Having particularly considered the testimony of Aristotle, and of classic Greek, and of the Septuagint, I shall proceed to other evidence of the meaning of the word aionios, as used by Christ in the judgment. This is found in the Peshito, a Syriac version of the Greek Testament, the earliest version after Christ.
Prof. Tayler Lewis.
We are indebted, for what we shall say on this version, to that eminent scholar Prof. Tayler Lewis. To see the full force of it, it is necessary to state first his own views of the word aionios. They are found in a profound development of the use of what he calls the Olamic or Aeonian words of the Scripture. He complains, and that justly, that their Scriptural use is hidden by our translation. His views will be found on pp. 44-51 of Lange’s “Commentary on Ecclesiastes,” and also pp. 135-143 of the “Commentary on Genesis.”
Views of Prof. Lewis.
He very correctly assumes that aion has the sense of an age, that is, a period of time. He regards the boundless duration of god as filled with successive ages or dispensations. These ages are numberless before our world was created; during this world there are ages, and there will be numberless ages after its close.
The usual Scriptural names of these ages are Olam in Hebrew, and Aion in Greek. These words are, in themselves, wholly indefinite, and the ages may vary greatly in length. They are not measured by ordinary astronomical computations of time, as days, months, years. (See Lange’s “Genesis,” p. 141, note.)
Use of the Ages.
Now, in this state of things, two modes are conceivable of impressing the mind with the magnitude of the duration of God and his kingdom: to use simple negations of beginning or end, leaving eternity, past and future, an undivided blank, or, to fill the mind with the conception of innumerable ages, past or future, and to reduplicate the expression “by ages of ages.”
He insists upon it that this latter mode of speaking is the Scriptural mode, and that it affects the mind more with approximate conceptions of eternity than what he calls conceptionless, negative words.
Neither Denotes Eternity.
But he insists that this use of olam and aion, in the plural to denote ages, and ages of ages, implies of necessity that neither of the words, of itself, denotes eternity. He admits that these words are used to give an idea of eternity, as applied to God and his kingdom, while yet the ages that are reduplicated are themselves finite, but by their magnitude and number raise an impressive approximate conception of eternity. (See Lange’s “Ecclesiastes,” pp. 45, 50).
In view of these facts we need not be surprised at finding in Prof. Tayler Lewis the following clear development of the logical result of these views. He says: “The preacher, in contending with the Universalist and the Restorationist, would commit an error, and it may be suffer a failure in his argument, should he lay the whole stress of it on the etymological or historical significance of the words aion, aionios, and attempt to prove that of themselves they necessarily carry the meaning of endless duration” (Lange’s “Ecclesiastes,” p. 48). What, then, does aionios here mean? He says that it means pertaining to the age or world to come, taking world in the time-sense, and thus translates the passaage. “These shall go away into the punishment [the restraint, imprisonment] of the world to come, and these into the life of the world to come,” and he adds, emphatically, “that is all that we can etymologically or exegetically make of the word in this passage.”
It is in support of this translation that he appeals to the venerable Syriac version, the Peshito.
The Peshito is, as we have said, the earliest version of the New Testament. Its value and authority it is not easy to over-estimate. Westcott says: “Gregory Bar Hebraeus, one of the most learned and accurate of Syrian writers, relates that the New Testament Peshito was ‘made in the time of Thaddeus (the apostle), and Abgarus, King of Edessa,’ when, according tot he universal opinion of ancient writers, the apostle went to proclaim Christianity in Mesopotamia” (Canon, p. 259). He adds that Gregory assumes the apostolic origin of the New Testament Peshito as certain, and that it preceded all the sects of the Syrian Church, and was received and appealed to by all.
How, then, was aionios translated by this version? In support of his own translation Prof. Tayler Lewis says, “So is it ever (translated) in the old Syriac version, where the one rendering is still more unmistakably clear.” “These shall go into the pain of the Olam (the world to come), and these to the life of the Olam (the world to come).” He refers to many other passages, as Matt. xix. 16; Mark x. 17.; Luke xviii. 18; John iii.15: Acts xiii. 46; 1 Tim. vi. 12, in which aionios is rendered belonging to the Olam, the world to come. In all these cases we find in our version, eternal life, the same words that are used in the sentence of the judge, but in all they are rendered in the Peshito, the life of the world to come; and such, he tells us, is the rendering in all similar cases. Certainly evidence more direct and conclusive it is hard to imagine.
Aim of Prof. Lewis.
We are not to suppose that so eminent an orthodox divine says these things in support of universalism, a system which he decidedly and earnestly rejects. He says them in behalf of what he conceives to be the truth in philology, and rests for proof of eternal punishment on the finality of the whole aspect of the scene, and the absence of any reason to look for a reversal of the sentence. But he is unwilling to support what he regards as a true doctrine with false arguments. Besides the idea of finality in the judgment, he would doubtless derive arguments from other sources.
Change of Position.
Nevertheless, if we admit the validity of the evidence adduced by him, and certainly nothing can have higher claims to confidence than this ancient apostolic version, and the argument that sustains him seems to be irrefragable [sic], yet it effects a fundamental change in the position of the whole question, for it is now fair to raise the question, What is the life, and what is the punishment, of the world to come? Is that punishment ultimate annihilation after deserved suffering? Still it would be the punishment of the world to come. Will it be a long-continued but remedial punishment? Still it will be the punishment of the world to come. This translation leaves the question between the three theories undecided. Eternal torment is now only one supposition out of three, and we are not by the sentence of Christ shut up to the belief of it. It may be proved from other sources. But these words of Christ are no longer the main bulwark in defense of that doctrine.
So, also, the argument that the punishment is characterized by the same word as the life, looses its power to prove eternal punishment. The allegation is true. But what does it prove? Solely that, as the life is of the world to come, so is the punishment.
Fidelity to Truth.
The fact that these results conflict with the generally-accepted statements of the defenders of eternal punishment should not, however, tend to produce a reaction against that eminent orthodox scholar and divine by whom they are sustained, nor against the learned, scholarly, and Christian work in which they are published.
We trust that the time will come when, in all departments of history and philology, men will write, not for denomination or party, but for the truth; when the inquiry will not be, what will this or that sect say of this, but what will God say of it, to whom all suppression of the truth and all pious fraud are an abomination.
The proper course to pursue with reference to the statements of Prof. Lewis is to compare them with other usages of language in the early Christian ages, and see if his results accord with general usage to such an extent as to give them an aspect of general verisimilitude. For there is something striking and peculiar in such an idea as “the life of the world to come.” If this was a common mode of thought, we should be likely to meet it elsewhere. Is Prof. Tayler Lewis’s view sustained by any other ancient and authoritative usage? There are many ancient creeds. Do we find any traces of it in them? Are there any facts in the writings of the ancient fathers which imply that they understood Christ to be speaking of the life and the punishment of the world to come, in the sentence of the judgment-day? To these questions we propose to give careful attention, for they reach the heart of the whole momentous inquiry.
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