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Schouborg, Gary (1969).

"The Individual and the People of God".

The Bible Today, 2832-2838

[Without original footnotes]



    The Individual and the People of God


In his classic and pioneer study of the Hebrew notion of corporate personality. H. Wheeler Robinson has shown the absence, in Hebraic psychology, of any clear distinction between the individual and his society. Near-Eastern peoples passed easily from one viewpoint to the other without consciously differentiating them. This paper will be a biblical investigation of the interplay between the individual and his community, the People of God.


1. The Covenant


"Our earliest document for the history of Israel," the Song of Deborah (Jg 5), already reflects "the unitary conception of the corporate personality of Israel." In this most ancient song, however, there is mention only of the amphictyony. The earliest writings that explicitly refer to the Sinaitic covenant are the cultic credos (Dt 6: 20-25; 26:5-10; and Jos 24:2-13), which date from the earliest period of Israel's life in Palestine. All of these documents, even the Song of Deborah, clearly indicate that the unifying power of ancient Israel was Yahweh's concern for and election of this nation as his people. Moreover, Yahweh's election was not primarily the liberation of a number of individuals who were enslaved by the Egyptians. Rather, "Israel is delivered from the pharaoh only in order to become God's people."


There are, therefore, at least two aspects of Israel's deliverance which are worth noting here. The first is that the deliverance is social: a nation is freed from enslavement by another, more powerful nation; the freedom gained is not simply individual freedom. The second point is that although deliverance is social it is primarily religious. Yahweh is not acting here simply as a most powerful social worker, but His liberation directs the Israelites primarily and ultimately to a personal bond with Him, their God. From now on, all of the Israelite traditions will center around the fact of the covenant as the unifying power for themselves as a people.


What, then, was the role of' the individual in such a context? First of all, there are the instances of the individual geniuses in Israelite history. Such men were the leaders of the nation, and as such were intercessors for the people to Yahweh: Abraham (Gn 18:22-32; 20:7), Moses (Ex 32:11) the greatest of all the prophets or intercessors (Dt 34:10), Samuel (1 S 7:5; 12-19), Amos (Am 7:2-6), Jeremiah (Jr 11-14; 37:3; 2 M 15:14), and Ezekiel (Ezk 14:l4, 20). The giants among the Israelites were evaluated as such precisely in terms of their relationship to the nation. And since the raison d'etre of the nation was given in the covenant, evaluation of a leader involved him as intercessor between Yahweh and his people, the People of God. Their fortunes tended to be identified with his in such a way that when Yahweh was pleased with him He was also pleased with the people, and similarly when displeased. In other words, corporate guilt played a large part in Israelite mentality. The problem of corporate guilt is one instance indicating the fusion, in ancient near-Eastern thought, of the individual with the community. It is something which provides a context for covenant mentality, not something created by the covenant. Already in Genesis we find that not only is Noah saved from the flood, but also his family (Gn 6:18). Although it is Abraham who is personally called by Yahweh, he is accompanied by his whole clan to Canaan (Gn 12). Furthermore, Abraham's intercession on behalf of Sodom (Gn 18:16-33) demonstrates a solidarity which can work against the good or for the wicked. Finally, there are the repeated pronouncements that a father's sins will be visited upon the heads of his sons and grandson (Ex 20:5; 34:7; and Dt 5:9).


But there was also a development of the consciousness of individual responsibility, a notion most clearly stated in Deuteronomy: "Fathers may not be put to death for their sons, nor sons for their fathers. Each is to be put to death for his own sin" (Dt 24:16), a passage revealing a decisive step in appreciation of personal responsibility (cf. also Dt 7:10; 2 K 14:6; and Jr 31:29-30). We will see another decisive step forward in Ezekiel, who echoes Dt 24:16 (Ezk 18:4, 20), develops the notions of conversion and fall (33:10-20), and within the context of the destruction of the old covenant asserts that although the nation is to be condemned individuals who are innocent will be saved (14:12-23). All of this indicates more than a personal notion of divine reward and retribution. And, as a matter of fact, we can find in the original covenant itself the basis for a greater regard for the individual, in the notion of hesed, which "represents that mingling of duty ad love which springs directly from the conception of common ties, and expands to include and regulate the conception of Yahweh's relation to Israel, so uniting morality and religion in the most characteristic feature of all Israel's development." From the very beginning of Yahweh's covenant with His people there exists a personal regard and love from which will develop an increasingly greater appreciation of the dignity of the individual. However, the Law derived from the covenant was not only an expression of Yahweh's mercy, but it was also "a witness against the nation" (Dt 31:26). Although Yahweh was a merciful God, he demanded that his salvation of his people be conditioned on their obedience to ,the Law. As the prophets show us, the Iraelites presumed on his mercy and thus brought about their own downfall. Within that context of this tension we shall see that there was a further development and clarification concerning the relationship of the individual and his community.


2. The Prophets


The prophets themselves were exceptional individuals who stood out against many of the institutions of their day. This has led many to misunderstand their role, and to claim that the prophets are a decisive break from the corporate mentality characteristic of ancient Israel and of all ancient near-Eastern peoples. But such a claim is truly a misunderstanding, for the prophets can be understood, and understood themselves, in terms of the covenant. Their "primary role [was to be] the messengers of Yahweh who were concerned with the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel." They were not creators of radically new spiritual, religious , and ethical insights, but were primarily of interpreters of history, calling Israelites to a deeper understanding of the covenant. Moreover, the classic prophets considered themselves to be in continuity with their predecessors (Am 2:11-12; 3:7; also Ho 9:7-8; 12:11, 14). But this raises the problem of distinguishing true and false prophets. for as soon as we begin be see the classic, inspired, canonical prophets in their cultural milieu we have difficulty understanding how their authenticity was discerned by their contemporaries. For then, as now, there were men who were charlatans even with regard to the word of God. This is another problem which is helpful in revealing the relationship between the individual and the community.


Von Rad's identification of false prophets with cult-prophets has been found by more recent scholars to be an oversimplification. "The phenomenon of false prophecy must have been in the prophetic movement from earliest times, and no fixed canon of 'truth' could be permanently established." the old testament gives various criteria for discerning true prophecy.


The falseness of a prophetic oracle could only be detected by its lack of conformity to historical events (Dt 18:22), or to the Yahwistic tradition (Dt 13:1-5), or to a genuine prophetic oracle (cf. the experience of Jeremiah as recorded in Jer 28.).


The certitude of the prophet himself stemmed from his own "profound consciousness of spiritual communion with the God of Israel". Correlatively, "The person who really knows God and who seeks to do His will, will recognize true prophecy when he hears it." Vawter, then, emphasizes the role of the individual and his personal relationship with God. But there was also undoubtedly a social dimension in determining the authenticity of any oracle.


The emphasis of the pre-exilic prophets upon the judgment of Yahweh on Israel and Judah was felt to be both morally and spiritually justified, and historically vindicated by the defeats and exile of 721 ad 587 B.C. Who the traditionists were to whom we owe the writing down and preservation of these prophetic utterances we shall never know, but they too played their part in Israel's story. It is only by an ultimate reference to the work of the Holy Spirit, who both inspired the prophets and guided these traditionists to cherish their message, that we can explain the canonical status of the prophetic writings.


The problem of discernment therefore reveals another instance of the interplay between the individual and the community. On the one hand, there is for both the prophet and his hearer the personal problem of discernment and response, and on the other hand, such personal discernment takes place within and has reference to a society and its traditions.


Moreover, the message itself of the prophets constantly involves the tension between individual and communal considerations. Isaiah's Song of the Servant (Is 42:1-14; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) is at once a foreshadowing of the greatest of all human individuals, Christ himself, and the corporate symbol of the people of Yahweh. The song, which reflects "the unitary conception of the corporate personality of Israel", "closes the era of the great prophets, and forms the culminating glory of Old Testament religion." Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, written in each individual's heart. Yet the covenant is still with the people as a body (Jr 31:31-34; cf. further, Ezk 37:14; 1 Th 4:8; Rm 5:5). Ezekiel tells the Israelites facing the dissolution of Jerusalem that the innocent will be spared. Corporate guilt is no longer an operative notion. The innocent will not be able to save the wicked, nor will the wicked drag down the innocent (Ezk 14:12-23). Yet the innocent remnant will not survive as individuals simply, but as members of a restored and regenerated community (Ezk 37 and 40ff.).


This, then, takes us down to the Exile. We are now ready to see what post-exilic Judaism thought about the individual and the community.


3. Post-Exilic Judaism


At first glance there would seem to be a significant body of old testament revelation which has nothing directly to do with the community of the covenant, the people of God. For with the exception of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) (Si 44:1-50:24), the so-called "Praise of the Fathers", and Wisdom (Ws 10:1-19:5), the historical summary, there is no Yahwism in Wisdom literature, which is concerned with man as man, as the creature made by a supreme being. Yet even here we find such corporate thinking as is reflected by the fact that the Wisdom literature is attributed to Solomon. Moreover, the precise nature of the literature becomes more clear after a investigation of its Sitz im Leben, which is the court. Or, more precisely, the court played a definite part in transmitting Wisdom traditions. But the traditions themselves antedate Solomon, and must have originated in the family. But the literature itself is by and large post-exilic, when there was no king and no court. Scholars have therefore concluded that the Sitz im Leben of the literature as we now substantially have it was post-exilic religious schooling. Now in the literature we have considerably more deuteronomic elements than was the traditional concern of the sage, who was concerned with a way of life, not with the Torah. We find in the literature, then, the convergence of two traditions, the practical wisdom of the court and the religious wisdom of the deuteronomic tradition. What accounts for the convergence? There was the common denominator of the good life, the reward promised by the deuteronomist for obedience to the Law and the reward promised by the sage for a 1ife spent in the pursuit of Wisdom. Such a trend eventually led to the identification of the Law and Wisdom by Sirach (Si 24:9-27). Consequently, we have in this literature also a melding of individual and communal concerns, an intimate interplay between profoundly personal insight and responsibility on the one hand, and assimilation of the individual into the people of God on the other.


Furthermore, the common denominator of the two traditions, reward for good and punishment for evil, itself generated a tension that in turn generated a further clarification of the nature of the individual and the people of Yahweh. This law of retribution is clearly stated in the older sections of Proverbs to be the product of wisdom, i. e. virtue and God (Pr 3:33-35; 9:6, 18). Now at an earlier stage in Israelite thinking,


The whole group, including its past, present, and future members, might function as a single individual through any one of the those members conceived as representative of it. Because it was not confined to the living, but included the dead and the unborn, the group could be conceived as living for ever.


As long as the law of retribution applies to an undifferentiated body of people there would seem to be no special problem. But as soon as Israelite thinkers become more conscious of the individual, certain questions immediately arise. For the fact is that evil men go unpunished (Jb 12:6; 21) while Job suffers although innocent. All that Job is able to say about that fact is that he is inquiring into things which are beyond man's comprehension (42.1-6). Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) is perplexed over the fact that both the good and the evil die (Qo 9:2-6) and the only answer he can give is to counsel men to live their present lives as fully as possible (9:10). The way out of this apparent violation of the justice of God was not seen by any of the writers of Wisdom literature.


Of' course, the clear solution to the impasse is seen only with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who gives definitive meaning to everything in the old testament. Nevertheless there remain some few but clear indications of a resurrection in some of the latest old testament writings (Is 26:19; Dn 12:2; and 2 M 7:9-14). However, there remain many questions left unanswered. The Isaian passage makes no mention of the fate of sinners, the expectation in the Daniel passage is not yet one for a universal resurrection from the dead, and the passage from Maccabees simply indicates a hope for the resurrection of the good and no resurrection for the evil one.


4. The New Covenant


The importance of the individual reaches new heights with the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. For the mystery that is Jesus efficaciously prepared the way for the reign of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all Christians, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jr 31:31-34). Nowhere in the new testament is the intimate relationship between Jesus and the Spirit more profoundly understood and expressed than in John's gospel, where "the intimate relation of the Paraclete to Jesus is what is dominant. Whatever is said about the Paraclete is said elsewhere in the Gospel about Jesus." With respect to Jeremiah's prophecy, Paul indicates that the Spirit is the new Law that was promised to be written in men's hearts (1 Th 4:8; Rm 5:5). "Thus the 'law of the Spirit' is not a new code of laws (condensed into the commandment to love, perhaps), but rather an impulse towards the good coming from the Holy Spirit." It is the impulse of the Spirit which is the peculiarly Christian ground of moral obligation. This is not an impersonal impulse, as might have been gathered from just old testament sources. It is in John that the personal existence of the Spirit is clearest. Because of this mysterious wedding of the Spirit with the deepest dimension of the Christian, the Christian is not, like his old covenant brother, alienated by a law outside of himself. For "the law of the Spirit . . . is not just a code, not even one 'given by the Holy Spirit', but a law 'produced in us by the Holy Spirit' . . . a new, inner source of spiritual energy." But in what direction does the Spirit impel us? Is it in the direction of an individualistic, mystical communion with God, or is it toward service of other human beings, of the people of God now profoundly united in the Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?


It is interesting to note that, "Apart from the great commandment Jesus nowhere spoke explicitly about loving God. But with the parallel commandment concerning brotherly love he indicated a broad field of action for that love." Paul speaks seldom of the love of God, but instead emphasizes brotherly love. It seems that John alone understood and expressed the connection between love of God and of neighbor (1 Jn 4:21). James M. Robinson comes to similar conclusions from his study of Mark. "The outcomes of the cures do not consist in a dedication to the contemplative life outside the course of history, but rather in a restoration to society. . . ." "Mark's norm of piety is not to be found in the concept of the numinous [as that term is used by Rudolf Otto in his Idea of the Holy], in either its awesome or its fascinating aspect. If the one attitude is insufficient because it tends to separate Jesus from history, the other tends to confuse him with history, so that Jesus Himself withdraws from the mass scenes (Mk 1:35; 3:9, 13; 4:1, 35; 5:40; 6:31,48; 7:33; 8:13; 9:2, 28, 30)." The two aspects of faith, as action and as knowledge, are bridged by the notion of understanding, though not understanding in the sense of propositionally formulated knowledge. Such understanding directs one to "the historical action of Jesus and the Spirit", not to some "non-historical mystical religiosity". Jesus, then, "in spite of the emphasis . . . put on inner dispositions, did not despise external action. . . ." It is precisely the social dimension of the encounter of faith that Bultmann misses, according to Robinson.


It is within the context of Christianity as a social phenomenon that the new testament problem of charismata must be understood. For charisma is individual in that it is eschatological life in Christ, in the Spirit, in grace. As life in the Spirit it is highly personal. The charisma of Damascus is the central fact of Paul's life that makes his epistles understandable. Nevertheless the new testament is in full continuity with the old in teaching that individual gifts are simultaneously for the benefit of the individual and of the community. Moreover, when one is truly working for the benefit of the community, that in itself is a sign that he is living in the Spirit, that he is living for Christ. For "he who is not with me is against me" (,Mt 12:30 and Lk 11:23), and the external work of casting out devils in Jesus' name was taken by him to be a sign of the authenticity of the exorcists even though they were not openly recognized and formally approved disciples (Mk 9:38-41 and Lk 9:49-50). The case of the unknown exorcists is particularly interesting because here we have men going outside the formal structure (such as it was) set up at that time, a move that argues for the freedom of the individual. But the move is justified precisely because it benefited the community. The authenticity of the move was revealed by the effectiveness of the exorcists' activity.


As one might have suspected, the liturgy of the primitive Christian community reveals similar relationships between the individual and the community. For it is through the liturgy that Christianity first expressed itself. For "liturgy is the most ancient form of confession; as such it is therefore for Paul the criterion of the proclamation of the Gospel and, if I am not mistaken, for the same reason it very early became the most important starting-point for the formation of dogma. It is important to note that, at least in the Pauline community, the liturgy was relatively unstructured, that


it does not depend on any institutional validity, that no part is yet played in it by persons with special prerogatives and that, as can be seen from 1 Co l4:2ff., it does not even take place within the framework of a fixed rite. We might say, if we wished, that the gathered community orientated towards Word and Sacrament is the sole and sufficient external guarantee.


Baptism, by which one was incorporated into the new community of Christ, was the decisive act in which one was justified. The Eucharist, which was an extension of Baptism, took on its meaning from the context of the Last Supper, which was of the deliverance of Israel, from Egypt. Thus, the new testament grows directly out of the old. In the Last Supper Jesus reveals the meaning of his death to be the vicarious death of the suffering servant of Isaiah, "which atones for the sins of the 'many', the peoples of the world. . . ." The Eucharist of the Christian community therefore represents the continuing work of Jesus' salvation during the time between His ascension and the parousia.


The witness of the apostles themselves also reveals the social character of salvation coming from Christ. John's whole gospel and also his epistles reveal the social link between the Church of the late first century and Jesus as he existed in flesh and blood. Here again is involved personal, individual witness — namely John's — but always as a member of the apostles.


Furthermore, just as the old covenant is set within the context of Adam's fall and mankind's consequent guilt, the new covenant stems from the resurrection of the new Adam, Jesus Christ (Rm 5:12-21). It is noteworthy that Paul "does not discuss the reprobation of individuals, but the role assigned to His people by God in the history of salvation."


Finally, we come to the question of structure. Paul shows clearly (1 Co 12:1-11) that the Spirit alone does not guarantee co-ordination. For all charismata are from the same Spirit, but a charisma is to be considered authentic only insofar as it builds up the community. (Cf. also Ep 4:11-16.) Just as authenticity of prophetic oracles in the old testament was by the faithfulness of the oracle to the covenant, so the authenticity of charismata in the new covenant is discerned by its effectiveness in building up the body of Christ.


Certainly, therefore, some kind of cooperative effort was, and is, called for. But does that entail institutional structures? Käsemann holds that it certainly did not in Paul's time. "There is not even a prerogative of official proclamation, vested in some specifically commissioned individual or other." For Paul, each Christian was in possession of charisma. Nevertheless, history has shown us that a Church without structure leads to Enthusiasm. Paul himself saw this. And though he spent his life fighting the Enthusiasts, it remains possible that his doctrine of charisma for each Christian was itself one of the principal factors which led to the triumph of Enthusiasm. "For it can scarcely be denied that the Pauline communities — those which did not entrust themselves, more or less voluntarily, to other leadership — were, within one generation, swallowed up by Enthusiasm."




It seems clear that throughout the entire Bible there is the teaching that the meaning of the individual is found in the community, the Christian community living the life of the Spirit. This was the community foreshadowed in the old covenant and instituted by Christ's death and resurrection. Yet this is far from some sort of abstract totalitarianism. For in direct proportion to the unification of the people of God, we have further appreciation of the worth of the individual stemming from his personal responsibility and communion with God through the Spirit living in him. But this communion is never in isolation from the world around him. The movement of the Spirit must always be discerned, and such discernment is pragmatic. Does the impetus in question move one out towards one's fellows? Does it move one to work effectively towards the building up of the body of Christ? Is it consistent with what has been revealed by God? Institutionalization is necessary, but only as a means. It too must be evaluated by the above criteria. Aristotle fully appreciated man's social nature. He knew that an individual can fulfill his very individuality only insofar as he functions humanly in society. It is the man that Aristotle knew so well that is the man in whom the Spirit has been born into human history. The Christian's very individuality is taken up by the Spirit only with reference to others. No one understood this so well as John:


We are to love, then,


because he loved us first.


Anyone who says, 'I love God',


and hates his brother,


is a liar,


since a man who does not love the brother that he can see


cannot love God, whom he has never seen.


1 John 4:19-20