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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


Whilst the Christian community was contending against the Gnostics, it was not without other controversies which were fitted to prejudice its claims in the sight of the heathen. The destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by Titus had prevented the sticklers for the Mosaic law from practising many of their ancient ceremonies: but there were parts of their ritual, such as circumcision, to which they still adhered, as these could be observed when the altar and the sanctuary no longer existed. In the reign of Hadrian a division of sentiment relative to the continued obligation of the Levitical code led to a great change in the mother Church of Christendom. About A.D.132, an adventurer, named Barchochebas, pretending to be the Messiah and aiming at temporal dominion, appeared in Palestine; the Jews, in great numbers, flocked to his standard; and the rebel chief contrived for three years to maintain a bloody war against the strength of the Roman legions. The Israelitish race, by their conduct at this juncture, grievously provoked the emperor; and when he had rebuilt Jerusalem, under the name of Aelia Capitolina, he threatened them with the severest penalties should they appear either in the city or the suburbs. Some of the Jewish Christians of the place, anxious, no doubt, to escape the proscription, now resolved to give up altogether the observance of circumcision. Others, however, objected to this course, and persisted in maintaining the permanent obligation of the Mosaic ritual. The dissentients, called Nazarenes, formed themselves into a separate community, which obtained adherents elsewhere, and which subsisted for several centuries. At first they differed from other Christians chiefly in their adherence to the initiatory ordinance of Judaism, but eventually they adopted erroneous principles in regard to the person of our Lord, and were in consequence ranked amongst heretics. [624:1]

In the history of the Church, the Nazarenes occupy a somewhat singular and unique position. Their name was one of the earliest designations by which the followers of our Saviour were known, [624:2] and though by many they have been called the First Dissenters, they might have very fairly pleaded that they were the lineal descendants of the most ancient stock of Christians in the world. The rite for which they contended had been practised in the Church of Jerusalem since its very establishment; the ministers by whom they had been taught had probably been instructed by the apostles themselves; and all the elders at the time connected with the holy city seem to have joined the secession. It is alleged that a number of Christians of Gentile origin, uniting with those of their brethren of Jewish descent who now agreed to relinquish the Hebrew ceremonies, chose an individual, named Marcus, for their chief pastor, and that at this period the succession in the line of the circumcision |failed.| [624:3] This statement cannot signify that some dire calamity had at once swept away all the old presbytery of Jerusalem. It obviously indicates that none of its members had joined the party whose principles had obtained the ascendency. And yet, though the adherents of Marcus might have been charged with innovation, they acted under the sanction of apostolical authority. They very properly refused to continue any longer in bondage to the beggarly elements of a ritual which had long since been superseded. Though the seceders might have urged that they were of apostolical descent, and that they were supported by ancient custom, it must be admitted, after all, that they were but a company of deluded and narrow-minded bigots. The evangelical pastors of the primitive Church repudiated their zeal for ritualism, and gave the right hand of fellowship to Marcus and his newly-organized community. The history of the mother Church of Christendom in the early part of the second century is thus fraught with lessons of the gravest wisdom. We may see from it that the true successors of the apostles were not those who occupied their seats, or who were able to trace from them a ministerial lineage, but those who inherited their spirit, who taught their doctrines, and who imitated their example.

Though, in this instance, the disciples at Jerusalem nobly emancipated themselves from the yoke of circumcision, it appears, from a controversy which created much confusion about sixty years afterwards, that the whole Church was disposed, to some extent, to conform to another Judaic ordinance. The embers of this dispute had been for some time smouldering, before they attracted much notice; but, about the termination of the second century, they broke out into a flame which spread from Rome to Jerusalem. The name of Easter [625:1] was yet unknown, and the Paschal feast appears, at least in some places, to have been then only recently established; but at an early period there was a sprinkling of Jewish Christians in almost every Church throughout the Empire, and they had at length induced their fellow-disciples to mark the seasons of the Passover and Pentecost [626:1] by certain special observances. The Passover was regarded as the more solemn feast, and, strange as it may now appear, was kept at the time by the Christians in much the same way in which it had been celebrated by the Jews before the fall of Jerusalem. A lamb was shut up on a certain day; it was afterwards roasted; and then eaten by the brotherhood. [626:2] The time when this ceremony was to be observed, and some other circumstantials, now formed topics of earnest and protracted discussion. One party, known as the Quarto-decimans, or Fourteenth Day Men, held that the Paschal feast was to be kept exactly at the time when the Jews had been accustomed to eat the Passover, that is, on the fourteenth day of the first month of the Jewish year; [626:3] and they celebrated the festival of the resurrection on the seventeenth day of the month, that is, on the third day after partaking of the Paschal lamb, whether that happened to be the first day of the week or otherwise. The other party strenuously maintained that the eating of the Paschal lamb ought to be postponed until the night preceding the first Lord's day next following the fourteenth day of the first month. They considered that this next Lord's day should be recognized as the festival of our Saviour's resurrection, and that the whole of the preceding week until the close should be kept as a fast not to be interrupted by the eating of the Passover.

The most determined Quarto-decimans were to be found in Asia Minor, and at their head was Polycrates, the chief pastor of Ephesus. At the head of the other party was Victor, bishop of Rome. The Church over which he presided did not originally observe any such appointment, [627:1] but some of its members of Jewish extraction were probably, on that account, dissatisfied; and about the time of the establishment of the Catholic system, the matter seems to have been settled by a compromise. It appears to have been then arranged that the festival should be kept; but to avoid the imputation of symbolizing with the Jews, it was agreed that the Friday of the Paschal week and the Lord's day following, or the day on which our Saviour suffered and the day on which He rose from the dead, should be the great days of observance. This arrangement was pretty generally accepted by those connected with what now began to be called the Catholic Church: but some parties pertinaciously refused to conform. Victor, as the head of the Catholic confederation, no doubt deemed it his duty to exact obedience from all its members; and, deeply mortified because the Asiatic Churches persisted in their own usages, shut them out from his communion. But it was soon evident that the Church was not prepared for such an exercise of authority, for the Asiatics refused to yield; and as some of Victor's best friends protested against the imprudence of his procedure, the ecclesiastical thunderbolt proved an impotent demonstration.

The Paschal controversy was far from creditable to any of the parties concerned. The eating of a lamb on a particular day was a fragment of an antiquated ceremonial, and as the ordinance itself had been superseded, the time of its observance was not a legitimate question for debate. Each party is said to have endeavoured to fortify its own position by quoting the names of Paul or Peter or Philip or John; but had any one of these apostles risen from the dead and appeared in the ecclesiastical arena, he would, no doubt, have rebuked all the disputants for their trivial and unholy wrangling. We have here a notable proof of the absurdity of appealing to tradition. Within a hundred years after the death of the last survivor of the Twelve its testimony was most discordant, for the tradition of the Western Churches, as propounded by Victor, expressly contradicted the tradition of the Eastern Churches, as attested by Polycrates. It is clear that in this case the apostles must have been misrepresented. Peter and Paul certainly never taught the members of the Church of Rome to eat the Paschal lamb, for the Jewish temple continued standing until after both these eminent ministers had finished their career, and meanwhile the eating of the Passover was confined to those who went up to worship at Jerusalem. Philip and John may have continued to keep the feast according to the ancient ritual until shortly before the ruin of the holy city; and if, afterwards, they permitted the converts from Judaism to kill a lamb and to have a social repast at the same season of the year, they could have attached no religious importance to such an observance. But now that both parties were heated by the spirit of rivalry and contention, they extracted from tradition a testimony which it did not supply. Vague reports and equivocal statements, handed down from ages preceding, were compelled to convey a meaning very different from that which they primarily communicated; and thus the voice of one tradition could be readily employed to neutralize the authority of another.

It is a curious fact that the custom which now created such violent excitement gradually passed into desuetude. At present there are few places [629:1] where the eating of the Paschal lamb is continued. But otherwise the practice for which Victor contended eventually prevailed, as the Roman mode of celebration was established by the authority of the Council of Nice. What is called Easter Sunday is still observed in many Churches as the festival of the resurrection. But the institution of such a festival is unnecessary, as each returning Lord's day should remind the Christian that his Saviour has risen from the dead and become the first-fruits of them that sleep. [629:2]

This Paschal controversy generated no schism, but other disputes, which subsequently occurred, did not terminate so peacefully. About the middle of the third century disagreements respecting matters of discipline rent the Churches of Carthage and Rome. At Carthage, the malecontents sought for greater laxity; at Rome, they contended for greater strictness. At that time the confessors and the martyrs, or those who had persevered in their adherence to the faith under pains and penalties, and those who had suffered for it unto death, were held in the highest veneration. They had been even permitted in some places to dictate to the existing ecclesiastical rulers by granting what were called tickets of peace [629:3] to the lapsed, that is, to those who had apostatized in a season of persecution, and who had afterwards sought readmission to Church communion. These certificates, or tickets of peace, were understood to entitle the parties in whose favour they were drawn up to be admitted forthwith to the Lord's Supper. But it sometimes happened that a confessor or a martyr was himself far from a paragon of excellence, [630:1] as mere obstinacy, or pride, or self-righteousness, may occasionally hold out as firmly as a higher principle; and a man may give his body to be burned who does not possess one atom of the grace of Christian charity. There were confessors and martyrs in the third century who held very loose views on the subject of Church discipline, and who gave tickets of peace without much inquiry or consideration. [630:2] In some instances they did not condescend so far as to name the parties to whom they supplied recommendations, but directed that a particular individual |and his friends| [630:3] should be restored to ecclesiastical fellowship. Cyprian of Carthage at length determined to set his face against this system of testimonials. He alleged that the ticket of a martyr was no sufficient proof of the penitence of the party who tendered it, and that each application for readmission to membership should be decided on its own merits, by the proper Church authorities. The bishop was already obnoxious to some of the presbyters and people of Carthage; and, in the hope of undermining his authority, his enemies eagerly seized on his refusal to recognize these certificates. They endeavoured to create a prejudice against him by alleging that he was acting dictatorially, and that he was not rendering due honour to those who had so nobly imperilled or sacrificed their lives in the service of the gospel. To a certain extent their opposition was successful; and, as much sickness prevailed about the time, Cyprian was obliged to concede so far as to consent to give the Eucharist, on the tickets of peace, to those who had lapsed, and who were apparently approaching dissolution. But, soon afterwards, strengthened by the decision of an African Synod, he returned to his original position, and the parties now became hopelessly alienated. The leader of the secession was a deacon of the Carthaginian Church, named Felicissimus, and from him the schism which now occurred has received its designation. The Separatists chose a presbyter, named Fortunatus, as their bishop, and thus in the capital of the Proconsular Africa a new sect was organized. But the secession, which was based upon a principle thoroughly unsound, soon dwindled into insignificance, and rapidly passed into oblivion.

The schism which occurred about the same time at Rome was of a more formidable and permanent character. It had long been the opinion of a certain party in the Church that persons who had committed certain heinous sins should never again be readmitted to ecclesiastical fellowship. [631:1] Those who held this principle did not pretend to say that these transgressions were unpardonable; it was admitted that the offenders might obtain forgiveness from God, but it was alleged that the Church on earth could never feel warranted to receive them to communion. Cornelius, who was then the bishop of Rome, supported a milder system and contended that those who were not hopelessly excluded from the peace of God should not be inexorably debarred from the visible pledges of His affection. The leader of the stricter party was Novatian, a Roman presbyter of pure morals and considerable ability, who has left behind him one of the best treatises in defence of the Trinity which the ecclesiastical literature of antiquity can supply. This individual was ordained bishop in opposition to Cornelius; and, for a time, some of the most distinguished pastors of the age found it difficult to decide between these two claimants of the great bishopric. The high character of Novatian, and the supposed tendency of his discipline to preserve the credit and promote the purity of the Church, secured him considerable support: the sect which derived its designation from him spread into various countries; and, for several generations, the Novatians could challenge comparison, as to soundness in the faith and propriety of general conduct, with those who assumed the name of Catholics.

The agitation caused by the Novatian schism had not yet subsided when another controversy respecting the propriety of rebaptizing those designated heretics created immense excitement. Cyprian at the head of one party maintained that the baptism of heretical ministers was not to be recognized, and that the ordinance must again be dispensed to such sectaries as sought admission to catholic communion; whilst Stephen of Rome as strenuously affirmed that the rite was not to be repeated. It is rather singular that the Italian prelate, on this occasion, pleaded for the more liberal principle; but various considerations conspired to prompt him to pursue this course. When heresies were only germinating, and when what was afterwards called the Catholic Church was yet but in process of formation, no question as to the necessity of rebaptizing those to whom the ordinance had already been dispensed by any reputed Christian minister, seems to have been mooted. In the time of Hyginus of Rome, even the baptism of the leading ministers of the Gnostics was acknowledged by the chief pastor of the Western metropolis. [633:1] The Church of Rome had ever since continued to act upon the same system; and her determination to adhere to it had been fortified, rather than weakened, by recent occurrences. As the Novatians had set out on the principle of rebaptizing all who joined them, [633:2] Stephen recoiled from the idea of deviating from the ancient practice to follow in their footsteps. But Cyprian, who was naturally of a very imperious temper, and who had formed most extravagant notions of the dignity of the Catholic Church, could not brook the thought that the ministers connected with the schism of Felicissimus could dispense any baptism at all. He imagined that the honour of the party to which he belonged would be irretrievably compromised by such an admission, and he was sustained in these views by a strong party of African and Asiatic bishops. On this occasion Stephen repeated the experiment made about sixty years before by his predecessor Victor, and attempted to reduce his antagonists to acquiescence by excluding them from his fellowship. But this second effort to enforce ecclesiastical conformity was equally unsuccessful. It only provoked an outburst of indignation, as the parties in favour of rebaptizing refused to give way. This controversy led, however, to the broad assertion of a principle which might not otherwise have been brought out so distinctly, for it was frequently urged during the course of the discussion that all pastors stand upon a basis of equality, and that the bishop of a little African village had intrinsically as good a right to think and to act for himself as the bishop of the great capital of the Empire.

It is very clear that at this time the unity of the Church did not consist in the uniformity of its discipline and ceremonies. The believers at Jerusalem continued to practise circumcision nearly a century after the establishment of Gentile Churches in which such a rite was unknown. On the question of rebaptizing heretics the Churches of Africa and Asia Minor were diametrically opposed to the Church of Rome and other communities in the West. As to the mode of observing the Paschal feast a still greater diversity existed. According to the testimony of Irenaeus there was nothing approaching to uniformity in the practice of the various societies with which he was acquainted. |The dispute,| said he, |is not only respecting the day, but also respecting the manner of fasting. For some think that they ought to fast only one day, some two, some more days; some compute their day as consisting of forty hours night and day; [634:1] and this diversity existing among those that observe it, is not a matter that has just sprung up in our times, but long ago among those before us.| [634:2] When Cyprian refused to admit the lapsed to the Lord's Supper on the strength of the tickets of peace furnished by the confessors and the martyrs, he departed from the course previously adopted in Carthage; and when Novatian excluded them altogether from communion, he acted on a principle which was not then novel. There was at that time, in fact, quite as much diversity in discipline and ceremonies among Christians as is now to be found in evangelical Protestant Churches.

It must be admitted that, as we descend from the apostolic age, the spirit of the dominant body in the Church betrays a growing want of Christian charity. There soon appeared a disposition, on the part of some, to monopolize religion, and to disown all who did not adopt their ecclesiastical Shibboleth. When the great mass of Christians became organized into what was called the Catholic Church, the chief pastors branded with the odious name of heretics all who did not belong to their association. The Nazarenes originally held all the great doctrines of the gospel, but they soon found themselves in the list of the proscribed, and they gradually degenerated into abettors of very corrupt principles. Those members of the Church of Carthage who joined Felicissimus acted upon principles which the predecessors even of Cyprian had sanctioned, and yet the African prelate denounced them as beyond the pale of divine mercy. Novatian was not less orthodox than Cornelius; but because he contended for a system of discipline which, though not unprecedented, was deemed by his rival too austere, and because he organized a party to support him, he also was stigmatized with the designation of heretic. The Quarto-decimans, as well as those who contended for Catholic rebaptism, would doubtless have been classed in the same list, had they not formed numerous and powerful confederations. Thus it was that those called Catholics were taught to cherish a contracted spirit, and to look upon all, except their own party, as out of the reach of salvation. Their false conceptions of what properly constituted the Church involved them in many errors and tended to vitiate their entire theology. But this subject is too important to be discussed in a few cursory remarks, and must be reserved for consideration in a separate chapter.

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