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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 67. Unity of Apostolic Teaching.


Christianity is primarily not merely doctrine, but life, a new moral creation, a saving fact, first personally embodied in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the God-man, to spread from him and embrace gradually the whole body of the race, and bring it into saving fellowship with God. The same is true of Christianity as it exists subjectively in single individuals. It begins not with religious views and notions simply; though it includes these, at least in germ. It comes as a new life; as regeneration, conversion, and sanctification; as a creative fact in experience, taking up the whole man with all his faculties and capacities, releasing him from the guilt and the power of sin, and reconciling him with God, restoring harmony and peace to the soul, and at last glorifying the body itself. Thus, the life of Christ is mirrored in his people, rising gradually, through the use of the means of grace and the continued exercise of faith and love to its maturity in the resurrection.

But the new life necessarily contains the element of doctrine, or knowledge of the truth. Christ calls himself "the way, the truth, and the life." He is himself the personal revelation of saving truth, and of the normal relation of man to God. Yet this element of doctrine itself appears in the New Testament, not in the form of an abstract theory, the product of speculation, a scientific system of ideas subject to logical and mathematical demonstration; but as the fresh, immediate utterance of the supernatural, divine life, a life-giving power, equally practical and theoretical, coming with divine authority to the heart, the will, and the conscience, as well as to the mind, and irresistibly drawing them to itself. The knowledge of God in Christ, as it meets us here, is at the same time eternal life.749749    John 17:3. We must not confound truth with dogma. Truth is the divine substance, doctrine or dogma is the human apprehension and statement of it; truth is a living and life-giving power, dogma a logical formula; truth is infinite, unchanging, and eternal; dogma is finite, changeable, and perfectible.

The Bible, therefore, is not only, nor principally, a book for the learned, but a book of life for every one, an epistle written by the Holy Spirit to mankind. In the words of Christ and his apostles there breathes the highest and holiest spiritual power, the vivifying breath of God, piercing bone and marrow, thrilling through the heart and conscience, and quickening the dead. The life, the eternal life, which was from the beginning with the Father, and is manifested to us, there comes upon us, as it were, sensibly, now as the mighty tornado, now as the gentle zephyr; now overwhelming and casting us down in the dust of humility and penitence, now reviving and raising us to the joy of faith and peace; but always bringing forth a new creature, like the word of power, which said at the first creation. "Let there be light!" Here verily is holy ground. Here is the door of eternity, the true ladder to heaven, on which the angels of God are ascending and descending in unbroken line. No number of systems of Christian faith and morals, therefore, indispensable as they are to the scientific purposes of the church and of theology, can ever fill the place of the Bible, whose words are spirit and life.

When we say the New Testament is no logically arranged system of doctrines and precepts, we are far from meaning that it has no internal order and consistency. On the contrary, it exhibits the most beautiful harmony, like the external creation, and like a true work of art. It is the very task of the historian, and especially of the theologian, to bring this hidden living order to view, and present it in logical and scientific forms. For this work Paul, the only one of the apostles who received a learned education, himself furnishes the first fruitful suggestions, especially in his epistle to the Romans. This epistle follows a logical arrangement even in form, and approaches as nearly to a scientific treatise as it could consistently with the fervent, direct, practical, popular spirit and style essential to the Holy Scriptures and inseparable from their great mission for all Christendom.

The substance of all the apostolic teaching is the witness of Christ, the gospel, and the free message of that divine love and salvation, which appeared in the person of Christ, was secured to mankind by his work, is gradually realized in the kingdom of God on earth, and will be completed with the second coming of Christ in glory. This salvation also comes in close connection with Judaism, as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, the substance of all the Old Testament types and shadows. The several doctrines entering essentially into this apostolic preaching are most beautifully and simply arranged and presented in what is called the Apostles’ Creed, which, though not in its precise form, yet, as regards its matter, certainly dates from the primitive age of Christianity. On all the leading points, the person of Jesus as the promised Messiah, his holy life, his atoning death, his triumphant resurrection and exaltation at the right hand of God, and his second coming to judge the world, the establishment of the church as a divine institution, the communion of believers, the word of God, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, the work of the Holy Spirit, the necessity of repentance and conversion, of regeneration and sanctification, the final completion of salvation in the day of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting—on all these points the apostles are perfectly unanimous, so far as their writings have come down to us.

The apostles all drew their doctrine in common from personal contact with the divine-human history of the crucified and risen Saviour, and from the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, revealing the person and the work of Christ in them, and opening to them the understanding of his words and acts. This divine enlightenment is inspiration, governing not only the composition of the sacred writings, but also the oral instructions of their authors; not merely an act, but a permanent state. The apostles lived and moved continually in the element of truth. They spoke, wrote, and acted from the spirit of truth; and this, not as passive instruments, but as conscious and free organs. For the Holy Spirit does not supersede the gifts and peculiarities of nature, which are ordained by God; it sanctifies them to the service of his kingdom. Inspiration, however, is concerned only with moral and religious truths, and the communication of what is necessary to salvation. Incidental matters of geography, history, archeology, and of mere personal interest, can be regarded as directed by inspiration only so far as they really affect religious truth.

The revelation of the body of Christian truth essential to salvation coincides in extent with the received canon of the New Testament. There is indeed constant growth and development in the Christian church, which progresses outwardly and inwardly in proportion to the degree of its vitality and zeal, but it is a progress of apprehension and appropriation by man, not of communication or revelation by God. We may speak of a secondary inspiration of extraordinary men whom God raises from time to time, but their writings must be measured by the only infallible standard, the teaching of Christ and his apostles. Every true advance in Christian knowledge and life is conditioned by a deeper descent into the mind and spirit of Christ, who declared the whole counsel of God and the way of salvation, first in person, and then through his apostles.

The New Testament is thus but one book, the teaching of one mind, the mind of Christ. He gave to his disciples the words of life which the Father gave him, and inspired them with the spirit of truth to reveal his glory to them. Herein consists the unity and harmony of the twenty-seven writings which constitute the New Testament, for all emergencies and for perpetual use, until the written and printed word shall be superseded by the reappearance of the personal Word, and the beatific vision of saints in light.



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