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§ I. The Two Conferences.
THE Christian Church had reached a critical moment. It had already long passed out of the peaceful upper chamber at Jerusalem. Important questions had arisen which clamored for solution. It must be decided if a Judaizing Christianity or a Christianity of broader principles was to govern the Churches gathered from among the heathen, A great step in the path of emancipation had been taken when circumcision had been declared not obligatory in the case of Gentile converts, and they had thus been placed on the same level with Jews by birth. This innovation had been introduced by Paul, and it implied that he possessed authority equal to that of the twelve Apostles. Hence arose two critical questions on which minds were deeply stirred and greatly divided. The first referred to circumcision. Is it lawful, it was asked, to abrogate an institution consecrated by the practice of the Church? The question was not now confined, as in the instance of the conversion of Cornelius, to an isolated case, or the baptism of a single family; it embraced all the thousands of the uncircumcised. The second question was touching the apostleship of Paul. Had he the right to use such large liberty in his chosen field of action? Might he thus, without even consulting with the Church at Jerusalem, introduce such important changes? In other words, was he truly an apostle? Of these two questions, the one was of general interest, the other personal to Paul. The first demanded open deliberation in presence of the whole Church; while the second, which was of a more delicate nature, might more fitly be discussed in private. Two conferences, therefore, took place simultaneously at Jerusalem, the one private, among the Apostles themselves, (Gal. ii, 1-11,) the other public, and with the assistance of the whole Church. Acts xv, 6.
But before following in detail these important deliberations, we shall do well to place ourselves, as far as possible, in the midst of the various conflicting influences which gave occasion to them. It has been asserted that the conflict was essentially one between St. Paul and the other Apostles, who, we are told, had not in any respect advanced beyond the limits of Judaism. This theory is contradicted alike by the explicit declarations of St. Paul and by the narrative of Luke. We have already sketched the history of the Church at Jerusalem up to this period. We have seen that, while still continuing to observe the ordinances of the law, the Church regarded itself as forming a separate society, the basis of which was faith in Jesus Christ. It had already constructed its first simple organization. It had also, in principle, recognized the calling of the Gentiles, though without a full comprehension of all the consequences of that concession. The majority of the Christians of this Church were under the influence of James, the Lord's brother. The opposition raised against Paul at Jerusalem cannot be ascribed to any of the Apostles. He tells us, in his letter to the Galatians, how readily they gave to him the right hand of fellowship. Gal. ii, 9. But the primitive Church had not more power than any other to preserve itself wholly from the intrusion of sectarian influence. The presence of a few hot-headed bigots was enough to sow the seeds of discord. It would be impossible to suppose that none such found their way into the Church, in the multitude of the early-baptized converts. The spirit of Pharisaism is indestructible upon earth; it can assume any form, and it is not, therefore, surprising to find it in the very Church which was the object of Pharisaic persecution. These men of narrow soul, taking advantage of the respect and affection shown by the Christians to Judaism, sought to transfuse into the new religion the pride and prejudices of the Jews of the decline. Actuated by their national exclusiveness and intolerant bigotry, they showed a fanatic zeal for the ancient privileges of Israel. Paul does not hesitate to call them false brethren. Acts xv, 1; Gal. ii, 4. They heard with indignation of the results of his first missionary journey. Some of them went privily to Antioch, to spy out the conduct of their great adversary, to oppose his views, and to arrest, if it might be so, the liberty of practice introduced into the Churches formed under his influence. They attacked at once the person and the principles of the Apostle, questioning his authority, and obstinately maintaining the permanent obligation of circumcision. Acts xv, 1.
It was impossible for Paul and his followers not to offer an energetic resistance to such interference, and it was probably by his advice that the Church at Antioch determined to carry the question before the Church at Jerusalem. Let us not lose sight of this circumstance, which is important, as it proves that the Church at Jerusalem had no share in raising the discussion, and that those who were the first agitators had no right whatever to speak in its name; that, on the contrary, the Christians at Antioch had full confidence in it. St. Paul himself distinguishes between the public and the private conference. "I communicated," he says, "to them of Jerusalem,9595This refers to the public conference. but privately to them which were of reputation,9696κατ᾽ ἰδίαν. Gal. ii, 2. This is an allusion to the private conference. that Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles."
The moment was full of grave issues for the Apostle; it was a decisive crisis, from which his authority must come out either seriously compromised or sanctioned before the Church. As he himself says, the point to be resolved was, "if by any means he should run, or had run in vain," (Gal. ii, 2;) in other words, if his apostleship was to be recognized or not. Paul brought forward the question in a manner which admitted of no compromise or equivocation. He had with him a young converted Greek, named Titus, who had never been circumcised. By bringing him to Jerusalem he came to an overt rupture with the Judaizing party; he affirmed his right, and used the disputed freedom.
It is not difficult to form an idea of the points debated in the private conferences. The later polemics of St. Paul give us valuable hints on this subject, for his adversaries constantly repeated the same charges against him. The great objection to his apostleship was drawn from the difference existing between him and the primitive Apostles. He had not, like them, lived with Jesus Christ; for he was yet a fierce persecutor of the Church when the twelve were already governing it with authority. Paul met this objection by declaring that "God accepteth no man's person," (Gal. ii, 6;) and that, in the choice of his instruments, precedent forms no law.
To those who demanded that he should have received his vocation by direct transmission from the hands of the twelve Apostles, he replied with equal frankness and boldness, "They added nothing to me."9797Οὐδὲν προσανέθεντο. Gal. ii, 6. He sought, for the steps he took, no authority from those who had gone before him. The question, which was at first simply a personal one, soon became general. Paul raises it to the height of those great principles which animated all his ministry. He appeals, in support of his apostleship, to that free, sovereign grace of God, which is not limited by precedent, merit, or institution. The same grace which made him a Christian made him an apostle. Having done the greater, it was assuredly able to do the less. His title is in no way inferior to that of the twelve. Without grace, Peter would have been no more an apostle than he; with it, their calling was the same. Gal. ii, 8. If the question is raised, by what signs shall they recognize this second apostolate? the Apostle's reply is, that in these signs there is nothing arbitrary. They are to be as clear as the light of day. The grace which makes the Christian is demonstrated by its efficacy, by its results. And so, likewise, is the grace which makes the apostle. Let him be tried by this test. "He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles." Gal. ii, 8. Paul placed the Churches founded by himself side by side with those founded by Peter. The first Apostles could point to the work in Jerusalem and in Samaria; he to the mission work at Antioch, Paphos, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra, and to all the young and flourishing Churches founded by him. What higher demonstration of efficacious grace could there be than such signs as these, and who would dare to dispute the legitimacy of so fruitful an apostleship?
This argument of Paul appeared irresistible to the men, who, from the extraordinary consideration they enjoyed, may be regarded as the arbiters in the dispute. It is impossible, except under the bias of very strong preconception, to pretend to gather from the history that Peter, James, and John were at the head of the adversaries of Paul, when Paul himself so distinctly draws the line between them and the "false brethren," who had calumniated him, and so explicitly declares their readiness to recognize his apostleship. Gal. ii, 9. The result of the conference is clearly indicated by the Epistle to the Galatians. The Apostles divide among them the field of Christian missions, or rather, they accept the division already made by God. While Peter and James continue to devote themselves chiefly to the Jews, Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles; but in this division of labor they are none the less united, and James and Peter urge Paul to remember the poor Churches in Palestine, and to send to them the offerings of the young Churches gathered out of paganism. What an admirable method for preserving unity in diversity! Love serves as an effectual bond among the Churches, and there is no need to lay upon them the yoke of an external and legal uniformity. The importance of this conference cannot be questioned: it effected the recognition of the full apostleship of Paul, it gave, by anticipation, sanction to the ministry of all whom in any age God has called to break the bondage of custom and traditional routine.
Besides these private conferences, the Church at Jerusalem had public conferences, not on the question of the apostleship of Paul, but on the admission of Gentiles into the Church. To these has been given, by emphasis, the name of the Council of Jerusalem. No better method could have been taken to bring into strong light the contrast between this first council and all that have succeeded it. It differs as widely in its composition, as in the mode of its deliberations and in its results. It is no clerical council pronouncing authoritative decisions on points of doctrine. Not only the apostles, but the elders, and the whole multitude of the believers, take part in the conference, because all have an equal interest in the question at issue.9898Σὺν ὅλῃ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. Acts xv, 22. The Council of Jerusalem is essentially democratic in character. At a time when the level of the religious life was so elevated, there was no fear that the gravest interests of the Church would be compromised by a free discussion. The Church had not as yet opened its doors to the motley throng of merely nominal Christians. If it is asked what right had believers, who were neither Apostles nor elders, to sit in the first council, the answer is ready, without an appeal to the general constitution of the Church at that period. It is sufficient to remember that every one of these Christians was prepared to endure martyrdom for the faith. Those who are ready to die for the Church have the truest qualification for its government. A fair consideration of the part taken by the Apostles in the council at Jerusalem, cannot but dispel many false conceptions of the apostolic office. If they had really constituted a sort of autocratic college, governing the Church, and deciding all questions of doctrine and practice by their personal infallibility, they would on this occasion have assembled themselves, and sent forth to the Church their authoritative decision on the point in dispute. They would have inaugurated the method adopted by their so-called successors, and determined, without appeal, the mode of admission of converted Gentiles. In place of any such act of apostolic authority, we find a free discussion, in which the Apostles take part only like the other Christians, without enforcing their opinions by any appeal to their peculiar prerogatives. On the contrary, the man of most influence in the council, he whose advice prevails, is not an apostle: he is James, the Lord's brother, one of the elders of the Church at Jerusalem. The advocates of a hierarchy maintain that Peter presided over the council. They base their opinion on the fact that he was the first of the Apostles to give expression to his views. In this, as in so many other instances, they mistake, for the privilege of office, that forwardness of speech and action which really proceeded from his natural impetuosity and ardor. In this case, however, it is not correct to assert that Peter opened the conference; the discussion had already gone to a considerable length before he spoke. "And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up." Acts xv, 7.
The breadth of spirit which characterized the deliberations of the Council of Jerusalem is worthy of all admiration. We have already shown the importance of the point to be decided. It cannot be questioned that there were strongly marked differences of opinion in the assembly, even leaving out of view the extreme fanatical party. Between Paul and James the divergence was great, though both were equally devoted to Jesus Christ. Peter, whose mind had already been enlightened by a special revelation, occupied an intermediate position. The great body of the Christians sided with James. If each one had clung without concession to his own peculiar views, a lamentable schism must have resulted from these conferences; but the discussion was conducted in a spirit of Christian liberty, which obviated all danger. It commenced evidently with hot and confused disputation, (Acts xv, 7,) in which, doubtless, the accusers of Paul and Barnabas took the chief part. This was the first shock of contradictory opinion. It was natural that Peter, who had seen the descent of the Spirit upon the converted Gentiles, should promptly interpose in the discussion. He simply stated the facts of which he had been the witness, and pointed out the conclusions to which they naturally led. Since God, he says, put no difference between Christians brought out of heathenism and those who had scrupulously observed the customs of Judaism, why impose upon them a legal ceremonial, a yoke which the Jews themselves had not been able to bear? Salvation is not attached to the ceremonial law; it is the gift of the grace of God. Acts xv, 7-12. Peter, without entering on the crucial question of circumcision, contented himself with laying it down as a principle, that the ceremonial law, as a whole, should not be made binding on converted Gentiles.
Paul and Barnabas immediately follow Peter as speakers. They narrate the great results of their mission in Asia Minor. They describe, no doubt in fervent language, the eagerness of the Gentiles to listen to the Gospel, and contrast it with the resistance of the Jews. They point to Sergius Paulus converted at Paphos; they dwell on the zeal and love of the Churches they have left as bright lights in the midst of the darkness and corruption of Asiatic paganism. Acts xv, 12. The assembly is thrilled with gladness. None of the Christians well-known for their special attachment to Judaism have, however, as yet expressed an opinion. It was of the greatest importance that their feeling should be known, for they formed the majority. James, the Lord's brother, was the representative of those sincere but scrupulous disciples who did not feel themselves free to discontinue ceremonial observances. He thus fulfilled, on this occasion, the special mission devolving upon him; he served to bridge over the gap between the old law and the new, between legal bondage and Gospel liberty. We feel, as we listen to him, that he has not yet reached the same standpoint as Peter and Paul. The prophetic oracles, with reference to the calling of the Gentiles, have more weight in his mind than the great principles of the new covenant. Acts xv, 15-18. The natural conclusion from the speeches of Peter and Paul would have been the complete abrogation of all legal prescription in the case of the Gentile converts. James does not go so far: he desires that Christians of Jewish extraction should still observe all the ordinances of Judaism. They, therefore, need no directions, since they have the law of Moses, which is read in every city in the synagogues on the Sabbath day. Acts xv, 21. For the Christians converted from paganism James proposes a middle course. He does not insist on the necessity of circumcision, and on the observance of all the ceremonial laws; he only asks that they submit to the conditions imposed on proselytes of the gate, in proof of their renunciation of heathen practices.9999Thiersch, p. 127. "Let us write unto them," says James, "that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." The first of these interdictions is explained by the horror the Jews had of idolatry, and every thing connected with it. The second was called forth by the deep corruption of pagan manners. In the prevalent laxity of morals, debauch was scarcely accounted a crime, and the Gentile conscience was in this respect especially perverted. The epistles of Paul bear abundant evidence that such an injunction was greatly needed.100100A vain attempt has been made to discover in this second interdiction a deep meaning, turning on second marriages, or on marriages within the degree prohibited in Leviticus, (Lev. xviii.) The third interdiction, that of things strangled and of blood, had reference to the commandments given by God to Noah immediately after the Deluge. Gen. ix, 4, 5. A distinction was thus made between the ordinances given to Moses and the revelation of God's will to Noah. The latter represented the minimum of Jewish requirements, the observance of which was demanded of proselytes of the gate. The recommendation of James was, therefore, a middle course, designed to avoid any actual rupture between the parties.
It has been said that James made no real concession by this proposition-that, in fact, he secured the triumph of the Judaizing party. But was it nothing to place Christians converted from paganism, and who had only fulfilled the conditions required of proselytes of the gate, on the same level with the proselytes of righteousness and the Jews by birth? Was it nothing to consent to admit the uncircumcised into the Church? Let it be remembered that the whole discussion originated in the question of circumcision, and it will be evident that the solution proposed by James, while it gave legitimate satisfaction to the Christian Jews, completely won the cause for Paul and Barnabas. The whole conference agreed in the course proposed, and it was decided to send delegates to Antioch, provided with a circular letter containing the resolution unanimously taken at Jerusalem. This letter is a model of Christian toleration. It is not weighted with anathemas; it does not even use the tone of command; it is not the promulgation of a decree. After explaining the cause of the disputation, it goes no further than to tell the Churches they would do well to conform to the resolutions passed at Jerusalem. Acts xv, 29. The letter recognizes the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as shared by all who took part in the council.101101Baumgarten, vol. II, p. 141; Iange, vol. II, p. 184; Neander, vol. I, p. 206. It was after prolonged deliberation that the assembly reached a result, which is, nevertheless, thus attributed to divine influence. The first Christians were not mistaken; they had felt that the Spirit was in their midst. The calm and brotherly manner in which they had been able to conduct their deliberations testified to his presence; and as they had faithfully sought the light, it had been evoked from their consultations as pure and bright as if it had descended from heaven by a direct revelation. No two things could be more unlike than the canons of a council of the fourth century and the decisions of the council at Jerusalem. Passed in free conference, they appealed only to Christian freedom.
We shall be much mistaken, however, if we suppose that the question of the relation of the two covenants was finally determined by these conferences. The obligation to observe the law was still laid on Jewish Christians. The concessions made to the Gentile converts would not long suffice. There is no ground whatever, therefore, for attributing any permanent value to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem. This decree was a temporary compromise in the interests of the peace of the Church. Acts xv, 28. Paul does not scruple, subsequently, to discuss freely one of the points at issue, that touching meats offered to idols. He declares, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, that the liberty of the Gospel, rightly understood, banishes the scruples of a weak conscience, and that the Christian has a right to eat whatever is set before him. 1 Cor. x, 27. He admits, however, that every Christian should restrain himself, if need be, in the exercise of this freedom, rather than offend a weak brother in the faith. The ancient Church never recognized any permanent obligation in the decrees of the Council of Jerusalem. St. Augustine says: "For a time the Church divided itself into two sections, one composed of the circumcision, the other of the uncircumcision, which, while both resting on the Corner-stone, were distinguished by very marked characteristics; but that time being passed, what Christian would hold himself bound to abstain from birds strangled?102102"Quis jam Christianus observat ut turdas vel minutiores aviculas non attingat, nisi quarum sanguis effusus est." St. August., "Contra Faust.," book XXXII, c. xiii.
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