"THE catacombs are full of Christ. It was to Him that the Christians of the age of persecution ever turned: it was on Him they rested - in gladness and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; in the days of danger - and these were sadly numerous in the first two centuries and a half - and in the hour of death. It was from His words they drew their strength. In the consciousness of His ever-presence in their midst, they gladly suffered for His sake. With His name on their lips they died fearlessly, joyfully passing into the Valley of the veiled Shadow. On the tablet of marble or plaster which closed up the narrow shelf in the catacomb corridor where their poor remains were reverently, lovingly laid, the dear name of Jesus was often painted or carved."
"If we believe…that our Lord founded a visible Church, and that this Church with her creed and Scriptures, ministry and sacraments, is the instrument which He has given us to use, our course is clear. We must devote our energies to making the Church adequate to the Divine intention - as strong in principle, as broad in spirit as our Lord intended her to be; trusting that, in proportion as her true motherhood is realized, her children will find their peace within her bosom. We cannot believe that there is any religious need which at the last resort the resources of the Church are inadequate to meet."
The first of these quotations is from the Dean of Gloucester’s Early Christians in Rome: the second is from Bishop Gore’s Mission of the Church. And they are brought together here to exemplify in a striking way the contrast between the faith of Christ and the religion of Christendom. In Christianity the Lord Jesus Christ is all and in all. But in this system Christ is an institution to be administered by the Church. Professor Harnack puts it with epigrammatic force: "Christ as a person is forgotten. The fundamental questions of salvation are not answered by reference to Him; and in life the baptized has to depend on means which exist partly alongside, partly independent of Him, or merely wear His badge." Ministers of Christ are the Church’s ministry: the Lord’s Supper is her sacrament; and even the Divine Scriptures which speak of Him are her Scriptures, bracketed with her creed as being of equal authority and value. What are our needs in the spiritual sphere? Forgiveness of sins? - the Church will grant us absolution. Peace with God? - we shall find it in the Church’s "bosom." Grace to help in time of need? Comfort in sorrow? Strength for the struggles of life, and support in the solemn hour of death? The whole burden of our need "the resources of the Church" are adequate to meet.
And "the Church" of this scheme, as we are expressly told, is the "visible Church," and the visible Church as writers of this, school understand it. It is not the true spiritual Church, the vital unity of the Body of Christ, nor even "the Holy Catholic Church" as defined by the Reformers, but the Professing Church on earth, the "outward frame," as Alford calls it, now drifting to its. "fearful end."1
How true it is that where vital truth is involved there is no clear line of demarcation between what is unchristian and what is antichristian. And nothing but the after-glow of lost truth and the piety of a devout spirit separates this evil system from the goal to which it legitimately leads.2 If the above cited words expressed merely the views of the school to which their author belongs, they would not deserve notice here. But they are a development of the false teaching of the Fathers, as epitomized by Dr. Hatch in the sentences from his Bampton Lectures quoted in my first chapter. Hence their bearing on the thesis of that chapter, and on my present subject. Is it strange that men whose minds were warped by such error should seek, by denying the apostolic authorship of Hebrews, to disparage an Epistle in which the Church and "her sacraments" are never mentioned?
Not that Hebrews is peculiar in this respect. For in Romans, the greatest doctrinal treatise of the New Testament, the very word ekklesia is not to be found until we reach the characteristically "Pauline" postscript of the concluding chapter. Never once does the word occur in the writings of the Apostle Peter. Never once in the Apostle John’s great doctrinal Epistle. Indeed if we except First and Second Corinthians it appears only thirty-seven times in all the Epistles. And there are not a dozen passages in the whole of the New Testament in which it stands for the Professing Church on earth. For though "the Church" in that sense holds such prominence in almost every phase of the religion of Christendom, the New Testament seldom refers to it save by way of warnings of its apostasy. Overwhelming proof of this that "the Church" has no such place in Christianity as that which is assigned to it in Christendom. For were it otherwise appeal would certainly have been made to its authority in all the Epistles, and very specially in every section of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Indeed, the Apostle Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders, recorded in Acts 20, ought to be "an end of controversy" on this subject. If the "motherhood" and the "resources" of the Church were not antichristian error but divine truth, they would have prominent mention here. But his main allusion to "the Church" is his sadly pathetic and most solemn forecast of heresies and schisms; and in view of these impending evils and perils, he commends them to God and the Word of His grace.
And in keeping with the spirit of the Apostle’s words I wish, in these closing pages, to use this deplorable and pernicious error merely as a dark background to throw into relief the truth which was the strength and joy of the early Christians before the apostasy took shape. "The catacombs are full of Christ," the Dean of Gloucester repeats in the clause succeeding that above quoted from his book. He then goes on to tell that in those "first days" "the Good Shepherd" was "the favourite symbol of the Christian life and faith." And he adds: "A great and eloquent writer (Dean Stanley) does not hesitate to speak of what he terms the popular religion of the first century as the religion of ‘the Good Shepherd.’ He says they looked on that figure, and it conveyed to them all they wanted. And then he adds sorrowfully that ‘as ages passed on, the image of the Good Shepherd faded away from the mind of the Christian world, and other emblems took the place of the once dearly loved figure.’"
Yes, in those bright days the thought of the personal and living Christ "conveyed to them all they wanted." How deep the apostasy in which this simple faith was corrupted and ultimately swamped by base superstitions about the "motherhood of the Church" and her "resources to meet every religious need." What a contrast to the inspired words of the Apostle, "My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus!" And He is "the same yesterday and today and for ever." The Church is not a sheepfold, as this false system pretends.3 The word ekklesia has no such meaning in the New Testament. Indeed it had no such meaning in the Greek language when the New Testament was written. The Church is the flock, and Ministers are to be "ensamples to the flock" - the Lord’s own provision of shepherds until the Chief Shepherd shall appear.4 He is the Chief Shepherd with reference to the under-shepherds. He is the Good Shepherd, because He cares for the sheep, and gave His life for them. And as brought up again from the dead He is the Great Shepherd.
The significance of the imagery of the Lord’s words in (John 10) was familiar to the Hebrew Christians of Palestine,5 but we are apt to miss it. Within the fold, sheep have no need of the shepherd’s care. But when he leads them out to pasture they look to him for guidance, and they run to him for safety whenever danger threatens. What intensity of meaning this must have had for those early saints in days of persecution! "The religion of the Good Shepherd" is indeed a beautiful conception; and it was an evil day when that figure was supplanted by the crucifix and the Latin cross; and the image of a living Saviour and Lord gave place to emblems that speak of a dead Christ.
There were also reasons of another kind why Hebrews was not adequately appreciated by the Latin Fathers. In marked contrast with the writers of the New Testament, one and all of whom, like Timothy, had known the Holy Scriptures from their childhood, the early theologians of the Primitive Church were converts from paganism. While, therefore, much of their homiletic teaching is most valuable, their doctrinal expositions of the Old Testament are too often untrustworthy. And the ignorance that marks so many of their writings respecting the typology of the Pentateuch and the divine scheme of prophecy that permeates all the Hebrew Scriptures, influences our theology to the present hour.
But this was not all. Just as the modern Jew is prejudiced against Christians on account of the persecutions by which his people have suffered from apostate Christianity, so in early days the Gentile Christians were no less prejudiced against the Jews on account of their part in instigating certain of the persecutions to which the Church was subjected by pagan Rome. It was therefore natural, perhaps, that the Fathers should have no sympathy with Jewish hopes as revealed in Scripture, and that the unnumbered prophecies and promises relating to the restoration of Israel to divine favour should have been ignored, or else "spiritualized" to foster the false conception of "the Church," which they bequeathed as a baneful legacy to Christendom.6 This being so, an Epistle addressed to Hebrews must have seemed an anachronism. And an Epistle written in the language of Old Testament typology must have been in great measure an enigma. And a cavil of a somewhat similar kind is heard today on wholly different grounds.
Ordinary Christians are not more in bondage to the prevailing error about the visible Church on earth than are some other Christians to the truth about the Church, the Body of Christ. And because that truth has no place in Hebrews they would rob us of the Epistle. It is not that they doubt its claim to be Holy Scripture, but they urge that "it is not for us." It belongs, they say, to the Pentecostal dispensation which was broken off when the covenant people were set aside, and which will be resumed when they are again restored to favour. But this betrays forgetfulness of the Apostle’s words to Timothy that "all Scripture is profitable…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
If we are to be restricted to those portions of Scripture which are specially addressed to Christians of the present dispensation, our Bible will shrink to very narrow limits. It is all for us, though it savours of Gentile ignorance and pride to suppose that it belongs to us. The Epistle to the Romans is clear as to that. To the covenant people it was that the oracles of God were entrusted. It was because they were false to the trust that they were temporarily set aside. But as the Apostle says, their want of faith cannot make the faithfulness of God of none effect.(Romans 3:1-3, R.V.) For not merely the calling but the gifts of God are "without repentance." As the Bible is God’s revelation to His people upon earth, it belongs in a peculiar sense to His earthly people, and we are only "tenants for life" of the inheritance; yet during our earthly sojourn our right to appropriate this priceless gift of Holy Scripture in every part of it is absolute. Hebrews, moreover, is not addressed to the earthly people as such, but to an election from the covenant people, who are "partakers of a heavenly calling." And this being so we can take our place by their side, and profit to the full by the precious teaching of an Epistle which contains truth that is of vital moment to us, and truth that is found nowhere else in Scripture. For here alone we learn of the Priesthood of the Son of God for us in heaven now, securing our access to the Divine Presence.
And Hebrews supplies the clew to the typology of the Pentateuch; for it unfolds with peculiar fullness what the death of Christ imports in its manifold aspects toward both God and the sinner. And thus we learn the unity of the Bible. For in teaching that the Pentateuch is "the word of the beginning of Christ," it brings together the earliest and the latest of the divine Scriptures, and shows that all are one.
And grace permeates its teaching. For though it may not declare in the same sense as Romans does, the truth of grace upon the throne,7 it tells of the throne of grace, to which we may come boldly that we may find grace to help in time of need. It speaks of the Spirit of grace. It warns us against falling from grace, and exhorts us to have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably. It tells of the blessedness of a heart established with grace. And "Grace be with you all" are its closing words.8
We cannot afford, then, to tolerate any disparagement of an Epistle which, to quote Bishop Westcott’s words again, "deals in a peculiar degree with the thoughts and trials of our own times." No book of the New Testament indeed has a more special bearing upon the present-day phase of the main branches of the antichristian apostasy. For though Rome, regarded as a definite organization, is losing ground everywhere, as a system it has perhaps more influence in England today than at any period since the Reformation. And if the voice of open infidelity is less heard in Britain now than formerly, it is because its mission is being insidiously accomplished within the Professing Church.
The leaders of the Oxford movement maintained the supreme authority of the Bible. And in following the teaching of the Father’s in this respect their movement was hostile to Rome. But the "antiquity" which was their fetish was not that of "the foundation of Apostles and Prophets" - not that of the Church of the New Testament - but of the Church of the Fathers. Their appeal was to the Patristic theologians and the Oecumenical Councils. And this evil leaven has worked so efficaciously that after two generations the "National Reformed Church of England" has ceased to be Protestant, and even the great Evangelical Party is little more than a memory of the past.
For, as we have seen, the Romish conception of "the Church" is merely a development of Patristic teaching. The Reformers, perhaps out of consideration for the devotees of so venerable a superstition, dealt with it by re-definitions. But the root-error of the apostasy could not be destroyed without treatment of a far more drastic kind, and Christianity soon lapsed again to the level of a "religion." "Lapsed," I say, for the Christianity of the New Testament is not a "religion."9 In those days the State required that all Roman subjects should profess some religion, but the Christians, who had neither altars nor priests, neither sacrifices nor images, were held to have "no religion at all," as Laud in his day said of the Scottish people; and so they were looked upon as atheists,10 and punished accordingly; and this even by such enlightened rulers as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The Hebrew Christians had not changed a good religion for a better, but, as the Apostle reminded them, they had turned away from the one divine religion in accepting Him who was the fulfillment of all its typical ordinances, and the substance of every truth it had foreshadowed. CHRISTIANITY IS CHRIST. There is no truth more needed today than this; and no Book of Scripture teaches it more fully and explicitly than the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Referring to this false conception of "The Church," Dean Farrar writes11 "The whole Epistle to the Hebrews is a protest against it." And with equal force may this be said of the sceptical movement of the day. No one who reads Hebrews in the light of the Pentateuchal types could be deluded by the profane figment that the Books of Moses are literary forgeries concocted by the apostate priests of the exilic era. For the typology answers to the New Testament revelation of Christ as exactly as a key fits the lock it is intended to open.
More than this, the adage about the trees shutting out the view of the wood is strikingly exemplified by the critics. For nothing but ignorance of the Bible as a whole can lend an air of plausibility to their "assured results." Their writings indicate that their study of Holy Scripture is purely analytical. Of its scope and purpose they seem to know nothing, and nothing of what Pusey aptly calls its "hidden harmony." The order of the revelation is plain. As Hebrews declares, the Pentateuch is "the word of the beginning of Christ." "He wrote of Me" is the Lord’s description of the Books of Moses. And as countless Scriptures indicate, the Prophets belonged to a later age; for prophecy is the divine provision for a time of apostasy.
This was the Bible on which our Divine Lord founded His Messianic Ministry. This was the Bible of the Apostles. The Bible of the Martyrs. The Bible of Christians of every name for eighteen centuries, until German rationalists were raised up (was it by the Spirit of God, or by another spiritual power?) to prove that in all His teaching on this subject the Lord of Glory was speaking merely as an ignorant and superstitious Jew; and that, being Himself the dupe of the errors of Rabbinic Judaism, He enforced these errors upon His disciples by declaring again and again with extreme solemnity, that the very words in which He taught them were divinely given. Language could not be more explicit:
"I have not spoken from myself, but the Father which sent me, He hath given me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak:…the things therefore that I speak, even as the Father hath said unto me, so I speak." (John 12:49-50) The contemptuous answer vouchsafed to this by the critics is that "both Christ and the Apostles or writers of the New Testament held the current Jewish notions respecting the divine authority and revelation of the Old Testment."12 Unitarianism has never challenged the teaching of Christ, but only the meaning put upon His words; but the "Higher Criticism" impiously flouts His teaching as being both ignorant and false. Nothing more daringly profane, more shameless in its blasphemy, has ever marked the evil history of the Professing Church. Some people may accept these "assured results of modern criticism" and yet continue to believe in the divine authority of Holy Scripture and the deity of Christ (the superstitious will believe anything!); but, recognizing the goal to which these "results" inevitably lead, all intelligent and thoughtful men who accept them will take refuge in Agnosticism.
Though there is no unity in error, a kinship marks its various phases. And what the inspired Apostle wrote about the "seducers" (1 John 2:23-27.) of his time applies unreservedly today by a true instinct the spiritual Christian rejects any heresy which touches the honour of his Lord. And the pivot upon which this most evil heresy turns is the kenosis doctrine that enables pundits and Professors to sit ill judgment on the teaching of the Lord of Glory. "The whole Epistle to the Hebrews is a protest against it." And even if these pages fail of their main purpose, they will not have been written in vain if they serve to rescue some, even of "the poor of the flock," from the toils of these "seducers."
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