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History of the Church #30

The GENERAL Epistles


BRIEF CHURCH HISTORY #30

30-100 AD


From "History of the Christian Church " by Philip Schaff
(1858)

THE GENERAL EPISTLES

The sermons of Stephen and the apostles in Acts (excepting the
farewell of Paul to the Ephesian Elders) are missionary addresses
to outsiders, with a view to convert them to the Christian faith.
The Epistles are addressed to baptized converts, and aim to
strengthen them in their faith, and, by brotherly instruction,
exhortation, rebuke, and consolation, to build up the church in
all Christian graces on the historical foundation of the teaching
and example of Christ. The prophets of the Old Testament
delivered divine oracles to the people; the apostles of the New
Testament wrote letters to the brethren, who shared with them the
same faith and hope as members of Christ.

The readers are supposed to be already "in Christ," saved and
sanctified "in Christ," and holding all their social and domestic
relations and discharging their duties "in Christ." They are 
"grown together" with Christ, sharing in his death, burial, and
resurrection, and destined to reign and rule with him in glory
forever. On the basis of this new relation, constituted by a
creative act of divine grace, and sealed by baptism, they are
warned against every sin and exhorted to every virtue. Every
departure from their profession and calling implies double guilt
and double danger of final ruin.

Occasions and calls for correspondence were abundant, and
increased with the spread of Christianity over the Roman empire.
The apostles could not be omnipresent, and had to send messengers
and letters to distant churches. They probably wrote many more
letters than we possess, although we have good reason to suppose
that the most important and perma nently valuable are preserved. 
A former letter of Paul to the Corinthians is implied in 1 Cor. 
5:9: "I wrote to you in my epistle;" and traces of further
correspondence are found in 1 Cor.16:3; 2 Cor.10:9; Eph.3:3.     
The letter "from Laodicea," referred to in Col.4:16, is probably
the encyclical Epistle to the Ephesians.

The Epistles of the New Testament are without a parallel in
ancient literature, and yield in importance only to the Gospels,
which stand higher, as Christ himself rises above the apostles.
They are pastoral letters to congregations or individuals,
beginning with an inscription and salutation, consisting of
doctrinal expositions and practical exhortations and
consolations, and concluding with personal intelligence,
greetings, and benediction. They presuppose throughout the Gospel
history, and often allude to the death and resurrection of Christ
as the foundation of the church and the Christian hope. They were
composed amidst incessant missionary labors and cares, under
trial and persecution, some of them from prison, and yet they
abound in joy and thanksgiving. They were mostly called forth by
special emergencies, yet they suit all occasions. Tracts for the
times, they are tracts for all times. Children of the fleeting
moment, they contain truths of infinite moment. They compress
more ideas in fewer words than any other writings, human or
divine, excepting the Gospels. They discuss the highest themes
which can challenge an immortal mind-God, Christ, and the Spirit,
sin and redemption, incarnation, atonement, regeneration,
repentance, faith and good works, holy living and dying, the
conversion of the world, the general judgment, eternal glory and
bliss. And all this before humble little societies of poor,
uncultured artisans, freedmen and slaves! And yet they are of
more real and general value to the church than all the systems of
theology from Origen to Schleiermacher - yea, than all the
confessions of faith. For eighteen hundred years they have
nourished the faith of Christendom, and will continue to do so to
the end of time. This is the best evidence of their divine
inspiration.

The Epistles are divided into two groups, Catholic and Pauline.

The first is more general; the second bears the strong imprint of
the intense personality of the Apostle of the Gentiles.

The Catholic Epistles

The seven Epistles of James, 1st and 2d Peter, Ist, 2d, and 3d
John, and Jude usually follow in the old manuscripts the Acts of
the Apostles, and precede the Pauline Epistles, perhaps as being
the works of the older apostles, and representing, in part at
least, the Jewish type of Christianity. They are of a more
general character, and addressed not to individuals or single
congregations, as those of Paul, but to a larger number of Chris-
tians scattered through a district or over the world. Hence they
are called, from the time of Origen and Eusebius, CATHOLIC. This
does not mean in this connection anti-heretical (still less, of
course, Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic), but encyclical or
circular. The designation, however, is not strictly correct, and
applies only to five of them. The second and third Epistles of
John are addressed to individuals. On the other hand the Epistle
to the Hebrews is encyclical, and ought to be numbered with the
Catholic Epistles, but is usually appended to those of Paul.     

The Epistle to the Ephesians is likewise intended for more than
one congregation. The first Christian document of an encyclical
character is the pastoral letter of the apostolic Conference at
Jerusalem (A.D.50) to the Gentile brethren in Syria and Cilicia
(Acts 15; 23-29).

The Catholic Epistles are distinct from the Pauline by their more
general contents and the absence of personal and local
references. They represent different, though essentially
harmonious, types of doctrine and Christian life. The
individuality of James, Peter, and John stand out very
prominently in these brief remains of their correspondence. They
do not enter into theological discussions like those of Paul, the
learned Rabbi, and give simpler statements of truth, but protest
against the rising ascetic and Antinomian errors, as Paul does in
the Colossians and Pastoral Epistles. Each has a distinct
character and purpose, and none could well be spared from the New
Testament without marring the beauty and completeness of the
whole.

The time of composition cannot be fixed with certainty, but is
probably as follows: James before A.D.50; 1st Peter (probably
also 2d Peter and Jude) before A.D.67; John between A.D.80 and
100.

Only two of these Epistles, the 1st of Peter and the 1st of John,
belong to the Eusebian Homologumena, which were universally
accepted by the ancient church as inspired and canonical. About
the other five there was more or less doubt as to their origin
down to the close of the fourth century, when all controversy on
the extent of the canon went to sleep till the time of the
Reformation. Yet they bear the general imprint of the apostolic
age, and the absence of stronger traditional evidence is due in
part to their small size and limited use.

(The canon of the NT was NOT done by the Catholic church, but was
done by the Apostles themselves - see the fully in-depth study
called "Canonization of the New Testament" by Ernest Martin on
this website - Keith Hunt)

JAMES

The Epistle of JAMES the Brother of the Lord was written, no
doubt, from Jerusalem, the metropolis of the ancient theocracy
and Jewish Christianity, where the author labored and died a
martyr at the head of the mother church of Christendom and as the
last connecting link between the old and the new dispensation. It
is addressed to the Jews and Jewish Christians of the dispersion
before the final doom in the year 70.

It strongly resembles the Gospel of Matthew, and echoes the
Sermon on the Mount in the fresh, vigorous, pithy, proverbial,
and sententious style of oriental wisdom. It exhorts the readers
to good works of faith, warns them against dead orthodoxy,
covetousness, pride, and worldliness, and comforts them in view
of present and future trials and persecutions. It is eminently
practical and free from subtle theological questions. 
It preaches a religion of good works which commends itself to the
approval of God and all good men. It represents the primary
stage of Christian doctrine. It takes no notice of the
circumcision controversy, the Jerusalem compromise, and the later
conflicts of the apostolic age. Its doctrine of justification is
no protest against that of Paul, but prior to it, and presents
the subject from a less developed, yet eminently practical
aspect, and against the error of a barren monotheism rather than
Pharisaical legalism, which Paul had in view. It is probably
the oldest of the New Testament books, meagre in doctrine, but
rich in comfort and lessons of holy living based on faith in
Jesus Christ, "the Lord of glory." It contains more
reminiscences of the words of Christ than any other epistle.    
Its leading idea is "the perfect law of freedom," or the law of
love revealed in Christ. Luther's harsh, unjust, and unwise
judgment of this Epistle has been condemned by his own church,
and reveals a defect in his conception of the doctrine of
justification which was the natural result of his radical war
with the Romish error.

PETER

The FIRST Epistle of PETER, dated from Babylon, belongs to
the later life of the apostle, when his ardent natural temper was
deeply humbled, softened, and sanctified by the work of grace. It
was written to churches in several provinces of Asia Minor,
composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians together, and planted
mainly by Paul and his fellow-laborers; and was sent by the
hands of Silvanus, a former companion of Paul. It consists of
precious consolations, and exhortations to a holy walk after the
example of Christ, to joyful hope of the heavenly inheritance, to
patience under the persecutions already raging or impending. It
gives us the fruit of a rich spiritual experience, and is
altogether worthy of Peter and his mission to tend the flock of
God under Christ, the chief shepherd of souls.

It attests also the essential agreement of Peter with the
doctrine of the Gentile apostle, in which the readers had been
before instructed (5:12). This accords with the principle of
Peter professed at the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11) that we
are saved without the yoke of the law, "through the grace of the
Lord Jesus."   

("Without the yoke of the law" ..... Hummmmm ..... that depends
on how the author is thinking about the law. Pharisaical law
keeping was a yoke of bondage, but the law of God was never a
yoke; Paul says in Romans 7 the law was holy, just and good, the
law was spiritual; James certainly thought of the law as the "law
of liberty"  and if you break one point of it you have broken all
of it. John defines sin as the breaking of the law [1 John 3:4].
Now you could say the law was a yoke in putting us under sin,
which only the sacrifice of Christ could deliver us from the
law's penalty - death. See my study called "Saved by Grace" for a
full in-depth explanation on Law, Sin, and Grace - Keith Hunt)

His doctrinal system, however, precedes that of Paul and is
independent of it, standing between James and Paul. Peculiar to
him is the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades (3:18;   
4:6; comp. Acts 2:32), which contains the important truth of the
universal intent of the atonement. Christ died for all men, for
those who lived before as well as after his coming, and he
revealed himself to the spirits in the realm of Hades. 

(For the truth on this section of Peter see my explanation of the
letters of Peter in "The New Testament Bible Story" - Keith Hunt)

Peter also warns against hierarchical ambition in prophetic
anticipation of the abuse of his name and his primacy among the
apostles.

The SECOND Epistle of PETER is addressed, shortly before the
author's death, as a sort of last will and testament, to the same
churches as the first. It contains a renewed assurance of his
agreement with his "beloved brother Paul," to whose Epistles he
respectfully refers, yet with the significant remark (true in
itself, yet often abused by Romanists) that there are in them
"some things hard to be understood" (3:15,16). As Peter himself
receives in one of these Epistles (Gal.2:11) a sharp rebuke for
his inconsistency at Antioch (which may be included in the hard
things), this affectionate allusion proves how thoroughly the
Spirit of Christ had, through experience, trained him to
humility, meekness, and self-denial. The Epistle exhorts the
readers to diligence, virtue, temperance, patience, godliness,
brotherly love, and brotherly kindness; refers to the
Transfiguration on the Mount, where the author witnessed the
majesty of Christ, and to the prophetic word inspired by the Holy
Spirit; warns against antinomian errors; corrects a mistake
concerning the second coming; exhorts them to prepare for the day
of the Lord by holy living, looking for new heavens and a new
earth wherein dwelleth righteousness; and closes with the words
"Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus
Christ, to whom be glory both now and forever."

The second Epistle is reckoned by Eusebius among the seven
Antilegomena, and its Petrine authorship is doubted or denied, in
whole or in part, by many eminent divines, but defended by
competent critics. The chief objections are: the want of early
attestation, the reference to a collection of the Pauline
Epistles, the polemic against Gnostic errors, some peculiarities
of style, and especially the apparent dependence of the second
chapter on the Epistle of Jude.

On the other hand, the Epistle, at least the first and third
chapters, contains nothing which Peter might not have written,
and the allusion to the scene of transfiguration admits only the
alternative: either Peter, or a forger. It seems morally
impossible that a forger should have produced a letter so full of
spiritual beauty and unction, and expressly denouncing all
cunning fabrications. It may have been enlarged by the editor
after Peter's death. But the whole breathes an apostolic spirit,
and could not well be spared from the New Testament. It is a
worthy valedictory of the aged apostle awaiting his martyrdom,
and with its still valid warnings against internal dangers from
false Christianity, it forms a suitable complement to the first
Epistle, which comforts the Christians amidst external dangers
from heathen and Jewish persecutors.

JUDE

The Epistle of JUDE, a "brother of James" (the Just), is very
short, and strongly resembles the second chapter of the second
Epistle of Peter, but differs from it by an allusion to the
remarkable apocryphal book of Enoch and the legend of the dispute
of Michael with the devil about the body of Moses. It seems to be
addressed to the same churches and directed against the same
Gnostic heretics. It is a solemn warning against the antinomian
and licentious tendencies which revealed themselves between A.D.
60 and 70. Origen remarks that it is "of few lines, but rich in
words of heavenly wisdom." The style is fresh and vigorous.

The Epistle of Jude belongs likewise to the Eusebian
Antilegomena, and has signs of post-apostolic origin, yet may
have been written by Jude, who was not one of the Twelve, though
closely connected with apostolic circles. A forger would hardly
have written under the name of a "brother of James" rather than a
brother of Christ or an apostle.

The time and place of composition are unknown. The Tubingen
critics put it down to the reign of Trajan; Renan, on the
contrary, as far back as 54, wrongly supposing it to have been
intended, together with the Epistle of James, as a
countermanifesto against Paul's doctrine of free grace. But Paul
condemned antinomianism as severely as James and Jude (comp. Rom.
6, and in fact all his Epistles). It is safest to say, with
Bleek, that it was written shortly before the destruction of
Jerusalem, which is not alluded to (comp. vers.14,15).

THE EPISTLES OF JOHN

The FIRST Epistle Of JOHN betrays throughout, in thought and
style, the author of the fourth Gospel. It is a postscript to it,
or a practical application of the lessons of the life of Christ
to the wants of the church at the close of the first century.    
It is a circular letter of the venerable apostle to his beloved
children in Asia Minor, exhorting them to a holy life of faith
and love in Christ, and earnestly warning them against the
Gnostic "antichrists," already existing or to come, who deny the
mystery of the incarnation, sunder religion from morality, and
run into Antinomian practices.

The SECOND and THIRD Epistles of JOHN are, like the Epistle of
Paul to Philemon, short private letters, one to a Christian woman
by the name of Cyria, the other to one Gaius, probably an officer
of a congregation in Asia Minor. They belong to the seven
Antilegomena, and have been ascribed by some to the "Presbyter
John," a contemporary of the apostle, though of disputed
existence. But the second Epistle resembles the first, almost
to verbal repetition, and such repetition well agrees with the
familiar tradition of Jerome concerning the apostle of love, ever
exhorting the congregation, in his advanced age, to love one
another. The difference of opinion in the ancient church
respecting them may have risen partly from their private nature
and their brevity, and partly from the fact that the author
styles himself, somewhat remarkably, the "elder," the
"presbyter." This term, however, is probably to be taken, not in
the official sense, but in the original, signifying age and
dignity; for at that time John was in fact a venerable father in
Christ, and must have been revered and loved as a patriarch among
his "little children."

..........

To be continued


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