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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 87. The Catholic Epistles.


I. Storr: De Catholicarum Epp. Occasione et Consilio. Tüb. 1789. Staeudlin: De Fontibus Epp. Cath. Gott. 1790. J. D. Schulze: Der schriftstellerische Charakter und Werth des Petrus, Jacobus und Judas. Leipz. 1802. Der schriftsteller. Ch. des Johannes. 1803.

II. Commentaries on all the Catholic Epistles by Goeppfert (1780), Schlegel (1783), Carpzov (1790), Augusti (1801), Grashof (1830), Jachmann (1838), Sumner (1840), De Wette (3d ed. by Brückner 1865), Meyer (the Cath. Epp. by Huther, Düsterdieck, Beyerschlag), Lange (Eng. transl. with additions by Mombert, 1872), John T. Demarest (N. York, 1879); also the relevant parts in the "Speaker’s Com.," in Ellicott’s Com., the Cambridge Bible for Schools (ed. by Dean Perowne), and in the International Revision Com. (ed. by Schaff), etc. P. I. Gloag: Introduction, to the Catholic Epp., Edinb., 1887.


The seven Epistles of James, 1st and 2d Peter, 1st, 2d, and 3d John, and Jude usually follow in the old manuscripts the Acts of the Apostles, and precede the Pauline Epistles, perhaps as being the works of the older apostles, and representing, in part at least, the Jewish type of Christianity. They are of a more general character, and addressed not to individuals or single congregations, as those of Paul, but to a larger number of Christians scattered through a district or over the world. Hence they are called, from the time of Origen and Eusebius, Catholic. This does not mean in this connection anti-heretical (still less, of course, Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic), but encyclical or circular. The designation, however, is not strictly correct, and applies only to five of them. The second and third Epistles of John are addressed to individuals. On the other hand the Epistle to the Hebrews is encyclical, and ought to be numbered with the Catholic Epistles, but is usually appended to those of Paul. The Epistle to the Ephesians is likewise intended for more than one congregation. The first Christian document of an encyclical character is the pastoral letter of the apostolic Conference at Jerusalem (a.d. 50) to the Gentile brethren in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23–29).11231123    Hence Origen calls it an ἐπιστολὴ καθολική.

The Catholic Epistles are distinct from the Pauline by their more general contents and the absence of personal and local references. They represent different, though essentially harmonious, types of doctrine and Christian life. The individuality of James, Peter, and John stand out very prominently in these brief remains of their correspondence. They do not enter into theological discussions like those of Paul, the learned Rabbi, and give simpler statements of truth, but protest against the rising ascetic and Antinomian errors, as Paul does in the Colossians and Pastoral Epistles. Each has a distinct character and purpose, and none could well be spared from the New Testament without marring the beauty and completeness of the whole.

The time of composition cannot be fixed with certainty, but is probably as follows: James before a.d. 50; 1st Peter (probably also 2d Peter and Jude) before a.d. 67; John between a.d. 80 and 100.

Only two of these Epistles, the 1st of Peter and the 1st of John, belong to the Eusebian Homologumena, which were universally accepted by the ancient church as inspired and canonical. About the other five there was more or less doubt as to their origin down to the close of the fourth century, when all controversy on the extent of the canon went to sleep till the time of the Reformation. Yet they bear the general imprint of the apostolic age, and the absence of stronger traditional evidence is due in part to their small size and limited use.


James.


Comp. on the lit., biography, and doctrine of James, §§ 27 and 69.


The Epistle of James the Brother of the Lord was written, no doubt, from Jerusalem, the metropolis of the ancient theocracy and Jewish Christianity, where the author labored and died a martyr at the head of the mother church of Christendom and as the last connecting link between the old and the new dispensation. It is addressed to the Jews and Jewish Christians of the dispersion before the final doom in the year 70.

It strongly resembles the Gospel of Matthew, and echoes the Sermon on the Mount in the fresh, vigorous, pithy, proverbial, and sententious style of oriental wisdom. It exhorts the readers to good works of faith, warns them against dead orthodoxy, covetousness, pride, and worldliness, and comforts them in view of present and future trials and persecutions. It is eminently practical and free from subtle theological questions. It preaches a religion of good works which commends itself to the approval of God and all good men. It represents the primary stage of Christian doctrine. It takes no notice of the circumcision controversy, the Jerusalem compromise, and the later conflicts of the apostolic age. Its doctrine of justification is no protest against that of Paul, but prior to it, and presents the subject from a less developed, yet eminently practical aspect, and against the error of a barren monotheism rather than Pharisaical legalism, which Paul had in view. It is probably the oldest of the New Testament books, meagre in doctrine, but rich in comfort and lessons of holy living based on faith in Jesus Christ, "the Lord of glory." It contains more reminiscences of the words of Christ than any other epistle.11241124    Reuss (Gesch. d. heil. Schriften N. Testaments, 5th ed., I. 138): "Thatsache ist, dass die Ep. Jacobi für sich allein mehr wörtliche Reminiscenzen aus den Reden Jesu enthält als alle übrigen Apost. Schriften zusammen .... Insofern dieselben offenbar nicht aus schriftlichen Quellen geflossen sind, mögen sie mit das höhere Alter deg Briefs verbürgen." Beyschlag (in the new ed. of Huther in Meyer, 1881) and Erdmann (1881), the most recent commentators of James, agree with Schneckenburger, Neander, and Thiersch in assigning the Epistle to the earliest date of Christian literature, against the Tübingen school, which makes it a polemical treatise against Paul. Reuss occupies a middle position. The undeveloped state of Christian doctrine, the use of συναγωγὴ for a Christian assembly (James 2:2), the want of a clear distinction between Jews and Jewish Christians, who are addressed as "the twelve tribes," and the expectation of the approaching parousia (5:8), concur as signs of the high antiquity. Its leading idea is "the perfect law of freedom," or the law of love revealed in Christ.

Luther’s harsh, unjust, and unwise judgment of this Epistle has been condemned by his own church, and reveals a defect in his conception of the doctrine of justification which was the natural result of his radical war with the Romish error.


Peter.


See on the lit., biography, and theology of Peter, §§ 25, 26, and 70.


The First Epistle of Peter, dated from Babylon,11251125    Commentators are divided on the meaning of Babylon, 1 Pet. 5:13, whether it be the mystic Babylon of the Apocalypse, i.e., heathen Rome, as a persecuting power (the fathers, Roman Catholic divines, also Thiersch, Baur, Renan), or Babylon on the Euphrates, or Babylon in Egypt (old Cairo). The question is connected with Peter’s presence in Rome, which has been discussed in § 26. On the date of composition commentators are likewise divided, as they differ in their views on the relation of Peter’s Epistle to Romans, Ephesians, and James, and on the character of the persecution alluded to in the Epistle. Weiss, who denies that Peter used the Epistles of Paul, dates it back as far as 54; the Tübingen critics bring it down to the age of Trajan (Volkmar even to 140!), but most critics assign it to the time between 63 and 67, Renan to 63, shortly before the Neronian persecution. For once I agree with him. See Huther (in the Meyer series), 4th ed., pp. 30 sqq.; Weiss, Die Petrinische Frage (1865); Renan, L’Antechrist, p. vi and 110; and, on the part of the Tübingen school, Pfleiderer, Paulinismus, pp. 417 sqq.; Hilgenfeld, Einleitung, pp. 625 sqq.; Holtzmann, Einleitung, pp. 514 sqq. (2d ed.). belongs to the later life of the apostle, when his ardent natural temper was deeply humbled, softened, and sanctified by the work of grace. It was written to churches in several provinces of Asia Minor, composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians together, and planted mainly by Paul and his fellow-laborers; and was sent by the hands of Silvanus, a former companion of Paul. It consists of precious consolations, and exhortations to a holy walk after the example of Christ, to joyful hope of the heavenly inheritance, to patience under the persecutions already raging or impending. It gives us the fruit of a rich spiritual experience, and is altogether worthy of Peter and his mission to tend the flock of God under Christ, the chief shepherd of souls.11261126    "This excellent Epistle," says Archbishop Leighton, whose Practical Commentary upon the First Epistle General of St. Peter is still unsurpassed for spirituality and unction, "is a brief and yet very clear summary both of the consolations and instructions needful for the encouragement and direction of a Christian in his journey to heaven, elevating his thoughts and desires to that happiness, and strengthening him against all opposition in the way, both that of corruption within and temptations and afflictions from without." Bengel: "Mirabilis est gravitas et alacritas Petrini sermonis, lectorem suavissime retinens." Alford: "There is no Epistle in the sacred canon, the language and spirit of which come more directly home to the personal trials and wants and weaknesses of the Christian life."

It attests also the essential agreement of Peter with the doctrine of the Gentile apostle, in which the readers had been before instructed (1 Pet. 5:12). This accords with the principle of Peter professed at the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11) that we are saved without the yoke of the law, "through the grace of the Lord Jesus." His doctrinal system, however, precedes that of Paul and is independent of it, standing between James and Paul. Peculiar to him is the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades (1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6; comp. Acts 2:32), which contains the important truth of the universal intent of the atonement. Christ died for all men, for those who lived before as well as after his coming, and he revealed himself to the spirits in the realm of Hades. Peter also warns against hierarchical ambition in prophetic anticipation of the abuse of his name and his primacy among the apostles.

The Second Epistle of Peter is addressed, shortly before the author’s death, as a sort of last will and testament, to the same churches as the first. It contains a renewed assurance of his agreement with his "beloved brother Paul," to whose Epistles he respectfully refers, yet with the significant remark (true in itself, yet often abused by Romanists) that there are in them "some things hard to be understood" (2 Pet. 3:15, 16). As Peter himself receives in one of these Epistles (Gal. 2:11) a sharp rebuke for his inconsistency at Antioch (which may be included in the hard things), this affectionate allusion proves how thoroughly the Spirit of Christ had, through experience, trained him to humility, meekness, and self-denial. The Epistle exhorts the readers to diligence, virtue, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly love, and brotherly kindness; refers to the Transfiguration on the Mount, where the author witnessed the majesty of Christ, and to the prophetic word inspired by the Holy Spirit; warns against antinomian errors; corrects a mistake concerning the second coming; exhorts them to prepare for the day of the Lord by holy living, looking for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness; and closes with the words: "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom be glory both now and forever."

The second Epistle is reckoned by Eusebius among the seven Antilegomena, and its Petrine authorship is doubted or denied, in whole or in part, by many eminent divines11271127    Erasmus, Calvin, Grotius, Neander, De Wette, Huther, and all the Tübingen critics. but defended by competent critics.11281128    Weiss, Thiersch, Fronmüller, Alford, and especially Fr. Spitta in his Der Zweite Brief des Petrus und der Brief des Judas (Halle, 1885, 544 pages). The chief objections are: the want of early attestation, the reference to a collection of the Pauline Epistles, the polemic against Gnostic errors, some peculiarities of style, and especially the apparent dependence of the second chapter on the Epistle of Jude.

On the other hand, the Epistle, at least the first and third chapters, contains nothing which Peter might not have written, and the allusion to the scene of transfiguration admits only the alternative: either Peter, or a forger. It seems morally impossible that a forger should have produced a letter so full of spiritual beauty and unction, and expressly denouncing all cunning fabrications. It may have been enlarged by the editor after Peter’s death. But the whole breathes an apostolic spirit, and could not well be spared from the New Testament. It is a worthy valedictory of the aged apostle awaiting his martyrdom, and with its still valid warnings against internal dangers from false Christianity, it forms a suitable complement to the first Epistle, which comforts the Christians amidst external dangers from heathen and Jewish persecutors.


Jude.


The Epistle of Jude, a, "brother of James" (the Just),11291129    Clement of Alexandria, Origen (in Greek), and Epiphanius distinguish him from the Apostles. He is mentioned with James as one of the brothers of Jesus, Matt. 18:55; Mark 6:3. Comp. on this whole question the discussion in § 27. is very short, and strongly resembles 2 Peter 2, but differs from it by an allusion to the remarkable apocryphal book of Enoch and the legend of the dispute of Michael with the devil about the body of Moses. It seems to be addressed to the same churches and directed against the same Gnostic heretics. It is a solemn warning against the antinomian and licentious tendencies which revealed themselves between a.d. 60 and 70. Origen remarks that it is "of few lines, but rich in words of heavenly wisdom." The style is fresh and vigorous.

The Epistle of Jude belongs likewise to the Eusebian Antilegomena, and has signs of post-apostolic origin, yet may have been written by Jude, who was not one of the Twelve, though closely connected with apostolic circles. A forger would hardly have written under the name of a "brother of James" rather than a brother of Christ or an apostle.

The time and place of composition are unknown. The Tübingen critics put it down to the reign of Trajan; Renan, on the contrary, as far back as 54, wrongly supposing it to have been intended, together with the Epistle of James, as a counter-manifesto against Paul’s doctrine of free grace. But Paul condemned antinomianism as severely as James and Jude (comp. Rom. 6, and in fact all his Epistles). It is safest to say, with Bleek, that it was written shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, which is not alluded to (comp. Jude 14, 15).


The Epistles of John.


Comp. §§ 40–43, 83 and 84.


The First Epistle of John betrays throughout, in thought and style, the author of the fourth Gospel. It is a postscript to it, or a practical application of the lessons of the life of Christ to the wants of the church at the close of the first century. It is a circular letter of the venerable apostle to his beloved children in Asia Minor, exhorting them to a holy life of faith and love in Christ, and earnestly warning them against the Gnostic "antichrists," already existing or to come, who deny the mystery of the incarnation, sunder religion from morality, and run into Antinomian practices.

The Second and Third Epistles of John are, like the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, short private letters, one to a Christian woman by the name of Cyria, the other to one Gains, probably an officer of a congregation in Asia Minor. They belong to the seven Antilegomena, and have been ascribed by some to the "Presbyter John," a contemporary of the apostle, though of disputed existence. But the second Epistle resembles the first, almost to verbal repetition,11301130    Comp. 2 John 4 –7 with 1 John 2:7, 8; 4, 2, 3. and such repetition well agrees with the familiar tradition of Jerome concerning the apostle of love, ever exhorting the congregation, in his advanced age, to love one another. The difference of opinion in the ancient church respecting them may have risen partly from their private nature and their brevity, and partly from the fact that the author styles himself, somewhat remarkably, the "elder," the "presbyter." This term, however, is probably to be taken, not in the official sense, but in the original, signifying age and dignity; for at that time John was in fact a venerable father in Christ, and must have been revered and loved as a patriarch among his "little children."



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