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Encouraged by the favorable reception of my |History of the Apostolic Church,| I now offer to the public a History of the Primitive Church from the birth of Christ to the reign of Constantine, as an independent and complete work in itself, and at the same time as the first volume of a general history of Christianity, which I hope, with the help of God, to bring down to the present age.
The church of the first three centuries, or the ante-Nicene age, possesses a peculiar interest for Christians of all denominations, and has often been separately treated, by Eusebius, Mosheim, Milman, Kaye, Baur, Hagenbach, and other distinguished historians. It is the daughter of Apostolic Christianity, which itself constitutes the first and by far the most important chapter in its history, and the common mother of Catholicism and Protestantism, though materially differing from both. It presents a state of primitive simplicity and purity unsullied by contact with the secular power, but with this also, the fundamental forms of heresy and corruption, which reappear from time to time under new names and aspects, but must serve, in the overruling providence of God, to promote the cause of truth and righteousness. It is the heroic age of the church, and unfolds before us the sublime spectacle of our holy religion in intellectual and moral conflict with the combined superstition, policy, and wisdom of ancient Judaism and Paganism; yet growing in persecution, conquering in death, and amidst the severest trials giving birth to principles and institutions which, in more matured form, still control the greater part of Christendom.
Without the least disposition to detract from the merits of my numerous predecessors, to several of whom I feel deeply indebted, I have reason to hope that this new attempt at a historical reproduction of ancient Christianity will meet a want in our theological literature and commend itself, both by its spirit and method, and by presenting with the author's own labors the results of the latest German and English research, to the respectful attention of the American student. Having no sectarian ends to serve, I have confined myself to the duty of a witness -- to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; always remembering, however, that history has a soul as well as a body, and that the ruling ideas and general principles must be represented no less than the outward facts and dates. A church history without the life of Christ glowing through its pages could give us at best only the picture of a temple stately and imposing from without, but vacant and dreary within, a mummy in praying posture perhaps and covered with trophies, but withered and unclean: such a history is not worth the trouble of writing or reading. Let the dead bury their dead; we prefer to live among the living, and to record the immortal thoughts and deeds of Christ in and through his people, rather than dwell upon the outer hulls, the trifling accidents and temporary scaffolding of history, or give too much prominence to Satan and his infernal tribe, whose works Christ came to destroy.
The account of the apostolic period, which forms the divine-human basis of the whole structure of history, or the ever-living fountain of the unbroken stream of the church, is here necessarily short and not intended to supersede my larger work, although it presents more than a mere summary of it, and views the subject in part under new aspects. For the history of the second period, which constitutes the body of this volume, large use has been made of the new sources of information recently brought to light, such as the Syriac and Armenian Ignatius, and especially the Philosophoumena of Hippolytus. The bold and searching criticism of modern German historians as applied to the apostolic and post-apostolic literature, though often arbitrary and untenable in its results, has nevertheless done good service by removing old prejudices, placing many things in a new light, and conducing to a comprehensive and organic view of the living process and gradual growth of ancient Christianity in its distinctive character, both in its unity with, and difference from, the preceding age of the apostles and the succeeding systems of Catholicism and Protestantism.
And now I commit this work to the great Head of the church with the prayer that, under his blessing, it may aid in promoting a correct knowledge of his heavenly kingdom on earth, and in setting forth its history as a book if life, a storehouse of wisdom and piety, and surest test of his own promise to his people: |Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.|
Theological Seminary, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania,
November, 8, 1858