CHAPTER I. THE GROWTH OF THE CHURCH. The dawn of the second century was full of promise to the Church. On the death of Domitian in A.D.96, the Roman Empire enjoyed for a short time [275:1] the administration of the mild and equitable Nerva. This prince repealed the sanguinary laws of his predecessor, and the disciples had a respite from persecution. Trajan, who succeeded him, [275:2] and who now occupied the throne, seemed not unwilling to imitate his policy, so that, in the beginning of his reign, the Christians had no reason to complain of imperial oppression. All accounts concur in stating that their affairs, at this period, presented a most hopeful aspect. They yet displayed a united front, for they had hitherto been almost entirely free from the evils of sectarianism; and now, that they were relieved from the terrible incubus of a ruthless tyranny, their spirits were as buoyant as ever; for though intolerance had thinned their ranks, it had also exhibited their constancy and stimulated their enthusiasm. Their intense attachment to the evangelical cause stood out in strange and impressive contrast with the apathy of polytheism. A heathen repeated, not without scepticism, the tales of his mythology, and readily passed over from one form of superstition to another; but the Christian felt himself strong in the truth, and was prepared to peril all that was dear to him on earth rather than abandon his cherished principles. Well might serious pagans be led to think favourably of a creed which fostered such decision and magnanimity. The wonderful improvement produced by the gospel on the lives of multitudes by whom it was embraced, was, however, its most striking and cogent recommendation. The Christian authors who now published works in its defence, to many of which they gave the designation of apologies, and who sought, by means of these productions, either to correct the misrepresentations of its enemies, or to check the violence of persecution, always appeal with special confidence to this weighty testimonial. A veteran profligate converted into a sober and exemplary citizen was a witness for the truth whose evidence it was difficult either to discard or to depreciate. Nor were such vouchers rare either in the second or third century. A learned minister of the Church could now venture to affirm that Christian communities were to be found composed of men |reclaimed from ten thousand vices,| [276:1] and that these societies, compared with others around them, were |as lights in the world.| [276:2] The practical excellence of the new faith is attested, still more circumstantially, by another of its advocates who wrote about half a century after the age of the apostles. |We,| says he, |who formerly delighted in vicious excesses are now temperate and chaste; we, who once practised magical arts, have consecrated ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we, who once prized gain above all things, give even what we have to the common use, and share it with such as are in need; we, who once hated and murdered one another, who, on account of difference of customs, would have no common hearth with strangers, now, since the appearance of Christ, live together with them; we pray for our enemies; we seek to persuade those who hate us without cause to live conformably to the goodly precepts of Christ, that they may become partakers with us, of the joyful hope of blessings from God, the Lord of all.| [277:1] When we consider that all the old superstitions had now become nearly effete, we cannot be surprised at the signal triumphs of a system which could furnish such noble credentials. Whilst Christianity demonstrated its divine virtue by the good fruits which it produced, it, at the same time, invited all men to study its doctrines and to judge for themselves. Those who were disposed to examine its internal evidences were supplied with facilities for pursuing the investigation, as the Scriptures of the New Testament were publicly read in the assemblies of the faithful, and copies of them were diligently multiplied, so that these divine guides could be readily consulted by every one who really wished for information. The importance of the writings of the apostles and evangelists suggested the propriety of making them available for the instruction of those who were ignorant of Greek; and versions in the Latin, the Syriac, and other languages [277:2] soon made their appearance. Some compositions are stripped of their charms when exhibited in translations, as they owe their attractiveness to the mere embellishments of style or expression; but the Word of God, like all the works of the High and the Holy One, speaks with equal power to every kindred and tongue and people. When correctly rendered into another language, it is still full of grace and truth, of majesty and beauty. In whatever dialect it may be clothed, it continues to awaken the conscience and to convert the soul. Its dissemination at this period either in the original or in translations, contributed greatly to the extension of the Church; and the gospel, issuing from this pure fountain, at once revealed its superiority to all the miserable dilutions of superstition and absurdity presented in the systems of heathenism. When accounting for the rapid diffusion of the new faith in the second and third centuries, many have laid much stress on the miraculous powers of the disciples; but the aid derived from this quarter seems to have been greatly over-estimated. The days of Christ and His apostles were properly the times of |wonders and mighty deeds;| and though the lives of some, on whom extraordinary endowments were conferred, probably extended far into the second century, it is remarkable that the earliest ecclesiastical writers are almost, if not altogether, silent upon the subject of contemporary miracles. [278:1] Supernatural gifts perhaps ceased with those on whom they were bestowed by the inspired founders of the Church; [278:2] but many imagined that their continuance was necessary to the credit of the Christian cause, and were, therefore, slow to admit that these tokens of the divine recognition had completely disappeared. It must be acknowledged that the prodigies attributed to this period are very indifferently authenticated as compared with those reported by the pen of inspiration. [278:3] In some cases they are described in ambiguous or general terms, such as the narrators might have been expected to employ when detailing vague and uncertain rumours; and not a few of the cures now dignified with the title of miracles are of a commonplace character, such as could have been accomplished without any supernatural interference, and which Jewish and heathen quacks frequently performed. [279:1] No writer of this period asserts that he himself possessed the power either of speaking with tongues, [279:2] or of healing the sick, or of raising the dead. [279:3] Legend now began to supply food for popular credulity; and it is a suspicious circumstance that the greater number of the miracles which are said to have happened in the second and third centuries are recorded for the first time about a hundred years after the alleged date of their occurrence. [279:4] But Christianity derived no substantial advantage from these fictitious wonders. Some of them were so frivolous as to excite contempt, and others so ridiculous as to afford matter for merriment to the more intelligent pagans. [279:5]
The gospel had better claims than any furnished by equivocal miracles; and, though it still encountered opposition, it now moved forward in a triumphant career. In some districts it produced such an impression that it threatened the speedy extinction of the established worship. In Bithynia, early in the second century, the temples of the gods were well-nigh deserted, and the sacrificial victims found very few purchasers. [280:1] The pagan priests now took the alarm; the power of the magistrate interposed to prevent the spread of the new doctrine; and spies were found willing to dog the steps and to discover the meeting-places of the converts. Many quailed before the prospect of death, and purchased immunity from persecution by again repairing to the altars of idolatry. But, notwithstanding all the arts of intimidation and chicanery, the good cause continued to prosper. In Rome, in Antioch, in Alexandria, and in other great cities, the truth steadily gained ground; and, towards the end of the second century, it had acquired such strength even in Carthage -- a place far removed from the scene of its original proclamation -- that, according to the statement of one of its advocates, its adherents amounted to a tenth of the inhabitants. [280:2] About the same period Churches were to be found in various parts of the north of Africa between Egypt and Carthage; and, in the East, Christianity soon acquired a permanent footing in the little state of Edessa, [280:3] in Arabia, in Parthia, and in India. In the West, it continued to extend itself throughout Greece and Italy, as well as in Spain and France. In the latter country the Churches of Lyons and Vienne attract attention in the second century; and in the third, seven eminent missionaries are said to have formed congregations in Paris, Tours, Arles, Narbonne, Toulouse, Limoges, and Clermont. [281:1] Meanwhile the light of divine truth penetrated into Germany; and, as the third century advanced, even the rude Goths inhabiting Moesia and Thrace were partially brought under its influence. The circumstances which led to the conversion of these barbarians are somewhat remarkable. On the occasion of one of their predatory incursions into the Empire, they carried away captive some Christian presbyters; but the parties thus unexpectedly reduced to bondage did not neglect the duties of their spiritual calling, and commended their cause so successfully to those by whom they had been enslaved, that the whole nation eventually embraced the gospel. [281:2] Even the barriers of the ocean did not arrest the progress of the victorious faith. Before the end of the second century the religion of the cross seems to have reached Scotland; for though Tertullian certainly speaks rhetorically when he says that |the places of Britain inaccessible to the Romans were subject to Christ,| [281:3] his language at least implies that the message of salvation had already been proclaimed with some measure of encouragement in Caledonia.
Though no contemporary writer has furnished us with anything like an ecclesiastical history of this period, it is very clear, from occasional hints thrown out by the early apologists and controversialists, that the progress of the Church must have been both extensive and rapid. A Christian author, who flourished about the middle of the second century, asserts that there was then |no race of men, whether of barbarians or of Greeks, or bearing any other name, either because they lived in waggons without fixed habitations, or in tents leading a pastoral life, among whom prayers and thanksgivings were not offered up to the Father and Maker of all things through the name of the crucified Jesus.| [282:1] Another father, who wrote shortly afterwards, observes that, |as in the sea there are certain habitable and fertile islands, with wholesome springs, provided with roadsteads and harbours, in which those who are overtaken by tempests may find refuge -- in like manner has God placed in a world tossed by the billows and storms of sin, congregations or holy churches, in which, as in insular harbours, the doctrines of truth are sheltered, and to which those who desire to be saved, who love the truth, and who wish to escape the judgment of God, may repair.| [282:2] These statements indicate that the gospel must soon have been very widely disseminated. Within less than a hundred years after the apostolic age places of Christian worship were to be seen in the chief cities of the Empire; and early in the third century a decision of the imperial tribunal awarded to the faithful in the great Western metropolis a plot of ground for the erection of one of their religious edifices. [282:3] At length about A.D.260 the Emperor Gallienus issued an edict of toleration in their favour; and, during the forty years which followed, their numbers so increased that the ecclesiastical buildings in which they had hitherto assembled were no longer sufficient for their accommodation. New and spacious churches now supplanted the old meeting-houses, and these more fashionable structures were soon filled to overflowing. [282:4] But the spirit of the world now began to be largely infused into the Christian communities; the Church was distracted by its ministers struggling with each other for pre-eminence; and even the terrible persecution of Diocletian which succeeded, could neither quench the ambition, nor arrest the violence of contending pastors.
If we stand, only for a moment, on the beach, we may find it impossible to decide whether the tide is ebbing or flowing. But if we remain there for a few hours, the question will not remain unsettled. The sea will meanwhile either retire into its depths, or compel us to retreat before its advancing waters. So it is with the Church. At a given date we may be unable to determine whether it is aggressive, stationary, or retrograde. But when we compare its circumstances at distant intervals, we may easily form a judgment. From the first to the fourth century, Christianity moved forward like the flowing tide; and yet, perhaps, its advance, during any one year, was not very perceptible. When, however, we contrast its weakness at the death of the Apostle John with its strength immediately before the commencement of the last imperial persecution, we cannot but acknowledge its amazing progress. At the termination of the first century, its adherents were a little flock, thinly scattered over the empire. In the reign of Diocletian, such was even their numerical importance that no prudent statesman would have thought it safe to overlook them in the business of legislation. They held military appointments of high responsibility; they were to be found in some of the most honourable civil offices; they were admitted to the court of the sovereign; and in not a few cities they constituted a most influential section of the population. The wife of Diocletian, and his daughter Valeria, are said to have been Christians. The gospel had now passed over the boundaries of the empire, and had made conquests among savages, some of whom had, perhaps, scarcely ever heard of the majesty of Rome. But it did not establish its dominion unopposed, and, in tracing its annals, we must not neglect to notice the history of its persecutions.