Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

course primarily to the spoken word, but the written word had the same qualities as the spoken. It was the deep impression made by these which prepared Christians generally to accept the apostolic writings as inspired, and therefore sacred. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that the estimate formed by the early Church of its Bible was a merely arbitrary verdict imposed by an external authority; it was the expression, and the natural expression (though following certain prescribed lines), of its real sense of the value and fundamentally divine origin of the writings which it treasured.

Nearest in character to the Thessalonian Epistles are the two to Corinth, which have perhaps an interval of a year and a half between them. When 1 Corinthians was written, the attitude of the Church was still strongly eschatological (1 Cor. i. 7, 8, iii. 13-15, vii. 26, 29-31, xv. 25, 26, 51-54, xvi. 23). The thoughts of men were still set upon the near approach of the end, the troublous times that would issue in the break-up of the existing order and the return of Christ to introduce a new era. There was no idea of constructing a systematic theology; Christ was still the Jewish Messiah, and His Coming was conceived of as the Jews conceived of the coming of the Messiah, as a great supernatural event transforming the face of things and inaugurating the reign of God. In view of this approaching revolution, both the Church and the world were regarded as living from hand to mouth. It was useless to attempt to found permanent institutions; everything was provisional and for the moment. And yet, even under these conditions, some practical arrangements had to be made. The epistle is taken up with matters of this kind; either the apostle is reproving disorders and abuses actually existing in the Church, and almost sure to exist in a young community that had just adopted a novel method of life and had as yet no settled understanding of the principles involved in it; or else he is replying to definite questions put to him by his converts. In all this the epistle is still a genuine letter, and not a treatise. It only rises from time to time above the level of a letter, through the extraordinary penetration, force, enthusiasm and elevation of feeling that the apostle throws into his treatment of more or less ordinary topics. He can never rest until he has carried up the question of the moment to some higher ground of faith or conduct. It is in this incidental and digressive way that we get the description of the Gospel in i. 18-ii. 16; of the Christian ministry in chs. iii., iv.; of the principle of consideration for others in ch. ix.; of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in chs. x., xi.; of Christian love in ch. xiii.; of the Resurrection and its consequences in ch. xv.

2 Corinthians is even more a product of the situation: it is even more taken up with personal relations. No epistle sheds more light on St Paul’s character as a man—so mobile, so tactful, so tender and affectionate, and yet so statesmanlike and so commanding. If doctrinal utterances occur from time to time, they are in every case incidental and unpremeditated.

The development of doctrine in St Paul’s epistles is due in part to the gradual subsiding of the eschatological temper, but even more to the growth of controversy. A crisis had arisen in Galatia owing to the invasion of the churches, which St Paul had founded there, by reactionary Jews. This called forth a letter[1] from St Paul, who felt himself compelled to grapple at close quarters with teaching which he saw cut at the very root of his own. He was thus led both to clear up for himself and to state for the sake of others his whole conception of soteriology—his answer to the question how was man to be set right before God. That was a large part, and at the moment the most crucial part, of the whole problem of religion.

Two or three years later (c. A.D. 55-56) St Paul was bent on paying a visit to Rome. He was not going there straight, but to Jerusalem first. He knew that he could only do this at the imminent peril of his life. It seemed very doubtful whether he would accomplish his desire. And therefore he took the opportunity to send to the Romans what is really a summing up, not of the whole of Christianity, but of that side of Christianity which the preceding controversy had brought into special relief. He states his case as part of a larger question still—a question that inevitably became pressing at that particular time—as to the entire religious relation of Jew and Gentile.

These years of shock and conflict could not fail to have marked effect upon the shaping of definite Christian doctrine. They drew attention away from the future to the present, and to the past as leading up to the present. They compelled a man like St Paul to theorize: thought was driven inward; it was made to search for foundations, to organize itself and knit together part with part. And the impulse thus given continued. It showed itself strongly in the epistles of the next group, especially Ephesians and Colossians. These epistles took their form at once from a natural progression of thought and from a new phase of controversy, a sort of Gnosticizing theory, or theories, which perverted Christian practice and impaired the supremacy of Christ by placing other beings or entities by His side. The apostle meets this by renewed emphasis on the central position of Christ; and he at the same time carries a step farther his conception of the unity of the Church, as embracing both Jew and Gentile. The predominance of this somewhat recondite teaching gave to these epistles even more the character of treatises, which in the case of Ephesians is further enhanced by the fact that it is probably a circular letter addressed not to a single church but to a group of churches. Philemon is of course a pure letter, and Philippians mainly so, the Pastorals, as their name implies, contain advice and instructions to the apostle’s lieutenants, Timothy and Titus, in the temporary charge committed to them of churches that the apostle could not visit himself.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is an epistolary treatise of uncertain date, on the Pauline model, and by a disciple of St Paul or at least a writer strongly influenced by him, though influenced also in no small degree by the Jewish school of Alexandria represented by Philo. Of the many theories as to the address, the most plausible are perhaps those which would apply to a single congregation of Hebrew Christians in Rome, or to a local church or group of local churches in Palestine, perhaps like that of which the centre would be at Caesarea. It is not probable that the epistle was addressed to the mother church at Jerusalem.

The above sketch of the growth and general character of the Pauline Epistles is based upon the hypothesis that all thirteen are genuine. But some discrimination should be made in detail. The scepticism which challenges the whole collection may be set aside as radically perverse and unreasonable. Apart from this, the keen criticism of modern times has fastened especially upon two groups:—2 Thessalonians; Colossians with Philemon, Ephesians and the Pastorals. The present writer would accept without any real hesitation the first of these classes; and the second he would also himself accept, though in regard to this class he would think it right to speak with rather more reserve. This may be said to be the position generally taken up by the leading English scholars; it differs slightly in a conservative direction, but not widely, from that of Harnack, a little more from that of Jülicher, and again a little more from that of von Soden.

2 Thessalonians is still questioned by scholars of some note; but when Jülicher can say that no question could be raised if it were not for the existence of 1 Thessalonians (assumed to be genuine), this is practically giving up the whole case, because the objections drawn from 1 Thessalonians are, at least to the present writer, only an example of faulty criticism. Still less is there any valid argument against Philemon. It is a mark of the improved methods now current in Germany that, whereas in 1886 this epistle was rejected by a scholar as able and sober as Weizsäcker, Jülicher now pronounces it “among the most assured possessions of the apostle” (Einl. 5th ed., p. 112).

But there is an arguable case of some real weight against Colossians, Ephesians, Pastorals—least against Colossians and perhaps most against the Pastorals. Colossians is strongly vouched for by its connexion with Philemon. And the objections to Ephesians are considerably reduced when it is taken as a circular letter. But it should be admitted that, especially in regard to Ephesians and Pastorals, there is a perceptible difference, (a) in style, and (b) in characteristic subject matter, from the standard epistles. If these

  1. The date of this epistle is rather uncertain. Something depends upon the vexed question as to the identity of the Galatian churches. The epistle may be placed conjecturally early in the stay at Ephesus (c. A.D. 52-53). It is to be noted that the chronological grouping of the epistles by minute comparison of style is apt to be deceptive; resemblances of this kind are due more to similarity of subject than to proximity in date.