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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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INDIVIDUAL.—It has almost become a commonplace of Apologetics that the significance of the individual is first recognized in Christianity. In Antiquity the idea that the individual might stand over against the State, either through the sense of duty or the sense of truth, was not entertained. Most ancient civilizations were based on slavery, which at once refused to recognize a large section of the members of the State as individuals, and placed the individuality of the others not on an equal moral basis, but on a basis of social inequality.

Yet the Christian conception of the individual did not descend upon the earth without any indication of its coming. Socrates had instructed men to know themselves, and, though his greatest disciple did not consider this teaching inconsistent with a Republic in which the family and the most sacred rights of the individual are sacrificed to the interests of the State, the real significance of the Greek Philosophy was the growing clearness with which it went on to bring out the importance of man to himself. Stoicism insisted that a man’s dignity should not be at the mercy of events, and even Epicureanism taught that man’s surest ground of happiness is within. Baur’s contention, that the chief preparation for Christianity was a growing need for a universal, a moral religion, is only another way of saying that the individual, not as a free man, or a cultured man, or a member of a Greek State, but as an individual, was slowly coming to his rights.

This progress in the Gentile world, however, was not in any strict sense a preparation for our Lord’s teaching, but, at most, of the world for receiving it. His true foundations are in the OT, and more particularly in the prophets. Here again it is a commonplace of theological thinking that the religion of the OT does not concern itself about the individual at all in the same sense as the religion of the NT. Worship is a social and even a civil act. The God men worship is the God of their fathers, i.e. the God of their race. The great body of the ritual exalts not the covenant person, but the covenant people. Even the prophets have very little to say about individual piety, but concern themselves with the rulers and the conduct of society and the destiny of the nation. We cannot be sure, even in what seem the most personal Psalms, that it is not the voice of a nation rather than of an individual that confesses sin and implores help. This uncertainty regarding the place of the individual is made greater by the indistinctness, at least in the earlier books, of the hope of individual immortality, which, however we may try to get round it, is essential to any high estimate of the worth of the individual.

No book, nevertheless, compares with the OT for the boldness with which the individual stands out in contrast and, if need be, in opposition to, the community, and that on spiritual, not social considerations. The standard of its teaching is personal responsibility, and that ultimately sets a man alone as an individual with his God. If it is a national and not an individual hope the prophets contend for, they place it on an individual not a communistic foundation. They are not concerned to reform institutions or demand new laws. The reform they seek is of personal action and manners, and the law they wish to see obeyed is God’s. For this law it is the individual that signifies—the pressure of his personal call being so great that his duty to follow it is never questioned, even though it should bring him into conflict with both the State and the people. Ezekiel may have been the first to recognize the full significance of this attitude, but he was by no means the first to take it up. Of every prophet it could be said, ‘Behold, I have made thy face hard against their faces, and thy forehead against their foreheads’ (Ezekiel 3:8). To each of them the Spirit of God was a power to help him to be true to himself. It set each of them on his feet before speaking to him (Ezekiel 2:2). The very mark of a true prophet was to hear God’s voice only, and not man’s, and to be true to the individuality God had given him, and not to be an echo of the party cries around. To have that most selfish kind of individualism which consists in agreeing with the majority of the powers that be, was the mark of the false prophet (Jeremiah 20).

Such an attitude of independence could not be taken up without a very strong sense of the significance of the individual for God. The significance of the solitary figure of Jeremiah could not be less because he lived for the welfare of his people, and their ingratitude left him in isolation. Ezekiel naturally followed with the application. Were Noah, Daniel, and Job in a wicked land, they could but deliver their own souls by their righteousness (Ezekiel 14:14). God deals equally with all, and every act is weighed, without prejudice either from a man’s own past or from the doings of his fathers (Ezekiel 18:2; Eze_18:23-30). The soul that sinneth, it shall die Ezekiel 14:4).

Of other OT writings the two most important are the Psalms and Job. The eye of the writers may at times be on the nation, but even that is part of their personal piety, and to our day the unfailing interest of the Psalms is in the experience of the individual walking with his God. The Book of Job is wholly occupied with the problem of the individual, even if this individual be supposed to stand for the nation; and no one has ever stated with greater splendour of imagination or intellectual daring his right to fair dealing, not only from his fellow-men but from his God.

The OT conception of the relation of the moral individual to God, moreover, necessarily reached out toward the hope of immortality,—and that not merely as an extension of man’s desires beyond time, but as the just requirement of an individuality that defied time and lived by the eternal.

That our Lord entered upon this heritage and accepted the estimate of each individual which we indicate by calling him an immortal soul, and that on the ground of the OT conception of the blessedness of the man whom God hears, appears from His argument with the Sadducees (Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, Luke 20:38), and is a postulate of His whole teaching. The saying, ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ (Mark 8:36), may only indicate a man’s value to himself, and the other, ‘How much then is a man better than a sheep!’ (Matthew 12:12), may not seem to go very far. Christ’s true conception of the individual rather appears in the belief He offers for man’s acceptance and the duty He requires that man should perform.

Of this belief the centre of everything is the manifestation of the Father. As revealed through the Son, He is a Father, which means that He does not, as a mere Ruler, deal with men in groups, but that each man has to Him the distinctiveness, the importance, the whole significance he can have to himself. The side of God’s infinity which our Lord insists on, is the infinity of His care for the individual. In God’s sight also, nothing can be given in exchange for a soul. By His care and guidance, that frail thing, an individual spirit, can walk without anxiety amid all the forces which might threaten his destruction, not only sure of protection, but sure that everything will be used to serve his true welfare. This attitude toward earthly cares is not sustained by hardness or indifference, but by a belief that God regards these things as the servants of His children, whose individual well-being He sets far above material things. It is not a low view of the world, but a high view of the spiritual individual, which our Lord teaches.

Speaking, as He always does, with this thought of God towards man in the foreground, Jesus is led to dwell rather on the worth of the insignificant and imperfect individual in the concrete than on the general worth of the individual in the abstract. Hard-hearted religious people spoke lightly of ‘this multitude’ being ‘accursed’ (John 7:49). He called none accursed, and warned His followers against calling any one Raca (Matthew 5:22); and when He used the word ‘lost,’ it became in His mouth tender and compassionate and full of the heart of God. The parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Piece of Money, and above all of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), speak of God’s unwillingness to let anything so precious as an individual be lost. The little child is the type of what is greatest (Matthew 18:1-2), and the little one in moral stature, whom to offend is worse than death, is guarded by the very angels of the Presence (Matthew 18:10).

The same estimate of the worth of the individual appears in the ideal of human duty. There is no one, however poor or humble, who should not set before him the goal of being perfect as our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:48). It is better to cut off the right hand than use another individual for our lusts, or to put out an eye than purpose such a thing (Matthew 5:27-30). Most distinctive is the duty of forgiveness. Our Lord takes for granted that it will be difficult. We shall have so much respect for our own individuality that we must be hurt, and for the individuality of others that we cannot pass over their faults easily. Only by rising to the height of God’s thought can we hope to attain to God’s way of dealing with the unthankful and evil. We are to understand that God also does not pardon lightly. He does not regard the whole mass of good and bad indifferently. On the contrary, He sets each individual before Him as something of great significance to Him, something whereby He can be deeply hurt and grieved, and then, out of the same love that can be hurt, He pardons him. It is the significance of the individual that gives its whole importance to the doctrine of pardon, whether on God’s part or on man’s.

But the very greatness of this relation to God might seem to withdraw something from the distinctiveness of man as an individual. The worth of the individual is not ultimately from himself but from God. ‘If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered’ (John 15:6). This might almost seem to be a denial that there is such a thing as an individual. The individual would then be a mere manifestation of God. Spinoza’s formula, omnis determinatio est negatio, would obtain, and the assertion of one’s own individuality would only be as cutting off a certain portion of the air with a knife. But the inalienable secret of the gospel is that it enables a man to find God and himself at the same time. It does not deal with the endless substance, but with a Father. That He is an individual is not His limitation, but the condition of all His greatness; for it is the condition of His working by love, and love is greater than power. Conversion is thus not only a turning to God, but a finding of oneself (Luke 15:17), and a coming to one’s true home and to one’s right possession. While no succour of God fails a man who will have it, it remains a necessity of God’s love to set a man by himself in the task of working out his own destiny. He is allowed to go into the far country and waste his substance. In all the descriptions which glance out into the future there is a strange aloneness of the individual who has gone his own way, into which God Himself cannot intrude. Just because every human personality is so definitely an individual, we cannot be sure that, in the end, there may not be a lost individual. A relation of love in Christ’s sense necessarily means a relation of individuals, and that means such a marking off of a man from God that even God cannot enter that personality again, except the door is opened to Him, as it were, from the inside. This high gift of being an individual with the possibility of being a child of God, carries with it also the possibility of such exclusion of good as can make him a child of the wicked one (Matthew 13:38). Nor does the closest relation to God absorb the individual. Whatever ordinances there may be for public worship, the distinctive position is to enter into our closet and shut to the door, and be with our Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:6). There is an individual hearing and an individual answering, which, however little our minds may compass it, are essential both in God’s giving and in man’s receiving. Just as there is a strange pitiful isolation of the individual who rejects God, so there is a strange saving of his own individuality in losing it, in the soul that finds God. That we remain individuals is as essential to the relationship as that we find our joy in another individual. The revelation of the Father in the Son must preclude all idea of absorption in God.

This is the ground of Ritschl’s contention not only against a Catholicism which bears down the individual by the weight of the institution, but also against a mysticism which reduces all individuals to mere personality, upon which a Spirit, Himself mere personality, operates not as individual with individual, but as abstract spiritual force upon abstract spiritual substance. The influences of grace we must, on the contrary, interpret through Christ, the Spirit having come in His place to bring His words to our remembrance (John 14:26). Ritschl argues that God only uses His revelation in the Scriptures on the one hand, and His dealings with us by the experiences and duties of life on the other. The tendency with him is, not only to limit God, but also to ignore possibilities in man; yet his main contention is of great value, and it helps us to understand the patient humanness of God’s revelation, if we take it to be a dialogue in which God could not speak the next word till man had responded to the last.

The only influences our Lord used were the appeals of wisdom and love. In every case He respected the individuality of another, and sought to make men realize how much they were to themselves as well as to God. When any influence appeared as a substitute for personal choice, He sternly repressed it. He trusted no general movement, and appealed to nothing occult. He was always willing to leave a crowd for an individual (Mark 1:37, Luke 4:42, John 6:15). The only miracle He ever wrought for the multitude He used for sifting them and for gathering individuals from among them (John 6:27). And when a crowd did gather to hear Him preach, He gave them most individual teaching. He never departed from the method of being an individual dealing with individuals, and from requiring of them the most individual of actions—repentance and obedience to one’s own call.

Nor is the individual overborne by the society (see artt. Church, Kingdom of God, Individualism). Here it suffices to say that it is just the distinctive place Christ assigned to the individual that marks His Church off from the world, and His kingdom as a Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom of God. A kingdom which treats its subjects as mere pawns in a great game, is, in that very act, marked as temporal. Other-worldliness, indeed, is not the mind of Christ, and the attempt to derive everything from the far-sighted selfishness which does ‘good according to the will of God and for the sake of everlasting happiness,’ leaves no room for the highest things of Christianity. But it is not true, as is argued, that we reach a higher stage when we are able calmly to recognize that the individual passes and the society remains, that everyone should be content to live on in the lives of others, and that the Kingdom of God is everything and the individual nothing. The Kingdom of God is not thereby exalted. Nay, there can be no Kingdom of God, but a mere fleeting earthly Utopia. If the individual is obliterated, then, in view of the endless ages, but a moment more, and the society is obliterated as well. It becomes the Kingdom of God only when it deals with the eternal, and that must always be the individual. It is of God and not of mere human regulation just because it respects the individual—his choice, his peace, his freedom; because it is a society of persons not constrained by force to a common purpose, but attuned to it by love and wisdom. All our Lord says of His society speaks of an association in which its members will realize what the Apostle calls the glorious liberty of the children of God, and, so long as the Church is content to stand over against men as an institution claiming external authority, Christ’s great problem of how men were at once to live wholly for the Kingdom of God, and not surrender their Christian freedom, their rights as individuals, remains unsolved. (For the general philosophical questions regarding the individual, see art. Personality).

One question yet remains. Can a person whose isolation has been thus denned to himself, ever again pass into the great undistinguishable mass? According to the orthodox conception, individuality, though a mere containing wall, is so adamantine, that, whatever it may contain, it must abide. Ritschl, for one, argues that an alienation from God which the highest love cannot overcome, must mean annihilation. The very idea of a reality so important as to be inextinguishable, while all its manifestations demand its extinction, he would ascribe to the pernicious influence of the abstract Platonic idea of the soul. Nor can it be said that in the Gospels, or anywhere else in Scripture, there is any metaphysical basis of a Platonic kind for a necessary individual immortality. The Scripture hope is not in man, but in the character of God, and we cannot suppose Him under any necessity to continue evil for its own sake. On the other hand, if, as Ritschl maintains, the personality of God and man is individual, and pantheism is wholly an abandonment of the religious problem, which is how to maintain the spiritual personality against the whole material universe, through belief in the exalted Power that rules above it, it remains a problem whether evil can ever attain such power as to be able to blot out for God an individual.

Literature.—The whole of modern philosophy is concerned with the problem of the individual, but special mention may be made of: Spinoza, Ethics; Hume, Human Nature; Leibnitz, de Principio Individui; Kant, Anthropologie; J. H. Fichte, Die Idee der Personlichkeit und der individuellen Fortdauer; Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Individual: A Study of Life and Death, 1902; Doud, Evolution of the Individual, 1901; Beyschlag, NT Theol., esp. vol. i. 125–187 (English translation); Lemme, Christliche Ethik, esp. § 10: Kretschmar, Das Christliche Personlichkeits Ideal, 1898; J. R. Illingworth, Personality.

John Oman.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Individual'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​i/individual.html. 1906-1918.
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