Christianity began as the faith of Christ's disciples who believed themselves to have been constituted God's messianic community, the new and true Israel, by the gift of the Spirit from their ascended Lord. It seems probable that to begin with they thought of Christ as absent in heaven above the clouds, that the Spirit had been sent to bind them together as His people, to be the link between the Lord in heaven and His people on earth, until He should return in judgment to claim them as the true Israel. Meanwhile they were to preach the gospel, make as many converts as they could, and baptize them into the fellowship of the chosen people.
The Christian Church began as a Jewish sect. Many years ago I was helped to understand its relation to official Judaism by considering the position in the Church of England of an organization called the Church Socialist League. This was composed of members of the Church of England who in the sphere of economics were agreed that the means of production and distribution of consumer goods should be publicly owned. In any parish in which there was a branch of the League its members would attend the regular services and make their communions at the parish church; they would come together to the altar for corporate League communions and hold intercession services to pray for the furtherance of the cause; they would also have their own meetings at which they would hear speakers and read and discuss papers confirming them in their economic and political convictions. Doubtless they would have held that if their fellow churchmen rightly understood the meaning of the gospel they would see that it implied acceptance of socialism in economics and politics. Just so the original Christians, firm in the conviction that true understanding of Judaism implied acceptance of the Christian faith, continued to take part in the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem and of synagogues elsewhere, as well as holding their own meetings for prayer, for the baptism of converts, and for eucharistic worship.
To be a member of the Church Socialist League one had to be a member of the Church of England. Now suppose that in Penzance or Penrith the local branch found many sympathizers among Baptists and Congregationalists, and began to admit them to membership on the ground that this true understanding of the gospel was of more importance than their ecclesiastical allegiance. It is easy to see how when the news reached the head office in London the fat would be in the fire, how letters and emissaries would be sent down to condemn the unconstitutional action and bring the unruly branch into line. It was a crisis of this kind which was provoked by reports reaching Jerusalem of St. Paul admitting uncircumcised Gentiles as Christians.
The endorsement of St. Paul's action was the first of three major developments in the life of the Church which came within the New Testament period. The second, for which it paved the way, was the separation of the Christian Church from official Judaism, evidenced by the Johannine use of the term ‘the Jews’. The third was me realization that Christ was not to be thought of as absent above the clouds but was spiritually present with them, ‘unseen yet ever near’.
A parallel may be drawn between the dawning of this realization and the earlier recognition of Christ as messiah. He had been with His disciples as friend and teacher for some time before St. Peter was moved to express their faith: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’. So again it took time for them to realize that His ascension had not meant His absenting Himself from them. To what extent this may have come through their experience in ‘the breaking of bread’, a fruit of their obedience to His command: ‘Do this in remembrance of Me’, it is impossible to determine.1 All suggestions in this field are hypothetical reconstruction of possible history. What is certain is that in both Pauline and Johannine writings Christ is spoken of as present here and now with His people: the Church is His body; He is the vine of which its members are the branches.2 Already, before the close of the New Testament period, the Church has the characteristic described by Sir Ernest Barker:
The community is in no sense a transcendent being which stands above the individual and determines his being and his duties in terms of its own higher nature.… A common content of many minds does not involve a common mind—at any rate when we are thinking sub specie humanitatis and dealing with the sphere of our transitory human groups. (The conception of a Church in which there is an indwelling Spirit of God belongs to a different plane of thought. But we only confuse thought, with sad and tragic results, when we take what belongs to one plane and transfer it to another and different plane.)…
The Christian conception of a Church goes further than this. God has not simply left a Word in custody with a Church, which is thereby made unique, in virtue of the unique character of its common substance, among all other forms or varieties of community. He Himself remains in the Church, and His Spirit dwells perennially in its members. In the community of the Church there is a Being which transcends the members, and yet is immanent in them. Here we may speak of an organism, as St. Paul did.3
So Christianity began as the faith of a body of men and women conscious of being the messianic community, the new and true Israel, the inheritor of God's promises to His chosen people charged with the duty of preaching the gospel of God's forgiveness ready and waiting for all who would repent of their sin, and accept the crucified, risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ as messiah, baptizing into the fellowship those who responded to the preaching. The question is sometimes asked whether it was a man's faith or his baptism which made him a member of the Church. This is the kind of question to which no direct answer can be found in the New Testament because the circumstances which give rise to it had not yet arisen. No one, unless driven by his faith, would have thought of joining, or remaining in, that small, despised, persecuted, poverty-stricken sect; if anyone had the faith, he would seek to be baptized into the fellowship. The question of the relation to the Church and to one another of the baptized unfaithful and the faithful unbaptized was one which would emerge later. It is no good asking what St. Paul or the Church of New Testament times thought or said about it.
The idea that Christianity began as the faith of a number of individual followers of Jesus who afterwards banded themselves together to form the Church is now dead as a matter of history. The messianic background of the gospel story makes it clear that in His calling and training of the twelve Apostles Christ had in mind the constitution of the messianic community.4 Great difference of opinion remains on whether He gave the Church any definite internal structure: whether in particular He gave the Apostles any definite position in regard to jurisdiction or the ministry of word and sacraments, whether in the New Testament Church there was any office corresponding to the later episcopate from which that episcopate is descended by a sequence of consecrations.
It would take me too far afield to go into all the evidence on these points which is differently interpreted by different historians. I must simply set down the conclusions I have come to after giving what study I can to the subject.
First, I think we may take it as certain that Christ intended to constitute the messianic community as a continuing earthly body. By the new covenant in His blood He established the Church as the true Israel, an earthly body charged with the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. It was to grow and spread by converting men to penitence and faith, baptizing them into the fellowship of forgiven sinners, building them up in Christian faith, and maintaining their spiritual life by the sacrament of His body and blood. In this sense the universal Church was prior to the local churches.
Secondly, I think we may take it as certain that Christ called and trained the twelve Apostles to be the leaders of His Church, and entrusted it to their guidance and care. This involved something more than the responsibility of preaching the word as those who had been the companions of His ministry and His chosen witnesses—a responsibility which in the nature of things could not be handed on to successors. It involved also responsibility for what we call jurisdiction, including both the general government of the Church, the ordering of its sacramental and liturgical life, and its spiritual discipline. But I am not convinced that Christ constituted the Apostles His representatives and authorized them to pass on that representative character to others in such a way that He could not repudiate actions which they or their successors might claim to do in His name, or that He abrogated His right to raise up, call and commission others to do His work if they or their officially appointed successors should be unfaithful. Neither am I convinced that the later episcopate is adequately accounted for either by the theory of the elevation of chairmen of colleges of presbyters or by the settlement in local charge of dioceses of men who from the start had been specifically appointed as representatives and successors of the Apostles. In those days, when quite possibly most Christians looked for the return of Christ in their own lifetime or soon after, why should we expect the organization of the Church to proceed everywhere on the same lines? Why should we treat the evidence for the enthronement of leading presbyters and the evidence for the consecration of apostolic men as rival accounts of the same events, one of which must be preferred to the other? It seems to me most reasonable to conclude that what from the second century onwards became the standard method of providing for the continuance of the ministry was standardization in accordance with what had been one of various methods in use in the pre-history of different dioceses.
Thirdly, I believe that a false antithesis underlies the question whether the ministry is derived from the Church by the secretion of certain of its members for certain functions, or the Church formed round the ministry by accretion. Whether we are thinking of apostles, apostolic men, and presbyter-bishops or of bishops, priests and deacons, it makes nonsense to set the ministry over against the Church and ask which is prior to, or dependent upon, which. If from the start the messianic community, the Church of the new covenant, was a community with a ministry, each needed the other in order to be itself; if the Church needs the ministry in order to act as the body of Christ on earth, the minister must be acting as minister of the Church if he is to have any claim to be acting in the name of the Lord. If any questions are to be raised about ordinations in non-episcopal churches, parallel questions must be raised about ordinations by episcopi vagantes.
From the evidence provided by what the New Testament writers thought and said about it we have been trying to discover what the Church in their time actually was. Since then it has had a chequered history, and in the divided Christendom of to-day many different bodies claim on different grounds to be most truly one with that on which, according to Acts, the Spirit came at Pentecost. We must take a brief glance at some of the main views of what should be the nature of the unity and continuity of the Church down the ages.
In the literature issued in preparation for the World Conference on Faith and Order held in Edinburgh in 1937 there was a paper by Dr. Karl Barth.5 As I understand this paper, Dr. Barth maintained that essentially a church is a group of men and women united by common faith in Christ. This faith is not simply agreement in holding certain beliefs about Christ, it is what last year I called fiduciary faith, the acknowledgment of Christ's lordship and the surrender of self to Him. It is, moreover, a gift of the ascended Christ Himself, who gives the Spirit to bind together His followers by faith in Himself. Being in this faith-relationship to Christ is what constitutes a church. Some passages in the paper seem to suggest that at different times, according as their faith comes and goes, the same group of people can be and not be a church. Here on earth the church appears and disappears after the manner of the Cheshire cat.
At first sight there might seem to be little or no unity or continuity in the life of a church which exists in diverse groups of men and women according as from time to time they are possessed by faith of this kind. But no Christian believer can lightly dismiss the theory on this ground. To the Christian there can be no more assuredly objective reality than the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ, ‘the same yesterday, to-day and for ever’. What more objective ground of unity with the Church in the upper room at Jerusalem could we have than to be united with Christ by the Spirit so that He is the link between that Church and this? Why should we need any further doctrine of the Church beyond that given in this Barthian paper?
The answer is that it is inadequate to the biblical revelation. God's revelation of Himself in His redemptive activity has taken the form of commissioning a body of men and women to be the instrument of His working for the rescue of His creation from all kinds of evil. I shall have more to say about this in a few minutes' time. For the moment it is enough that this Barthian theory, taken by itself as the whole truth of the matter, ignores the results of historical study of the New Testament which shows Christ to have reconstituted the Jewish ecclesia as the Christian Church, thereby surely intending it to have a life with some kind of unity and continuity as an earthly body in space and time. Nevertheless, it calls attention to a side of the truth which we neglect at our peril.6
What does it mean to say that the Church of to-day should be one with the Church of the New Testament? I was once listening to a conversation between a German Lutheran and a French Reformed theologian. The former said: ‘The difference between us Lutherans and you Calvinists is this. You think that because the Church in the New Testament was presbyterian, therefore the Church must always be presbyterian. We say that this is misusing the Bible. The Bible is not given to us to be a manual of church order, but as the word of God's grace to sinful man, and in each age and place the Church is competent to adopt whatever order will lead to the most effective preaching of that gospel.’ The Calvinist would join with the Lutheran in holding it essential that the Church of to-day should be one in faith with the Church of the New Testament, but would lay greater stress on its also reproducing its order. A catholic theologian would agree with the Calvinist that the Church should be one in order as well as in faith, but he would not be content to think of this oneness as reproduction. Indeed, for him, precise similarity to the order of the New Testament would not be essential. His concern would be for continuity rather than for likeness, that in ministry, membership and faith the Church of to-day should be what the Church of the New Testament has become, remaining the same Church through changes incidental to a continuous process of growth.
Thus the emphasis on different elements has varied in the three main traditions in western Christendom. They hold in common that from the start Christianity was the faith of a body of men and women with an organized corporate life; that to be a Christian was to be sharing in the fellowship of that community; that the Church should be to the world to-day what that Church was to the world of its day; that, indeed, it should be not only like that Church but the same Church. Where they differ is on the relative importance of different elements in sameness.
This is not the time or place to consider the arguments put forward in support of their differing positions. But in the history of their discussion a question has arisen which requires our attention.
I distinguished last year between the intellectual and the fiduciary senses of the word faith.7 When we say that the Church of to-day should be one in faith with the Church of the New Testament, it is important to make clear which sense of the word we have in mind, whether we simply mean believing as a matter of fact, with all that it implies theologically, that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God's messianic promises to His chosen people, or whether we mean the surrender of ourselves to His lordship. I think it would be true to say that in the history of Christian thought protestant theologians have laid greater stress than catholic on faith in this second sense of the word as constitutive of the Church. For the catholic the Church corporately should maintain its oneness in faith down the ages by professing the truth about Christ, thus providing the intellectual basis for the fellowship within which its members are to make the surrender of themselves. So far as faith is concerned, by the maintenance of its creed the Church can still be the Church even though the majority of its members fail to live up to its requirement of surrender. For the protestant this failure destroys something so essential to the being of the Church that what remains no longer deserves the name.
In the sixteenth century this question came to a head. Reformers felt that the corruption in the existing catholic church had reached such a pitch that it would be blasphemous to speak of it as the body of Christ.
If we shall allow them for the true Church of God that appear to be of the visible or actual Church, consisting of the ordinary succession of bishops, then shall we make Christ which is an innocent lamb without spot and in whom is found no guile, to be the head of ungodly and disobedient members, which thing is as impossible as to make God to be the author, original and cause of all evil.8
Turning to the New Testament, these Reformers found there that the Church is sometimes spoken of as the body of Christ, the heir to God's promises to Israel, and sometimes as an organized body of men and women.
M. More will not understand that the Church is sometimes taken for the elect only; which have the law of God written in their hearts—and that the Church is sometimes taken for the common rascal (i.e., mixed multitude) of all that believe whether with the mouth only and carnally without spirit.9
To account for this they drew a distinction between the visible and the invisible Church which has troubled protestant theology ever since. I use the word ‘troubled’ as a result of having spent hours in trying to understand attempted explanations by various protestant theologians of the meaning of the terms and of the relation between them. The nearest I can get to understanding it is to take it as meaning that the ‘true’ church is the invisible Church consisting of ‘the elect… which have the law of God written in their hearts’, and that what makes a visible Church a ‘true’ Church is its being an embodiment and expression of the invisible. If this be so, one can see how the doctrine, carried to its logical conclusion, would issue in the Barthian theory that the only kind of unity and continuity required with the Church of the New Testament is that of embodying and expressing the same invisible reality.
I have come to the conclusion that the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church, like the phrase ‘justification by faith’, is a sixteenth-century formula which now encumbers our attempts at thinking and had better be dropped from our theological vocabulary.10 The fact that it was based on a false exegesis, reading back into the minds of the New Testament writers a distinction which never occurred to them, does not matter very much. That might be corrected as a matter of biblical scholarship without affecting its value as an insight into the implications of their witness. The real ground for discarding it as no longer useful to us is of another kind.
The Reformers were confronted by a paradox at the heart of the Christian life, writ large before their eyes in the contemporary state of the Church. ‘I live’, says St. Paul, ‘yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ When you come to think of it, this presents in the life of the individual Christian precisely the same problem that Cranmer saw in the life of the Church. Is it not as blasphemous to speak of Christ in me—this so often rebellious and sinful me—as to make Him ‘to be the head of ungodly and disobedient members’? One knows how the Reformers wrestled with this problem, how it underlies Luther's ‘simul iustus et peccator’ and controversies about assurance and predestination. But I am not aware of any theologian who suggested resolving the paradox by the insertion of an invisible me between the visible me and Christ, as was done in the case of the Church. Apparently the two problems were dealt with separately without any realization that essentially they are one and the same.
There is here a real problem for our thought, and we can see that any attempt at its solution must be relevant to the life of the individual Christian as well as to that of the Church. Now Reformation theology belongs to what Collingwood called the Renaissance period of human cosmological thinking, its theologians lived at a time when it was not possible for them to think in terms of scientifically knowable change. Last year I was showing how to do so enlightens our understanding both of the creation of the universe and of our own experience of freedom.11 I described the difference between the two ways of thinking as follows:
If there is scientifically knowable change, its phases cannot all be knowable in precisely the same way as objects of knowledge were held to be knowable before. When the object of our study is a process of development, we cannot at any moment take a cross section of it, isolate it from what went before and what will come after, make it stand still to be looked at, and then think that what we are looking at is the thing we set out to study. We set out to study an ongoing process; if we have arrested it in order to study it, what we have before us is a dead specimen, not the living reality.
In thinking about the universe and human life we found ourselves driven to recognize the reality of irrational elements of which, as they stand, no rational account can be given. If they are to be explained at all, it must be as phases in a process devised or permitted for the purpose of achieving a rational end. It is no good trying to find a point of view from which they can be seen to be intelligible, or to discover a formula which shall give them a logical definition. What meaning they have at the moment is a meaning for action rather than for thought. They have to be changed in order to become intelligible.
There are irrational elements in the universe which we have to accept as devised or permitted by God as incidental to His purpose to create a community of finite free persons. There are irrational elements in ourselves which are incidental to our being created into members of such a community. Neither of the universe in all its details, nor of ourselves, as existing at any one moment of time, is it possible to give a logical definition. It and we have to be changed in fact in order to become intelligible.
What is true of the universe and of ourselves is true also of the Church. The distinction between the visible and the invisible Church came into existence as an attempt to do the impossible, to devise a formula for a logical definition of an illogical phase in a process which only in its completion will be fully intelligible and logically definable. That is why I think we should now be wise to discard it, and address ourselves directly, in terms of the thought of our own time, to the problem it was invented to meet.
The Christian Gospel proclaims God's entry into the history of this world to work from within for the rescue of His creation from evil. He does this at the stage in His creative process at which in human beings evil has taken the form of sin. Living as man among men He wins by His death and resurrection the right to offer full and free forgiveness to all who repent of their sins. By the gift of the Spirit He binds together His followers in the community of forgiven sinners to be His instrument for carrying forward His work of rescue. He binds them together by binding them to Himself so closely that they may be spoken of as the branches of which He is the vine, as members of His body, or as the body of which He is the head—His feet to go on His errands, His mouth to speak His words, His eyes to see what He wants done, His hands to do it.
The question before us is that of the relation of Christ to the Church and its members, the ‘I, yet not I but Christ’ of Galatians ii. 20. In both respects there is language in the New Testament which implies identification, and language which implies distinction. The Church is not only the vine and the body, it is also the bride of Christ. St. Paul not only says of himself: ‘To me to live is Christ’, and writes to the Colossians of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’; he warns the Romans that ‘we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ’.
I want to suggest that we should think of the relation of Christ to His Church in a manner analogous to that of God to His creation. Last year we thought of creation as a process which can be looked at from either of two ends. From above, it is God communicating in increasing measure the fullness of being which He wills to give to His created universe. From below, it is that universe growing in fullness of being as step by step it becomes capable of receiving it in fuller measure. Within creation God the Holy Spirit is at work, disposing and enabling creatures to receive and grow. But all is conditioned by God's central purpose to create a community of persons endowed with genuine freedom. This requires for the universe a mode of reality in which there can be irrationalities of which no intelligible account can be given as they stand beyond saying that they are phases incidental to a process devised for an intelligible end.
If we think of the Church as the body of Christ in the sense of being His instrument for carrying forward His rescuing work, the Church, like the universe, will be a process with a history in time and space. It will be a process subject to the same condition, in which both the giving of Himself by Christ from above, and the working of the Spirit within the body at the receiving end, will be directed towards the perfecting of human freedom, and patient of whatever limitations are entailed by respect for that end. We shall not be surprised to find the Church, at any one moment in its life, going through a phase in which it defies all attempts to devise a logical formula which will accurately describe its nature.
It is a process which can be looked at from either of both ends. From above it is the crucified, risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ carrying on His redeeming work in and through His Church. From below it is the community of human beings receiving from Him what it needs for its own growth and for His service.
The man in Christ, the new creature, is in process of growing up into his true self as Christ, the hope of glory, is formed in him. The Church is in process of growing into the fullness of its true nature as the earthly body of the risen, ascended Lord, as that Lord is giving to it in increasing measure the fullness of the life that is His.
Seen as from above, as Jesus Christ at work in the world, it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic; seen as from below, as the fellowship of forgiven sinners growing up into the perfection that the Lord is giving it, it is divided, very imperfectly holy, too often self-regarding and worldly. Yet it is one and the same process of which these contradictory things are true.… So long as the Church is still in via we must not be surprised to find that it has a paradoxical character which renders it impatient, as it stands, of logically coherent definition. It must be changed in deed in order to become transparent to thought.12
To the trouble caused among protestants by the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church there correspond in catholic and orthodox theology arguments about whether the Church can be said to sin. This is an instance of the way in which what is essentially one and the same question can appear in another guise in a different theological tradition.13 No one can have much experience of inter-church discussions on questions of faith and order without coming up against the question in this second form. Sooner or later it is sure to be suggested that the first step towards the reunion of Christendom is for the Church to be truly penitent for its sinfulness manifested in its divisions. But in any attempt to issue a joint statement of agreements, clauses on these lines will have to be revised or deleted in order to meet the objections of those who hold that, while its members may be sinners, sin cannot be predicated of the Church itself. Here is one of the points at which deadlock will continue until we cease to conduct our discussions in terms of the thought of a bygone age. When we realize that the Church is Christ and the Spirit at work in and through its members whose perfection in genuine freedom is as central to God's creative and redemptive purpose as is their service of the world in His name, we need no longer be kept apart by disputes arising from attempts to give a logical and coherent description of it in its present condition.
We have been considering the historical origin of the Church and its constitution. In both respects, in studying the evidence from the past we have had to ask our persistent question: what must the truth have been and be if men in their circumstances, who thought and spoke as they did, put it like that? This becomes of even greater importance when we pass on to ask for what purpose it exists, when the definition we seek is not in terms of origin or constitution, but of purpose and function.14 It has been through the study of this question, and from reflecting on the implications of the fact that in its historical origin the Christian Church was the Jewish messianic community, that I have been led to think that after nearly two thousand years of Christian history we may only be beginning to know what Christianity really is.15
I have spoken of how, in the case of Christ Himself, our understanding of the Gospel evidence has grown by reading it in the light of contemporary expectations of the Messiah. His interpretation of messiahship was so unlike what His people were looking for that for the most part they were unable to recognize in Him the fulfilment of their hopes. Those who accepted Him did so in spite of appearances, with a faith that stood much in need of enlightenment by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Guided by the Spirit we have come to see that to accept Him involved a revolution in the idea of messiahship. He had not come to take His power and reign, either as the monarch of a world-empire ruled in the name of God from Jerusalem, or in a celestial kingdom to which His faithful subjects should be raised out of this realm of space and time. He had come to rescue His creation from the evil which prevented His creatures from growing into the perfection of the freedom that He willed for them. For Him messiahship meant giving Himself to win for His people freedom from the burden of their sins in order that He might have on earth a body through which to work for the rescue of His creatures not only from sin but from all other forms of evil too.
Within the New Testament period the author of the Fourth Gospel is guided by the Spirit to see in this the manifestation of the glory of God. ‘The action in which He most fully expressed Himself, namely His self-devotion to death in love for mankind, is the conclusive manifestation of the divine glory… in other words, the revelation of the eternal majesty of God in His love for mankind.’16
The acceptance of this revolution in the idea of messiahship was an outstanding instance of a revision of categories of human thought due to the coming of new evidence. The Fourth Gospel shows that it is not merely a matter of our idea of messiahship, that it has implications for our thought about God, implications which still to-day we have not fully grasped. His clear exposition of this is one of the many things for which Dr. Donald Baillie is to be remembered.17 I shall have more to say about it later on. Our concern now is with its implications for our thought about the Church. Put briefly, what I have to urge is that the revolution in the idea of the Messiah involves a corresponding revolution in the idea of the messianic community.
At the time of the coming of Christ it was generally taken for granted that religion exists for the benefit of the religious people, religious organizations for the benefit of their members. It was not only in Judaism that to be one of the elect was held to give a man a superior status in relation to God, with hopes of eschatological bliss. This was what was offered to their initiates by the various oriental mystery cults which were the live religions in the Gentile world. Inevitably, when the Christian Church came into being, it was taken to be one more body existing for this same purpose.
The first Christian preaching was the proclamation that as a result of what God had done in Christ, forgiveness of their sins was ready and waiting for all who would repent of them.18 It would be unreasonable to expect St. Peter, when he preached those first sermons, to have thought of this otherwise than as an offer of welcome into a body which, as the new and true messianic Israel, existed to give its members what in the old Israel they had hoped to receive. Membership in the old Israel had been the privilege of the circumcised descendants of Abraham, extended to proselytes who acknowledged their monotheistic faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and were duly circumcised. Membership in the new Israel was offered to those who should repent of their sins, should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ in whom had been fulfilled God's promises to His people through the prophets, and should be baptized into the fellowship. Through the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the gift of the Spirit, there had been accomplished for them what they had sought in the sacrificial worship of the old covenant. From this earliest preaching throughout the New Testament the Church continues to be thought of as the fellowship of forgiven sinners into which men and women are baptized in order to enjoy the privilege of reconciliation with God and the promise of eternal salvation.
Throughout the New Testament. And is this not still largely true to-day? Whether one studies theology in the Catholic, the Orthodox, the Lutheran or the Reformed traditions, in all it is apparently taken for granted that the Christian religion exists to promote the salvation of Christians, that the Church exists for the salvation of its members. Many, indeed, would say that in the first place the Church exists for the glory of God. We need not dispute that. But to say it leaves open the question of the way in which God is to be glorified. We can re-phrase our concern by saying that it is with the assumption that the Church will best minister to the glory of God by making the salvation of its members the end for which it exists. How widespread is this assumption may be seen from the way it is taken for granted as the basis of missionary work and of evangelistic campaigns and crusades.
Still to-day, after nearly two thousand years, the Holy Spirit is leading us further into truth by taking of the things of Christ and showing them unto us. What will be the effect of taking seriously the realization that Christ's revolution in the idea of messiahship involves a corresponding revolution in the idea of the messianic community?
If I am right in my understanding of the gospel picture of Christ, there was never a man in the history of this world who was so completely forgetful of self as He was in His devotion to the Father and the finding and doing of the Father's work. I have already referred to the passage in St. Matthew xii where He says in effect: ‘I don't mind what you say about Me, but don't you dare to blaspheme against the Spirit that is working in Me’.19 ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to accomplish His work’ sums up the impression produced on the author of the Fourth Gospel. ‘Even Christ’, writes St. Paul, ‘pleased not Himself’. And in the moment of supreme agony there is no thought of self: ‘Father, forgive them’.20 He, the sinless One, gives Himself to cleanse from their sins those through whom He wills to work for the rescue of His creation from all forms of evil. The form in which the commission He gives them has come down to us is ‘As the Father has sent Me, even so send I you’.21
The Church is the earthly body through which the crucified, risen, ascended Lord wills to carry on His work of rescue. Professor Torrance has criticized the description of it as the extension of the Incarnation, but rightly understood that phrase is a valuable reminder that the mind and work of the Church militant here on earth are to be patterned on those of its Lord in His incarnate ministry in Palestine, what Torrance calls having the form of a servant, or being under the cross.22 In that ministry He had come not to judge but to save. United by the Spirit with the Father in heaven, He must in His manhood walk the way of the Cross, caring nothing of what happens to Himself so long as the way is opened for the cleansing of creation from its infection by evil. He opened that way by the sacrifice of Himself through which God's forgiveness is made available for all who repent of their sins.
The making of that sacrifice, the opening of the way, was something which only He could do, which He has done: a once-for-all achievement in virtue of which we live in a redeemed world. What He has entrusted to the Church is the work of harvesting the fruits of the victory He has won. For this He needs a body of men and women enlisted to fight under His banner against sin, the world and the devil, cleansed from their own sins in order that they may be able to forget themselves in sharing in His interest in the rescue and perfecting of His creation. He who in His godhead ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped’,23 in His manhood did not think of His sinless perfection as a prize to be enjoyed for Himself but as equipping Him for the doing of God's redemptive work. The first fruits of His sacrifice must be the winning to penitence and discipleship of those who are to be the members of His Church. Until they have been cleansed and taken by Him to share in His freedom from sin they cannot be used as His agents for the extension of His work. So to begin with the Church was charged with the duty of proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness and baptizing penitent believers into the fellowship of forgiven sinners.
Conditioned as they were by the outlook of their age, both those who preached and those who were converted thought of baptism into the Church as synonymous with inclusion among those to whom God promised eternal salvation. But if Christ's messianic community is to be patterned on Christ's messiahship, if the attitude of the Church to the world is to be that of its Lord in His earthly ministry, this is a confusion of two quite different things. Because faith in Christ as God incarnate and Saviour from sin is required for membership in His Church on earth it does not necessarily follow that without it a man can neither please God in this world nor hope for salvation in the next. The line between those who are and those who are not in the way that leadeth to eternal life cannot be made to coincide with that between those who are and those who are not members of the Church—or even with that between those who do and those who do not consciously believe in Jesus Christ.
In my third lecture last year I spoke of the puzzle presented to Christians by the fact that while we base our own hope of salvation on God's gift to us of faith in Christ we cannot reconcile the thought of His condemnation of others with the belief that He is the God revealed in Christ.24 I then said that for the solution of this puzzle we might find it necessary to revise assumptions commonly taken for granted in traditional theology. My contention now is that the assumption which chiefly gives rise to it is untrue to the biblical revelation of the Church as the messianic community. The Church corporately should think of its calling and election as a calling and election to forget itself in devotion to God's work of rescuing His creation from evil. To say that the individual Christian should think of himself in this way is perhaps no novelty. But to say it of the Church corporately seems to me to challenge so many of the ideas we commonly take for granted that I will end this lecture by putting what I have to say in the form of questions. Are we right in thinking and preaching that to receive God's forgiveness a man must have faith in the sense of consciously accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour? Are we right in thinking it to be God's will and purpose that all men shall be gathered into membership of the Church militant here on earth?
1. In considering the effect on converts of the preaching of the Christian Gospel we saw that we have to distinguish between their consciousness and the objective fact of which they feel themselves to be conscious.25 Subjectively, the Christian accepts with gratitude and joy the forgiveness which he believes to be ready and waiting for him in virtue of what God has done in Christ. It is ready and waiting because of the once-for-all act of God in history. He has come to know of it through hearing the gospel story which has won him to penitence for all that needs to be forgiven. But what is the evidence that the requisite penitence is only possible in association with hearing and responding to the gospel story?
I have argued that it would be unreasonable to expect Christians in the New Testament period to have thought of the Church otherwise than as the messianic community into which men should come in order to be in the way of salvation. Their immediate task was to convince men that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus, and to win for Him disciples to be baptized into membership of His earthly body. Interpreting the messianic community by the light of Christ's messiahship, may we not conceive more widely the meeting of penitence with God's forgiveness and reconciliation?
Our natural theology has taught us that God's aim is to create a community of finite free persons, and that to this end He gives us a world in which we grow in freedom by losing ourselves in devotion to ends of eternal value.26 In the fullness of His revelation of Himself in Christ He reveals Himself as the God already made known to us in this natural theology. The infection of His creation by evil had reached its climax in the diversion of men from this self-forgetfulness to other self-regarding ends. In His redemptive work God has struck at the heart of the problem by action through which men are cleansed from their own sinfulness and won back to share in His interests and to be His agents in the rescue of the rest of His creation. To be sharing in His interest in earthly embodiments of beauty and truth and goodness is to be expressing devotion to Himself. It was to set men free from all that hindered them from this devotion that Christ died and rose again.
This gives us our clue in our attempt to see where the line is to be drawn between those who are and those who are not in the way of salvation. What God looks for in a man is that he should be devoting himself to what in God's eyes is worth doing. Imagine a case in which someone who has been living a dissolute and selfish life is kindled by enthusiasm for some worthy cause and moved to devote himself henceforward to its service. This means for him a genuine turning over of a new leaf, and in his new life he loathes his past self and his wasted years. Whatever it is that has moved him by kindling his enthusiasm, it has had nothing to do with any hearing of or responding to the Christian gospel. Yet who can say that he has not had a genuine conversion and brought forth fruits of repentance such that in him the crucified, risen and ascended Lord sees of the travail of his soul and is satisfied?
This is what our natural theology would lead us to expect, and it is confirmed by the biblical revelation. Last year we noticed the epoch-making advance in God's education of His people made by the prophetic principle that the faith that matters is for a man to try to live by what he honestly believes to be true and right. ‘Faith in God… means trusting in One who reveals Himself to us in and through our judgments of fact and value.’27 Now we have seen how this was preparing the way for Christ's interpretation of His messianic ministry as one of self-forgetfulness in care for the rescue of God's creation from all forms of evil.
What advantage, then, hath the Christian? To begin with, as I said in the last lecture, the enjoyment of ‘inside knowledge’ of what is going on.28 He knows, as the converted non-Christian does not know, that in this universe of space and time all embodiments of eternal value are manifestations of God in His creation, and that those in whose hearts is kindled enthusiasm for them are being moved by the Holy Spirit. He knows, moreover, that the forgiveness for the past in virtue of which they are free to go forward in the new life is theirs because of the ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’, made once for all by Christ on the Cross of Calvary. He would thus be able, should they inquire of him, to interpret them to themselves. Meanwhile he has, too, the joy of knowing what it is to be the object of God's love in Christ. This joy, which he looks forward to seeing shared by the others in the world to come, is already given to him while still on earth.
2. To go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; to bring all nations into discipleship to Christ, baptizing them and bidding them live according to His teaching: this is what the New Testament Church understood to be the commission given to it by its crucified, risen and ascended Lord.29 The question now to be asked is whether this necessarily implies that the end to be aimed at is the bringing of all men into membership of the Church militant here on earth. The French theologian, Auguste Sabatier, took the fulfilment of this aim to be the shape of the future envisaged in the Epistle to the Ephesians.30 All Christian thinkers have not been so optimistic. Some have thought the concern of the Church to be to rescue out of the world those who were not to be left to perish. Those who cannot reconcile this with their belief in God's love and care for all His creatures tend to assume that the method by which His will is to be accomplished will be the incorporation of all men in a worldwide Church. For both schools of thought the practical conclusion is the same, that the concern of the Church may be summed up in the two words evangelism and edification, the conversion of men to faith in Christ and nurturing their Christian life. The Church's interest is in its own expansion and inner spiritual progress.
But if the interest of the Church is to be patterned on that of its Lord in His earthly ministry, will it not have to take a wider outlook than this? Let me refer to two incidents to illustrate what I mean.
A few years ago in a town in the south of England there was a trade union official, a good man who valued his office as giving him opportunity to work for the true welfare of his fellows. He was won to faith in Christ, and became a regular and sincere worshipper in his parish church. Shortly afterwards his vicar said to him that now that he was a member of the Church he ought to undertake some definite work for God, such as taking charge of the church boys' club. Being the conscientious man he was, he threw himself so thoroughly into this new work that he found he had to resign from his trade union activities.
Further north in this island another trade union official was a lay preacher in a Christian church. Not long ago he told me that on the shop floor he made no secret of his Christian profession and ministry, that he found them treated by his fellow workers with respect, and that men who would not think of approaching any of the regular clergy or ministers would come to him for counsel and advice because he was one of themselves. He added, somewhat apologetically, and as one confessing an obvious failure in duty, that it did not often result in their joining the church. I could not help asking him: Was not the Church through him doing its true work? If, for example, someone had been helped to save his marriage from disaster, was not that the kind of thing that Christ wanted to use His Church for, whether or no the man and his wife should be won to effective membership of it?
In an earlier lecture I have spoken of how the parable of the labourers in the vineyard gives us a glimpse of an understanding of God's love for His world as revealed to us in Christ.31 Is not the true import of the biblical revelation that Christ has commissioned the Church to love the world with a love which is not only to be like his, but actually to be His love expressing itself through His continuing earthly body? When we begin to realize what this will imply for our thought and practice, may it not truly be said that we are only beginning to understand what Christianity really is?
There is more to be said about this later.32 One final word is necessary here. Throughout this lecture we have been concerned with the Church militant here on earth. We must not forget that this is only part of the whole, that the Church Militant, the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant are one Church whose members are at different stages in their pilgrimage. It is only with reference to the Church Militant on earth that I wish to raise the question whether it should be aiming at the inclusion of all those who are to be saved for membership of the Church Triumphant in heaven.
See, e.g., A. E. J. Rawlinson in Bell and Deissmann: Mysterium Christi (London, 1930).
Rom. xii. 5; 1 Cor. xii. 12–27. See also 2 Cor. xiii. 5; Gal. ii. 20; St. John xiv. 20–23; Eph. i. 22, 23; iii. 17–19.
E. Barker: Essays on Government (Oxford, 1945), pp. 249, 251.
Vol. I, pp. 18 ff.
In Some Prolegomena to the 1937 World Conference (Faith and Order Paper, No. 76), pp. 22 ff. Translated from Theologische Existenz Heute, Heft. 27 (München, Chr. Kaiser Verlag), 1935.
See below, Lecture VII, pp. 153 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 105 ff.
Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Cranmer (Parker Society, 1846), p. 18.
Tyndale: Answer to Sir T. More's Dialogue, p. 113.
Vol. I, pp. 108 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 125 ff., 173 ff.
From The Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 98, 99.
See also below, Lecture VII, pp. 143 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 159, 164.
Above, p. 46.
C. H. Dodd: The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1955), p. 207.
See his God was in Christ (London, 1948), especially pp. 63 ff.
Above, pp. 71 ff.
Above, p. 102.
St. John iv. 34; Rom. xv. 3; St. Luke xxiii. 34.
St. John xx. 21.
T. F. Torrance: Royal Priesthood (Edinburgh, 1955), pp. 31, 84–7.
Phil. ii. 6.
Vol. I, pp. 53 ff.
Above, p. 75. See also Vol. I, p. 57.
Vol. I, pp. 186 ff., 231.
Vol. I, pp. 106–7.
Above, p. 106.
St. Mark xvi. 15; St. Matt. xxviii. 19, 20.
The Apostle Paul, E. Tr., p. 239. Quoted in my Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 125.
Above, pp. 59 ff.
Below, pp. 208 ff.