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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Character

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CHARACTER may be defined as the result of the interaction between a personality and its environment; or, if the word is used in its special and favourable sense, as the advantage gained by personality over its environment, especially by the exercise of the will. In the terms of Aristotle (Nic. Eth. i. vii. 15), it is ‘an energy of the inner life on the lines of virtue.’ The question to be answered is, How have the life and gospel of Christ made this more possible? First, He diminished the moral weight and dread of life’s environment. Secondly, He enlarged the resources and opportunities of personality.

1. The following are some of the powers which the soul has to meet in conflict:

(1) Suffering.—‘If a perfectly good man foreknew what was going to happen to him, he would co-operate with nature in both falling sick and dying and being maimed, being conscious that this is the particular portion assigned to him in the arrangement of the Universe’ (Epictetus). Christ inspired men to put their foot on disease as an evil (Matthew 10:8, Mark 16:18), and won His first fame by His own powers of healing (Matthew 4:23-25; Matthew 11:4-6 etc.). Such deeds were good on the Sabbath day (Luke 6:6 ff.), for it was a breaking of Satan’s tyranny (Luke 13:16).

(2) Death.—He died to ‘deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage’ (Hebrews 2:15). Jesus not only so faced death as to convince a Roman centurion and a dying criminal that He was more than man (Matthew 27:54, Luke 23:40 ff.), but did not in His teaching allow it to have a decisive place in life, except to the fool (Luke 12:20). He spoke of it as a sleep (John 11:11 ff.), which the good man need not fear (Matthew 10:28), and as a going to the Father and His many abiding-places (John 14:1-3).

(3) The world.—

‘If but the Vine- and Love-abjuring band

Are in the Prophet’s Paradise to stand,

Alack, I doubt the Prophet’s Paradise

Were empty as the hollow of one’s hand’ (Omar).

Jesus was in complete independence of all that the world offers, accepting poverty (Luke 9:58), repudiating popularity (John 6:15), not expecting to be waited on (Mark 10:45). ‘Be of good courage,’ He said, ‘I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33); and on account of the promise of His presence His disciples were built up in the same αὐτάρκεια (Philippians 4:11).

(4) Racial barriers.—‘It is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or come unto one of another nation’ (Acts 10:28). Jesus struck at the limitations of race prejudice and enmity in the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:20 ff.) and the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31 ff.). Though He sought first the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5 f.), He ‘opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers’ (Matthew 8:10-13, cf. Mark 7:29), and thereby achieved on moral lines what the status of Roman citizenship created on legal lines. His short career was an encounter with the dead hand and narrowing force of nationalism (Mark 12:9, Matthew 21:42-44), and it was in the name of Son of Man that He lived and died.

(5) Caste distinctions.—‘It was the hereditary disability the Aryans had succeeded in imposing upon races they despised, which, reacting within their own circle and strengthened by the very intolerance that gave it birth, has borne such bitter fruit through so many centuries’ (Rhys Davids, Hibbert Lectures). ‘A workshop is incompatible with anything noble’ (Cicero). Jesus kept the same way open to all without regard to social or religions status; did not reject the rich (Matthew 8:7; Matthew 9:18 f., Luke 7:36), but counted their wealth a disadvantage (Mark 10:21; Mark 10:23, Luke 6:20). He chose His companions from men who were mostly of no class (Mark 1:16; Mark 2:14), was known as the friend of publicans and sinners (Matthew 9:11, Luke 15:1-2), and threw away His own triumph to give Zacchaeus a moral chance, ‘forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham’ (Luke 19:1-10).

(6) Family control.—‘To every individual,’ says Sir Henry Maine, referring to the Roman civilization, ‘the rule of conduct is the law of his home, of which his parent is the legislator.’ Though Jesus maintained the sanctity of the marriage tie (Matthew 19:4 ff.), and illustrated as well as taught filial obedience and honour (Luke 2:51, John 19:26-27, Mark 7:11 ff.), He broke the decisive control of the family for the sake of the individual personality (Matthew 10:35-37; Matthew 12:48-50, Luke 9:59-62; Luke 11:27-28, Mark 10:28-30).

2. In the second place, Christ enlarged the resources and opportunities of personality, by making the soul conscious and confident of a new environment, in which it could find release and reinforcement. The secret of this spiritual environment which awakens and sustains the soul’s faculties of faith, hope, and love is grace, in which alone they can move and have their being. The essential fact of grace is illustrated in the teaching of Christ chiefly in the following doctrines—the Divine Fatherhood, the Divine Forgiveness, the Divine Indwelling, and the Divine Reappearing. All that was dim or distorted in the human views of these truths, which mean so much to personality and character, He rectified and made authoritative.

(1) The clear revelation of the Divine Fatherhood had this immense bearing on character, that it brought out the worth of the individual soul. It is not necessary here to argue the question whether we are really God’s sons, apart from faith in Christ. It is enough for the purpose that Christ undoubtedly used the truth of the Divine Fatherhood as the chief motive to the new ethic. The first and most important effect on character is that the starting-point is trust. Trust in God is illustrated in contentment with circumstances, courage in regard to human opposition. Whatever be the straitness of life and however menacing the future, there may well be trust in One who cares for the individual with more than the purpose and solicitude of an earthly father (Matthew 6:7-8; Matthew 7:11, Luke 12:6-7; Luke 12:22-30). And as for hostility, it is well worth standing firm for truth and righteousness, for thus the approval of the Father is gained (Matthew 5:11-12; Matthew 16:24-27, Luke 12:4 ff., John 15:26 f., John 16:1-3). The natural vehicle of such trust is prayer, which Jesus Himself used for the solution of His perplexities and the bearing of His burdens (Luke 10:21, Mark 14:35 etc.), and which the disciples were also to use freely and urgently (Luke 11:5-13; Luke 18:1).

This leads to the second characteristic of a life that acts on the teaching of the Divine Fatherhood—its religion will be in spirit and truth (John 4:23). Prayer is no mere performance, but secret and real (Matthew 6:5-8), in faith (Mark 11:22-24), with a softened heart (Mark 11:25), and looking for the highest things (John 15:10; John 16:26). Religion is not a matter of external or traditional compulsion, but rests upon a gospel of Divine love (Matthew 11:28; Matthew 23:37, John 6:44-45). The Father can care for nothing that is not spontaneous and sincere like childhood (Mark 10:15; Mark 10:51-52; Mark 14:9, Matthew 18:21-22), and the fruit of real growth (John 15:8). The consummation of life is to be so sanctified by the truth as to enjoy God as Christ the Son Himself did (John 17:20-26).

And the bearing of the Divine Fatherhood on our relations to our fellows produces a wise tolerance. The disciples of Christ are to imitate the character of Him who ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,’ and refuse to treat any man as an enemy (Matthew 5:43-48). Indeed, the truth of the Fatherhood is the great inspiration to kindness and charity. The positive character of the ‘Golden Rule,’ which is its Christian distinction, is directly drawn from the ways of the ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:11-12), and the blessedness of peacemakers is in being called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) illustrates in particular what the parable of the Great Assize (Matthew 25:31-46) sets forth with ideal completeness, that there is no real love to God which is not expressed in spontaneous and appropriate help to every human being that requires it. Thus in the teaching of Christ went forth ‘an edict of Universal Love’; ‘humanity was changed from a restraint to a motive (Ecce Homo, ch. 16).’ And that this was the secret of the Christian message, is indicated in the parting commission, ‘Go ye and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’ (Matthew 28:19).

(2) The gospel of Divine Forgiveness has had a distinctive and powerful effect upon the characters of those who have accepted it. Indeed, it has produced a new type of character, which can be described only as being born again (John 3:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Forgiveness was by no means a new idea, for it has never been set forth with more beauty and completeness than in the Prophets and the Psalmists of the Old Testament. But Jesus was the first to apply it to the individual soul with the view of producing the character of a child of the Kingdom; and it was this which made His teaching seem revolutionary and even blasphemous in the eyes of the guardians of the Old Covenant (Mark 2:5-12, Luke 7:39-50). The average good person is now as much as ever inclined to resent the ‘opening of the Kingdom of heaven to all believers’ through the remission of sins. It contradicts the view accepted by all average moralists that it is by the maintenance of virtue that heaven must be won, and that any contradictory doctrine must loosen the bands of character. Their view is necessary as a caution, not only against the Antinomians, who treat the fact of forgiveness as a term of logic, and argue ‘let us sin that grace may abound,’ but also against all who preach faith as something apart from ethical enthusiasm. But St. Paul had learned the secret of his Master when he flung himself into the advanced position of ‘justification by faith.’ It was Jesus Himself who had the daring originality to base character on a new foundation without fearing to debase it (Luke 7:47-50, Matthew 26:27-28).

It must, however, be remembered that it was not so much the intention of Jesus to set up a rival type of character, as to restore the character of those who had lost it; to give a new chance to the personality that was overborne and fettered by its environment. He was essentially a physician of the sick (Luke 5:27-32), a seeker of the lost (Luke 15; Luke 19:10, Matthew 18:12 ff.), a giver of rest to the heavy laden (Matthew 11:28 ff.), fulfilling the words, ‘He shall be called Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21, cf. John 3:17). The great contribution, then, to the forming of character in the gospel of Forgiveness is not that it adds anything to the ideal of virtue, but that it unseals the great motive of humble and adoring gratitude, and opens the way for that tide of love which is itself the fulfilling of the Law (Luke 7:47; Luke 19:8-9). The business of Jesus was not the chiselling and polishing of character, but primarily its creation among the multitudes who would be shut out by the Pharisees from the kingdom of righteousness. The gospel does not so much teach now to be good as why to be good. Yet it must be admitted that in this teaching of grace as a redeeming power, Jesus did not simply profess to level sinners up to the virtuous. Rather He made the beatitude of the forgiven appear in comparison with the self-complacency of the virtuous as sunshine to moonlight (Luke 6:22-26; Luke 18:9-14). The result of thus opening the fountains of a great deep was to be seen in a new humility and tenderness, an unexampled moral scrupulousness and solicitude, for the pride of the natural man is overwhelmed by the sense of what be owes (Matthew 18:21-35, John 21:15-19, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:12-13).

(3) The third illustration of grace through which the scattered forces of character can be regathered is the Divine Indwelling, which, although not made conspicuous in the Synoptists, is essential to the Christian conception of character. The remarkable transformation which came over the chief Apostles after the events of Calvary and the Garden, was expressly attributed by them to the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to return and dwell in them through the Spirit (Acts 19:1-6; Acts 2:16 f., Acts 2:38, John 14:15-18). The character that has learned its worth from the Divine Fatherhood, and found its release in the Divine Forgiveness, gains its strength and means of independence from the Divine Indwelling. The real strength of character from the Christian point of view lies in the sense of weakness and the dependence on grace. Its ideal is not self-possession and self-complacency, but a possession by Christ (Galatians 2:20), and a pleasing of Christ (Philippians 1:20). And because its standard is so high, namely, the perfection of God Himself (Matthew 5:48), the only chance of attaining it is to realize that the sufficient power comes from the imparted life (John 20:21-23), to take the yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:29), or to abide in Him (John 15:4). If we can rely on God’s Fatherhood, we can be sure He will give the best gift, the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), which is to enable the disciples to do greater things even than Jesus Himself (John 14:12), because thus His own power will be multiplied in and through them (1 John 4:12-13).

From the Christian point of view, then, character depends for its final strength and beauty on the measure of its surrender and receptivity. Its turning-point is found in that decisive acceptance of Christ which is called ‘conversion,’ and which is not mere acquiescence, but allegiance as well, not only requiring an attitude of the soul, but also its adventure with and for the Lord it has recognized. When room has been made for the Divine indwelling in immediate sequence to the Divine forgiveness, there may be an assurance that through grace and with much patience the fruits of Christian character will come (Mark 4:8; Mark 4:20; Mark 4:26-29). Christian character depends on Christ’s indwelling; for its virtues, which are more appropriately termed graces, are called ‘fruits of the Spirit,’ indicating that they are not the attainment of the old nature, but the growth of the new, according to the ‘law of the Spirit of life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ In Galatians 5:22-23 they are thus given: ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance’; and in 2 Peter 1:5-8 : ‘faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.’ From which it will be seen that there is no ordered system of ethics in the New Testament; but the sum and substance of it is that life is primarily to be the gradual demonstration of the Divine indwelling, that the world may see that Christians are alike possessed and controlled by a power and spirit not their own.

(4) There is one further contribution to the making of character in the name of grace which belongs to the Christian revelation, viz. the Divine Reappearing. However erroneously it was conceived, there can be no doubt that it exercised a powerful effect upon the moral qualities of the early Christian community (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10), and its essential truth is still responsible for much that is unique in Christian ethics. It was sufficient to slay worldly ambitions outright, so that men sold their possessions (Acts 4:34), and at a later age secluded themselves in hermit or monastic dwellings. The journey of Israel to the Promised Land became the framework of the Christian conception of life—a pilgrimage through a wilderness. The result of this view has been the withdrawal of much imagination and energy from the problems of the present world in the name of an expected heaven—whereas the real watching is in right employment here and now (Luke 17:20-21; Luke 19:11-27). But it would be a mistake to miss the great contribution made by the doctrine of Christ’s reappearing to the improvement of character (Luke 12:35-37, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). When it is understood in the light of the words and example of Jesus Himself rather than of Messianic expectations, which again and again He disappointed in favour of spiritual interests (Luke 9:54-55, John 6:14-15; John 6:25-26; John 6:41; John 6:65-68, Acts 1:6-8), its effect is purifying and searching to the last degree, and arms the personality with the weapon of a new hope in the conflict with its environment (Philippians 3:13-14). The reappearing of the Saviour, whether it be when physical disabilities fall from us at death, or in some other way, is essentially a final judgment (Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 13:30; Matthew 25:31-33; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10) in which hidden things will be brought to light (Luke 8:17; Luke 12:2-3, Matthew 25:35-45).

Firstly, it gives a motive to purity of life which no other religion has been able to supply (1 John 3:3; 2 Peter 3:11-14), and to a consecrated use of every natural faculty (Romans 12:1). The promise of the resurrection rescues the body from the contempt with which philosophers were inclined to regard it, for as companion of the soul it is both sacred and serviceable (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It is to be changed from a body of humiliation to the likeness of the body of His glory (Philippians 3:21), and meantime its members are to be disciplined as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13), every ability being turned to good account (1 Peter 4:10-11, Colossians 3:16-17).

Next, it gives a deeper sanction to the social relationships of life. The spiritual side of marriage has been greatly developed by the revelation of the issues of life (Matthew 19:4-9, Ephesians 5:22-33). The relations of parent and children, of master and servant, were likewise dignified by being seen sub specie aeternitatis (Colossians 3:20-25; Colossians 4:1), and in the remembrance that for responsibility we must give account (Luke 12:45-48). It was this truth which gave its special meaning to Church membership, so that the Christian community was knit together with bonds unknown in any contemporary clubs or guilds (Matthew 18:19-20, Ephesians 1:18-23; Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30). Though there was discontent and division in the Church, and even an occasional subsidence to the vicious levels of pagan society, the ideal could be steadily built up again in the sure hope of a radiant future, when the secret working of the absent Bridegroom in His own should be accomplished (Ephesians 5:27, Colossians 3:3-4; 1 Peter 1:3-5). And this hope was a continual summons to every Christian to rise and be worthy of his calling (Romans 13:11, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 Corinthians 9:24).

Finally, the hope of a Divine reappearing exercises its influence upon the common toil and appointed duty of every day. It is as if the owner of an estate went away entrusting to each man his work, and bidding the porter to watch (Mark 13:34). It is required that a steward be found faithful (1 Corinthians 4:1-4); and it is well for the Christian if he has used to advantage the talents given (Matthew 25:19-23), and the opportunities offered on every hand for the wider human service (Matthew 25:34-40), for there is an appropriate reward (1 Corinthians 3:12-14). Lowly service is the path to ennoblement and the seats of influence (Mark 10:43-45, Luke 12:42-44).

The promise of the Divine Reappearing thus supplements, as it were, the promise of the Divine Indwelling; for whereas the latter brings out the need for the Christian’s faith in a power not his own, the former requires that he be faithful with the powers that are his own. And taking all four aspects of the revelation of grace through Jesus Christ together, we see that they equip His followers for that conflict with environment out of which character emerges, by giving the soul a new worth, freedom, power, and motive.

This revelation is above all in the Cross, in which Christ was most fully manifested (Luke 9:22, John 10:11; John 12:23). There we see convincingly the love of the Father (Romans 8:32, 1 John 4:10), who counted men of such value (Matthew 18:2-14, Luke 15:10) that He would have all to be saved though at infinite cost (John 3:14-16). There is the place of the breaking forth of forgiveness (Matthew 26:28), the supreme illustration of that redeeming love by which men’s freedom is purchased (1 Peter 1:18-19, Romans 14:7-9, Revelation 1:5-6). There the life was surrendered to the Father (John 10:17-18), to be bestowed as an enabling power (John 14:12-14, Acts 4:10) by an indwelling Spirit (John 1:12, Romans 8:9 ff.), wherewith He might bring many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10). And there, finally, the eternal future was clasped to the tragic present (John 12:24-32) as the ever-living Son submitted to taste of death (Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 2:14), that neither earthly trouble nor spiritual principality might ever separate His people from Him (Romans 8:31-39, Philippians 1:21-23).

In another summary, it may be said that the Christian ethic revolves between two poles which are discovered in the light of Christ’s teaching, the inwardness of religion, and its practical nature. The first had been neglected by the Jew and the second by the Greek. And one-sidedness is still only too possible, when, for instance, in the name of Christianity the ascetic visionary holds to the first alone, or the social revolutionary to the second. But all ethical deductions can and must be rectified by reference to the work and word of Christ, who started from inward character and aimed at social regeneration.

And in a final analysis of what Christ has distinctively done for character, it may be said that (a) He treated the personality as a whole. All ethical systems are based on one or other element of our threefold nature. The pivot of the good life was, according to Socrates, knowledge; according to Epicurus, feeling; according to Zeno, the will. Christ gave a due and natural place to each of these; for character with Him was not a system, as it was with Greek, Jew, or Roman, or as it is with Confucian or Mohammedan, but a growth from within, deeper even than our own nature, rooted in the ever-living grace of God. (b) He treated it as free. This also is crucial to Christian character, and depends on the truth that the ultimate fact of life is not Fate, but a God of grace, a Father. Jesus looked for repentance as the first consequence of His good tidings (Mark 1:15). Whatever a man’s past had been, he could be released and renewed, if out of the darkness and bondage he put forth the hand of faith. And so in the last resort life is self-determined. These two essential truths for the making of character, viz. the integrity and the freedom of personality, have been recognized and realized in the light of the four great truths enumerated above. Thus Christ has enlarged the resources and opportunity of personality, and enabled it to be victorious over its material and moral environment.

Literature.—Sidgwick, History of Ethics; Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory; Seeley, Ecce Homo; Illingworth, Christian Character; Wilson Harper, The Christian View of Human Life; Church, Discipline of Christian Character; Knight, The Christian Ethic; Martensen, Christian Ethics; Garvie, The Christian Personality; Kilpatrick, Christian Character and Christian Conduct, etc.; Herrmann, Protestant Ethics; Sermons by Butler, Newman, Martineau, Paget, Maclaren, Inge, etc.

A. Norman Rowland.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Character'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/character.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, August 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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