SermonIndex Audio Sermons

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The great doctrines of Christianity are built upon the facts of the life of our Lord. These facts are related by the four evangelists with singular precision, and yet with a variety of statement, as to details, which proves that each writer delivered an independent testimony. The witnesses all agree when describing the wonderful history of the Captain of our Salvation; and they dwell upon the narrative with a minuteness apparently corresponding to the importance of the doctrine which the facts establish or illustrate. Hence it is that, whilst they scarcely notice, or altogether omit, several items of our Saviour's biography, they speak particularly of His birth and of His miracles, of His death and of His resurrection. Thus, all the great facts of the gospel are most amply authenticated.

It is not so with the system of Romanism; as nothing can be weaker than the historical basis on which it rests. The New Testament demonstrates that Peter was not the Prince of the Apostles; for it records the rebuke which our Lord delivered to the Twelve when they strove among themselves |which of them should be accounted the greatest.| [329:1] It also supplies evidence that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church of Rome; as, before that Church had been visited by the Apostle of the Gentiles, its faith was |spoken of throughout the whole world;| [329:2] and the apostle of the circumcision was meanwhile labouring in another part of the Empire. [330:1] When writing to the Romans in A.D.57, Paul greets many members of the Church, and mentions the names of a great variety of individuals; [330:2] but, throughout his long epistle, Peter is not once noticed. Had he been connected with that Christian community, he would, beyond doubt, have been prominently recognised.

There is, indeed, a sense in which Peter may, perhaps, be said to have founded the great Church of the West; for it is possible that some of the |strangers of Rome,| [330:3] who heard his celebrated sermon on the day of Pentecost, were then converted by his ministry; and it may be that these converts, on their return home, proceeded to disseminate the truth, and to organize a Christian society, in the chief city of the Empire. This, however, is mere matter of conjecture; and it is now useless to speculate upon the subject; as, in the absence of historical materials to furnish us with information, the question must remain involved in impenetrable mystery. It is certain that the Roman Church was established long before it was visited by an apostle; and it is equally clear that its members were distinguished, at an early period, by their Christian excellence. When Paul was prisoner for the first time in the great city, he was freely permitted to exercise his ministry; but, subsequently, when there during the Neronian persecution, he was, according to the current tradition, seized and put to death. [330:4] Peter's martyrdom took place, as we have seen, [330:5] perhaps about a year afterwards; but the legend describing it contains very improbable details, and the facts have obviously been distorted and exaggerated.

For at least seventy years after the death of the apostle of the circumcision, nothing whatever is known of the history of the Roman Church, except the names of some of its leading ministers. It was originally governed, like other Christian communities, by the common council of the presbyters, who, as a matter of order, must have had a chairman; but though, about a hundred years after the martyrdom of Peter, when the presidents began to be designated bishops, an attempt was made to settle their order of succession, [331:1] the result was by no means satisfactory. Some of the earliest writers who touch incidentally upon the question are inconsistent with themselves; [331:2] whilst they flatly contradict each other. [331:3] In fact, to this day, what is called the episcopal succession in the ancient Church of Rome is an historical riddle. At first no one individual seems to have acted for life as the president, or moderator, of the presbytery; but as it was well known that, at an early date, several eminent pastors had belonged to it, the most distinguished names found their way into the catalogues, and each writer appears to have consulted his own taste or judgment in regulating the order of succession. Thus, it has probably occurred that their lists are utterly irreconcileable. All such genealogies are, indeed, of exceedingly dubious credit, and those who deem them of importance must always be perplexed by the candid acknowledgment of the father of ecclesiastical history. |How many,| says he, |and who, prompted by a kindred spirit, were judged fit to feed the churches established by the apostles, it is not easy to say, any farther than may be gathered from the statements of Paul.| [331:4]

About A.D.139, Telesphorus, who was then at the head of the Roman presbytery, is said to have been put to death for his profession of the gospel; but the earliest authority for this fact is a Christian controversialist who wrote upwards of forty years afterwards; [332:1] and we are totally ignorant of all the circumstances connected with the martyrdom. The Church of the capital, which had hitherto enjoyed internal tranquillity, began in the time of Hyginus, who succeeded Telesphorus, to be disturbed by false teachers. Valentine, Cerdo, and other famous heresiarchs, now appeared in Rome; [332:2] and laboured with great assiduity to disseminate their principles. The distractions created by these errorists seem to have suggested the propriety of placing additional power in the hands of the presiding presbyter. [332:3] Until this period every teaching elder had been accustomed to baptize and administer the Eucharist on his own responsibility; but it appears to have been now arranged that henceforth none should act without the sanction of the president, who was thus constituted the centre of ecclesiastical unity. According to the previous system, some of the presbyters, who were themselves, perhaps, secretly tainted with unsound doctrine, might have continued to hold communion with the heretics; and it might have been exceedingly difficult to convict them of any direct breach of ecclesiastical law; but now their power was curtailed; and a broad line of demarcation was established between true and false churchmen. Thus, Rome was the city in which what has been called the Catholic system was first organized. Every one who was in communion with the president, or bishop, was a catholic; [332:4] every one who allied himself to any other professed teacher of the Christian faith was a sectary, a schismatic, or a heretic. [333:1]

The study of the best forms of government was peculiarly congenial to the Roman mind; and the peace enjoyed under the Empire, as contrasted with the miseries of the civil wars in the last days of the Republic, pleaded, no doubt, strongly in favour of a change in the ecclesiastical constitution. But though this portion of the history of the Church is involved in much obscurity, there are indications that the transference of power from the presbyters to their president was not accomplished without a struggle. Until this period the Roman elders appear to have generally succeeded each other as moderators of presbytery in the order of their seniority; [333:2] but it was now deemed necessary to adopt another method of appointment; and it is not improbable that, at this time, a division of sentiment as to the best mode of filling up the presidential chair, was the cause of an unusually long vacancy. According to some, no less than four years [333:3] passed away between the death of Hyginus and the choice of his successor Pius; and even those who object to this view of the chronology admit that there was an interval of a twelvemonth. [333:4] The plan now adopted seems to have been to choose the bishop by lot out of a leet of selected candidates. [333:5] Thus, to use the phraseology current towards the end of the second century, the new chief pastor |obtained the lot of the episcopacy.| [334:1]

The changes introduced at Rome were probably far from agreeable to many of the other Churches throughout the Empire; and Polycarp, the venerable pastor of Smyrna, who was afterwards martyred, and who was now nearly eighty years of age, appears to have been sent to the imperial city on a mission of remonstrance. The design of this remarkable visit is still enveloped in much mystery, for with the exception of an allusion to a question confessedly of secondary consequence, [334:2] ecclesiastical writers have passed over the whole subject in suspicious silence; but there is every reason to believe that Polycarp was deputed to complain of the incipient assumptions of Roman prelacy. [334:3] Anicetus, who then presided over the Church of the capital, prudently bestowed very flattering attentions on the good old Asiatic pastor; and, though there is no evidence that his scruples were removed, he felt it to be his duty to assist in opposing the corrupt teachers who were seeking to propagate their errors among the Roman disciples. The testimony to primitive truth delivered by so aged and eminent a minister produced a deep impression, and gave a decided check to the progress of heresy in the metropolis of the Empire. [334:4]

But though the modified prelacy now established encountered opposition, the innovation thus inaugurated in the great city was sure to exert a most extensive influence. Rome was then, not only the capital, but the mistress of a large portion of the world. She kept up a constant communication with every part of her dominions in Asia, Africa, and Europe; strangers from almost every clime were to be found among her teeming population; and intelligence of whatever occurred within her walls soon found its way to distant cities and provinces. The Christians in other countries would be slow to believe that their brethren at head-quarters had consented to any unwarrantable distribution of Church power, for they had hitherto displayed their zeal for the faith by most decisive and illustrious testimonies. Since the days of Nero they had sustained the first shock of every persecution, and nobly led the van of the army of martyrs. Telesphorus, the chairman of the presbytery, had recently paid for his position with his life; their presiding pastor was always specially obnoxious to the spirit of intolerance; and if they were anxious to strengthen his hands, who could complain? The Roman Church had the credit of having enjoyed the tuition of Peter and Paul; its members had long been distinguished for intelligence and piety; and it was not to be supposed that its ministers would sanction any step which they did not consider perfectly capable of vindication. There were other weighty reasons why Christian societies in Italy, as well as elsewhere, should regard the acts of the Church of the imperial city with peculiar indulgence. It was the sentinel at the seat of government to give them notice of the approach of danger, [335:1] and the kind friend to aid them in times of difficulty. The wealth of Rome was prodigious; and though as yet |not many mighty| and |not many noble| had joined the proscribed sect, it had been making way among the middle classes; and there is cause to think that at this time a considerable number of the rich merchants of the capital belonged to its communion. It was known early in the second century as a liberal benefactor; and, from a letter addressed to it about A.D.170, it would appear that even the Church of Corinth was then indebted to its munificence. |It has ever been your habit,| says the writer, |to confer benefits in various ways, and to send assistance to the Churches in every city. You have relieved the wants of the poor, and afforded help to the brethren condemned to the mines. By a succession of these gifts, Romans, you preserve the customs of your Roman ancestors.| [336:1]

The influence of the Roman Church throughout the West soon became conspicuous. Here, as in many other instances, commerce was the pioneer of religion; and as the merchants of the capital traded with all the ports of their great inland sea, it is not improbable that their sailors had a share in achieving some of the early triumphs of the gospel. Carthage, now one of the most populous cities in the Empire, is said to have been indebted for Christianity to Rome; [336:2] and by means of the constant intercourse kept up between these two commercial marts, the mother Church contrived to maintain an ascendancy over her African daughter. Thus it was that certain Romish practices and pretensions so soon found advocates among the Carthaginian clergy. [336:3] In other quarters we discover early indications of the extraordinary deference paid to the Church of the city |sitting upon many waters.| Towards the close of the second century, Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, was pastor of Lyons; and from this some have rather abruptly drawn the inference that the Christian congregations then existing in the south of France were established by missionaries from the East; but it is at least equally probable that the young minister from Asia Minor was in Rome before he passed to the more distant Gaul; and it is certain that he is the first father who speaks of the superior importance of the Church of the Italian metropolis. His testimony to the position which it occupied about eighty years after the death of the Apostle John shews clearly that it stood already at the head of the Western Churches. The Church of Rome, says he, is |very great and very ancient, and known to all, founded and established by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul.| [337:1] |To this Church in which Catholics [337:2] have always preserved apostolic tradition, every Catholic Church should, because it is more potentially apostolical, [337:3] repair.| [337:4]

The term Catholic, which occurs for the first time in a document written about this period, [337:5] was probably coined at Rome, and implied, as already intimated, that the individual so designated was in communion with the bishop. The presiding pastors in the great city began now, in token of fraternity and recognition, to send the Eucharist to their brethren elsewhere by trusty messengers, [337:6] and thus the name was soon extended to all who maintained ecclesiastical relations with these leading ministers. Sectaries were almost always the minority; and in many places, where Christianity was planted, they were utterly unknown. The orthodox might, therefore, not inappropriately be styled members of the Catholic or general Church, inasmuch as they formed the bulk of the Christian population, and were to be found wherever the new religion had made converts. And though the heretics pleaded tradition in support of their peculiar dogmas, it was clear that their statements could not stand the test of examination. Irenaeus, in the work from which the words just quoted are extracted, very fairly argues that no such traditions as those propagated by the sectaries were to be found in the most ancient and respectable Churches. No Christian community in Western Europe could claim higher antiquity than that of Rome; and as it had been taught by Paul and Peter, none could be supposed to be better acquainted with the original gospel. Because of its extent it already required a larger staff of ministers than perhaps any other Church; and thus there were a greater number of individuals to quicken and correct each other's recollections. It might be accordingly inferred that the traditions of surrounding Christian societies, if true, should correspond to those of Rome; as the great metropolitan Church might, for various reasons, be said to be more potentially primitive or apostolical, and as its traditions might be expected to be particularly accurate. The doctrines of the heretics, which were completely opposed to the testimony of this important witness, should be discarded as entirely destitute of authority.

We can only conjecture the route by which Irenaeus travelled to the south of France when he first set out from Asia Minor; but we have direct evidence that he had paid a visit to the capital shortly before he wrote this memorable eulogium on the Roman Church. About the close of the dreadful persecution endured in A.D.177 by the Christians of Lyons and Vienne, he had been commissioned to repair to Italy with a view to a settlement of the disputes created by the appearance of the Montanists. As he was furnished with very complimentary credentials, [339:1] we may presume that he was handsomely treated by his friends in the metropolis; and if he returned home laden with presents to disciples whose sufferings had recently so deeply moved the sympathy of their brethren, it is not strange that he gracefully seized an opportunity of extolling the Church to which he owed such obligations. His account of its greatness is obviously the inflated language of a panegyrist; but in due time its hyperbolic statements received a still more extravagant interpretation; and, on the authority of this ancient father, the Church of Rome was pompously announced as the mistress and the mother of all Churches.

It has been mentioned in a former chapter [339:2] that the celebrated Marcia who, until shortly before his death, possessed almost absolute control over the Emperor Commodus, made a profession of the faith. Her example, no doubt, encouraged other personages of distinction to connect themselves with the Roman Church; and, through the medium of these members of his flock, the bishop Eleutherius must have had an influence such as none of his predecessors possessed. It is beyond doubt that Marcia, after consulting with Victor, the successor of Eleutherius, induced the Emperor to perform acts of kindness to some of her co-religionists. [339:3] The favour of the court seems to have puffed up the spirit of this naturally haughty churchman; and though, as we have seen, there is cause to suspect that certain ecclesiastical movements in the chief city had long before excited much ill-suppressed dissatisfaction, the Christian commonwealth was now startled for the first time by a very flagrant exhibition of the arrogance of a Roman prelate. [340:1] Because the Churches of Asia Minor celebrated the Paschal feast in a way different from that observed in the metropolis, [340:2] Victor cut them off from his communion. But this attempt of the bishop of the great city to act as lord over God's heritage was premature. Other churches condemned the rashness of his procedure; his refusal to hold fellowship with the Asiatic Christians threatened only to isolate himself; and he seems to have soon found it expedient to cultivate more pacific councils.

At this time the jurisdiction of Victor did not properly extend beyond the few ministers and congregations to be found in the imperial city. A quarter of a century afterwards even the bishop of Portus, a seaport town at the mouth of the Tiber about fifteen miles distant from the capital, acknowledged no allegiance to the Roman prelate. [340:3] The boldness of Victor in pronouncing so many foreign brethren unworthy of Catholic communion may at first, therefore, appear unaccountable. But it is probable that he acted, in this instance, in conjunction with many other pastors. Among the Churches of Gentile origin there was a deep prejudice against what was considered the judaizing of the Asiatic Christians in relation to the Paschal festival, and a strong impression that the character of the Church was compromised by any very marked diversity in its religious observances. There is, however, little reason to doubt that Victor was to some extent prompted by motives of a different complexion. Fifty years before, the remarkable words addressed to the apostle of the circumcision -- |Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church| [341:1] -- were interpreted at Rome in the way in which they are now understood commonly by Protestants; for the brother of the Roman bishop Pius, [341:2] writing about A.D.150, teaches that the Rock on which the Church is built is the Son of God; [341:3] but ingenuity was already beginning to discover another exposition, and the growing importance of the Roman bishopric suggested the startling thought that the Church was built on Peter! [341:4] The name of the Galilean fisherman was already connected with the see of Victor; and it was thus easy for ambition or flattery to draw the inference that Victor himself was in some way the heir and representative of the great apostle. The doctrine that the bishop was necessary as the centre of Catholic unity had already gained currency; and if a centre of unity for the whole Church was also indispensable, who had a better claim to the pre-eminence than the successor of Peter? When Victor fulminated his sentence of excommunication against the Asiatic Christians he probably acted under the partial inspiration of this novel theory. He made an abortive attempt to speak in the name of the whole Church -- to assert a position as the representative or president of all the bishops of the Catholic world [342:1] -- and to carry out a new system of ecclesiastical unity. The experiment was a failure, simply because the idea looming in the imagination of the Roman bishop had not yet obtained full possession of the mind of Christendom.

Prelacy had been employed as the cure for Church divisions, but the remedy had proved worse than the disease. Sects meanwhile continued to multiply; and they were, perhaps, nowhere so abundant as in the very city where the new machinery had been first set up for their suppression. Towards the close of the second century their multitude was one of the standing reproaches of Christianity. What was called the Catholic Church was now on the brink of a great schism; and the very man, who aspired to be the centre of Catholic unity, threatened to be the cause of the disruption. It was becoming more and more apparent that, when the presbyters consented to surrender any portion of their privileges to the bishop, they betrayed the cause of ecclesiastical freedom; and even now indications were not wanting that the Catholic system was likely to degenerate into a spiritual despotism.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Privacy Policy