Chapter 4: The New Testament

The Bible Today
by C. H. Dodd

Chapter 4: The New Testament

Pursuing the historical line of approach which we have followed hitherto, we observe that the writings of the New Testament are concerned with the emergence of an historical community of a new type: the Christian Church.

Beginning as an insignificant group within Judaism, in a decade it was breaking bounds, and showed itself in principle ‘catholic’ or universal. In the space of one generation it was already strong enough in Rome, the metropolis of world-empire, to draw upon itself the unwelcome attention of the government. In two centuries it had become a vast international corporation, challenging the power of the empire, which tried to destroy it, but had to acknowledge defeat. In little more than three centuries the empire was absorbed in Christendom, which was to be the framework for mediaeval civilization. In modern times the Church is still a significant factor in world-history --significant positively and negatively, by way of action and reaction -- and significant now over a wider area than ever before, in spite of serious set-backs in regions where it has been long established. It follows that the emergence of the Church in the first century is an historical phenomenon of first-rate importance.

Like many new movements, Christianity exhibits in its earliest history three successive stages: expansion, conflict, consolidation. The writings of the New Testament connect themselves naturally with these three stages, which may serve to provide a rough chronological scheme.

1. The first stage, that of expansion, began shortly after the death of Jesus Christ at Jerusalem in the reign of Tiberius, and went on without interruption for about thirty years. In the space of a single generation Christian communities were established in most of the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and as far west as Italy: a remarkable achievement for a society which started with a handful of humble folk from the small towns of a petty ‘native state’. (Galilee under Herod Antipas had a status similar to that of a small Indian state under the British Raj. It was thriving and populous, but culturally a backwater. The first followers of Jesus, so far as our scanty information goes, were neither ‘Galilaean peasants’ nor members of the ‘proletariate’. Those of whom we know anything seem rather to have been petits bourgeois: four of them were ‘partners’ in a small family firm owning and operating fishing-boats and employing labour [Luke 5:1-9]; one had been a minor civil servant [Mark 2:14]. None of them, doubtless, had been well-to-do, but the poverty in which we find them living was voluntarily chosen for the sake of a cause. They all had something to lose when they followed Jesus [Mark 10:28]. By metropolitan standards they, like their Master, were ‘uneducated’; but we need not take this piece of intellectual snobbery too seriously [John 7:15; Acts 4: 13]. So much should be said to guard against exaggeration. It remains that as pioneers of a movement which was to cover half the Roman world in a generation the first Christians started with few advantages) . Geographical extension was accompanied by an intensive development which was at least as remarkable. During these few years the foundations were laid, by bold and imaginative thinking, for the massive structure of Christian theology and philosophy which later generations were to build.

This first stage is directly represented by the Epistles of Paul, the greatest of all early Christian missionaries and theologians. The majority of them were written during the most active part of his career, and are full of the enthusiasm, optimism and expansive energy which belonged to a period of spiritual adventure. The same period is indirectly reflected in the Acts of the Apostles, which, though written later, preserves the traditions, and much of the spirit, of the early days.

2. The end of the first period may be fixed at the point where expansion was checked (temporarily) by the repressive action of the Roman government under Nero in the winter of A.D. 64/5. There had been a disastrous fire in the city of Rome. The story got about that the Emperor, who (it was believed) had fiddled while Rome was burning, had deliberately caused the fire, which was at any rate convenient for his town-planning schemes. The government searched for a scapegoat (like the Nazis after the Reichstag fire of 1933) . They fixed upon the Christians. The Church was, in effect, outlawed, and its members hunted down with the greatest brutality.

For thirty years or so, the Christians, though not continually under persecution, were made painfully aware that they held a most precarious footing in a hostile society. The typical literature of the time has little of the buoyancy of the first period. It is constantly preoccupied with the necessity of fortitude and endurance. Such are the First Epistle of Peter, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Revelation of John. While the two former speak as if really severe persecution were a new experience, the last of the three speaks as if martyrdom was the normal expectation of a Christian. It was written towards the close of our period, when active persecution had flared up afresh under the Emperor Domitian.

It was natural enough that the Church, thus brought to bay, should pause to gather inspiration and confidence from the memories of its Founder, and since the inevitable disappearance of the first generation of witnesses was now being greatly accelerated by the persecution, it became important that these memories should be perpetuated in writing. The first attempt at a connected account of the career of Jesus Christ, so far as we know, was the Gospel according to Mark, though short collections of His sayings, and probably parts of His story, were already in writing for use in the missionary work of the Church. Mark composed his Gospel, it appears, in the first years of persecution, and the atmosphere of the time betrays itself in his emphasis upon the example of Christ’s sufferings, and upon the call to ‘take up the cross and follow’.

The Gospels according to Matthew and Luke appeared some years later, but both, perhaps, before the death of Domitian. The former is based upon the work of Mark, and it retains the note of a time of sufferings. But its main purpose is to be recognized in the comprehensive and systematic account which it gives of the teaching of Jesus Christ. It thus provided a firm basis for the internal consolidation of the life of the Christian community which was now seen more than ever to be necessary. The Gospel according to Luke has a different orientation. It is really the first part, or volume, of a work dealing with the origins of Christianity, the second volume being the Acts of the Apostles. The whole work is dedicated to a friendly official, the ‘most excellent Theophilus’. The author is in fact appealing, over the heads of the agents of persecution, to intelligent and well-disposed persons in Graeco-Roman society, in the belief that accurate information about the origins, aims and principles of the Christian Church would do much to disarm the hostility under which it suffered.

3. The murder of the Emperor Domitian in A.D. 96 brought to the throne a succession of humane and enlightened rulers who, though they did not reverse the decision which made the Church, in principle, an illegal society, did much, by administrative action, to relieve its situation. In New Testament writings after this date we hear little of actual persecution. Taught by experience, the Church was by now well aware of the necessity to consolidate its communal life, in order both to present a firmly united front to a hostile world, and to ensure the integrity of its membership in faith and morals. Hence the literature of this period is much concerned with the promotion of order and discipline, and the correction of irregularities of belief and practice. Such are the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ to Timothy and Titus, (It seems likely that these epistles, in their present form, were composed round about A.D. 100, partly out of shorter letters treasured as relics of the great apostle, and partly out of the oral tradition of his teaching and practice.) the ‘General Epistles’ of John and Jude, and the so-called Second Epistle of Peter, which is probably the latest work in the New Testament, not much earlier than the middle of the second century.

While this work of internal consolidation went on, fresh attempts were made to interpret the meaning of the faith to outsiders. In particular, the author of the Fourth Gospel, whose book is to be dated within a few years on either side of A.D. 100, wrote for a public familiar, as he was himself, with much of the best religious thought of the time in non-Christian circles. For such a public he retold the Gospel story in terms which would enable them to understand its deeper meanings, and win their assent. He succeeded in his aim. During the centuries immediately following, the subtle and powerful Greek intellect was enlisted in the task of constructing a Christian theology largely under the influence of the ‘Johannine’ interpretation of the Gospel.

Such is the general sequence of the New Testament writings. The time-factor, however, is less important here than in the Old Testament. The whole literature falls within a century or less. While in the Old Testament we have the long process of over a thousand years, punctuated by a series of well-marked crises, the New Testament presents one supreme crisis alone. The thought of all its writers, with all their diversity, is concentrated intensely upon the events related in the Gospels, and their significance.

The history of the Old Testament, as we have traced it, consists of alternating phases of crisis and development, through which Israel is shaped, under the divine providence, into a people of God. All through, but notably in the latest phase, there is a sense of inconclusiveness and a forward reference. Always Israel is the people of God, and at the same time is not yet the people of God in the fullest sense. The ideal attributes which the prophets applied to Israel are finally understood to await realization in an age yet to come, when God will intervene with a mighty hand to fulfill His purpose. The writers of the New Testament take up these ideal attributes and apply them to the Church. The Church is the ‘Israel of God’. (Galatians 6:16) It is a ‘people for God’s own possessions , (I Peter 2:9) whose members are ‘kings and priests to God’ (Revelation 1:6) It is Isaiah’s righteous Remnant, (Isaiah 10:22-23, quoted Romans 9:27-28) Jeremiah’s people of the New Covenant, (Jeremiah 31:-34, quoted at length Hebrews 8:8-12; cf. II Corinthians 3:4-18.) Ezekiel’s new Israel risen from the dead, (Ephesians 2:4-10; Romans 8:9-11) the ‘ransomed’ (liberated) people of the Second Isaiah, (Romans 3:24; I Corinthians 1:30-31, etc. Daniel’s ‘people of the saints of the Most High’. (‘The saints’ is one of the recurrent designations of Christians, meaning, not persons of perfect character, but members of a community consecrated to God, e.g. I Corinthians 1:2, 3:17, cf. Acts 20:32) . This is not enthusiastic rhetoric. It is a deliberate re-application of prophetic language. It amounts to an assertion that the people of God has now passed through its supreme crisis, and reached its complete and final form.

Paul puts the matter very clearly when he draws the picture of a boy born heir to a great estate. (Galatians 3:23 - 4:7) The estate is his, inalienably, by virtue of his father’s will. But during his minority he has no enjoyment of his property. He is ‘under tutors and governors’, who keep him strictly in leading-strings. He is little better off than a slave. But when he comes of age, he enters into full possession of all that his father designed for him. Just so, the people of God is heir to a spiritual estate, which may be characterized sufficiently for our present purpose as the ‘justice, peace and happiness’ which are the marks of the Kingdom of God. (Romans 14:17) This estate was granted in principle to Abraham, and belonged in the purpose of God to the nation which Abraham founded. But all down the long centuries the heir failed to enjoy possession. His liberty was restricted; ‘justice, peace and happiness’ visited him only in tantalizing glimpses; the Kingdom of God he saw only in visions of the future. But now, the heir is of age: the estate is his in full possession. The Kingdom of God is here. All that God designed for His people is available within the Church of Christ.

This is strong language. If we are to take it as seriously as it was meant, we must be clear just what it affirms and what it does not.

First, these claims are not made for individual members of the Church, each of whom must say with Paul, ‘I count not myself to have apprehended.., but I press toward the mark’. (Philippians 3:13-14) They are made for the Church as a body.

Secondly, they are not made for the Church so far as it is an exclusive body with a limited membership; but for the Church as ‘catholic’ or universal, ideally identified with the whole human race as ‘redeemed’ through Christ. Universality of membership was the most obvious mark of the Christian Church as compared with the Jewish Dispersion. After some preliminary hesitation, it was accepted irreversibly as an essential principle of Christianity: ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free’. (Colossians 2: 1,12; Galatians 3:28) For Paul, the union of those irreconcilables -- Jew and Gentile -- in the one body was a sure pledge of the ultimate unity of all mankind in the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose. (Ephesians 2:11-22) This unity of all mankind in Christ is what the Church means.

Thirdly, the attributes of the people of God (its liberty, righteousness, holiness and glory) do not belong primarily or of right either to individual Christians, or to the sum of all Christians at any one moment, or even to the whole of redeemed humanity in all ages. They are primarily attributes of Christ, shared by Him with those who depend upon Him. The Church is heir to the Kingdom of God, only because it is ‘in Christ’, who is the real Son and Heir of the eternal Father. Christ is a ‘representative personality’, who in some sort includes in Himself the whole people of God, and acts on their behalf. When Paul echoes Ezekiel’s memorable language about Israel being raised from the dead by the breath of God, what he says is that we are dead with Christ and raised with Him. (Colossians 2:11,12, 3:1-4) In other words, it is in Christ, in what He did and suffered on our behalf, that the renewal of God’s people is accomplished. The Church as a body is’ the Body of Christ’; (Ephesians 1:22-23) its members are ‘members of Christ’. (I Corinthians 12: 27, 6:15; Ephesians 5:30) . In the Gospels, Jesus often speaks of Himself as ‘The Son of Man’. This title recalls the ‘one like a son of man’ who in Daniel’s vision stood for ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’, implying once again the ‘solidarity’ of the Church in and with Christ, and His ‘representative’ action on its behalf. This is in fact a large part of the meaning of the title ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’, as it is used in the New Testament.

This brings us to a notable difference between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament recounts episodes in the history of the people of Israel, interpreted and directed through prophetic men. The story is about a community; the interpretation comes through individual insight. In the New Testament the story is no longer, primarily, about a community, but about a Person. It is the story of Jesus, who acts and suffers as ‘Messiah’, as representative of the people of God, and so, secondarily and derivatively, it is the story of the Church as the people of God ‘in Christ’. The emphasis, not only in the Gospels but everywhere, is upon the person and the work of Christ. This gives the New Testament a marked unity and concentration, over-riding all the diversities of its writings. It is not only concerned with a single, brief, momentous episode in history, but it is entirely dominated by a single Personality.

The books of the New Testament were written in response to the changing needs of a swiftly moving situation. Some of them are strictly ‘occasional’ writings, called forth by some passing emergency. All of them are marked more or less by the idiosyncrasies of author, place and time. Analytical criticism has emphasized their differences, and in doing so has often brought into clearer relief this or that element in the thought and life of early Christianity. But to read the documents again, after analysis has done its work, is to be convinced that all these writers not only share a common fundamental outlook, and a common interest in certain broad themes, but also work upon a certain accepted pattern of thought, which shows up, sometimes in direct statement, sometimes allusively, through all the specialized forms of composition, whether story or homily, argument, prophecy or hymn.

This pattern was in fact embodied in what the early Christians called ‘the Proclamation’. The word in our versions is ‘the Preaching’; but an experience of modern preaching might perhaps suggest something different from what the word implied. The Greek word is kerygma. The verb keryssein means to announce or proclaim. A keryx was a town-crier, an auctioneer or a herald (an ‘announcer’, shall we say?) . The kerygma is what he announces or proclaims. The first exponents of Christianity regarded themselves as ‘heralds’ or ‘announcers’, with a ‘proclamation’ to publish abroad. (The correct translation of these terms is given in the margin of the R.V. of the Pastoral Epistles, I Timothy 2:7; II Timothy 1:11, 4:17; Titus 1:3.) Such a proclamation has (as we say) ‘news-value’. In fact, when they were thinking of its content rather than its form, they spoke of it as ‘the Good News’ (in our translation, ‘Gospel’) .

The general form and content of the ‘Proclamations can be discovered from the account given in the Acts of the Apostles of the preaching of Peter and Paul, (See Acts 2:14-39, 3: 13-26, 4:10-20, 5: 30-32, 10: 36-43, 13:17-41.) considered along with other writings, and it can be dated with the help of the Pauline Epistles to the earliest period of the Church. It was not rigidly stereotyped; it had no fixed verbal form; but with some freedom of variation in details it preserved a common and generally recognized pattern. Its scheme was as follows. (for a fuller discussion I may refer to my book The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments.)

1. Fulfillment

The Proclamation opens with an announcement that the long-expected climax of the history of God’s people has arrived. His purpose in it all, disclosed by the prophets, is now fulfilled. This theme is elaborated by references to various passages in the Old Testament. Such passages are freely quoted in almost every part of the New Testament. Usually it will pay the student to look up such passages in their Old Testament context, for they will be found often to throw unexpected light upon the meaning of New Testament ideas. But apart from any particular applications of prophecy, we are to understand that everything else that the Proclamation contains is governed by this maxim: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand’. (Mark 1:14-15) In these terms Mark has summarized the first utterances of Jesus in Galilee. They govern equally the proclamation of His apostles.

2. The Story

The fulfillment took the form of a series of events, which are recounted as they were handed down by the first witnesses. The way in which this was done we may gather from such an example as the speech put into the mouth of Peter at his interview with the friendly Roman officer Cornelius of Caesarea. With almost telegraphic brevity it reviews the salient facts of the story of Jesus:

You know the thing that happened throughout all Judaea, beginning from Galilee, after the Baptism that John proclaimed: Jesus of Nazareth -- how God anointed him with holy Spirit and power: who went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him; and we ourselves are witnesses of all that he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem; whom they killed by hanging on a tree. This person God raised up on the third day, and permitted him to be visible, not to the whole people, but to witnesses chosen in advance by God -- namely to us, who ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead. And he enjoined us to proclaim to the people and to affirm that this is he who is appointed by God judge of living and dead. (Acts 10:36-42) This looks like notes for a speech rather than the speech itself: a kind of outline for preachers. It appears that Paul is quoting from the closing paragraphs of some similar précis in writing to the Corinthian church about A.D. 54:

I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the Twelve. . . . So whether it is I or they, this is what we proclaim, and this is what you believed. (I Corinthians 15:1-11)

These bald summaries, in which we recognize already the outlines of the narratives in the Gospels, could no doubt be filled in with detail according to the speaker’s ability and the demands of the occasion; but it was essential to the Proclamation that the plain facts of the case should be communicated, because it was these that constituted the fulfillment of God’s purpose in history. We shall return to the story presently. Meanwhile we pass on to the next section of the Proclamation.

3. The Consequences

The outcome of the events narrated was the emergence of the Church itself as the new ‘Israel of God’. It was marked as such by the gift of the Spirit. The prophets, we may recall, had spoken of the Spirit of God as the power which would give new life to His people in the age to come. (The early Christians affirmed that this had come true. They were conscious of living in the presence and power of the living God; in immediate contact with deep and permanent springs of life in the unseen world. In so far as that was

pure inwardness of spiritual experience, it does not abide our question, or our analysis. But in making the gift of the Spirit a part of their public proclamation, the early Christians did not intend to rest their case upon essentially incommunicable inward experience. They meant to say that here was a new kind of community life, exhibiting the marks of inward spiritual power in its freedom, unity, and constructive energy. In view of the actual achievements of the Church in its early days, these marks could not be denied.

The Church also appealed to ‘signs and wonders’, or in other words, ‘miracles’, as proof of the power of the Spirit. In these days we are embarrassed by alleged miracles: but they are on the record, and we must take account of them. ‘I will not venture to speak’, writes Paul, ‘of anything but what Christ accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles into obedience, in word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of Holy Spirit.’ Again, in a catalogue of ‘gifts of the Spirit’, he includes ‘works of power, gifts of healing, [unusual] kinds of speech’,’ as if they were everyday phenomena of Church life. That is first-hand evidence that extraordinary things did happen, which were taken, bonafide, to be ‘miraculous’. We may think that if we had been there, with our present knowledge, we could have explained them by ‘natural’ causes (such as ‘autosuggestion’, ‘telepathy’, ‘extrasensory perception’ -- if indeed such terms do explain anything) . But it remains that we were not there and Paul was.

It is however significant that in the passage just quoted his point is that while these ‘works of power’ no doubt have their value, they are far from being the most important or essential marks of life in the Spirit. More important are the gifts of wisdom and knowledge which the Church possesses ‘by the same Spirit’ (I Corinthians 12:28) and we have already noticed the astonishing intellectual achievements of the first two generations of Christian thinkers) . Most important of all is the gift of ‘charity’ or ‘love’, (I Corinthians 12:31-13:3) in the sense of an outgoing energy of goodwill towards all men (not affectionate sentiments) , expressed in definite ways of action, within the community and in its external relations.

In ‘proclaiming’ the Spirit, therefore, the Church was speaking of overt facts, and referring them to their unseen cause, the immanence, or ‘indwelling’, of the Spirit of God. For the first Christians never supposed that they would ever have been competent, of themselves, to bring such a community into being. It was the work of God, through Christ. As the ‘outpouring’ of the Spirit had come, unsought, in consequence of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, so the ‘indwelling’ of the Spirit was the means by which He continued to form, guide and govern His Church out of the unseen world, where He was now invested with divine authority ‘at the right hand of God’.

Christ in heaven: His Spirit dwelling in the Church on earth: that meant that there was continuous ‘two-way traffic’ between the seen and the unseen. The powers of the eternal world invaded the world of time, and human life was transfigured with the glory of the unseen. This sense of the immediate imminence of the eternal order, and of Christ’s supreme authority exerted out of the unseen world, took form in the belief that at any moment He might ‘come again in glory’ and bring history to an end. The first generation, or many of them, expected that this would happen well within their lifetime. It did not happen. The faith of the Church adapted itself to the disappointment of its first expectations with little disturbance, beyond a deepening of the conviction that through the Spirit Christ had already ‘come again’ to His people, (John 14:16-23) to reign over them for ever ‘until the consummation of the Age’. (Matthew 28:20) Meanwhile, ‘to depart and be with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23) was the natural sequel to a life ‘in Christ’ here and now.

4. The Appeal

Finally, the Proclamation led up to an appeal to the hearers to give their personal assent to the ‘Good News’; to implement it by turning in repentance and trust to God, who by His ‘mighty works’ had made a new people for Himself; and to signify the same by baptism into the fellowship of the Church, thereby accepting God’s forgiveness and entering into new relations with Him.

In this ‘proclamation’, then, we have the shape into which the formative convictions of Christianity were cast by its first exponents. It underlies every part of the New Testament. But there was something more to be said. The proclamation set forth an act of God by which He established a ‘new covenant’. A covenant necessarily involves obligation. In the Old Testament, after God had ‘redeemed’ His people by His ‘mighty acts’ at the Red Sea, He bound them by covenant to obey His Law, which was given at Sinai. And so, in the New Testament, the ‘new covenant’ set up through the work of Christ, carries with it a ‘new commandment’. (John 13:34; I John 2:7-11)

There is a Christian Law (Galatians 6:2) as well as a Christian Gospel. But the New Testament has a fresh understanding of the nature of law. The Jewish ‘law of commandments contained in ordinances’ (Ephesians 2:15) (as Paul defines it, with his accustomed precision) is abolished. It was bound up with local, national, and essentially temporary conditions which a universal religion must shed.

Those followers of the prophets, however, who had collected, codified and developed the so-called ‘laws of Moses’ believed that in them they possessed the clue to something deeper and more permanent: the eternal Moral Law itself; the pattern of God’s will for His creatures. Moreover, they were quite aware that this ‘law’ was not confined to ‘commandments contained in ordinances’. Indeed our word ‘law’ is not an adequate equivalent for the Hebrew term, Torah, which it represents in our versions. (Translation is an art in which complete success is impossible, since it is rarely that corresponding words in different languages cover precisely the same range of meanings.) Torah means, by its etymology, something like ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’. In Old Testament usage it means instruction in the ways of God and His demands upon men, whether given by means of positive precepts and statutes, or by other means. Although the Five Books of Moses, containing the codes of Hebrew Law, are specifically called the Torah, the prophets often speak of their own teaching (delivered not as their own, but as the ‘word of the Lord’) as Torah, though it never had statutory force. It was an exposition of the ways of God with men, carrying implications about His demands upon them.

Thus the term ‘law’, in the New Testament as well as in the Old, is capable of a range of meaning wider than properly belongs to the English word. We might define it as an interpretation of the character of God and His relations with men, in terms of His moral demands. Hence the Law of Christ is fundamentally an interpretation, in terms of ethical obligation, of the character of God as disclosed in the person and work of Christ. This is often indicated in the actual form of the precepts given in Gospels and Epistles alike. ‘Love your enemies.. . that ye may be sons of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:44-45) ‘Be ye merciful, as your Father is merciful.’ (Luke 6:36) ‘Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God also in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32) Such precepts clearly depend for their full meaning upon the ‘proclamation’ of what God has done for men through Christ.

Since the work of Christ can be comprehensively described as the expression of the divine charity, or love, towards men, the whole of the Moral Law can accordingly be summed up in the ‘new commandment’--‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34) But the truth can equally well be expressed without using imperatives at all. ‘God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.. . . We love, because He first loved us.’ (I John 4:16, 19) This may be said to be the final statement of the Law of Christ, though it is in entirely non-legal terms.

It would however be misleading to suggest that the ethical teaching of the New Testament is sufficiently represented by some such very general proposition (as if it were enough to say ‘Love, and do as you like’) . In Gospels and Epistles alike we have a considerable body of explicit directions for Christian conduct. If we consider (say) the Sermon on the Mount, or such examples of apostolic ethics as Romans 12-14, or Ephesians 4-6, we recognize a distinctive method of moral instruction, which differs from contemporary models, whether Jewish or Greek. We are not given a series of deductions from a general rule (like -- shall we say? -- Aristotle’s rule that virtue lies in the mean, a maxim which he shows, over the space of several books, to be exemplified in the virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and the rest) . Nor, on the other hand, are we given a code of precise rules of observance, adapted, so far as possible, to cover all contingencies (which was the aim of Jewish Rabbinical teaching) . We are given a survey of a large variety of typical concrete situations in which people find themselves, and these situations are set in the light of what God has done for men in Christ.

Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount we are introduced to the problems (among others) of quarrels and law-suits, marriage-relationships, political oppression, the accumulation of wealth and the insecurity of the poor. In Romans 12-14 we have in part a different set of problems, which arose as the Church grew and spread abroad in a pagan society: such as those of individual and social distinctions within the community, relations with friendly and with hostile pagans, the State and its demands, and so forth. In Ephesians 4-6 we have in addition the specific problems of family life and of the relations of masters and slaves. With all brevity, the situations are presented in a concrete and realistic way. But observe the setting.

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul has spent eight chapters in an elaborate exposition of the ‘Gospel of God’, an exposition enriched with considerable learning and with a penetrating psychological insight, but always based directly upon the ‘Proclamation’. Next, in chapters 9 --11 he places the Gospel in the context of a philosophy of history and relates it to a doctrine of divine providence. Then and not till then, at the beginning of Chapter 12, he opens up the theme of Christian ethics, in the words, ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God . . .’. In the word ‘therefore’ lies much virtue: it implies that the direction of Christian action, in the variety of situations to be reviewed, is always to be determined by reference to what God has done for us in Christ.

There is a most striking example of this in Chapter 14, which discusses in detail a situation where sincere Christians then differed conscientiously upon matters of conduct (Sabbath-keeping and vegetarianism) . We know only too well the devastating results which can follow from an intolerant insistence upon conscientious convictions. We know also that at times it has been only through a relentless insistence upon such convictions contra mundum that the truth has been saved. There is a perennial problem. Paul does not provide any cut-and-dried solution. He insists that the problem shall be considered in the light of these two principles, derived from the Gospel itself: ‘No one of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. . . . Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord; indeed it was for this that Christ died and rose again, to become Lord of living and dead’; and, ‘You must not ruin . . . him for whom Christ died’.

In the Epistle to the Ephesians, again, we have first, in chapters 1-- 3, a long passage which deals, by way of contemplation rather than argument or exposition, with the great themes of the Gospel, and then, in logical dependence upon it, a passage of ethical instruction, beginning at 4:1.

Here we may take as an outstanding example of method, the treatment of marriage. (Ephesians 5:25-33) ‘Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for it.’ From this starting-point an entirely new conception of married love is developed, arising directly out of a consideration of what Christ did for us. It is here, and not in any abstract principle, that the Christian doctrine of marriage has its roots.

The Sermon on the Mount, similarly, begins with the Beatitudes, which proclaim the blessings inherent in the Kingdom of God. As we have seen, one way of putting the results of the coming of Christ, and particularly of His death and resurrection, is to say that the Kingdom of God, with all its benefits, has thereby become accessible to men. Thus the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount are addressed to those who have ‘received the Kingdom of God’, or, in other words, have entered into the New Covenant. Indeed, we might say that every such precept depends upon a major premiss -- ‘The Kingdom of God has come upon you’. (Matthew 12:28; Luke 10:9) Since this is so -- ‘Love your enemies, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 44-45) (sonship in God’s family being an aspect of the New Covenant) . Since this is so -- ‘Be not anxious for the morrow. . . but seek first His Kingdom and righteousness’. (Matthew 6:25-33) ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matthew 7:1) -- since the Kingdom of God, with all its blessings, comes also as judgement.

Among the precepts of Christ in the Gospels, and the precepts with which they are illustrated and supplemented in the Epistles, there are few which could be applied as positive rules, to be followed mechanically, and enforced if necessary by legal sanctions. They indicate the direction which Christian action must take, and the standard by which it must be judged. The Gospel precepts, on the whole, differ from those in the Epistles in making no attempt to accommodate Christian obligation to the practical possibilities of the human situation. They represent the ‘absolute ethics’ of the Kingdom of God, which is ‘not of this world’, though it comes in this world. We are not to suppose that we are capable in this world of loving our enemies (or even our neighbours) , to the full measure in which God has loved us; or of being as completely disinterested and single-minded, as pure of worldly desire and anxiety, and as unreserved in self-sacrifice, as the words of Jesus demand; and yet these are the standards by which all our actions are judged. The obligations, in fact, which the New Covenant lays upon us can never be exhausted: man’s reach must always exceed his grasp. ‘When you have done all, say, "We are unprofitable servants; we have only done our duty".’ (Luke 17:10)

Thus the Law of Christ serves to keep conscience awake and to nerve the will for effort and conflict. Its effect upon one who takes it seriously is well expressed by Paul, in a passage where he has defined the meaning of the Christian life precisely in terms of the Gospel, as sharing Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to His death, and experiencing the power of His resurrection. He goes on:

I do not consider that I have yet attained; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and stretching out to what lies before, I press on towards the goal, for the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:8-14)

Such is the Law of Christ, as it was conceived by the writers of the New Testament: an interpretation, in terms of ethical obligation, of God’s ways with men in Christ. The authoritative basis of interpretation was found in the teaching of Jesus Himself. He left nothing in writing; but His sayings, like those of Jewish Rabbis of the time, were remembered and transmitted by word of mouth by His disciples. Later, as the Church grew, the work of instructing converts in the Christian ‘way’ (as it was called) was entrusted to an accredited order of ‘teachers’. For the purposes of this ‘catechetical instruction’ collections of Sayings of the Lord were compiled, in which His words were translated out of their original Aramaic into Greek, and arranged, sometimes with explanatory additions, to meet the changing needs of different communities.

Written compilations began, probably, almost as soon as the Church moved into Greek-speaking regions. (It is a moot point whether Paul cites the Sayings from a written source or after oral tradition. That he and his converts knew an authoritative body of such sayings is certain. The way in which he makes use of it is illuminating. Writing to the Church at Corinth, about A.D. 54, upon some disputed points of Christian behaviour, he settles the question by quoting an ‘injunction of the Lord’, where tradition attests such an injunction. In other cases he has to be content with giving his own ‘opinion’, guided, as he believes, by the Spirit. It was thus that the system of Christian ethics grew up. [See I Corinthians 7:10 --13, 25.]) They continued to be made until well on in the second century, upon the basis of still floating oral tradition. Some of the oldest and best authenticated collections of Sayings of the Lord were used in the composition of the Gospels, particularly the first and third, which taken together give a fairly full conspectus of the teaching of Jesus Christ. Other New Testament writings, however, also presuppose an extensive acquaintance with the Sayings, though they are not usually quoted in express terms, but referred to allusively. A close Nerbal study of such writings as the Epistle of James, the First Epistle of John, and the ethical sections of most of the Pauline Epistles, is needed to show how deeply embedded in the teaching of the early Church was the tradition of the words of Jesus which gave authority to it all.

Here then are the essential ingredients of the religion of the New Testament: the Gospel of Christ and the Law of Christ. Both are assumed as fundamental in Gospels and Epistles alike. Both, obviously, have meaning only as they are referred to the historical personality, and the work, of Jesus Christ. The Gospel has its centre in the story of Jesus; the Law derives its authority from His teaching. It remains to review briefly the historical episode of which He was the centre, and to try to understand its place in the process of history which we have been following.

We have seen that the prophets recognized a pattern in the history of their people, which betrayed its divine meaning. History, they said, means God confronting man in judgement and mercy, and challenging him with a call, to which he must respond. This pattern recurs in the story of the Gospels.

The Jewish people were once more under foreign domination. Rome had appeared in Palestine, first as an ‘ally’ of Jewish princes, then as a ‘protecting power’. Finally, Judaea was reduced to the position of a province governed by an imperial official, while the rest of the country was left to native princes responsible to the emperor.

A certain number of Jews, principally those of aristocratic priestly families, accepted the situation, and tried, by a cautious subservience to the conquerors, to preserve such partial autonomy as Rome allowed, under their own leadership. The substance of their power consisted in tenure of the high priesthood and control of the Temple. (They are the ‘chief priests’ and ‘Sadducees’ of the Gospels.)

At the other extreme stood a body of patriotic malcontents. While Jesus was a boy, they had risen in revolt under one Judas the Gaulonite. The revolt was put down with ruthless thoroughness: hundreds were crucified. But from then on an ‘underground front’ (the ‘Zealots’, as they liked to be called) kept the government on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile the most respected religious leaders (the ‘scribes and Pharisees’ of the Gospels) advocated a policy of passive submission, combined with an ever-tightening internal discipline, until it should please God to intervene and ‘set up His Kingdom’, as the prophets had foretold. The discipline by which the nation was to be consolidated was based upon a scrupulous observance of the Law of Moses, as expounded and amplified by the ‘scribes’.

Popular piety and patriotism at once were fed upon ‘apocalypses’ which depicted the approaching downfall of the enemies of Israel and the aggrandisement of the chosen people. Some of them combined such hopes with visions of the End of the World. Others kept nearer to the level of common experience, forecasting a great victory granted miraculously to a divinely appointed leader, the ‘Messiah’, who should then reign in righteousness over an Israelite empire. How far these fantastic visions of the future were countenanced by the leaders of religious thought we cannot say with certainty. What is certain is that

‘Messianic’ expectations kept the minds of the people in a ferment. The scribes might counsel a humble waiting for God’s appointed time, but for the ‘man in the street’ that meant no more than postponing for a while the fulfillment of the same national ambitions, and the satisfying of the same national grudges, which the Zealots proposed to settle out of hand by ‘direct action’.

It was a situation of almost intolerable tension. Political and religious animosities distracted the country. Roman governors tried in turn conciliation and intimidation, but it made little difference. Hatred of the ‘heathen’ embittered the whole of Jewish life, while fear of their power bred an increasing sense of frustration. There could be only one issue, failing some far-reaching change of heart. As Jeremiah saw with a tragic inevitableness the approach of the Babylonian conquest, so Jesus saw divine judgement impending over His people by the sword of Rome: ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish’. (Luke 13:1-5. ‘In like manner’, i.e. as the context shows, you will be overwhelmed in the ruins of Jerusalem and perish by the sword of Rome.) The warning passed unheeded. A generation later the unceasing feuds within the nation led directly to a hopeless rebellion and its foredoomed result. Jerusalem was destroyed, never to rise again, to this day, as a Jewish city. The Jewish state disappeared from history.

Such is the background of the Gospel story. We must recognize that behind these sordid struggles there lay a real conflict of ideals. Rome may have laid a heavy hand upon turbulent peoples, but the Roman peace was a boon to a large part of the human race. Yet Jewish thinkers were right in believing that they possessed in their own national tradition something of higher value than a secular civilization could offer. The Zealots, fanatical as they were, had no ignoble cause to fight for, and they gave an example of uncalculating courage in a not very heroic age. The narrowness and rigidity of the Pharisees were designed to safeguard, in circumstances of extreme difficulty, an area within which a high religion might be practised in its purity. Even the worldly Sadducees might have put up a plausible case for their policy of ‘appeasement’. Yet the total situation was pregnant with disaster.

Into this situation Jesus entered. Nothing is clearer in the Gospel story than His increasing isolation among the contending forces. It was not that He courted hostility. He had friendly relations with individuals in all the rival groups. He mixed socially both with devout Pharisees (Luke 7:36; 14:1) and with the ‘publicans’ (Mark 2:14-17; Luke 19:1-10) who collected taxes for the hated foreign government. He recruited one of His twelve assistants from the Zealot party. (Luke 6:15. [Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:8 give the Aramaic equivalent ‘Cananaean’ {not ‘Canaanite’}.]) One of His most loyal friends belonged to the circle of the High Priest. (John 18: 15: the Greek implies something more definite than mere ‘acquaintance’.) He was glad to make the acquaintance of a Roman officer who approached Him, and He expressed admiration for his simple soldierly outlook. (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10) His favourite associates, it is true, were found among those who were for one reason or another treated as ‘outsiders’, (Matthew 11:19; Luke 15:1-2.) and this in itself made Him suspect to the stricter sort of Pharisee. He offended them even more deeply by His criticism of their elaborate use of religious observance. They insisted upon it as an indivisible whole; He distinguished between essentials and non-essentials, singling out, in words which pointedly recalled a famous prophecy of the Old Testament, ‘justice, mercy and faith’ as the ‘weightier matters of the Law’. (Matthew 23:23; cf. Micah 6:8) The moral authority which He assumed was resisted by the official ‘scribes’. (Mark 1:21-22, 2:7, 2:23-3:6) . He offended the priestly aristocracy beyond pardon by actively interfering with the use of the Temple courts as a public market and exchange, which brought them in a handsome revenue. (Mark 11:15-19, 27-33) The patriotic party He alienated by refusing to deny the emperor’s claim to tribute from the conquered (Ma rk 12:13-17) -- the very point on which the revolt of Judas the Gaulonite had turned. At the same time He made it easy for His enemies to denounce Him to the Roman government when He allowed the populace to acclaim Him as a deliverer. (Mark 11:8-10; cf. Luke 23:2) . Thus it came about that all the rival parties agreed for a moment to hunt Him to death, before turning again to their unending quarrels.

It would however be a mistake to conclude that these almost incidental collisions are sufficient to account for the isolation of Jesus. In contrast to the relative and partial ideals for which the various groups contended, He stood for something absolute: the Kingdom of God. Many of those who heard Him speak of it were accustomed to think of the Kingdom of God as that which would come at long last, when all the highest human hopes would reach fulfillment, and God’s purpose for man would be achieved. This desired consummation they conceived more or less crudely, more or less vaguely, more or less worthily, according to differences of mind, temperament and training. At its highest it meant this at any rate: God at last revealed to men in His power and glory, shaping human life to His will, and transfiguring it in the light of His presence. For the rest -- ’ Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man’. (I Corinthhians 2:9; Paul quotes the passage, as we are credibly informed by ancient scholars, from a Jewish apocalypse which has since been lost.)

Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’; ‘The Kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9, 11 Matthew 12:28) -- it is here!

Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it. (Luke 10:23-24)

There was no evidence of its coming, of the kind that people had imagined; no vast revolution in human affairs, no cataclysm, not even a sudden and far-reaching moral reformation. Admittedly the coming of the Kingdom of God was a ‘mystery’. (Mark 4:11) Jesus could only tell them what it was ‘like’, using the most homely illustrations. It was like hidden treasure, (Matthew 13:44) like corn that grows to ripeness ‘man knows not how’, (Mark 4:26-29) like a feast, (Matthew 22:2-10) like catching fish, (Matthew 13:47-48) like leaven working in dough, (Matthew 13:33) like an employer paying wages at the end of the day.’ (Matthew 20:1-15. For a discussion of the meaning and application of these parables I may refer to my book The parables of the Kingdom.) The illustrations are designed to provoke thought rather than to close the question. But it is clear that they have one common point of reference. In one way or another they refer to what Jesus was doing, and to the effect of what He was doing upon the total scene. It was in Jesus Himself and in His impact upon the situation that the Kingdom of God came upon men; that God was revealed in His power and glory, to shape human life to His will. It is this that the Gospels are telling us when they draw attention to the ‘authority’ with which Jesus took command of men and their destiny, and to the immense power of His ‘compassion’ to heal and renew.

It is this, also, that they are telling us when they relate ‘miracles’ that He performed. In the Fourth Gospel we are taught to think of these less as prodigies than as ‘signs’, that is to say, symbolic actions, having a meaning deeper than their ostensible effects. For example, the Feeding of the Multitude is to be understood not simply as a matter of staying the hunger of a large crowd on an inadequate supply of ‘loaves and fishes’, but as signifying the satisfaction of spiritual need with the ‘bread of life’. (John 6:26-27.)

With this clue we can see that, whatever we may make of particular ‘miracles’, the miracle-stories as a whole are saying precisely this: that where Jesus was, there was some incalculable and unaccountable energy at work for the dispersal of evil forces and the total renewal of human life; and that this was nothing less than the creative energy of the living God. ‘Incalculable and unaccountable’, I say, for the narratives constantly betray a baffled wonderment; but not magical or irrational, because they are congruous with the account which Jesus gave of the character of God: the ‘Father in heaven’, who is ‘good’ with a goodness beyond justice, (Mark 10:18; Matthew 5: 45; Luke 6: 35; Matthew 20: 1-15) supported by sufficient power; (Mark 10: 27, 14:36) and who persistently takes the initiative in giving good gifts to His creatures. (Matthew 6:25-33) This account He made credible through the effect of what He was and what He did.

Thus the Kingdom of God is no longer a visionary ideal, or a remote goal of the historical process. It has broken into history to establish a living centre of creative energy, embodied in the action of Jesus Himself; energy that makes a decisive impact upon those who come within His orbit, and transforms events and situations, because it is the power of the living God. Here indeed was God confronting men with His call.

The response to it was at the outset mainly negative. Jesus met with opposition everywhere, because the evil inherent in the situation reacted against the presence of a goodness beyond human measures. The specious virtue, which, as we have seen, could rightly be claimed by all contending parties, was mixed up with the basest vices of our nature: greed, spite, envy, cowardice, treachery, brutality, and the rest. As Jesus moved through the scene, these evil things declared themselves. All through the narrative we are aware that men are coming up for judgement before Him; nowhere more clearly than in the story of His arrest, trial and execution as a criminal and a rebel. It is a masterpiece of dramatic irony; for while ostensibly Jesus is on His trial before council, king and governor, we are clearly aware that the real prisoners in the dock are Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, the priests and the blind mob, as well as the traitor Judas and the disloyal disciples who denied and deserted their Master. This (as we read in the Fourth Gospel) is the Judgement of the World. (John 12:31)

We now turn back to the interpretation of history which we found in the prophets. They said that when the Kingdom of God comes, it comes in judgement; it must be so, in a world rebellious against His will; and judgement is marked by disaster and suffering. But here is judgement in paradoxical form; for the suffering is borne by the One who, Himself innocent, judges evil by His very goodness.

The New Testament writers offer a clue to the paradox by referring us to a famous prophecy of the ‘Second Isaiah’. There is every reason to believe that the reference is due to Jesus Himself. In a series of poems the prophet described the ideal ‘Servant of God’: his character, calling and work. The last of these poems depicts his fate.

He was despised and rejected of men;

A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

And as one from whom men hide their face

He was despised and we esteemed him not. . . .

He was oppressed, yet he humbled himself

And opened not his mouth;

As a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

And as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb;

Yea, he opened not his mouth. . . .

And they made his grave with the wicked

And with the rich in his death.

(Isaiah 53:3,7,9; quoted Acts 8:32-33)

Such is the fate that awaits, in a world like this, the true Servant of God, who lives only to do His will. He bears in his own body the consequences of other men’s ill-doing, which are the appointed judgement upon sin.

Surely he hath borne our griefs,

And carried our sorrows....

He was wounded for our transgressions,

He was bruised for our iniquities.

The chastisement of our peace was upon him,

And by his stripes we are healed.

(Isaiah 53:4,5.)

For suffering thus borne, willingly and without resentment, becomes a means towards the healing of wrongs, and the ultimate victory of good over evil.

This prophetic picture of the suffering that heals came true in the sufferings of Jesus. The whole weight of the evil that was resident in the situation fell upon Him. He bore it willingly and without resentment, and by doing so set healing forces to work. Here at last the two sides of the divine action in history, which the prophets described as God’s judgement and His mercy, are organically related. On the one hand, the story of the sufferings of Jesus is the story of the Judgement of the world (in the sense already explained) . On the other hand, it shows us (through the way in which the sufferings were borne) what was the nature of that divine energy which worked in all His actions. It was indeed a goodness beyond justice. It was sheer goodwill towards all God’s creatures, taking no account of fitness or desert, and refusing to be worn down or turned aside by any recalcitrance in its objects. In brief, it was the love of God.

Those who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus could see no more than the miserable end of a defeated man. Indeed the picture, as framed within that moment of time, is one of sheer disaster. So it appeared to the followers of Jesus. But no moment in history stands by itself. Two days later they saw it all in a quite different perspective. The Gospels end with the resurrection of Jesus; and it needs no great penetration to see that their whole story is leading up to this conclusion, which alone gives meaning to it.

To the first Christians, the resurrection of Christ meant two things principally. It meant first that the Master whom they had deserted at the crisis of His fate forgave them for their desertion and returned to give them a second chance. (This is especially clear in John 21; how Jesus came back to Peter who had denied Him.) When they lost Him, and lost Him by their own disloyalty as well as by the act of His enemies, life seemed at an end. His forgiveness was a new beginning.

Secondly, His resurrection meant that the crucifixion could no longer be regarded as a meaningless failure. It was the appointed means towards final victory -- God’s victory over all the evil things. Death and resurrection: they saw that this is the pattern into which history falls, as God’s purpose is realized in it. The prophets had divined the truth. It was now manifest. The pattern of history was ‘fulfilled’. In judgement and mercy, through disaster and renewal, God confronted men conclusively, with a call that could not be evaded. Some few responded in faith and obedience, and the new order began.

It was thus that the Church came into existence. It started, not because the followers of Jesus, impressed by His teachings, decided to organize a society to perpetuate them, but directly as the result of the twofold event of His death and resurrection. In this event they now saw the act of God inaugurating the ‘new covenant’, through which His people entered into newness of life.

They recalled how at the last meal they had eaten with their Master before His crucifixion He had spoken of His approaching death. Taking a loaf, He had broken it and distributed it to them, with the strange words, ‘This is my body, which is [broken] for you’; and taking a cup of wine, He had said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’. (I Corinthians 11:23-25. Similarly Mark 14: 22-24 Paul’s account was written down at least ten years earlier than Mark’s. He expressly tells us, not only that he had communicated it to the Corinthians when he visited them [50 A.D.] but also that he had received it by a tradition that went directly back to Jesus Himself. This is excellent historical evidence. I have bracketed the word ‘broken’ because some of the best manuscripts omit it, but it is implied in the action of breaking the bread which accompanied the words.) They now understood His meaning better, and as a standing testimony to the truth, they repeated at their meals of fellowship what Lie had said and done. ‘Whenever’, wrote Paul, ‘ye eat this bread and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death.’ (I Corinthians 11:26) And so the Church does still, reviving continually the living memory of the event -- a memory that runs back to the time before there were any written records of it, when men spoke of it as they had seen it. There could be no more striking witness to the historical actuality of the things with which we are dealing.