THROUGHOUT this book the general standpoint of 'form criticism' has been adopted, namely, that it is to the circumstances and needs of the worshipping, working, suffering community that one must look if one is to explain the genesis of Christian literature. Probably at no stage within the New Testament period did a writer put pen to paper without the incentive of a pressing need. Seldom was the writing consciously adorned; never was adornment an end in itself. Accordingly different aspects of the community's life have been successively considered, with a viewto illustrating how various types of Christian literature grew up in response to these circumstances and needs and can only be adequately understood against this setting. But if the standpoint of 'form criticism' has been thus adopted, a good many of the assumptions that frequently go with it have been discarded or qualified. A caveat has been entered against too lightly assuming that we have the very words of liturgy in certain passages which are frequently so interpreted. It has been urged that the probabilities favour a more fluid interchange of forms, such that snatches of prayer and hymnody flow in and out of the texture of pastoral exhortation, and liturgical phrases at the close of an Epistle do not necessarily imply that it is being formally linked as a homily to the eucharist. Again, the immense importance and prominence of Old Testament scripture in Christian thinking and reasoning, while it explains and accounts for much in the New Testament, must not, it has been argued, lead to the conclusion that whole sections of Christian narrative were created by the Old Testament. Neither should the essentially theological, apologetic, and edifi-catory intention of Christian writing lead to the assumption that the early Church took little or no interest in the actual circumstances of the Jesus of history. In particular, it is here maintained that the Gospels, as documents of Christian apologetic (direct or indirect), are very considerably concerned to reconstruct the story of 'how it all began'.
In the chapter on persecution, the view is taken that the greater part of the 'persecution' sections of the New Testament may be explained by postulating primarily Jewish antagonism, without invoking the Roman arm. In the treatment of the edifi-catory passages, stress is laid upon the relativity of Christian ethics, and the comparative individualism which, of necessity, was imposed upon them by the circumstances of the Christian communities. The last two chapters stress the wide variety of outlook and the often frightening vagueness that must have obtained in the underworld of the congregations scattered over the empire, over against the astonishing uniformity that characterized their leaders and was ultimately reflected in the canon, despite its exceedingly complicated history and seemingly haphazard development. Devotion to the person of Jesus Christ – as was said at the outset – is the clue to this extraordinary phenomenon.
Hundreds of problems remain. Too little is still known about the Jewish background of the life of Jesus and of the primitive Church; the peculiarities of the Christian uses of Scripture still present unsolved riddles; the varying social conditions of the different centres of Christendom are still largely in the shades of obscurity; the story of the canon bristles with unsolved – perhaps insoluble – problems.
But perhaps two conclusions of major importance arising from this study may now be underlined. One is the primacy of the divine initiative; the other is the urgent need today for what might be called the 'ethical translation of the Gospel'.
With regard to the first, a too cursory glance at the chapter headings of this book might lead to the conclusion that the early Church was engaged in an intensely self-regarding struggle – explaining itself, defending itself, edifying itself, unifying itself, authenticating itself. But that would be a quite false impression. It was by deliberate intention that these chapters were prefaced by one on the Church at worship; and it is in fact in a steadily Godward attitude that the Church undertook all its other activities – and still does, whenever it is really being its true self. Explanation, defence, edification, unification, authentication – none of these is Christian unless undertaken under the compulsion of the Spirit of God and for his glory; and it would be quite contrary to the intentions of this study if the growing self-consciousness of the Church here traced – from the earliest assumption that it was nothing other than 'Israel', to the latest awareness of itself as a tertium genus with its own scriptures – were seen as anything but the corollary of a growing understanding of God and his purposes in Jesus Christ.
With regard to the second matter much needs to be said, though it cannot be said here. Perhaps nothing is more urgently needed than a concerted effort to hammer out Christian ethics for the present day. But that requires the 'ethical translation of the Gospel'. It requires joint action by experts in very many different fields, and is quite beyond the competence of a mere New Testament student as such. Indeed, one of the most important lessons of this book is that the guidance of the Spirit of God was granted in the form not of a code of behaviour nor of any written deposit of direction, but of inspired insight. It was granted ad hoc to Christians as they met together, confronting the immediate problems with the Gospel behind them, the Holy Spirit among them, and the will to find out the action required of the People of God in the near future. If the pages of the Pauline Epistles are searched, they reveal various lines along which the apostle sought guidance: through direct revelation – in vision or audition; through the words and example of Christ; through the Jewish scriptures read in the light of Christ; through community custom; even through 'natural law". But it is tolerably clear that the most characteristic Christian way of guidance was in the kind of setting indicated in 1 Cor. xiv, where the Christians assemble, each with a psalm or a teaching or a revelation or an ecstatic burst of ejaculation: and the congregation exercises discernment. That is how Christian ethical decisions were reached: informed discussion, prophetic insight, ecstatic fire – all in the context of the worshipping, and also discriminating, assembly, met with the good news in Jesus Christ behind them, the Spirit among them, and before them the expectation of being led forward into the will of God. And if there is one lesson of outstanding importance to be gleaned from all this, it is that only along similar lines, translated into terms of our present circumstances, can we hope for an informed Christian ethic for the present day. It will probably be different in different areas of the world: each Christian Church has its peculiar problems and opportunities and its unique conditions. And it will always be based, not on a rigid code of ethics but on the guidance of the Spirit in the light of the unchanging Gospel and of contemporary conditions carefully studied by experts. One of the contributions to this will be hard, scientific, statistical thinking, brought to the Christian group by the Christians who are specialists in various realms of study. Only in the light of this will the guidance of the Spirit be realistically apprehended. Efficient, intelligent historical reconstruction of the past is another necessary contribution: the very writing of the Gospels bears witness to the Christian awareness of the importance of understanding and constantly recalling the origin and movement of the Christian kerygma. But only by 'translation' can an applied ethic be hoped for. Unless the Church expects the living voice of the Paraclete in such a context, to lead it forward into all truth, it will look in vain for specific guidance. Christian ethical practice in the past may, and must, be carefully studied. But in the last analysis we shall only know what Christian ethics today should be by letting the Holy Spirit 'translate' the message – by trusting to contemporary guidance. It was only so that the Church progressed and met its problems in those early years.
Many other matters have come up in the course of this enquiry, all of them in some measure important for this always necessary study of Christian beginnings, and some of them, perhaps, unusual. It will be for others to assess the value of the more unusual suggestions offered about some of the standing problems of the period. The estimate of the purpose of the Gospels, the guesses about the character of Matthew and Hebrews, the attitude to the liturgical factor, and the speculations about the relation of Luke the physician to the canon of scripture: these may or may not be well advised. But the problems they represent are ones which the student of the New Testament must constantly wrestle with; and his reading of the New Testament situation will, in its turn, be one of the contributions which it is his ministry to bring to the congregation of Christian people to which he belongs, as they try, in the light of all the available data, to place themselves under the guidance of the Spirit.
It is hoped that this study, even if indirectly, may be a contribution to the prolegomena to contemporary Christian ethics.