Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
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§ II. The Teaching and First Constitution of the Church at Jerusalem.

From its very birth the Christian Church is called to defend itself against the attacks of its adversaries, and to contend for the claims of truth. The opposition to Christianity assume from the outset various forms. The first to be encountered is that of scoffing unbelief. This foe has not yet sharpened and polished the weapons with which, in subsequent times, it will wound by the hands of a Celsus and a Lucian. But was not the laugh of the scorner heard on the very day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church? Did not his voice cry, "These men are full of new wine?" And from the scorner's point of view it was a fair conclusion. The supernatural is absurd to those who discern nothing beyond the circle of the visible; and herein is its peculiar glory. The laugh of unbelief has never ceased in all these eighteen centuries to ring through the world. But ridicule alone was not enough. Calumny and false insinuations must be enlisted in the same cause. The miracles of the primitive Church were incontestable; they could not be brought in question, but they might, like those of Jesus Christ, be ascribed to witchcraft, and to the powers of darkness. The arts of magic were much believed in at this epoch, as in all periods of religious crisis. There was, therefore, profound subtilty in likening the Apostles to common magicians. Such an idea is evidently present in the question of the Sanhedrim to Peter and John, after the healing of the impotent man: "By what power or by what name have ye done this?" Acts iv, 7. The enemies of the Apostles did not admit that they were the organs of divine power. The influence, then, by which they made so much stir must be diabolical or magical. Side by side with this open unbelief, the primitive Church had to encounter the ignorance and prejudices of a people of formalists and materialists. They had to establish the claims of Jesus Christ; that is, of a humble and crucified Messiah, before a nation which was ready to believe only in a glorious king—a new Maccabeus.

To meet all objections, the Church had ready a simple and popular apology. We at once admit that they appealed without hesitation to the testimony of reason for all the facts coming within its competence. Thus, in reply to the absurd charge of drunkenness brought against the disciples, Peter urges that it is but the third hour of the day—the hour, that is, of morning prayer, before which the Jews never presumed to eat or drink. Acts ii, 15. But the advocates of Christianity do not pause long on such vindications. They have a line of argument peculiarly their own.

It is to be observed that the miracles are rather the occasion than the cause of the apology which accompanies them. Peter does not say, "Believe because of this amazing gift of tongues, or these miraculous cures." He says, on the contrary, "Believe in the reality, the divinity, of the miracles on the scriptural and moral grounds, which show their necessity and establish their lawfulness." These miracles certainly contributed to the rapid spread of the new faith by the impression they produced upon the people; but so little are they the pivot on which the apology of the Apostles turns, that they are not the proof, but rather the object of the proof. We except one single miracle, which is the essential miracle of Christianity. The resurrection of Christ is not merely a marvel; it is also a great religious fact. It is the glorious seal of redemption. Therefore it occupies the first place in the preaching of the Apostles. Peter constantly appeals to it both before the people and before the Sanhedrim. Acts ii, 32; iii, 15; iv, 10; v, 30. The Apostles regarded themselves preeminently as the witnesses of the resurrection. Nothing, in fact, gave so solid a foundation to the new religion as this splendid triumph of Jesus Christ over death. It was the proof of his divine mission and of that of the Church, and the seal affixed by the hand of God to teaching in his name. "Between us and you," the Apostles seem to say, "God has judged: by raising up Jesus he has sovereignly declared that he was indeed Christ the Lord."

Next to the proof drawn from the resurrection of the Lord, that which is most prominent in the discourses of Peter is the evidence from Scripture. He sets himself to show the harmony of the facts, in process of accomplishment, with Jewish prophecy. The first apologist of the Church could take no other ground. An appeal addressed to Jews by Christians of Jewish extraction must be made to a tribunal recognized by all, and this was no other than Holy Scripture. If the Apostles at Jerusalem succeeded in showing that the facts of which they were the witnesses had been foretold in the Scriptures, every upright Jew must be enlisted on their side. The Christian apology did not rise, in this its first stage, to the height to which it was carried by St. John and St. Paul. In form and spirit it was limited and characterized by the views so prominently set forth in the first Gospel.

Thus Peter commences by showing that the miracle of Pentecost is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, who foretold the outpouring of the prophetic Spirit at the time of Messiah's appearing. Acts ii, 17-20. He points out that the resurrection of Jesus Christ had been predicted in Psalm xvi, which could not have reference to David, since the sepulcher of that king was still to be seen in Jerusalem. Acts ii, 25-34. In his second discourse, as in his defense before the Sanhedrim, Peter shows that the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, which were such a stumbling-block to the Jews, were set forth in the prophecies of the Old Testament. "This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner." Acts iii, 18; iv, 11, 12. The Apostle, like St. Matthew, uses great freedom in quoting the Old Testament. Absorbed with the idea, so true in itself, that the thought of Messiah runs through the whole of the sacred oracles, he often turns into positive prophecy declarations of Scripture which have only an indirect reference to Gospel facts.

In this first apology of Christianity many appeals are made to the conscience. The conclusion of Peter's discourses is always an invitation to repentance, and this invitation he urges by boldly charging home the great crime committed by the Jewish people: "You crucified the Lord of glory," he cries again and again to the murderers of Jesus Christ. He darts this terrible accusation like a barbed arrow into the hearts of his hearers, and thus he touches their vulnerable point. He pierces their conscience, and strong conviction is followed by multiplied conversions. Thus, the apology of the primitive Church is not simply defensive: it is able to take the offensive, and to carry the warfare into the hearts of its adversaries with all the authority of truth and the ardor of love. "The Apostles understood," says Calvin, "that the Gospel is also fire and sword."

In estimating the doctrinal teaching of the Apostles at this period, it is needful to avoid exaggerating or detracting from the influence of the new ideas, which were at the basis of their belief. If there is full evidence that they declared the truth of Christ in all its essentials, the evidence seems to us no less clear that they still enveloped that truth in Jewish forms.

It would be utterly unjust, however, to confound the primitive Church with this or that Jewish sect. It clung most closely to the prophetic portion of the Old Testament, that is to say, to the elements in the sacred book which best harmonized with itself. Never has transition been more admirably accomplished than that from the old covenant to the new, for the very simple reason that the latter struck all its roots down into the former. In the period which immediately followed the Pentecost the primitive Church was not called to break the tie which bound it to the temple. It still celebrated the Levitical worship. The assiduous attendance of the Apostles in the holy place is very notable; and they scrupulously observe the ceremonial law, which, in their view, still stands in its integrity. If they admit that all the nations of the earth are to be blessed in the Seed of Abraham, they have not yet comprehended that in Christ Jesus all national barriers are done away, and that the privileges and the prescriptions of Judaism are alike abolished. They still believe in the necessity of circumcision. But, on the other hand, they are broadly distinguished from their nation at large, not only by reaction against the formalism of the Pharisees, but also by their faith in Jesus Christ. This, their simple and artless faith, has in it no speculative element. The divinity of Messiah is not formally stated in Peter's preaching, but it comes out spontaneously. What correspondence is there between the Messiah of the Ebionites, the Prophet of the "Clementines," and the Christ of St. Peter? On the one hand we have a simple man, like Adam or Moses; on the other, we have the Saviour represented as "seated at the right hand of God," (Acts ii, 33, 34;) "the Prince of life," (Acts iii, 15;) the One apart from whom there is no salvation, (Acts iv, 12;) Him who is spoken of in Psalm ii as the Lord's Anointed, and his first begotten Son. Acts iv, 26. Let it not be forgotten that these illustrious names are given to Christ at a time when his power had not yet been gloriously manifested in the extension and establishment of his Church. Evidently, by this recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of Jesus Christ, the Church cast away all Jewish prejudices. Enough stress has not been laid on the conclusion of Peter's sermons, which always sets forth faith in Christ as the infallible means of pardon and of regeneration. And again, is it not in his name that all are to be baptized? The relation between Christ and the sinner is represented by Peter, as it was by Jesus Christ himself. Of this unique relation between the soul and the Saviour, St. Paul and St. John, drawing their inspiration from the last discourses of the Master, will presently unfold to us the profound significance.1414All these observations are called for by the bold statements of the Tübingen School. Schwegler, "Nach Apost. Zeitalt.," p. 10; Baur, in his book on St. Paul; Ritschl, "Enstehung der Altcatholischen Kirche," pp. 108, 109, affirm the identity of primitive Christianity with Judaism. They rest their assertion on such expressions as "Jesus, a man approved of God." Acts ii, 22. But they take no notice of all the other declarations which we have mentioned.

Christian doctrine had, it is evident, at this time, no systematic form. It was subsequently to develop all its consequences, to define its outlines, and, in the repeated shocks of a salutary conflict, to cast away its Jewish garment. This first era of the Church was to be the period, not of conflict and debate, but of the manifestation of the direct, sovereign and extraordinary action of the Divine Spirit. The history of the Church itself, properly speaking, was not to begin till later. The first Christians had no thought of a history. They believed in an immediate return of Jesus Christ "to restore all things." They supposed that the end of the world was at hand, and that the last days foretold by Joel had begun to dawn. Acts ii, 17; iii, 19, 20. Thus they awaited those days of refreshing from the presence of the Lord which were to inaugurate the second coming of Christ.

Ecclesiastical organization was as far from being fixed, in this first period, as was the doctrine of the Church from being formulated. A Church must be founded before it can have a constitution. The river is as yet too near its source to flow in a regularly-channeled bed. We find, therefore, no office, properly so called, nor any fixed rule for the admission of new members. All offices are centered in the apostolate. The Apostles receive gifts for the community. Acts iv, 35. They attend to the distribution of alms, as well as to preaching. Acts ii, 42; vi, 2. When some subject of general interest is mooted, they convene a meeting of the faithful. It cannot be disputed that they exercised a large authority in the primitive Church. The apostolate at first united in one all the various offices, which were by degrees to become detached. It is, then, of great importance that we should rightly conceive the situation.

We must set aside, first of all, any ideas of sacerdotalism. It must not be forgotten that, at the period when the apostolic authority was used with most power in the Church, the Church still acknowledged the Jewish priesthood. Besides, Christianity recognizes no priesthood but that of Christ, communicated by faith to the Christian. The Apostles were not the sole organs of inspiration, for the Holy Spirit which was promised was granted to all the disciples assembled in the upper chamber a few days after the ascension. We have fully shown that on the day of Pentecost all the Christians were filled with the Holy Ghost. It is incontestable that in the primitive Church some private Christians, not invested with the apostolic office, had more influence than the majority of the Apostles; it is enough to cite the names of Stephen, Philip, and James. In what, then, consisted the apostolic office? Their name of messenger has nothing exclusive in it, since all Christians are the witnesses of Jesus Christ. Their number supplies us with one element for the resolution of the question. They were twelve. Evidently this symbolical number points to the twelve tribes of the chosen people. The Apostles are the ideal representation of the true Israel, and answer, in the spiritual ancestry, to the twelve sons of Jacob. They clearly do not represent the priestly tribe, but the twelve tribes; that is to say, the people of God as a whole. In other words, they are the nucleus of the Church, so made by Jesus Christ himself. Apostolical succession is not, then, the privilege of a certain portion of the body, but of the whole; the Christian Church itself carries on the apostolic office. There is nothing in such a conception derogatory to the authority of the Apostles. In them were concentrated, so to speak, all the gifts bestowed on the Christians of the primitive Church, for they were the immediate witnesses of Christ. This qualification of being a direct witness is that specially required by Peter, when the place of Judas is to be filled. Acts i, 21, 22. In short, an apostle is pre-eminently a witness of Jesus Christ, and officially so recognized; he is by this very characteristic the authentic representative of the primitive Church. His authority is not in any way defined; it varies in the case of various apostles, according to the nature of the gifts of each, but it is exercised most largely during this period, while the Church is yet young and unorganized. The primitive apostolate, founded upon personal contact with Jesus Christ, was not designed to be transmitted; it was to give place subsequently to a more spiritual apostleship.1515Some have discovered a sort of anticipation of the diaconate in this office of the young men who carried out the bodies of Ananias and Sapphira. But this is quite a gratuitous supposition.

The conditions of entrance into the Church are at first extremely simple. No guaranty of preparation, of instruction and examination is required, because conversion has at this period an exceptionally sudden and supernatural character. The sign of initiation into the new society is baptism. The gift of the Holy Spirit is so far from being bound to the material act, that sometimes it precedes immersion. The formula of baptism was not pronounced in full; the neophytes were simply baptized in the name of the Lord.1616Acts ii, 38. Ἑπὶ τᾡ ὁνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ Acts x, 48. The Church, though not separated from the temple, felt nevertheless that it constituted a body apart, to which adherence must be given. Its discipline shares in the miraculous character of this period, as is shown by the history of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts v, 1-11. Their death, which it may be observed does not necessarily imply their perdition, since there may have been a coincident awakening of conscience, is the effect of the direct and terrible discipline of the Divine Spirit. It reveals the will of God, that in his Church itself there should be a burning crucible, in which the pure gold should be twice purified.

The worship of the primitive Church is also of an exceptional character. The disciples are continually in the temple; they go up to it at the hour of prayer and of sacrifice. Yet they have also their secret worship, celebrated in the upper room at Jerusalem.1717See Harnack, "Der Christliche Gemeinde Gottesdienst im Apost. Zeitalt.," pp. 69-131. This, if it borrows some forms from the synagogue, has nevertheless a stamp of originality. We recognize in it the essential elements by which it will be ultimately characterized. Teaching, adoration, song, prayer, and the eucharistic meal, are its principal features.1818In Acts ii, 42, "the apostles' doctrine" represents the element of teaching, and "the breaking of bread" the eucharistic feast.

We must be especially careful not to deprive it of its primitive simplicity. The teaching did not take the form of preaching, properly so called; it was an unstudied speech, springing from the heart. The Apostles were not the only speakers; the other Christians spoke as freely as they of the wonderful works of God. Acts ii, 4. The hymn and prayer borrowed their forms of solemn poetry from Old Testament prophecy; the whole assembly took part, but in what manner is not clearly described. Acts iv, 24. The eucharistic meal of the Church at Jerusalem bears no resemblance whatever to what is called the Sacrament of the Altar. The first Christians still held themselves in subjection to the ceremonial law; thus for them the altar was in the temple, and nowhere else. The Lord's Supper could not then have any possible analogy with a sacrifice. It was not kept distinct at this period from an ordinary meal; it was the conclusion of ordinary meals, as it had been the conclusion of the Passover feast. The commemoration of redemption took place every time that Christians gathered around the family table. St. Luke says positively that it was observed from house to house.1919Κλῶντές τε κατ᾽ οἶκον ἄρτον, μετελάμβανον τροφῆς ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει. Acts ii, 46. The Agapæ were only introduced in the next period.2020When Thiersch and Harnack assert that the first Christians observed the Sabbath from this time, they speak without proof. St. Luke declares that Christian worship was celebrated without distinction of days. Καθ᾽ ἡμέραν. Acts ii, 46.

From all these observations, it appears that the distinction between the ordinary and the religious life had no existence for the primitive Church, because its ordinary life was raised to a height truly divine. Hence the supernatural character of its piety. The Church is not satisfied, as afterward, with infusing the spirit of Christianity into all the various social relations; it translates the pure ideal at once into the real, and banishes poverty from its midst by the voluntary generosity of the rich. Acts iv, 34, 35. "As many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them." There was nothing absolute or compulsory in this community of goods; it was based upon free consent; but it was certainly for the time almost fully carried out in Jerusalem.2121The words of Peter to Ananias (Acts v, 4) prove that there was perfect freedom of action. This community of goods was not absolute, for we read that the Church was gathered together in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark. Acts xii, 12. Neander seems, however, to depreciate unduly the significance of the first community of possessions. "Pflanz," pp. 39, 40. The history of the Church thus commences with a glorious Sabbath, in which every thing is marvelous and exceptional; this precedes the long week of toil and struggle which is even now far from ended, just as divine grace precedes human effort in the Christian life.

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