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    Did the Early Christians Understand Jesus?

    Nonviolence, Love of Neighbor, and Imminent Expectation

    By Gerhard Lohfink

    March 30, 2016

    Available languages: Deutsch

    • Donald Johnson

      Why think that not CARRYING sandals means not WEARING them? If that is the logic, then not CARRYING clothes means not WEARING clothes too? And the same goes with the supposed arguments for pacifistic non-violence. If someone believes that is what Jesus taught, then go for it; but there are other ways to understand these verses, not to mention the ones that were not discussed that involve violence.

    • Jack Holloway

      I have not heard of Gerhard Lohfink, but based on this I am inclined to think he is not a very good biblical scholar. This is so incredibly one-sided that it would take a response of at least the same length to address all of the problems with it. I will limit myself to two. 1) "The Israel of the Old Testament, in its crowning texts, renounced every form of violence." What does he mean by "crowning texts"? I suspect he means texts that he prefers. His only example is the Suffering Servant passage in the book of Isaiah. Judging from his conclusions on Isaiah concerning nonviolence, I almost wonder if he has even read the book of Isaiah, let alone the other prophets. These were not pacifists in any sense. Sure, the kingdom of God they looked forward to was understood as nonviolent, but that in no way suggests that the prophets believed God to "renounce every form of violence." Quite the contrary! God is very violent in the prophetic literature. 2) "People have attempted . . . to project the kingdom into the far-off future, or into absolute transcendence, or into the depths of the human soul. But for Jesus, the kingdom of God is a concrete social reality." Again, so one-sided. The kingdom of God is not simply "already here," happening now. For Jesus it almost certainly was something the full realization of which was in the future, an absolutely transcendent in-breaking of God's justice. "The church spoke less and less of the kingdom of God or of its imminence in terms of time." This is true, but not because they previously had a faulty understanding of the kingdom that was counter to what Jesus said, but precisely because it was Jesus who gave them an understanding of the kingdom in terms of time. The overwhelming testimony we have from the earliest texts concerning Jesus is that he really did proclaim the coming of an apocalyptic, eschatological kingdom that would right all wrongs and establish God's reign. This was the kingdom foreshadowed in his work, the kingdom that does find snippets of realization here and now, but ultimately is to come. This lecture is just more idealism, a filtering of Jesus so that the result fits our lovely ideals. Honestly, this is just poor scholarship. TLDR: It's not that this article is totally wrong, but that it is totally one-sided, painting only one half of the picture--the side of the picture he likes most.

    This is a translation of Gerhard Lohfink’s keynote address on November 21, 2015 at a conference commemorating Eberhard Arnold.

    There are statements so ­bewildering that they are quoted again and again. Among these is a remark, now a century old, by the French biblical scholar Alfred Loisy: “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God – and what came was the church.”footnote I’ll leave to the side the question of what Loisy himself meant by this sentence. Rather, I’ll focus on how it’s understood by those who gleefully quote it. Usually, they understand it as bitterly ironic.

    Here, on the one side, is the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed: the immense, all-comprehensive, yet incomprehensible trans­form­ation of the world under God’s reign – and there, on the other side, is the church that came after Easter: a finite body with all the limitations of any other social structure. Clearly, then, there’s a gaping chasm between Jesus’ proclamation and the post-Easter reality! Here the glory of the kingdom of God; there the bitter paltriness of the actual existing church.

    I’ll say immediately what merit I find in this approach: None. None at all. For it rends open a cleft between the will of Jesus and the reality of the church in a way that does injustice to both Jesus and the church. How so?

    First of all, because it was Jesus himself who characterized the onset of the kingdom as small and utterly inconspicuous. Think of his images of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32), of the yeast (Matt. 13:33), of the endangered seed (Mark 4:1–9), or of the seed that grows in secret (Mark 4:26–29).

    Second, because the kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus never lies removed from society. Repeatedly, of course, people have attempted to turn it into that, seeking to project the kingdom into the far-off future, or into absolute transcendence, or into the depths of the human soul. But for Jesus, the kingdom of God is a concrete social reality. God’s basileia (kingly rule) has its starting point in a real people. The transformation of the world through the reign of God must begin in Israel.

    To be sure, the kingdom of God and the people of God are not identical. But they are strongly connected. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to ask for the coming of the kingdom. But just before, he has us pray for the gathering and sanctification of the people of God. That is what is meant by the words, “Hallowed be your name.”footnote Behind this request is the theology of the book of Ezekiel.footnote

    Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God and announces its coming. Even more, he initiates, right in the midst of Israel, the practical transformation of the world that God’s reign signifies. His announcement of God’s kingdom is connected to the gathering of Israel.footnote

    Since the church is nothing other than the Israel that listens to, follows after, and is made holy by Jesus, the kingdom and the church are very closely connected. The fact that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, and what came after Easter was the church is no tragic fall, no bitter irony of history, no perversion of Jesus’ will; rather, it follows directly from the social dimension of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation.

    Against this background I would like to explore whether the early church understood what Jesus wanted and whether it lived it out. I realize, of course, that such a broad subject actually demands far more space. From among the many possible approaches, I will examine three sample topics: (1) nonviolence, (2) love of neighbor, and (3) the imminent expectation of the end of the age. In each case, I will give my reasons for selecting that particular topic.

    cubist painting of jerusalem Aristarkh Lentulov, Churches, New Jerusalem, (detail) 1917. View full image
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    In recent decades, Islam has been gaining strength all over the world, showing a new self-confidence. No objections there. Unfortunately, however, within the broad terrain of Islam we see terrorist Islamist movements emerging ever more powerfully – groups that view murder as a service to God.footnote

    For people shaped by Enlightenment values, such inhuman violence only reinforces a preexisting antipathy to religion. This antipathy encompasses Christianity (and Israel) as well. More and more often, one hears the claim that all monotheistic religions, by their very nature, harbor a deeply rooted urge toward violence. Israel, the church, and Islam are then all mentioned in the same breath.

    Against this claim, we must emphatically repeat: already the Israel of the Old Testament, in its crowning texts, renounced every form of violence. The radical nonviolence of Jesus has its roots in the Old Testament, above all in the theology of the Suffering Servant found in Isaiah, chapters 40–55. The Suffering Servant stands for deported Israel in exile in Babylon. Israel, the Suffering Servant, will not cry or lift up his voice. He looks to God alone to justify him in the face of the injustice he endures. He gives his back to those who strike him. And he does not open his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Isa. 42:2; 49:4; 50:6; 53:7).

    Already the Old Testament, in its crowning texts, renounced every form of violence.

    The so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah speak of a beaten, kidnapped, enslaved Israel who looks to God alone and who – precisely through his absolute rejection of violence – becomes salvation for the Gentile nations.footnote

    Take note: the Book of Isaiah is also the book that introduced pure monotheism in Israel, sweeping away Israel’s earlier worldview in which the exclusive worship of YHWH coexisted with the belief that other gods existed as well. Thus, at the precise time and place at which monotheism prevails in Israel, we find emerging in the people of God the most explicit texts about radical nonviolence. Conclusion: Those who wish to link violence to monotheism are free to peruse the Quran. But they should keep their hands off the monotheism of the Bible, otherwise they will only prove their ignorance.

    In our gathering today, as we commemorate the eightieth anniversary of ­Eberhard Arnold’s death, I think it right and fitting that the theme of nonviolence takes first place in my lecture. Eberhard Arnold not only loved the Sermon on the Mount: it gripped him. Here I must refrain from listing individually all the places in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus calls for nonviolence.footnote Instead, I will make the following three points:

    (1) The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Jesus’ disciples and, through them, to all Israel as the people of God. Jesus’ summons to nonviolence is not a manifesto for the state. The state cannot give to everyone who asks. The state cannot turn the other cheek, nor can it apply to itself the sentence, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39). The Sermon on the Mount is meant for a people of God that lives out, as a nation among the nations, the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus. By so doing, the people of God is to be a sign of peace for the nations.

    (2) In his demands for nonviolence, Jesus speaks, as he does in many other places, with the provocative exaggeration of a prophet. That doesn’t change the fact that he is addressing real-life ways of behaving – his words really are to be lived out and used as models to illuminate analogous situations. Jesus really does forbid his disciples to use violence, and he is convinced that anyone who accepts his word can live without defensive violence and without retaliation.

    (3) Jesus’ demands for nonviolence are not restricted to the Sermon on the Mount. They form the backdrop as well to the major Mission Discourse found in Mark 6, Matthew 10, and Luke 9–10. When Jesus commissions his disciples to travel throughout Israel proclaiming everywhere the kingdom of God, he forbids them to wear sandals (Luke 10:4), carry a staff (Luke 9:3), or take money in their pocket (Luke 10:4). He tells them not even to take bread with them (Mark 6:8).

    The intention here is not to imitate the kind of self-abnegation for which itinerant Cynic philosophers were then known. Rather, the disciples’ lack of resources is meant as a sign separating them from the belligerence of the anti-Roman resistance fighters. Someone without a staff cannot defend himself; someone without shoes on his feet is unable, on Palestine’s rocky terrain, even to run away. Someone who carries no money is utterly destitute, helpless, and dependent on sympathizers within the Jesus movement. For Jesus, this immediately recognizable contrast from the holy warriors of his time had fundamental importance. The Jesus movement was not to be confused with the militant Zealots.

    Did the early church grasp and live out the same radical nonviolence that for Jesus was a sign of the coming reign of God?

    In what follows, I do not seek to paint a romantic, glorified picture of a flawless and heroic early Christianity. Even at that time, the church contained shocking wretchedness, woeful cowardice, and heavy guilt. Nevertheless, since nowadays it is Christian criminality that gets the most attention, we must speak about the other side: the early church’s faithfulness to the gospel. What’s more, we must examine not only what the Christians were, but also what they wanted to be.

    What matters for the questions before us is not only the degree of success in realizing Jesus’ teaching, but also the mode of consciousness that shapes behavior. Did the Sermon on the Mount form part of the early church’s consciousness? Was there a living awareness of Jesus’ demand for nonviolence?

    If we phrase the question in that way, we stumble on a fascinating phenomenon. The Book of Isaiah, chapter 2, describes how one day the Gentile nations would come to Mount Zion.footnote They would come to leave behind their desperation, their existential fear, and the horrors of their incessant wars. They would come to learn from Israel – above all, to learn how these devastating wars could be ended. For from Zion goes forth the decisive, enlightening word of God. This is the context for the famous words: “They [the Gentile nations] shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa. 2:4).

    The theologians of the early church understood this prophetic word to refer to the Gentile church.footnote They said: Mount Zion is the church. From there the word of Jesus goes forth. We, as Gentile Christians, are making our way to the true God. When we were baptized, we learned to lay down our weapons; we turned our swords and spears into tools for peace. We are no longer learning war. Isaiah 2 has been fulfilled; the prophecy has become reality. We no longer use violence.

    When we were baptized, we learned to lay down our weapons. The prophecy of Isaiah has become reality.

    It would be gratifying if what the theologians wrote was actually lived out in Christian communities. Here is where we can draw on the so-called apologists.footnote

    The apologists, several of whom had been pagan philosophers before becoming Christians, wrote defenses of the life of the Christians. Because Christians refused to participate in many pagan traditions and practices, they were accused of “hatred of humanity” and of all kinds of depravity.footnote In response, the apologists described the actual life of their fellow believers. Running throughout their writings is an enormous, unshakable confidence that Christian praxis has a persuasive power in and of itself. Repeatedly the apologists tell their pagan readers: not only do we have the true philosophy, but we also have the right practice, and both are closely connected. For example, Athenagoras of Athens writes in his Legatio (AD 177):

    Among us, you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, even if they cannot prove the benefit of [our faith] through words, through their deeds they prove the benefit that results from our devotion [or faith]; for they do not memorize speeches, but rather they exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike back, and when they are robbed, they do not bring charges; to everyone who asks of them, they give, and they love their neighbors as themselves.footnote

    Here Athenagoras quotes the Sermon on the Mount directly. Many other early Christian apologists argue similarly, though I must refrain here from citing them all. But one thing seems obvious to me: A document written to defend the Christian faith needed to be based on the actual way that the Christians lived. Otherwise it would be nothing but empty words.

    An important related question remains: What was the early church’s attitude to war? Did the bishops forbid believers to serve in the Roman army? That is a test that would clarify a great deal. However, the current state of research is complex.footnote Many baptized Christians became soldiers, and many soldiers were baptized. As a historic fact, this must be regarded as settled and well verified.footnote Also, in the early church there was no universal principle of Christian pacifism.footnote (Naturally one can hardly expect that, for as we have already seen, the Sermon on the Mount does not regulate public life but rather the life of Jesus’ disciples among themselves.)

    On the other hand, there were theologians in the early church who opposed military service by Christians.footnote The most important of these is Origen. Celsus, an opponent of the Christians, had penned an attack accusing them of failing to help uphold the state; he charged that they instead distanced themselves from Roman society. When war had to be waged against the barbarians violating the borders of the empire, wrote Celsus, the Christians would leave the emperor in the lurch.

    Origen answers these charges in Contra Celsum, a text written in AD 248, arguing:

    You pagans do not require your priests to do military service. By the same token, we Christians are all priests, since we sanctify the society in which we live. We pray for the emperor. We pray that right will prevail and that only just wars will be fought. It is far more important for us to do that than to take part in war.footnote

    We Christians are all priests, since we sanctify the society in which we live.

    In this text, we find a very clearly defined position on the question of whether a Christian can be a soldier, as well as an acute awareness of the church’s principal task in society: that is, to preserve pagan society from destroying itself in wars waged out of greed and lust for conquest. Here we come very close to Jesus’ understanding of what the people of God should be: yeast within society – and that thanks to their nonviolence.

    The theologians are hardly our only sources in regard to military service. At least one church order discusses this whole question as a matter of canon law,footnote the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus (ca. AD 150–235):

    A soldier in commandfootnote must be told not to kill people; if he is ordered so to do, he shall not carry it out. Nor should he take the [military] oath. If he will not agree, let him cease or be cast out [as a baptismal candidate]. Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple either let him cease or be cast out [as a baptismal candidate]. If a [baptismal] candidate or a believer wishes to become a soldier, let them be cast out, for they have despised God.footnote

    I must emphasize: this church order never applied to the whole church. All the same, it shows that Jesus’ rejection of violence had not completely disappeared from Christians’ consciousness, including in regard to military service. Although the Apostolic Tradition takes the existence of Christian soldiers as a given, it still insists that one who has become a catechumen (baptismal candidate) may no longer sign up as a soldier.

    impressionist painting with colorful rooftops Aristarkh Lentulov, Gursuf, (detail) 1913. View full image
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    painting of snowy houses with lighted windows

    Love of Neighbor

    The topic of love for neighbor is widely misunderstood. Nowadays we’re constantly being told, “You can only love others if you first love yourself.” This mantra isn’t just repeated by psychologists and psychotherapists; it’s also become the dominant theme of twenty-first century devotional literature.

    And it is not completely wrong. Yet the commandment to love others “as you love yourself” cannot be trotted out as a reason to embrace self-love and self-acceptance. Love of neighbor in the Bible is never based on self-acceptance. The Bible does not speak a word about self-acceptance; it speaks of repentance. It also doesn’t speak a word about reconciling with oneself, but rather of reconciling with God and with one’s neighbor.

    The Bible does not speak a word about self-acceptance; it speaks of repentance.

    In the Bible, the command “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” does not refer to the individual “I” in the modern sense. Rather, the “I” here means one’s family. This observation is illustrated beautifully in the account of the calling of Abraham. God says to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).

    Who does this “you” refer to? Abraham of course. But not Abraham alone. For not only he but also his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and the persons they had acquired in Haran all left their old homeland (Gen. 12:4–5). That is, Abraham set out with his whole extended family, with his cattle and tents, toward Canaan.

    This linguistic background, which in the Old Testament is self-evident, is the setting for the commandment of neighbor-love in Leviticus 19:18, 34. Accordingly, here “Love your neighbor as yourself” means: The help and solidarity that everyone in Israel owes his own relatives, especially his direct family, should be extended to all Israelites. The boundaries of one’s own family should be broken through so as to include the whole people of God as brothers and sisters – including strangers, and even those whom one’s family and relatives consider enemies. That is what Leviticus 19 is saying. This thought is light years away from the individualistic self-love so widely advocated today.

    It is just this revolutionary move that Jesus picks up on. He goes on to radicalize it further. In the Pentateuch the commandment to love God and the commandment to love one’s neighbor are unconnected: one is found in Deuteronomy 6, the other in Leviticus 19. Jesus combines the two,footnote and what is more, he makes the command to love one’s neighbor equal in importance to the command to love God (Matt. 22:37–40). For him, these two commandments cannot be separated. He places both together at the center of the Torah.

    According to Jesus, those whom we are to love are not distant; we are not told to embrace all humankind as our neighbors “in spirit.” No, our task is more concrete: to put aside enmities within the people of God, to treat even strangers living within this people as brothers and sisters – that is, to accept them into the protected space of mutual respect and solidarity. This is the biblical meaning of agapē.

    Did the early church understand and live out this radical love of neighbor in the way Jesus did – as a sign of the approaching reign of God?

    It would certainly be fruitful at this point to make a thorough study of Paul’s letters. They make clear how for him, agapē within the church was central. Paul’s letters also show that for him, just as in the Old Testament, agapē consisted not of beautiful feelings but rather of mutual acceptance, respect, help, and solidarity. For Paul this solidarity extended even beyond the Christian church. In that case, however, he no longer speaks of agapē but rather of “doing good.”footnote Finally, Paul’s letters show that Christian agapē has its deepest root in Jesus, who gave himself on the cross.

    I will not delve more deeply here into Paul’s letters, but rather will turn at this point to the early church of the second and third centuries. Did this church live out the mutual agapē that was at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom praxis? Here much evidence could be adduced from both the early Christian theologians and the early apologists. I have chosen to focus on three Christian texts.

    The first is an important passage from Justin’s Apology, written around AD 150–155. Chapter 67 of the Apology is noteworthy because it is the oldest description we have of the church’s celebration of the Eucharist, including the collection at the end of the service:

    And they who are well-to-do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us.footnote

    The Sunday collection, then, benefited all those in the church who needed help. Thus a social safety net came into being that was unique in antiquity. It was based on mutual help and voluntary contributions collected at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When the early Christians spoke of agapē, love of neighbor, what they meant was this mutual care.

    For the early Christians, love of neighbor meant practical mutual care.

    Love of neighbor, then, was no empty phrase. Agapē proved itself as a practical way of addressing economic and social needs within the church. This does not mean, of course, that it was limited to economic need. In the year 260, when the plague was raging in the metropolis of Alexandria, the local bishop Dionysius wrote in a letter:

    The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. ...

    But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied.footnote

    Even those inclined to dismiss such texts as over-generalizations must still admit: here is at the very least a description of how the Christians saw themselves and of how they wanted to be.

    Until now I have based my argument on Christian sources. Now I would like to cite at least one pagan source – and it is not the only one that could be cited. The Roman emperor Julian, a firm opponent of Christianity, writes in the year 362 to Arsakios, the heathen high priest of Galatia:

    Atheism [i.e., the Christian faith!] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.footnote

    And in a similar programmatic letter to Theodoros, the high priest of the province of Asia, Emperor Julian writes:

    I am of the opinion that, because it has reached a point that the poor are ignored and neglected by our priests, the godless Galileans, who noticed this, have resorted to this practice of philanthropy.footnote

    Even though Julian accuses the Christians of ulterior motives in their practice of agapē, his letter indicates that the apologists were evidently writing factually: the church’s social system functioned so well that it supported even non-Christians. This solidarity must have made a deep impression on outsiders; it was one of the reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity.

    impressionistic painting of snowy houses with lighted windows Aristarkh Lentulov, Night on Patriarch Ponds, (detail) 1928. View full image
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    abstract painting of The Belfry of Ivan the Great

    Imminent Expectation

    Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, the reign of God. In itself, this would have been nothing new. Many people in Israel believed in God’s reign. And many Jewish groups of Jesus’ time hoped that this reign would soon be revealed and that, in the near future, it would arrive and triumph.

    What was unique with Jesus was that the kingdom of God he proclaimed was coming – not just soon or in the near future – but now. Jesus said: in the mighty deeds that I am doing in the power of God, the kingdom is already here (Luke 11:20; 17:21). Already now it is transforming the people of God unstoppably, step by step, and through the people of God, it is transforming the world.

    The kingdom is so near that Jesus’ hearers need to repent now. There is no longer any time for postponing repentance. Now, today, Jesus’ hearers need to decide to accept the kingdom in faith and to become active in its power. They need to make a decision.

    impressionistic painting of Moscow

    Aristarkh Lentulov, Moscow, 1913

    Once again, then, I pose the question: Did the early church follow Jesus in this matter as well? Were they faithful to him here too?

    This question cannot be asked superficially. That is, we should not ask: Did the early church adopt and preserve the schema of imminence in time? Instead we should ask: Did the early church understand, adopt, and live out the heart of what was meant by imminent expectation? Did it grasp the presence of the kingdom? Did it grasp that the decisive thing is already happening – that liberation and salvation are already here? And did it grasp the urgent nearness of the kingdom, which leaves no time to postpone repentance?

    The only possible answer is yes. To be sure, for a while the early church retained the concept of imminence in time. But at the same time it was already in the process of reconstructing it. The church spoke less and less of the kingdom of God or of its imminence in terms of time. Something else took the place of these concepts.

    That something is the early church’s declaration that the Spirit is present. The Holy Spirit is the inauguration of the last days (Acts 2:14–21). It is the advance guarantee of the coming fulfillment. Through the Holy Spirit, the world is being newly created in preparation for this fulfillment.footnote Through the Holy Spirit, the Risen One is a constant presence, filling the church with the power of his resurrection (Rom. 8:9–11). Thus the early church’s theology of the Spirit is both the equivalent and the exact continuation of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

    Just as Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God was accompanied by symbolic acts – his mighty deeds, after all, were symbols of the breaking in of God’s reign – so also the church’s receiving of the Spirit is accompanied by tangible signs: the sacraments. The sacraments are symbolic eschatological acts.

    This is evident in the Lord’s Supper. Its hallmark, the early church’s cry “Come, Lord Jesus”footnote is still heard in churches today when the congregation prays, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.”

    The same is true of baptism. It is an eschatological sign, a sealing for the end of the age – and yet at the same time this sacrament obligates us to begin a new life in the present world. Whoever has died with Christ in baptism is born into the new society of the church.

    The sacrament of reconciliation, too, is an eschatological sacrament. By confessing our guilt before the church, we come before the seat of God’s final judgment. The verdict of the church anticipates and stands for the verdict of the Last Judgment – and does so as a word of forgiveness and reconciliation.

    The sacraments contain eschatological dynamite – and they are the place in which the church has lived out and does live out Jesus’ eschatology of the now.

    I will close with a single text. It comes from the great theologian and bishop Cyprian, who shortly before, probably in the year 245, had received baptism. This had transformed him. In a self-portrait that anticipates Augustine’s Confessions, Cyprian hints at the uncertainties of his earlier life – the dark aspects, the wrong paths, the moral aberrations, the hardness of heart, the deeply rooted sins, the despair. Cyprian says he had thought it impossible to divest himself of the old man.

    But after [baptism], when the stain of my past life had been washed away by the aid of the water of regeneration, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and pure heart; afterwards when I had drunk of the Spirit from heaven a second birth restored me into a new man; immediately, in a marvelous manner, doubtful matters clarified themselves, the closed opened, the shadowy shone with light, what seemed impossible was able to be accomplished, so that it was possible to acknowledge that what formerly was born of the flesh and lived submissive to sins was earthly, and what the Holy Spirit already was animating began to be of God.footnote

    By receiving the Spirit in baptism, the early Christians experienced the power of God’s reign.

    Cyprian describes his baptism entirely with words drawn from Scripture. But his own experience, that of a man for whom everything has been turned upside-down, grips and permeates the text. Something similar must have happened to countless other Christians. There is no other way to explain how so many found the courage to face persecution and martyrdom by imperial officials. Cyprian, too, died a martyr. During the Valerian persecution, on September 14, 248, he was beheaded near Carthage.

    By receiving the Spirit in baptism, the Christians of the early church experienced the power of God’s reign. They knew that with baptism, a new life had begun for them. From then on, they lived in the today of the kingdom of God.

    Translated from German by Emmy Barth Maendel and Peter Mommsen.

    The Belfry of Ivan the Great painting Aristarkh Lentulov, The Belfry of Ivan the Great, (detail) 1915. View full image


    1. Alfred Loisy, L’Évangile et l’Église, 2nd ed. (Bellevue, 1903), 155.
    2. G. Lohfink, Das Vaterunser neu ausgelegt (Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2013), 51–59.
    3. E.g., Ezek. 20:22, 41, 55; 36:22–28.
    4. G. Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth (Liturgical Press, 2012), 39–58.
    5. C. W. Troll, “Quran, Gewalt, Theologie,” Christ in der Gegenwart, no. 43, (2014) 485–486.
    6. G. Lohfink and L. Weimer, Maria – nicht ohne Israel (Herder, 2012), 223–229.
    7. G. Lohfink, Wem gilt die Bergpredigt? (Herder, 1988), 42–45.
    8. See M. P. Maier, Völkerwallfahrt im Jesaja-Buch (Walter de Gruyter, 2015).
    9. Lohfink, Wem gilt die Bergpredigt?, 161–192.
    10. Sources in G. Lohfink, Wie hat Jesus Gemeinde gewollt?, rev. ed. (Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2015), part 4.
    11. E.g., Tacitus, Annals, XV 44:2–5.
    12. Athenagoras, Legatio 11, trans. George Kalantzis.
    13. Sources: A. v. Harnack, Militia Christi (Tübingen, 1905; Darmstadt, 1963); H. v. Campenhausen, “Der Kriegs­dienst der Christen in der Kirche des Altertums,” Universitas 12 (1957), 1147–1156; H. Karpp, “Die Stellung der Alten Kirche zu Kriegsdienst und Krieg,” Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957), 496–515. Especially: H. C. Brennecke, “‘An fidelis ad militiam converti possit?’: Frühchristliches Bekenntnis und Militärdienst im Widerspruch?”, Die Weltlichkeit des Glaubens in der Alten Kirche, ed. D. Wyrwa (De Gruyter, 1997), 45–100.
    14. Tertullian, De corona 1 (solus fortis inter tot fratres commilitones), 42–43; Tertullian, Apology 5,6; 37,4; 42,3; Eusebius, Church History VI 41:22–23; VII 11:20; VII 15–16; VIII 1:7.
    15. Campenhausen, “Kriegsdienst,” 1148: “Not one single church father expressed doubts that in the world as it is, wars must be fought, and they therefore found no reason to single out the military profession for condemnation.”
    16. Apart from Origen, see Tertullian, De corona und De idololatria 19; see also Lactantius, Institutiones divinae VI 20,15–17. Thus the discussion of whether a Christian may be a soldier first starts in the third century.
    17. Origen, Contra Celsum VIII 68.73.75.
    18. By contrast, the canons of Elvira are silent on the question of military service by Christians, although they address in detail questions of Christian life amid pagan society. See Brennecke, “Frühchristliches Bekenntnis,” 93.
    19. In the Roman empire, civil and military authority were not separated. The term militia can mean either. Miles normally refers to a soldier, but can also refer to an armed imperial official.
    20. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes.
    21. No ancient Jewish texts juxtapose love of God and love of neighbor as Jesus did, thus connecting them and making them central to the Torah. The text that comes closest is “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” although it is disputed whether these are Jewish-Christian writings or a Jewish base text with Christian interpolations.  For the juxtaposition of love of God and love of neighbor in ancient Judaism, see A. Nissen, Gott und der Nächste im antiken Judentum (Mohr, 1974), esp. 230–244. Nissen notes, “Nowhere in all of ancient Jewish literature prior to the Middle Ages do we find a Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 connected together” (241, n642).
    22. E.g., 1 Thess. 5:15; Gal. 6:9–10; 1 Pet. 2:17.
    23. Justin, First Apology 67; trans. Robertson-Donaldson.
    24. Eusebius, Church History VII, 22:7–10; trans. Robertson-Donaldson.
    25. Julian, Epistola Nr. 39, in B. K. Weis, Julian: Briefe  (Heimeran: 1973).
    26. Julian, Epistola 48, 305 C.
    27. Matt. 12:28; Rom. 8:18–30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Heb. 6:4–5.
    28. 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20; Didache 10:6.
    29. Ad Donatum 4; trans. Roy Deferrari.
    Contributed By GerhardLohfink2 Gerhard Lohfink

    Gerhard Lohfink, a Catholic priest, was professor of New Testament studies at the University of Tübingen.

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