« PreviousContinue »
Few entertained the idea that their Christianity required them to renounce the world, and to retire into seclusion from it, though its deep wickedness, and the treatment which tbey daily received, might have furnished a plausible reason for so doing. They felt, rather, that the world was to be subdued by the church, and pervaded by its principles. True, there were not wanting some who, in the fervour of their first experience, inclined to carry their opposition beyond what their religion demanded. While these sold their possessions, in literal compliance with the Saviour's direction given to him who inquired, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”-and placed their resources at the disposal of the church,—they still exercised themselves almost wholly within their chosen circle, and devoted their time to the service of the sick and the poor. It was obvious to the more enlightened, that even this measure of asceticism contained within it the germ
of evil; and its tendency was well exposed in some of the writings of the first century. An undue estimate of superiority to the world prepared the way for obliquities of doctrine, and for monastic abominations, which grew rife in later times.
The worship of the early Christians was beautifully simple and appropriate. While every one acknowledged the duty of living ever in the spirit of devotion, the necessity of congregational meetings for the maintenance of the new life was also apprehended. Justin furnishes a vivid description of these services. The Scriptures were read in a language which the people understood, -first, in selections from the Old Testament, and afterwards, (as the canon of the New Testament approached completion,) from the Evangelists and the Epistles. The officiating presbyter then proceeded to deliver an address, founded upon the lessons which had been read, but with much more freedom in its structure than is found in the ordinary sermon of modern times. At the close of the exposition and exhortation, the assembly rose, and engaged in silent prayer. Prayer was also offered by the presiding elder ; and the communicants celebrated the Supper of their Lord, in remembrance of His dying love, and as a renewed pledge of their own devotion to Him. Hymus and spiritual songs enlivened these services. The feast of love was frequently celebrated, in wbich the members appeared as the family of God. The Lord's day superseded from the beginning the Sabbath of Judaism, though not without remonstrance, and a varying practice, on the part of Judaizing Christians. Wednes. day and Friday were, in great measure, devoted to fasting and prayer, in commemoration of the Saviour's passion. Annual festivals formed a part of the arrangements of the church ; and the controversy as to the time for that of the Passover commenced in the age of Justin, when, in the year 160, Polycarp paid a visit to Anicetus at Rome. But a difference of opinion was not then allowed to disturb fraternal association. It remained for the later assumptions of Rome to rend the Christian body-politic. There was an evident tendency to multiply annual celebrations, as not only the principal events of the Saviour's history were thus commemorated, but festivals were added in honour of the more distinguished martyrs, and in recognition of their birth to a higher life on the day they won their crown. We trace thus early the origin of the Romish calendar of saints’-days, which has proved adverse alike to the true spirit of worsbip, and to the industry and prosperity of the people who have been willing to take for doctrines the commandments of men.
Places of assembly were more or less numerous, according to existing circumstances. Much freedom of thought prevailed, in regard to this particular. Clement of Alexandria observed, in the succeeding age, "It is not the place, but the congregation of the elect, that I call the church.” Still more to the point is the remark of Justin : “ The God of the Christians is not confined to one place, but His invisible presence fills heaven and earth; and in all places He is worshipped by the faithful.” Yet, for obvious usefulness, large structures were obtained where it was practicable; and soon "churches" were greatly multiplied. These were, at first, most unassuming edifices; but the worshippers found them to be Bethel,--the very house of God. Images, and all symbols of the kind, were excluded. It must be added, however, that these came early into private use; and hence they were subsequently allowed to profane the sanctuary of a pure and spiritual worship :-a significant proof that the tendency of later times was not to correct abuses, but to give them fresh and fatal development.
As the worship was at first in beautiful harmony with the principles of Christianity, that harmony was not violated by the order which prevailed during the period of which we are writing. The recognised officers of the church were presbyters and deacons, whose duties pertained, respectively, to spiritual and to temporal ministrations; though it is quite true that some deacons (after the example of Stephen and Philip) exercised their gifts also in preaching the word. A universal Christian priesthood, recognised in the early times, did not interfere with the needful consecration of chosen individuals to the work of the ministry. These separated persons were known as presbyters, or bishops ; the two names signifying one and the same officer. In authority, as in special commission, the apostles could have no successors. They were inspired teachers and rulers of the church. As separate congregations multiplied, the ministerial supply was increased to meet the demand. For purposes of government, not improbably the senior pastor of a city-church presided over the deliberations of the united presbytery, but without any authority added to that which inevitably attached to his function. There is, moreover, some intimation that the presidency was not only by election, but was changeable also. The writers of this early age make no distinction between the presbyter and the bishop. To them, we think, there was present no suel theory as is encountered at a later period ; --with the exception, some will plead, of Ignatius, whose Epistles are said to constitute“ the principal source of the argument for the early origin of prelacy." But the authenticity of these letters is questioned by most competent authorities. They bear marks of interpolation to an extent rendering it probable that Ignatius was the author of but little of that which has passed ander his name. A comparison of their statements with those
of Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenæus, clearly shows that there was a marked difference of opinion between these eminent fathers and Ignatius, (if the passages are genuine,) on the polity of the church. If this difference really existed, it is hard to account for the absence of controversy on the subject. We are compelled, in short, to attach little historical value to the Epistles bearing the name of that martyr.
The need for some adequate authority to check nascent error, and take a supervision of the enlarging interests of the church, was, no doubt, seriously felt; and a permanent presidency may have been the result. But it was not until the times of Cyprian, that the “ episcopal” (or prelatic) distinction became conspicuous. With the growth of the church, the hierarchical principle found new scope. It is plain, however, from the experience of the Methodist body, that the advantages of a true episcopate may be realized without recourse to questionable pretensions, from which an autocracy bas elsewhere sprung.
The office of deacon was one of great importance, and required special qualifications. They who held it were charged with temporal ministrations. Widows and orphans, the sick and poor, were among the objects of their care. In these arduous duties, they were assisted by a body of deaconesses, whose attentions were given exclusively to the female members of the church. This institution was fenced by prudential arrangements which seem almost fastidious, but which show a stern regard for purity of life, and which the evils of a following age most amply justify. The entire institution, with its attendant abuses, was condemned by successive Councils, and was at length abolished; but only to be revived in a variety of forms. The innate love of power and distinction led, in the course of a century, to the multiplication of offices ; for some of which, though unknown in the days of primitive simplicity, it was easy to find a show of reason.
The mission of Christianity to bless the world was accepted from the days of the apostles; and the new community, though reaching to the most distant cities, was viewed as essentially one, with Christ as its sole Head in heaven. While purity was maintained, all was thus far safe. Brethren passed, either on Christian errands or in the prosecution of their secular business, from one province to another; and, when properly commended, were everywhere received with much fraternal affection. These visits tended to keep alive the feeling of universal brotherhood. An interchange of friendly communications among the ministers of different places tended in the same direction. But the rise of heretical opinions erelong put this principle of catholicity to peril. The spiritual brotherhood and the external community were represented as identical. Cyprian's too celebrated work, De Unitate Ecclesia, affirmed this opinion with fatal distinctness. Exclusion from the visible church was made to carry with it the awful result of esclusion from the kingdom of heaven. To the person excommunicated, for whatever cause, there remained the alternative of reconciliation with the church, or final rejection by God. The natural blossom of this pernicious bud was the presumption of the Bishop of Rome, who claimed to be the centre and representative of this most unspiritual unity. The true theory appears to have remained without formal expression, until synodal action was evoked by controversies on the proper time of Easter, and by the dangers arising from Montanism.
Not yet had the Christian teachers entered on the arduous work of shaping a scientific system of theology. The sufficiency of Scripture was the received doctrine. The capon was, during the second century, the same as in our authorized version, with the exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the second Epistle of Peter, the Epistle of James, the second and third Epistles of John, the Epistle of Jude, and the Apocalypse. The admission of these portions of Scripture, only after a protracted investigation, evinces the scrupulous attention paid to this matter by the Fathers of the church. The doctrines which are now known as evangelical formed the main theological teaching of the time. The sinfulness of buman nature, and salvation by grace through faith in Christ, were held in a distinct and positive manner. In dealing with the correlative truths, the teachers of the church made copious use of the language of Scripture. Those who now consult them, in order to obtain evidence on the questions which are in modern times termed Calvinistic, search in vain. It is very clear that they dwell with considerable force on the freedom of the human will in the work of salvation, whatever may have been their view of the source whence that freedom came.
The more abstruse doctrines relating to the Person of Christ, and to the Holy Trinity, had not arrived at what is now too ambitiously called “the stage of dogmatic precision.” It is very well known, that, after a long period of discussion, the Nicene Council fixed the general Trinitarian doctrine of the church. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the views of ante-Nicene fathers were not substantially correct, though they may not have been accurately defined. The union of two natures in the person of Christ they strongly maintained, in opposition to the Ebionites and the Docetæ. They acknowledged three Persons in the Godhead, each invested with the essential attri. butes of Divinity; but without nicely discussing the relations existing among the Persons. In subsequent controversies each party appealed with equal confidence to the writers of this period ; and all missed their way when they attempted to explain these sublime doctrines by the aid of their philosophy, rather than by the lights to be obtained from more careful exegesis of Scripture.
Two opposing tendencies were already at work,—the narrow speculation which laboured “to separate the ideal from the historical, the Divine from the human;" and the simply practical habit of thought, represented by the apostolic fathers, which was in danger of becoming one-sided by identifying the internal with the external of religion. Justin was the representative of a sounder principle, which sought to reconcile these tendencies by giving a more scientific exposition of the truth, and at the same time checking the arbitrary theorizing of the Gnostics. Three schools of theology arose in this century, and mainly out of these tendencies. The school of Asia Minor was “ distinguished by its firm adherence to the Bible, its strong faith, its scientific liberality, its conciliatory tone, and its trenchant polemic against heretics." It traces its origin to the teachings of St. John. The Alexandrian school was speculative, and aimed to defeat a spurions by a true churchly gnosis ; but did not succeed in preserving itself from "dangerous philosophical aberrations." Pantænus and Clement were the masters of this school, which ranked among its adherents men of “classical culture, logical acumen, and liberality and originality of genius.” Its speculations, full-blown, afterwards appear in Origen. The school of North Africa was marked by a strong " practical tendency," in opposition to the speculative freedom of the Alexandrians. The dangers attendant upon philosophical and classical culture induced its disciples very generally to reject such acquisitions, and to lay special stress on an extreme ascetical purity. The fiery and eloquent Tertullian was its great representative. The development of doctrines-a slow and arduous process—was facilitated by the differing sentiments of the great church leaders, all containing valuable portions of truth; and from their mutual action the orthodox creeds, or "symbols,” were ultimately evolved.
The candidate for church-fellowship was admitted by baptism, after receiving instruction as a catechumen. He was baptized upon a profession of faith, based on the apostolic confession of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The doctrinal summary denominated “the Apostles' Creed " had as yet no existence. Various formularies of belief are given by writers of the second and third centuries; who thus furnish bistorical evidence that nothing authoritative had then been received. It is pretty certain that “the Apostles' Creed” did not obtain its present completeness until about the end of the fourth century. The elements of bread and wine were distributed, at the eucharist, to the members of the church ; and portions were sent to the sick, and to prisoners. It does not appear that chorals and prescribed responses were introduced into this sacred service until the third century. In a figurative sense, this sacrament was occasionally termed a sacrifice.
A tendency to depart from simple Christianity appeared in the very dawn of the church's history. Whether St. Paul aimed at the leading heretics, wben he spoke of some who were “enemies of the cross of Christ,” is not clear ; but it cannot be doubted that St. Jobn wrote directly against them both in his Gospel and in his First Epistle. Cerinthus was, perhaps, the earliest advocate of Gnosticism under the Ebionitic form, - which maintained an essential distinction between Jesus and the Christ, declaring that the Christ descended first upon the man Jesus at his baptism ; denying, therefore, the incarnation of the Son of God, and, by implication, the whole system of Christianity as set forth by the apostles. This pernicious view is exposed by St. John, in the memorable words,-"Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” Against those who denied the reality of Christ's body, and consequently of His sufferings and death, the apostle decides with equal authority. It was hard to admit the mysterious fact of the Incarnation; and hence the attempts to subvert the doctrine, and to substitute notions which seemed more in harmony with a preconceived philosophy. Gnosticism, in all its