Chapter 15 – Between The Fall and the Redemption
GOD knew what He would do, but He would not do it yet.
In the dispensation of the fullness of times.
What does "the fullness of times" mean? Likely, the Redemption was not to take place at a moment arbitrarily chosen. There was to be a fullness of time, a due moment. For our part, we feel it fitting that God did not heal the disease at once: a disease should run its course. Mankind had started on the road of self-assertion. It must be allowed to work out all the bleak logic of self-assertion to discover for itself all the unwholesome places into which self-assertion could take it. The Devil had said that we should be as gods. We were allowed to try self-assertion and we did not become as gods. When mankind at last knew this, might that have been " the fullness of times "? St. Paul perhaps expresses the same idea more positively when he speaks of mankind coming to maturity. By sin, mankind threw away the maturity God had initially conferred upon it. It had gone after a childish dream and must now go through all the pains of growing back to the maturity it had lost. It would be an element in that attained maturity, to know that the dream was childish. Mankind did, in some way, grow up. The fullness of time came. It took mankind a vast stretch of time to grow up. What had happened to the human race between Adam's expulsion from Eden and the beginning of a continuous historical record? Above all, what had happened to man's relations with God?
The one astonishing fact is that at the time history takes hold, we find religion everywhere. And although there is an enormous variety of creed, rite, spiritual and moral atmosphere, there is a solid core of common principle. There is a universal belief in a creator of heaven and earth and specially for man, the existence of a moral law, some sort of survival after death; the practice of prayer and sacrifice; and an almost universal belief in an earlier state of earthly happiness which mankind had and lost. These things are not found everywhere with equal clearness: but are all there, and at any stage of clarity or shadowiness its universality is remarkable. We cannot know all the twists and turns of the road religion took from Adam onwards; but there is sufficient resemblance between what it was in him and in these remote descendants of his, to enable us to get some notion of the main forces at work.
What did the human race bring out of Paradise for the start of regaining the maturity it had rejected? Two things principally: The first was religious knowledge: what God had revealed to Adam and Eve. They would teach it to their children, and they to theirs: it would become a tradition, a memory, a half memory. The second was their human nature - made of nothing by God and held in existence by His continuing presence in them; a mind and a will wounded, but functioning; a body clamorous and hard to control, and no continuing will to control it. Had the human race been left to its own devices, the interplay of these two factors - the memory of truth revealed and the nature of man - would have governed the state of religion at any given time and place. But the human race was not left to its own devices and two other factors must be realized as in continuous action: Satan did not lose his interest in man after his first spectacular victory; and God never ceased in His care for the world He loved.
What would happen to the tradition, the handing on from generation to generation of the religious truths that Adam knew? As the generations lengthened and the families of man spread to cover the earth, there was an inevitable dilution and distortion of the original message. We have seen what happened to the deposit of faith given by Christ to the Apostles, how it has been split into fragments and most of it lost, save where the infallible Church preserves it. The deposit of faith given by God to Adam, with no infallible Church to guard it, would not have fared better. The memory could only fade. The weakness of the human mind and human will would be heavily against it, but human nature would make for its rebuilding. The mind of man was deranged by sin, but not destroyed. Apart from what might survive of the tradition, or even if nothing at all, the mind of man could establish the foundations of a religious interpretation of the universe. The will of man, with all its tendency toward self as apart from God, could not rid itself of an impulse to move toward God, too, since God is more intimately present to it than it is to itself? Only a final rejection of God could annihilate the impulse to move toward him, and in this life, men do not finally reject Him.
Just what elements in the universe and in himself, led man to construct the religious interpretation of things which came to the aid of the fading or failed religious memory? The human mind can, by its own powers and without the aid of revelation, establish the existence of God. We know that he did pretty universally believe in a God (or Gods) responsible for creating heaven and earth, in a moral law that expressed the divine will, in prayer and sacrifice as a way to approach the divinity. We don’t know how he arrived at this: there are any number of ways leading to it. But how could he have failed to arrive at it, since all ways lead to it?
He saw the universe being and happening. Things are done: he would assume that someone does them. There is an order, of day and night and seasons and such: he would assume that someone arranged it so. In considering any suggestions that no one arranged it and it merely happened, while not having the philosophical answer to that untruth; he would have considered it is an untruth. Atheism arrived later, and was not widely popular then. Toward the Someone who made things and did things, he naturally felt dependence (for he knew his own helplessness in the grip of the universe). He naturally felt awe in the presence of one so immeasurably more powerful. Prayer would be natural (and may in exceptional souls reach a very high point of union with God), as would sacrifice. Prayer and sacrifice at the lowest would likely win the divine favor, and at the highest, capable of expressing the profoundest reality about man himself. The reality of man must always be kept in mind. Man would not have quickly arrived at the notion of leaving his body out of account in religion. He would always need some sort of ritual; and the natural tendency to find outward expression for the soul's deepest states. This would lead to the idea of sacrament and symbol - such as the notion of the ritual use of water for spiritual cleansing.
All this is at once right, and pretty well inevitable. What other attitudes man would adopt, or what embroidery he would put upon these, would depend on what further attributes, beyond personality and omnipotence, he considered that the Divinity would have. Upon this there is no limit. The root of all this has been the assumption that God can be known from what He has made. The assumption is reasonable, but likely to mislead men who argued back from the thing made to the maker, without allowing for the difference between infinite and finite. It would be impossible to pursue all the ways and the strange religious beliefs and practices that have resulted from this thinking; but there are two elements in man himself, upon which he has built a notion of God, and which seem to be especially widespread and of special importance.
The one is the human experience of sex - universal, life-giving, the closest union of two human beings, at once non-rational and ecstatic, lifting men for the moment out of themselves. It was inevitable that they should attribute some sort of sex experience to the Divinity, and natural enough that they should introduce sexual union into their religious rituals as a symbolic means of union with the creative power.
The other is the human experience of conscience - worked out for us magnificently by Newman. The root of it is the awareness of something within us that says "You shall" or "You shall not": the sense of a law written in our nature, asserting an obligation not imposed on us by ourselves to do right and avoid wrong. It might or might not have led men to believe in a Supreme Being: but once they did believe in such a Being, it was inevitable that they should connect that inner voice with Him, should see the law it utters as His, should see Him as a source of morality, and so even of holiness: as One whom they would worship, with whom they would seek some sort of mystical oneness.
All this, man following his own nature could do: and, whether by some process or by some other way, man did do. Yet by the reality in it, human nature tends to build religion and by the wounds in it; tending to deform what it has built. The human intellect would tend to see that there must be some sort of Supreme Being, but only a human intellect at full strength, would by its own unsupported powers, hold on to one spiritual God. Polytheism and idolatry came crowding in everywhere; pantheism was an escape in a different direction. Moral corruption naturally corrupted religion, too. Sexual rites could only grow monstrous with man's fallen nature getting too much excitement out of sex to be trusted. Man's fallen nature didn’t always keep blood rituals in control: animal sacrifice suggested human sacrifice. Religion was falling to a mere ritual relation without love, or holiness or sense of moral obligation, but only gods to be placated and a routine of placation. Scripture makes it clear that the Devil played a great part in it. The prophet Baruch (4:7) tells the Jews that their captivity in Babylon is a punishment from God for having worshiped false gods.
St. Paul, advising Christians not to eat meat known to have been offered in sacrifice to idols, makes clear that this is not because of what is offered or the idol itself, but because they sacrifice to devils and not to God. In the very worst of religions, below the travesty there is a basis of reality. The Devil indeed prefers to work with reality gone astray. The religions of heathendom gave him wonderful scope. Yet religion did not perish. The history of religion is not a history of corruptions growing ever worse. There is degeneration, but there is revival, too. Between Adam and Our Lord, we see one section, another of the pagan world, but we see no one section steadily, and a vast part of the world we scarcely see at all. So that it is impossible to figure a rhythm of degeneration and revival: but on the whole the movement of Paganism strikes us as upward, as history seems to show. For every Pagan was made by God in His own image and God loved them all. They had all fallen in Adam, but the Redemption was for them all. His providence did not ignore them in the immeasurable ages between. Wherever we look in time or place we see men calling upon God; it would be strange if God did not answer.
Just how God's providence worked we do not know. St. John tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel that the Word who is God enlightens every soul born into the world, so that besides the supernatural illumination of the soul in grace, which is appropriated to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, there is an illumination of every human soul appropriated to the Second.
The formula for this period, as for all periods, is man's desire for God and God's love for man. Given that, we find that with all the fantastic perversions wrought by man's weakness of mind and will, there are true values, or resemblances to the Christian revelation, to be found in every part of Paganism. Some elements in the true approach of God to man and of man to God are to be found in all religions; there is hardly one that is not to be found in some.
In God's plan for the reestablishment of the whole race, a special part was to be acted by one race, the Jews, and because of this God brought them into a special relation with Himself. The story is told in the forty-six books of the Old Testament, from which I have already quoted so much. They are the sacred books of the Jews, and form a body of religious writing without parallel in the world. They cover the whole period from the creation of Adam to just before the coming of Christ. They deal mainly with God's choosing of the Jews and what followed from it. The Church that Christ founded teaches that they were written by men under the inspiration of God. God so illuminated the minds and energized in the wills of the writers, that they wrote what God wanted them to write. These books have God for their principal author. This is why the arguments as to when and by whom the various books were written do not affect our acceptance of the doctrine they contain: our acceptance rests not on the human author but on God who inspired him.
The special relation of one people with God begins at a time and a place - the time roughly 2000 b.c., the place Haran in the land of Chanaan. There had come Abram, with his father and his brothers, from the Chaldaean town of Ur. And God said to Abram (Gen.):
I will make of thee a great nation and I will bless thee and magnify thy name: and thou shalt be blessed. I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curse thee: and in thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed.
In the years that followed, God renewed the promises many times: but it was twenty-five years later that the great covenant was made which constituted the Jews God's people (Gen. 17):
God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means "father of nations", and gave the command of circumcision "as a sign of the covenant". God then had singled out a particular family, which was to grow into a nation: not for their own sake but for the sake of all mankind: they were chosen not simply for a favor, but for a function, something God was to do through them for the whole race. This God makes clear again (Gen.10:18). The promises were repeated to Abraham's second son Isaac (he had already had a son Ishmael by a bondwoman) and to Isaac's second son Jacob (for the elder, Esau, had forsworn his birthright). In all this we see the hint of Redemption - all mankind is to be blessed through the seed of Abraham. And soon comes the hint of a Redeemer, and even of the mode of the Redemption - Jacob, dying, prophesies one who is to come from his fourth son Juda: (Gen. 49:10-11).
By now the children of Jacob, to whom God had given the new name of Israel, were in Egypt, and there they were to be for four hundred years. The last part of that time they were fiercely oppressed, until God brought them out of Egypt under the leader Moses, whom he had appointed to them. The last act of their time in Egypt was spectacular. The angel of God visited the houses of the Egyptians, slaying the first born: but he passed over the houses of the children of Israel, who had marked their door posts with the blood of a lamb sacrificed by God's ordinance. And God ordered that this passing over (pasch the Hebrew word) should be celebrated each year by the sacrifice of a lamb.
The Israelites went from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and came into the Arabian Desert: and there, upon Mt. Sinai, the Covenant was renewed and the Law was given. God gave the Jews through Moses the Ten Commandments and a great mass of moral, ritual and legal precepts covering every detail of their lives. Sacrifices were offered and Moses "taking the book of the covenant", read it in the hearing of all the people.
The Jews were chosen because of something God meant to accomplish through them for the whole world. The essence of their function lay in this - that from them was to come the Redeemer, who should redeem all mankind. Meanwhile, they were to bear witness to truths which were in danger of perishing, which indeed seemed to have perished utterly: the truth that there is but one God, the truth that God will send a Redeemer of mankind.
Strangely, the Jews showed no great natural aptitude for, or any very tenacious hold upon, either truth. Monotheism, for instance, made no more appeal to them than to all that ocean of polytheistic people which surrounded them. All their instincts ran to strange gods and to idols. They were forever going after the gods of the heathen, and God forever restoring them to right ways. God's pedagogy was of two sorts: He allowed their enemies to work their will upon them as a reminder that they were in the hand of the one God and could achieve nothing without Him: He sent them the Prophets to bear glowing and glorious witness to the same truth. If they found monotheism difficult, they found not much easier the true doctrine of the nature of the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was to come, and of the Kingdom He was to found. Again, the Prophets were their instructors, and as the centuries pass the picture of the Messiah and His Kingdom grows in detail and in some clarity.
There is a vast mass of prophecy, and a magnificence over all of it. Much of it though, is obscure even to us who have seen its fulfillment. Certain elements, which now seem most wonderfully fulfilled, appear buried in their context, not emphasized as prophetical or likely to catch the ear or the eye. The Prophets did not provide a blackboard diagram and then proceed to lecture on it. Our modern use of the word prophet may give us a wrong notion of their office. Prophesy does not mean to foretell, but to speak out. They were not there primarily to foretell the future, but to utter the eternal and judge the present by it. The Jews, not unnaturally, found morality harder even than monotheism: the Law had imposed upon them a morality stricter than any known among men, and they fell from it. The Prophets thundered against this as against strange gods; as they must judge the present by the eternal.
Because this was their function, they did speak much of Him who was to come. We have already seen that One who was to be the expectation of nations should come from Juda. From the Psalms (Ps. 131:11) we gather the further detail that He was to be a descendant of David the King, and this is confirmed by the statement of Isaiah (11:1) that he is to be a rod out of the root of Jesse, for Jesse was David's father. There is no explicit statement that this is the Messiah: but St. Paul takes it for granted (Rom. 15:12), and in any event, no Jew doubted that the Messiah was to be sprung from David. In the seventh chapter of Isaiah we read: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son: and his name shall be called Emmanuel.
From St. Matthew (1:23) we know that this is a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ; yet in the context, one might well think that the prophecy referred to an event immediately expected and actually described in the next chapter of Isaiah, the eighth, as having happened. We can reread the eighth chapter and see that though there is some sort of fulfillment there and then, some mightier thing is involved.
The fifth chapter of Micheas tells us that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. There are other details which we see fulfilled, but which could hardly have meant so much to their first hearers. That the Messiah was to be of the tribe of Juda, of the family of David, born of a virgin and in Bethlehem - are not the primary things about Him. Two things that matter far more are Himself and what He was to do. Upon both, the prophecies are fuller and clearer.
As to what He was: there is a central stream of teaching which shows Him a man triumphant, and two parallel streams, one showing Him as more than a man, the other showing Him as less than triumphant. It would seem that the Jews concentrated on the central stream, and made little of either of the others. Yet these others are of such vast importance that missing them one hardly sees Him at all.
That He was to be more than man, not simply the greatest of men, is indicated again and again. We have already seen the phrase of Micheas - his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. Not only by preexistence does the Messiah seem to be more than man but from hints that are everywhere: for instance, the suggestion that He is God's son in some special way. The truth about the divinity of the Messiah could not well be conveyed by more than hints to a nation that did not know the doctrine of the Trinity.
The reverse is the even clearer stream of prophecy that the Messiah is to be poor and suffering. The greatest passages are in Psalm 21. and in chapter 53 of Isaiah. The Psalm and the chapter should be read most carefully. Here note a few verses of Isaiah summing it up:
and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with
He shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer.
And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity. If he shall lay down his life for sin he shall see a long lived seed.
To say that the Jews ignored a good deal of this is not to accuse them of any startling malignity. The assertion of the Messiah's preexistence was difficult to reconcile with that he was to be a descendant of David. The Jews, facing two elements difficult to reconcile, simply took the intellectual line of least resistance, concentrating on the clearer one and leaving the other as mysterious. Also, it is hard to see how anything short of what did in fact happen to Christ Our Lord could have shown the fulfillment both of the splendor and the suffering.
While their intellect followed the line of least resistance, in the picture they formed of the Messiah in Himself, their will seems to have followed the line of greatest complacency in the
picture they formed of the Kingdom He was to found. They saw it as a Kingdom of Israel in which the Gentiles, should be very much in a subordinate place; and as an earthly, not spiritual Kingdom. The Prophets supply correctives for both errors. They assert that the Messiah is coming for a light to the Gentiles and that the Gentiles are to share in the joy of his Kingdom. St. Paul (Rom.10:20) explains the contrast (Isaiah 65) between what God says of the Gentiles:
Those who never looked for me have found me: I have made myself known to those who never asked for word of me, and what He says of the Jews: I stretch out my hand all day to a people that refuses obedience and cries out against me. Even if we find from the Prophets that the Gentiles were to have a place in the Kingdom, it was left for St. Paul to utter in plain words the intimate secret of the total equality of Jew and Gentile in the Kingdom, the mystery of Christ which was never made known to any human being in past ages ... that through the gospel preaching the Gentiles are to win the same inheritance, to be made part of the same body, to share the same divine promise in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 3:5-6)
What is this Kingdom? The Jews seemed to expect an earthly Kingdom. The Prophets do not precisely and explicitly contradict them, but they give a mass of teaching which should have made the notion of a merely earthly Kingdom untenable and not even desirable. See Ezechiel (36:24-26) and Zacharias (9). It is plain for us who read the Prophets now, that there was to be a spiritualization at every point: even at the point of priesthood and sacrifice where Israel had most scrupulously observed the Law. For the Jewish priests and the Jewish sacrifices were but figures of, and preparations for, something that was mysteriously to transcend them. The Messiah was to be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech”. A strange phrase, for Melchisedech, who had offered a sacrifice of bread and wine (Gen. 14), was not a Jew. As for the priesthood, so for the sacrifices, everything in Israel was preparatory, looking forward to something which should complete it. The Law given by God to Moses was not a consummation. It was a preparation: a hard and heavy preparation: not maturity, but a superb training for maturity.
Maturity came, as noted in what St. Paul told the Galatians (4:3-5). The moment of maturity was clear to the eye of God, but half clear to our eye. We seem to see, that the Law had done for the Jews all that it had in it to do. Trained by the Law and hammered by their enemies, they had come to a splendid point of development - poor enough in the light of the possibilities Christ was to reveal, but magnificent in comparison with what was to be found elsewhere. Their century old temptation to polytheism and idolatry, conquered upon their return out of captivity in Babylon, five hundred years before, seems not to have troubled them. Under the Romans, who had ruled them now for sixty years, they stood gloriously against the introduction of idols. They held to the belief in the one true God, and observed most scrupulously His ritual law; and if the moral law was harder to observe, they maintained its rights as law, and repented for their sins against it.
It is easy enough to see defects here - as in the disproportionate observance of the outward act and failure to grasp that the inward state of the will was decisive. But the Jewish religion at the time of Christ's birth was a thing of grandeur: and showed by the holiness it produced in the best of the Jews how fit it was for the completion that Christ was to bring it and the use He made of it. The Law, says St. Paul (Gal. 3:24), was a pedagogue - the word here does not mean a teacher, but the slave who took the children to school: and the school that the Law brought them to was Christ. To Christ the Law did in all reality bring the Jews.
But the preparation was not only of the Jews, nor the fullness of time only a matter of their coming to maturity. For the Gentiles, too, the time was at the full. The history of the human race is one story from end to end, not a collection of unrelated short stories. The history of the race, says St. Augustine, is the story of one man. It was the race that fell in Adam, it was the race that was to be redeemed: in between the race had to be made ready. One cannot pretend to see the Gentile world as God saw it. Yet even in what we can see, there is at least a suggestion of a pedagogic action of God upon the Gentiles, parallel (though at a lower level) to His pedagogic action upon the Jews. If the Jews were made ready in one way, the Gentiles were made ready in another. God had not given them the Mosaic Law, but His natural law was written in their hearts. And His providence was over them. He had not sent them Prophets like those He had sent Israel, but were given powerful religious teachers and great religious revivals, countless movements upwards to balance - or more than balance - the countless movements downwards: and God played a great part in all this. It is hard to see how, religion, under the combined influence of man's weakness and the Devil's destructive skill, should have survived at all. In fact, the general religious standard of the heathen world was almost certainly higher at the coming of Christ than it had been two thousand years earlier when God made His covenant with Abraham.
This continuing providence of God over the Gentiles, we know as a fact from Scripture. St. John, in the first chapter of his Gospel speaks of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as the True Light: Who enlightens every soul born into the world. St. Paul (Rom. 2:14-15) states it is not merely a matter of the intellect's power to draw inferences from the external universe. The Gentiles had a law uttering the will of God, though not supplemented as for the Jews by the Law given to Moses. Similarly, the Gentiles had religious teachers, not Prophets inspired by God, but men working toward truth. Around five hundred years before Christ, the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity cleansed for all attachment to strange gods. About the same time there was a religious movement - or series of movements - throughout the Pagan world. Zoroaster in Persia got closer to monotheism perhaps, than any religious founder ever got outside the main stream of God's revelation to man. In different ways Gautama Buddha in India, Confucius and Lao Tse in China founded systems based upon truths from which, though mingled with error or hindered by insufficiency, surely gained far more for men’s souls than they lost. A couple of hundred years later, the Greek philosophers - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle - did a marvelous intellectual work upon the nature of things, which moved St. Justin Martyr to give them the title which St. Paul a century earlier had given the Law: Pedagogues to bring men to Christ.
The Roman Law spread a greater measure of better discipline over a wider area of the world than any secular law before it. The Jews were widely dispersed inside and outside the Roman Empire, and some of the truth of Judaism had seeped into the surrounding paganisms. All these things are true, yet a glance at the state of the Pagan world might lead us to feel that they are tiny as a proportion to a whole ocean of iniquity. In Gentiles, there had grown up a contempt for the puerilities of the myths and a dissatisfaction with the Mysteries. Philosophy, which had been promising four centuries earlier, had come to a sort of barrenness and clearly could do no more for them; the pleasures of the flesh were horribly exacting, but yielded less and less of joy. Despair lay over everything. Despair is a kind of maturity too, or at least a last stage on one road to maturity. It is not altogether fanciful to think that Jew and Gentile, having different roles to play in the design of the Messiah who was to come, were made ready by God in different ways. Israel was to receive the message from the Christ and bear it to the Pagan world; the Pagan world was to receive it from Israel. Israel was made ready to receive the new impulse because the Law had done so much for it; the Law had brought Israel as far as it could, but it had brought it there trained in mind and will and filled with hope - ready for what was to come. If Israel's preparation was by way of vitality and hope. Paganism's was by way of devitalization and despair. The Jew had learned the glory of God, the Pagan the worthlessness of all else. The spiritual energy of Israel needed this new relation with God: they had to do something with their energy. The spiritual destitution of Paganism needed this new in-pouring of life: they had to get energy from somewhere. For Jew and for Gentile, it was the fullness of time. Christ came that all things might be reestablished in Him.