Chapter 23: The Teaching of The Church

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 23: The Teaching of The Church

Apostolicity and Development

Christian doctrine and practice both rest upon the belief that the Word of God is to be found in the New Testament. When Christians differ, as they do, on important questions of doctrine or conduct, e.g. on the significance of baptism or on the issues of wealth and pacificism, their differences go back to different interpretations of New Testament texts or to different evaluations of parts of the New Testament.

As far as Christian conduct is concerned the questions that arise are for the most part connected with the interpretation of the words of Jesus: sufficient of his teaching has been preserved in the gospels to serve today, as it served in New Testament times, for a complete guide to conduct, in the sense that the principles laid down by Jesus need only application to our particular circumstances. Occasional difficulties arise as to which gospel texts represent what Jesus actually said, and the ethical teaching of the rest of the New Testament is often of great value for illustrating the way in which Jesus’ words were understood in the earliest Church and for furnishing examples of their application to the needs of the first converts. The development of Jesus’ moral teaching, however, in the New Testament Church is not of such a kind as to raise many fundamental problems for the Christians of today.

In the case of Christian doctrine the case is different. Whereas Jesus’ teaching on conduct was openly given and dealt largely with subjects which concerned men’s everyday life, the keeping of the Law, marriage, and the use of property, his teaching about the significance of his life, death, and resurrection was for the most part in private and often in veiled terms; much of it was strange and new and was very imperfectly understood when it was given. It is, moreover, extremely difficult to decide how much of Jesus’ teaching about himself that is recorded in the gospels is authentic and how much is the later invention of pious Christian tradition (cf. Chap. 11) Finally Jesus’ teaching about himself was incomplete; the significance of his work could only be understood afterwards in the light of the experience of the Holy Spirit which the disciples were to have at Pentecost and afterwards. The saying in the gospel of John

But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you (Jn.16:26)

may not, as it stands, be an actual word of Jesus, but the truth which it expresses is a real one.

A few Christian scholars have felt the task of establishing what Jesus taught about himself to be so impossible of achievement that they have sought to transfer the authority on which Christian faith should rest from Jesus to the Apostolic Church’s experience of the risen Christ. This is a desperate remedy, for the apostles were not perfect men, as some Christians at least may still ‘salva conscientia’ maintain Jesus to have been both perfect man and Son of God. There is the further difficulty that ‘Apostolic Christianity’ needs further definition than it has sometimes received. It is clear that a process of expansion went on as the apostles themselves grow older and the Christian message had to be made intelligible to men of widely differing religious backgrounds; the epistles of the New Testament give us only the personal expression of their faith by a handful of individuals, only one of them a member of the Twelve, at particular moments in their lives. There is, it is true, a unified pattern of theology that underlies most of them (the epistles of James and Jude are important exceptions) which has been given a particular personal development in each case, but the differences are considerable, and raise the important question of the authority that is to be attached to each personal theological interpretation. To assess the relative value of such interpretations demands in turn a knowledge of the main steps in the progress of New Testament doctrine.

The Christian Life

Although the epistles rarely appeal to the words of Jesus to support their teaching on conduct (yet cf. I Cor. 7:10, 9:14) the memory of what Jesus had said was from the first the formative force that shaped the pattern of this teaching. The influence of the words of Jesus on the epistle of James has already been noted and the preservation in the gospels of so great an element of teaching matter affords proof of the value set on it by the Church. There can be no doubt that the retelling of Jesus’ sayings played an important part in the instruction of converts, and that the circulation of such handbooks as Q (Chap. 6) reflects the importance which was attached to the words of him who was now acknowledged as Christ and Lord.

On the other hand, Jesus had not attempted to lay down a code that would cover every part of men’s conduct. He had shown what were the great principles that were to be applied by men to their lives, and had only illustrated by occasional parables and sayings the motives which should govern men’s actions. To the leaders of the Church fell the task of initiating believers in the implications of these principles for everyday life. They started with the great advantage that for all Jews the Law provided a magnificent code of conduct, which Jesus himself had seen needed only to be interpreted with the right motives and in its deepest sense. The power of the Spirit in the earliest Christian community showed itself at once in a spontaneous sharing of goods and in the creation of an atmosphere of joyful goodwill (Acts 2:45-47). The practical problems that inevitably arose seem at first to have been dealt with by the guidance which the community received from the Spirit and not by the application of any rigid set of rules (Acts 4: 29-35). Yet the growth of a specifically Christian ‘code’ was perhaps inevitable, to guide the convert as to what were the fruits of the Spirit by which he could recognise his own progress.

When Gentiles began to be admitted into the Church the need for such guidance became urgent. Brought up for the most part with very defective ideas of morality, they had to be instructed in the essential ethical parts of the Law before they could understand the Christian interpretation of these commandments. It is probable that the Christians adopted a method of instructing converts and catechising them at their baptism from the similar methods which the Jews seem to have employed at this time for receiving proselytes. The content of such instruction may well have varied in individual cases, but a study of the epistles reveals a certain agreement in the general pattern of ethical teaching which may reflect the existence of a common form of catechism. A feature of this teaching is the apparent influence of Jewish models, and the comparative absence of material drawn direct from Jesus’ words. Yet the teaching of Jesus himself, as can be seem from the epistles, continued to dominate the moral demands of Christian missionaries to Gentiles, and to give a new meaning to the lists of virtues and vices that they drew up (Gal. 5:17-24, Eph.4:2, 4:14-17, I Pet. 3:8-9).

As the Church continued to grow the problem of order within the Church became more serious. Cases of unworthy living (e g.I Cor. 5:1 ff.,Jude 16) and of heresy (e.g. I Tim. 4:1-3, II Jn.7) increased, and the tension between the need for discipline and the love enjoined by Jesus became at times extreme. The adoption of rules and regulations tended to increase (e.g. I Tim. passim) and the spirit of Jesus’ teaching was sometimes only partially remembered, as in the Revelation (cf. Chap. 25). Yet Christian experience of the Spirit, and the constant reminder of Jesus’ teaching at hand in the stable tradition of the words which he had used, preserved for future generations the essentials of what had been the teaching of the apostles without serious change.

Christian Doctrine

The appearance of Jesus after his resurrection and the manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost gave to the apostles a new understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. In the light of their experiences they recalled the words of Jesus which they had found so hard to comprehend during his ministry and which they now saw to have been confirmed by what had happened. When they began in turn to spread their faith and to proclaim the significance of what had happened, their interpretation was along the lines which Jesus had himself laid down in his own explanations of the purpose of his coming. Yet their preaching about Jesus was no mere continuation of Jesus’ own preaching about himself: they considerably expanded what Jesus had taught them and in thus developing his message they unconsciously incorporated some elements which sprang from their own expectation and not from Jesus’ own teaching.

The available evidence for determining the nature of the earliest apostolic preaching is not great. Besides the early epistle of James (Chap. 16.) and Luke’s record of the speeches of Peter (Chap. 12.) there are the epistle to which Peter gave his ‘imprimatur ‘in later life (Chap. 16) and the traces in Paul’s epistles of primitive beliefs which he had received from the Church (e.g. I Cor. 9:23 ff., 15:3 ff., and possibly Rom. 1:1-4, 8: 31-34, Phil. 2:6-11) (Chap. 12.); it is also permissible to draw conclusions from the epistles, not only of Paul, as to the earlier preaching which they presuppose, and to attribute certain features of the gospels, especially Mark, to the influence of early Christian preaching upon the tradition of Jesus’ words and acts.

Such evidence can only be used with caution, but some features of the early Christian preaching stand out which can fairly claim to be apostolic. There is first of all a remarkable ‘variety in unity’: thus different titles are applied to Jesus, who is ‘the Servant of God’ (Acts 3:13), the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14), ‘the Prince of Life’ (Acts 3:15) in Peter’s earliest speeches as well as ‘Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36), and is ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Lord Jesus’ (Acts 7:56, 59) to Stephen, and ‘Son of God’ (Acts 9:20) to Paul. There is nothing surprising in this, for Christians agreed in finding that Jesus was the fulfillment of ‘all that the prophets have spoken’ (Lk. 24:25), and such a united belief inevitably found expression in all sorts of different ways. Yet this use of the Old Testament was not without its dangers for men whose minds were steeped in current interpretations of its prophecies. It seems probable, for example, that the prominence of apocalyptic imagery in even the earliest teaching of the Church was due far more to conceptions of the Messianic Kingdom and the Judgement derived from contemporary expectations than to the restrained and spiritual teaching of Jesus himself. (This subject is discussed in more detail in Chap. 26).

The core of the earliest Christian kerygma (cf. Chap. 5) consisted in the proclamation that Jesus had by his life, resurrection, exaltation, and pouring forth of the spirit been proved to be from God (Acts 2:22, 30-36), that he would return in judgement (Acts 10:42), and that salvation was offered to those who repented and received baptism in His name (Acts 2:38). Proclamation involved also explanation and Christians had to show HOW these things were so, and to relate these simple tenets of faith to the existing beliefs first of Jews, and then, in course of time, of Gentiles also.

The speeches of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament are largely directed to this task of working out a theology intelligible as well as challenging to men with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. The development of Christian thought was gradual and followed many different paths: the Pauline epistles are sufficient indication of the way in which even an experienced Christian missionary could vary his intellectual interpretation of his faith over a mere dozen years. All that is attempted here is to indicate very summarily a few of the needs which compelled a development of Christian doctrine and some of the changes of emphasis in Christian preaching which resulted.

The great majority of the Jews looked forward to God’s intervention in history, perhaps through an intermediary, as they expected also the pouring forth of the Spirit, and they accepted the need for repentance; they were, however, convinced that the Law, and the Temple were permanent elements in God’s revelation, and that God’s acceptance of the Gentiles could only be through bringing them under the Law. The Christians, in presenting the good news to their fellow Jews, therefore made great use of the arguments drawn from Old Testament prophecy (e.g. Acts 2:25-31, 3:22-26) and were enabled to employ many of the already existing conceptions of e.g. the Messiah, the Judgement, in support of their views.

The preaching of Stephen, however, marked a decisive development in Christian thought. The majority of Jewish Christians had held to their observance of the Law and the Temple worship as bound up with repentance, and they continued after Stephen’s time to follow this practice. Stephen seems to have represented a section within the Church whose interpretation of the nature of repentance had led them to see that neither the full Law nor the Temple were essential (Acts 4:14, 8:48 ff.). The precise connection of Stephen’s teaching with the admission of large numbers of Gentiles into the Church at Antioch that followed is uncertain (Acts 9:19 ff.), but henceforth the Church was faced with the double task of explaining its faith to Gentiles who had a very different background from the Jews and the Christian missionaries themselves, and of justifying its action to the Jews.

The first of these tasks involved the working out of a complete theology. The Gentiles needed instruction as to the nature of God and the relation of Jesus to God, the place of the Spirit in the scheme of salvation and what was implied by salvation, how Jesus had won salvation for men, and what were the purposes of Baptism and the Eucharist. Some of these themes must already have been dwelt on in the Christian mission to the Jews, but the new situation called for the transformation of the gospel into a comprehensive system of belief that took into account the Gentile lack of understanding of what was self-evident for Jews.

The working out of such a system was the work of generations, and as men’s beliefs about the world have changed, some of the work has had to be done over again. But within a comparatively few years the foundations of Christian theology had been well and truly laid. The nature of God and man, the relation of Christ and the Spirit to God the Father, the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the nature of the Church and the meaning of Sacraments -- the classical Christian doctrines still follow the lines laid down in the epistles of Paul and John, I Peter, the epistles to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews, and all these epistles were written within the span of half a century. The question of the relationship of these epistles to each other is an intricate one which can never finally be solved. They share certain basic presuppositions and yet often follow different lines of argument, e.g. the interpretations of the meaning of Christ’s death given by Paul and by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews (Chap.18). The Pauline epistles are the earliest, and the influence of Paul’s thought appears to be present in a greater or less degree in the other epistles, but Paul himself owes much --how much we cannot tell -- to his predecessors and fellow-workers in the Church.

One aspect of Paul’s theology among many that are of special importance for the development of later Christian thought may be noted here. Paul makes a real attempt to justify to Jews the Christian mission to the Gentiles: his arguments (Rom. 9-11) presuppose the present rejection by God of his ancient people for their ultimate salvation, but they are connected with Paul’s claim that the Christians and not the Jewish nation are the true heirs of the promise to Abraham (Rom. 4:13-25). Paul’s efforts to convert the Jews to his point of view were seldom successful (e.g. Acts 28:23 ff.), but his stress on the Christian Church being the true Israel of God (Gal.6:16) and his annexation of the Old Testament as belonging to Christians were of tremendous importance for the future of Christianity. A time was to come when the cleavage between Christians and Jews was absolute (cf. the presentation of ‘the Jews’ in John 8:13, 2:8, and Revel.2:9), but the Christians were still to maintain that the Old Testament was their book and that they were its true inheritors (Heb. 1:1-2, 11:1 ff.).

This acceptance of the authority of the Old Testament, which was shared by Jesus himself (Chap. 11), although often open to criticism as eclectic in its choice and interpretation of texts, preserved the Church in later New Testament times from the complete subjugation of its theology by its Gentile environment. This danger was a very real one. The rites of Baptism and the Eucharist, for example, had parallels in the popular religions of the time, especially in the initiation rites and sacred meals of the Mystery-Religions. We read of the practice of such rites in the first century A.D. in Greece, and some of Paul’s Corinthian converts may have witnessed them and have attributed to them a similar significance to that of Christian sacraments; Paul rejects such rites as diabolical (I Cor.10:21), and draws out the meaning of the Christian rites from Old Testament ‘examples’ (I Cor. 10:1-7). The Colossians again seem to have known a heresy which sought to incorporate Christ as one of many instruments of God’s redemption of man (Col. 2:8 ff.), and Paul’s refutation of this heresy is solidly based on Old Testament conceptions as fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:8-15).

On the other hand the influence of Hellenism upon the form of Christian doctrine was very considerable even in New Testament times; to a great extent this was due to the Hellenistic background of many of the Christian missionaries who, Jews themselves, had grown up in the Jewish ‘dispersion’, where Judaism had often undergone considerable superficial modification to make it attractive to Gentile converts. In Alexandria, for example, many elements of Greek thought had been adopted by such Jews as Philo (ob. c. A.D. 42) in their theological expositions, and the prologue of John, with its setting forth of Jesus as the preexistent Word (Greek, Logos) of God, stands in such a Hellenistic Jewish tradition. Another influence which was to be of great importance in later times, but which is not much in evidence in the New Testament books, written as they were for the most part by Jews, was the unconscious effect of Greek ideas upon Christians who came from educated Gentile circles, to whom the Old Testament was a sacred book but had never been a complete basis of religion in itself. Whatever authority we may give to the particular developments of Christian doctrine that are set forth in the epistles, it cannot be denied that the underlying unity of New Testament doctrine rests upon the firm memory of what the Jesus of history had done and taught and the fruitfulness with which Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament was followed in essentials by the early Church.