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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER V. THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


For some time after the apostolic age, the doctrine of the Church remained unchanged. Those who had been taught the gospel by the lips of its inspired heralds could not have been readily induced to relinquish any of its distinctive principles. It must, indeed, be admitted that the purity of the evangelical creed was soon deteriorated by the admixture of dogmas suggested by bigotry and superstition; but, it may safely be asserted that, throughout the whole of the period now before us, its elementary articles were substantially maintained by almost all the Churches of the Empire.

Though there was still a pretty general agreement respecting the cardinal points of Christianity, it is not to be thought strange that the early writers occasionally expressed themselves in a way which would now be considered loose or inaccurate. Errorists, by the controversies they awakened, not unfrequently created much perplexity and confusion; but, in general, the truth eventually issued from discussion with renovated credit; for, in due time, acute and able advocates came forward to prove that the articles assailed rested on an impregnable foundation. During these debates it was found necessary to distinguish the different shades of doctrine by the establishment of a fixed terminology. The disputants were obliged to define with precision the expressions they employed; and thus various forms of speech ceased to have an equivocal meaning. But, in the second or third century, theology had not assumed a scientific form; and the language of orthodoxy was, as yet, unsettled. Hence, when treating of doctrinal questions, those whose views were substantially correct sometimes gave their sanction to the use of phrases which were afterwards condemned as the symbols of heterodoxy. [446:1]

About the beginning of the third century all adults who were admitted to baptism were required to make a declaration of their faith by assenting to some such formula as that now called |The Apostles' Creed;| [446:2] and though no general council had yet been held, the chief pastors of the largest and most influential Churches maintained, by letters, an official correspondence, and were in this way well acquainted with each other's sentiments. A considerable number of these epistles, or at least of extracts from them, are still extant; [446:3] and there is thus abundant proof of the unity of the faith of the ecclesiastical rulers. But, in treating of this subject, it is necessary to be more specific, and to notice particularly the leading doctrines which were now commonly received.

Before entering directly on this review, it is proper to mention that the Holy Scriptures were held in the highest estimation. The reading of them aloud formed part of the stated service of the congregations, and one or other of the passages brought, at the time, under the notice of the auditory, usually constituted the groundwork of the preacher's discourse. Their perusal was recommended to the laity; [447:1] the husband and wife talked of them familiarly as they sat by the domestic hearth; [447:2] and children were accustomed to commit them to memory. [447:3] As many of the disciples could not read, and as the expense of manuscripts was considerable, copies of the sacred books were not in the hands of all; but their frequent rehearsal in the public assemblies made the multitude familiar with their contents, and some of the brethren possessed an amount of acquaintance with these records which, even at the present day, would be deemed most extraordinary. Eusebius speaks of several individuals who could repeat, at will, any required passage from either the Old or New Testament. On a certain occasion the historian happened to be present when one of these walking concordances poured forth the stores of his prodigious memory. |I was struck with admiration,| says he, |when I first beheld him standing amidst a large crowd, and reciting certain portions of Holy Writ. As long as I could only hear his voice, I supposed that he was reading, as is usual in the congregations; but, when I came close up to him, I discovered that, employing only the eyes of his mind, he uttered the divine oracles like some prophet.| [447:4]

It was not extraordinary that the early Christians were anxious to treasure up Scripture in the memory, for in all matters of faith and practice the Written Word was regarded as the standard of ultimate appeal. No human authority whatever was deemed equal to the award of this divine arbiter. |They who are labouring after excellency,| says a father of this period, |will not stop in their search after truth, until they have obtained proof of that which they believe from the Scriptures themselves.| [448:1] Nor was there any dispute as to the amount of confidence to be placed in the language of the Bible. The doctrine of its plenary inspiration -- a doctrine which many in modern times either openly or virtually deny -- was now received without abatement or hesitation. Even Origen, who takes such liberties when interpreting the sacred text, admits most fully that it is all of divine dictation. |I believe,| says he, |that, for those who know how to draw virtue from the Scriptures, every letter in the oracles of God has its end and its work, even to an iota and particle of a letter. And, as among plants, there is not one but has its peculiar virtue, and as they only who have a knowledge of botanical science can tell how each should be prepared and applied to a useful purpose; so it is that he who is a holy and spiritual botanist of the Word of God, by gathering up each atom and element will find the virtue of that Word, and acknowledge that there is nothing in all that is written that is superfluous.| [448:3]

It has been already stated [448:3] that little difference of sentiment existed in the early Church respecting the books to be included in the canon of the New Testament. All, with the exception of the Gnostics and some other heretics, recognized the claims of the four Gospels, [448:4] of the Acts of the Apostles, of the Epistles of Paul, of the First Epistle of Peter, and of the First Epistle of John. Though, for a time, some Churches hesitated to acknowledge the remaining epistles, their doubts seem to have been gradually dissipated. At first the genuineness of the Apocalypse was undisputed; but, after the rise of the Montanists, who were continually quoting it in proof of their theory of a millennium, some of their antagonists foolishly questioned its authority. At an early period two or three tracts [449:1] written by uninspired men were received as Scripture by a number of Churches. They were never, however, generally acknowledged; and at length, by common consent, they were excluded from the canon. [449:2]

The code of heathen morality supplied a ready apology for falsehood, [449:3] and its accommodating principles soon found too much encouragement within the pale of the Church. Hence the pious frauds which were now perpetrated. Various works made their appearance with the name of some apostolic man appended to them, [449:4] their fabricators thus hoping to give currency to opinions or to practices which might otherwise have encountered much opposition. At the same time many evinced a disposition to supplement the silence of the Written Word by the aid of tradition. But though the writers of the period sometimes lay undue stress upon the evidence of this vague witness, they often resort to it merely as an offset against statements professedly derived from the same source which were brought forward by the heretics; and they invariably admit that the authority of Scripture is entitled to override the authority of tradition. |The Lord in the Gospel, reproving and rebuking, declares,| says Cyprian, |ye reject the commandment of God that ye may keep your own tradition. [450:1] .... Custom should, not be an obstacle that the truth prevail not and overcome, for a custom without truth is error inveterate.| [450:2] |What obstinacy is that, or what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinances, and not to perceive that God is displeased and provoked, as often as human tradition relaxes and sets aside the divine command.| [450:3] During this period -- the uncertainty of any other guide than the inspired record was repeatedly demonstrated; for, though Christians were removed at so short a distance from apostolic times, the traditions of one Church sometimes diametrically contradicted those of another. [450:4]

There is certainly nothing like uniformity in the language employed by the Christian writers of this era when treating of doctrinal subjects; and yet their theology seems to have been essentially the same. All apparently admit the corruption of human nature. Justin Martyr speaks of a |concupiscence in every man, evil in all its tendencies, and various in its nature,| [450:5] whilst Tertullian mentions original sin under the designation of |the vice of our origin.| [450:6] Our first parent, says he, |having been seduced into disobedience by Satan was delivered over to death, and transmitted his condemnation to the whole human race which was infected from his seed.| [450:7] Though the ancient fathers occasionally describe free will in terms which apparently ignore the existence of indwelling depravity, [451:1] their language should not be too strictly interpreted, as it only implies a strong protest against the heathen doctrine of fate, and a recognition of the principle that man is a voluntary agent. Thus it is that Clemens Alexandrinus, one of the writers who asserts most decidedly the freedom of the will, admits the necessity of a new birth unto righteousness. |The Father,| says he, |regenerates by the Spirit unto adoption all who flee to Him.| [451:2] |Since the soul is moved of itself, the grace of God demands from it that which it has, namely, a ready temper as its contribution to salvation. For the Lord wishes that the good which He confers on the soul should be its own, since it is not without sensation, so that it should be impelled like a body.| [451:3]

No fact is more satisfactorily attested than that the early disciples rendered divine honours to our Saviour. In the very beginning of the second century, a heathen magistrate, who deemed it his duty to make minute inquiries respecting them, reported to the Roman Emperor that, in their religious assemblies, they sang |hymns to Christ as to a God.| [451:4] They were reproached by the Gentiles, as well as by the Jews, for worshipping a man who had been crucified. [451:5] When the accusation was brought against them, they at once admitted its truth, and they undertook to shew that the procedure for which they were condemned was perfectly capable of vindication. [452:1] In the days of Justin Martyr there were certain professing Christians, probably the Ebionites, [452:2] who held the simple humanity of our Lord, but that writer represents the great body of the disciples as entertaining very different sentiments. |There are some of our race,| says he, |who confess that He was the Christ, but affirm that He was a man born of human parents, with whom I do not agree, neither should I, even if very many, who entertain the same opinion as myself, were to say so; since we are commanded by Christ to attend, not to the doctrines of men, but to that which was proclaimed by the blessed prophets, and taught by Himself.| [452:3]

When Justin here expresses his dissent from those who described our Lord as |a man born of human parents,| he obviously means no more than that he is not a Humanitarian, for, in common with the early Church, he held the doctrine of the two natures in Christ. The fathers who now flourished, when touching upon the question of the union of humanity and deity in the person of the Redeemer, do not, it is true, express themselves always with as much precision as writers who appeared after the Eutychian controversy in the fifth century; but they undoubtedly believed that our Lord was both God and man. [453:1] Even already the subject was pressed on their attention by various classes of errorists who were labouring with much assiduity to disseminate their principles. The Gnostics, who affirmed that the body of Jesus was a phantom, shut them up to the necessity of shewing that He really possessed all the attributes of a human being; whilst, in meeting objectors from a different quarter, they were compelled to demonstrate that He was also the Jehovah of the Old Testament. The Ebionites were not the only sectaries who taught that Jesus was a mere man. The same doctrine was inculcated by Theodotus, a native of Byzantium, who settled at Rome about the end of the second century. This individual, though by trade a tanner, possessed no small amount of learning, and created some disturbance in the Church of the Western capital by the novelty and boldness of his speculations. In the end he is said to have been excommunicated by Victor, the Roman bishop. Some time afterwards, his sentiments were adopted by Artemon, whose disciples, named Artemonites, elected a bishop of their own, [453:2] and existed for some time at Rome as a distinct community.

But by far the most distinguished of these ancient impugners of the proper deity of the Messiah was the celebrated Paul of Samosata, who flourished shortly after the middle of the third century. Paul occupied the bishopric of Antioch, the second see in Christendom; and was undoubtedly a man of superior talent. According to his views, the Divine Logos is not a distinct Person, but the Reason of God; and Jesus was the greatest of the sons of men simply because the Logos dwelt in Him after a higher manner, or more abundantly, than in any other of the posterity of Adam. [454:1] But though this prelate had great wealth, influence, and eloquence, his heterodoxy soon raised a storm of opposition which he could not withstand. The Christians of Antioch in the third century could not quietly tolerate the ministrations of a preacher who insinuated that the Word is not truly God. He appears to have possessed consummate address, and when first arraigned, his plausible equivocations and sophistries imposed upon his judges; but, at a subsequent council, held about A.D.269 in the metropolis of Syria, he was so closely pressed by Malchion, one of his own presbyters, that he was obliged reluctantly to acknowledge his real sentiments. He was, in consequence, deposed from his office by a unanimous vote of the Synod. A circular letter [454:2] announcing the decision was transmitted to the leading pastors of the Church all over the Empire, and this ecclesiastical deliverance seems to have received their universal sanction. [454:3]

The theological term translated Trinity, [454:4] was in use as early as the second century; for, about A.D.180, it is employed by Theophilus, who is supposed to have been one of the predecessors of Paul of Samosata in the Church of Antioch. [454:5] Speaking of the formation of the heavenly bodies on the fourth day of creation, as described in the first chapter of Genesis, this writer observes -- |The three days which preceded the luminaries are types of the Trinity, [454:6] of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom.| Here, as elsewhere in the works of the fathers of the early Church, the third person of the Godhead is named under the designation of Wisdom. [455:1] Though this is the first mention of the word Trinity to be found in any ecclesiastical document now extant, it is plain that the doctrine is of far higher antiquity. Justin Martyr repeatedly refers to it, and Athenagoras, who flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, treats of it with much clearness. |We speak,| says he, |of the Father as God, and the Son as God, and the Holy Ghost, shewing at the same time their power in unity, and their distinction in order.| [455:2] |We who look upon this present life as worth little or nothing, and are conducted through it by the sole principle of knowing God and the Word proceeding from Him, of knowing what is the unity of the Son with the Father, what the Father communicates to the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the union of this number of Persons, the Spirit, the Son, and the Father, and in what way they who are united are divided -- shall we not have credit given us for being worshippers of God?| [455:3]

The attempts made in the latter half of the second century to pervert the doctrine of Scripture relative to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, probably led to the appearance of the word Trinity in the ecclesiastical nomenclature; for, when controversy commenced, some such symbol was required to prevent the necessity of constant and tedious circumlocution. One of the most noted of the parties dissatisfied with the ordinary mode of speaking respecting the Three Divine Persons, and desirous of changing the current creed, was Praxeas, a native of Asia Minor. After having acquired much credit by his fortitude and courage in a time of persecution, he had also signalised himself by his zeal against the Montanists. He now taught that the Son and Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but simply modes or energies of the Father; and as those who adopted his sentiments imagined that they thus held more strictly than others the doctrine of the existence of a single Ruler of the universe, they styled themselves Monarchians. [456:1] According to their views the first and second Persons of the Godhead are identical; and, as it apparently followed from this theory, that the Father suffered on the cross, they received the name of Patripassians. [456:2] Praxeas travelled from Asia Minor to Rome, and afterwards passed over into Africa, where he was strenuously opposed by the famous Tertullian. Another individual, named Noetus, attracted some notice about the close of the second century by the peculiarity of his speculations in reference to the Godhead. |Noetus,| says a contemporary, |calls the same both Son and Father, for he speaks thus -- 'When the Father had not been born, He was rightly called Father, but when it pleased Him to undergo birth, then by birth He became the Son of Himself, and not of another.' Thus he professes to establish the principle of Monarchianism.| [456:3] But, perhaps, the attempts of Sabellius to modify the established doctrine made the deepest impression. This man, who was an ecclesiastic connected with Ptolemais in Africa, [456:4] maintained that there is no foundation for the ordinary distinction of the Persons of the Trinity, and that the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, merely indicate different manifestations of the Supreme Being, or different phases under which the one God reveals Himself. From him the doctrine of those who confound the Persons of the Godhead still bears the name of Sabellianism.

It has been sometimes said that the Church borrowed its idea of a Trinity from Plato, but this assertion rests upon no historical basis. Learned men have found it exceedingly difficult to give anything like an intelligible account of the Trinity of the Athenian philosopher, [457:1] and it seems to have had only a metaphysical existence. It certainly had nothing more than a fanciful and verbal resemblance to the Trinity of Christianity. Had the doctrine of the Church been derived from the writings of the Grecian sage, it would not have been inculcated with so much zeal and unanimity by the early fathers. Some of them were bitterly opposed to Platonism, and yet, though none denounced it more vehemently than Tertullian, [457:2] we cannot point to any one of them who speaks of the Three Divine Persons more clearly or copiously. The heretic thinks, says he, |that we cannot believe in one God in any other way than if we say that the very same Person is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.... These persons assume the number and arrangement of the Trinity to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity, which derives a Trinity from itself, is not destroyed by it, but has its different offices performed. They, therefore, boast that two and three Gods are preached by us, but that they themselves are worshippers of one God; as if the Unity, when improperly contracted, did not create heresy, and a Trinity, when properly considered, did not constitute truth.| [457:3]

Every one at all acquainted with the ecclesiastical literature of this period must acknowledge that the disciples now firmly maintained the doctrine of the Atonement. The Gnostics and the Manichaeans discarded this article from their systems, as it was entirely foreign to the spirit of their philosophy; but, though the Church teachers enter into scarcely any explanation of it, by attempting to shew how the violated law required a propitiation, they proclaim it as a glorious truth which should inspire all the children of God with joy and confidence. Clemens Alexandrinus gives utterance only to the common faith when he declares -- |Christians are redeemed from corruption by the blood of the Lord.| |The Word poured forth His blood for us to save human nature.| |The Lord gave Himself a victim for us.| [458:1] The early writers also mention faith as the means by which we are to appropriate the benefits of the Redeemer's sacrifice. Thus, Justin Martyr represents Christ as |purifying by His blood those who believe on Him.| [458:2] Clemens Alexandrinus, in like manner, speaks of |the one mode of salvation by faith in God,| [458:3] and says that |we have believed in God through the voice of the Word.| [458:4] In the |Letter to Diognetus| the doctrine of justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of the Saviour is beautifully exhibited. |For what else,| says the writer, |could cover our sins but His righteousness? In whom was it a possible that we, the lawless and the unholy, could be justified, save by the Son of God alone? Oh sweet exchange! oh unsearchable wisdom! oh unexpected benefits! that the sin of many should be hidden by One righteous, and the righteousness of One justify many sinners.| [458:5]

The Church of the second and third centuries was not agitated by any controversies relative to grace and predestination. Few, probably, were disposed to indulge in speculations on these subjects; and some of the ecclesiastical writers, in the heat of controversial discussion, are occasionally tempted to make use of language which it would be difficult to reconcile with the declarations of the New Testament. All of them, however, either explicitly or virtually, admit the necessity of grace; and some distinctly enunciate the doctrine of election. |We stand in especial need of divine grace, and right instruction, and pure affection,| says Clemens Alexandrinus, |and we require that the Father should draw us towards himself.| |God, who knows the future as if it was already present, knows the elect according to His purpose even before the creation.| [459:1] |Your power to do,| says Cyprian, |will be according to the increase of spiritual grace.... What measure we bring thither of faith to hold, so much do we drink in of grace to inundate. Hereby is strength given.| [459:2] It is worthy of note that those writers, who speak most decidedly of the freedom of the will, also most distinctly proclaim their faith in the perfection of the Divine Sovereignty. Thus, Justin Martyr urges, as a decisive proof of the impious character of their theology, that the heathen philosophers repudiated the doctrine of a particular providence; [459:3] and all the ancient fathers are ever ready to recognise the superintending guardianship of God in the common affairs of life.

But though the creed of the Church was still to some extent substantially sound, it must be admitted that it was already beginning to suffer much from adulteration. One hundred years after the death of the Apostle John, spiritual darkness was fast settling down upon the Christian community; and the fathers, who flourished towards the commencement of the third century, frequently employ language for which they would have been sternly rebuked, had they lived in the days of the apostles and evangelists. Thus, we find them speaking of |sins cleansed by repentance,| [460:1] and of repentance as |the price at which the Lord has determined to grant forgiveness.| [460:2] We read of |sins cleansed by alms and faith,| [460:3] and of the martyr, by his sufferings, |washing away his own iniquities.| [460:4] We are told that by baptism |we are cleansed from all our sins,| and |regain that Spirit of God which Adam received at his creation and lost by his transgression.| [460:5] |The pertinacious wickedness of the Devil,| says Cyprian, |has power up to the saving water, but in baptism he loses all the poison of his wickedness.| [460:6] The same writer insists upon the necessity of penance, a species of discipline unknown to the apostolic Church, and denounces, with terrible severity, those who discouraged its performance. |By the deceitfulness of their lies,| says he, they interfere, |that satisfaction be not given to God in His anger..... All pains are taken that sins be not expiated by due satisfactions and lamentations, that wounds be not washed clean by tears.| [460:7] It may be said that some of these expressions are rhetorical, and that those by whom they were employed did not mean to deny the all-sufficiency of the Great Sacrifice; but had these fathers clearly apprehended the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, they would have recoiled from the use of language so exceedingly objectionable.

There are many who imagine that, had they lived in the days of Tertullian or of Origen, they would have enjoyed spiritual advantages far higher than any to which they have now access. But a more minute acquaintance with the ecclesiastical history of the third century might convince them that they have no reason to complain of their present privileges. The amount of material light which surrounds us does not depend on our proximity to the sun. When our planet is most remote from its great luminary, we may bask in the splendour of his effulgence; and, when it approaches nearer, we may be involved in thick darkness. So it is with the Church. The amount of our religious knowledge does not depend on our proximity to the days of primitive Christianity. The Bible is the sun of the spiritual firmament; and this divine illuminator, like the glorious orb of day, pours forth its light with equal brilliancy from generation to generation. The Church may retire into |chambers of imagery| erected by her own folly; and there, with the light shut out from her, may sink into a slumber disturbed only, now and then, by some dream of superstition; or, with the light still shining on her, her eye may be dim or disordered, and she may stumble at noonday. But the light is as pure as in the days of the apostles; and, if we have eyes to profit by it, we may |understand more than the ancients.| The art of printing has supplied us with facilities for the study of the Scriptures which were denied to the fathers of the second century; and the ecclesiastical documents, relative to that age, which have been transmitted to us from antiquity, contain, perhaps, the greater part of even the traditionary information which was preserved in the Church. If we are only |taught of God,| we are in as good a position for acquiring a correct acquaintance with the way of salvation as was Polycarp or Justin Martyr. What an encouragement for every one to pray -- |Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law. I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me!| [461:11]

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