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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Imitation

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IMITATION

1. Christian Ethics was roughly constituted in the early centuries by the recognition of two moralities—common morality, requiring a minimum of obedience to law from those living in the world, and first-class morality, the super-legal or supererogatory goodness of those who practised asceticism. Into the service of the latter, with its ‘counsels of perfection’ (1 Corinthians 7:25 with Matthew 19:21—these texts are very early applied in this fashion), all Christian enthusiasm tended to pour itself. This more exacting life is praised as making men resemble the angels. Christ had described the angels as unwedded (Matthew 22:30 ||); an age, preoccupied with problems of sex, fastened upon this as the leading truth in regard to those exalted beings. But it is in point of fact a mere external—and therefore, of course, it is imitable! The essential thing is, that angels ‘fulfil God’s word’ (Psalms 103:20). To our Lord Himself this was the essential about them: ‘Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth’ (Matthew 6:10). And, when we think of that truth, we see that our proper pattern is not the angels, but the Son. About angels we know little, if anything, that is certain. They are supernatural, almost unnatural beings. The Son came into this world that we might know Him, and has obeyed God’s will under our own conditions, in their extremest and most burden some type.

2. This reinterpretation—imitation of Christ rather than of angels—took place within Catholic ethics, with a great gain in the direction of living Christian truth. The most conspicuous leader was St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), ‘that child of nature and child of God, half angel and half nightingale’ (C. Bigg). Long before his time, the pattern of asceticism had been summed up in three virtues, Poverty, Chastity (i.e. celibacy), and Obedience. There may have been pre-Christian influences at work in so moulding Christian monasticism. But the pattern of Christ could also be recognized in these virtues. He had ‘become poor’ (2 Corinthians 8:9); He had ‘made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matthew 19:12); He had been ‘obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:8). Of course, historical knowledge and Christian insight—but the Middle Ages were weak in both—see differences as well as similarities. Above all, Christ, who was persecuted and slain as a revolutionary, can hardly serve in fairness as a pattern of blind obedience to constituted human authorities. But, to St. Francis, the requirements of obedience—a rule for his ‘Order,’ and unhesitating submission to the Pope—were established conditions, which he never thought of criticising. Much the same may be said in regard to ‘chastity.’ The really important features of St. Francis’ character, and of the movement it gave rise to, were as follows. (1) By the idea of imitating the behaviour of Jesus Christ, St. Francis cut his way direct to the centre of things, unhindered, if unhelped, by the overgrown and often corrupt Church system of his time, and restored new life to personal religion and personal Christianity. (2) His enthusiasm for poverty was a living contribution to religious progress. Poverty to him was no inherited conventional virtue. He joyed in it. And, in this joy, he penetrated beyond externals, and showed that he had drunk from deep and full fountains. Poverty may be acquired by imitation; joy cannot. If there was something of extravagance in St. Francis’ love of poverty, there was also a permanent moral idea—the ‘simple life.’ We cannot here discuss the claims or conditions or limitations of that virtue; but we greet it with reverence in so great a genius as our Saint. Still further, we must recognize in St. Francis’ joy the influences of romance. ‘Poverty’ was his dear ‘bride.’ It was not for nothing that he lived in the days of chivalry. We recognize, too, the buoyancy of youth; St. Francis ‘entered religion’ at 25, and died at 44. These are accessories—innocent and touching accessories—at which Christianity may smile, but certainly will not frown. The centre lies deeper. Who can doubt that Christ’s own joy dwelt in St. Francis? (3) He was a servant of his fellow-men. Here in part he inherited from the Church. The first ascetics were hermits, living in solitude; but the social instinct, guided by the sagacity of Church rulers, crept after the solitaries, drew them into union, placed them under rule, and in many cases set them to useful work. The two great orders of friars, Dominicans as well as Franciscans, were preachers. But, besides preaching, St. Francis and all his followers who really shared his spirit were helpers of men in their needs and miseries; a very genuine part of the pattern set by Christ. (4) The order of Tertiaries—semi-Franciscans, men or women, living in the world; not even pledged to celibacy—was a gallant attempt to minimize the distinction between the two moralities, and to make personal Christianity, as St. Francis had discovered it, available for non-ascetics. Here then we see the Christianity of imitation at its very best (but, as we have noted, it is more than imitation). St. Francis’ Christianity is an all-round thing—living, attractive, strong, serviceable, joyous. Why could he not reform the Church by his indirect influence? Perhaps he was too sweet. Perhaps the lingering taint of the theory of two castes and two moralities frustrated him. Again, external poverty might not be in others what it was in St. Francis, the vehicle of simplicity and spiritual joy. Most obviously, external poverty broke down—even Franciscans evaded the full sacrifice. It is little shame to have failed in a region where no one wholly succeeds. Yet we must note that where St. Francis failed, Luther triumphed.

3. Monasticism has left us a literary monument of a kindred type of Christianity; one of the Church’s and one of the world’s classics; à Kempis’ work known by the [historically doubtful] name, The Imitation of Christ. As long as human sorrow endures, and faith is not dead among men, this book will be treasured and held in reverence. Christ died on the cross; we must accept a crucifying, a denying, an abnegation of self and self-will. There the message of the book stops. Our fellow-men, even our Christian brethren, are only thought of as hindrances to Divine communion, tempters who threaten to impede our sanctification. À Kempis falls far below St. Francis, who served men for Christ’s sake with eager loyalty. The dangerous one-sidedness of this glorious book is not due to externalizing Christ’s example. Externally even, the Gospels rebuke it with a loud voice. And the book is not external. It has mystical depth and inwardness. Mysticism touched with the Christian spirit is its strength. But the defects which mar it lie no less deep.

4. The Reformation abolished the ‘higher’ morality of asceticism, with its imitation of such outward circumstances in the life of our Lord as His poverty or His celibacy. Ordinary lay Christianity was seen to involve a ‘more perfect’ obedience than the will-worship of the monk. (Recent study of Luther has called in question his insight on such points: but there can be no doubt that he grasped the principle, however his remarks in detail may show the distorting influence of the mediaeval tradition). It is also to be recognized that Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on the Pauline Gospel of the cross—Christ died for us had less receptiveness for the thought of Christ’s example, in several of its forms. Ritschl and some other modern Protestants even assert that Christ’s example amounts to no more than faultless fulfilment of vocation—a vocation very different from ours. This paradox belongs to the art. ‘Example’ rather than to the present article. What we have to insist upon is this—Christ cannot be truly followed by imitating Him in externals. But has the NT erred? He who was greatest humbled Himself; the Master of all served; the one perfectly innocent sufferer in all history forgave ungrudgingly; He laid down His life for us, that we might lay down our lives for others (Philippians 2:5-8, John 13:14, Matthew 20:28; 1 Peter 2:21, Luke 23:24, 1 John 3:16). Can this wonderful many-sided example be exchanged for a dry scholastic formula like ‘fidelity to a vocation’? We have to be on our guard lest Protestantism, with its rediscovery of the gospel of God’s love, and with its repudiation of false (monastic) conceptions of the higher life, should blur at some points that moral claim which is, in truth, high as heaven—high as Christ Himself.

5. Asceticism is an obsolete danger in modern Protestant circles; yet it is possible that the tendency to ‘imitation’ may take other forms. The socialistic reading of Christ’s words—socialism crossed with crazy altruism; anarchistic socialism or socialistic anarchism; extremes meet!—is primarily a wooden way of conceiving Christ’s teaching, just as imitation is a wooden way of following Christ’s example. If we rise into the region of Christian principle, both dangers vanish. But there is a more subtle connexion between ideas of imitation and a false programme for the Christian life. Many schemes of the Atonement (e.g. the late Dr. Moberly’s) tell us in substance that Christ initiated a process—to Dr. Moberly, a penitential process of self-mortification; to others, a process of world-redeeming love—which Christians must prolong. This is substantially imitation over again. We are to be saved by ‘being such men as He was, too.’ The Pauline and Protestant gospel tells us that Christ offered and finished the great sacrifice. We may well recoil from the old vulgar train of thought described by M‘Leod Campbell: ‘He suffered—I shall not suffer’; but God forbid we should dream that we share, in all respects and for every purpose, the lot of Christ. We fill up remaining suffering—if we are found worthy—but we do not fill out an uncompleted Atonement; that was ‘finished,’ once and for all, in mysterious anguish, in agony out of which springs our new life. We have not fully unlearned the dreary external programme of imitation till we confess Christ unambiguously as our life and our only hope. We are to resemble Him, partly as the younger born resemble the elder brother, partly as the saved resemble the Saviour. Confessing this, we are prepared to learn those further things He has to teach us about the ways of conformity to His image. Protestantism is to be developed: or supplemented, but must not be abolished. Christian ethics presuppose the Christian gospel. They can never take its place.

Literature.—The best recent book on the general subject is Stalker’s Imago Christi, with its thoughtful criticism of the Imitatio. Early Christian literature is well summarized in Luthardt’s Hist. of Christian Ethics (English translation). For St. Francis, see P. Sabatier’s Life and other writings. For the Reformers, see Charles Beard’s Martin Luther, also his Hibbert Lecture. (Luther, that great religious genius, is the Reformer to study).

Robert Mackintosh.


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

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