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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


Eusebius, already so often quoted, and known so widely as the author of the earliest Church history, flourished in the former half of the fourth century. This distinguished father was a spectator of the most wonderful revolution recorded in the annals of the world. He had seen Christianity proscribed, and its noblest champions cut down by a brutal martyrdom; and he had lived to see a convert to the faith seated on the throne of the Caesars, and ministers of the Church basking in the sunshine of Imperial bounty. He was himself a special favourite with Constantine; as bishop of Caesarea, the chief city of Palestine, he had often access to the presence of his sovereign; and in a work which is still extant, professing to be a Life of the Emperor, he has well-nigh exhausted the language of eulogy in his attempts to magnify the virtues of his illustrious patron.

Eusebius may have been an accomplished courtier, but certainly he is not entitled to the praise of a great historian. The publication by which he is best known would never have acquired such celebrity, had it not been the most ancient treatise of the kind in existence. Though it mentions many of the ecclesiastical transactions of the second and third centuries, and supplies a large amount of information which would have otherwise been lost, it must be admitted to be a very ill-arranged and unsatisfactory performance. Its author does not occupy a high position either as a philosophic thinker, a judicious observer, or a sound theologian. He makes no attempt to point out the germs of error, to illustrate the rise and progress of ecclesiastical changes, or to investigate the circumstances which led to the formation of the hierarchy. Even the announcement of his Preface, that his purpose is |to record the successions of the holy apostles,| or, in other words, to exhibit some episcopal genealogies, proclaims how much he was mistaken as to the topics which should have been noticed most prominently in his narrative. It is somewhat doubtful whether his history was expressly written, either for the illumination of his own age, or for the instruction of posterity; and its appearance, shortly after the public recognition of Christianity by the State, [523:1] is fitted to generate a suspicion that it was intended to influence the mind of Constantine, and to recommend the episcopal order to the consideration of the great proselyte.

About six or seven years after the publication of this treatise a child was born who was destined to attain higher distinction, both as a scholar and a writer, than the polished Eusebius. This was Jerome -- afterwards a presbyter of Rome, and a father whose productions challenge the foremost rank among the memorials of patristic erudition. Towards the close of the fourth century he shone the brightest literary star in the Church, and even the proud Pope Damasus condescended to cultivate his favour. At one time he contemplated the composition of a Church history, [523:2] and we have reason to regret that the design was never executed, as his works demonstrate that he was in possession of much rare and important information for which we search in vain in the pages of the bishop of Caesarea.

No ancient writer has thrown more light on the history of the hierarchy than Jerome. His remarks upon the subject frequently drop incidentally from his pen, and must be sought for up and down throughout his commentaries and epistles; but he speaks as an individual who was quite familiar with the topics which he introduces; and, whilst all his statements are consistent, they are confirmed and illustrated by other witnesses. As a presbyter, he seems to have been jealous of the honour of his order; and, when in certain moods, he is obviously very well disposed to remind the bishops that their superiority to himself was a mere matter of human arrangement. One of his observations relative to the original constitution of the Christian commonwealth has been often quoted. |Before that, by the prompting of the devil, there were parties in religion, and it was said among the people, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, the Churches were governed by the common council of the presbyters. But, after that each, one began to reckon those whom he baptized as belonging to himself and not to Christ, it was DECREED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE WORLD that one elected from the presbyters should be set over the rest, that he should have the care of the whole Church, that the seeds of schisms might be destroyed.| [524:1]

Because Jerome in this place happens to use language which occurs in the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, we are not to understand him as identifying the date of that letter with the origin of prelacy. Such a conclusion would be quite at variance with the tenor of this passage. The words, |I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas,| [525:1] are used by him rhetorically; he was accustomed to repeat them when describing schisms or contentions; and he has employed them on one memorable occasion in relation to a controversy of the fourth century. [525:2] The divisions among the Corinthians, noticed by Paul, were trivial and temporary; the Church at large was not disturbed by them; but Jerome speaks of a time when the whole ecclesiastical community was so agitated that it was threatened with dismemberment. The words immediately succeeding those which we have quoted clearly shew that he dated the origin of prelacy after the days of the apostles. |Should any one think that the identification of bishop and presbyter, the one being a name of age and the other of office, is not a doctrine of Scripture, but our own opinion, let him refer to the words of the apostle saying to the Philippians-'Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons, Grace to you and peace,' [525:3] and so forth. Philippi is one city of Macedonia, and truly in one city, there cannot be, as is thought, more than one bishop; but because, at that time, they called the same parties bishops and presbyters, therefore he speaks of bishops as of presbyters without making distinction. Still this may seem doubtful to some unless confirmed by another testimony. In the Acts of the Apostles it is written [526:1] that when the apostle came to Miletus he 'sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the same Church,' to whom then, among other things, he said -- 'Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost has made you bishops, [526:2] to feed the Church of the Lord which He has purchased with His own blood.' And attend specially to this, how, calling the elders of the one city Ephesus, he afterwards addressed the same as bishops. Whoever is prepared to receive that Epistle which is written to the Hebrews under the name of Paul, [526:3] there also the care of the Church is divided equally among more than one, since he writes to the people -- 'Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves, for they are they who watch for your souls as those who must give account, that they may not do it with grief, since this is profitable for you.' [526:4] And Peter, who received his name from the firmness of his faith, in his Epistle speaks, saying -- 'The elders, therefore, who are among you, I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and who am a partaker of his glory which shall be revealed, feed that flock of the Lord which is among you, not by constraint but willingly.' [527:1] We may thus shew that anciently bishops and presbyters were the same; but, by degrees, THAT THE PLANTS OF DISSENSION MIGHT BE ROOTED UP, all care was transferred to one. As, therefore, the presbyters know that, in accordance with the custom of the Church, they are subject to him who has been set over them, so the bishops should know that they are greater than the presbyters, rather by custom, than by the truth of an arrangement of the Lord.| [527:2]

Jerome here explains himself in language which admits of no second interpretation; for all these proofs, adduced to shew that the Church was originally under presbyterial government, are of a later date than the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The Epistle to the Philippians contains internal evidence that it was dictated during Paul's first imprisonment at Rome; the Epistle to the Hebrews appeared after his liberation; and the First Epistle of Peter was written in the old age of the apostle of the circumcision. [527:3] Nor is this even the full amount of his testimony to the antiquity of the presbyterian polity. On another occasion, after mentioning some of the texts which have been given, he goes on to make quotations from the Second and Third Epistles of John -- which are generally dated towards the close of the first century [527:4] -- and he declares that prelacy had not made its appearance when these letters were written. Having produced authorities from Paul and Peter, he exclaims -- |Do the testimonies of such men seem small to you? Let the Evangelical Trumpet, the Son of Thunder, whom Jesus loved very much, who drank the streams of doctrine from the bosom of the Saviour, sound in your ears -- 'The elder, unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth;' [528:1] and, in another epistle -- 'The elder to the very dear Caius, whom I love in the truth.' [528:2] But what was done afterwards, when one was elected who was set over the rest, was for a cure of schism; lest every one, insisting upon his own will, should rend the Church of God.| [528:3]

We have already seen [528:4] that extant documents, written about the close of the first century and the middle of the second, bear similar testimony as to the original constitution of the Church. The |Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians| cannot be dated earlier than the termination of the reign of Domitian, for it refers to a recent persecution, [528:5] it describes the community to which it in addressed as |most ancient,| it declares that others now occupied the places of those who had been ordained by the apostles, and it states that this second generation of ministers had been long in possession of their ecclesiastical charges. [528:6] Candid writers, of almost all parties, acknowledge that this letter distinctly recognizes the existence of government by presbyters. [528:7] The evidence of the letter of Polycarp [528:8] is not less explicit. Jerome, therefore, did not speak without authority when he affirmed that prelacy was established after the days of the apostles, and as an antidote against schism.

The apostolic Church was comparatively free from divisions; and, whilst the inspired heralds of the gospel lived, it could not be said that |there were parties in religion.| The heretics who appeared were never able to organize any formidable combinations; they were inconsiderable in point of numbers; and, though not wanting in activity, those to whom our Lord had personally entrusted the publication of His Word, were ready to oppose them, so that all their efforts were effectually checked or defeated. The most ancient writers acknowledge that, during the early part of the second century, the same state of things continued. According to Hegesippus, who outlived Polycarp about fifteen or twenty years, [529:1] the Church continued until the death of Simeon of Jerusalem, in A.D.116, [529:2] |as a pure and uncorrupted virgin.| |If there were any at all,| says he, |who attempted to pervert the right standard of saving doctrine, they were yet skulking in dark retreats; but when the sacred company of the apostles had, in various ways, finished their career, AND THE GENERATION OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN PRIVILEGED TO HEAR THEIR INSPIRED WISDOM HAD PASSED AWAY, then at length the fraud of false teachers produced a confederacy of impious errors.| [529:3] The date of the appearance of these parties is also established by the testimony of Celsus, who lived in the time of the Antonines, and who was one of the most formidable of the early antagonists of Christianity. This writer informs us that, though in the beginning the disciples were agreed in sentiment, they became, in his days, when |spread out into a multitude, divided and distracted, each aiming to give stability to his own faction.| [530:1]

The statements of Hegesippus and Celsus are substantiated by a host of additional witnesses. Justin Martyr, [530:2] Irenaeus, [530:3] Clemens Alexandrinus, [530:4] Cyprian, [530:5] and others, all concur in representing the close of the reign of Hadrian, or the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius, as the period when heresies burst forth, like a flood, upon the Church. The extant ecclesiastical writings of the succeeding century are occupied chiefly with their refutation. No wonder that the best champions of the faith were embarrassed and alarmed. They had hitherto been accustomed to boast that Christianity was the cement which could unite all mankind, and they had pointed triumphantly to its influence in bringing together the Jew and the Gentile, the Greek and the barbarian, the master and the slave, the learned and the illiterate. They had looked forward with high expectation to the days of its complete ascendency, when, under its gentle sway, all nations would exhibit the spectacle of one great and happy brotherhood. How, then, must they have been chagrined by the rise and spread of heresies! They saw the Church itself converted into a great battle-field, and every man's hand turned against his fellow. In almost all the populous cities of the Empire, as if on a concerted signal, the errorists commenced their discussions. The Churches of Lyons, [531:1] of Rome, of Corinth, of Athens, of Ephesus, of Antioch, and of Alexandria, resounded with the din of theological controversy. Nor were the heresiarchs men whom their opponents could afford to despise. In point of genius and of literary resources, many of them were fully equal to the most accomplished of their adversaries. Their zeal was unwearied, and their tact most perplexing. Mixing up the popular elements of the current philosophy with a few of the facts and doctrines of the gospel, they produced a compound by which many were deceived. How did the friends of the Church proceed to grapple with these difficulties? They, no doubt, did their utmost to meet the errorists in argument, and to shew that their theories were miserable perversions of Christianity. But they did not confine themselves to the use of weapons drawn from their own heavenly armoury. Not a few presbyters were themselves tainted with the new opinions; some of them were even ringleaders of the heretics; [531:2] and, in an evil hour, the dominant party resolved to change the constitution of the Church, and to try to put down disturbance by means of a new ecclesiastical organization. Believing, with many in modern times, that |parity breedeth confusion,| and expecting, as Jerome has expressed it, |that the seeds of schisms might be destroyed,| they sought to invigorate their administration by investing the presiding elder with authority over the rest of his brethren. The senior presbyters, the last survivors of a better age, were all sound in the faith; and, as they were still at the head of the Churches in the great cities, it was thought that by enlarging their prerogatives, and by giving them the name of bishops, they would be the better able to struggle energetically with the dangers of their position. The principle that, whoever would not submit to the bishop should be cast out of the Church, was accordingly adopted; and it was hoped that in due time peace would be restored to the spiritual commonwealth.

About the same period arrangements were made in some places for changing the mode of advancement to the presidential chair, so that, in no case, an elder suspected of error could have a chance of promotion. [532:1] An immense majority of the presbyters were yet orthodox; and by being permitted to depart, as often as they pleased, from the ancient order of succession, and to nominate any of themselves to the episcopate, they could always secure the appointment of an individual representing their own sentiments. In some of the larger Churches, where their number was considerable, they appear to have usually selected three or four candidates; and then to have permitted the lot to make the ultimate decision. [532:2] But the ecclesiastical revolution could not stop here. Jealousy quickly appeared among the presbyters; and, during the excitement of elections, the more popular candidates would not long be willing to limit the voting to the presbytery. The people chose their presbyters and deacons, and now that the office of moderator possessed substantial power, and differed so much from what it was originally, why should not all the members of the Church be allowed to exercise their legitimate influence? Such a claim could not be well resisted. Thus it was that the bishops were ultimately chosen by popular suffrage. [533:1]

Some have imagined that they have discovered inconsistency in the statements of Jerome relative to prelacy. They allege, in proof, that whilst he describes the Church as governed, until the rise of |parties in religion,| by the common council of the presbyters, he also speaks of bishops as in existence from the days of the apostles. |At Alexandria,| says he, |from Mark the Evangelist, [by whom the Church there is said to have been founded] to Heraclas and Dionysius the bishops, [who flourished in the third century] the presbyters always named as bishop one chosen from among themselves and placed along with them [533:2] in a higher position.| [533:3] It must appear, however, on due consideration, that here there is no inconsistency whatever. In the Epistle where this passage occurs Jerome is asserting the ancient dignity of presbyters, and shewing that they originally possessed prerogatives of which they had more recently been deprived. In proof of this he refers to the Church of Alexandria, one of the greatest sees in Christendom, where for upwards of a century and a half after the days of the Evangelist Mark, the presbyters appointed their spiritual overseers, and performed all the ceremonies connected with their official investiture. But it does not therefore follow that meanwhile these overseers had always possessed exactly the same amount of authority. The very fact mentioned by Jerome suggests a quite different inference, as it proves that whilst the power of the presbyters had been declining, that of the bishops had increased. In the second century the presbyters inaugurated bishops; in the days of Jerome they were not permitted even to ordain presbyters.

Jerome says, indeed, that, in the beginning, the Alexandrian presbyters nominated their bishops, but we are not to conclude that the parties chosen were always known distinctively by the designation which he here gives to them. He evidently could not have intended to convey such an impression, as in the same Epistle he demonstrates, by a whole series of texts of Scripture, that the titles bishop and presbyter were used interchangeably throughout the whole of the first century. By bishops he obviously understands the presidents of the presbyteries, or the officials who filled the chairs which those termed bishops subsequently occupied. In their own age these primitive functionaries were called bishops and presbyters indifferently; but they partially represented the bishops of succeeding times, and they always appeared in the episcopal registries as links of the apostolical succession, so that Jerome did not deem it necessary to depart from the current nomenclature. His meaning cannot be mistaken by any one who attentively marks his language, for he has stated immediately before, that episcopal authority properly commenced when the Church began to be distracted by the spirit of sectarianism. [534:1]

In this passage, however, the learned father bears unequivocal testimony to the fact that, from the earliest times, the presbytery had an official head or president. Such an arrangement was known in the days of the apostles. But the primitive moderator was very different from the bishop of the fourth century. He was the representative of the presbytery -- not its master. Christ had said to the disciples -- |Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.| [535:1] Such a chief was at the head of the ancient presbytery. Without a president no Church court could transact business; and it was the duty of the chairman to preserve order, to bear many official burdens, to ascertain the sentiments of his brethren, to speak in their name, and to act in accordance with the dictates of their collective wisdom. [535:2] The bishop of after-times rather resembled a despotic sovereign in the midst of his counsellors. He might ask the advice of the presbyters, and condescend to defer to their recommendations; but he could also negative their united resolutions, and cause the refractory quickly to feel the gravity of his displeasure.

Though Jerome tells us how, for the destruction of the seeds of schisms, |it was decreed throughout the whole WORLD that one elected from the presbyters should be set over the rest,| we are not to suppose that the decree was carried out, all at once, into universal operation. General councils were yet unknown, and the decree must have been sanctioned at different times and by distant Church judicatories. Such a measure was first thought of shortly before the middle of the second century, but it was not very extensively adopted until about fifty years afterwards. The history of its origin must now be more minutely investigated.

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