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Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
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§ II. The Dispute at Antioch.

Immediately after the council at Jerusalem, Paul returned to Antioch with Barnabas. He was quickly followed thither by Peter. At this time must have occurred that contention between the two Apostles which is narrated with such courageous frankness in the Epistle to the Galatians. Gal. ii, 11-15. Peter, whose agreement with Paul had been so complete in the conference at Jerusalem, showed at first no scruple in associating freely with the converted Gentiles. But on the arrival of certain Judaizing Christians from Judæa, he suddenly altered his conduct; he separated himself from those whom before he had treated as brethren, and drew away several disciples, Barnabas among others, by his example. What could account for such a rapid change? How could such scruples be revived after the council at Jerusalem, and what was the errand at Antioch of these messengers from James, whose part in the conference had been so distinctly one of conciliation? For these questions we can find no solution, so long as we regard moral and religious history as governed only by the inflexible logic of pure reason. But looked at in the light of the changeableness of human nature, its strange inconsistencies and failings, the events which transpired at Antioch are only too easily to be explained. The Council of Jerusalem was far from having solved the great problem of the primitive Church. It in no way followed, from its decisions, that the Jewish and Gentile converts were absolutely on a par, since the former were still bound to observe the ordinances of Moses. The barrier was lowered, not removed. Thus, no sooner was the decision communicated than it received various interpretations. Paul drew from it inferences which were undoubtedly by implication contained in it, but which were not equally evident to the eyes of all. He deemed that henceforward Jewish Christians might freely sit at table with converted Gentiles, a practice which would be a formal abrogation of one entire portion of the law of Moses. Clearly nothing could be more logical, when once the principle had been admitted, that converted Gentiles had the right to enter the Church without being circumcised. But James had not foreseen this application of the resolution. He had, indeed, provided by anticipation against it, by insisting on the obligation of Jews by birth to conform to the law of Moses as it was read in all synagogues. Acts xv, 21. We can well imagine that he may have heard with alarm of the broad interpretation given at Antioch to his decision, and may have sent messengers from his Church to put an end to an innovation which appeared to him at variance with the policy of conciliation of which he had been the wise promoter. It is probable that the delegates from James had neither his largeness of heart nor his conciliatory spirit. They were stronger partisans than he, and they carried into their mission a spirit of intolerance for which they were alone responsible. Peter, who did not wish to break with the Church at Jerusalem, allowed himself to be drawn into a concession, to be regretted as a failure alike in good faith and moral courage. The defenders of the primacy refuse to see in this act any thing more than a venial error in conduct; one which in no way affects his doctrinal infallibility. They forget that Peter, in refusing to eat with converted Gentiles, gave sanction to a false doctrine. In fact, a doctrinal question was at stake in this question of Christian practice; by his act Peter denied the equality of Christians of different origin, and thus espoused a positive error. All the subtleties of ingenious argument cannot avert the conclusion that Peter's pretended infallibility made shipwreck at Antioch. Paul withstood Dim to the face; he showed that his conduct was unreasonable and blameworthy, and he thus in open combat successfully defended one of the most important consequences of the decree of the council. He was preparing for the time when, like a scaffolding reared only for a temporary purpose, this transitory order of things would give place to the complete abrogation of the ancient law. The sequel of this history will show that the contention between Peter and Paul was as short as it was sharp. The great Apostle was on the eve of undertaking another missionary journey. He wished to visit the Churches which he had founded; he did not yet know how, under God, this purpose would expand, and he would be called to carry the Gospel into the very center of Western heathenism.103103See Note E, at the end of the volume.


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