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Beginnings of Christianity.




It is no doubt true that Christianity is a daughter of the Jewish faith: yet it strikes its roots deep down into a soil which we may call beliefs common to all the religions of antiquity. In that soil the characteristic features of the various religions of the ancient world are not as yet distinguishable. Among these common beliefs may be included the whole body of ideas concerning the earth, nature, man, the soul, and the world of spirits. Before the dawn of science these popular ideas bore undisputed sway, and they

even to the present time engaged in a ceaseless struggle with scientific conceptions of the universe.

According to the popular beliefs of antiquity, this earth is, of course, the centre of creation—the only scene of any history concerning God and mankind. Over it is the vault of heaven, and there the sun and all the stars, “the powers of the heavens,” run their

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courses, yet the earth is the world ; in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the two terms are interchanged as denoting the same idea. But the earth itself is small and little known. The thoughts of men can fly to the “ ends of the world” in an instant. From one end to another flashes the lightning, and, like the lightning, so shall the Son of man appear to all men at once. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them from the top of one exceeding high mountain. If one wished to speak of a geography of the New Testament—the term would be a misnomer—its western limits would be Spain and its eastern the kingdom of the Parthians.

This limited view of earth and world had naturally not been without influence upon religion. The unwavering faith in Providence, as well as the hope in the coming of the kingdom of God upon earth, have their chief support in this undoubted geocentric system. In like manner missionary zeal was kindled by the belief that it would be possible to preach the gospel to all the world in one single generation. Men had no idea then of the size of this earth, such as we know it now, nor of the infinite and persistent variety among the different races of men, which cause such great difficulties to missionary enterprise. And in like manner they had no conception of the universe as a whole or of this earth's nothingness in comparison with it. However little reason we may have to boast of knowledge for which we are not indebted to ourselves, as little right have we to hide from ourselves the chasm which separates us in this point from early Christianity as a child of antiquity.

The next point of difference goes a good deal

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deeper still.

It is the boundless faith in the miraculous which early Christianity shares with all world-religions.

The whole earth is thereby transformed into an enchanted world. As yet there is no trace of any knowledge of the law of natural causation. All things are possible for God and for those that believe, and all things are mystery.

In the first place, the world of nature is a world of wonders. St. John iii. 8 is a typical instance: “ The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” And just because of this arbitrary and mysterious character it is so well suited to represent the supernatural powers of the spirit. This belief in nature as a realm of marvels meets us most distinctly in the various eschatologies of the New Testament. According to these conceptions the fashion of this world shall pass suddenly away, and the heavens shall vanish with a great noise, the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and there shall be new heavens and a new earth. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood; the stars shall fall from heaven, the sign of the cross shall appear in the air, and the Son of man shall descend upon the clouds of heaven. Faith in the miraculous positively revels in the enumeration of signs of the approaching end of all things ; in the vision of the seven seals and of the seven trumpets and of the seven bowls the fancy of the writer of the Apocalypse runs riot altogether, passing the bounds of all possibility. But this faith will not suffer itself to be limited to the distant future. In the history of Jesus and of His apostles it finds and creates for itself the

material for an actual embodiment in the present. Here, too, there is nothing that is impossible, and the truth of the saying as to the faith that removeth mountains receives a striking confirmation. Jesus stills the tempest on the sea and causes the fig tree to wither, in both cases merely by the utterance of a word. He walks on the sea by night and enables Peter to do likewise. He changes water into wine, He divides a few loaves and fishes among five thousand and again among four thousand people. He calls Lazarus forth from the tomb on the third day in spite of the corruption that had already set in; He himself rises on the third day from the grave that is closed with a sealed stone and guarded by a watch ; He enters the room though the doors are closed, and yet He can eat and suffer Himself to be touched ; and finally, so we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, He ascends visibly to heaven, whence He shall come again visibly. The Acts now become the great book of the miracles of the Apostles and of the first Christian saints, whose leaders work wonders even with their shadows and their napkins. Thus faith in the miraculous surpasses all bounds, and yet it is not consciously dealing with exceptional cases, far less with breaches of the law of nature—the very conception of such a law does not exist-but with everyday phenomena which are perfectly natural.

The religious value attached by the early Christians to miracles surprises us to-day, even more than the entire absence of the critical faculty. It is not merely those Christians to whom we owe our Gospels, who find the proof of the truths of their doctrine in the stories of the miracles. Jesus Himself appeals

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