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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER VIII. THE CATHOLIC SYSTEM.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The word catholic, which signifies universal or general, came into use towards the end of the second century. Its introduction indicates a new phase in the history of the ecclesiastical community. For upwards of a hundred years after its formation, the Church presented the appearance of one great and harmonious brotherhood, as false teachers had hitherto failed to create any considerable diversity of sentiment; but when many of the literati began to embrace the gospel, the influence of elements of discord soon became obvious. These converts attempted to graft their philosophical theories on Christianity; not a few of the more unstable of the brethren, captivated by their ingenuity and eloquence, were tempted to adopt their views; and though the great mass of the disciples repudiated their adulterations of the truth, the Christian commonwealth was distracted and divided. Those who banded themselves together to maintain the unity of the Church were soon known by the designation of Catholics. |After the days of the apostles,| says one of the fathers, |when heresies had burst forth, and were striving under various names to tear piecemeal and divide the Dove and the Queen of God, [561:1] did not the apostolic people require a name of their own whereby to mark the unity of those that were uncorrupted? .... Therefore our people, when named Catholic, are separated by this title from those denominated heretics.| [562:1]

The Catholic system, being an integral portion of the policy which invested the presiding elder with additional authority, rose contemporaneously with Prelacy. When Gnosticism was spreading so rapidly, and creating so much scandal and confusion, schism upon schism appeared unavoidable. How was the Church to be kept from going to pieces? How could its unity be best conserved? How could it contend most successfully against its subtle and restless disturbers? Such were the problems which now occupied the attention of its leading ministers. It was thought that all these difficulties would be solved by the adoption of the Catholic system. Were the Church, it was said, to place more power in the hands of individuals, and then to consolidate its influence, it could bear down more effectively upon the errorists. Every chief pastor of the Catholic Church was the symbol of the unity of his own ecclesiastical district; and the associated bishops represented the unity of the whole body of the faithful. According to the Catholic system when strictly carried out, every individual excommunicated by one bishop was excommunicated by all, so that when a heresiarch was excluded from fellowship in one city, he could not be received elsewhere. The visible unity of the Church was the great principle which the Catholic system sought to realise. |The Church,| says Cyprian, |which is catholic and one, is not separated or divided, but is in truth connected and joined together by the cement of bishops mutually cleaving to each other.| [562:2]

The funds of the Church were placed very early in the hands of the president of the eldership, [563:1] and though they may not have been at his absolute disposal, he, no doubt, soon found means of sustaining his authority by means of his monetary influence. But the power which he possessed, as the recognized centre of ecclesiastical unity, to prevent any of his elders or deacons from performing any official act of which he disapproved, constituted one of the essential features of the Catholic system. |The right to administer baptism,| says Tertullian, |belongs to the chief priest, that is, the bishop: then to the presbyters and the deacons, [563:2] yet not without the authority of the bishop, for the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved.| [563:3] Here, the origin of Catholicism is pretty distinctly indicated; for the prerogatives of the bishop are described, not as matters of divine right, but of ecclesiastical arrangement. [563:4] They were given to him |for the honour of the Church,| that peace might be preserved when heretics began to cause divisions.

Though the bishop could give permission to others to celebrate divine ordinances, he was himself their chief administrator. He was generally the only preacher; he usually dispensed baptism; [563:5] and he presided at the observance of the Eucharist. At Rome, where the Catholic system was maintained most scrupulously, his presence seems to have been considered necessary to the due consecration of the elements. Hence, at one time, the sacramental symbols were carried from the cathedral church to all the places of Christian worship throughout the city. [564:1] With such minute care did the Roman chief pastor endeavour to disseminate the doctrine that whoever was not in communion with the bishop was out of the Church.

The establishment of a close connexion, between certain large Christian associations and the smaller societies around them, constituted the next link in the organization of the Catholic system. These communities, being generally related as mother and daughter churches, were already prepared to adapt themselves to the new type of ecclesiastical polity. The apostles, or their immediate disciples, had founded congregations in most of the great cities of the Empire; and every society thus instituted, now distinguished by the designation of the principal [564:2] or apostolic Church, became a centre of ecclesiastical unity. Its presiding minister sent the Eucharist to the teachers of the little flocks in his vicinity, to signify that he acknowledged them as brethren; [564:3] and every pastor who thus enjoyed communion with the principal Church was recognized as a Catholic bishop. This parent establishment was considered a bulwark which could protect all the Christian communities surrounding it from heresy, and they were consequently expected to be guided by its traditions. |It is manifest,| says Tertullian, |that all doctrine, which agrees with these apostolic Churches, THE WOMBS AND ORIGINALS OF THE FAITH, [564:4] must be accounted true, as without doubt containing that which the Churches have received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God: and that all other doctrine must be judged at once to be false, which savours of things contrary to the truth of the Churches, and of the apostles, and of Christ, and of God....Go through the apostolic Churches, in which the very seats of the apostles, at this very day, preside over their own places, [565:1] in which their own authentic writings are read, speaking with the voice of each, and making the face of each present to the eye. Is Achaia near to you? You have Corinth. If you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi, you have the Thessalonians. [565:2] If you can travel into Asia, you have Ephesus. But if you are near to Italy you have Rome, where we also have an authority close at hand.| [565:3]

But the Catholic system was not yet complete. In every congregation the bishop or pastor was the centre of unity, and in every district the principal or apostolic Church bound together the smaller Christian societies; but how were the apostolic Churches themselves to be united? This question did not long remain without a solution. [565:4] Had the Church of Jerusalem, when the Catholic system was first organized, still occupied its ancient position, it might have established a better title to precedence than any other ecclesiastical community in existence. It had been, beyond all controversy, the mother Church of Christendom. But it had been recently dissolved, and a new society, composed, to a great extent, of new members, was now in process of formation in the new city of Aelia. Meanwhile the Church of Rome had been rapidly acquiring strength, and its connexion with the seat of government pointed it out as the appropriate head of the Catholic confederation. If the greatest convenience of the greatest number of Churches were to be taken into account, it had claims of peculiar potency, for it was easily accessible by sea or land from all parts of the Empire, and it had facilities for keeping up communication with the provinces to which no other society could pretend. Nor were these its only recommendations. It had, as was alleged, been watered by the ministry of two or three [556:1] of the apostles, so that, even as an apostolic Church, it had high pretensions. In addition to all this, it had, more than once, sustained with extraordinary constancy the first and fiercest brunt of persecution; and if its members had so signalized themselves in the army of martyrs, why should not its bishop lead the van of the Catholic Church? Such considerations urged in favour of a community already distinguished by its wealth, as well as by its charity, were amply sufficient to establish its claim as the centre of Catholic unity. If, as is probable, the arrangement was concocted in Rome itself, they must have been felt to be irresistible. Hence Irenaeus, writing about A.D.180, speaks of it even then as the recognized head of the Churches of the Empire. |To this Church,| says he, |because it is more potentially principal, it is necessary that every Catholic Church should go, as in it the apostolic tradition has by the Catholics been always preserved.| [567:1]

Many Protestant writers have attempted to explain away the meaning of this remarkable passage, but the candid student of history is bound to listen respectfully to its testimony. When we assign to the words of Irenaeus all the significance of which they are susceptible, they only attest the fact that, in the latter half of the second century, the Church of Rome was acknowledged as the most potent of all the apostolic Churches. And in the same place the grounds of its pre-eminence are enumerated pretty fully by the pastor of Lyons. It was the most ancient Church in the West of Europe; it was also the most populous; like a city set upon a hill, it was known to all; and it was reputed to have had for its founders the most illustrious of the inspired heralds of the cross, the apostle of the Gentiles, and the apostle of the circumcision. [567:2] It was more |potentially principal,| because it was itself the principal of the apostolic or principal Churches.

It has been already stated that every principal bishop, [567:3] or presiding minister of an apostolic Church, sent the Eucharist to the pastors around him as a pledge of their ecclesiastical fellowship; and it would appear that the bishop of Rome kept up intercourse with the other bishops of the apostolic Churches by transmitting to them the same symbol of catholicity. [567:4] The sacred elements were doubtless conveyed by confidential churchmen, who served, at the same time, as channels of communication between the great prelate and the more influential of his brethren. By this means the communion of the whole Catholic Church was constantly maintained.

When the Catholic system was set up, and the bishop of Rome recognized as its Head, he was not supposed to possess, in his new position, any arbitrary or despotic authority. He was simply understood to hold among pastors the place which had previously been occupied by the senior elder in the presbytery -- that is, he was the president or moderator. The theoretical parity of all bishops, the chief pastor of Rome included, was a principle long jealously asserted. [568:1] But the prelate of the capital was the individual to whom other bishops addressed themselves respecting all matters affecting the general interests of the ecclesiastical community; he collected their sentiments; and he announced the decisions of their united wisdom. It was, however, scarcely possible for an official in his circumstances either to satisfy all parties, or to keep within the limits of his legitimate power. When his personal feelings were known to run strongly in a particular channel, the minority, to whom he was opposed, would at least suspect him of attempting domination. Hence it was that by those who were discontented with his policy he was tauntingly designated, as early as the beginning of the third century, The Supreme Pontiff, and The Bishop of Bishops. [568:2] These titles cannot now be gravely quoted as proofs of the existence of the claims which they indicate; for they were employed ironically by malcontents who wished thus either to impeach his partiality, or to condemn his interference. But they supply clear evidence that his growing influence was beginning to be formidable, and that he already stood at the head of the ministers of Christendom.

The preceding statements enable us to understand why the interests of Rome and of the Catholic Church have always been identified. The metropolis of Italy has, in fact, from the beginning been the heart of the Catholic system. In ancient times Roman statesmen were noted for their skill in fitting up the machinery of political government: Roman churchmen have laboured no less successfully in the department of ecclesiastical organization. The Catholic system is a wonderful specimen of constructive ability; and there is every reason to believe that the same city which produced Prelacy, also gave birth, about the same time, to this masterpiece of human contrivance. The fact may be established, as well by other evidences, as by the positive testimony of Cyprian. The bishop of Carthage, who flourished only about a century after it appeared, was connected with that quarter of the Church in which it originated. We cannot, therefore, reasonably reject the depositions of so competent a witness, more especially when he speaks so frequently and so confidently of its source. When he describes the Roman bishopric as |the root and womb of the Catholic Church,| [569:1] his language admits of no second interpretation. He was well aware that the Church of Jerusalem was the root and womb of all the apostolic Churches; and when he employs such phraseology, he must refer to some new phase of Christianity which had originated in the capital of the Empire. In another place he speaks of |the see of Peter, and the principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise.| [569:2] Such statements shut us up to the conclusion that Rome was the source and centre from which Catholicism radiated.

This system could have been only gradually developed, and nearly half a century appears to have elapsed before it acquired such maturity that it attained a distinctive designation. [570:1] But, as it was currently believed to be admirably adapted to the exigencies of the Church, it spread with much rapidity; and, in less than a hundred years after its rise, its influence may be traced in almost all parts of the Empire. We may thus explain a historical phenomenon which might otherwise be unaccountable. Towards the close of the second and throughout the whole of the third century, ecclesiastical writers connected with various and distant provinces refer with peculiar respect to the Apostle Peter, and even appeal to Scripture [570:2] with a view to his exaltation. Their misinterpretations of the Word reveal an extreme anxiety to obtain something like an inspired warrant for their catholicism. The visible unity of the Church was deemed by them essential to its very existence, and the Roman see was the actual key-stone of the Catholic structure. Hence every friend of orthodoxy imagined it to be, as well his duty as his interest, to uphold the claims of the supposed representative of Peter, and thus to maintain the cause of ecclesiastical unity. It might have been anticipated under such circumstances that Scripture would be miserably perverted, and that the see, which was believed to possess as its heritage the prerogatives of the apostle of the circumcision, would be the subject of extravagant laudation.

Ambition has been often represented as the great principle which guided the policy of the early Roman bishops, but there is no evidence that, as a class, they were inferior in piety to other churchmen, and the readiness with which some of them suffered for the faith attests their Christian sincerity and resolution. Ambition, doubtless, soon began to operate; but their elevation was not so much the result of any deep-laid scheme for their aggrandizement, as of a series of circumstances pushing them into prominence, and placing them in a most influential position. The efforts of heretics to create division led to a reaction, and tempted the Church to adopt arrangements for preserving union by which its liberties were eventually compromised. The bishop of Rome found himself almost immediately at the head of the Catholic league, and there is no doubt that, before the close of the second century, he was acknowledged as the chief pastor of Christendom. About that time we see him writing letters to some of the most distinguished bishops of the East [571:1] directing them to call councils; and it does not appear that his epistles were deemed unwarranted or officious. Unity of doctrine was speedily connected with unity of discipline, and an opinion gradually prevailed that the Church Catholic should exhibit universal uniformity. When Victor differed from the Asiatic bishops relative to the mode of observing the Paschal festival, he was only seeking to realize the idea of unity; and, as the Head of the Catholic Church, he might have carried out against them his threat of excommunication, had he not in this particular case been moving in advance of public opinion. When Stephen, sixty years afterwards, disputed with Cyprian and others concerning the rebaptism of heretics, he was still endeavouring to work out the same unity; and the bishop of Carthage found himself involved in contradictions when he proceeded at once to assert his independence, and to concede to the see of Peter the honour which, as he admitted, it could legitimately challenge. [572:1]

The theory of Catholicism is based on principles thoroughly fallacious. Assuming that visible unity is essential to the Church on earth, it sanctions the startling inference that whoever is not connected with a certain ecclesiastical society must be out of the pale of salvation. The most grinding spiritual tyranny ever known has been erected on this foundation. And yet how hollow is the whole system! It is no more necessary that all the children of God in this world should belong to the same visible Church than that all the children of men should be connected with the same earthly monarchy. All believers are |one in Christ;| they have all |one Lord, one faith, one baptism;| but |the kingdom of God cometh not with observation,| and the unity of the saints on earth can be discerned only by the eye of Omniscience. They are all sustained by the same living bread which cometh down from heaven, but they may receive their spiritual provision as members of ten thousand separated Churches. All who truly love the Saviour are united to Him by a link which can never be broken; and no ecclesiastical barrier can either exclude them from His presence here, or shut them out from His fellowship hereafter. But a number of men might as well propose to appropriate all the light of the sun or all the winds of heaven, as attempt to form themselves into a privileged society with a monopoly of the means of salvation.

The Church of Rome is understood to be the spiritual Babylon of the Apocalypse, and yet one point of correspondence between the type and the antitype seems to have been hitherto overlooked. The great city of Babylon commenced with the erection of Babel, and the builders said -- |Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.| [573:1] Civil unity was avowedly the end designed by these architects. Amongst other purposes contemplated by the famous tower, it appears to have been intended to serve as a centre of catholicity -- a great rallying point or landmark -- by which every citizen might be guided homewards when he lost his way in the plain of Shinar. It is a curious fact that in the |Pastor of Hermas,| perhaps the first work written in Rome after the establishment of Prelacy, the Church is described under the similitude of a tower! [573:2] When Hyginus |established the gradations,| the hierarchy at once assumed that appearance. And the see of Peter, the centre of Catholic unity, was now to be the great spiritual landmark to guide the steps of all true churchmen. The ecclesiastical builders prospered for a time, but when Constantine had finished a new metropolis in the East, some symptoms of disunion revealed themselves. When the Empire was afterwards divided, jealousies increased; the builders could not well understand one another's speech; and the Church at length witnessed the great schism of the Greeks and the Latins. In due time the Reformation interfered still more vexatiously with the building of the ecclesiastical Babel. But this more recent schism has given a mighty impulse to the cause of freedom, of civilization, and of truth; for the Protestants, scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth, have been spreading far and wide the light of the gospel. The builders of Babel still continue their work, but their boasted unity is gone for ever; and now, with the exception of their political manoeuvring, their highest achievements are literally in the department of stone and mortar. They may found costly edifices, and they may erect spires pointing, like the tower of Babel, to the skies, but they can no longer reasonably hope to bind together the liberated nations with the chains of a gigantic despotism, or to induce worshippers of all kindreds and tongues to adopt the one dead language of Latin superstition. The signs of the times indicate that the remnant of the Catholic workmen must soon |leave off to build the city.| The final overthrow of the mystical Babylon will usher in the millennium of the Church, and the present success of Protestant missions is premonitory of the approaching doom of Romish ritualism. It is written -- |I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.| [574:1]

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