Faith and Works
In the Upanishads and the New Testament
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1911
There is a passage of singular charm and vivacity, which one may call, I think, the keystone of the Upanishads; the passage containing what is traditionally known as the Lore of the Five Fires. It is found with almost verbal identity in the two longest Upanishads, the Brihad Aranyaka and the Chhandogya, from the former of which I shall try to translate it. The not very heroic hero of the story is a young Brahman, Shvetaketu by name, whose good father elsewhere in the Upanishads describes him as “conceited, vain and proud of his learning,” and we are further told that he was familiar with the hymns of the three great Vedas, the Rig, the Yajur and the Sama Vedas. Of this vain young sprig of Brahmanism, we are told that Shvetaketu, Aruna’s grandson, came to the assembly of the Panchalas. He came to Pravahana, son of Jivala, who was surrounded by his followers. Looking at him, the king addressed him:
“Youth!” said he.
“Sir!” he replied.
“Hast thou received the teaching from thy father?”
“Yes!” said he.
“Knowest thou how these beings going forth from this world proceed on different paths?”
“No!” said he.
“Knowest thou how they come to this world again?”
“No!” said he.
“Knowest thou how that world is not filled up by the many going thither again and again?”
“No!” said he.
“Knowest thou at which sacrifice being sacrificed, the waters, rising up speak with human voice?”
“No!” said he.
“Knowest thou the approach of the path of the gods, or of the path of the fathers, or by doing what they approach the path of the gods, or the path of the fathers: as the word of the Seer has been heard by us:
“‘Two ways I have heard of, for mortals, the way of the fathers and the way of the gods.
By them goes all that moves ’twixt father heaven and mother earth.’”
“No!” said he; “I do not know even one of them.”
The king invited him to remain as his pupil. But unwilling to remain, he ran away to his father. He said to him:
“Forsooth, Sir, thou didst say that we had received the teaching?”
“How now, wise one?” said his father.
“This Rajanya fellow has asked me five questions, and I do not know one of them?”
“What are they?” said he.
“These!” said he, and he enumerated them.
His father said:
“Thou knowest us thus, dear, that whatever I know, I told it all to thee! But come, let us twain set forth thither, and dwell as pupils with the king!”
“Go yourself, Sir!” said he.
That descendant of the Gotamas went to where Pravahana, son of Jivala, was. To him offering a seat, the king caused water to be brought. He made the offering. To him the king said:
“We give a wish to the worshipful descendant of the Gotamas.”
“This wish is promised to me: the saying that thou didst speak in the presence of my boy, tell me that!”
The king said:
“That, O descendant of the Gotamas, is among the wishes of the gods. Say a wish of men!”
“It is well known! There is store of gold, of cattle and horses, of slave-girls and tapestries and robes! May the Master not be niggardly toward us in that which is great, infinite, illimitable!”
The king said:
“This wish, descendant of the Gotamas, must be sought according to rule.”
“I offer myself as thy pupil!” said he. For with this word the men of old betook them to a master. He therefore dwelt there, becoming his disciple.
The king said to him:
“Therefore, O descendant of the Gotamas, be thou without reproach toward us, thou and thy forbears; since this teaching never before dwelt in any Brahman, but to thee I shall declare it, for who has the right to refuse thee, speaking thus?”
The last sentence is even more explicit in the Chhandogya version of the story:
“As this teaching, O descendant of the Gotamas, goes not to any Brahman before thee, but among all peoples leadership was of the Kshatra,” (that is, of the Kshatriyas or Rajanyas, the men of royal or princely race).
We are concerned, therefore, with a teaching regarding the destiny of the soul, and this teaching had hitherto never been imparted to the priestly caste of Brahmans, but had been kept as a secret esoteric doctrine among the Kshatriyas or Rajanyas. If, as seems probable, the Rajanyas and Brahmans represent two different races, then we may call this the secret doctrine of the Rajanya race, the ancestors of the Rajput tribes.
But let us consider the teaching itself. Before descending into birth, the Rajanya teaches, the soul dwells in the heavenly world. In it adhere certain streams of tendency, which he calls “the waters,” the currents of moral and mental life. From the spiritual world the soul descends to the mid-world, and in the mid-world takes on a “lunar” form; for the things of the mid-world are symbolized by the moon, which shines by reflected light; the spiritual world, self-shining, being symbolized by the sun.
From the mid-world, the soul enters this world, and this descent from the higher to the lower world is in each case called a sacrifice. The soul now comes into relation with the father and mother of the child that is to be born, and these relations are also called sacrifices. The fifth sacrifice is birth, and at this sacrifice the “waters,” that is, the mental and moral currents which make up the character, “arise, and speak with human voice.” This is the answer to the last of the questions which the Rajanya sage asked the vain Brahman boy. We may now return to the text of the Upanishad.
“Through this sacrifice, the man comes to birth. He lives his life-span, and then dies, and they take him to the funeral pyre. . . . In this fire the bright powers offer the man, and from that sacrifice he is born, of the colour of the sun.
“They who know this thus, and they who, in the forest, follow faith and truth, are born into the flame, from the flame they go to the day, from the day to the waxing moon, from the waxing moon to the six summer months, from these months to the Deva-world, from the Deva-world to the sun, from the sun to the lightning; them, reaching the lightning, a Person, mind-born, coming, leads to the worlds of the Eternal. They dwell in those worlds of the Eternal, in the highest realms. For them, there is no return.
“But they who win worlds by sacrifice, gifts, penance, they are born into the smoke of the pyre, from the smoke they go to the night, from the night to the waning moon, from the waning moon to the six winter months, from these months to the world of the Fathers, from the world of the Fathers to the moon. Reaching the moon, they become food. The gods feast on them as they wax and wane like the lunar lord. Then going full circle, they descend to the ether, from the ether to the air, from the air to rain, from rain to the earth; reaching the earth, they become food. Again they are sacrificed in the fire of man and the fire of woman, and are reborn, coming forth again to the world of men.”
The Rajanya teacher speaks, of course, in symbols, describing a series of worlds, or planes of consciousness, from the higher of which the soul descends into incarnation, entering this world by the gate of birth. The teacher further suggests that each world or plane has two poles, a positive pole of spirituality, and a negative pole of materiality; and these poles of the ascending planes he describes by a series of natural pairs, the one bright and the other dark; namely, the fire and smoke of the pyre, day and night, the moonlit and moonless fortnights, the summer and winter months, the sun and moon, the world of the gods and the world of the fathers.
According to the spiritual quality of the soul, when it goes forth at death, it follows one or the other of these two paths; or gravitates, if we may use such an expression, to the positive or negative poles of each plane in the ascending series. If the soul has followed Faith and Truth, then it ascends by the path of the sun, the path of the Gods, to the world of the Eternal, and for it there is no return. But if the soul has followed after sacrifices and penance, then it takes. the path of the moon, the path of the Fathers, and enters the lunar world. There it waxes and wanes, and, waning, returns again to the earth, and passes once more through the gate of birth. In the first case, the soul reaches liberation. In the second, it falls into the cycle of repeated births and deaths.
This is, I believe, the first passage in the Upanishads which draws a fundamental distinction between the way of Faith and the way of Works, and it has the added suggestion that the way of Faith is that taught in the secret wisdom of the Rajanyas, while the way of Works is that taught by the Brahmans, as a part of the sacrificial system which grew up with the Vedic hymns. In this first and oldest passage, therefore, it is asserted that only the way of Faith leads to liberation, or true salvation; while the way of Works leads to a period of paradise, followed by rebirth into this world: therefore no true salvation at all.
The antithesis is brought out even more sharply in a passage near the beginning of the Mundaka Upanishad, which runs somewhat as follows:
“The powers that the Seers perceived in the hymns were divided manifold for the triple fire. ‘Practice these constantly,’ they said, ‘ye who desire the truth; this is your path of good work in the world. For when the flame curls in the fuel that bears what is to be offered, then let him guide the offerings in the space between the two paths of the sacrificial fluid. With faith it is offered. He whose fire-invocation fits not with the new moon, the full moon, the fourth month, and the autumn, where there are no guests, where the offerings to the host of Devas are absent, where the ritual is unfulfilled, he loses his seven worlds.’
“Infirm rafts verily are these rites of the eighteen sharers in the sacrifice, on which the lower worship depends. They who exult in this as the better way, fools, go again to sickness and death. Turning round in unwisdom, sages, thinking themselves wise, fools, they go about, staggering in the way, like the blind led by the blind.
“Turning about manifold in unwisdom, they exult, childish, thinking that thus the work is accomplished. Because these performers of rites are not wise in their longing desire, in their folly they fail, losing their worlds.
“Thinking that oblations and offerings are best, they know not the better way, deluded fools. After enjoying this good work of theirs at the back of the heavens, they return again to this, or even to a baser world.
“But they who dwell in Faith and fervor in the forest, full of peace, wise, free from the lust of possession; by the sun-door they go forth, freed from desire, where is the immortal Spirit, the everlasting Atma.”
This is a sufficiently drastic condemnation of the Brahmanical “way of Works,” with its sacraments, its lunar festivals, its sacrificial fires. These rites lead, at best, teaches the Upanishad, to a brief sojourn in paradise, followed by a return to this, or perchance, to some baser world. But the “way of Faith” leads by the door of the sun to the world of the Eternal. We have, therefore, exactly the antithesis already made in the Lore of the Five Fires.
The “way of Works” is the whole sacrificial system, as practiced by the Brahmanical priesthood, the system which grew up round the Rig Veda hymns to Agni, the Fire-god; Indra, the Sky-god; Vayu, the Wind-god, and the rest. To these rites, only the Twice-born Aryas were admitted, the second birth being the initiation of the upanayana, the girding on of the sacred thread, which one may, perhaps, describe as an equivalent of baptism, the sign of spiritual birth, of entry into a community with spiritual privileges. Many rites and sacrifices entered into this Brahmanical system, and scrupulous compliance with these was the condition of good standing and salvation. The system was a costly one, and profitable to the Brahmans.
Contrasted with this was the “way of Faith,” or the “way of Illumination,” which is the main theme of the Upanishads. From the marvelous riches of that teaching, I quote only one text, from a famous passage in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad:
“Now as to him who is free from desire, who is beyond desire, who has gained his desire, for whom Atma is his desire. From him the life-powers depart not. Growing one with the Eternal, he enters the Eternal. When all desires that were hid in the heart are let go, the mortal becomes immortal, and enters the Eternal. And like as the slough of a snake lies lifeless, cast upon an ant-hill, so lies his body, when the Spirit of man rises up bodiless and immortal, as the Life, as the Eternal, as the Radiance. The small old path that stretches far away has been found and followed by me. By it go the Seers who know the Eternal, rising up from this world to the heavenly world.”
The essence of this path of the sun, this path of the gods, which leads to perfect liberation, is spiritual consciousness; beginning with the personal consciousness of the ordinary man, there is a gradual widening, and, even more, a deepening of the consciousness, until a deep illumination is reached beyond the realm of dreams, an illumination wherein the man enters at once into the spiritual consciousness of others, and into the consciousness of the Eternal. Thus the consciousness of man is raised, step by step, through Faith, fervor and service of the Eternal, until it becomes one with the consciousness of the Eternal, the consciousness of God. This is the true salvation, the perfect liberation, from which there is no return. The Spirit of man becomes immortal, he enters the Eternal.
We find exactly the same contest between the two ways in the Bhagavad Gita, which denounces the Brahmanical system of Vedic sacrifices in phrases very like those of the Mundaka Upanishad. Thus in the second book of the Gita, it is said:
“This is a flowery word which the unwise declare, who delight in the letter of the Vedas, Son of Pritha, and say there is nothing else;
“They who are full of desire and eager for heaven; this word offering rebirth and the reward of works, abounding in special rites making for feasts and lordship;
“The thought of those who are set on feasts and lordship, whose minds are carried away thereby, has not single-mindedness as its essence, nor is it set in soul-vision;
“The Vedas have the Three Potencies as their subject; be thou above the Three Potencies, Arjuna. Be free from duality, ever standing in the real, without desire of possessions, full of the Self, full of Atma;
“As much use as there is for a well, when the whole land is under water, so much use is there for all the Vedas, for a knower of the Eternal who possesses wisdom.”
The Bhagavad Gita sets forth the rival path, the “way of Wisdom,” in the very sentences of the Upanishads. Thus at the end of the fifth chapter it is said:
“Nirvana, union with the Eternal, comes nigh to those who are rid of lust and wrath, who have gained control, who rule their thoughts, who have beheld Atma, the supreme Self.”
There are also, in the Gita, many passages of a warmer and more personal colour, passages full of the power of devotion to the Supreme, manifested in a personal Saviour. For example, these verses, toward the beginning of the sixth chapter:
“With soul at peace, with fear gone, standing firm in the vow of service of the Eternal, controlling the mind, with heart set on Me, let him dwell in union, intent on Me.
“The seeker of union ever holding his soul thus in union, with emotions well controlled, enters into the supreme peace of Nirvana, dwelling in Me.”
Salvation, perfect liberation, is, therefore, a growth in spiritual consciousness, whereby the soul of man, expanding and deepening, his consciousness growing more divine, becomes at last one with the consciousness of the Eternal, the consciousness of God. As this is an eternal consciousness, he thereby gains immortal and infinite life. He has entered into Nirvana, the supreme peace.
That the teaching of the Buddha was a protest against the ritual religion of the Brahmans, is so well known that it hardly needs further illustration. I am tempted to quote one passage, however, to show how completely it coincides in this with the passages of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita already cited. This passage is found in the Tevijja Sutta, a sermon held by tradition to have been delivered by the Buddha in the mango grove, on the bank of the river Achiravati, to the south of the Brahman village of Manasakata, in Kosala. The sermon is delivered to two young Brahmans, who come to the Buddha, very much as young Shvetaketu came to the Rajanya sage. And here we may note that both Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita, and the Buddha himself were of Rajanya race. The Buddha speaks thus:
“Again, Vasishtha, if this river Achiravati were full of water even to the brim, and overflowing; and a man with business on the other side, bound for the other side, should come up, and want to cross over, and he, standing on this bank, should invoke the further bank, and say, ‘come hither, O further bank! come over to this side!’ Now what think you, Vasishtha? Would the further bank of the river Achiravati, by reason of that man’s invoking and praying and hoping and praising, come over to this side?
“Certainly not, Gotama!
“In just the same way, Vasishtha, do the Brahmans versed in the three Vedas—omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman (a knower of Brahma), and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men not Brahmans—say thus: ‘Indra we call upon, Soma we call upon, Varuna we call upon, Ishana we call upon, Prajapati we call upon, Brahma we call upon!’ Verily, Vasishtha, that those Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas, but omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman, and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men not Brahmans—that they, by reason of their invoking and praying and hoping and praising, should, after death and when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahma,—verily such a condition of things has no existence.”
With this “way of Works,” the Buddha contrasted his own teaching, the way of “liberation”:
“To the Buddha, when asked touching the path which leads to the world of Brahma, there can be neither doubt nor difficulty. For Brahma, I know, Vasishtha, and the world of Brahma, and the path which leadeth unto it. Yea, I know it even as one who has entered the Brahma world, and has been born within it!”
It is well worth noting that the Buddha here describes Nirvana in the old traditional terms, as an entering into the world of Brahma, a becoming one with Brahma. The continuity of his teaching with that of the Upanishads, which ever speak of entering into the world of Brahma, and with the Bhagavad Gita, which uses the twofold form, Brahma-Nirvana, to express perfect liberation, is complete. Here, as always in the ancient Indian wisdom, salvation is a broadening and deepening of the consciousness, until at last it becomes one with the Divine Consciousness, the consciousness of the Eternal, the conciousness of God.
Let us turn now from India to Palestine, from the Upanishads to the New Testament. Here again, we find the contest between Faith and Works, two rival paths of salvation; and the conflict between the adherents of the two paths of salvation echoes through the greater number of the Epistles, just as we found it in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tevijja Sutta.
The traditional sacrificial system of Palestine was very like the Brahmanical system which grew up about the Vedic hymns. Like the Indian system, it had its sacred books, held to be verbally inspired, and scrupulously preserved word by word. Like the Indian system, it had grown up in a sacred land, hallowed by tradition. Like the Indian system, it had its sacrifices and burnt offerings, its festivals of the new moon and the full moon, its celebrations of holy months. Like the Indian system, it was the prized possession of a limited group of tribes, a close religious corporation. As in the Indian system, admission to this religious corporation was marked by a sacramental rite, in the one case circumcision, commemorating the promise of Jahveh to Abraham, and in the other, the upanayana, or girding on of the sacred thread.
Born of Jewish parents, growing up among Jews, Jesus in all things fulfilled the Jewish law, from the circumcision to the last Passover. His disciples, with the exception, perhaps, of Simon the Canaanite, were also Jews, who fulfilled the law of the Jews in all particulars, except in certain minor matters which were made a subject of attack against them. But they held themselves to be pious Jews nevertheless. Further, Jesus expressly gave his support to the Jewish law, as when he said: “I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law,” or when, being asked the way of salvation, he answered: “Keep the commandments!” that is, the precepts of the Jewish law.
Up to, and after, the Crucifixion, therefore, the disciples held themselves to be, and in fact were, law-abiding Jews, who fulfilled all the precepts of the Jewish system without question, while at the same time they sought to carry out the precepts and teaching of their Master. So far as any of the disciples understood the matter, the teaching which they held would have continued to be the teaching of a small Jewish sect, “the Nazarene heresy,” as it was called; and admission into their communion would of necessity have been preceded by admission into the religious community of the Jews, through the rite of circumcision, and would have involved the obligation to fulfill all the rites, and to keep all the festivals of the Jewish religion.
What, then, bridged the chasm, and turned the teaching of a small Jewish sect into a world-religion? What transformed the “heresy of the Nazarenes” into Christianity? It is, perhaps, a commonplace to say that the chasm was bridged by Paul; that the greatness of his heart, and his deeper culture compelled him to break down the barriers and open the Church, so that salvation should be “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.”
I think that this view is open to grave question; and that, simply stated as I have stated it, it is untrue. To make this intelligible, I may, perhaps, be allowed a brief digression.
The “way of Faith,” or the “way of Wisdom,” as understood and set forth in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and also as expounded by the Buddha, held, as we saw, that salvation meant spiritual growth, a broadening and deepening of the consciousness, until at last it became one with the Divine consciousness, with the consciousness of the Eternal. But this expansion was never held to be a sudden flashing out of infinity, a spiritual cataclysm, but rather an evolution, a gradual growth, slowly attained, and consummated after many steps. And certain great stages of the way were marked and described, whether in the Upanishads or in the teaching of the Buddha; certain grand degrees, so to speak, in the splendid flowering of the Divine consciousness. And in the Upanishads, and in the later teaching of India, it was held that these grand degrees of consciousness had each its fitting vesture, beginning with that “vesture the colour of the sun,” worn by the purified soul immediately after death, and developing through purer and finer vestures, psychical and spiritual bodies. This, indeed, is an integral and necessary part of the teaching of the “way of Faith,” the “way of Illumination,” and is everywhere found as a part of it. Further, it is implied in the Upanishads, and explicitly taught in the later systems, that these psychical and spiritual bodies had their proper perceptions, their proper organs, their proper powers, in ascending degrees of majesty and spirituality. It would, therefore, be entirely intelligible to any follower of the Indian wisdom, that one who had mastered that wisdom should possess a full-grown spiritual body, with marvelous yet entirely natural powers, such as are enumerated, for example, in the Yoga Sutras, or in the Akankheya Sutta of Buddhism. To such a student of the Indian wisdom, believing in the path of the sun, the path of liberation, it would be axiomatic that, at a certain stage of spiritual development, such a spiritual body, with its high powers, should be evolved; and that the liberated Master, laying aside the earthly body, like the slough of a snake cast on an ant-hill, should arise immortal, sharing the powers of the Divine.
In the light of this teaching, the Resurrection is a natural and wholly scientific fact, whose laws are clearly indicated, and which follows as the inevitable result of the deepening of consciousness, and the development of the finer vesture for that deeper consciousness; and that it would be wholly natural and logical to believe that Jesus, thus clothed in the spiritual body of the Resurrection, the “vesture of the colour of the sun,” could and would carry forward the work which had been interrupted by the Crucifixion.
This, or something very like it, was the belief of Paul; and he explicitly says that the opening of the Church to the Gentiles was the work, not of Paul, but of Jesus; and one may add that it was carried out in the teeth of Paul’s deepest prejudices and convictions, for was he not a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee?
The examination of Paul before Agrippa was, no doubt, carefully recorded at the time by Luke, who was with Paul. Paul tells Agrippa that Jesus, appearing to him on the road to Damascus, spoke as follows: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet; for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith in me.”
This vision and commission, which opened the way for the greatest fact in history, the transformation of the “heresy of the Nazarenes” into the world religion, Christianity, is attributed by Paul to the direct and personal interposition of the Master himself; and, if we accept the idea of the “way of Wisdom,” as to the growth of consciousness, and its development in ever finer vestures, we can see that Paul may be describing a wholly natural and scientific fact; the manifestation of the Master in the spiritual body, and his continuation of his life-work in that body.
To return to the main theme of this essay: Paul’s vision, and his conviction that the teaching of Jesus should be opened to the Gentiles date, if we accept the general chronology of the New Testament as based on Luke’s synchronisms, from about the year 35; some six years before the apparition of the sheet let down from heaven, which conveyed the same idea to Peter. But while Paul immediately began to preach and teach in obedience to his heavenly vision, as he tells us, Peter does not seem to have undertaken any very active work as a result of the apparition at Joppa, six years later. He remained, for the most part, at Jerusalem, and there he continued to live in the Jewish atmosphere which threatened to make of the teaching of Jesus nothing more than a “Nazarene heresy.” It would not be true to say that the body of the disciples at Jerusalem believed that salvation, as they understood it, could be gained by following out the precepts of the Jewish law and by this alone; but it is true that they hardly thought of salvation as being gained without the fulfillment of that law.
The chief upholder of this view was not Peter, but James, the brother of Jesus; and here we come to one of the buried histories of the New Testament. Gathering our details here and there, from the gospels, the Acts, the epistles of Paul, we can recognize the marked figure of James, and the less marked figure of Jude, the younger brother of Jesus and James. The brothers of Jesus, up to the very hour of his crucifixion, were, if not hostile to him, at least in no sense disciples of his teaching. But there must have been, in the case of James, an event as remarkable and as revolutionary as the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus. The Master, says Paul, appeared to James; and, as a result, we find James an ardent member of the group of the disciples at Jerusalem. Within four or five years after the Crucifixion, we find James ranking with Peter, as one whom Paul deemed it essential to meet at Jerusalem; and a little later Paul ranks James with Peter and John as pillars of the Jerusalem church. James was more than this; he was the strongest upholder of the idea that, to become a Christian, one must first become a Jew; or, to put the matter more fairly, perhaps, he held that the Jewish system so completely represented the way of righteousness that without following it, one could not be truly righteous.
In the meantime, Paul was working among the Greek-speaking peoples of the north, in the neighborhood of his own town of Tarsus, and also in Cyprus. He seems always to have begun his teaching by describing the appearance of Jesus on the Damascus road, with the resultant certainty of the soul’s immortality; salvation, as he conceived and taught it, consisted, first, in accepting the truth of the Master’s risen life, and, secondly, in a certain spiritual state, which followed the acceptance of this truth. This spiritual state was, in essence, a development of consciousness, which, when it reached its fullness, meant a blending of the consciousness with the consciousness of the Master, an entering into the Master’s consciousness; and, thirdly, Paul, by a bold and beautiful figure of speech, depicted the transformation of consciousness from the earthly to the spiritual as a kind of dying, a crucifixion and resurrection, whereby the disciple became a sharer in the crucifixion of the Master, and also in his resurrection. It is evident that we are concerned here with a growth of consciousness, a deepening of spiritual life and being, and not with the fulfillment of a ritual system of ceremonial observances. We are dealing with the “way of Faith,” to use the Eastern phrase, and not with the “way of Works.”
But the “way of Works” had its ardent adherents at Jerusalem with James at their head, and a conflict, for some time inevitable, broke out between the adherents of the two “ways.” The matter was fully debated at the Council of Jerusalem, about the year 52, and certain aspects of that Council are of high importance, in view of later events. It appears that Peter was the first speaker, and that he defended the extension of the Church to the Gentiles, on the ground of his vision at Joppa, some six years after Paul’s vision near Damascus. Then, after the question had been fully discussed, the decision of the Council was declared by James the brother of Jesus, who seems to have spoken for the church at Jerusalem, and to have been, in some sense, its most forcible member, whose influence over Peter and the other disciples was strong and dominant. At any rate, we find James saying: “my judgment is . . .” and so forth, declaring the sense of the Council; showing, by the way that the disciples by no means recognized in Peter any such dominant and infallible authority as the theories of the Vatican would demand.
Further, the decision of the Council was reached by a general consensus of opinion, and thus represented the collective consciousness of the Church; and, if we may use a phrase of later times, the Church voted in three orders, “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.” It was decided to open the Church to the Gentiles, without requiring them to fulfill the rites of the Jews.
At this point, Paul takes up the story:
“When James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen and they unto the circumcision. Only that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
A little further on in the same letter, Paul writes: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” declaring that salvation comes through a deepening of consciousness, through a blending of the consciousness of the disciple with the consciousness of the Master, so that he could say: “Christ liveth in me;” just as he says to his pupils in Galatia, that he is “in travail, until Christ is formed” in them.
For this spiritual consciousness, Paul uses the word Faith, just as we found it used, many centuries earlier, in the great Upanishads. Then taking faith to mean, among other ideas, a belief in spiritual things, he develops an argument against the adherents of the law, which he uses again and again in later years. This argument is the singular and remarkable one that Abraham himself, the father of the chosen people, and the recipient of the covenant and the promise, walked the way of Faith, not the way of Works:
“Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the Scripture farseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.”
This was very decidedly turning the tables against James and the adherents of the law. Of Peter’s journey to Antioch, and his later movements, we know little. One may, perhaps, conjecture that he spent some time in Asia Minor; that this is why Paul, writing from Ephesus to Corinth, speaks of Apollos and Cephas together, since Apollos was some time at Ephesus. Perhaps it was because of such a journey through Asia Minor that we find the first epistle of Peter addressed to the disciples in that region. It would seem likely that Peter did not return to Jerusalem, for he was evidently not there at the time of Paul’s arrest probably in the year 59, if we can judge from the fact that Luke records that Paul visited James just before his arrest, while no mention is made of Peter. Finally, we may surmise that Peter went from Asia Minor to Rome; for, while neither Luke nor Paul mentions his presence there, Peter himself, in his second epistle, speaks of Paul and his epistles; so that we have this evidence that he was close to Paul in Rome.
It seems likely, therefore, that Peter may have gone from Asia Minor to Rome, and was one of those who built up the church there from its inception. Perhaps Peter’s presence at Rome gave Paul cause to apprehend that the “way of Works” would be taught to the new disciples at Rome, with dangerous consequences; and perhaps this was why he again set himself to make the whole question clear, when writing to Rome from Ephesus, about the year 59:
“For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.”
Here again he outflanks the party of James and the law, and seeks to prove the daring paradox that the “way of Works” is really the “way of Faith;” that salvation is a matter of inward spiritual life, and not of outward ritual. And again he uses his bold argument about Abraham:
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God . . . for we say that Faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness . . . and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised . . . and being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about a hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb; he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; . . . and therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.”
And Paul then makes the deduction to which he has been leading up:
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Master Jesus Christ;” as always, the teaching that salvation is through spiritual consciousness, growing gradually to a oneness with the consciousness of the Master, of the Divine.
The controversy between the two ways, the way of Faith and the way of Works, reverberates through the letters which Paul wrote from Rome. It finds its chief expression, however, in another document, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and especially in the famous chapter which begins:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . .”
The writer undertakes to show that Faith has been the essential element of spiritual life from the beginning; that Abel and Enoch and Noah were saved by faith. Then he develops the argument concerning Abraham, which we have seen Paul twice use:
“Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude. . . .”
It is difficult to believe that this extraordinary image, of Abraham becoming a father when he was as good as dead, should have occurred to two different writers, as an argument in defense of Faith against the Works of the law. However this may be, we found Paul using it, in writing to the Romans, and it is now repeated by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. He further seeks to show that Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses were saved by faith; even Moses, the giver of the Law. And, most remarkable of all, he cites Rahab of Jericho as one of those saved by faith.
It is difficult not to regard the Epistle of James as an answer to this last argument; and, by the way, it is interesting to find the remaining epistles arranged in this order: James, Peter, John; the same order in which we found Paul enumerating the “pillars” of the church at Jerusalem, as though, in the view of those who arranged the documents, James outweighed Peter. But to return. It is difficult not to believe that James is replying to the author of the Epistles to the Hebrews, and striking a last blow for the “way of Works,” when we find him writing:
“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
The passages which I have quoted are, it seems to me, evidently the records of a long and heated contest between the adherents of Faith and the adherents of the Law; or, more precisely, a controversy between Paul and James, which raged from the days before the Council of Jerusalem until the last word, so far as our documents go, was spoken by James, in the sentences just quoted. This seems to me to add a new connecting thread to the relations between these New Testament documents, and, in particular, to have an important bearing on the position and purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the reply of James to its argument.
Many other questions arise, of the deepest import and interest. For example, Why was it that the Master himself so carefully followed the way of the Law? Is there a parallel with the acceptance of the Law, as a stepping stone to Wisdom, by the later Vedantins, with Shankaracharya at their head? What course did the controversy take in later ages of the Church’s life? What is its position to-day; what is the practical teaching for ourselves, in this age-long controversy between Faith and Works?
But for the present I must content myself with outlining, however imperfectly, the course of the controversy through the Upanishads and the documents of the New Testament.