The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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Public Domain Books


[22] Saint-Paul, par Ernest Renan. Paris, 1869.

Histoire du Dogme de la Divinite de Jesus-Christ, par Albert Reville. Paris, 1869.

The End of the World and the Day of Judgment. Two Discourses by the Rev. W. R. Alger. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1870.

The meagreness of our information concerning the historic career of Jesus stands in striking contrast with the mass of information which lies within our reach concerning the primitive character of Christologic speculation. First we have the four epistles of Paul, written from twenty to thirty years after the crucifixion, which, although they tell us next to nothing about what Jesus did, nevertheless give us very plain information as to the impression which he made. Then we have the Apocalypse, written by John, A. D. 68, which exhibits the Messianic theory entertained by the earliest disciples. Next we have the epistles to the Hebrews, Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians, besides the four gospels, constituting altogether a connected chain of testimony to the progress of Christian doctrine from the destruction of Jerusalem to the time of the Quartodeciman controversy (A. D. 70-170). Finally, there is the vast collection of apocryphal, heretical, and patristic literature, from the writings of Justin Martyr, the pseudo-Clement, and the pseudo-Ignatius, down to the time of the Council of Nikaia, when the official theories of Christ’s person assumed very nearly the shape which they have retained, within the orthodox churches of Christendom, down to the present day. As we pointed out in the foregoing essay, while all this voluminous literature throws but an uncertain light upon the life and teachings of the founder of Christianity, it nevertheless furnishes nearly all the data which we could desire for knowing what the early Christians thought of the master of their faith. Having given a brief account of the historic career of Jesus, so far as it can now be determined, we propose here to sketch the rise and progress of Christologic doctrine, in its most striking features, during the first three centuries. Beginning with the apostolic view of the human Messiah sent to deliver Judaism from its spiritual torpor, and prepare it for the millennial kingdom, we shall briefly trace the progressive metamorphosis of this conception until it completely loses its identity in the Athanasian theory, according to which Jesus was God himself, the Creator of the universe, incarnate in human flesh.

The earliest dogma held by the apostles concerning Jesus was that of his resurrection from the grave after death. It was not only the earliest, but the most essential to the success of the new religion. Christianity might have overspread the Roman Empire, and maintained its hold upon men’s faith until to-day, without the dogmas of the incarnation and the Trinity; but without the dogma of the resurrection it would probably have failed at the very outset. Its lofty morality would not alone have sufficed to insure its success. For what men needed then, as indeed they still need, and will always need, was not merely a rule of life and a mirror to the heart, but also a comprehensive and satisfactory theory of things, a philosophy or theosophy. The times demanded intellectual as well as moral consolation; and the disintegration of ancient theologies needed to be repaired, that the new ethical impulse imparted by Christianity might rest upon a plausible speculative basis. The doctrine of the resurrection was but the beginning of a series of speculative innovations which prepared the way for the new religion to emancipate itself from Judaism, and achieve the conquest of the Empire. Even the faith of the apostles in the speedy return of their master the Messiah must have somewhat lost ground, had it not been supported by their belief in his resurrection from the grave and his consequent transfer from Sheol, the gloomy land of shadows, to the regions above the sky.

The origin of the dogma of the resurrection cannot be determined with certainty. The question has, during the past century, been the subject of much discussion, upon which it is not necessary for us here to comment. Such apparent evidence as there is in favour of the old theory of Jesus’ natural recovery from the effects of the crucifixion may be found in Salvador’s “Jesus-Christ et sa Doctrine"; but, as Zeller has shown, the theory is utterly unsatisfactory. The natural return of Jesus to his disciples never could have given rise to the notion of his resurrection, since the natural explanation would have been the more obvious one; besides which, if we were to adopt this hypothesis, we should be obliged to account for the fact that the historic career of Jesus ends with the crucifixion. The most probable explanation, on the whole, is the one suggested by the accounts in the gospels, that the dogma of the resurrection is due originally to the excited imagination of Mary of Magdala.[23] The testimony of Paul may also be cited in favour of this view, since he always alludes to earlier Christophanies in just the same language which he uses in describing his own vision on the road to Damascus.

[23] See Taine, De l’Intelligence, II. 192.

But the question as to how the belief in the resurrection of Jesus originated is of less importance than the question as to how it should have produced the effect that it did. The dogma of the resurrection has, until recent times, been so rarely treated from the historical point of view, that the student of history at first finds some difficulty in thoroughly realizing its import to the minds of those who first proclaimed it. We cannot hope to understand it without bearing in mind the theories of the Jews and early Christians concerning the structure of the world and the cosmic location of departed souls. Since the time of Copernicus modern Christians no longer attempt to locate heaven and hell; they are conceived merely as mysterious places remote from the earth. The theological universe no longer corresponds to that which physical science presents for our contemplation. It was quite different with the Jew. His conception of the abode of Jehovah and the angels, and of departed souls, was exceedingly simple and definite. In the Jewish theory the universe is like a sort of three-story house. The flat earth rests upon the waters, and under the earth’s surface is the land of graves, called Sheol, where after death the souls of all men go, the righteous as well as the wicked, for the Jew had not arrived at the doctrine of heaven and hell. The Hebrew Sheol corresponds strictly to the Greek Hades, before the notions of Elysium and Tartarus were added to it,—a land peopled with flitting shadows, suffering no torment, but experiencing no pleasure, like those whom Dante met in one of the upper circles of his Inferno. Sheol is the first story of the cosmic house; the earth is the second. Above the earth is the firmament or sky, which, according to the book of Genesis (chap. i. v. 6, Hebrew text), is a vast plate hammered out by the gods, and supports a great ocean like that upon which the earth rests. Rain is caused by the opening of little windows or trap-doors in the firmament, through which pours the water of this upper ocean. Upon this water rests the land of heaven, where Jehovah reigns, surrounded by hosts of angels. To this blessed land two only of the human race had ever been admitted,—Enoch and Elijah, the latter of whom had ascended in a chariot of fire, and was destined to return to earth as the herald and forerunner of the Messiah. Heaven forms the third story of the cosmic house. Between the firmament and the earth is the air, which is the habitation of evil demons ruled by Satan, the “prince of the powers of the air.”

Such was the cosmology of the ancient Jew; and his theology was equally simple. Sheol was the destined abode of all men after death, and no theory of moral retribution was attached to the conception. The rewards and punishments known to the authors of the Pentateuch and the early Psalms are all earthly rewards and punishments. But in course of time the prosperity of the wicked and the misfortunes of the good man furnished a troublesome problem for the Jewish thinker; and after the Babylonish Captivity, we find the doctrine of a resurrection from Sheol devised in order to meet this case. According to this doctrine—which was borrowed from the Zarathustrian theology of Persia—the Messiah on his arrival was to free from Sheol all the souls of the righteous, causing them to ascend reinvested in their bodies to a renewed and beautiful earth, while on the other hand the wicked were to be punished with tortures like those of the valley of Hinnom, or were to be immersed in liquid brimstone, like that which had rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we get the first announcement of a future state of retribution. The doctrine was peculiarly Pharisaic, and the Sadducees, who were strict adherents to the letter of Mosaism, rejected it to the last. By degrees this doctrine became coupled with the Messianic theories of the Pharisees. The loss of Jewish independence under the dominion of Persians, Macedonians, and Romans, caused the people to look ever more earnestly toward the expected time when the Messiah should appear in Jerusalem to deliver them from their oppressors. The moral doctrines of the Psalms and earlier prophets assumed an increasingly political aspect. The Jews were the righteous “under a cloud,” whose sufferings were symbolically depicted by the younger Isaiah as the afflictions of the “servant of Jehovah"; while on the other hand, the “wicked” were the Gentile oppressors of the holy people. Accordingly the Messiah, on his arrival, was to sit in judgment in the valley of Jehoshaphat, rectifying the wrongs of his chosen ones, condemning the Gentile tyrants to the torments of Gehenna, and raising from Sheol all those Jews who had lived and died during the evil times before his coming. These were to find in the Messianic kingdom the compensation for the ills which they had suffered in their first earthly existence. Such are the main outlines of the theory found in the Book of Enoch, written about B. C. 100, and it is adopted in the Johannine Apocalypse, with little variation, save in the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, and in the transferrence to his second coming of all these wonderful proceedings. The manner of the Messiah’s coming had been variously imagined. According to an earlier view, he was to enter Jerusalem as a King of the house of David, and therefore of human lineage. According to a later view, presented in the Book of Daniel, he was to descend from the sky, and appear among the clouds. Both these views were adopted by the disciples of Jesus, who harmonized them by referring the one to his first and the other to his second appearance.

Now to the imaginations of these earliest disciples the belief in the resurrection of Jesus presented itself as a needful guarantee of his Messiahship. Their faith, which must have been shaken by his execution and descent into Sheol, received welcome confirmation by the springing up of the belief that he had been again seen upon the face of the earth. Applying the imagery of Daniel, it became a logical conclusion that he must have ascended into the sky, whence he might shortly be expected to make his appearance, to enact the scenes foretold in prophecy. That such was the actual process of inference is shown by the legend of the Ascension in the first chapter of the “Acts,” and especially by the words, “This Jesus who hath been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same manner in which ye beheld him going into heaven.” In the Apocalypse, written A. D. 68, just after the death of Nero, this second coming is described as something immediately to happen, and the colours in which it is depicted show how closely allied were the Johannine notions to those of the Pharisees. The glories of the New Jerusalem are to be reserved for Jews, while for the Roman tyrants of Judaea is reserved a fearful retribution. They are to be trodden underfoot by the Messiah, like grapes in a wine-press, until the gushing blood shall rise to the height of the horse’s bridle.

In the writings of Paul the dogma of the resurrection assumes a very different aspect. Though Paul, like the older apostles, held that Jesus, as the Messiah, was to return to the earth within a few years, yet to his catholic mind this anticipated event had become divested of its narrow Jewish significance. In the eyes of Paul, the religion preached by Jesus was an abrogation of Mosaism, and the truths contained in it were a free gift to the Gentile as well as to the Jewish world. According to Paul, death came into the world as a punishment for the sin of Adam. By this he meant that, had it not been for the original transgression, all men escaping death would either have remained upon earth or have been conveyed to heaven, like Enoch and Elijah, in incorruptible bodies. But in reality as a penance for disobedience, all men, with these two exceptions, had suffered death, and been exiled to the gloomy caverns of Sheol. The Mosaic ritual was powerless to free men from this repulsive doom, but it had nevertheless served a good purpose in keeping men’s minds directed toward holiness, preparing them, as a schoolmaster would prepare his pupils, to receive the vitalizing truths of Christ. Now, at last, the Messiah or Christ had come as a second Adam, and being without sin had been raised by Jehovah out of Sheol and taken up into heaven, as testimony to men that the power of sin and death was at last defeated. The way henceforth to avoid death and escape the exile to Sheol was to live spiritually like Jesus, and with him to be dead to sensual requirements. Faith, in Paul’s apprehension, was not an intellectual assent to definitely prescribed dogmas, but, as Matthew Arnold has well pointed out, it was an emotional striving after righteousness, a developing consciousness of God in the soul, such as Jesus had possessed, or, in Paul’s phraseology, a subjugation of the flesh by the spirit. All those who should thus seek spiritual perfection should escape the original curse. The Messiah was destined to return to the earth to establish the reign of spiritual holiness, probably during Paul’s own lifetime (1 Cor. xv. 51). Then the true followers of Jesus should be clothed in ethereal bodies, free from the imperfections of “the flesh,” and should ascend to heaven without suffering death, while the righteous dead should at the same time be released from Sheol, even as Jesus himself had been released.

To the doctrine of the resurrection, in which ethical and speculative elements are thus happily blended by Paul, the new religion doubtless owed in great part its rapid success. Into an account of the causes which favoured the spreading of Christianity, it is not our purpose to enter at present. But we may note that the local religions of the ancient pagan world had partly destroyed each other by mutual intermingling, and had lost their hold upon people from the circumstance that their ethical teaching no longer corresponded to the advanced ethical feeling of the age. Polytheism, in short, was outgrown. It was outgrown both intellectually and morally. People were ceasing to believe in its doctrines, and were ceasing to respect its precepts. The learned were taking refuge in philosophy, the ignorant in mystical superstitions imported from Asia. The commanding ethical motive of ancient republican times had been patriotism,—devotion to the interests of the community. But Roman dominion had destroyed patriotism as a guiding principle of life, and thus in every way the minds of men were left in a sceptical, unsatisfied state,—craving after a new theory of life, and craving after a new stimulus to right action. Obviously the only theology which could now be satisfactory to philosophy or to common-sense was some form of monotheism;—some system of doctrines which should represent all men as spiritually subjected to the will of a single God, just as they were subjected to the temporal authority of the Emperor. And similarly the only system of ethics which could have a chance of prevailing must be some system which should clearly prescribe the mutual duties of all men without distinction of race or locality. Thus the spiritual morality of Jesus, and his conception of God as a father and of all men as brothers, appeared at once to meet the ethical and speculative demands of the time.

Yet whatever effect these teachings might have produced, if unaided by further doctrinal elaboration, was enhanced myriadfold by the elaboration which they received at the hands of Paul. Philosophic Stoics and Epicureans had arrived at the conception of the brotherhood of men, and the Greek hymn of Kleanthes had exhibited a deep spiritual sense of the fatherhood of God. The originality of Christianity lay not so much in its enunciation of new ethical precepts as in the fact that it furnished a new ethical sanction,—a commanding incentive to holiness of living. That it might accomplish this result, it was absolutely necessary that it should begin by discarding both the ritualism and the narrow theories of Judaism. The mere desire for a monotheistic creed had led many pagans, in Paul’s time, to embrace Judaism, in spite of its requirements, which to Romans and Greeks were meaningless, and often disgusting; but such conversions could never have been numerous. Judaism could never have conquered the Roman world; nor is it likely that the Judaical Christianity of Peter, James, and John would have been any more successful. The doctrine of the resurrection, in particular, was not likely to prove attractive when accompanied by the picture of the Messiah treading the Gentiles in the wine-press of his righteous indignation. But here Paul showed his profound originality The condemnation of Jewish formalism which Jesus had pronounced, Paul turned against the older apostles, who insisted upon circumcision. With marvellous flexibility of mind, Paul placed circumcision and the Mosaic injunctions about meats upon a level with the ritual observances of pagan nations, allowing each feeble brother to perform such works as might tickle his fancy, but bidding all take heed that salvation was not to be obtained after any such mechanical method, but only by devoting the whole soul to righteousness, after the example of Jesus.

This was the negative part of Paul’s work. This was the knocking down of the barriers which had kept men, and would always have kept them, from entering into the kingdom of heaven. But the positive part of Paul’s work is contained in his theory of the salvation of men from death through the second Adam, whom Jehovah rescued from Sheol for his sinlessness. The resurrection of Jesus was the visible token of the escape from death which might be achieved by all men who, with God’s aid, should succeed in freeing themselves from the burden of sin which had encumbered all the children of Adam. The end of the world was at hand, and they who would live with Christ must figuratively die with Christ, must become dead to sin. Thus to the pure and spiritual ethics contained in the teachings of Jesus, Paul added an incalculably powerful incentive to right action, and a theory of life calculated to satisfy the speculative necessities of the pagan or Gentile world. To the educated and sceptical Athenian, as to the critical scholar of modern times, the physical resurrection of Jesus from the grave, and his ascent through the vaulted floor of heaven, might seem foolishness or naivete. But to the average Greek or Roman the conception presented no serious difficulty. The cosmical theories upon which the conception was founded were essentially the same among Jews and Gentiles, and indeed were but little modified until the establishment of the Copernican astronomy. The doctrine of the Messiah’s second coming was also received without opposition, and for about a century men lived in continual anticipation of that event, until hope long deferred produced its usual results; the writings in which that event was predicted were gradually explained away, ignored, or stigmatized as uncanonical; and the Church ended by condemning as a heresy the very doctrine which Paul and the Judaizing apostles, who agreed in little else, had alike made the basis of their speculative teachings. Nevertheless, by the dint of allegorical interpretation, the belief has maintained an obscure existence even down to the present time; the Antiochus of the Book of Daniel and the Nero of the Apocalypse having given place to the Roman Pontiff or to the Emperor of the French.

But as the millenarism of the primitive Church gradually died out during the second century, the essential principles involved in it lost none of their hold on men’s minds. As the generation contemporary with Paul died away and was gathered into Sheol, it became apparent that the original theory must be somewhat modified, and to this question the author of the second epistle to the Thessalonians addresses himself. Instead of literal preservation from death, the doctrine of a resurrection from the grave was gradually extended to the case of the new believers, who were to share in the same glorious revival with the righteous of ancient times. And thus by slow degrees the victory over death, of which the resurrection of Jesus was a symbol and a witness, became metamorphosed into the comparatively modern doctrine of the rest of the saints in heaven, while the banishment of the unrighteous to Sheol was made still more dreadful by coupling with the vague conception of a gloomy subterranean cavern the horrible imagery of the lake of fire and brimstone borrowed from the apocalyptic descriptions of Gehenna. But in this modification of the original theory, the fundamental idea of a future state of retribution was only the more distinctly emphasized; although, in course of time, the original incentive to righteousness supplied by Paul was more and more subordinated to the comparatively degrading incentive involved in the fear of damnation. There can hardly be a doubt that the definiteness and vividness of the Pauline theory of a future life contributed very largely to the rapid spread of the Christian religion; nor can it be doubted that to the desire to be holy like Jesus, in order to escape death and live with Jesus, is due the elevating ethical influence which, even in the worst times of ecclesiastic degeneracy, Christianity has never failed to exert. Doubtless, as Lessing long, ago observed, the notion of future reward and punishment needs to be eliminated in order that the incentive to holiness may be a perfectly pure one. The highest virtue is that which takes no thought of reward or punishment; but for a conception of this sort the mind of antiquity was not ready, nor is the average mind of to-day yet ready; and the sudden or premature dissolution of the Christian theory—which is fortunately impossible—might perhaps entail a moral retrogradation.

The above is by no means intended as a complete outline of the religious philosophy of Paul. We have aimed only at a clear definition of the character and scope of the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, at the time when it was first elaborated. We have now to notice the influence of that doctrine upon the development of Christologic speculation.

In neither or the four genuine epistles of Paul is Jesus described as superhuman, or as differing in nature from other men, save in his freedom from sin. As Baur has shown, “the proper nature of the Pauline Christ is human. He is a man, but a spiritual man, one in whom spirit or pneuma was the essential principle, so that he was spirit as well as man. The principle of an ideal humanity existed before Christ in the bright form of a typical man, but was manifested to mankind in the person of Christ.” Such, according to Baur, is Paul’s interpretation of the Messianic idea. Paul knows nothing of the miracles, of the supernatural conception, of the incarnation, or of the Logos. The Christ whom he preaches is the man Jesus, the founder of a new and spiritual order of humanity, as Adam was the father of humanity after the flesh. The resurrection is uniformly described by him as a manifestation of the power of Jehovah, not of Jesus himself. The later conception of Christ bursting the barred gates of Sheol, and arising by his own might to heaven, finds no warrant in the expressions of Paul. Indeed, it was essential to Paul’s theory of the Messiah as a new Adam, that he should be human and not divine; for the escape of a divine being from Sheol could afford no precedent and furnish no assurance of the future escape of human beings. It was expressly because the man Jesus had been rescued from the grave because of his spirituality, that other men might hope, by becoming spiritual like him, to be rescued also. Accordingly Paul is careful to state that “since through man came death, through man came also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. xv. 21); a passage which would look like an express denial of Christ’s superhuman character, were it probable that any of Paul’s contemporaries had ever conceived of Jesus as other than essentially human.

But though Paul’s Christology remained in this primitive stage, it contained the germs of a more advanced theory. For even Paul conceived of Jesus as a man wholly exceptional in spiritual character; or, in the phraseology of the time, as consisting to a larger extent of pneuma than any man who had lived before him. The question was sure to arise, Whence came this pneuma or spiritual quality? Whether the question ever distinctly presented itself to Paul’s mind cannot be determined. Probably it did not. In those writings of his which have come down to us, he shows himself careless of metaphysical considerations. He is mainly concerned with exhibiting the unsatisfactory character of Jewish Christianity, and with inculcating a spiritual morality, to which the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection is made to supply a surpassingly powerful sanction. But attempts to solve the problem were not long in coming. According to a very early tradition, of which the obscured traces remain in the synoptic gospels, Jesus received the pneuma at the time of his baptism, when the Holy Spirit, or visible manifestation of the essence of Jehovah, descended upon him and became incarnate in him. This theory, however, was exposed to the objection that it implied a sudden and entire transformation of an ordinary man into a person inspired or possessed by the Deity. Though long maintained by the Ebionites or primitive Christians, it was very soon rejected by the great body of the Church, which asserted instead that Jesus had been inspired by the Holy Spirit from the moment of his conception. From this it was but a step to the theory that Jesus was actually begotten by or of the Holy Spirit; a notion which the Hellenic mind, accustomed to the myths of Leda, Anchises, and others, found no difficulty in entertaining. According to the Gospel of the Hebrews, as cited by Origen, the Holy Spirit was the mother of Jesus, and Joseph was his father. But according to the prevailing opinion, as represented in the first and third synoptists, the relationship was just the other way. With greater apparent plausibility, the divine aeon was substituted for the human father, and a myth sprang up, of which the materialistic details furnished to the opponents of the new religion an opportunity for making the most gross and exasperating insinuations. The dominance of this theory marks the era at which our first and third synoptic gospels were composed,—from sixty to ninety years after the death of Jesus. In the luxuriant mythologic growth there exhibited, we may yet trace the various successive phases of Christologic speculation but imperfectly blended. In “Matthew” and “Luke” we find the original Messianic theory exemplified in the genealogies of Jesus, in which, contrary to historic probability (cf. Matt. xxii. 41-46), but in accordance with a time-honoured tradition, his pedigree is traced back to David; “Matthew” referring him to the royal line of Judah, while “Luke” more cautiously has recourse to an assumed younger branch. Superposed upon this primitive mythologic stratum, we find, in the same narratives, the account of the descent of the pneuma at the time of the baptism; and crowning the whole, there are the two accounts of the nativity which, though conflicting in nearly all their details, agree in representing the divine pneuma as the father of Jesus. Of these three stages of Christology, the last becomes entirely irreconcilable with the first; and nothing can better illustrate the uncritical character of the synoptists than the fact that the assumed descent of Jesus from David through his father Joseph is allowed to stand side by side with the account of the miraculous conception which completely negatives it. Of this difficulty “Matthew” is quite unconscious, and “Luke,” while vaguely noticing it (iii. 23), proposes no solution, and appears undisturbed by the contradiction.

Thus far the Christology with which we have been dealing is predominantly Jewish, though to some extent influenced by Hellenic conceptions. None of the successive doctrines presented in Paul, “Matthew,” and “Luke” assert or imply the pre-existence of Jesus. At this early period he was regarded as a human being raised to participation in certain attributes of divinity; and this was as far as the dogma could be carried by the Jewish metaphysics. But soon after the date of our third gospel, a Hellenic system of Christology arose into prominence, in which the problem was reversed, and Jesus was regarded as a semi-divine being temporarily lowered to participation in certain attributes of humanity. For such a doctrine Jewish mythology supplied no precedents; but the Indo-European mind was familiar with the conception of deity incarnate in human form, as in the avatars of Vishnu, or even suffering III the interests of humanity, as in the noble myth of Prometheus. The elements of Christology pre-existing in the religious conceptions of Greece, India, and Persia, are too rich and numerous to be discussed here. A very full account of them is given in Mr. R. W. Mackay’s acute and learned treatise on the “Religious Development of the Greeks and Hebrews{.}”

It was in Alexandria, where Jewish theology first came into contact with Hellenic and Oriental ideas, that the way was prepared for the dogma of Christ’s pre-existence. The attempt to rationalize the conception of deity as embodied in the Jehovah of the Old Testament gave rise to the class of opinions described as Gnosis, or Gnosticism. The signification of Gnosis is simply “rationalism,"—the endeavour to harmonize the materialistic statements of an old mythology with the more advanced spiritualistic philosophy of the time. The Gnostics rejected the conception of an anthropomorphic deity who had appeared visibly and audibly to the patriarchs; and they were the authors of the doctrine, very widely spread during the second and third centuries, that God could not in person have been the creator of the world. According to them, God, as pure spirit, could not act directly upon vile and gross matter. The difficulty which troubled them was curiously analogous to that which disturbed the Cartesians and the followers of Leibnitz in the seventeenth century; how was spirit to act upon matter, without ceasing, pro tanto, to be spirit? To evade this difficulty, the Gnostics postulated a series of emanations from God, becoming successively less and less spiritual and more and more material, until at the lowest end of the scale was reached the Demiurgus or Jehovah of the Old Testament, who created the world and appeared, clothed in material form, to the patriarchs. According to some of the Gnostics this lowest aeon or emanation was identical with the Jewish Satan, or the Ahriman of the Persians, who is called “the prince of this world,” and the creation of the world was an essentially evil act. But all did not share in these extreme opinions. In the prevailing, theory, this last of the divine emanations was identified with the “Sophia,” or personified “Wisdom,” of the Book of Proverbs (viii. 22-30), who is described as present with God before the foundation of the world. The totality of these aeons constituted the pleroma, or “fulness of God” (Coloss. i. 20; Eph. i. 23), and in a corollary which bears unmistakable marks of Buddhist influence, it was argued that, in the final consummation of things, matter should be eliminated and all spirit reunited with God, from whom it had primarily flowed.

It was impossible that such views as these should not soon be taken up and applied to the fluctuating Christology of the time. According to the “Shepherd of Hermas,” an apocalyptic writing nearly contemporary with the gospel of “Mark,” the aeon or son of God who existed previous to the creation was not the Christ, or the Sophia, but the Pneuma or Holy Spirit, represented in the Old Testament as the “angel of Jehovah.” Jesus, in reward for his perfect goodness, was admitted to a share in the privileges of this Pneuma (Reville, p. 39). Here, as M. Reville observes, though a Gnostic idea is adopted, Jesus is nevertheless viewed as ascending humanity, and not as descending divinity. The author of the “Clementine Homilies” advances a step farther, and clearly assumes the pre-existence of Jesus, who, in his opinion, was the pure, primitive man, successively incarnate in Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and finally in the Messiah or Christ. The author protests, in vehement language, against those Hellenists who, misled by their polytheistic associations, would elevate Jesus into a god. Nevertheless, his own hypothesis of pre-existence supplied at once the requisite fulcrum for those Gnostics who wished to reconcile a strict monotheism with the ascription of divine attributes to Jesus. Combining with this notion of pre-existence the pneumatic or spiritual quality attributed to Jesus in the writings of Paul, the Gnosticizing Christians maintained that Christ was an aeon or emanation from God, redeeming men from the consequences entailed by their imprisonment in matter. At this stage of Christologic speculation appeared the anonymous epistle to the “Hebrews,” and the pseudo-Pauline epistles to the “Colossians,” “Ephesians,” and “Philippians” (A. D. 130). In these epistles, which originated among the Pauline Christians, the Gnostic theosophy is skilfully applied to the Pauline conception of the scope and purposes of Christianity. Jesus is described as the creator of the world (Coloss. i. 16), the visible image of the invisible God, the chief and ruler of the “throues, dominions, principalities, and powers,” into which, in Gnostic phraseology, the emanations of God were classified. Or, according to “Colossians” and “Philippians,” all the aeons are summed up in him, in whom dwells the pleroma, or “fulness of God.” Thus Jesus is elevated quite above ordinary humanity, and a close approach is made to ditheism, although he is still emphatically subordinated to God by being made the creator of the world,—an office then regarded as incompatible with absolute divine perfection. In the celebrated passage, “Philippians” ii. 6-11, the aeon Jesus is described as being the form or visible manifestation of God, yet as humbling himself by taking on the form or semblance of humanity, and suffering death, in return for which he is to be exalted even above the archangels. A similar view is taken in “Hebrews"; and it is probable that to the growing favour with which these doctrines were received, we owe the omission of the miraculous conception from the gospel of “Mark,"—a circumstance which has misled some critics into assigning to that gospel an earlier date than to “Matthew” and “Luke.” Yet the fact that in this gospel Jesus is implicitly ranked above the angels (Mark xiii. 32), reveals a later stage of Christologic doctrine than that reached by the first and third synoptists; and it is altogether probable that, in accordance with the noticeable conciliatory disposition of this evangelist, the supernatural conception is omitted out of deference to the Gnosticizing theories of “Colossians” and “Philippians,” in which this materialistic doctrine seems to have had no assignable place. In “Philippians” especially, many expressions seem to verge upon Docetism, the extreme form of Gnosticism, according to which the human body of Jesus was only a phantom. Valentinus, who was contemporary with the Pauline writers of the second century, maintained that Jesus was not born of Mary by any process of conception, but merely passed through her, as light traverses a translucent substance. And finally Marcion (A. D. 140) carried the theory to its extreme limits by declaring that Jesus was the pure Pneuma or Spirit, who contained nothing in common with carnal humanity.

The pseudo-Pauline writers steered clear of this extravagant doctrine, which erred by breaking entirely with historic tradition, and was consequently soon condemned as heretical. Their language, though unmistakably Gnostic, was sufficiently neutral and indefinite to allow of their combination with earlier and later expositions of dogma, and they were therefore eventually received into the canon, where they exhibit a stage of opinion midway between that of Paul and that of the fourth gospel.

For the construction of a durable system of Christology, still further elaboration was necessary. The pre-existence of Jesus, as an emanation from God, in whom were summed up the attributes of the pleroma or full scale of Gnostic aeons, was now generally conceded. But the relation of this pleroqma to the Godhead of which it was the visible manifestation, needed to be more accurately defined. And here recourse was had to the conception of the “Logos,"—a notion which Philo had borrowed from Plato, lending to it a theosophic significance. In the Platonic metaphysics objective existence was attributed to general terms, the signs of general notions. Besides each particular man, horse, or tree, and besides all men, horses, and trees, in the aggregate, there was supposed to exist an ideal Man, Horse, and Tree. Each particular man, horse, or tree consisted of abstract existence plus a portion of the ideal man, horse, or tree. Sokrates, for instance, consisted of Existence, plus Animality, plus Humanity, plus Sokraticity. The visible world of particulars thus existed only by virtue of its participation in the attributes of the ideal world of universals. God created the world by encumbering each idea with an envelopment or clothing of visible matter; and since matter is vile or imperfect, all things are more or less perfect as they partake more or less fully of the idea. The pure unencumbered idea, the “Idea of ideas,” is the Logos, or divine Reason, which represents the sum-total of the activities which sustain the world, and serves as a mediator between the absolutely ideal God and the absolutely non-ideal matter. Here we arrive at a Gnostic conception, which the Philonists of Alexandria were not slow to appropriate. The Logos, or divine Reason, was identified with the Sophia, or divine Wisdom of the Jewish Gnostics, which had dwelt with God before the creation of the world. By a subtle play upon the double meaning of the Greek term (logos = “reason” or “word”), a distinction was drawn between the divine Reason and the divine Word. The former was the archctypal idea or thought of God, existing from all eternity; the latter was the external manifestation or realization of that idea which occurred at the moment of creation, when, according to Genesis, God SPOKE, and the world was.

In the middle of the second century, this Philonian theory was the one thing needful to add metaphysical precision to the Gnostic and Pauline speculations concerning the nature of Jesus. In the writings of Justin Martyr (A. D. 150-166), Jesus is for the first time identified with the Philonian Logos or “Word of God.” According to Justin, an impassable abyss exists between the Infinite Deity and the Finite World; the one cannot act upon the other; pure spirit cannot contaminate itself by contact with impure matter. To meet this difficulty, God evolves from himself a secondary God, the Logos,—yet without diminishing himself any more than a flame is diminished when it gives birth to a second flame. Thus generated, like light begotten of light (lumen de lumine), the Logos creates the world, inspires the ancient prophets with their divine revelations, and finally reveals himself to mankind in the person of Christ. Yet Justin sedulously guards himself against ditheism, insisting frequently and emphatically upon the immeasurable inferiority of the Logos as compared with the actual God (gr o ontws qeos).

We have here reached very nearly the ultimate phase of New Testament speculation concerning Jesus. The doctrines enunciated by Justin became eventually, with slight modification, the official doctrines of the Church; yet before they could thus be received, some further elaboration was needed. The pre-existing Logos-Christ of Justin was no longer the human Messiah of the first and third gospels, born of a woman, inspired by the divine Pneuma, and tempted by the Devil. There was danger that Christologic speculation might break quite loose from historic tradition, and pass into the metaphysical extreme of Docetism. Had this come to pass, there might perhaps have been a fatal schism in the Church. Tradition still remained Ebionitish; dogma had become decidedly Gnostic; how were the two to be moulded into harmony with each other? Such was the problem which presented itself to the author of the fourth gospel (A. D. 170-180). As M. Reville observes, “if the doctrine of the Logos were really to be applied to the person of Jesus, it was necessary to remodel the evangelical history.” Tradition must be moulded so as to fit the dogma, but the dogma must be restrained by tradition from running into Docetic extravagance. It must be shown historically how “the Word became flesh” and dwelt on earth (John i. 14), how the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth were the deeds of the incarnate Logos, in whom was exhibited the pleroma or fulness of the divine attributes. The author of the fourth gospel is, like Justin, a Philonian Gnostic; but he differs from Justin in his bold and skilful treatment of the traditional materials supplied by the earlier gospels. The process of development in the theories and purposes of Jesus, which can be traced throughout the Messianic descriptions of the first gospel, is entirely obliterated in the fourth. Here Jesus appears at the outset as the creator of the world, descended from his glory, but destined soon to be reinstated. The title “Son of Man” has lost its original significance, and become synonymous with “Son of God.” The temptation, the transfiguration, the scene in Gethsemane, are omitted, and for the latter is substituted a Philonian prayer. Nevertheless, the author carefully avoids the extremes of Docetism or ditheism. Not only does he represent the human life of Jesus as real, and his death as a truly physical death, but he distinctly asserts the inferiority of the Son to the Father (John xiv. 28). Indeed, as M. Reville well observes, it is part of the very notion of the Logos that it should be imperfect relatively to the absolute God; since it is only its relative imperfection which allows it to sustain relations to the world and to men which are incompatible with absolute perfection, from the Philonian point of view. The Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity finds no support in the fourth gospel, any more than in the earlier books collected in the New Testament.

The fourth gospel completes the speculative revolution by which the conception of a divine being lowered to humanity was substituted for that of a human being raised to divinity. We have here travelled a long distance from the risen Messiah of the genuine Pauline epistles, or the preacher of righteousness in the first gospel. Yet it does not seem probable that the Church of the third century was thoroughly aware of the discrepancy. The authors of the later Christology did not regard themselves as adding new truths to Christianity, but merely as giving a fuller and more consistent interpretation to what must have been known from the outset. They were so completely destitute of the historic sense, and so strictly confined to the dogmatic point of view, that they projected their own theories back into the past, and vituperated as heretics those who adhered to tradition in its earlier and simpler form. Examples from more recent times are not wanting, which show that we are dealing here with an inveterate tendency of the human mind. New facts and new theories are at first condemned as heretical or ridiculous; but when once firmly established, it is immediately maintained that every one knew them before. After the Copernican astronomy had won the day, it was tacitly assumed that the ancient Hebrew astronomy was Copernican, and the Biblical conception of the universe as a kind of three-story house was ignored, and has been, except by scholars, quite forgotten. When the geologic evidence of the earth’s immense antiquity could no longer be gainsaid, it was suddenly ascertained that the Bible had from the outset asserted that antiquity; and in our own day we have seen an elegant popular writer perverting the testimony of the rocks and distorting the Elohistic cosmogony of the Pentateuch, until the twain have been made to furnish what Bacon long ago described as “a heretical religion and a false philosophy.” Now just as in the popular thought of the present day the ancient Elohist is accredited with a knowledge of modern geology and astronomy, so in the opinion of the fourth evangelist and his contemporaries the doctrine of the Logos-Christ was implicitly contained in the Old Testament and in the early traditions concerning Jesus, and needed only to be brought into prominence by a fresh interpretation. Hence arose the fourth gospel, which was no more a conscious violation of historic data than Hugh Miller’s imaginative description of the “Mosaic Vision of Creation.” Its metaphysical discourses were readily accepted as equally authentic with the Sermon on the Mount. Its Philonian doctrines were imputed to Paul and the apostles, the pseudo-Pauline epistles furnishing the needful texts. The Ebionites—who were simply Judaizing Christians, holding in nearly its original form the doctrine of Peter, James, and John—were ejected from the Church as the most pernicious of heretics; and so completely was their historic position misunderstood and forgotten, that, in order to account for their existence, it became necessary to invent an eponymous heresiarch, Ebion, who was supposed to have led them astray from the true faith!

The Christology of the fourth gospel is substantially the same as that which was held in the next two centuries by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Arius. When the doctrine of the Trinity was first announced by Sabellius (A. D. 250-260), it was formally condemned as heretical, the Church being not yet quite prepared to receive it. In 269 the Council of Antioch solemnly declared that the Son was NOT consubstantial with the Father,—a declaration which, within sixty years, the Council of Nikaia was destined as solemnly to contradict. The Trinitarian Christology struggled long for acceptance, and did not finally win the victory until the end of the fourth century. Yet from the outset its ultimate victory was hardly doubtful. The peculiar doctrines of the fourth gospel could retain their integrity only so long as Gnostic ideas were prevalent. When Gnosticism declined in importance, and its theories faded out of recollection, its peculiar phraseology received of necessity a new interpretation. The doctrine that God could not act directly upon the world sank gradually into oblivion as the Church grew more and more hostile to the Neo-Platonic philosophy. And when this theory was once forgotten, it was inevitable that the Logos, as the creator of the world, should be raised to an equality or identity with God himself. In the view of the fourth evangelist, the Creator was necessarily inferior to God; in the view of later ages, the Creator could be none other than God. And so the very phrases which had most emphatically asserted the subordination of the Son were afterward interpreted as asserting his absolute divinity. To the Gnostic formula, lumen de lumine, was added the Athanasian scholium, Deum verum de Deo vero; and the Trinitarian dogma of the union of persons in a single Godhead became thus the only available logical device for preserving the purity of monotheism.

  February, 1870.



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