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven. If Jesus believed that he then saw the demons fleeing before the name of the Kingdom of God, and Satan put to flight, clearly he thought that until then the world was under the rule of Satan and his evil spirits. It would signify little to say against this interpretation that Jesus did not apparently adopt the phrasing "present and future age." (This is found only in sayings whose genuineness is very doubtful.) And also it would not be a weighty argument that Jesus does not, like other religious Jews, look in suspense and anxious longing into the uncertain future, but is convinced that even now the turning point of the times is at hand, and the powers of the imminent Kingdom can already be discerned. For the emphasis on immediacy does not show a fundamental difference from the dualistic judgment of the world. The world as it has hitherto existed would still not be seen in the light of the omnipotence of God; there would still not be clearly grasped a conception of God which excludes the thought that there can be a world or a time in which God does not rule. It would be implied that besides God there are other powers with which man under some circumstances must reckon.
It is also not sufficient to say that Jesus’ concept of God was no philosophical theory (true as that is), and that his belief in God as the cause of all that happens did not, in Jesus’ undeveloped thought, untrained in logical consistency, exclude the assumption of other active causes of world events; that the strength of Jesus’ faith in God is shown precisely in his holding fast, in spite of the belief in Satan, to the thought of God as the final cause of all events. This interpretation is indeed approximately true; but all depends on rightly understanding the uniqueness of Jesus’ belief in God.
For if this belief is a preconceived, rigid assumption, on the basis of which, against all experience, it is asserted that God is the final cause of all that happens, then it would clearly be true that the conception of God was not fully developed by Jesus. For his thought of God is not a general affirmation that God is the final cause of all occurrences, but the assertion that He is the Power which determines man in his concrete reality. If a man must say that he cannot find God in the reality of his own present life, and if he would compensate for this by the thought that God is nevertheless the final cause of all that happens, then his belief in God will be a theoretical speculation or a dogma; and however great the force with which he clings to this belief, it will not be true faith, for faith can be only the recognition of the activity of God in his own life. Such a man would then be fleeing from his own individual existence, in which alone he can find God, and would be consoling himself by the belief that God may be somewhere else; but then faith in God has become a will-o’-the-wisp. The conception of the rule of Satan and the remoteness of God from the present can be unified with the idea of God only if this very remoteness of God, this abandonment to Satan, is really a determination by God Himself. But whether and how this may be thought can be shown only by further discussion.
At any rate real understanding of the problem is precluded if the futurity of the Kingdom is minimized, as by the supposition that belief in the coming Kingdom is based on the firm foundation of belief in the creation, and that the Kingdom of God is simply the consummation of the creation. For the belief in God as the Creator is thereby made a theoretical idea, a general truth, which is used as an established presupposition. But the Jewish belief in creation does not possess the character of a theory to explain the universe; instead, it is the expression of the consciousness that man in his whole existence in the world is dependent upon God. It does not therefore draw conclusions concerning the present situation of men from a theoretically reasonable idea of the cosmos, but it gains understanding of the universe from a comprehension of man’s own situation.
The intrusion of the Hellenistic idea of development into the views of Jesus is especially conspicuous when the Kingdom is called the consummation of the creation, so that an ascending line is drawn from the beginning to the end. In that case the Kingdom would be already present in germ in the creation, and the Kingdom would be the unfolding of these potentialities. Then ideally the Kingdom would already exist in the present, and its purely future character would be destroyed. But there can be no doubt that according to Jesus’ thought the Kingdom is the marvelous, new, wholly other, the opposite of everything present. Jesus never thought of bringing the idea of the coming of the Kingdom into connection with the idea of creation.
The only connection which would be possible for his thought would be that which is here and there expressed in Jewish apocalyptic, namely, that in the blessed time of the end the first age of creation, with Paradise and its felicity, will return. This would not be a consummation of the creation, but its re-creation after it has been corrupted by the sin of men. This thought would be consistent with the view of Jesus; for here the future character of the Kingdom, its wonder and newness, would be preserved. Yet no words of such import are recorded from Jesus; and such a way of thinking is foreign to him because of its fantastic and mythological form, however congruous the underlying idea would be.
Thus if we wish to understand the message of Jesus, it is not possible to ignore the future character of the Kingdom of God nor to minimize the distance of God in the present. Instead, it is only possible to accept the paradox that the remote, future God is at the same time, precisely because He is the remote and future God, also God of the present. Or better, it is possible only to ask whether and how the recorded assertions of God’s presence can be reconciled with the thought of the God of the future. In what sense did Jesus speak of the God of the present?
3. Belief in the Providence and Justice of God
Among Jesus’ words there are many sayings which imply a childlike belief in providence and a naïve optimism in his view of nature and the world.
"Therefore I tell you,
Care not for your life, what you are to eat,
nor for your body, what you are to wear.
Is not living more than food,
and the body more than clothing ?
Look at the ravens, they neither sow nor reap,
they have neither granaries nor barns, yet God feeds
You are much more than the birds.
Look at the lilies, they do not spin nor weave,
and yet I tell you Solomon in all his splendor was not
robed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows
today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire,
how much more you, O you of little faith!
Therefore do not strive for food and drink,
and do not ask too much,
for after all such things the peoples of the world strive,
but your Father knows that you need them."
(Luke 12 :22-31, or Matt. 6 :25-32)
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ?
And not one of them falls to the ground without your
The hairs of your head are all counted,
so fear not, you are worth much more than sparrows."
(Matt. 10:29-31, or Luke12 :6-7)
"He makes His sun rise over evil and good
and makes it rain on just and unjust." (Matt. 5 :45)
These words present difficult literary and exegetical problems. According to their form they belong to the class of proverbs found in the Jewish and in all Oriental wisdom literature. According to their content, too, they belong to it, and they contain, taken by themselves, nothing characteristic of Jesus’ preaching. There is therefore a serious critical question whether these and other proverbial sayings which are recorded among the words of Jesus were really spoken by him. For the most part, in the connection in which they are recorded, they are used in a specific sense which the context gives them. But since this context was created by the evangelists, it is impossible now to determine whether or how Jesus used such words, especially as most of them have numerous parallels in Jewish literature.
Yet their specific meaning must be carefully considered. For at least Jesus would not have repudiated such ideas, since they are consistent with the typically Jewish belief in God, which in general served as the basis for Jesus’ thought of Him. In any case only an exact understanding of the meaning can show how the idea of God expressed in them is related to the belief in the God of the future -- whether these affirmations can really stand together with the eschatological faith, or whether tradition is entirely mistaken in including them among the sayings of Jesus.
A similar belief in providence is expressed in the fifth psalm of Solomon already quoted and is found also in the Psalter; a belief in God
"Who covers the heaven with clouds,
provides rain for the earth,
makes the grass grow on the hills,
gives food for the cattle,
to the young ravens when they cry to Him." (Psalm 147 :8 9)
"Who gives the mountains drink from His stores
so that the earth is satisfied with the moisture of heaven,
who makes the grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for men that they may get food from the earth."
This view does not rest on the conception of a law of life permeating nature. It is characteristically different from any pantheistic view of nature, such as Schleiermacher for example represents, which assumes that the modern world has progressed beyond Jesus’ childish view of nature, that we have succeeded in penetrating deeper into the understanding of nature than Jesus could have done. This "deeper insight" consists in seeing in the spectacle of change which nature presents, the supremacy of life, which draws even apparent death into the process of change to generate new life; so that not only in all changing phenomena but in existence itself the work of the spirit, of deity, is revealed. Such a conception is in no sense, as compared with the viewpoint of these sayings of Jesus, further developed or more profound; rather it results from a wholly different premise, a wholly different conception of God and man; it is based on the concept of law, aesthetically applied, which is entirely alien to Judaism and to Jesus. In fact a similar point of view is found in the Stoic philosophy, formulated in a way which reminds one of the saying in Matt. 5 :45. Seneca says:
"If you would imitate the gods, do good deeds even to the undeserving. For the sun rises even for criminals, the seas lie open even to pirates.... No law can be given to the falling rain, that it should not water the fields of the wicked and vicious."
This thought of the uniform working of nature is far removed from Judaism and Jesus. In the Stoic philosophy, "providence" means nothing more than the teleological character which can be discerned in the working of natural law. Judaism and Jesus lack both the abstract idea of teleology and that of providence, and have no word for either. The belief in providence which is here meant does not proceed from a general conception of nature and human life, in order to comfort the individual with the thought that in his life, too, this purposive law prevails. Instead it proceeds from the experiences of the individual in his own life. This belief in providence is therefore not threatened by the reversal of emphasis which is possible to the idea of law, and which comes to expression in Goethe’s words:
"Denn unfühlend ist die Natur;
Es leuchtet die Sonne über Böse und Gute,
Und dem Verbrecher glänzen wie dem Besten
der Mond und die Sterne.’’
("For Nature is unfeeling
The sun shines on the evil and the good,
And over the worst as over the best
Glitter the moon and the stars.")
But of course this faith in providence is assailed by quite another question, with which the idea of law could adequately deal in its own way -- the question of suffering, of the justice of God, of His righteousness in the ordering of the world. The question is really whether this idea of providence, arising from the experience of man in his actual existence, is consistent with the whole of this experience. Is it not an unjustified optimism to see only the good in the world? Is not the reality of man’s life characterized by struggle and anxiety? Do not struggle and destruction prevail also in the world of plants and animals? Do not innumerable ravens and sparrows starve ? Do the sun and rain come to the just and the unjust only for good and not also for harm? Is not this belief in providence, then, a piece of childish innocence, which has not yet reached maturity and has not yet opened its eyes to the misery and suffering of life? Perhaps, too, it is an example of typical Oriental lack of ambition and contentment with life.
Actually the words taken alone, that is, apart from the rest of the teaching of Jesus, mean little more than this Oriental attitude. They then fit consistently into the proverbial literature of the east. But if they are taken in connection with the sayings of Jesus -- irrespective of whether they were really spoken by him or were brought into this context by the church -- they do not acquire a different meaning, but they are counterbalanced by other sayings in which the reality of man’s life is discerned with a deeper seriousness. We must then recognize that these words contain nothing peculiar to Jesus, but were taken over unreflectively from the popular conception of God, either by Jesus or by the church. But the inclusion of these sayings is not due to a misconception; on the contrary, the fact that such inclusion was possible throws light on a characteristic aspect of the teaching of Jesus; and in this connection the critical question of whether or not Jesus spoke these words loses its meaning. For even if we hesitate to conceive of Jesus the eschatological prophet, the proclaimer of the will of God and repentance, as an Oriental sage, and if we do not accept such proverbs as characteristic of his message, yet the incorporation of such sayings into the message is an indication of how Jesus’ belief in God should be understood. That is to say, the possibility of asking certain questions about God and of holding certain ideas about Him lies quite outside the range of ideas within which Jesus moves.
And here belongs especially the problem of suffering, or of the justice of God. That this question is not formulated is by no means under all circumstances a sign of undeveloped thinking or of an immature, childish understanding of human existence; it can also be the sign of a very different interpretation of human life which is the reverse of childish. The religion of the Old Testament and of later Judaism by no means ignored the suffering which is the lot of man, with which his existence is bound up. Its view is of course different from that of a man of a more highly developed civilization, who lives far removed from nature and far from the struggle with the powers of nature. In fact the life of the east, of the Israelite and Jewish nation, was lived much nearer to nature than that of the modern man. But that certain sayings of Oriental wisdom and of the psalms make an immediate appeal to the modern man is due to the fact that this religion has recognized clearly and taken account of a reality which modern thinking gladly ignores or seeks to evade with various theories -- the reality of death, of mortality. Judaism sees that human existence emerges from mysterious darkness and is again swallowed up by it. It therefore speaks not of "nature" but of God, and God is the inscrutable Power in whose hands is the fate of man.
"Yes, man is as grass,
he blooms like the flower of the field;
if a breath of wind passes over it,
it is gone; and its place knows it no more." (Psalm 103 :15, 16)
"We must away
like the budding grass,
in the morning it buds and blossoms,
at night it withers away." (Psalm 90 :5, 6)
"All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of the field;
the grass dries up, the flowers wither,
if the breath of God passes over them. " ( Isaiah 40:6, 7)
"Man, who is born of woman,
has few days, yet enough of pain,
like the flowers he grows and withers,
he flees away like the shadows and abides not." (Job 14:1, 2)
This religion has also felt deeply the sorrow of life, whose pomp is naught but affliction and vanity (Psalm 90:10), and the varying, enigmatic game of fate with men. A naïve theory of the justice of God developed so far as to assert that what a man deserves happens to him; God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But this idea could not be upheld in the face of the realities of life. A resigned acceptance of fate, as shown especially in Ecclesiastes, is the conclusion of "wisdom"; everything happens as it must, man should enjoy whatever he has, finally all is vanity. This belief in fate can also, as in the book of Job, attain deep pathos and become silence before the all-powerful, inscrutable God:
"Will the fault-finder quarrel with the Almighty?
Let an accuser of God reply!
-- Truly I am too small, what am I to answer Thee?
I lay my hand upon my mouth." (Job 40 :2, 4)
The motives of confident optimism and of resignation appear side by side in the wisdom literature; no reconciliation is found. Man indeed looks upon his life and his fate with a naïve demand for happiness, and if his demand is granted he is thankful and praises God’s goodness; but he acquiesces if God wills otherwise. He does not claim an insight into fate nor console himself with the thought of universal law and the cosmic purpose. Instead, he holds fast on the one hand to the conviction that man has his own existence and is not a mere link of the cosmos, and on the other hand he sees that fatality, transitoriness, and insecurity belong to the essence of his life.
The question of the justice of God in the universal sense, as the Greeks formulated it, cannot arise here. Man does not see himself as a special case of the general and comfort himself thereby. Precisely because he sees insecurity and fatality as essential to human existence, he does not think of separating himself from the physical world and distinguishing within himself between a higher spiritual being and a lower physical nature. Hence admiration and wonder at the inexhaustible life forces of nature is as wholly lacking as the typically modern horror of blind nature against which spiritual, personal life rebels in vain. There is no belief in the inner superiority of spirit over nature, no conception of struggle between spirit and nature, nor of the inner growth which man can win in the battle with nature; there is lacking also the specifically modern pessimistic estimate of the world such as has received poetic expression from Strindberg or Spitteler.
Now from Jesus there are recorded, besides the affirmations of optimistic belief in providence, also a series of sayings exemplifying the attitude of resignation, for example:
"The foxes have holes
and the birds of the heaven nests,
but man has not where to lay his head." (Matt. 8 :20)
"Who of you by thought can add a foot to his growth?" (Matt. 6:27)
"Every day has sorrow enough of its own." (Matt. 6 :34b)"
To him who has, is given,
and from him who has not, is taken what he has." ( Mark 4 :25 )
"How does it help a man to gain the whole world and
lose his life?
What can a man give in exchange for his life?" (Mark 8 :36, 37)
It is of less significance to know how many of such optimistic or resigned "wisdom" sayings were really spoken by Jesus, than to see that the view of man set forth in this proverbial wisdom is in general accepted by Jesus. In any case no word is preserved which treats suffering as a problem. Jesus is unconscious of any question regarding the justice of God. It is significant that the early Christian church was soon disturbed by this problem, and sought to solve it by the aid partly of the Old Testament doctrine of retribution, partly of Greek philosophical ideas. Both ways are equally alien to Jesus.
We have seen that Jesus does not use the idea of reward in connection with divine justice. He is equally far from recognizing a claim on the part of man that his lot should be comprehensible and acceptable to him. He has given man no illuminating explanation of human suffering, not even of his own. For the predictions of the passion, which represent his suffering and death as willed by God and necessary to salvation, were put in his mouth subsequently by the church. If he really on the night of his betrayal spoke the prayer "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt," these words expressly deny the justice of God and signify silent submission to God like the words in the poem of Job. That suffering gives reason for doubt of the power of God, Jesus did not believe. This would have been irreconcilable with his idea of God, for the doubt presupposes that man in himself has a claim upon God and possesses a criterion by which to judge what is fitting for God and what is not. In the thought of Jesus the only doubt which has significance is the doubt which refers to man himself and shakes his natural security, the doubt which makes clear to man that he stands in the last hour, in the crisis of decision.
Here the attitude of Jesus differs from that of the wisdom literature. He did not change or develop further its ideas; the attitude of the sage is for him subordinate and incidental. He sees man as "wisdom,’ sees him, not as a member of the law-abiding cosmos, not as a special case of the universal, not as a dual being, composed of body and spirit, but as a unified individual with his own claims. But although the resigned attitude toward fate thrusts these claims of man into the background, Jesus has a far greater right to do so, since to him God is not merely fate but at the same time the holy Will which claims the will of man, requires his obedience. Then there is no place for the view of man as merely enduring his fate; he stands responsible under the necessity of decision.
It may be asked how from this standpoint the question of fate, of suffering, is to be answered. Jesus apparently did not consider it, or had no desire to discuss it. There can be no doubt however what the answer must be, according to the thought of Jesus, in view of his ideas of God and his conception of man. If every situation for man is one of decision, in which he must render obedience, so also is the hour of suffering; then also he must renounce his own claim -- not indeed in resignation, but in an active assent to the will of God, who is God of the future and gives the future. The question of the justice of God cannot arise; for it belongs to another sphere of thought about God and man.
4. Belief in Miracles
The paradox of belief in the remote God who is also near is further shown in Jesus’ belief in miracles. Jesus naturally shared with his contemporaries the belief that there are miracles. And this was no diluted, traditional belief in miracles, according to which events in themselves natural are called miracles on account of their significance or their surprising or terrifying character. Nor was it the attitude of pantheistic romanticism, which regards natural events, and especially all religious experiences, as in themselves miraculous. But in Jewish thought an event which is contrary to nature, which occurs outside of the known and ordinary chain of cause and effect, is called a miracle and ascribed to a supernatural cause, to the act of either God or demons; for Satan as well as God can work miracles. If a pitcher never becomes empty, if an old woman bears a child, if iron floats -- these are miracles; if five thousand men are fed with five loaves and two fishes, if a sick man is healed by laying on of hands and a single word -- these are miracles. Hence miracles are events which in themselves have no religious character, but which are attributed to divine (or demonic) causation, and this presupposes a certain conception of God.
The Christian community was convinced that Jesus had performed miracles, and told a good many miracle stories about him. Most of the wonder tales contained in the gospels are legendary, at least they have legendary embellishments. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did the kind of deeds which were miracles to his mind and to the minds of his contemporaries, that is, deeds which were attributed to a supernatural, divine cause; undoubtedly he healed the sick and cast out demons. However decidedly he refused the demand to prove his claim by a miracle (Mark 8 :11, 12) he obviously himself understood his miracles as a sign of the imminence of the Kingdom of God (Luke 11:20, Mark 3:27, Matt.11:5), exactly as his church was later convinced that it possessed the powers of the Messianic age to work miracles (Acts 2:43, 4:9-12, etc.), and as his disciples believed that they performed miracles in his name. (Mark 6:7, 2 Cor. 12:12)
It is equally clear that Jesus did not, like the later apologists, think of miracles as a proof for the existence and rule of God; for he knew no doubt of God. Miracle indeed presupposes belief in God. Therefore Jesus puts no special stress on his miracles, and at any rate is never greedy for miracles and does not, like other ancient and modern Messiahs, revel in his power of performing them.
There is no great value in investigating more closely how much in the gospel miracle tales is historical; nor is much importance to be attached to determining how far we should today consider the deeds of Jesus as miracles -- that is, refer them directly to a divine cause. It is extremely worth while to emphasize that to represent this divine causality after the analogy of natural law and to speculate upon the laws of supernatural activity in the spiritual world is to mistake entirely Jesus’ belief in miracle. For Jesus applied the idea of law neither to God nor to the world, and his concept of causality is not abstract but concrete, referring a specific phenomenon to a specific cause, as daily experience taught him.
Fundamental in the thought of Jesus is the conception of man as a being whose every action arises out of intention, out of will. Originally primitive man, like a child, ascribes definite intentions also to the objects of his environment, natural objects. The repetitions of everyday experiences lead him to forget this assumption, and then he inquires into an intention behind events only when it is a question of occurrences out of the ordinary, which are for him "wonderful," "miraculous." He does not assume the causality of a higher law, but the causality of a definite intention, of a will, which, since it is not human, must be divine or dæmonic. Jesus’ belief in miracles, then, does not mean that Jesus was convinced of special supernatural forces and laws, but simply that he held certain happenings to be the direct action of God, that he attributed particular events in an especial sense to the will of God.
The peculiar problem of Jesus’ belief in miracles is the question of its relation to his idea of God. How can God be the Almighty, the Power Who determines all, Who is active in every event, while at the same time single events are ascribed in an especial sense to His will? Does not the belief in miracle nullify the idea of omnipotence? If special occurrences are distinguished from everyday happenings as the activity of God, does this not presuppose that in general God is not active? Is not the same dualism revealed here as in the earlier question: if God is anticipated as Lord of the future, is He really conceived as Lord of the present? The consideration of this question must serve to determine more closely the peculiar character of Jesus’ conception of God.
If the problem is viewed externally, one could say that this is exactly the distinguishing characteristic of the phenomenon of religion -- that the combining of belief in omnipotence and in miracle is a part of every living religious faith. The religious man believes confidently in God’s omnipotence and universal activity, but he hopes to see miraculous evidences of these in his own life, and rejoices in them. However, the true meaning of the paradox is not yet recognized by this external estimate. The paradox is not based on the psychological processes of the believer, but on the essence of faith itself. Since God is for Jesus not an object of intellectual investigation, his affirmations of faith about God have not the character of universal truths, which are intellectually valid without being grounded in the actual life experience of the believer.
The assertion of God’s omnipotence is thus no universally valid proposition, to be applied at will, which may be presupposed as a starting-point for a world view. Rather it affirms first and always that God, the determining Power governing my individual life, can be rightly called omnipotent only if I experience this power in my own life, only if God allows me to realize it as fact, if He reveals to me His omnipotence. But this revelation is always a miracle, that is, always an act of the divine will, which is wholly outside my control. The affirmation of faith, that God is Almighty, is then always dependent upon the insight that I cannot perceive and reckon with this omnipotence as a universally valid fact whenever I please, but only if it pleases God. In the appeal "I believe, help my unbelief," which the father of the sick child addressed to Jesus, this paradox finds clear expression. (Mark 9 :24) Thus there exists indeed to the eye of man a dualism, since for him ordinary events veil God from him and he may perceive God only through a miracle. Nevertheless faith knows that God is almighty -- but has this knowledge only because of miracle.
This last statement does not mean that a miracle would prove to a skeptic the fact of the existence of God and His sovereignty. For in that case the assertion of God’s sovereignty would be seen as a universal truth which can by logical reasoning be made intelligible to everyone; the miracle would then be regarded as a universally accredited, extraordinary event, from which the conclusion may be drawn that it depends upon a divine cause. On the contrary, miracle as such means the activity of God; therefore the understanding of an event as a miracle is not a conclusion from what is perceived, but the perception itself apprehends the miracle. Hence only the faith which arises simultaneously with the sight of the miracle is true faith. Just as little as there can be a belief in omnipotence in general, can there be a belief in miracles in general; that is, events which were for Jesus revelations of the will of God cannot be presented universally as miracles on the basis of which a man should believe. Those into whose lives these events do not come with the faith-creating might of God’s activity must obviously regard them not as miracles, but only as astonishing events.
Though in one sense belief in God is the necessary presupposition of belief in miracles, it is not belief in God as an explanation of the phenomena of the world (for the world always hides God, if He does not will to reveal Himself by miracle), but belief as the obedience which is ready to perceive the claim of God upon man in all situations. The doubter, then, who claims to have at his disposal a criterion by which he can prove whether God exists or not, will never see miracles; miracles can be seen only by the doubter who despairs of his own strength and ability to see God if God does not reveal Himself, but who is ready to let God speak to him.
If Jesus’ belief in miracles is understood as a general conviction that certain happenings, which we today are accustomed to attribute to natural causes, depend upon a higher, divine cause, then the belief is meaningless and has no relation to his idea of God. But if this belief is understood as the expression of the faith that God’s will is not in general visible but reveals itself in special and particular events, then it belongs of necessity to his idea of God. It involves the same paradox which is characteristic of Jesus’ whole thought of God: God at once the remote and the near. God is distant, wholly other, in so far as everyday occurrences hide Him from the unbeliever; God is near for the believer who sees His activity.
Moreover, the idea of miracles is a necessary expression of Jesus’ thought of God in that it makes plain the opposition of the concept of God to the concept of law. God’s act is not the expression of cosmic law, but comes from His free personal will. The belief in miracles denies that the causality of events is a necessity comprehensible by reason; whoever sees an occurrence as a miracle ascribes it directly to the will of God. The idea of miracle, and indeed Jesus’ whole thought of God, requires renunciation of the possibility of understanding the world process in the light of universal conformity to law. The concept of miracle, the concept of God in Jesus’ sense, does away with the concept of nature.
Whoever affirms Jesus’ thought accepts also the paradox that an event which from the observer’s viewpoint must be regarded as a natural occurrence, as a part of the world process determined by law, is in reality something different, that is, a direct act of God. When he says "miracle" he suspends the concept of nature, the category of cause and effect, which otherwise dominates his thinking. He knows however that he cannot do this at will, and of himself has no right to do it. For God is the distant God, whom the course of nature hides from his eyes; God is near only for faith, and faith originates only in miracle. The "natural" view of the world is for man the unbelieving view, from which he cannot free himself by his own desire.
5. Belief in Prayer
The same paradox appears in the belief of Jesus concerning prayer. Both liturgical and private prayer were highly developed and cultivated in Judaism at the time of Jesus. There is therefore nothing new nor striking in the fact that Jesus and his disciples prayed; the religious Jew had -- very probably even in Jesus’ time a prayer which he must say three times a day, the so-called "Eighteen Benedictions." The adherents of John the Baptist had their special prayer, as we know from an allusion in Luke 11:1; similarly the early Christian community had its prayer, the Lord’s prayer, which was attributed to Jesus, as the sect of John ascribed their prayer to their master. (Matt. 6: - 13, Luke 11 :1-4) How far the Lord’s prayer was really formulated by Jesus cannot now be determined; at least it must be characteristic of him.
The oldest wording is no longer ascertainable, since Matthew and Luke differ from each other, and since especially in the case of Luke the different manuscripts diverge sharply from one another. The oldest text of Matthew probably ran:
"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done
as in heaven, so on earth.
Our daily bread give us today,
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors,
and lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil."
The oldest text of Luke probably read:
hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come.
Our daily bread give us daily,
and forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us,
and lead us not into temptation."
The first three petitions (according to the text of Matthew) are presumably all meant in the eschatological sense; that is, they ask that the Kingdom of God may come, that God’s name may be made holy, and His will be fulfilled on earth. However, "Hallowed be Thy name" was perhaps added as a liturgical introduction to the prayer. The fourth petition concerns physical life, the fifth, forgiveness of sins. The sixth perhaps means, may God keep the suppliant from falling away in the hour of danger and persecution; if so, this last could scarcely have come from Jesus himself but had its origin in the church.
The unique character of the Lord’s prayer as contrasted with Jewish prayers does not consist in any special originality of formulation or content. On the contrary, all the petitions have parallels in Jewish prayers, for the most part in the "Eighteen Benedictions" already mentioned. The Lord’s prayer is unique in its great simplicity and brevity, in its lack of pompous invocations and expressions of homage to God, such as are characteristic of the liturgical and literary prayers of the Jews. This simplicity is significant for Jesus’ conception of prayer. It shows that prayer is not thought of as an achievement for the sake of which God must hear the suppliant. This opinion is expressly repudiated as heathenish: "And when you pray, do not babble like the heathen, for they think they are heard if they use many words." ( Matt. 6 :7)
Prayer is then not an especially virtuous religious act, of which a man can be proud, contrasting himself with others; it is talking with God, and concerns God alone. (Matt. 6 :5-6) It constitutes no claim of the petitioner; it invokes the goodness of God, which can be trusted, for even an earthly father gives good things to his children who ask him -- how much more would God do so! (Matt. 7:7-11) But again the goodness of God is not under human control, no universally valid fact on which one can reckon; rather, only he who is willing to accept such goodness as a constituent factor in the reality of his own life and let it dominate his life can assert it, can trust it.
"For if you pardon men their offences,
then your heavenly Father will also pardon you.
But if you do not pardon men,
then your Father will also not pardon you." (Matt. 6:14-15)
How little the readiness to forgive constitutes a claim to the forgiveness of God is shown by the denial of the supposition that it would be enough to forgive a brother seven times. (Matt. 18:21-22) That means, if forgiveness is to be real, there is no question of commensurable achievements upon which the petitioner depends and bases a claim; the petition for forgiveness must be made by men who wholly renounce all claim. This is illustrated by the parable of the unmerciful servant:
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle with his servants. When he began the reckoning, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought before him. Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with wife and child and property. Then the servant fell at his feet and said, Be patient with me and I will pay it all. Then the master of that servant pitied him, let him go, and remitted the debt.
"But when the servant had gone out, he met one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred pence, and he struck him and choked him and said, Pay what you owe. Then his fellow servant fell at his feet and begged him, Be patient with me and I will pay you. But he would not, and went and threw him in prison until he should pay his debt.
"When his fellow-servants saw that, they were angry and went and told everything to their master. Then the master sent for him and said, You wicked servant, I forgave you your whole debt because you asked me, and ought you not to have had pity on your fellow servant as I had on you ? And his master, filled with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should pay his whole debt. So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you who does not forgive his brother from his heart." (Matt. 18:23-35)
The recorded words of Jesus about prayer deal almost entirely with prayer of petition. His directions for prayer are characteristic.
"Ask, it will be given you,
seek, and you will find,
knock, it will be opened to you.
For he who asks, receives,
and he who seeks, finds,
for him who knocks, it will be opened.
Or who among you will give his son a stone when he
asks for bread, or a serpent when he asks for fish?
If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to
how much more will your Father in heaven give good
to those who ask Him ?" ( Matt. 7 :7-11 )
Two important parables especially emphasize persistent petition.
"Which of you has a friend? If he comes to him at midnight and says to him, My friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, ,and I have nothing to offer him -- the man within the house will answer, Don’t bother me; the door is locked, and my children are in bed with me; I cannot rise and give you bread. I tell you, if he does not rise and give it to him because he is his friend, yet because the other does not go away or stop asking, he will get up and give him what he needs." (Luke 11 :5-8)
"But he told them a parable to teach them that they ought to pray continually and not be weary. There was in a city a judge who did not fear God nor troubles himself about man. And in the same city was a widow, who came to him and said, Give me my rights against my opponent. At first he would not, but then he said to himself, Although I do not fear God and trouble myself for no man, yet I will settle this woman’s case, because she gives me no rest. Otherwise she will finally come and claw my face." (Luke 18 :1-5)
It is doubtful whether the parables apply to all petitions or specifically to the prayer for the coming of the Kingdom; Luke at any rate has interpreted the second parable in the latter sense. But it cannot be doubted that when Jesus urges prayer of petition, petition is meant in the true sense, that is, prayer is not to bring the petitioner’s will into submission to the unchanging will of God, but prayer is to move God to do something which He otherwise would not do. Of course it does not compel God by any magic force, but it moves Him as one man by his request moves another.
For Jesus the theoretical question of how this is possible does not arise, since for him the thought of God is not limited by the idea of conformity to law. The idea of nature or of conformity to law is excluded in the conception of prayer as in that of miracle. If God’s activity is free, obviously He can do either this or that, and I can ask Him to do one instead of the other. Events in the world depend, according to Jesus’ faith, not on a necessity determined by law but on God’s free deed -- and this includes future events. Why then should I not be able to make requests of Him? But the question arises whether the conception of God is not thereby impaired. Can such a belief in prayer exist together with the belief in omnipotence ? Is God still God, if He is influenced in His action by the prayers of men? Does not he who prays on this assumption destroy the thought of omnipotence?
It is true that in petition the idea of omnipotence given up; but here it again becomes clear that the concept of omnipotence as universal truth, a theoretical dogma, does not belong to Jesus’ view of God. To be sure, God is for Jesus almighty, but prayer of petition involves the insight that the concept of omnipotence by no means lies at man’s disposal as a way of viewing reality, that man does not in actual fact possess the knowledge of God as the Almighty. For this very reason petition is the proper concern of a man who rightly understands his situation before God; if he wished to give up prayers of petition because of the idea of omnipotence, then he would be arrogating to himself a knowledge of God which he does not possess. If he did really perceive God as almighty, if he could find the fact of the omnipotence of God in his own life, then indeed he would have no occasion for petition. But Jesus knew that this is not the actual situation of man, for whom God the omnipotent is the distant God, who therefore must pray that God may show him His activity.
But a still more difficult problem confronts us: how is prayer of petition to be reconciled with the thought of obedience? How can I pray, and at the same time renounce every claim upon God? However, the renunciation of every claim does not mean resignation or asceticism, a denying of desires, which while I deny them remain none the less my deepest wishes. Obedience can be attained only by my confessing my wishes before God, recounting them to Him, as in prayer of petition -- not indeed presenting them as a claim, but always accompanied by "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." Jesus’ faith in God is distinguished from any sort of asceticism and resignation, for together with the renunciation of all claim, with obedience, there is the faith that God is there and acts in my behalf. This man who prays is full of his own desires, and if he rightly understands his situation he can do nothing else than express them in prayer. This excludes the supposition that man by resigned or ascetic renunciation attains a position of nearness to God, presents himself before God as one whose obedience is complete. No, since God is for man primarily the distant God, man must petition Him in order to be obedient.
Truly we may ask, who can render obedience? Who has the faith, while renouncing his own claim, that is, surrendering his desires to God, at the same time to ask in faith for the fulfillment of his desires? And we can understand how the petition of a man who desires to pray may be silenced, and faith may console itself by the saying of Paul: "The Spirit helps our weakness. For we do not know what to pray as we ought. But the Spirit itself intercedes for us with inexpressible sighs. And He who searches hearts knows what the way of the Spirit is." (Rom. 8 :26, 27)
Modern interpretations of prayer as an inner reconciliation with fate, a reverent submission to the purpose of God, are far removed from Jesus; his belief in prayer involves the paradox of the union of trustful petition with the will to surrender. Therefore all reflection about the effect of prayer on the spiritual condition of the suppliant, which so pleases the modern man, is lacking here however true in themselves such reflections may be. Who has spoken more beautifully of the effect of prayer than Achim von Arnim in the verse:
"Wir steigen im Gebete
Zu ihm wie aus dem Tod.
Sein Hauch, der uns umwehte,
Tat unserm Herzen not.’’
("We mount, as if from death
to Him in prayer
His breath which blows around us
heals our heart’s deep need.")
But Jesus does not think of this. It is therefore a great mistake to discuss the prayer life of Jesus, to speak of him as a praying man, to call him the greatest man of prayer in history; even historically one has no right to do this. How a man prayed concerns no other man, not even the historian. And whoever allows himself to judge how fervently or deeply Jesus prayed, proves only that he neither understands nor respects Jesus’ conception of prayer. For whoever so judges either sees in prayer merely a psychological phenomenon, which can become the object of interesting analysis, or he arrogates to himself God’s own right. For according to Jesus, prayer is talking with God; whoever assumes he can evaluate any prayer presumes to stand in the place of God.
Jesus uses the word "faith" for belief both in miracle and in prayer.
"If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Go over there, and it will go." (Matt. 17:20)
To the father of the epileptic boy he says, "Everything is possible to him who has faith." (Mark 9 :23) In this sense men are rebuked for their lack of faith or their little faith. (Mark 9:19, Matt. 6:30) On the other hand the word "faith" does not mean for him, as later for Paul and John, the obedience of men under God’s redeeming revelation, though this use of the term also enters occasionally into the gospel tradition. (Mark 1 :15, Luke 18 :8) Although the word faith is not especially prominent in his teaching, yet it is characteristic of his thought of God. For Jesus does not speak of faith in God in general, but only with reference to definite, actual situations.
When the author of the Epistle of James says, combating a purely theoretical belief in God, "You believe that God exists? You do well. The demons also believe, and tremble" (James 2 :19), -- the conception of belief here expressed is not "faith" according to Jesus. This intellectual concept of faith, in which belief in God is part of a world view, a general theoretical conviction of the existence of God, arose in missionary preaching, in which it was necessary to proclaim in contrast to polytheism the belief in one God. The heathen were those who do not "know" God. (Gal. 4 :8, 1 Thess. 4:5); hence "faith" seemed to be correct knowledge about God. In a Christian book of the second century, the Shepherd of Hermas, the first commandment is rendered: "First of all believe that God is one, who created and formed all things, who called everything from nothingness into existence, who, Himself incomprehensible, comprehends all in Himself."
In this sense, then, according to which belief in God is part of a world-view and stands in opposition to another world-view, in opposition also to doubt of God’s existence, Jesus does not speak of faith. Instead, faith is for him the power, in particular moments of life, to take seriously the conviction of the omnipotence of God; it is the certainty that in such particular moments God’s activity is really experienced; it is the conviction that the distant God is really the God near at hand, if man will only relinquish his usual attitude and be ready to see the nearness of God. In the sense of Jesus it is possible to have faith only if one is obedient, and thus every frivolous misuse of faith in God is excluded.
7. God the Father
God who is near is called Father, and men are His children. Here again it is significant that Jesus does not intend to teach any new conception of God and does not announce the fact of man’s sonship to God as a new and unheard-of truth. The view of God as Father was in fact current in Judaism, and God was addressed as Father both by the praying congregation and by individuals. Judaism as well as Jesus affirms that a man may consider himself a son of God when he obeys God’s commands. In the proverbial collection of Ben Sirach it is said:
"Be a father to orphans
and as a husband to the widows,
then God will call you son,
and be gracious to you and rescue you from destruc-
tion." (Ecclus. 4 :10)
And Jesus says:
"Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors,
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." ( Matt. 5 :45 )
The highest that can be said of man, the final word, is that he is a "son of God." The designation appears as an eschatological title in Judaism and in words of the Lord. When the 17th Psalm of Solomon describes the rule of the Messiah in the last age in the holy land, we read:
"He knows them, that they are all sons of their God."
(Psalms Sol. 17:30)
And in the Book of Jubilees God promises Israel concerning the time of deliverance:
"They shall do my commandments, and I will be their
and they shall be My children.
And they shall all be called children of the living God,
and all angels and all spirits will know and recognize
that they are my children and that I am their Father in
steadfastness and in righteousness, and that I love
them." (Job. 1 :24, 25)
So Jesus’ word promises:
"Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called sons of God."
( Matt. 5 :9)
and in the saying recorded by Luke concerning those risen from the dead,
"They are like the angels, and they are sons of God,
since they are sons of the resurrection." (Luke 20:36;
however the text here is not reliable)
This mode of expression shows plainly that there is no question of a new conception of God and men presented by Jesus; it also shows plainly Jesus’ characteristic idea of God. This becomes clear if we consider that the designation of God as Father is common to many religions and religious world views. The early Stoa had already called God Father, and with the later Stoics this appellation is the typical expression of their piety and of their conception of humanity. And it does indeed serve to express the view that man as a part of the whole divine cosmos is in his nature akin to God and is His son. This is expressly stated as "dogma" (e.g., by Epictetus), and from that are deduced the duties of men which follow from this evaluation, and the security which results if man can trust himself to the providence of his Father. Man’s sonship to God is thus a universal truth which holds for man as such, which is essential to the idea of man. Sonship to God is man’s by nature, and is a truth which holds ideally, which is outside his concrete existence in the here and now.
The opposite is meant by the thought of sonship to God in Judaism and by Jesus. As applied to the nation, it appears often in Jewish literature, although it is not so used by Jesus. The Jews are not by nature children of God because they are human beings, but have become children by God’s free choice and by the deeds which He has done for them. When the term is applied to the individual, man is not by nature a son of God, but he can be a son in obedience to God, through God’s delivering act. Thus sonship to God is nothing self-evident, natural, which belongs to man as man, of which man needs only to become conscious in order to reap the benefits; rather, sonship to God is a miracle. Man is here seen absolutely differently’ not as what he is ideally, outside his concrete life, but precisely as what he is in his concrete life, once for all, here and now.
But the possibility of such sonship to God of course exists for all men, and one cannot point to particular men who have the special quality of being sons of God. The Father in heaven cares for all men (Matt. 6: 26, 32), and all men are to turn to Him with their petitions. (Matt. 7 :7-11 ) Here too it holds true that the distant God is at the same time near, and yet for the natural man He is remote; sonship to God is not something which man can claim, on which he can depend. Even in the strange land the prodigal son is his Father’s son, and the Father, though distant, is his Father. But in the strange land, the fact that he is a son is a judgment against him, and when he realizes his position, a grief. His sonship gives him no claim; it gives only the hope of the Father’s forgiving love, and only forgiveness makes the son once more a son.
"This my son was dead and is again alive, he was lost, and is again found," says the Father. (Luke 15 :24)
8. God the Remote and the Near. Sin and Forgiveness
In the thought of forgiveness must be found the final significance of the paradox of God remote and near. God is the remote God, which means first of all: God is not a part of that world which the thought and activity of man can control. God is the near God, which means first of all: God is the Creator of this world of men, which He governs by His providence. This paradox is understandable because the same apparent contradiction characterizes the life of man; for man has departed from God, but God has come to man.
Man has departed from God; he does not see God’s activity in the everyday events of the world; the thought of omnipotence is to him an empty speculation which gains meaning only if he sees God’s miracles. And when he takes refuge in prayer to God, he abandons the idea of an omnipotent God and confesses that he cannot perceive God. God is the distant God; that means, man stands in the world alone, without God, given over to fate and death like the prodigal son in the strange land. God is the near God; that can only mean, the very sense of insecurity which characterizes the life of man separated from God arises from the fact that God is seeking man. And that God is seeking man can only mean that God imposes His claim upon him. That man is separated from God, then, evidently means that man does not fulfill this demand of God upon him. The distance of God from man has the same cause as the nearness of God, namely, that man belongs to God, that God imposes a claim upon him. When man fails to hear this demand, he himself transforms God’s nearness into remoteness.
The above statements cannot be understood as theoretical reflection on the nature of man; for, like the nearness of God, the demand of God can be affirmed only when it is actually felt. This requirement is not that a man should possess a general knowledge that such a thing as a claim of God upon men exists, but that he himself should hear this demand. Then this attitude of man is not something objective, which lies passive before the gaze of the observer, but it is part of the process of living, which is in motion at every instant. Thus this attitude appears anew at every moment, because in each moment God claims man. But that means that man in his present life stands continually at the crisis of decision. The decisive character of the present moment was made clear above, in the sense that the attitude of man in the present determined his future. But it is precisely because of the claim of God that this is true.
For this demand is not a stage play, but deeply serious; to the man who fails to obey this demand, the future is a condemnation. To him God is the distant God; he is a different man than before. He has not because of this disobedience reached a different level of development, is not passing through a new stage in growth; rather, everything has at once become new for him. Under the judgment of condemnation, he has become a wholly different man, he stands as a sinner before God. Since he is a sinner, God is remote from him; and precisely because God is the near God, the man who does not hear His demand is in His sight a sinner. Since God is near, no neutrality before Him is possible, there is no far-off realm in which His claim would not hold.
Therefore man can never control the world and its possibilities and find security in it; rather the whole world stands under the curse of remoteness from God, and it is a secondary consideration whether a man views it as a soulless and soul-destroying automaton, or as the playground of Satan and his hellish hosts. The world stands under a curse, even if the man does not recognize it and tries to find his way in the world by the use of his reason, even if he seeks to understand it by means of the concepts of God and of omnipotence. For so long as he is not aware that the present moment is final, is claimed, constrains to decision, his idea of God is a phantasm.
Jesus does not discuss how large a proportion of mankind is sinful; he evolves no theory that all are sinners, no theory of original sin. For sin is something condemned by God in the concrete present moment; not a universal attribute of human nature theoretically understood apart from time. Sin no more than God can be discussed in general propositions; otherwise I should be able to distinguish myself from my sin, whereas in reality I am myself the sinner. Sin is not a sort of appendage to man; it is the characteristic of sinful humanity. Hence Jesus does not preach that all are sinners, but speaks to sinful men.
Further, he does not discuss the nature of sin, since this is for him and his hearers a self-evident proposition, corresponding to the Jewish thought of God which Jesus shares. Sin is the character which belongs inevitably to the man remote from God who denies the claim of God. Since the thought of God’s claim and of decision is more radically conceived by Jesus than it is in Judaism, his concept of sin is also more radical.
Because the crisis of decision in the present moment gives man his essential character, he cannot console or justify himself by viewing his sin as a weakness which forms no part of his true nature, or as a mistake which is an exception to be outweighed by appealing to his normal self. For since the whole man is compelled to decision, the whole man is here at stake, and determines by his choice his whole future. Nor can man in the face of the call to repentance point to his ideal self which lies outside the realm of empirical fact. His sins do not mark a stage in his moral development, nor are they a condition which in a sense provides material for further moral progress, nor something which he ought to and can overcome (he, after all, is the sinner!); but it is the position in which he is wholly involved, so that he cannot by virtue of a "better self" escape from it. He stands before God as a sinner, that is, his sin has not relative but absolute character; he is condemned, and can appeal to nothing which he has been or has achieved. And at this point the deeper radicalism of Jesus compared to Judaism becomes evident; for Judaism still assumed the value of human achievement or at least allowed the repentance of man to have value as a quality which recommended him to God.
If there is any help for man who is a sinner, it can only be the forgiveness of God. Jesus proclaims the forgiveness of God, and here also he does not proclaim anything new to Judaism. For what consolation does the Jewish prayer of penitence offer, except the grace of God who forgives sins ? "Praise to Thee, Lord, who freely forgives," says the Jew in his daily prayer. However, in the message of Jesus the more radical thought of God’s grace and forgiveness corresponds to the more radical concept of sin. In Judaism God overlooks the sins of the religious, and this is God’s grace; God condemns the completely sinful and godless, and therefore the religious man feels himself fundamentally good. He can point, if not to his good works, at least to his humble confession of sin, and therefore appeal to God’s grace. Thus the seer in 4 Ezra not only mentions the first possibility --
"For the righteous, who have laid up many good works
will receive reward for their works." (4 Ezra 8 :33) -- but also, with even more emphasis, he says:
"For in truth there is none born of women who sins
not one of those who have lived, who has not trans-
then indeed are Thy justice and Thy kindness manifest,
when Thou pitiest those who have no treasure of good
works." (4 Ezra 8 :31-36)
And consistently he hears the angel answer:
"You have often reckoned yourself with the sinners. Do so no more. You will receive more praise from the Most High because, as is fitting, you are humble and do not count yourself with the righteous. Therefore you shall have so much greater honor." (4 Ezra 8:47-49)
To rebuke men who think they have something to depend upon before God, Jesus told the tale of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed, God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, robbers, evil doers, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have. But the tax-collector stood at a distance, would not even raise his eyes, but beat his breast and said, God be merciful to me, a sinner. I tell you, he went home justified rather than the other." (Luke 18: 10-14)
The Pharisee was not condemned because he spoke falsely in what he said; but the fact that he compared himself with others, that he desired to exhibit his virtue before God, showed that he did not rightly understand what God’s grace meant. For God’s grace can be known only when a man realizes his utter helplessness, and perceives nothing more in himself to which he can appeal. The Pharisee also did not understand God’s demand, else he would have known that this left him no surplus time to do some special deed which would give him an advantage over other men; that a man can never do more than is required of him.
"So you must say, when you have done all that was
We are servants, we have done only our proper work." (Luke 17:10)
Only when the requirement of obedience is wholly grasped can the thought of grace and of forgiveness be wholly understood; and the message of forgiveness then appears in its unity with the call to repentance. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin is to be compensated for (the man is wholly disobedient); it can only be forgiven. When a man accepts forgiveness, he condemns himself most severely, he really bows his head under the judgment of God. And as his character as sinner signified that he failed in the decision and became another man, a condemned man who had lost his freedom, so forgiveness means that he is to become a new man through God’s grace, that he has his freedom once more, that God does not abandon His claim upon him but also does not deprive him of His grace -- that God means to bring him out of remoteness into nearness to Himself.
What happens in forgiveness may be understood by considering the meaning of forgiveness in the relationship between two men who love each other. If a man has offended another, not to say wronged him, nothing can restore him to the old relationship except the forgiveness of the other. And this forgiveness cannot rest on any thought of compensation, as if there were still so much that is good and valuable in the offender that the other could overlook the mistake. For by the offense the relationship is wholly destroyed, and the one becomes to the other entirely a stranger. The love which once existed depended -- if it was genuine -- not on certain attractive qualities, but embraced the whole man. And the whole man now stands, since he did not meet the crisis, before the other as a different man, and all his attractive qualities and his possibilities of development do not help him at all. Only one thing can help him -- if something new happens, if his friend has the strength to forgive him and thereby make him a new man. If something new happens -- that means, that forgiveness is not a necessary result determined by the nature of the man who forgives, something upon which the offender can count (if he did, he would obviously be unworthy of it); but it is an act arising wholly from the free good will of a person, wholly a gift.
In the same way God’s forgiveness is real forgiveness only if it is His free act, an event. Man can assert it only if he experiences it as an event in time, even as sin is an event. He cannot assume it, nor can he deduce it from a conception of God. Thus it is clear that Jesus in this connection too does not preach a new idea of God -- as if God had hitherto been represented as too arbitrary and hard, vindictive and angry, and was rather to be thought of as benevolent and gracious. On the contrary. The Jews knew that God is a gracious God as well as a God who is angry with the sinner, so far as it can be known through the possession of an intellectual concept of God. And no one has spoken more forcibly of the wrath of God (although without using the word) than Jesus, precisely because he proclaims God’s grace. Because he conceives radically the idea of the grace of God, he makes it plain that God’s forgiveness must be for man an event in time, that the relation of "I" and "Thou" exists between God and man, that God stands opposite to man as another Person over whom the man can have no sort of control, who meets man with His claim and with His grace, whose forgiveness is pure gift.
This is the reason that the preaching of Jesus is addressed first of all to the poor and sinful, and that he allowed himself to be blamed as the friend of tax collectors and sinners.
"The gospel of deliverance is proclaimed to the poor." (Matt.11:5)
"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God." (Luke 6 :20)
For such perceive God’s claim more clearly than the respectable people, and also know better how to accept a free gift. A whole series of comparisons and parables illustrates this fact.
"But how do you judge? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, My son, go today and work in my vineyard. He answered, Yes, sir, and did not go. Then the man went to his second son and said the same to him. But he said, I will not go. Then he thought better of it and went. Which of the two obeyed his father ? They said, The second. Then Jesus said, Truly I tell you, tax-collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you." (Matt. 21: 28-31)
"Who of you who has a hundred sheep, and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the lost one until he finds it? When he has found it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulder; and when he comes home he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, Be glad with me, for I have found my lost sheep again. I tell you, so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
"Or if a woman has ten pieces of silver and has lost one, does she not light a lamp and clean the house, and seek carefully until she finds it? and when she has found it she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, Be glad with me, for I have found my lost silver piece. So I tell you, there will be joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15 :4-10)
"A man had two sons, and the younger of them said to his father, Give me my share of the property. And he gave him his share of the whole. Not long after, the younger took all that he had and went into a distant land, and there spent his money in luxurious living. And when he had wasted it all, there was a severe famine in that land, and he began to suffer from hunger. Then he went and attached himself to one of the citizens, who sent him into the fields to herd his swine. And he tried to satisfy his hunger with the husks which the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. Then he came to himself, and said, How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, while I am dying here of hunger. I will arise and go to my father and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired servants. And he rose and went to his father.
"But when he was still far off, his father saw him and pitied him, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. Then his son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, Quick, bring the best coat and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. And bring the fatted calf and kill it, for we will have a feast. For my son here was dead and is again alive, he was lost, and is again found. And they began to feast.
"But his oldest son was in the field. When he came back and reached the house, he heard music and dancing. Then he called one of the servants and asked him what it meant. He told him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him safe again. Then he was angry and would not go in. His father however came out and urged him.
But he answered his father, Think how many years I have served you, and I have not disobeyed your orders, but you never gave me a kid so that I could have a feast with my friends, and now when your son comes, who wasted your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him. But he said to him, My son, you are always with me, all that is mine is yours. But we must rejoice and feast, for your brother here was dead and is again alive, he was lost and is again found." (Luke 15 :11-32)
All these words are directed against those who cannot realize what God’s grace and forgiveness are, who do not understand that man can receive God’s goodness only as a gift, and that therefore it is really only the sinner who knows what grace is. Finally, this is why children can serve as an example. They do not yet know what achievements and claims are, and they can accept free gifts.
"And children were brought to him, for him to lay his hands on them; but his followers rebuked them. When Jesus saw that, he was indignant, and said to them, Let the children come to me; forbid them not; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. I tell you truly, he who does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will never come into it. And when he laid his hand upon them, he put his arms around them." (Mark 10:13-I6)
Now it may be asked, if God thus meets man as a "Thou," is He not conceived as a person? Are not all these ideas of God and man meaningless, since they depend upon a personal conception of God? For how can God be thought of as a person? Is this not naïve anthropomorphism? Indeed all these ideas do become without meaning if the human person, the "I," who is first of all concerned, is looked at from without, if the "I" is described as one can describe in general propositions the nature of a human being; if, as usually results, the individual man is regarded as a specimen of the genus homo. In that case of course God as personal also must appear as such a specimen, perhaps somewhat greater and more spiritual, above all "invisible"; then God would indeed be a "gaseous vertebrate," as has been satirically said.
In the thought of Jesus, however, man is not seen in this way from outside, thus himself acting as observer; instead, the observer’s standpoint is abandoned. Man is seen in his essential being, in his life, which is lived in specific decisive moments in the present, which cannot be understood through a general description of humanity. A man has no control in his ideas over this essential self, for he cannot stand to one side and observe it, he is it. Obviously no one can prove to a man that he has this essential life, because for this proof the observer’s standpoint would be necessary. But a man can know that in this actual life of his he is confronted and claimed by a "Thou." Indeed it is in reality only this claim which gives him his life as a self. And that he, "coming to himself," knows himself to be claimed by an inescapable "Thou," means that he knows of God, and of God as a Person who speaks to him as "thou." He can therefore regard God no more than himself from an observer’s standpoint, and the reproach of anthropomorphism has lost its terrors for him.
This understanding of God and His forgiveness shows conclusively how far Jesus stands from all humanistic idealism, according to which the concept of sin in the real sense does not exist. Humanism knows merely the development of humanity with its possibilities and its different stages; here the true value of man is the ideal self, which is beyond his concrete empirical existence, and because of which no man can be wholly lost. Love is a universal love of mankind, so that individuals may be ignored and humanity may be made happy through institutions.
It is clear that belief in forgiveness presupposes a God who acts as a person and whose act of mercy is an event in time. Thus it is a wholly false supposition that Jesus’ belief concerning God marks an especially high level in humanity’s developing consciousness of God, that to him -- as some one has expressed it -- God became the "representation of the ought-to-be as the power of love." In this view, when the primitive idea of God, which was based on the personification of powers of nature, vanishes gradually behind the infinitude of the causal sequence, the concept of God gains in coherence and consistency in proportion as it achieves a firm position in connection with the claims and needs of the human spirit, and becomes the "irreducible coefficient of the achievement of moral processes in self-consciousness." Jesus -- so it is thought -- completed the decisive modification in the concept of God from the personified power of nature, the power over what is, to the "representation of the ought-to-be as the power of love."
Whoever speaks in this way, however he may desire to honor Jesus, has not understood him. First of all, he has not understood that he himself, according to Jesus, is claimed by God, an authority experienced as external to himself, and is by Him constrained to decision in the present moment -- that God requires from him obedience. Instead of the Power whom man obeys and for whom he decides, he knows only the law of his own spiritual being, and the idea of God becomes "the irreducible coefficient of moral processes in self-consciousness." Thus he can no longer think of God as the Power over what is (as Jesus conceived Him), but only as the Power over what ought to be, that is, only the personification of what the law of his own being demands of him. Then at the moment of claimed or rendered obedience, the demand is actually made by the man himself, the true ideal man, who by his autonomy establishes himself and his own value. Jesus knows no such ideal man; he has before his eyes the actual concrete man as he stands before God. Otherwise the assertion of the love and forgiveness of God is meaningless, for in Jesus’ thought love and forgiveness are not ideas but are real events in the life in time of concrete men
Both sin and forgiveness are temporal events in the life of men. Thus, even though all men are sinners before God, sin is not a universal characteristic of the existence of man or of human nature such as corporeality, nor is it some magical or mysterious quality of the sinner. Jesus does not recognize any evil nature; he regards as evil only the evil will of the disobedient man. Therefore the grace of forgiveness is not the infusion into the sinner of a higher nature which in some magical or mysterious way transforms him. However remote the sinner is from grace, and however great the transformation to be effected by forgiveness, yet pardon is for him the most comprehensible thing in the world, as easy to understand as a word of love and pardon between man and man, without being in the least something to take for granted.
Just as God does not mean to Jesus a higher nature to be enjoyed in the sacrament, God’s forgiveness also is no sacramental grace but a personal act of God. Then it is also plain that the experience of grace and of the forgiveness of God, which destroys the old man and creates the new, does not transfer man to a higher plane, either where he can passively enjoy his new nature or where he must guard it with anxious care through asceticism. Rather, grace holds fast the demand for obedience, since real forgiveness condemns disobedience. Whoever then becomes a new man through forgiveness is reborn to obedience. If any one thinks he has received forgiveness, without becoming conscious of God’s will in his own life, such forgiveness is illusory, as the parable of the unmerciful servant shows. (Matt. 18:23-35)
Thus it has finally become clear in what sense God is for Jesus God of the present and of the future. God is God of the present, because His claim confronts man in the present moment, and He is at the same time God of the future, because He gives man freedom for the present instant of decision, and sets before him as the future which is opened to him by his decision, condemnation or mercy. God is God of the present for the sinner precisely because He casts him into remoteness from Himself, and He is at the same time God of the future because He never relinquishes His claim on the sinner and opens to him by forgiveness a new future for new obedience.
The less the grace of God is assumed to be an essential quality of Deity on which man can depend, and the more it is understood as becoming effective only in the act of forgiveness to the individual man, so much more urgent must be the question, when and how man gains the right to speak of forgiveness. The act of forgiveness! Is there any such act ? Is there a criterion to determine when it occurs, how it is accomplished, so that a man may become sure of forgiveness ? Obviously not a subjective spiritual experience can be meant; there can be in question only an event which confronts man, which happens to him from without; an event which manifests itself as an act of God, because it confronts a man as authority. It presents the claim of God to him and thus it identifies the forgiveness as divine, because it is pure gift, delivering man while judging him.
Again, this event which comes to the man cannot be an occurrence to be looked at objectively, a part of the world of objects constituting man’s environment, which can be observed and analyzed in order to establish the fact that it is the event of forgiveness, to which the man can now relate himself. For the act of forgiveness between God and man, as between man and man, escapes observation. The act of forgiveness does not occur in empty space; it is real only in its reference to the particular man. Therefore only he who is forgiven knows the act of forgiveness.
What more can be said of this act of forgiveness? The tradition of the church has rightly held fast to the fact that forgiveness is an event, and speaks in this sense of the acts of salvation. The only question is whether the church has understood the event in the same sense as Jesus. It sees the event, the decisive act of deliverance, in the death of Jesus, or in his death and resurrection. In this the church is wrong, so far as the death and resurrection of Jesus are understood merely as given facts of history which may be determined and established by evidence. As soon as the observer’s standpoint toward the event is taken, it is no longer the event of forgiveness -- for that can never be experienced by an observer. Therefore all speculations and theories are false which seek to establish by proofs that the death and resurrection of Jesus have the power of forgiveness and atonement for sin. If the death and resurrection of Jesus are asserted as redemptive acts, in the sense of cosmic events which affect mankind in general so that the individual can rely upon them, this is not the meaning of Jesus -- neither sin nor forgiveness is really taken seriously. Not sin, for it is thought of as a universal human attribute; nor forgiveness, for it is conceived as a mere event in the world of external objects, on which man by his very theories and proofs exercises judgment, asserting that divine forgiveness can and must be thus and so.
Moreover, Jesus did not speak of his death and resurrection and their redemptive significance. Some sayings of such a character are indeed attributed to him in the gospels, but they originated in the faith of the church -- and none of them even in the primitive church, but in Hellenistic Christianity. The two most important of these sayings are the words concerning "ransom" and those spoken at the Lord’s supper.
"The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many." (Mark 10: 45)
"When they ate, he took the bread, said the blessing, and broke it, gave it to them and said, Take it, this is my body.
"And he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many." (Mark 14:22-24)
The first of these sayings is a Hellenistic variation of an older saying, which Luke has preserved:
"Who is greater, he who sits at table or he who serves? You say, he who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27)
The words concerning the Lord’s supper are liturgical formulations from the Hellenistic celebration of the Eucharist, replacing an older account, of which traces still remain, especially in Luke.
It is then certain that Jesus did not speak of his death and resurrection as redemptive acts. This would not prevent others from so speaking of them, if they mean events in which they become aware of the divine forgiveness. Just as it cannot be determined that any events of history -- including the cross of Jesus -- manifest "objectively" the divine forgiveness, so it is impossible to prove on objective grounds that they may not do so. In both cases a man would assume to possess the criterion of how the event of divine forgiveness must appear. If the event of forgiveness is a happening in time which comes to a man from without, yet is not an observable process which can be objectively demonstrated, then there remains only to inquire how the character of this event in the sense of Jesus can be more clearly defined.
Jesus does not point to any way which can be universally recognized, in which a man becomes conscious of the forgiveness of God -- he simply proclaims this forgiveness. The event is nothing else than his word, as it confronts the hearer. For the truth of his word he offers no evidence whatever, neither in his miracles, the significance of which is not to accredit his words (for he expressly repudiates attestation through miracles (Mark 8:11, 12)), nor in his personal qualities, which apparently aroused in his contemporaries antagonism rather than faith. If he had for some men a certain fascination, this may rather have tended to distract attention from the content of his words; and certainly there is no mention of this in the record.
Also neither in his sayings nor in the records of the primitive church is there any mention of his metaphysical nature. The primitive community did indeed believe him to be the Messiah, but it did not ascribe to him a particular metaphysical nature which gave his words authority. On the contrary, it was on the ground of the authority of his words that the church confessed that God had made him Lord of the church. Greek Christianity soon represented Jesus as Son of God in the sense of ascribing a divine "nature" to him, and thus introduced a view of his person as far removed as possible from his own.
Equally foreign to him is the modern view of him as a "personality." He would by no means have understood, and would certainly never have approved, the tendency to regard his personal power of faith, his enthusiasm, his heroism, and his readiness for sacrifice as attestation of the truth of his word. For all these are human traits, and are included in the realm of human possibilities and human judgment. And no amount of energy and sacrificial courage can ever prove anything concerning the truth of the cause which a hero represents. The view of Jesus as a great character or a hero is simply the opposite of Jesus’ conception of man; for man as a "character" has his centre in himself, and the hero relies on himself; in this the greatness of the man consists; this is the esthetic point of view. Jesus however sees man in his relation to God, under the claim of God.
There is indeed one estimate of him which is consistent with his own view, the estimate of him not as a personality, but as one sent by God, as bearer of the word. In this sense he says:
"Blessed is he who finds no cause of offense in me." ( Matt. 11: 6)
"Whoever acknowledges me before men, him will the Son of Man also acknowledge before the angels of God. Whoever denies me before men, will be denied before the angels of God." (Luke 12 :8, 9)
Perhaps the form in which Mark preserves this last saying is older; at least it shows clearly what the early tradition regarded as the significance of the person of Jesus.
"Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (Mark 8:38)
Jesus is therefore the bearer of the word, and in the word he assures man of the forgiveness of God.
That this word can be the event of divine forgiveness will indeed be understood only if we set ourselves free from a commonly held modern view-point which has had a fatal influence on historical study. This is the habit of understanding the word only as the natural self-expression of the speaking individual. It then makes little difference whether this individual is seen aesthetically or idealistically as personality, character, "form" (Gestalt), or the like; or naturalistically in the light of evolution as the exponent of a particular historical or cultural situation. From these view-points, a word can no longer be in the real sense an "event" for the hearer; for by means of correct analysis he can have in view beforehand all the possibilities of what may be said to him.
But if we return to the real significance of "word," implying as it does a relationship between speaker and hearer, then the word can become an event to the hearer, because it brings him into this relationship. But this presupposes ultimately a wholly different conception of man, namely that the possibilities for man and humanity are not marked out from the beginning and determined in the concrete situation by character or circumstances; rather, that they stand open, that in every concrete situation new possibilities appear, that human life throughout is characterized by successive decisions. Man is constrained to decision by the word which brings a new element into his situation, and the word therefore becomes to him an event; for it to become an event, the hearer is essential.
Therefore the attestation of the truth of the word lies wholly in what takes place between word and hearer. This can be called subjective only by him who either has not understood or has not taken seriously the meaning of "word." Whoever understands it and takes it seriously knows that there is no other possibility of God’s forgiveness becoming real for man than the word. In the word, and not otherwise, does Jesus bring forgiveness. Whether his word is truth, whether he is sent from God -- that is the decision to which the hearer is constrained, and the word of Jesus remains: "Blessed is he who finds no cause of offense in me."