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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


CHAPTER I THE NEW TESTAMENT, ITS HISTORY, AND THE AUTHORITY OF ITS VARIOUS PARTS. THE EPISTLE OF CLEMENT OF ROME. The conduct of our Lord, as a religious teacher, betokened that He was something more than man. Mohammed dictated the Koran, and left it behind him as a sacred book for the guidance of his followers; many others, who have established sects, have also founded a literature for their disciples; but Jesus Christ wrote nothing. The Son of God was not obliged to condescend to become His own biographer, and thus to testify of Himself. He had at His disposal the hearts and the pens of others; and He knew that His words and actions would be accurately reported to the latest generations. During His personal ministry, even His apostles were only imperfectly acquainted with His theology; but, shortly before His death, He gave them an assurance that, in due time, He would disclose to them more fully the nature and extent of the great salvation. He said to them -- |The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. [177:1].... He will guide you into all truth.| [177:2] The resurrection poured a flood of light into the minds of the apostles, and they forthwith commenced with unwonted boldness to proclaim the truth in all its purity and power; but, perhaps, no part of the evangelical history was written until upwards of twenty years after the death of our Saviour. [177:3] According to tradition, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then appeared in the order in which they are now presented in our authorised version. [177:4] It is certain that all these narratives were published several years before the tall of Jerusalem in A.D.70; and as each contains our Lord's announcement of its speedy catastrophe, there is much probability in the report, that the exact fulfilment of so remarkable a prophecy, led many to acknowledge the divine origin of the Christian religion. The Gospel of John is of a much later date, and seems to have been written towards the conclusion of the century. Two of the evangelists, Matthew and John, were apostles; and the other two, Mark and Luke, appear to have been of the number of the Seventy. [177:5] All were, therefore, fully competent to bear testimony to the facts which they record, for the Seventy had |companied| with the Twelve |all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among| them, [178:1] and all |were from the beginning eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.| [178:2] These writers mention many miracles performed by Christ, and at least three of the Gospels were in general circulation whilst multitudes were still alive who are described in them as either the spectators or the subjects of His works of wonder; and yet, though the evangelists often enter most minutely into details, so that their statements, if capable of contradiction, might have been at once challenged and exposed, we do not find that any attempt was meanwhile made to impeach their accuracy. Their manner of recording the acts of the Great Teacher is characterised by remarkable simplicity, and the most acute reader in vain seeks to detect in it the slightest trace of concealment or exaggeration. Matthew artlessly confesses that he belonged to the odious class of publicans; [178:3] Mark tells how Peter, his friend and companion, |began to curse and to swear,| and to declare that he knew not the Man; [178:4] Luke, who was probably one of the two brethren who journeyed to Emmaus, informs us how Jesus drew near to them on the way and upbraided them as |fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken;| [178:5] and John honestly repudiates the pretended prediction setting forth that he himself was not to die. [178:6] Each evangelist mentions incidents unnoticed by the others, and thus supplies proof that he is entitled to the credit of an original and independent witness. Matthew alone gives the formula of baptism |in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost;| [178:7] Mark alone speaks of the great amazement of the people as they beheld the face of Christ on His descent from the Mount of Transfiguration; [179:1] Luke alone announces the appointment of the Seventy; [179:2] and John alone records some of those sublime discourses in which our Lord treats of the doctrine of His Sonship, of the mission of the Comforter, and of the mysterious union between Himself and His people. [179:3] All the evangelists direct our special attention to the scene of the crucifixion. As they proceed to describe it, they obviously feel that they are dealing with a transaction of awful import; and they accordingly become more impressive and circumstantial. Their statements, when combined, furnish a complete and consistent narrative of the sore travail, the deep humiliation, and the dying utterances of the illustrious sufferer. If the appointment of the Seventy indicated our Lord's intention of sending the glad tidings of salvation to the ends of the earth, there was a peculiar propriety in the selection of an individual of their number as the historian of the earliest missionary triumphs. Whilst Luke records the wonderful success of Christianity amongst the Gentiles, he takes care to point out the peculiar features of the new economy; and thus it is that his narrative abounds with passages in which the doctrine, polity, and worship of the primitive disciples are illustrated or explained. It is well known that the titles of the several parts of the New Testament were prefixed to them, not by their authors, but at a subsequent period by parties who had no claim to inspiration; [179:4] and it is obvious that the book called -- |The Acts of the Apostles| has not been very correctly designated. It is confined almost exclusively to the acts of Peter and Paul, and it sketches only a portion of their proceedings. As its narrative terminates at the end of Paul's second year's imprisonment at Rome, it was probably written about that period. Superficial readers may object to its information as curt and fragmentary; but the careful investigator will discover that it marks with great distinctness the most important stages in the early development of the Church. [180:1] It shews how Christianity spread rapidly among the Jews from the day of Pentecost to the martyrdom of Stephen; it points out how it then took root among the Gentiles; and it continues to trace its dissemination from Judea westwards, until it was firmly planted by the apostle of the uncircumcision in the metropolis of the Empire. It is highly probable that some of the fourteen epistles of Paul were written before any other portion of the New Testament, for we have already seen [180:2] that the greater number of them were transmitted to the parties to whom they are addressed during the time over which the Acts of the Apostles extend; but though Luke makes no mention of these letters, his account of the travels of their author throws considerable light on the question of their chronology. Guided by statements which he supplies, and by evidence contained in the documents themselves, we have endeavoured to point out the order of their composition. It thus appears that they are not placed chronologically in the New Testament. The present arrangement is, however, of great antiquity, as it can be traced up to the beginning of the fourth century; [180:3] and it is made upon the principle that the Churches addressed should be classed according to their relative importance. The Church of Rome at an early period was recognised as the most influential in existence, and hence the Epistle to the Romans stands at the head of the collection. The Church of Corinth seems to have ranked next, and accordingly the Epistles to the Corinthians occupy the second place. The letters to the Churches are followed by those to individuals, that is, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon; and it has been conjectured that the Epistle to the Hebrews is put last, because it is anonymous. Some have contended that this letter was composed by Barnabas; others have ascribed it to Clement, or Luke, or Silas, or Apollos; but, though Paul has not announced his name, the external and internal evidences concur to prove that he was its author. [181:1]

|Every word of God is pure,| [181:2] but the word of man is often deceitful; and nowhere do his fallibility and ignorance appear more conspicuously than in his appendages to Scripture. Even the titles prefixed to the writings of the apostles and evangelists are redolent of superstition, for no satisfactory reason can be given why the designation of saint, [181:3] has been bestowed on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, whilst it is withheld, not only from Moses and Isaiah, but also from such eminently holy ministers as Timothy and Titus. The postscripts to the epistles of Paul have been added by transcribers, and are also calculated to mislead. Thus, the Epistle to the Galatians is said to have been |written from Rome,| though it is now generally acknowledged that Paul was not in the capital of the Empire until long after that letter was dictated. The first Epistle to Timothy is dated |from Laodicea, which is the chiefest city of Phrygia Pacatiana;| but it is well known that Phrygia was not divided into Phrygia Prima, or Pacatiana, and Phrygia Secunda until the fourth century. [181:4] It is stated at the end of another epistle that it was |written to Titus ordained the first Bishop of the Church of the Cretians;| but, as the letter itself demonstrates, Paul did not intend that Titus should remain permanently in Crete, [182:1] and it can be shewn that, for centuries afterwards, such a dignitary as |the Bishop of the Church of the Cretians| was utterly unknown.

The seven letters written by James, Peter, Jude, and John, are called General or Catholic epistles. The Epistle of James was addressed |to the twelve tribes scattered abroad| probably in A.D.61, and its author survived its publication perhaps little more than twelve months. [182:2] Peter, as we have seen, appears to have written his two epistles only a short time before his martyrdom. [182:3] The Epistle of Jude is the production of a later period, as it contains quotations from the Second Epistle of Peter. [182:4] The exact dates of the Epistles of John cannot now be discovered, but they supply internal proof that they must have been written towards the close of the first century. [182:5]

According to some, the Apocalypse, or Revelation of John, was drawn up before the destruction of Jerusalem, and in the time of the Emperor Nero; but the arguments in support of so early an origin are very unsatisfactory. Ancient writers [182:6] attest that it was written in the reign of Domitian towards the close of the first century, and the truth of this statement is established by various collateral evidences.

The divine authority of the four Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles was, from their first appearance, universally acknowledged in the ancient Church. [182:7] These books were publicly read in the religious assemblies of the primitive Christians, and were placed on a level with the Old Testament Scriptures. [182:8] The epistles of Paul occupied an equally honourable position. [182:9] In the second and third centuries the Epistle to the Hebrews was not, indeed, received among the sacred books by the Church of Rome; [183:1] but at an earlier period its inspiration was acknowledged by the Christians of the great city, for it is quoted as the genuine work of the Apostle Paul by an eminent Roman pastor who flourished in the first century. [183:2] The authority of two of the most considerable of the Catholic epistles -- the First Epistle of Peter and the First Epistle of John -- was never questioned; [183:3] but, for a time, there were churches which doubted the claims of the five others to be ranked amongst |the Scriptures.| [183:4] The multitude of spurious writings which were then abroad suggested to the disciples the necessity of caution, and hence suspicions arose in certain cases where they were destitute of foundation. But these suspicions, which never seem to have been entertained by more than a minority of the churches, gradually passed away; and at length, towards the close of the fourth century, the whole of what are now called the Catholic epistles were received, by unanimous consent, as inspired documents. [183:5] The Apocalypse was acknowledged to be a divine revelation as soon as it appeared; and its credit remained unimpeached until the question of the Millennium began to create discussion. Its authenticity was then challenged by some of the parties who took an interest in the controversy; but it still continued to be regarded as a part of Holy Scripture by the majority of Christians, and there is no book of the New Testament in behalf of which a title to a divine original can be established by more conclusive and ample evidence. [184:1]

It thus appears that, with the exception of a few short epistles which some hesitated to accredit, the New Testament, in the first century, was acknowledged as the Word of God by all the Apostolical Churches. Its various parts were not then included in a single volume; and as a considerable time must have elapsed before copies of every one of them were universally disseminated, it is not to be thought extraordinary if the appearance of a letter, several years after it was written, and in quarters where it had been previously unknown, awakened suspicion or scepticism. But the slender objections, advanced under such circumstances, gradually vanished before the light of additional evidence; and it may safely be asserted that the whole of the documents, now known as the Scriptures of the New Testament, were received, as parts of a divine revelation, by an overwhelming majority of the early Christians. The present division into chapters and verses was introduced at a period comparatively recent; [184:2] but there is reason to believe that stated portions of the writings of the apostles and evangelists were read by the primitive disciples at their religious meetings, and that, for the direction of the reader, as well as for the facility of reference, the arrangement was soon notified in the manuscripts by certain marks of distinction. [184:3] It is well known that in the ancient Churches persons of all classes and conditions were encouraged and required to apply themselves to the study of the sacred records; that even children were made acquainted with the Scriptures; [185:1] and that the private perusal of the inspired testimonies was considered an important means of individual edification. All were invited and stimulated by special promises to meditate upon the mysterious, as well as the plain, passages of the book of Revelation. |Blessed,| says the Apostle John, |is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein.| [185:2]

The original manuscripts of the New Testament, which must from the first have been accessible to comparatively few, have all long since disappeared; and it is now impossible to tell whether they were worn away by the corroding tooth of time, or destroyed in seasons of persecution. Copies of them were rapidly multiplied; and though heathen adversaries displayed no small amount of malice and activity, it was soon found impossible to effect their annihilation. It was not necessary that the apostolic autographs [185:3] should be preserved for ever, as the records, when transcribed, still retained the best and clearest proofs of their inspiration. They did not require even the imprimatur of the Church, for they exhibited in every page the stamp of divinity; and as soon as they were published, they commended themselves by the internal tokens of their heavenly lineage to the acceptance of the faithful. |The Word of God is quick and powerful,| and every one who peruses the New Testament in a right spirit must feel that it has emanated from the Searcher of hearts. It speaks to the conscience; it has all the simplicity and majesty of a divine communication; it enlightens the understanding; and it converts the soul. No mere man could have invented such a character as the Saviour it reveals; no mere man could have contrived such a system of mercy as that which it announces. The New Testament is always on the side of whatsoever is just, and honest, and lovely, and of good report; it glorifies God; it alarms the sinner; it comforts the saint. |The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in a furnace of earth purified seven times.| [186:1]

The excellence of the New Testament is displayed to singular advantage when contrasted with those uninspired productions of nearly the same date which emanated from the companions of the apostles. The only genuine document of this nature which has come down to us, and which appeared in the first century,[186:2] is an epistle to the Corinthians. It was prepared immediately after the Domitian persecution, or about A.D.96,[186:3] with a view to heal certain divisions which had sprung up in the religious community to which it is addressed; and, though written in the name of the Church of Rome, there is no reason to doubt that it is the composition of Clement, who was then at the head of the Roman presbytery. The advice which it administers is most judicious; and the whole letter breathes the peaceful spirit of a devoted Christian pastor. But it contains passages which furnish conclusive evidence that it has no claims whatever to inspiration; and its illustration of the doctrine of the resurrection is in itself more than sufficient to demonstrate that it could not have been dictated under any supernatural guidance. |There is,| says Clement,[186:4] |a certain bird called the phoenix. Of this there is never but one at a time, and that lives five hundred years: and when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it makes itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when its time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But its flesh putrefying breeds a certain worm which, being nourished with the juice of the dead bird, brings forth feathers; and when it is grown to a perfect state, it takes up the nest in which the bones of its parent are, and carries it from Arabia into Egypt to a city called Heliopolis; and flying in open day, in the sight of all men, lays it upon the altar of the Sun, and so returns from whence it came. The priests then search into the records of the time, and find that it returned precisely at the end of five hundred years.| [187:1]

In point of education the authors of the New Testament did not generally enjoy higher advantages than Clement; and yet, writing |as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,| they were prevented from giving currency, even in a single instance, to such a story as this fable of the phoenix. All their statements will be found to be true, whether tried by the standard of mental or of moral science, of geography, or of natural history. The theology which they teach is at once sound and genial; and those by whom it is appreciated can testify that whilst it invigorates and elevates the intellect, it also pacifies the conscience and purifies the heart.

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