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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Christian Life

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The type of moral and religious life which was lived by the Christians of the Apostolic Age had already been so far fixed as to be described in the phrase κατὰ χριστιανισμὸν ζῆν by Ignatius (Magn. x. 1) towards the close of that period; and the Didache (xii. 4), possibly at an earlier date, used the title Χριστιανός, showing that the name which Antioch invented (Acts 11:26; cf. Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16) was now accepted as specifying a person whose life was distinctive alike in ideal and practice. If we take the year a.d. 100 as marking the extreme limit of the Apostolic Age, our authorities for determining the characteristics of Christian practice and of the Christian life in its inner and outer aspects are but meagre, consisting of the NT writings, the Didache, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistles of Ignatius, some fragments of Papias and Hegesippus preserved by Eusebius, and a few contemporary references in pagan writers like Tacitus and Suetonius. There is a difficulty in using and classifying the information of these authorities, inasmuch as the chronology of the NT writings is a subject of inquiry and even of controversy; while the traditional origin and authorship of writings like the Epistle to the Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles, of the Johannine writings and several others, are disputed by competent critics (see article Dates). Some scholars (e.g. Gwatkin) regard the Didache as one of the earliest works of Christian literature; while others, like von Dobschütz, place it beyond the limits of the Apostolic Age. Nevertheless, in spite of the various opinions on questions of chronology and authorship, it is possible to arrive at some definite conclusions on universally accepted premisses, and to form a clear, if in details an incomplete, conception of the practice of the Christian life exhibited by Christian communities from the death of Christ to the close of the 1st century.

One general principle may be laid down by way of preface. The earliest witnesses of Christianity are more concerned with Christ than with a system of Christian morals. It is not primarily a new code of ethics which they unfold; it is a new Personality. Not the teaching, but the Teacher is their theme. The summum bonum had been realized in the life of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, indeed, entered into the apostolic consciousness, as we see from the precepts of Romans 12; but the Law-giver, as on the occasion of its utterance, is more than His precepts (Matthew 7:29). The devotion to a living historical Person, the Son of God and Redeemer of the world, who was capable of communicating His Spirit to all mankind-this is the note of the earliest preaching of the gospel.* [Note: Incidentally we may regard this feature an one of the reasons why Christianity in the Roman world vanquished all competitors-Isis or Attis or Mithra or the redeemer-god of Oriental mystery-religions. The Redeemer-God of Christianity was a historical personality.] the apostles preach ‘Christ and him crucified.’ ‘They seem to think that if they can only fill men with true thankfulness for the gift of life in Christ, morality will take care of itself’ (Gwatkin, Early Church Hist. i. 55). What results did such a presentation of truth produce on the age to which it was given? This question can be answered only by a study of moral conditions within the Christian Church. We must go for our enlightenment, not to any general studies of Christian ethics, but to the extant authorities of the age, which treat of the Christian life in: (1) the Jewish-Christian period; (2) the Pauline period; and (3) the post-Pauline period. In the evolution of the Christian communities, there is a direct connexion between ethical conditions and the official or institutional organization of the churches, which grew naturally out of these conditions; but it will be necessary to narrow our survey to religions and moral aspects, and to disregard in detail problems of a historical and institutional character, e.g. Baptism, Lord’s Supper, ritual and worship in general, bishops and elders, the relation of St. Paul to the Jerusalem Council, and the like (see articles Church, Baptism, Eucharist, Bishop, etc.).

1. Jewish Christianity.-The followers of Christ at the time of His death were distinguished from the majority of their fellow-Jews by their conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. They were thus to their contemporaries a Messianic sect within the pale of Judaism, conforming to the rites and moral code of their religion. Their Master, while condemning the defects of representative leaders of religion, like the Pharisees, had never rejected the observances of the Jewish religion-true to the spirit of His mission, which, was rather to fulfil than to destroy. Weizsäcker seems to go too far when he suggests (Apostol. Age, ii. 341) that there is disharmony between the evidence of the Synoptics and the Acts, on the ground that the latter shows the primitive Church more bound up with Judaism than Jesus Himself was, and the Pharisees actual patrons of the apostolic community. The fact is that both Jesus and the early Church accepted the outward symbols of Judaism, e.g. the Temple and national festivals, while in spirit they had already advanced beyond the national faith (cf. Acts 2:40).

The primitive Christians of Jerusalem, while following the rules of the Jewish religion for everyday life (Acts 15), and for worship and devotion observances (Acts 3:1), come before us in the early chapters of the Acts as a distinctive community, given to prayer (Acts 1:14). Prayer was at once the source and seal of that unity or spirit of brotherhood which was to find further expression in a common social life characterized by ἀγαλλίασις καὶ ἀφελότης καρδίας, and in a community of goods (Acts 2:44-46). The latter feature represented merely the socialism of self-sacrifice, its real motive being not a desire for social innovation, but the support of the poor; and it may have been suggested by Essene models (see Community of Goods). The Christians lived a happy family life; the members were ‘brethren’; new converts were received into the fellowship by baptism (Acts 2:41); the practice of charity produced noble examples of generosity like that of Barnabas (Acts 4:36), and incidentally provoked unworthy ambition, of which the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira (ch. 5) was a dark and memorable result. Women such as Mary, the mother of John Mark, and Sapphira held an independent position in the community, and slowly the influence and aims of the brotherhood broadened out. They were known as ‘disciples,’ men ‘of the Way’ (Acts 9:2; Acts 24:14), and ‘saints.’ The appointment of the seven Hellenists (Acts 7) which quelled the internal differences between the Hebrews or pure Jews and the Hellenists, their Greek-speaking brethren of the Dispersion, indicates not only the large-hearted charity of the Christian apostles, but their gradual alienation from the narrowness of Judaic legalism. This spirit of alienation came to a head in the extreme views of St. Stephen, the leader of the Hellenists, who paid the penalty of his undisguised anti-Judaism in martyrdom. It is easy to see that the ideas of St. Stephen anticipated the essential principles of Pauline Christianity, and further, that they were in advance of minds like that of St. Peter, who still maintained a loyal observance of Jewish law and felt scruples about entering a Gentile house (Acts 10) and joining St. Paul, Barnabas, and other Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11). Thus, while the Hellenists were scattered abroad, being found in Samaria and as far north as Antioch, the Petrine section remained at Jerusalem to find a new head in St. James, who in a.d. 51 is associated with St. Peter and St. John and in 58 is sole leader of the Church. The Apostolic Decree (Acts 15), which was intended to solve the differences of Jewish and Gentile Christianity, was a compromise which shows at once the strength and the weakness of the Jewish-Christian position: its strength lay in its jealousy for pure morality-Gentile Christians are to abstain from meat offered to idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication; its weakness lay in its ceremonialism and in its distrust of the Gentile per se. The later factors of Jewish Christianity represented by the Johannine literature and such writings as the Epistle of James are treated below.

Palestinian Christianity, in spite of its reverence for Jewish law, did not escape persecution. The Christian Jews fled to Pella before a.d. 70, and refused to join the Bar Cochba rebellion, and finally became a sect beyond the Jordan, known as Ebionites or Nazarenes. The saint of Palestinian Christianity is undoubtedly James, the Lord’s brother, already referred to (see the glowing account of him by Hegesippus, preserved in Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)ii. 23); he was ‘the Just,’ a Nazirite in practice, but consecrated to God, a typical priest of righteousness to the Jewish-Christian mind. The martyrdom of St. Stephen and that of St. James in their several ways indicate the undying influence of Christ’s example and teaching. It is probable that in this community the oral teaching of our Lord had a wider vogue than in Pauline circles. His sayings were circulated and known in the sphere of His earthly ministry, and produced a new type of personality and conduct (see Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, 156f.). We may sum up the features of Christian life in its earliest environment as a moral ideal, coloured and modified by loyalty to the tenets of Judaism; but issuing, under belief in the Messianic Jesus and by the power of His Spirit, in brotherliness, sympathy, love of enemies, heroic confession of faith, and purity of life.

2. Pauline Christianity.-The conversion of St. Paul was a new departure in the Christian witness, and opened a new epoch for Christianity. His own Christianity was not in essence so much a negation of or a revolt from Judaism as a fresh inspiration, the result of a moral crisis in his inner life. One of the results of the crisis, it is true, was to reveal to him what he calls τὸ ἀδύνατον τοῦ νόμου (Romans 8:3), and to bring about his rejection of the Jewish ideal of salvation; but his conception of Christianity was based on the positive conviction rooted in experience that newness of life consisted in a personal union with Christ. Faith in Christ transfigured a man’s personality, and thereby gave him a new ethic, together with the power to carry it into practice. The Pauline morality is the offspring of the Apostle’s doctrine of salvation by faith. ‘He who was united to Christ could not help practising the Christian virtues’ (Gardner, Religious Experience of St. Paul, 159). His insistence on ethics reveals his abhorrence of antinomianism, even when that abhorrence is not as expressly stated as it is in Romans 6:15 and Galatians 5:18 f. The difference between Pauline morality and the morality of the Judaizers who were found all over the Greek-speaking world, lay in the fact that Gentile Christianity formed an independent ethic, while the ethic of the Jewish Christian ‘merely looked like an addition to the commandments, an ennobling and purifying of the rule of the pious, law-abiding Jew’ (see Weizsäcker, ii. 346). This distinction arose naturally from the exalted view which St. Paul held as to the Person of Christ; wherever the Deity of our Lord is proclaimed, as in the Fourth Gospel and 1 John, 1 Peter, and the Ignatian Epistles, we find, as McGiffert notes (see article ‘Apostolic Age’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics ), that the Pauline idea of moral transformation by the indwelling of the Divine becomes prominent. On the other hand, elsewhere in the NT and in Clement’s First Ep. to Corinthians, where the Jewish type of theology prevails, salvation is placed in the future as the reward of the faithful. for the message of the Pauline Epistles and the ethical life and problems of the Christian communities as portrayed therein the reader is referred to articles on the individual Epistles, but a general summary of the evidence of his writings may be added here.

We may often infer from St. Paul’s warnings the general perils to which the Christians were liable. We see that the Christian standard is not attained at once (Philippians 3:12); there are express references to flagrant examples of moral failure necessitating a ban of excommunication; and the ‘saints’ are good men and women still in the making; hence the hortative form so largely adopted by this Apostle. True to his essential convictions, the Apostle assigns to the direct action of the Spirit the transforming of human character. He appeals not to Scripture or law, but to the Christian consciousness. Christ is the fulfilment and end of the Law (Romans 10:4) and the founder of a new law of love (Galatians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21), in that His Spirit is a new vital power. With the truth of the Incarnation several of his greatest precepts are allied (2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:5, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:13, Romans 15:7), and there is often a direct connexion between his ethics and his theological and christological doctrine. His distinction between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ colours all his thought regarding personal morality. His insistence on sexual chastity (in 1 Cor. he reveals his preference for celibacy, and his sympathy with the ascetic ideal, while he denounces its excesses), and his warnings against sins of the flesh are everywhere prominent. The body is a temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 6:19). His memorable indictment of pagan vice in Romans 1:21 ff. is pointed by the actual life of Corinth, the city from which he wrote the Epistle, and there is hardly an Epistle in which reference is not made to sexual vice (cf. Colossians 3:5 ff.). The famous ‘hymn of love’ (1 Corinthians 13) places love at the head of his ethical system, and is indirectly an indictment against all forms of self-seeking elsewhere specified: e.g. covetousness (Colossians 3:5), the spirit of faction and the love of pre-eminence (Philippians 1:15; Philippians 1:17), and dishonesty (1 Thessalonians 4:6). In Romans 12:1 f. we have the moral life set forth as a λογικὴ λατρεία, and its motive the fulfilment of God’s will. The duty of prayerfulness* [Note: See, for models of prayer in the Apostolic Age, Didache, 10, and 1 Clem. 59-61.] is frequently proclaimed (Romans 12:12, 1 Corinthians 7:5, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2). The spirit of revenge is condemned, the love of one’s enemy (Philippians 1:10) and returning of good for evil are expressly inculcated. Ordinary conversation is to be wholesome and yet pleasing (Colossians 4:6). The gentler virtues which found no place in pagan ethics, such as sincerity, humility, reasonableness (Philippians 4:5), patience, meekness, brotherly love, kindness (Galatians 5:22), are united with love and temperance or self-control; while joy, peace, and thankfulness (cf. Philippians 4:6, εὐχαριστία) are the resultant graces of Christian conduct.

The domestic and social virtues are frequently urged on the Christian convert-love of husband for wife, of wife for husband, of children for parents, of slave for master, of master for slave (cf. Romans 3:18, Colossians 3:18-22). In all social relations St. Paul is conscious of the need of Christian tactfulness and discretion (Colossians 3:21 and Philippians 1:9). ‘To walk worthily of the gospel of Christ’ (Philippians 1:27) is his comprehensive formula for Christian conduct. The Christian’s relation to the heathen outsiders and to his less strict or ‘weak’ brother, and to heathen practices and use of heathen tribunals, is set forth in 1 Cor., which is a manual of social Christianity. He did not attack the slave-system or proclaim a social revolution: he sought to Christianize the relationship of master and slave by Christianizing both master and slave (see article Philemon). In 1 Thess. he warns men against the moral perils of ‘an overstrained Parousia-expectation’; in 2 Thess. he proclaims the dignity and duty of labour.

Finally, there is the duty of the ‘strong’ to help the weak (Galatians 6:1), the care for and liberality towards the poor (see 1 Corinthians 16), and, above all, obedience to civic and Imperial authorities (Romans 13:1-10). In dealing with social and civil responsibilities, the ethics of Pauline Christianity are opposed to revolt or agitation. The sanctification of the individual and the community is their aim and object. For his views with regard to the subordination of women (1 Corinthians 7), St. Paul has frequently been criticized, but on the whole they made for domestic purity and the strengthening of the marriage tie, in an age when the matrimonial relationship was losing its binding and sacred sanctions. His doctrine of the solidarity of society-a sin against a brother is a sin against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:12)-and of the equality of all men in Christ (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11) prepared the way for the up-lifting of the masses, and identified Christianity with the spirit of brotherhood, even though the references to love of the brethren are more frequent than to love of mankind as a whole (see article Fellowship). In fact, Christianity, as we find it set forth by St. Paul and exemplified however imperfectly by the Pauline churches, already exhibits the new ethical passion and power which were eventually to win the Empire and the world.

3. Post-Pauline Christianity.-For this period our chief authorities are the later writings of the NT. These include, in addition to the Pastoral Epistles and the Epistle to the Ephesians (now widely regarded as sub-Pauline), the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1 Peter, the Johannine writings, Revelation, James, and Jude. We have also the Ignatian Epistles, 1 Clement, and the recently discovered Odes of Solomon (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ), to which Harnack assigns the date of c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 100. The interest of the Odes is doctrinal and ceremonial rather than ethical, although it appears that they were associated with the teaching of the catechumens. 1 Peter, Revelation, and Hebrews belong to the time of the persecution under Domitian, in which Christians and Jews alike suffered. The Pastorals apparently have reference to the earlier or Neronian persecution (a.d. 64), in which a large number of the Christians perished because they were convenient scapegoats (Tac. Ann. xv. 44) for Nero’s unreasoning anger. Both Ephesians and the Pastorals give us the Pauline type of morality, Ephesians being influenced by and modelled on Colossians. In fact, the influence of St. Paul is manifest not only in those Epistles traditionally assigned to him, but generally in the later literature, which is really the offspring of a Jewish-Christian type of thought, e.g. 1 Peter, Hebrews, and the Johannine writings. For the special characteristics of this post-Pauline literature, see articles on the several books.

In 1 Peter, Hebrews, and the Epistle of the Roman Church to the Church of Corinth (1 Clem.) we find ourselves in touch with the Church at Rome. In Hebrews the Christians addressed had already passed through the Neronian persecution and became a ‘gazing-stock’ (Hebrews 10:33) to the world. The didactic purpose was to show the preparatory character of the Jewish religion; but throughout we find the hortatory element prominent: it was a λόγος παρακλήσεως (Hebrews 13:22). The peril was shrinking from confession of Christ, a failure of παῤῥησία (Hebrews 10:19), their lack of Christian knowledge (Hebrews 6:1); on the other hand, good works are praised (Hebrews 6:10)-brotherly love, hospitality, care for the sick and imprisoned; the great need is πίστις, not intellectual belief, but the moral assurance of a future reward-‘a better country.’ 1 Peter similarly lays stress on the consolatory power of ἐλπίς-the ‘living hope’ of a future life-in the midst of sufferings. 1 Clem. shows that the Church at Rome had not lost its stability, nor forgotten the duty of intercession especially for captive fellow-members. On the other hand, at Corinth since the 40 years when St. Paul wrote, there is little change; there are the defects of licentiousness and rebellion against authority. Throughout the Epistle we are conscious of St. Paul’s influence; ch. 49, e.g., is an imitation of the ‘hymn of love.’ 1 Peter, while sent from Rome, is addressed to the Churches of Asia Minor.

Possibly Ephesians belongs to the same period. While emphasizing knowledge (Ephesians 1:9-17; Ephesians 3:3), it gives the premier position to love, which surpasses knowledge and is its object (Ephesians 3:19). In 1 Peter the favourite word is ἀγαθοποιΐα. In Ephesians the old sins of paganism recur-uncleanness, lasciviousness, lusts; in 1 Peter malice, guile, hypocrisies, envies, and evil-speaking. The life of paganism is ἄγνοια, darkness, death: Christianity brings knowledge (Ephesians 4:17, 1 Peter 1:14), light (Ephesians 5:8, 1 Peter 2:9), and life (Ephesians 2:1 ff.) or effective power (Ephesians 1:19; Ephesians 3:20). Incidentally we note the emergence of new faults-drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18), the habit of the ἀλλοτριεπίσκοπος, or meddling in other people’s concerns (1 Peter 4:15), and extravagance of ornamentation in women (1 Peter 3:3). Both 1 Peter and Ephesians show an advance on St. Paul in their appeal to the OT, which Jewish Christianity made the Bible of the Gentile world. The Pastoral Epistles exhibit the beginnings of Gnosticism (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) and the influence of the false teaching prevalent in Asia Minor (cf. Jude, which warns especially against a far-teaching licentiousness), the discrediting of prophecy and the conception of εὐσέβεια. The Epistle of James, with which may perhaps be associated the Didache (although the date of the latter is uncertain), gives us the strong ethical ideal of Palestinian Christianity; its insistence on works does not imply retention of the Jewish code; the ‘law of liberty’ is a new law given by Christ, or ‘the yoke of the Lord’ (Did.). Revelation is also Jewish-Christian in its standpoint, and presents some valuable cameos of church life in Asia Minor in the letter to the Seven Churches (see article Apocalypse). It treats the Christian life on the broad basis of history, and recognizes the heroism of both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the world-conflict; the proofs of Christianity are to be seen in ‘the heroic virtues of martyrdom and virginity.’ The Ignatian Epistles, which also glorify martyrdom, are remarkably silent regarding the gross sins of paganism. They deal with the contrast between Christian and non-Christian, the peril of nominal Christianity, and the duties of confession and Church unity; they reflect the growing Church-consciousness which anticipates the later Catholicism. The Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles clearly express the equal recognition of Jewish and Gentile Christians. The author, though a Jew, is ‘denationalized’ in his standpoint, which yet is to be distinguished from St. Paul’s in its generally mystical and idealistic nature. The spirit of his ethic is ‘contemplative and exclusive’ (Weizsäcker, ii. 397). Faith in Jesus as the Son of God is the condition of ‘eternal life’ and the sonship of God; while the Person of Christ involved a universal redemption. The truth of the new birth is Pauline; while the view of sin as ἀνομία shows the Jewish veneration for the old Law; even ‘the new commandment’ is an old commandment (1 John 2:7) rightly viewed. The Christian life is characterized in a series of splendid generalizations-love, truth, light, with the antitheses of death and hatred, sin, the world, and darkness. The ideal is the overcoming of the world, the spirit of which is independence of God. The distinction between deadly and venial sins, the recognition of false forms of faith, the presence of official ambition which resents all ecclesiastical development (in Diotrephes [3 Jn]), are features which point to a later and more regulated stage of Christian life than we find in the Pauline letters, with their advocacy of the unfettered action of the Spirit.

To sum up, the Christian life, as exhibited in the literature of the Apostolic Age and viewed in the many phases and fluctuations which were due to its environment, the immaturity of its professors, the development of speculative thought, the errors of undue asceticism and moral laxity, presents on the whole a fixed and established type based on ethical and religious principles, which were destined to live and to transform the world because they owed their origin to faith in the historical Son of God, who had opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

Literature.-A. C. McGiffert, Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, and article ‘Apostolic Age’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics ; E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , London, 1904; C. von Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age, Eng. translation , ii. [do. 1895]; A. Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity2, Eng. translation , do. 1908; H. M. Gwatkin, Early Church History, do. 1909; J. Moffatt, Introd. to Literature of the New Testament (Moffatt)., Edinburgh, 1911; P. Gardner, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, London, 1911.

R. Martin Pope.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christian Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/christian-life.html. 1906-1918.

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