Page images
PDF
EPUB

That such tenets had already grown up among the Jews we have the historical testimony of both the two great Jewish writers of the times—of Josephus and Philo (to say nothing of Pliny and others)—testimony absolutely unquestionable. And that such tenets, so directly opposed to the law, the history, and the actual predominant state of Jewish feeling, should so have grown up, is in itself very extraordinary, and shows the wonderful power which these tenets possessed of seizing and enthralling the human mind. The Priesthood, the High Priesthood itself was hereditary; the Levites were in no way exempt from the great duty, in some respects the positive law, of continuing their race; throughout the Old Testament we have no trace of the sanctity of celibacy : barrenness in all women was a curse ; and this feeling (for who might not be mother of the Messiah ?) still in general prevailed among the Jews. This part of the Essenian doctrine was the strongest proof of the growth of foreign opinions. This therefore was a point on which the new religion would, it might be expected, authoritatively pronounce, if accordant with its design ; accept with distinct approval, define with precise limitations, make it in fact an integral and inseparable part of the faith. Such it was when it became the doctrine of the Church, after several centuries : it was then virtually and practically a part of the religion. A Jovinian or Vigilantius of the fourth century might appeal to reason or to Scripture against it; but even they would hardly deny that it was a dominant tenet in Christendom.

But even that highest sanction, our Lord's own conduct in the choice of his disciples, was wanting to this tenet. The chief of his apostles, St. Peter, certainly had no claim to this ideal perfection ; nor does there appear the least evidence in the Gospel, that up to a certain period, either by his language or by his preference of those who possessed this qualification, the Saviour had inculcated, or even suggested, any belief in its superior sanctity. The one occasion on which he spoke on the subject was that related in the 19th chapter of St. Matthew. Questions had been brought before him relating to marriage and divorce. The purer and more severe morality of our Lord condemned without reserve that fatal facility of divorce which was permitted by the less rigid Pharisaic school. Adultery alone, according to his commandment, dissolved the holy and irrepealable marriage tie. But his disciples, bred, it should seem, under the laxer system, appear to have clung strangely to the easier doctrine. Their doubts assumed the following form :- If this be the case, if marriage be so inflexible, so inexorable; if the wife is to be dismissed for no lighter cause, for no other vice, men would be wise not to load themselves with this intolerable burthen.' To this our Lord appears to reply :--All persons are not capable of refraining from marriage. Some are especially designated by the divine will for this peculiar distinction; some are born disqualified for marriage ; others are made so by human art; others, from some religious motives, disqualify themselves. For all sound interpreters concur in taking this disqualification not in its literal sense, but as a voluntary abstinence from marriage. At first sight it might seem a natural interpretation, as our Lord speaks in the present tensethere are, not there will be, those who in expectation of the coming of the Messiah (for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake) abstain altogether from marriage—that he might in fact have alluded to those of the Essenes, or the other hermits, who, according to Josephus, had retired to solitary cells in the desert; and in them the great dominant expectation of the coming Messiah was at its sublimest height. The absorption of the soul, as it were, in this act of faith; the entire devotion of the being, with the sacrifice of the ordinary ties as well as avocations of life, to the contemplation of the kingdom of God, was the lofty privilege of but this chosen few. But if we include the future sense, and with most interpreters give a kind of prophetic significance to our Lord's words, the meaning will be, that some men for the promotion of the kingdom of God, the propagation of the Gospel, will abstain from marriage; they will willingly make this sacrifice if they are thereby dis

encumbered of earthly ties, and more able to devote their whole souls to the grand object of their mission. But it is this lofty sense of duty, in which lies the sublimity of the sacrifice, not necessarily in any special dignity of the sacrifice itself, excepting in so far as it may be more hard to flesh and blood than other trials. He whom duty calls, and who receives power from on high (he that is able to receive it let him receive it) is by this as by every other sacrifice for the cause, and through the love of Christ, thereby fulfilling the ideal of Christianitywhich is the annihilation of self for the promotion of the Gospel and the good of man.

This is to us unquestionably the impression which is conveyed by our Lord's words, considered with relation to his times, and without the bias given by the long-fostered admiration of celibacy during certain ages of the Church. And in this view the language of our Lord is strictly coincident with the second passage, that of St. Paul to the Corinthians. This chapter (1st Epist. vii.) was written in answer to certain questions relating to marriage, proposed to him by some of the Corinthian Christians. It does not appear in what spirit or by whom those questions were submitted to St. Paul; whether from a Judaizing party, who, like many of their countrymen, might hold the absolute duty of marriage at a certain time of life; or in the spirit of that incipient Gnosticism which the apostles had to encounter in other sects who altogether proscribed marriage. Paul was unmarried; other apostles, St. Peter himself (ch. ix. 5) were not only married but accompanied by their wives. The language of St. Paul' is something like a vindication of his own course; though he asserts the advantage, perhaps the merit, most undoubtedly not the absolute perfection of celibacy, he excepts no class from the right, or even the duty of marriage, if they have neither the gift nor the power of continency. But St. Paul himself returns to the main question, that of virginity;

INow concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: it is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.'

and in terms which appear to us clear and distinct, instead of a general and universal precept of Christianity, limits his own words to temporary and local admonition, called forth by some peculiar exigency of the times. I suppose, therefore, that this is good for the present distress ; I say that it is good for a man so to be.' The meaning of these words, dià TÀU Èveot@oav åváyknu, is the key to the whole passage. Möhler, it is true, endeavours to get over this difficulty, by an interpretation, to which we will venture to say no such scholar could be reduced but by hard necessity. He interprets the {vectoav åváryknu as what is commonly called, in theological language, concupiscence; and as that is perpetual and inextinguishable in human nature, so he would infer the perpetuity and universality of the precept. But this notion is hardly worthy of refutation. What then was this distress ?' It was something instant — either some actually pressing calamity, or one imminent and inevitable. But the Corinthian Church, it is said, was not then under any immediate apprehension of persecution. Locke, no doubt among the most sober and cautious interpreters, does not scruple to suppose that the apostle had a prophetic anticipation of the Neronian persecution. But even those who reject this explanation must admit that it would not need either the sagacity or the experience of Paul to perceive that the state of the Christians, opposed as they were to all the religious and all the political prejudices of the world, was one of perpetual danger. Already, even in Corinth, tumults had arisen out of their progress in the public favour; already they had been before the tribunal of Gallio ; and though the Roman governor then treated them with haughty indifference, and their enemies at that time were only their compatriots the Jews, yet it was impossible not to foresee that their further success must lead to some fearful crisis. Their whole life was at war with the world; and although a quiet Christian community might not always be exposed to the same perils as the apostle, yet they could not but be under constant apprehension; distress, if not actually present, was perpetually imminent.

But there is a singular likeness in the expression of St. Paul to that of a passage in St. Luke's Gospel, which may perhaps lead us to a more definite sense-έσται γάρ ανάγκη μεγάλη επί tñs yộs (ch. xxi. 23). This is part of the awful prophecy, in which the destruction of Jerusalem and the second coming of the Messiah are mingled up in terrific and almost inseparable images. There can be no doubt that this second coming of Christ was perpetually present to the minds of the first Christians: the Apostles themselves were but slowly emancipated from this primary Jewish conception of the immediate and visible kingdom of the Messiah. St. Paul was obliged to allay the terrors of his disciples, who had inferred from his ordinary preaching that it was clearly and inevitably at hand (2 Thess. ii. 2). Certain signs were to precede that coming, and the believer is reminded that to God time is nothing. But still the images are left in the thoughts of the believer in all their unmitigated terrors; and they were renewed, or renewed themselves, at every period of peril or of persecution. Even as our Lord mingled up, or allowed to remain mingled, those fearful predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem with the images which shadowed forth the Last Day, so his apostles blended the uncertainty of life-its peculiar uncertainty to those who at any time might become objects of persecution—with the final consummation in the second coming of the Lord. Awe was perhaps not always precise and distinct in the language in which this truth was expressed :—it was still less so in the interpretation of that language by the hearer. But it was quite enough to justify the expression, the present distress, the ểVEO Two av úváyknu, at least during the apostolic age. With this view the words for the time is short' (is drawing closely in), ότι ο καιρός συνεσταλμένος το λοιπόν έστιν, and the whole of the verses from the 29th to the 38th, trapáryel ydp oxñua Toll KOO MOU Toútov, not fully rendered by the fashion of this world passeth away,' remarkably coincide.

It is not, then, the preoccupation alone of the marriage state which might divert either husband or wife from religious

« PreviousContinue »