In concluding this chapter some attention must be given to another important aspect of the new view of the New Testament, consisting of the distinct types of Christianity which it discovers within its pages. For not all the books comprised in this collection of Sacred writings afford us either the same conception of Jesus Christ, or the same body of doctrines ; and very much in all of them is quite different from the Master’s own simple, spiritual teaching. As briefly as possible, and in a general way only, the broad characteristics of the several principal types may be here indicated, in their probable historical order.
1. The writings of the apostle Paul give us the earliest interpretation of the gospel, dating from the first generation after the Master’s death, or from the period 4760 A. D. They show us Jesus, not only as the Jewish Messiah, but as the Christ for all the worlda spiritualized Messiah, lifted out of and above all national or earthly limitations; who in his death on the cross some-how satisfied the claims of the Jewish law and for-ever cancelled all obligation thereto on the part of mankind; who therefore broke down all middle walls of partition between Jews and gentiles ; and who opened a new dispensation of heavenly truth and grace, spiritual and free, for the whole human family. There is thus in these writings the first distinct note of universality for Christianity, and to their great author, more than to all the other apostles, are we indebted for its world-wide mission. It is impossible to state Paul’s full thought about Jesus and his work in a few words. Let it suffice, for the present purpose, merely to say that he conceived Christ to be the Head of a new spiritual order in the world, a “Second Adam,” the medium of God’s gift of the Spirit to mankind, imparting eternal (that is, spiritual) life to all who by faith embrace him. He is thus the “mediator between God and man,” who must reign until all enemies are put under his feet, abolishing even death itself. As such a mediatorial regent, he is to return to earth shortly, when a resurrection of “the dead in Christ” shall take place, together with a transformation of the living believers, each of whom “shall be changed” and be given “a spiritual body” “like unto his own glorious body ;” and “God shall be all in all.”
Of the wonderful influence of this Pauline presentation of the gospel, not only upon the early Church but upon the whole Church in all the centuriesmaking for spirituality, vitality, liberty, evangelistic zeal, a sublime and serene faith, a victorious courage and joythere is no room here to speak. Happy the man who truly understands Paul ! One need not entirely think the apostle’s thought in order to appreciate the nobility of his character and the salutariness of his great work. At any rate it is essential that one should clearly perceive his distinctive position if he is to know the New Testament as it really is.
2. Passing over some slight modifications of the Pauline view, contained in such writings as the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians; and not stopping to try to state the peculiarities of the teachings of I Peter, James, Jude, the Revelation, and II Peter, we may notice next, among the principal types of Christianity to be distinguished in the literature of the New Testament, thato of the Letter to the Hebrews, whose author is unknown. This book gives us a picture of Christ as a super-human and preexistent beinga Son of God, “appointed heir of all things,” through whom the worlds were made, the brightness of the divine glory, the express image of the Divine Person, and upholding all things by the word of his power; but made for a little while lower than the angels, thus condescending to be born into our human world, partaking of flesh and blood so as to identify himself with humanity, being tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin, and becoming perfect through suffering; ordained to be a Great High Priest, sacrificing his body, once for all, for the sins of mankind, and entering into the holy place in the heavens, where he intercedes with God for men; and who, by means of this whole experience, tasted death for every man, destroying him that had the power of death, that is the devil, and so delivering them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. His chief function, thus begun on earth and continued in heaven, is to open a life of holiness to the children of men through the sufficient atonement which he makes for their transgressions, and through the assurance which he gives them of a “rest” that they may enter into if they do not “draw back unto perdition.” This letter is believed to date from about 7585 A. D.
3. In the Synoptic Gospels we find the next leading interpretation of the life and teaching of the Master, emboding a type of Christianity quite distinct from those above indicated. These gospels, as we have seen, gradually took shape and are not to be assigned to precise dates. They clearly reflect, however, the facts and views which became well established and widely circulated in the generation immediately following Paul’s deaththat is to say, in the period 6090 A. D. In the main the Synoptics present us with Jesus as the true Jewish Messiah, spoken of nearly always as “the Son of Man,” whose Hebrew lineage is traced, and who came to “fulfil the Law and the Prophets.” This is more especially the emphatic note in Matthew, which is pronouncedly Jewish as compared with Luke. In all three gospels the crucifixion appears to be unexpected, even by Jesus himself at first, and unto the very last by his disciples; and consequently the resurrection came to them (notwithstanding his warnings and promises) as a great surprise, marvelously attesting him as the Anointed One, indeed. Thereupon he became the glorified Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, in a grander sense than any had ever dreamed; and his speedy return “in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” was thence-forth eagerly awaited. There is little in these gospels to necessitate any other than a humanitarian view of the nature of Jesus, although the supernatural element pervades them in the form of God’s miraculous providence.
4. The Johannine type of Christianity, expressed in the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles of John, exhibits Jesus as the preexistent “Son of God,” the divine Logos, descending from heaven to earth to reveal the Supreme Father. Being “from above” while his associates are “from beneath,” he moves among men as a superhuman personality, having a mysterious power over earthly conditions. Yet his humanity is emphasized in the fact that “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us ; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” He came to be “the light of the world,” redeeming his followers from “darkness” and giving them “the light of life”giving “eternal life” to all who should believe on him. He came in love to disclose the infinite love of God, and to establish love as the ruling force in human hearts, overcoming sin and filling society with the beauty and joy of holy love. At last, through his death and resurrection, he returned to the glory which he had with the Father before the world was, and promised to send the Comforter to lead his disciples into all truth, peace, and divine fellowship. The conception and treatment are exalted, profound, and spiritual in the highest degree, and the Fourth Gospel has been well called “The Heart of Christ.”
Now it is plain that what we have in these several instances is, not merely statements of the facts in the life and teaching of Jesus, but also theories of his place in the spiritual economy of God. The respective writers not only report, but they also interpret, explain, philosophize, as best they can, for the benefit of their readers; that is to say, they construe the wonderful life-story with all the knowledge, faith, hope, and love which they possess; and the very fact that they do this, however differently, attests the remarkable impression which the character of Jesus made upon his friends.
It is also plain that these various theories can not be exactly harmonized, and that we should no longer try to harmonize them under the notion that all parts of the New Testament must be expected to tell one and the same story, to teach one and the same doctrine. Rather we must seek to go behind each writer’s interpretation, and look at the facts for ourselves, and put our own construction upon them in the light of the largest knowledge and the most spiritual insight of our own time. Then we shall quickly discover that, through all readings and misreadings, the great Master inevitably makes his own powerful impression upon us, and that, within the drapery with which human thought and affection have clothed him, he stands commanding and supreme in his moral and religious genius. Because of the grandeur of his personality, and because all the writings of the New Testament relate to him, we may say that the several types of Christianity distinguished in its pages do, after all, like commingling lights in a sanctuary, blend more or less perfectly in their influence on our minds and hearts as they are suffused by the radiance and beauty of his own pure character and spirit.
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.