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Lecture Tenth. General Characteristics of the Evolution Christianity in Post-Apostolic Times.

That the New Testament contains all the Germinal Ideas of Christianity — Limitations of this Statement — Do Ideas necessarily lose their Purity in being Realised? — Why they seem to do so — How far Christianity is opposed to the Religion and Culture that existed before it — How far its Development is a Conquest, how far an Assimilation, of Foreign Elements — Its Struggle with Jewish and Greek Influences — In what sense Christianity is Original and Unique.

WE have now dealt with the earliest development of Christianity as it is exhibited in the New Testament; and, therefore, with the formative process in which Christianity first showed its distinctive characteristics, and defined itself as a system against other systems of thought and life. For, though the development of Christian ideas and institutions did not cease with the completion of the New Testament writings, yet these, in a peculiar sense, determined the future direction of that development, and supplied for all after-times the criterion by which what is Christian was separated from what is not Christian. On the other hand, almost all the elements which are found in the New Testament have shown themselves to be essential to the Christian life; and it is by their conflict and reconciliation that that life has been continually enriched and widened. Great as have been the changes through which the growing organism has passed, in contact with the ever-changing conditions of its environment, they have never carried it beyond the sphere of the original Christian idea, as it is expressed in the writings of its earliest apostles. Or, to put it perhaps more accurately, the idea so expressed has always been able to maintain itself against the influences that threatened it, and to turn them into the means of its farther development.

At the same time, this statement must not be taken in any narrow dogmatic sense. We cannot limit the man by the characteristics of the child, though we may recognise in the child an original energy, an assimilative force, which is able to react upon the environment, and to subdue it into a means for the development of its own life to the full stature and power of manhood. In like manner, we may recognise in the ethical and religious ideas of the New Testament, in the general view of the relations of men to each other and to God which is there given, the productive principle of the whole subsequent development of Christianity. But we cannot do so, if we insist on any literal and exact correspondence with the first forms of Christian thought and life; nor if we refuse to leave room even for the complete decay of those forms and the rise of others in their place. If we look for such outward marks of that which is to be recognised as Christian, we shall soon lose the thread of continuity For, as I pointed out in a former lecture,1 development is not a superficial change, in a being which otherwise remains unchanged. What it presupposes is an identical principle of life, which is capable of maintaining itself through the transformation of every part of the organism it animates. The facts of development, therefore, are a continual perplexity to those who look for some external sign or manifestation of unity, which is unaltered and unalterable. Theologians have often interpreted the dictum of Vincent of Lerius, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, in the sense that there was some ‘form of sound words,’ or some fundamental institution, to which the existence of Christianity was permanently attached. But every such criterion would inevitably break down in the face of the free action and reaction of historical development, and would exclude important forms of life which yet have manifestly sprung from the same living principle.

To give even the barest sketch of a process of this kind, involving so many and great ebbs and flows of change, is obviously impossible within the space still left to me. All that I can hope to do is, in this lecture, to indicate the general nature of the development in question; and, in the two following lectures, to describe the leading features of the two main periods into which it may be divided.

We may begin by dealing with a plausible objection Some writers, like Renan, are fond of the thesis that ideals necessarily become degraded when they are realised, like light passing through a cloudy medium. The pure vision of a prophet or saint arises in his soul only as he turns his back upon the miserable reality of life; and when he returns to the world again, and seeks to realise under the ordinary conditions of experience what he has seen in the moment of inspiration, he cannot prevent his idea from being subdued to the element in which it has to work. The injunction, “See that thou make all things according to the pattern showed thee in the mount,” cannot be obeyed; for no earthly stone and lime can be built up into the perfect image of the “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Hence the fate of great ideas is always that, in becoming efficient, they enter into impure combination with facts and become vulgarised; or that they get fixed and fossilised in dogmas, and lose their inspiring power; or, finally, that they become subordinated to the institutions which were at first meant for their support. The idea creates the institution, and the institution crushes the idea. Thus, after a few generations, the steady vis inertiae of the world—the constant tendency of the natural understanding to misinterpret spiritual truth, and of the unregenerate will to substitute sensuous and selfish hopes for the desire of spiritual good—gradually drag down the idea to the level of the instruments it has to use, and the minds it has to inspire; until, at last, it may even become a matter of doubt whether mankind has gained anything from the new spiritual impulse it has received.

Now such a pessimistic view of things may be morbid and distorted, but there is a certain element of truth in it; as is proved by the history of Christianity and of every great movement that has affected the spiritual life of man. As in the natural world the seed has a fulness of life in it, which is found again only in the fruit; and as the first step toward development always involves a certain loss or dispersion of energy—a certain surrender to the modifying power of the environment, which cannot be overcome except by, in the first instance, yielding to it—so it is here. When a new principle begins to transform the life of humanity, it finds everything apparently alien and adverse to it. The whole order of social existence, the whole system of thought, seem to have been constructed upon another basis. Custom, tradition, the prevailing tendencies of speculation, the main interests of action, all seem to be moving from a different starting-point, and towards a different goal. In such circumstances, two results are bound, by an all but inevitable necessity, to follow. On the one side, the new principle becomes narrowed by antagonism, which forces it to show its negative and destructive rather than its positive and constructive side; and, on the other hand, in order to act effectively, the principle has in some degree to be brought down to the level of that which it seeks to change. It thus tends at once to exaggerate its opposition to the other tendencies of the time, and, in its contact with them, to lose some of the purity of its first expression. In fact, these two things, though apparently opposed, are closely connected with each other. For controversy is apt to narrow a principle, and to deprive it of the full riches of its moaning, just because it tends to reduce it to the mere negative of that to which it is opposed. In conflict with each other, men exaggerate their differences, and thereby make their own views more abstract and one-sided. Hence the high hopes of those who were the first preachers of a new truth become gradually extinguished in their successors, who, at the same time, lose the liberal and comprehensive spirit of the earlier time.

Such degradation of an expansive faith into a narrow dogmatism, of the spiritual enthusiasm excited by the infinite possibilities of a new principle into a bitter party spirit for a defined and rigid creed, is a process that has bee so frequently exemplified in the history of the world, that it may be regarded as part of the normal course of things. And, in this point of view, it may be admitted that the progress of man is a continual disappointment. The ideal that seemed, to those who first apprehended it, certain to revolutionise the moral world, and transform the whole spiritual life of man into its own image, is found continually, as it were, to lose and disperse itself in the struggle with something in the nature of things that hinders, and that cannot be ‘taken out of the way.’2 And, what is worse, the ideal itself seems to shrink up in the hands of those who apply it, till it is little better than the reality it would transform. Hence, even if it conquers, its victory is not what its first advocates expected. What would Luther have said to the divided and dogma-ridden Protestantism of the seventeenth century? Or what would the early Christians have thought of the church of the Middle Ages? Would they have recognised in such a result the end for which they had hoped and laboured? Would they have owned it at all as that which they had been seeking? What they expected was both a completer and a speedier triumph. They expected that in a few short years the church would have overcome and transformed the world, and that the Messianic kingdom—the kingdom of heaven on earth—would have been set up. But, after twelve centuries, they would have found the opposition between the church and the world emphasised and hardened into an abstract antagonism; and the conquest of the latter by the former so far removed from the expectations of Christian men, that it had even become a fixed article of belief that the Christian ideal of their union could only be realised in heaven. The gospel word, ‘The kingdom of God is amongst you, therefore realise it here,’ becomes changed into what is almost its opposite, ‘The kingdom of God is in heaven, therefore seek it there.’

If, however, it be said that the meaning of all this is simply that ideals never can be realised, or that what is anticipated by men in their hours of prophetic insight is ‘too good to be true,’ I think that an answer to such a view may be found in the idea of development, as that idea must be interpreted in relation to the history of man. Here are there are especially two things which have to be taken into account. One is that no spiritual principle is ever so new, and therefore so alien to its environment, as at first it appears to be. A new idea can only reveal itself in the fulness of time, as the result of a process of history which has been preparing the minds of men for its reception. Hence the character of the civilisation amid which it presents itself, can never bo altogether unfavourable to it. It could not succeed at all, unless there was something in the spirit of the time which affected even its opponents and weakened their resistance. While, therefore, it is natural that the antagonism of the new principle to the ideas that rule the world into which it enters, should be at first exaggerated, both by its supporters and its opponents, into an absolute opposition, the opposition can never be really absolute; for, if it were absolute, the principle could not have presented itself to the mind of man at all; or if, per impossibile, it had presented itself to the mind of one man, he could have had no success in communicating it to others. Thus even Christianity, new as in a sense it was, was no idea suddenly launched into the world from heaven without any connexion with the previous process of human development. It was, and it presented itself as, a ‘fulfilling’ of the law, as an answer to the prophetic hopes of Israel, arising partly out of these very hopes themselves. It came to the Jews only when their thoughts had been universalised, first, by the teaching of the prophets, and then by contact with the Persian and the Greek civilisations; and when finally, by the all-levelling power of Rome, they had been made to admit practically, if not theoretically, that no nation can be isolated from humanity. Christianity was simply the universal principle of religion, coming to self-consciousness in the nation which was ripest for the apprehension of it. Hence in its conflict with the exclusive patriotism and the still more exclusive religious prejudices of the Jews, it had the deepest spirit of the nation on its side. It was the just claim of Jesus Christ that, in order to accept his teaching, all that was necessary was to “discern the signs of the times”; as it was his reproach to the leaders of the Jewish nation that they, the wise and learned, did not discern them. Yet this blindness did not absolutely exclude all consciousness whatever. The very bitterness and exasperation with which the Scribes and Pharisees opposed and sought to crush the new doctrine was partly a result of that sense of weakness, which is inevitably felt by those who are fighting against the spirit the time, and therefore, one may even say, against themselves.

In like manner, when Christianity went beyond the bounds of Judaea, it found, no doubt, in the thought and life of Greece and Rome, many elements that repelled it and conflicted with it but these elements were, as a rule, the remains of a wornout civilisation, or, if not, they were elements not essentially hostile to Christianity. Classical antiquity had broken its idols before Christianity told it to throw them away. The whole tendency of thought for ages had been to throw down the physical and intellectual barriers between European nations, and even, finally, the still greater barrier between the imaginative intuition of the East and the logical reason of the West. Hence the alternate struggle and compromise between Christianity and the Jewish and Greek systems of thought, which was the first consequence of their contact, was not the indications of any hopeless incompatibility between them, but only the fermenting of the ‘lump’ under the action of the leaven that was to transform it. Fierce as was the conflict, it was one in which each of the adversaries might be said to be contending with itself as well as with its opponent; and in which, therefore, reconciliation was in the long run inevitable, so soon as the due relation of the interests on each side had been discovered.

And this leads me to say, in the second place, that in no such case, and especially not in this case, are we to regard the conflict of principles as one in which all the truth is on one side; even though it be the case that on one side we have the principle of the future, and on the other, the principle of the past. Christianity, indeed, had in it the universal principle of religion, a principal which included all others, and to which no other could, strictly speaking, he opposed as a rival. And in the words of Jesus this principle seems to have found a simple and comprehensive expression in which room might be found for almost every modifying truth. Farther, we have seen that the whole movement of the life of Jesus, up to its culmination in his death, was such as to make it the most vivid of all possible symbols of the truth he taught. But, even admitting all this, it has to be observed that in the life and words of Jesus the truth was presented only in its principle, or, what is the same thing, in its moral and religious essence. Perhaps—if the word principle be taken in the sense of a universal law—we should rather say that it was not yet presented even in its principle, but rather as involved in an individual life, and identified therewith. Now, there is a long way between the intuitive perception of the truth as realised in and expressed by an individual, and the reflective appreciation of it as an idea which is related to other ideas. And there is a still longer way from such appreciation to the application or development of it as organising principle, which transforms or new-moulds the whole order of human life. The religious consciousness grasps the idea of God, so to speak, in its unevolved totality, and thinks that in that it has everything. It has a feeling or anticipative consciousness of the whole, i.e. not only of the principle but of all that can come out of it; and often this consciousness seems so rich in itself, that every step to definite thought or action, every step towards analysing the truth or drawing particular practical consequences from it, appears like a degradation of it. And, in a sense, it must be a degradation; for every such steps takes men down from the first fulness of immediate vision and feeling into the region of conflict and controversy: nor is it possible for them by one single decisive effort to traverse the whole distance that separates the implicit fulness of the beginning from the explicit fulness of the end. But, on the other hand, though the beginning contains everything—in the sense that it is the germ of everything—and though for this reason Hegel could say that the immediate consciousness of the religious man has in its simplicity an infinite worth, because an infinite content, yet it has this in it only as an undeveloped potentiality. In this point of view we must regard the apparent degradation of which I have spoken as a real step in progress; we must recognise this temporary falling; away from the completeness of the truth as necessary to the realisation of it; and we must even look upon the narrowing of a principle to a dogma, as part of the process through which it has to show its power as a principle. For it is impossible that without this descent into the region of conflict and controversy, the principle can make its way into the life of the world and transform it. To be applied, it must be generalised; though, in being generalised, it is in danger of becoming abstract and lifeless. When generalised, it must be set against other principles; though in being so set, it necessarily becomes narrowed, because it presents itself as an alternative to that which it really includes and transcends. It must for a time put itself on the level of that against which it is contending; though this necessarily causes too great emphasis to be thrown on its negative aspect as against other principles, and too little on its positive relation to them. In all these ways, the development of a new religious idea seems to involve the gradual loss of it in the medium which it seeks to penetrate; and it is only when we look to the end that we can see that such loss is instrumental to a higher gain. Thus, as we have already seen, St. Paul, in trying to break the shell of Judaism within which Christianity at first concealed its universality, was led to stretch the antithesis between faith and works, between grace and the law, to a point at which he obscured the continuous development of the former out latter. And in doing so, he partially entangled himself in the web of rabbinical scholasticism, and substituted a drama of abrupt contrast and startling catastrophe for the serene wisdom of the parables of the kingdom of heaven—the parables of the leaven, the mustard seed, and the tares and the wheat. But Christianity, if it was to absorb what was good in the Jewish system, must find in the armoury of Judaism itself the weapons with which to confute it.

Again, no sooner did Christianity break away from the Jewish form in which it was first expressed, than it was exposed to a new danger from the culture and philosophy of Greece. And some writers are inclined to maintain that here also, as in relation to Rome, the Greek genius ultimately vindicated its superiority and brought its victor into subjection to itself. In other words, it is maintained that the doctrinal forms of the theology of the early church owe more to the metaphysical systems of Plato and Aristotle, of the Stoics and the Neoplatonists, than to Jesus or St. Paul. And it must be acknowledged that there is a partial truth in such assertions. As Philo platonised Moses, so Origen and others may be said to have platonised, or neoplatonised the Gospel. The dualism, the asceticism, the transcendentalism if we may so call it, in which the later Greek philosophy sought refuge from a religion that deified nature, became confused with the Christian idea of self-sacrifice and the Christian doctrine that it is through such sacrifice that God reveals Himself in man. Hence Christianity seemed for a time to lose hold of the positive relation of nature to spirit, and to identify itself—as against the impurities of heathenism and its direct recognition of human impulses as divine—with a philosophy which lost God in the absolute, and bade man cease to be human that he might become one with the divine. In other words, it seemed on Greek ground to adapt itself to a form prepared by Greek philosophy, and, in some degree, to become confused or identified with one of the two great tendencies between which Greek life was divided. And the influence of this neoplatonised Christianity was not a temporary phenomenon, but maintained itself through many ages. Indeed, in some respects we may say that its reign is not yet quite at an end.

At the same time, we have to remember two things: first, that it was impossible that Christianity should thoroughly overcome the dualism of Greek thought, until it had fully entered into it, and even masked itself in the appearance of one of the principles that combated within it. And secondly, that throughout the struggle, the idea of the ultimate unity of the human and the divine, of nature and spirit, was never wholly lost; though it was working, as it were, underground, and showed its influence rather as a check upon the extreme developments of dualism and asceticism than as a positive principle on which the theory and of practice of human life could be based. Of this I shall speak more fully hereafter: for the present I need only say, that the process whereby the antagonism which Christianity had to reconcile, was deepened till it became an all but absolute division, was not a needless one. On the contrary, it was essential, in order that that solution might be adequate and explicit, and that it might be brought into complete relation with the difficulty it had to meet. For Christianity, if it is the only religion that corresponds to the idea of religion, is just for that reason the most complex of all religions; and it therefore needs for its explication the longest and most painful process of development—a development which, in a way, reproduces all the struggles of previous religions with themselves and with each other. But this does not mean that in such struggles it wastes itself away, or becomes broken into fragments. It means, indeed, that in the course of its development its meaning as a whole, or the principle that underlies it, often seems for a time to be obscured and all but lost. But, as it is a religious idea which is bound up with the very constitution of the human mind—as indeed it is simply the idea of God which underlies all our consciousness of the objective world and of self—so it never can be completely hidden from men, after it has once dawned upon them. As Emerson says:

“One accent of the Holy Ghost

The heedless world hath never lost.”

Such an idea once uttered, as it was uttered by the founder of Christianity, cannot die out of the human mind: it remains in it as a persistent stimulating and modifying power, a brooding consciousness, which will not let men rest in any partial truth, but urges them constantly with a silent, unhasting but irresistible force, to the correction of their errors and the supplementing of their defective thoughts. It is only thus that the religious consciousness in all its complex content can be developed; only thus that it can break away from the imperfections of its germinal form and, by the conquest of all the different elements contained in it, can restore its original unity with itself, enriched by all the conflicts through which it has passed.

We may express this thought more briefly by saying that there are two periods in the history of an idea: one in which it shows itself as a tyrannical force that seeks to crush all rivals, and to substitute itself in their place; and another in which, secure of victory, it begins to make room for its former opponents within the domain it has conquered. And it may be added, that the really beneficent power of a great idea is not shown till it has reached this second stage. If modern life has built and is building itself up on the basis of the Christian principle, yet that principle is no longer what it once was—an invasive force that offers to every spiritual power the alternative of submission or extinction. During the lone development of its doctrine, it was already making efforts to reconcile itself with Greek philosophy; and, both before and after the Renaissance it learned to accept the aids of art and humane letters. It admitted at the Reformation that its sway must be exercised through the freedom, and not through the slavery, of the intelligence of man; and, as a necessary consequence, it has ever since been gradually learning, in politics and literature, in science and philosophy, to allow free play to many forces which, throughout the Middle Ages, were kept in leading strings. Its universality has been shown in the past, and must be shown still more in the future, by its being able to reproduce, as grafts on the new stem, all the forms of human development that were fostered by the civilisation of the ancient world, and to bring them to a higher perfection then they reached in their independent state. But, no doubt, in order to achieve this end, it has had to emancipate itself, and will have still further to emancipate itself, from every element that is not essential to it; and especially to get rid of the narrowness and the dogmatism into which it was driven at the time when it was struggling for its existence with the imperial despotism of Rome, with the invasive culture of Greece, and with the with the anarchy of barbarism.

The general result of the preceding remarks is that the broken, wayward, and often apparently reactionary course of the history of the Christian church, is not inconsistent with its being a real movement of progress. Christianity, as intuitively presented in the life and words of Jesus, and as elevated to the form of reflexion by St. Paul, contains in itself a religious idea whose compass and meaning is no less than infinite. It is indeed the principle underlying all religion which in it comes to self-consciousness. Yet, on the other hand, it has to be admitted that this principle was as yet only stated in the most general way, and not worked out to its consequences. In spite of the force and fulness of expression which the Christian idea had attained in the New Testament, it still, in the apostolic age, remained to a great extent undeveloped. It could not yet be seen what changes would come of its application to all the various interests of the intellectual and moral life of man. It was only a germ thrown into an alien world, which it had to conquer and transform. Or, to express the same thing in other words, it was still merely a religion, and not yet an ethics and a politics, an art and a philosophy. And the process by which it Was to take possession of all departments of man's life, must necessarily be a very gradual and difficult one. For the application of a great principle to human life is never a simple analytic movement of thought from premises to conclusion; but always a very complex process of growth, involving a constant struggle with the environment, and an assimilation of fresh materials from it. And this, of course, must lead to the progressive discovery of new meanings in the principle itself, meanings which could not have been understood by those who first received it.

Hence, while in one point of view we may call Christianity the absolute religion, in another point of view, the absolute religion was only prefigured in it, at least in the form in which it appears in the New Testament. The first century only brought mankind in sight of a goal, which it required and requires all the long process of history to reach. At first, for the immediate disciple of Jesus, the Christian religion was simply the growing consciousness of a new form of spiritual life typically presented in his master,—a consciousness which became clear and definite only when the type was completed by the death of the individual in whom it was embodied. By St. Paul the new idea was partially liberated from its first form, as loyalty to an individual human teacher; it became devotion to a risen Christ, who was lifted above all the limits of mortality. But the universalising and idealising effort of St. Paul and St. John, which first showed that Christianity contained a universal gospel for Jew and Gentile alike, was but the beginning of a long process of development, in the course of which Christianity was brought into contact conflict with all the elements of the earlier civilisations of the world. And it was only by mastering and penetrating all these elements, and finally by absorbing them all into itself, that it could approve its claims to supremacy to be just. Or, looking at it from the other side, we may say that it was only by reconciling itself with these extraneous influences that it could pass beyond the inevitable one-sidedness of its beginning, and become truly a universal religion. For a principle cannot show itself to be universal, so long as it stands in opposition to any other principle, and does not find room for that other in its own domain. Thus the progress which, from one point of view, was the triumph of Christianity over other systems, may, in another point of view, be regarded as their triumph over the imperfect form in which it first realised or expressed itself. It is only in so far as we can recognise that, out of all these conflicts, Christianity has returned upon itself, and reproduced in its ripened form the simplicity the naturalness, and the comprehensiveness of the spirit of Jesus, that we can truly speak of it as the universal religion. And this might also be described as the merging of the special stream of Christian development in the great current of human progress. If therefore, the history of Christianity is the proof of its divine authority, it is so only in the sense that ‘nothing human is alien to it’; and that, therefore, it is able to rise again to a wider life by means of the very development of human thought which has been fatal to its special dogmatic claims.

And this leads me to say, finally, that the absoluteness or uniqueness of the Christian religion can lie in nothing but just this, that its appearance constitutes the most important and decisive crisis in the history of the religious consciousness of man, the culmination of ancient and the beginning of what we call modern history. For the great division we usually make between these two periods rests entirely on the supposition that the advent of Christ is a critical turning-point in history, beside which no other can be placed. And it was such a critical turning-point, just because in it man rose to an idea of himself and of his world toward which all the movement of the ancient world had been converging, and from which all the modern world has started. Yet this ‘uniqueness’ of Christianity can only be, if we may use the expression, a relative uniqueness. For not only is it the case that to every age its own crisis necessarily seems the decisive one, but in a sense every such crisis is unique, unlike every other in the whole course of history. The development of man is one continuous process, by which he is brought to a consciousness of the world, of himself, and of God, and every step in that process is equally essential to the ultimate result. Thus the idea of development explains the preponderating claim of Christianity as the principal factor in man's religious life; but, at the same time, it makes us understand what is meant by St. Paul's admission that there is a limit to it as to all the other claims, and that even Christ must “deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father,” that “God may be all in all.”3

  • 1. Vol. I. p. 171 seq.
  • 2. 2 Thess. ii. 7, “He who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”
  • 3. 1 Cor. xv. 24, 28.