The Bible Today by C. H. Dodd
C.H. Dodd is recognized as one of the great New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. Dr. Dodd was for many years Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University. Published by the Syndics of the University Press, Cambridge, 1956. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: History as Revelation
We have now reviewed briefly the contents of the Old and New Testaments, as the record of several centuries in the history of a community. This record the Church offers as a revelation of God. (Here we resume the argument where it was left in chapter 1, and continue it in view of our survey of the biblical literature in chapters 3 and 4.)
We may take this to mean, in the first place, that in the changing and developing thoughts of the biblical writers about God, man and the world, we have a movement of the spirit of man towards a fuller apprehension of the truth, under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth. In the process, as we have seen, comparatively crude and inadequate ideas are gradually replaced by ideas more worthy of their objects. We may think of it as a process of education. God, who is the source of all truth, communicated to men, stage by stage, as they were able to digest it, an increasing measure of knowledge about Himself. In this sense the Bible is rightly described as containing a ‘progressive revelation’.
But that is not all. The Bible is not simply an account of a development of thought. It is also a history of events, in which, and particularly in certain crucial events, we are invited to trace the manifest working of the divine providence. ‘The mighty acts of the Lord (Psalm 106:2, etc.) is a biblical phrase which stamps the whole. The God of the Bible is a ‘living God’. (The phrase occurs at least ten times in the Old Testament and sixteen times in the New.) He reveals Himself in the movement of events. What we are dealing with is not simply a history of revelation, but history as revelation.
The word ‘history’, as we commonly use it, has two distinct meanings. It means both the course of events, and a record of the course of events. This ambiguity is in the nature of the case. There was published not long ago a lighthearted historical skit entitled 1066 and All That, which, behind its nonsense, contains more sense than might appear. It starts with a definition of history: ‘History is what you can remember.’ That is exactly what history is. It consists of remembered events. Not everything that occurs is an historical event, capable of entering into an historical record. The occurrence must have sufficient interest to give it a place in the memory of those who experienced it. Not only so; it must have sufficient public interest to remain imprinted on the corporate memory of a community. This corporate memory may take the form of oral tradition and legend, or of commemorative monuments in stone or the like, or, finally, of written and printed records. But no event gets into such records unless it was an interesting event; that is to say, an event which had meaning for some sufficient number of people. An historical event is an occurrence plus the meaning which it had for some portion of the human race.
It is in this sense that we speak of history in the Bible. It reports events which are historical in the fullest sense, because they are laden with meaning; and these events are narrated in such a fashion as to bring out clearly the meaning which they bear. According to the unanimous view of the biblical writers, the meaning of the events resides in a meeting of man with God. It is this which gives character to the history. By this I do not mean merely that the idea of a meeting with God colours the thought of the biblical writers about events; but that the course of events itself was what it was because it bore this meaning for those who participated in it. As we have seen, it was because the prophets interpreted the history of their time in this sense that the history of succeeding centuries followed the course it did. And it is so all through the Old and New Testaments.
This means that the biblical history is controlled by a factor which belongs to the realm beyond history. The importance of the ‘natural’ factors which go to make history is never ignored -- factors physical, geographical, biological, economic, and so forth. In fact, among ancient literatures, the Bible is rather exceptionally informative upon many such matters. But at the crucial points it is made clear that a factor beyond the natural is impinging upon the natural factors and directing their outcome. This ‘super-natural’ factor cannot be explained away without re-writing the Bible and falsifying the witness of its writers. Here is the real crux of belief in the supernatural. Miracle-stories lie on the fringe. Discussion of them falls into place when we have settled accounts with this central feature of the whole record: an encounter with that which transcends the whole natural order of things: the meeting of man with God.
As we follow the biblical record, we observe that the encounter with God is apt to take place when a man finds himself involved in a situation of unusual tension in the real world. The prophet is a ‘public man’. His encounter with God is not private experience withdrawn from contact with workaday things, like that of the mystics and sages of many religions. The pressure of public movements and events upon his spirit is the occasion of the encounter with God which lays its compulsion upon him, and the truth which the encounter forces upon his mind is public property.
It is true that the encounter is often described in terms of what we call ‘religious experiences’, sometimes of abnormal experiences, like visions or auditions. The prophet ‘sees’ what is invisible to the bodily eye; ‘hears’ words spoken when no human speaker is present. This fact sometimes causes difficulty to readers in the modern world. It is certainly true that visions and auditions may be no more than illusions. To infer (as some have done) that all such experiences are illusory -- that Isaiah’s vision was due to hysteria, or the conversion of Paul to an attack of epilepsy -- is clearly illegitimate. Most of the prophets are embarrassed by the presence of ‘false prophets’ whose mental processes are not distinguishable psychologically from their own; and yet they remain serenely convinced that God really has spoken to them.
The Bible indeed offers rich material to the psychologist who wishes to examine the varieties of religious experience; and it is possible to exhibit the psychological mechanism of the prophetic consciousness in a fascinating way. But when the mechanism has been exposed, nothing has yet been said about the validity of the experience, or about the truth of the interpretation of life which it conveyed. Precisely that in it which was individual and creative eludes our analysis.
Two things however it seems possible to say about the validity of the prophetic experience. First, when the prophets say, ‘I saw the Lord’, or ‘The Lord said unto me’, or ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon me’, we can see that the experience to which they refer was an element in a total experience of life which was rational and coherent, forming a logical unity in itself. We can see it clearly enough in prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose biographies are in large measure open to us. Their visions and auditions were not aberrations, unrelated to their experience of life as a whole. These were clearly the kind of men of whom it is credible that they did meet with God, whatever psychological form the meeting may have taken.
Secondly, the personal experience of the prophets is also organically related to the course of history in which they played a part. It enabled them to give an interpretation of the situation which could stand up to the facts. Not only so; the effects which flowed from their intervention in history were congruous and commensurate with its alleged origin in an encounter with God. We have seen that the impact which the prophets made upon their time brought about momentous consequences) affecting the whole subsequent history of mankind in an important way. It is therefore unlikely that the experience which impelled them to speak and act as they did was a delusion, whatever the temporary form in which it may have been embodied. The prophetic experience is, in some way, of the same stuff as history itself.
I should apply this not only to the prophetic experiences of the Old Testament, but also to the somewhat similar experiences which determine the New Testament interpretation of events: I mean the appearances of the risen Christ to His followers. Here we have one strictly first-hand witness. Paul is the one New Testament writer who, speaking in his own person, expressly claims to have had an encounter with Christ after His resurrection. He goes bail for a large number of other witnesses, whose testimony is in some cases indirectly reported in the Gospels and the Acts, and he appeals confidently to their unanimity. (I Corinthians 15:3-11) When therefore he speaks of his meeting with Christ, he is not speaking of some private, incommunicable experience, but of an experience which he shared with others, an experience of ‘public’ facts. Turning to Paul, then, for a first-hand description of what it meant to meet the risen Lord, we observe that he speaks in terms which recall the language of the prophets. If Isaiah says, ‘I saw the Lord’, Paul also says, ‘Have not I seen the Lord? (Isaiah 6:1; I Corinthians 9:1). If Jeremiah says, ‘The Lord appeared of old unto me’, Paul says, ‘He appeared unto me also’. (Jeremiah 31:3; I Corinthians 15:8 [In Greek the verb is identical.]) If Ezekiel says, ‘The hand of the Lord God fell upon me’, Paul says, ‘I was arrested by Christ Jesus’. (Ezekiel 8:1; Philippians 3:12) Isaiah describes in strange and impressive symbolism his vision of the glory of God. Paul, more simply but not less impressively, speaks of ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. (II Corinthians 4:6)
It seems clear that, upon one side at least, the New Testament experience of an encounter with the risen Christ was analogous to the prophetic experience. If we raise the question of its validity, the same tests may be applied. Paul’s meeting with Christ is of a piece with his total experience of life. It is no aberration. We know Paul very intimately from his letters. They reveal a singularly coherent personality; and this coherence depends to a marked degree upon the reality of what we call his conversion. Paul says he was ‘arrested’ by Christ. Well, he was certainly arrested by something, to some purpose; and the effects of that ‘arrest’ in the whole of his career were congruous with their alleged cause. Moreover, the remoter effects in history -- the rise of the Church, the highly original character of its community-life, its astonishing early expansion and its no less astonishing spiritual and intellectual achievement -- were congruous and commensurate with that which the apostles declared to be the starting-point of it all: their meeting with the risen Christ, in whom they saw the glory of God. It is unlikely that all this was based upon a delusion.
I do not suggest that the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Christ can be entirely reduced to terms of prophetic experience. Clearly there are fresh and unprecedented elements in it. To see the glory of God, as Isaiah saw it, in visionary symbols of a smoking altar served by winged seraphim, is not the same thing as for Paul to see ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’, who was a known character in history, recently put to death. But it is in the features which the apostolic witness shares with the prophetic witness that we can best assess its weight.
The corroborative evidence which is adduced in the Gospels to show that the tomb where Jesus was buried was untenanted on Easter Day is secondary. It is indeed more serious and impressive than is sometimes allowed for in modern discussions. But in itself it could not be conclusive. On the one hand, if you could prove up to the hilt that the tomb was empty, you would still be far from establishing the apostolic faith that Christ was ‘raised at the right hand of God’; and if, on the other hand, it could be disproved, that faith would not be refuted, since it rests upon more immediate data.
At its centre, the apostolic witness speaks of an encounter with God in Christ, which was like the prophetic encounter with God at least in this: that it provided a satisfying interpretation of historical events (the events of the life of Jesus as part of the history of Israel), and that it set in motion new and powerful historical forces. In assessing its weight, we are concerned with the question of the validity of religious experience and its organic relation to the actuality of history.
In both Testaments, then, everything turns upon an encounter of man with God. In reference to this encounter the biblical writers employ a characteristic formula: ‘the Word of God’. The expression is obviously a metaphor; for a word, properly speaking, is the product of certain physiological processes which we cannot attribute to the Eternal. But it is a singularly appropriate metaphor, and could hardly be replaced. By means of words, and normally by no other means, one person can affect another without infringing his personal independence. I can affect another person by various kinds of direct action, to the point of compulsion; but in doing so I trespass to that extent upon his prerogative as a person (it may or may not be right or necessary at times to do so: that we need not discuss). If however I speak to him, and he hears, then of necessity he makes some kind of response -- even if it be the negative response of pointedly ignoring me. The particular response is for him to determine. In any case he is affected by that which I have spoken and he has heard, while his freedom of choice remains intact. A conversation between two persons is an event in the lives of both, and in certain circumstances may be an event from which incalculable consequences flow in the world of actual, concrete facts. The word has proved a creative factor in history, on however small a scale.
Something of this kind is suggested by the biblical expression, ‘the Word of God’. God makes an approach to man in a way that commands his attention and elicits a response of some kind, positive or negative. The response is not forced. Man remains free. But in proportion as he responds the Word proves a creative factor in history. As we have seen, the approach of God to men usually takes place at the point where they are keenly aware of the world-situation in which they are living. The Word of God comes, characteristically, as an interpretation of the situation, carrying with it an obligation to act. The ‘inspiration’ of the prophets is essentially a power of insight into the situation as expressing a meaning which is God’s meaning for His people.
The Word of God, then, is the supra-historical factor which we have noted as entering into the course of history and directing it. It came to Abraham, to Moses, to prophets and apostles, not as a mere ‘inner light’, but as the interpretation of a situation, requiring action in that situation. Over against the evil in the situation, it came as judgement; for through the Word of God the disasters which are the necessary consequences of persistent wrong-doing are understood as His judgement upon sin. It came also, through the response of those who heard it, as a word of rescue and renewal. Thus the pattern of history as a divinely directed process was established.
The judgements and deliverances took place within the experience of a particular people: the ‘chosen’ people, the ‘elect’ of God. The idea of a chosen people has been perverted into horrible doctrines of racial and national domination, which have brought it into discredit. Yet the idea cannot be eliminated from the Bible. In recent times it has often been suggested that it may be rationalized, in the sense that the Hebrew people had a ‘natural genius for religion’, as the Greeks had a natural genius for philosophy, and the Romans for government -- and, one might no doubt add, ‘God’s Englishmen’ for empire-building (or is it shop-keeping?), so that we can all feel comfortable about it.
We do not however gather from the prophets the impression that they supposed their people to possess a natural genius for religion. ‘Ah, sinful nation! a people laden with iniquity! a seed of evil-doers! rebellious sons!’ (Isaiah 1:4) These are only a few specimens of the rich vocabulary of vituperation with which the prophets assailed their contemporaries. Nor is the case different in the New Testament. It is never suggested that the Church of God’s ‘elect’ consists of people with a natural genius for religion. Quite the contrary. ‘The Son of Man came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17) And there have always been Christians, and those not the worst sort, who would confess that they had a natural genius for atheism -- but for the grace of God. We cannot eliminate that suggestion of a free act of God which is inherent in the idea of ‘choice’.
God’s choice, however, is (as the prophets are at pains to point out) not an act of favouritism, conferring privileges arbitrarily denied to other peoples. It is election to special responsibility. (Amos 3:2) To be God’s chosen people means to be immediately exposed to His Word, with all the momentous consequences that flow from hearing it. That is as true of the Church in the New Testament as of Israel in the Old. (Cf. I Peter 4:17: ‘It is the time for judgement to begin from the house of God . . .first from us. . . .’) Of course there are privileges in hearing the Word of God, and belonging to His people; though they are hardly of such an order as to commend themselves to the homme moyen sensuel. But primarily, to hear the Word of God makes a man responsible before Him; and the people of God consists of those upon whom such responsibility has been laid.
We cannot pretend to explain why the fateful destiny of hearing the Word of God should have been laid upon this particular people. But the ‘scandal of particularity’, as it has been called, is inseparable from an historical revelation. History consists of events. An event happens here and not there, now and not then, to this person (or group) and not to that. And so the revelation of God in history came to one people and not to others, with the intention that through that people it should extend ultimately to all mankind. We cannot explain this particularity; but it is no more surprising than ‘the possibility, admitted by men of science, that life has appeared only on this planet; and the certainty that only one species of terrestrial life has attained to reason, only a small minority of that species to civilization, and only a minority of that minority to a civilization progressive and scientific’. (I quote the words of Dr. Clement Webb in an article in the Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 44, p. 250.)
To return, then, to the main line of argument: the Bible tells how the Word of God descended upon a people, and through their varying response wrought out a course of events moving to a climax. The whole process is reviewed, briefly and conclusively, in the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, commonly called the ‘Prologue’ to that work. (What follows is not intended as a complete exegesis of John 1: 1-14. ‘Word’ is in Greek logos, and logos means also the rational principle immanent in nature and the human mind. The logos-doctrine of the Fourth Gospel is related to this Greek idea, but primarily its logos is the ‘Word of the Lord’ and it is on this side that it is directly related to the O.T.) It starts with the creative Word -- which we have already met with in the first chapter of Genesis:
In the beginning was the Word;
This Word pervaded the world, as the source of life and light; but the world remained unconscious of its presence.
Then the Word, which was immanent in the entire universe, ‘came’ to a particular people:
He was in the world;
That summarizes briefly the whole tragic history of Israel;
the coming of the prophets and their rejection by a recalcitrant nation. But it was not all failure:
As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to be children of God.
These are the ‘Remnant’ of whom Isaiah spoke, who maintained their witness to the Word of God through national apostasy, persecution and disaster.
But even the Remnant proved inadequate to the responsibility laid upon them; the history of Israel under the Old Covenant remained inconclusive. Then there was a fresh incursion of the eternal Word into history:
The Word became flesh,
And dwelt among us;
The eternal Light, which is the glory of God, is diffused through the universe (‘The whole earth is full of His glory’, as Isaiah heard the seraphim sing). It was revealed partially and relatively, in the religious institutions of Israel, as they increasingly conformed to the truth declared by the prophets. But now at last it was focused in the unity of a single Person, whose whole being, character and action completely embodied all that the Word of God means. It is a fresh approach of God to man; this time a final approach, conveying a decisive challenge.
The principle of ‘particularity’, which we have noted as inseparable from a revelation in history, has thus worked itself out to its logical conclusion. The ultimate locus of revelation is neither nation nor community, but a Person, who lived in Palestine and ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. In His historic mission He gathered up the issues of a long past, and through His death and resurrection became the living centre of a new community, which has no final frontiers, in time or space, but those of the human race itself.
But in what sense are we to understand the life of Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnate? We may once again approach the question from the standpoint of the prophetic interpretation of history. In history (the prophets said) the Word of God comes to men, in judgement and in renewal, calling for a response. From this point of view we may conceive the rôle of Christ in history somewhat in this way.
First, Christ uttered the Word, with final authority. His ‘I say unto you’ is the counterpart of the prophetic ‘Thus saith the Lord’ -- with a significant difference. His whole teaching, as we have seen, sets up an absolute standard by which we are judged, but which also inspires a new kind of life. Not only so; His very presence among men, His attitude towards them, His action in critical human situations, constitute, no less than His sayings, a Word of God to men; for they embody concretely that which He taught about God, His character, attitude and action. ‘Christ was the Word, and spake it.’
The Word of God, thus spoken, demands a response: indeed, it becomes an effective force in history only through such response. And here, secondly, Christ Himself offers, representatively, the final response. This representative character, as we have seen, is a large part of what the title ‘Christ’, or ‘Messiah’, means. When at the crisis of His fate Christ prayed, ‘Not my will but thine be done’, (Luke 22:42) He was making the response on behalf of us all, in advance, at a moment when there was no one else to make it; and making it with absolute finality.
The apostolic writers with complete unanimity lay their finger upon this one point -- the obedience of Jesus -- as the vital centre of all that He did for us. ‘Through the obedience of the One’, says Paul, ‘the many will be made righteous’; (Romans 5:19) while the Author to the Hebrews puts into the mouth of Christ the words of an ancient Psalm: (Hebrews 10:5-10)
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire,
-- and then he comments, ‘ -- by which will you have been sanctified, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ’. Here, in fact, lies the value of Christ’s death: not in the physical fact of His dying, but in the perfect obedience which it expressed, releasing, as it were, the whole force of the will of God to work in history for the salvation of men.
But if the death of Christ is the seal of His perfect human obedience, it is also the climax of His revelation of the being and character of God, as absolute love. Consequently it is in the death of Christ, as the Fourth Evangelist again points out, that the glory of God is most completely revealed, (John 12:23-32) or in other terms, the Word is most fully made flesh.
Here, then, we have the perfect meeting of God with man, towards which the whole course of events was tending. It is at last realized in the unity of the single Personality; and henceforward this becomes the centre about which the whole movement of history turns. And thus the coming of Christ completes the biblical history, and seals its character as a course of meaningful events which are the ‘mighty acts’ of God, and also His ‘Word’ to men.
We have now to observe that the whole story is set in a framework which is not, in the same sense, historical. It has a prologue, which is the Creation; and an epilogue, which is the Last Judgement. These first and last things can be spoken of only in symbols. They lie, obviously, outside the order of time and space to which all factual statements refer. They are not events (as the historian knows events), but realities of a supra-historical order. In referring to them the biblical writers make free use of mythology.
The distinction between history and myth is clearly marked. From Abraham to the end of the apostolic age the story is historical: it consists of actual events, directly related to the general course of history in the world. The events are sometimes seen through the medium of legend, and they may be presented in a form which leaves the actual occurrence less clear than the symbolical significance which is assigned to it. (It is important to observe that a real event may be given symbolic value, while in other cases a myth may be created to serve as a symbol.) But it is history, as the first and last things are not. Creation, the Fall of Man, the Deluge and the Building of Babel are symbolic myths. The Last Judgement and the End of the World, if they are not in the strict sense myths, have a similar symbolic character. The symbolism in all these cases is drawn largely from myths current among the Hebrews and other ancient peoples; but the meaning attached to the symbols -- and this is the important point -- is derived from the prophetic and apostolic interpretation of history. The implication is that what history had shown to be true of the dealings of God with one particular people is true of His dealings with all mankind, and indeed with the whole universe. I will now try to illustrate this in detail.
The story of the Creation in the first chapter of Genesis is, as we have already had occasion to remark, subsequent to the work of the great prophets, and it arises out of it. Its writer has projected upon the universe that which he has learned from God’s dealings with Israel. He saw the state of his people as a chaos of darkness, turbulent and ungoverned. The Word of God came through Moses and the prophets, throwing light upon the darkness and creating order out of chaos. So it was, he says, in the Beginning. God spoke to primeval chaos: ‘Let there be light!’ He ‘called the things that were not as if they were’, (This is Paul’s striking phrase in Romans 4:17) and they began to be.
This account of creation includes the statement that man was made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) But that is not all there is to be said. The prophets were acutely aware that Israel, which might be expected to know and obey God as ‘naturally’ as migratory birds follow their annual course, (Jeremiah 8:7) or a domestic animal recognizes its master, (Isaiah 1:3) did nothing of the kind. Israel’s behaviour was ‘unnatural’, belying their origin and destiny. It must be the same (they concluded) with mankind in general. If Israel is sinful, so are other peoples; and yet they are part of God’s creation, which was ‘very good’. It would be ‘natural’ for them, in view of their origin, to obey the will of their Creator, but they do not. To express this idea, they made use of a very primitive myth (the original meaning of which may have been quite different): the story of how Adam (Hebrew for ‘Man’) and his wife Eve (Hebrew for ‘Life’) were induced by a highly mythical Serpent to disobey a command of their Maker, and in consequence were exiled from their home. (Genesis 3) It is the tragic fate of Israel projected upon mankind as a whole. The Word of God that drove man out of Paradise is the word of judgement that sent Israel into exile, now given a universal application.
The third of the great myths is that of the Deluge. (Genesis 6:9. 17.) We have recently been told that archaeologists have found evidence for the Deluge as an historical event: the vast bank of mud that it deposited is still there, somewhere in Mesopotamia, ‘to witness if I lie’. No doubt there was a very destructive flood in Mesopotamia in the distant past; and it is quite possible that dim memories of it coloured the Babylonian story of the adventures of Ut-napishtim, which again may have coloured the Hebrew story of the adventures of Noah. But it has very little to do with the widespread primitive myth of a supernatural deluge over the whole earth.
The biblical writer has used this old myth to set forth in symbol the idea of God’s judgement coming upon man in disaster, but leading up to a new creation. For in the story Noah emerged into a world swept clean by the judgements of the Almighty, and entered into a ‘covenant’ with his God.
God spake unto Noah and to his sons with him, saying: ‘And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you.’ (Genesis 9:9-10)
As Adam is all mankind, so is Noah all mankind; and the story stands as witness that God’s covenant, though historically it was made with Israel, is applicable to the whole human race, and indeed to all created life -- a truth finally established in the universal Gospel of the New Testament.
The story of the Building of Babel is the last of the myths of the ‘first things’. (Genesis 11:1-9) It is very likely that the idea of a tower whose top should reach heaven was suggested by the vast ‘sky-scraper’ temples whose ruins are still strewn about the lands of the Euphrates valley. It may be, as some have suggested, that the story of the dispersal of the builders preserves a remote memory of the break-up of some prehistoric empire. But all this concerns only the dramatic detail of the story. Essentially the story of men who defied God by trying to build up to heaven is the same as the Greek myth of the rebellious Titans who piled mountain upon mountain to storm the dwelling of the gods. Their dispersal is the judgement of God upon human arrogance and ambition. The story is a kind of doublet of the story of the Fall.
It serves, however, in its present setting in the Book of Genesis, to provide a background for the call of Abraham. It is out of the mass of sinful humanity, the descendants of these discomfited rebels against God, that Abraham is called. Thus the story of Babel makes a transition from the mythical to the historical. It serves to characterize mankind as lying under God’s word of judgement at the moment when His creative word came to Abraham, to make a covenant and to found a people.
Thus the stories with which the Bible begins may be regarded as adaptations of primitive myths by writers who used them as symbols of truths learned in history. Nominally they refer to pre-history. In fact, they apply the principles of divine action revealed in the history of a particular people to mankind at all times and in all places. They universalize the idea of the Word of God, which is both judgement and renewal.
Much the same may be said of the conception of the Last Judgement. It is impossible to think of Doomsday as a coming event in history. An occasion which gathers together at once all the generations of men who have ever lived is obviously outside the order of space and time in which history takes place. We are dealing with symbol. The idea of the ‘Day of the Lord’-- God’s triumph at the end of history -- formed part of Israel’s outlook upon the future from a very early date. It underwent extensive development and elaboration in late Jewish apocalypses, and their imagery is freely used by New Testament writers.
But the centre of the Christian idea of the Day of Judgement is most simply stated in Paul’s words, ‘We must all stand before the judgement-seat of Christ (II Corinthians 5:10) We have seen that the prophetic conception of God’s word of judgement in history received a profound re-interpretation in the events of the Gospel story. As Christ moved among men, displaying pure goodness in all His words and actions, men found themselves judged; and this judgement became most acute when He went to His death, because there the glory of the divine goodness was most completely disclosed. Judgement was there seen to be a by-product of actions whose aim was purely positive and creative, being the expression of the love of God. This has been put with perfect clarity in the Fourth Gospel:
God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. . . . This is the judgement: that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. (John 3:16-19)
This is an interpretation of history: it tells us what happened when Jesus came among men. And this is what gives meaning to the expression ‘the judgement-seat of Christ’. Behind the symbolism of Doomsday (often fantastic to our minds) this is the truth: that the verdict upon history, and upon all the actors in it, is pronounced simply by confrontation with the Word of God, made flesh in Christ. Those who had stood under His judgement in history, and acknowledged its finality, knew that He must be judge of quick and dead. As the myth of the Creation and the Fall universalizes the experience of Israel in history, so the symbolism of the Last Judgement universalizes the experience of those who found themselves judged by Christ.
One thing remains. The Word of God, as we have seen, has always two aspects: it is the word of judgement, and it is the creative word of renewal. This twofold character is exemplified all through the history of the people of God, and it is taken up into the symbolic myths of the ‘first things’: (The mysterious words addressed to the ‘Serpent’ in Genesis 3:14-15 were taken by early Christian interpreters to imply a veiled promise of the coming of a Saviour. Then in the story of the Fall a word of renewal would balance the word of judgement. This would be in harmony with the general pattern, but there seems no suggestion of it in the actual words of Genesis, which speak only of a ‘ding-dong’ fight between man and the ‘Serpent’.)the Deluge is balanced by the covenant with Noah; the destruction of Babel provides the background for the call of Abraham. What of the ‘last things’? Once again, judgement is balanced by renewal. Doomsday is followed by the ‘new heavens and new earth’, (II peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) the ‘restoration of all things’. (Acts 3:21)
Here we are in a realm very far removed from this order of space and time. Yet even here man’s experience of God’s ways in history gives him some inkling of what lies beyond. When the ultimate state of mankind is symbolized by ‘the holy city, New Jerusalem’, (Revelation 21:2) we have a hint that the values which long strove for expression in the little Jewish community gathered about its ancient city, are finally realized in the ‘new heavens and new earth’; and when its foundation stones are said to be inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles of Christ, (Revelation 21:14) we conclude that the foundation of the Church in history is acutely relevant to the consummation beyond history. Little more can be said. We are in the presence of things beyond all human experience, and the Bible is notably reticent about them. One expression sums up the ultimate meaning of it all, if full weight is given to both noun and adjective: ‘life eternal’. Of its character little is said, except that ‘we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’; (I John 3:2) but this assures us once again that the life of Jesus, once lived in history, the Word made flesh, is the key to the furthest reaches of human destiny under the providence of God.
The ‘prehistoric’ myths, we have seen, have the effect of universalizing the meaning of the history of God’s people: all mankind is comprehended in the fall of Adam; all mankind (and the lower creation) is included in the covenant with Noah. Similarly, the Last Judgement is universal. The logic of the biblical revelation seems to demand an equal universality for the final ‘restoration of all things’. One New Testament writer alone explicitly draws the conclusion. Paul brings to a close his penetrating analysis of the biblical history, in Romans 9 - 11, with the pregnant sentence, ‘God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that He might have mercy upon all (Romans 11:32) As every human being lies under God’s judgement, so every human being is ultimately destined, in His mercy, to eternal life. (This ‘universalism’ has never been generally accepted in the Church, though it has been held by some theologians of credit in antiquity and in modern times.) The thought moves him to awe-struck praise of the divine Wisdom:
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! . . . For of him, and through him, and unto him are all things. To him be glory for ever. (Romans 9:33, 36.) ‘Unto Him are all things.’ It is not only the whole human race that enters into the new creation: for, as Paul puts it elsewhere, it is God’s purpose ‘to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth’. (Ephesians 1:10) The entire created universe is to be ‘redeemed’ and ‘reconciled’ to its Creator, (Romans 8:22-23; Colossians 1:20.) ‘that God may be all in all’. (I Corinthians 15:28) This is the final meaning of the entire process in time.
Such is the supra-historical framework in which the historical revelation is set. Its effect is to universalize the meaning of the revelation which was given to particular people at particular times. The Word which was spoken through the prophets of Israel and made flesh in Palestine in the first century, is the same Word by which the man and his world were created, which is also the Agent of final judgement upon the quick and the dead, and the Mediator of eternal life to all men. It follows that whatever is said in Scripture about God’s relations with men is not to be understood in any restrictive or exclusive sense. If the Bible records that God entered into covenant with Israel, or with the Church, by which He promised them certain blessings and laid upon them certain obligations, that is solid matter of fact, verifiable and datable in history. But it does not carry the inference that the rest of mankind is outside God’s covenant, incapable of receiving His blessing, and under no obligation to Him. On the contrary, we can be sure that God speaks to all men everywhere in judgement and mercy just because He did, verifiably, so speak to His ‘chosen’ people in history. God’s law, which in its final form is the Law of Christ, is not an optional code of behaviour for an intimate circle of peculiar people. It is the eternal moral law to which all men, as God’s creatures, are responsible, and by which their actions in history are ultimately judged.
We should now be in a position to set down certain very broad principles, as foundations for a religious Weltanschauung, or view of life, to which our study of the Bible seems to lead.
1. God is to be met with in and through the world of things and events. We are not called upon to deny this world, or to withdraw from its urgent realities. If we take our stand within the actual, concrete order of history to which we belong as human beings, we encounter God.
2. God speaks to us, however, from beyond this world. There is no question, in the Bible, of a God who is merely ‘immanent’ in the processes of nature with their invariable laws. Certainly, the Word of God is ‘in the world’ which He made. God is revealed in nature. But He transcends nature. His word ‘came’ to men, on occasions which can be dated and localized, and verified by their historical consequences, and each occasion is unique. The ‘general revelation’ of God in nature is to be understood in the light of His ‘special revelation’, the key to which is the ‘Word made flesh’ in Christ.
3. The initiative lies with God. Modern writers have spoken of the Bible as the record of man’s search for God, and so in part it is. But the Bible itself recognizes what is at least as common a trait of human nature -- man’s avoidance of God. (When God walked in the garden in the cool of the day, Adam and his wife hid themselves. Their children are apt to follow their example.) What is chiefly set forth in the Bible is God’s search for man. The Word of God comes often ‘out of the blue’, breaking in upon men’s way of life. As God is not bound by the uniformities of nature, so He is not bound by conditions of preparedness in us. This is most strongly emphasized in the New Testament. It was ‘while we were yet sinners’ that ‘Christ died for us’.
4. The Word of God enters history both as judgement and as power of renewal. This two-beat rhythm is characteristic. It excludes both the optimism which thinks we can ‘join the great march onward’ without paying the reckoning for ancient wrongs; and the pessimism which cannot get over the damnosa hereditas of the irrevocable past.
5. God calls for a response from man, which is obedience. There can be no proper relation between the Creator and man His creature which is not a relation of sovereignty on the one part and of obedience on the other. That is why the final utterance of God’s Word in Christ is described as the coming of His ‘Kingdom’; and why Christ’s response of perfect obedience countersigns His proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and becomes the turning-point of history.
Finally, as we survey the whole process of revelation, we are led to a conception of the life of man in this world as directed by a purpose, which is that of a Mind bent upon the creation of good; making use to that end of a wisdom of infinite subtlety and a power of unlimited resource; respecting the freedom which He has given to His creature; and using history to make Himself known to man and to win his obedience. Such is the conception of God which emerges from the biblical history as a whole. In the New Testament it is summed up, in view of the culmination of that history, in the proposition, ‘God is love’; (I John 4:8, 16) with the implication that such love has at its disposal sufficient power and wisdom to attain its ends.
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