« PreviousContinue »
III. Heathens, therefore, of every age, sex, and quality, born in the most different climates, and bred up under the most different institutions, when they saw men of plain sense, without the help of learning, armed with patience and courage, instead of wealth, pomp, or power, expressing in their lives those excellent doctrines of morality, which they taught, as delivered to them from our Saviour, averring that they had seen his miracles during his life, and conversed with him after his death; when, I say, they saw no. suspicion of falsehood, treachery, or worldly interest in their behaviour and conversation, and that they submitted to the most ignominious and cruel deaths, rather than retract their testimony, or even be silent in matters which they were to publish by their Saviour's especial command, there was no reason to doubt of the veracity of those facts which they related, or of the Divine Mission in which they were employed.
IV. But even these motives to faith in our Saviour would not have been sufficient to have brought about in so few years such an incredible number of conversions, had not the apostles been able to exhibit still greater proofs of the truths which they taught.. A few persons of an odious and despised country could not have filled the world with believers, had they not shown undoubted credentials from the Divine Person who sent them on such a message. Accordingly, we are assured, that they were invested with the power of working miracles, which was the most short and the most convincing argument that could be produced, and the only one that was adapted to the reason of all mankind, to the capacities of the wise and ignorant, and could overcome every cavil and every prejudice. Who would not believe that our Savious healed the sick, land raised the dead, when it was published by those who themselves often did the same miracles, in their presence, and in his name? Could any reasonable person imagine, that God Almighty would arm men with such power to authorise a lie, and establish a religion in the world which was displeasing to him; or that evil spirits would lend them such an effectual assistance to beat down vice and idolatry?
V. When the apostles had formed many assemblies in several parts of the Pagan world, who gave credit to the glad tidings of the Gospel, that, upon their departure, the memory of what they had related might not perish, they appointed out of these new converts, men of the best sense, and of the most unblemished lives, to preside over these several assemblies, and to inculcate without ceasing what they had heard from the mouths of these eye-witnesses.
VI. Upon the death of any of those substitutes to the apostles and disciples of Christ, his place was filled up with some other person of eminence for his piety and learning, and generally a member of the same church, who, after his decease, was followed by another, in the same manner, by which means the succession was continued in an uninterrupted line. Irenæus informs us, that every church preserved a catalogue of its bishops, in the order that they succeeded one another, and (for an example) produces the catalogue of those who governed the church of Rome in that character, which contains eight or nine persons, though but a very small remove from the times of the apostles.
Indeed, the lists of bishops, which are come down to us in other churches, are generally filled with greater numbers than one would expect. But the succession was quick in the three first centuries, because the bishop very often ended in the martyr: for, when a persecution arose in any place, the first fury of it fell upon this order of holy men, who abundantly testified, by their deaths and sufferings, that they did not undertake these offices out of any temporal views, that they were sincere and satisfied in the belief of what they taught, and that they firmly
adhered to what they had received from the apostles, as laying down their lives in the same hope, and upon the same principles. None can be supposed so utterly regardless of their own happiness, as to expire in torment, and hazard their eternity, to support any fables and inventions of their own, or any forgeries of their predecessors who had presided in the same church, and which might have been easily detected by the tradition of that particular church, as well as by the concurring testimony of others. To this
purpose, I think it is very remarkable, that there was not a single martyr among those many heretics who disagreed with the apostolical church, and introduced several wild and absurd notions into the doctrines of Christianity. They durst not stake their present and future happiness on their own chimerical imaginations, and did not only shun persecution, but affirmed that it was unnecessary for their followers to bear their religion through such fiery trials.
VII. We may fairly reckon, that this first age of apostles and disciples, with that second generation of many who were their immediate converts, extended itself to the middle of the second century, and that several of the third generation from these last mentioned, which was but the fifth from Christ, continued to the end of the third century. Did we know the age and numbers of the members in every particular church, which was planted by the apostles, I doubt not but in most of them there might be found five persons, who, in a continued series, would reach through these three centuries of years, that is, till the 265th from the death of our Saviour.
VIII. Among the accounts of those very few, out of innumerable multitudes, who had embraced Christianity, I shall single out four persons eminent for their lives, their writings, and their sufferings, that were successively contemporaries, and bring us down as far as to the year of our Lord 254. St. John, who was the beloved disciple, and conversed the most in
timately with our Saviour, lived till Anno. Dom. 100: Polycarp, who was the disciple of St. John, and had conversed with others of the apostles and disciples of our Lord, lived till Anno. Dom. 167, though his life was shortened by martyrdom: Irenæus, who was the disciple of Polycarp, and had conversed with many of the immediate disciples of the apostles, lived, at the lowest computation of his age, till the year 202, when he was likewise cut off by martyrdom; in which year the great Origen was appointed regent of the Catechetic school in Alexandria, and as, he was the miracle of that age, for industry, learning, and philosophy, he was looked upon as the champion of Christianity, till the year 254, when, if he did not suffer martyrdom, as some think he did, he was certainly actuated by the spirit of it, as appears in the whole course of his life and writings: nay, he had often been put to the torture, and had undergone trials worse than death. As he conversed with the most eminent Christians of his time in Egypt, and in the east, brought over multitudes both from heresy and heathenism, and left behind him several disciples of great fame and learning, there is no question but there were considerable numbers of those who knew him, and had been his hearers, scholars, or proselytes, that lived to the end of the third century, and to the reign of Constantine the Great,
IX. It is evident to those, who read the lives and writings of Polycarp, Irenæus, and Origen, that these three fathers believed the accounts which are given of our Saviour in the four Evangelists, and had undoubted arguments that not only St. John, but many others of our Saviour's disciples, published the same accounts of him. To which we must subjoin this further remark, that what was believed by these fathers on this subject, was likewise the belief of the main body of Christians in those successive ages when they flourished;, since Polycarp cannot but be looked upon, if we consider the respect that was paid him, as the repre
sentative of the eastern churches in this particular, Irenæus of the western upon the same account, and Origen of those established in Egypt.
X. To these I might add Paul, the famous hermit, who retired from the Decian persecution five or six years before Origen's death, and lived till the year 343. I have only discovered one of those channels by which the history of our Saviour might be conveyed, pure and unadulterated, through those several ages that produced those Pagan philosophers, whose testimonies I make use of for the truth of our Saviour's history. Some or other of these philosophers came into the Christian faith during its infancy, in the several periods of these three first centuries, when they had such means of informing themselves in all the particulars of our Saviour's history. I must further add, that, though I have here only chosen this single link of martyrs, I might find out others among those names which are still extant, that delivered down this account of our Saviour in a successive tradition, till the whole Roman empire became Christian; as there is no question but numberless series of witnesses might follow one another in the same order, and in as short a chain, and that perhaps in every single church, had the names and ages of the most eminent primitive Christians been transmitted to us with the like cera tainty.
XÍ. But to give this consideration more force, we must take notice, that the tradition of the first ages of Christiapity had several circumstances peculiar to it, which made it more authentic than any other tradition in any other age of the world. The Christians, who carried their religion through so many general and particular persecutions, were incessantly comforting and supporting one another, with the example and history of our Saviour and his apostles. It was the subject not only of their solemn assemblies, but of their private visits and conversations. virgins,” says Tatian, who lived in the second cen