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IV. THE OCCASION AND DESIGN OF THE DECREE. The other question concerning the apostolic decree, at the head of this Dissertation, is, whether it was perpetual.
I now therefore intend to consider the occasion of it, and then to explain it. Wherein will be contained a sufficient answer to the question proposed above.
I begin with laying down these several following propositions.
1. This epistle, or decree, was designed for the use and direction of all the Gentile converts to Christianity at that time. This was shown before; and needs no enlargement here.
2. The several regulations of the council at Jerusalem relate to things in their own nature indifferent.
1.) The point in controversy relates to things in their own nature indifferent. Therefore it is likely, that the determination of the question should be of the like kind. The rise of the - controversy, and all the debates upon the occasion, lead us to think, that the regulations of the council should concern things indifferent, ritual, and ceremonial. There never was a question, whether believers from among the Gentiles should obey the moral precepts of righteousness and true holiness. But the dispute was, whether they should be circumcised, and observe the ritual ordinances of the law of Moses, as the Jews did.
They who have any doubt about this, should do well to attend to the history of this council, and particularly the occasion of it, at the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of the book of the Acts, and throughout. However, I shall transcribe below the sentiments of divers learned and judicious commentators, who speak to the like purpose. To whom, possibly, some others may be added in the process of this argument.
2.) The apostles and elders call what they recommend in their epistle, a burden. Capor. Ver. 28. "It seemed good unto the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden, than these necessary things."
Which word may lead us to think, they intend not such things as are in themselves reasonable, and always obligatory.
Burden,' say Beausobre and Lenfant, in their note upon this place, is the same with "yoke,”
' mentioned ver. 10. These expressions show, that the discourse is about ceremonial observances,
' which are considered as a yoke and burden, in opposition to moral precepts, which ought not to be reckoned burdensome: since the reason and consciences of men teach them, that they are obligatory in themselves.'
Rev. ii. 24, 25." I will put upon you no other burden: ago. "But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come." Where, I think, our exalted Lord refers to this decree of the apostles. And he graciously declares, that this burden should not always lie upon his people; but should be taken off from them, when his religion had made greater progress in the world.
Our Lord inviting men to receive his instructions, as the rule of life, in order to their obtaining everlasting salvation, says, Matt. xi. 30. "My yoke is easy, and my burden [TO OCOTIOV_μ8] is light." But he therein intends to say, as I apprehend, that his requirements are not burdensome at all, and that observing them will afford great pleasure and delight.
So St. John says, 1 John v. 3. And his commandments are not grievous." They are not grievous, or burdensome, because they are in themselves reasonable, and approve themselves to the judgment and understanding of all men.
As the things recommended in this epistle, are so distinctly spoken of, as a burden; it is likely they were not then understood to be in themselves reasonable.
3.) Another character of these regulations of the Council is, that they are necessary things. By which I think ought to be understood such things as are expedient.
Undoubtedly, moral virtues are of all things the most necessary, according to the general use of the word among us. Both reason and revelation assure us of their absolute necessity. To promote real holiness is the great design of all true religion. Nor is any institution so well
a Non censet, monendos pios ex Gentibus de iis, quæ satis didicerant: Deum colendum unum verum, non falsos; ei omnem exhibendam reverentiam; abstinendum a cædibus, a rapinis, injuriis, adulteriis, et incestis jure Gentium cognitis: jus cuique reddendum. Sed de iis monet, quæ disputationem recipere videbantur, et quæ Judæos poterant offendere, et impedire, quo minus pii ex Gentibus cum piis Hebræis in unam ecclesiam coalescerent. Grot. in Act. xv. 20. sub in.
Hæc ille [Tertullianus] a scopo aberrans, cum nulla hic sit nisi rerum suâpte naturâ mediarum mentio. Bez. annot. in Act. xv. 20.
b Necessaria autem hic intellige ad pacem Ecclesiæ, quæ tum erat, per tolerantiam infirmorum; non autem necessaria per se, et simpliciter, exceptâ scortatione. Piscator in Act.
suited to make men truly and eminently virtuous and holy, as the Christian. Nevertheless in the language of the New Testament, moral virtues are not usually called necessary things, nor holiness, said to be of necessity. I am not aware of more than one text, in which any moral virtue is recommended under that character. It is Rom. xiii. 5. “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." In other places the meaning of the word is expedient, fit, proper, convenient, in certain seasons and circumstances. Says St. Paul to the Corinthians: "Therefore I thought it necessary to exhort the brethren to go be. fore unto you, to make up beforehand your bounty, whereof ye had notice before," 2 Cor. ix. 8.
To the Philippians: "Yet I supposed it necessary to send unto you Epaphroditus, my brother," ch. ii. 25. And, " nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you," ch. i. 24. In the epistle to the Hebrews: "It was therefore necessary that the patterns of the things in the heavens should be purified with these," ch. ix. 23. St. Luke in the Acts: "Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken unto you," Acts xiii, 46. In all which places, as seems to me, this expression denotes what is expedient, highly proper and convenient, considering the circumstances of things and persons. And so the phrase is understood here by some very judicious commentators.
I would however observe, that the original phrase in this place is somewhat particular. And, instead of these necessary things, some rather understand such things as it was needful for the apostles to impose. But this, as I apprehend, makes little difference: whether these things were such as the circumstances of things obliged the Council to require, or the Gentile Christians to observe.
4.) None of the Christian converts needed to be informed, that they ought to keep themselves from the practice of such things as are immoral, and in their own nature evil, and unreasonable.
Take things sacrificed to idols for idolatry, blood for homicide, and fornication for uncleanness, or any sins contrary to moral purity: and there was not a Gentile convert to the Christian religion, whether converted by Paul, or Barnabas, or any other Jewish preacher of the Gospel, but knew his duty in all those respects. Men may need to be exhorted to the practice of what they know to be their duty, and to be dissuaded from things which they know to be evil. But men do not need to be informed of what they know already.
5.) If the apostles, and elders, and brethren, present in this council, had intended to forbid in their epistle things contrary to morality; they would have added divers other things, beside
those here mentioned.
They would, in that case, expressly have forbidden lying, perjury, wrath, evil-speaking, theft, robbery, adultery, and all uncleanness. I might add, that if it had been the design of this assembly to remind the converts, to whom they write, of their duties and obligations as Christians; they would have exhorted them particularly to persevere in the faith of Christ, and would have recommended to them the duty of bearing the cross, or of patience and fortitude under afflictions and persecutions for his name's sake.
6.) All the several particulars of the decree must be understood to be of the like kind.
They ought to be all moral, or all indifferent. At least, it appears to me to have a good deal of probability, that the writers of the epistle would not put together things of a different nature, without denoting their difference, or making a distinction between them. That all these things are not moral, or reasonable in themselves, and in their own nature obligatory upon all men, in all times, is apparent. Therefore none are so.
η Πλην των επαναγκες αυτών.
'Non imponeremus hæc, nisi necesse esset ea imponere. Non dicunt: imponimus hæc necessaria, sed imponimus hæc, quæ necesse est, scilicet, imponere. Comment. Practicus. Caspar Streson in Act. Ap. p. 568. Amst. 1658.
The Latin Vulgate is hæc necessaria.' Beza translates, 'præter necessaria ista.' But in his annotations says, Id est, ad quæ nos adigit præsens necessitas, nempe quod aliter non possint Judæi lucrifieri, non quod ista per se ad salutem requirerentur. Bez. in xv. 48.
These several considerations, as seems to me, amount to a convincing and satisfactory proof, that nothing in this decree is of a moral nature.
V. THE DECREE EXPLAINED. Here some may say: How then do you understand them? To which I answer, That I am not obliged to explain any of them. Things necessary, or expedient, in some places, at certain seasons, and upon account of the circumstances of things and persons, need not to be understood by all in all times, or by those, who are under no obligation to observe them. It may be supposed, that they to whom the epistle was sent understood it. And it is unquestionable, that if any articles were obscure, or ambiguous, they who delivered the epistle were able to explain them. And so long as these regulations were necessary, or expedient, to be kept and observed, it is likely that the right sense and design of them were generally understood. But, as that expedient ceased, or abated, the exact meaning of these regulations might be gradually lost, or not distinctly retained by all.
However, I am not unwilling to show the probable meaning of these several articles, according to the best of my ability.
The whole decree consists of four articles. Which, as they are recited three times, are reckoned up in a different order, and in some small variety of expression.
Acts xv. 20. St. James proposeth them in the council after this manner: "That we write unto them, that they abstain from pollution of idols and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." At ver. 29. in the epistle itself: "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication." Afterwards, St. James in his discourse with the apostle Paul at Jerusalem, ch. xxi. 25. "Save © only, that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication." Which is the same order with that in the epistle, and shall be followed by me.
1. Pollutions of idols, or things offered to idols.
The obvious sense of this regulation is, that Gentile Christians should abstain from eating meats, which had been offered to idols by heathen people: I mean, in some circumstances. Several things in St. Paul's epistles confirm this interpretation, and may enable us to discern the design of this prohibition. As 1 Cor. ch. viii. throughout, and x. 14—23.
But this regulation is now obsolete, there being no longer any heathen idols among us. All the idolatry of ancient heathenism, once so general, and so much delighted in by princes and people, is abolished in this part of the world. By the progress of the Gospel God hath wonderfully accomplished what he long before said he would perform. Zeph. ii. 11. "The Lord will be terrible unto them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth. And men shall worship him, every one from his place, even all the isles of the heathen."
2. And from blood:
This I take to be a prohibition to drink or eat the blood of brute animals alone, or mixed with other things, raw, or dressed and prepared.
It may be of use to us to observe here some of those places in the Old Testament, where the eating of blood is prohibited.
Gen. ix. 3, 4. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb have I have given you all things. But flesh, with the life thereof, which is the blood. thereof, shall ye not eat."
Lev. xvii. 10-14. "And whatsoever man there is of the house of Israel, or of the strangers: that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will set my face against that man that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood. And I have given it to you upon the altar, to make an atonement for your souls. For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, no soul of you shall eat blood; neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatever man there is of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, who hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten: he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust: for it is the life of all flesh. The blood of it is for the life thereof. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, ye shall eat the blood of no
C - εἰ μη φυλάσσεσθαι αυτές το, τε ειδωλόθυτον.
*Το απέχεσθαι απο των αλισγημάτων των ειδώλων. ver. 20. b • Απεχέσθαι ειδωλοθύτων. ver. 29.
Whosoever eateth it, shall be
manner of flesh. For the life of all flesh is the blood thereof. cut off."
That law in Leviticus, and the like elsewhere, are given to the house of Israel, and likewise to the strangers that joined themselves to them: for no others could offer sacrifices; nor could any others be cut off for transgressing these laws, but such as were of that people. The reason here assigned, that the blood was appointed to make atonement upon the altar, can affect none but Jews, and other men circumcised after the manner of Moses.
Eating blood cannot be reckoned an immorality. And, if it is not, this prohibition, in the decree, cannot be binding upon all men in all times; but only at some seasons, when the circumstances of things render the forbearing it expedient.
All wholesome food is lawful in itself, and under the gospel dispensation. As St. Paul says, Rom. xiv. 14, 15. "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died." And ver. 19. "Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another." See also what there follows, and 1 Cor. viii. 11-13.
However, I must add, that blood appears to me very unwholesome. Indeed I esteem it filthy, and highly disagreeable; so that I cannot bear the thought of eating it. If it ever comes to me in food, it is more than I know. And I suppose it is never brought, neither alone nor mixed with other things, to the tables of polite people.
There seem to me to be two reasons for this prohibition, even in the law of Moses. One reason is that above-mentioned, that it was to make atonement for them, that is, for offences against the law. The other reason is thus expressed: "It is the life of all flesh. The blood of it is for the life thereof." That is, it is the nourishment of the animal, and not fit for your nourishment. And because it was not fit for food, and was useless and offensive; therefore it was to be poured out upon the earth, or covered with dust, that is, buried in the earth: which order is frequently repeated. So in ver. 13, of the forecited seventeenth chapter of Leviticus, and Deut. xii. 16. 66 Only ye shall not eat the blood. Ye shall pour it upon the earth as water." And again ver. 24, and ch. xv. 23.
The prohibition of blood was like the prohibition of fat. Lev. iii. 15—17. "And the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them it shall be taken away. And the priest shall burn them upon the altar. It is the food of the offering made by fire, for a sweet savour. All the fat is the Lord's. It shall be a perpetual statute for your generations throughout all your dwellings, that ye eat neither fat nor blood." And ch. vii. 25. "For whosoever eateth the fat of the beast, of which men offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord, shall be cut off from his people." That is the reason which is expressed, and for which the penalty is so great. But another reason may be implied, which is, that the fat cleaving to the kidneys of animals is not wholesome.
Those ordinances answered two ends and purposes. They kept the Jewish people separate from other nations, and also promoted their bodily health and vigour. And for all their labour and self-denial, they had a present reward.
In the frequent washings and purifications appointed the Jewish people, I suppose their health was consulted: as it was likewise in the directions concerning creatures clean and unclean.
Lev. xi. 3. "Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat." See also Deut. xiv. 4-8. And it must be allowed, that such beasts as have both those properties, are preferable for food to others: as the ox, the sheep, the goat, and the deer of every kind. And though we do eat some animals which have but one of those properties, as the coney, the hare, the swine; we never eat those which have neither of those properties; that is, which neither chew the cud, nor divide the hoof. Nor do we use for food any of the birds, or fowls, forbidden in that long list, Lev. xi. 13-20. and Deut. xiv. 12-20.
In ancient times there were among all people two sorts of creatures, clean and unclean. This
And when they killed any of these, or other clean crea- was at the altar; and partly, because it was heavy, and too tures for their food at home, still they were to forbear to eat strong a food, as Maimonides takes it. Patrick upon Levit. the suet; partly out of reverence to God, whose portion it iii. 16.
distinction obtained and was general before the flood. Noah, therefore," was commanded to take with him into the ark of every clean beast by sevens, the male and the female: and of the beasts that are not clean, by two, the male and the female," Gen. vii. 1-3.
This distinction related as much to food as to sacrifice. For the worshipper, as well as the priest, partook of the altar, excepting in the case of whole burnt-offerings. Every living creature therefore, which was clean for sacrifice, was also clean for food.
This article was inserted in the epistle, out of regard to the Jewish believers; that the Gentile converts might not give them offence. As there are now no Jewish believers, to take offence at our eating of blood, we may do as we see good. We may avoid it, if we please, for the sake of health; but are not obliged to forbear it upon a religious account, which would be no better than superstition.
3. And from things strangled, that is, from the flesh of animals, that have not been fairly killed, so as that the blood might be all drained out of them whilst warm.
Upon this our learned author says, p. 175. This is omitted by many of the ancient fathers, ⚫ and therefore by some esteemed a gloss.' But that is said rather too hastily, and without good ground; as may appear by what was said formerly. This article is as genuine and authentic as the rest. It is in all Greek manuscripts in general, and is quoted by the most ancient writers of the church. But near the end of the fourth century, and afterwards the Latin Christians paid little regard to those regulations. And for that reason the apostolic decree is not always quoted exactly by writers in that language.
This regulation, like the preceding, must be understood to have been inserted, that the Gentile converts might not offend the Jewish believers. We, now, are at liberty to act as we see fit. We are under no obligation to forbear things strangled upon a religious account. 4. And from fornication.
I suppose it to have been already shown by general, but unanswerable reasons, that this epistle is not concerned about things of a moral nature: consequently, what we now generally mean by this word is not here intended: that being an immorality, and in itself unreasonable. But the true meaning is not certain: nor ought it to be thought strange, that it is not.
Beza's interpretation may be seen in his Annotations upon Acts xv. 20. He is clear, that things of a moral nature have no part in these regulations, but only such things as are in themselves indifferent, recommended for peace-sake, and out of regard to weak brethren. Therefore this word is not here to be understood in its common acceptation. He applies it to some things mentioned by St. Paul in the eighth and tenth chapters of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, particularly," sitting at meat in an idol's temple," 1 Cor. viii. 9.
But I apprehend, that what St. Paul there speaks of must rather relate to the first prohibition in this Epistle, "The pollution of idols, or things offered to idols."
To me it appears probable, that hereby are forbidden some alliances with heathens: which, though not absolutely unlawful, had better be avoided by Christians, lest they should prove dangerous temptations to apostasy. So the Apostle writes, Heb. xii. 16. "Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright." I suppose, that both these characters are given of Esau. He was not a lewd profligate or fornicator, in our sense of the word; but he married Canaanitish women, "which were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah," Gen. xxvi. 34, 35. Which Jacob carefully avoided, ch. xxviii. 6-9. Theodoret mentions the interpretation which I have given of that text. I am indebted to Beausobre for the reference.
I am confirmed in this interpretation by observing the earnestness, with which St. Paul dissuades Christians from marrying with heathens, though such marriages were not unlawful. 1 Cor. vii. 39. "The wife is bound by the law, as long as her husband liveth: but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord." 2 Cor. vi. 14, 15. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel ?"
• See vol. II. P. 14-18.
Μη τις πορνός, η βέβηλος, ὡς Ησαυ.] Πορνείαν τε Ήσαν την γατριμαργίαν έκαλεσε
Ούκ αν δε τίς ἁμαρτοι, πορ
γειαν αυτ8 καλεσας και τον παρονομον γαμον αλλοφύλες γαρ YUYAIXAS NYAYεTO. Theod. in Heb. xii. 16. T. III.' P. 450.
• See him on Heb. xii. 16.