"The illuminated mind of primitive Christendom" is a favourite illusion of modern Christian thought. It is the popular belief that in the early centuries of our era, in the days of "the undivided Church," the faith was pure, and a high morality marked the lives of those who professed it. To dispel so pleasing an illusion is an uncongenial task. But the role of the iconoclast is sometimes a useful one. When the brazen serpent became a fetish in Israel, and the people burned incense to it, the good king Hezekiah contemptuously "called it a bit of brass," and "brake it in pieces."' And since "the Church" has become an idol and an enemy to Christianity, it becomes a duty to expose the falseness of its pretensions. The position accorded to it in the religion of Christendom is itself a mark of the apostasy; and in the place which God in fact designed that it should holy the world, it has utterly failed.
In this respect its history in no way differs from that of "the Church in the wilderness."' In the one case as in the other, it is a story of Divine forbearance and of human failure and sin. When Israel's redemption was accomplished, and the mediator of the covenant had gone up to God, the people forthwith showed themselves to be "stiffnecked" by making the golden calf. And thereupon, Moses "took the tabernacle and pitched it without the camp, . . . and every one that sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp." Organised religion proved a failure at the very outset. And so has it been in Christendom. Even in apostolic times incipient apostasy had declared itself; and the very Epistle which was written expressly to unfold the right of access to God in virtue of "eternal redemption" secured in Christ, gives prominence to the exhortation to "go forth unto Him without the camp." Upon Him, only and altogether, spiritual blessing depends.
Of the Church of the martyrs we would speak with deep and unfeigned respect. The noble testimony rendered by the devoted lives of Christians, amidst the indescribable sufferings of those awful times, is the heritage of the Church in all succeeding ages. And yet it is a startling fact that, even in presence of the constant danger of terrible persecution, abounding false doctrine produced its "kindly fruit" in lowering the standard of Christian morality.
Cyprian, the enthusiastic admirer and disciple of Tertullian, was born about the beginning of the third century. The child of heathen parents, he lived the life of a heathen until, at about 45 years of age, he was converted to Christianity. Within a few months after his baptism he was ordained presbyter, and some three years later (248) he became bishop of Carthage. Ten years afterwards he suffered martyrdom in the persecution under Valerian. In those early days a bishop was appointed with the consent of the whole Church," or by popular acclamation; and never was the popular voice more thoroughly justified than in the case of Cyprian. But what concerns us here is not the excellence of the man, but the condition to which organised Christianity had sunk at this early stage of its history.
The first eighteen months of Cyprian's episcopal rule were the close of a period during which the Church had rest from its enemies. In the absence of persecution Christianity had spread, but it had deteriorated. "Serious scandals existed even among the clergy. Bishops were farmers, traders, and money-lenders, and by no means always honest. Some were too ignorant to teach the catechumens. Presbyters made money by helping in the manufacture of idols."' But this was not all. With the close of the apostolic age the great truth of Grace had disappeared. No statement of it is to be found in the Patristic literature. And in the century and a half which had passed since the last of the apostles disappeared from the scene, Christian doctrines had become corrupted by the teaching of Greek paganism. As already noticed, Pagan baptism had superseded Christian baptism as the initiatory rite of Christian fellowship. Christian thought had become leavened by the Gnostic philosophy which regarded everything corporeal as evil. The result was an attempt to set up a more fastidious morality and a more exalted piety than were taught by Christianity itself. Christianity raised the marriage relationship to a dignity it had never before possessed;' but gnosticism taught the Church to disparage it, and to confound asceticism with sanctity. And even in those early days a system of pledged celibacy led to the deplorable evils which have always characterised it.
There is no sadder reading than the story of "saints" shut up in lonely cells, and wasting their lives in wrestling with evil passions which Christians who make noo special claim to saintship overcome, as God intended they should be overcome, by turning away from them to the healthy activities of Christian work, or the no less healthy duties of a useful life. The Divine command, like all Divine commands, is intensely reasonable: "Flee youthful lusts; but follow after righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart," not abstract virtues to be spun out, like a spider's web, in solitude and gloom, but Christian graces to be cultivated in an active life helped and gladdened by Christian fellowship, the companionship, not of monks or nuns, but of all like-minded.
(Footnote - "Why," the apostle demands, "do ye subject yourselves to ordinances . . . after the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a, show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. ii. 20-23, R.V.).)
But the religion of Christendom, in violation of the truth of God and of the common sense of mankind, has ever taught that the better way is for men and women in the flush of youthful vigour to turn away from all that forms the Christian character, and constitutes the true discipline of Christian life, and to shut themselves up to the morbid contemplation of evil, and the effort to overcome it by unchristian ascetism and penances. The result has too often been utter shipwreck of both faith and morals. And not a few who seem to have succeeded have become, not saints, but pharisees.
As regards women the subject is a delicate one. The vows of a nun are no longer the introduction to a life of sin. In England at least, where the Reformation is a power, it may be assumed that morality is not outraged in a nunnery. But English law and the rights of citizens are outraged there. Although our gaols are open to inspection of the fullest and most systematic kind, official and unofficial, we do not tolerate life imprisonment even for the worst of criminals. But religious women who have been trapped into taking vows are shut up for life, where no inspection whatever is allowed. And can any one doubt that not a few of them eat out their very hearts in hopeless yearnings for liberty, and sink at last in madness or despair? Mahometans would not be permitted to entomb women thus in this country; but paganism which shelters itself under the name of Christ can override the law, and outrage the very principles of our constitution.
Tertullian, the founder of Latin theology, was the originator of the sanctimonious sentiment about marriage to Christ, which has in every age. betrayed so many thousands of impressionable young women into wrecking their lives by taking vows of celibacy.' His letters to his wife disclose the extent to which these baneful errors had obtained even then. The New Testament prescribes that "a bishop must be the husband of one wife": the Church had already reached the point of substituting may for "must." Indeed, the word celibacy had practically taken the place of "marriage" in the New Testament injunction, "Let marriage be had in honour among ALL."
2 Cor. xi. 2 lends no sanction to the sentimental and pestilently mischievous idea that a woman who devotes herself to a life of religious asceticism becomes "the spouse of Christ." The words referred to were not addressed to a young woman, but to the Christians at Corinth as a body. Moreover they are not doctrinal, but hortatory, and purely figurative. The figure of "the bride" is the expression of a truth, but the figure here used is merely illustrative. Not even the Church corporately is the bride - a vagary of religious doctrine which Scripture negatives; first by never asserting it; secondly, by teaching that the Church holds a relationship which is inconsistent with it, namely, that of the body of Christ; and thirdly, by assigning the bridal relationship to Israel. It was to Israel that John the Baptist referred in John iii. 29, and the bride then disappeared from the New Testament until in the Revelation we read of the New Jerusalem - the future glory of the true Israel ("our mother "-see Gal. iv. 26). But Eph. v. 25-33 is conclusive. The earthly relationship is readjusted according to a heavenly standard, and as the Church is the body of Christ, the Christian is to love his wife "even as himself." Mark 'the force of "nevertheless" in verse 33.
'Heb. xiii. 4, R.V. The words which follow in the text prove conclusively the meaning of the exhortation. The marriage intended was no Platonic union such as Tertullian might have approved.
The results of this pestilent system, even at that early period, may be learned from Cyprian's words. He charges the nuns (the word had not yet been coined) with "frequenting public places sumptuously arrayed, alluring the eyes of youth fomenting lawless passions, and kindling the sparks of desire." He charges them with "hearing and taking part in licentious conversations, hearing what offends good morals, and seeing what must not be spoken of." "What have the virgins of the Church to do," he exclaims, "at promiscuous baths, there to violate the commonest dictates of feminine modesty! The places you frequent are more filthy than the theatre itself: all modesty is there laid aside, and with your robes, your personal honour and. reserve are cast off."'
To appreciate this we must remember that. these "virgins of the Church" were held in special honour for their supposed sanctity. The state of things here described would have been impossible if the general standard of piety, and even of morality, had not been utterly lowered.
Nor was this peculiar to Carthage. The writings of some of the earlier Fathers disclose their distress at the condition of the Church. Half a century before Cyprian wrote the words above cited, Clement of Alexandria had bewailed the worldliness and the low morality which prevailed around him even when, as he said, "the wells of martyrdom were flowing daily." His testimony, moreover, is the more striking because, unlike the majority of the Fathers, his teaching on the subject of marriage and celibacy was, in the main, Christian. "Those who make profession of Christianity," he urges, "should be all of a piece." But in contrast with this he charges the Christians with bearing one aspect while in church, and as soon as they left it, mingling in the crowd so as to be in no way distinguished from it. "After having reverently waited upon God and heard of Him," he says, "they leave Him there; and without, find their pleasure in ungodly fiddling and love-songs and what not - stage-plays and gross revelries."
But the true test of the teaching of the Fathers is to be found in the state of things which prevailed in the halcyon days when the persecutions had finally ceased, and the Church was free to shape her destiny and pursue her mission to the world unchecked. The condition of this much vaunted primitive Church in the days of Chrysostom may be judged by the fact that at a single visitation that great and good man' deposed no fewer than thirteen bishops for simony and licentiousness. Referring to the means by which men obtained election to bishoprics, he says: "That some have filled the churches with murders, and made cities desolate when contending for this position, I now pass over, lest I should seem to say what is incredible to fact it proved, a death sentence. He practically died a martyr - one of the first of the great arm; whose blood cries to God for vengeance upon the "historic Church."
Nor were licentiousness and simony evils of recent growth in the Church; nor were they peculiar to the See of Chrysostom. In 370 an Imperial edict was read in the churches of Rome, prohibiting clerics and monks from resorting to the houses of widows or female wards, and making them "incapable of receiving anything from the liberality or will of any woman to whom they may have attached themselves under the plea of religion; and (the edict adds) any such donations or legacies as they shall have appropriated to themselves shall be confiscated."
This edict, sweeping though were its terms, had to be confirmed and strengthened by another twenty years later. And here is the comment of Jerome on the subject: "I blush to say it, heathen priests, players of pantomimes, drivers of chariots in the circuses, and harlots,, are allowed to receive legacies; clergy and monks are forbidden to do so by Christian princes. Nor do I complain of the law (he adds), but I am grieved that we deserve it."' According to Jerome, so great was the evil, that men actually sought ordination in order to gain easier access to the society of women, and to trade upon their credulity. He at least maintained no reserve about the vices of the clergy of his day. And the picture he draws of the state of female society among the Christians is so repulsive that, as a recent writer remarks, we would gladly believe it to be exaggerated; but, he adds, "if the priesthood, with its enormous influence, was so corrupt, it is only too probable that it debased the sex which is always most under clerical influence."
Among Chrysostom's enemies was Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, whose nephew Cyril succeeded him in the patriarchate about the year 412, some five years after Chrysostom's death. Cyril inherited his uncle's antipathy to Chrysostom, and opposed as long as he could every effort to cancel the infamous sentence pronounced against him. He is held in fame as a "Saint" and a "Father": in his lifetime he was famous as a mob leader. He violently closed the churches of those whom he deemed heretics, attacked the synagogues, and drove the Jews in thousands from Alexandria, giving up their houses to pillage. As Dean Milman writes of him: "While ambition, intrigue, arrogance, rapacity, and violence are proscribed as un-christian means - barbarity, persecution, blood-shed, as unholy and unevangelic wickednesses, posterity will condemn this orthodox Cyril as one of the worst of heretics against the spirit of the Gospel."'
This turbulent Pagan was the ruling spirit in the third of the "Ecumenical" Councils held at Ephesus in 431 to deal with the Nestorian heresy. This is not the place to discuss the controversy then at issue; but the intelligent Christian will recognise, first, that all, orthodox and heretics alike, ignored the Lord's solemn warning that "No man knoweth the Son but the Father"; and, secondly, that the prominence given to the charge that Nestorius refused the title of "Mother of God" to the Virgin Mary, is proof that the so-called orthodbx had no monopoly of the truth. But Nestorius and his adherents were condemned and banished. Cyril secured this "ripe decision" of "the illuminated mind of primitive Christendom. Disgraceful as were the scenes which characterised this Ecumenical Council, they were far surpassed by those which marked the "Council of Robbers," as it is called, which assembled in Ephesus eighteen years later. On that occasion the violence of the orthodox majority was unrestrained. They openly called in their hired bullies, and the unfortunate Flavian, bishop of Byzantium, was so brutally beaten by them that he died from his injuries. That there were men of God among these bishops, whose hearts were filled with shame and sorrow by such proceedings, we may well assume. But the majority of them must have been a set of baptismally regenerated Pagans.
But some may think perhaps that the proceedings of these councils did not fairly represent the state of the Church in this post-Nicene era of its history. The testimony of a contemporary writer of the highest repute will silence all such generous doubts. Salvian, a presbyter in the Church at Marseilles, was born about the year 390. He was thus a contemporary of Jerome and Augustine, and his celebrated treatise on Providence appeared some twenty years after the death of the former, and ten years after the death of the latter, of these great lights of Latin theology. If ever there was a time when the teaching of the Fathers might fairly be judged by its fruits it was then. "The silence of God" was a favourite theme with the Fathers. If there was indeed a sovereign and righteous administration of human affairs-.--. if God was indeed the God of His people, why was the Church left to its fate? Augustine had attempted a learned and elaborate reply to the cavil. Salvian answers it bluntly thus: "See what Christians actually are, everywhere, and then ask whether, under the administration of a righteous and holy God, such men can expect any favour? What happens every day under our eyes is rather an evidence of the doctrine of Providence, as it displays the Divine displeasure, provoked by the debauchery of the Church itself."
The scope of this indictment shall be given in Salvian's own words. The following passages are culled from pages full of earnest, and at times pathetic, appeals, and of scathing denuncia-tions of abounding profligacy and evil. Roman Catholics of course resent his unsparing disclosure of the state of the "primitive Church," but no honest mind can fail to be impressed by the transparent truthfulness of his language, and the evident pain which it cost him. Here is his testimony' :-
"How can we wonder that God does not hearken to our prayers, seeing that we listen not to His commands?
Not merely do we neglect what is enjoined, but with our utmost endeavour we do the very contrary. God commands us to love one another; we rend each other.
He commands us all to impart of our substance to the needy; we encroach upon each other's rights. God commands that the Christian should be pure, even as to the eye; but who among us does not roll himself in the mire of fornication? And what more? Alas, how grievous and doleful is what I have to say! The very Church of God, which in all things ought to be the pacificatrix of God, what, in fact, is she but the provoker of God? And a very few excepted, who flee from evil, what else is almost every assembly of Christians but a sink of vices? For you will find in the Church scarcely one who is not either a drunkard, or a glutton, or an adulterer, or a fornicator, or a ravisher, or a frequenter of brothels, or a robber, or a murderer;-and, what is worse than all- almost all these without limit. "I put it now to the consciences of all Christian people, whether it be not so, that you will hardly find one who is not addicted to some of the vices and crimes which I have mentioned: or rather, who is it that is not guilty of all? Truly you will more easily find the man who is guilty of all, than one who is guilty of none. As to this 'none,' my imputations perhaps may seem too serious: I will go further - sooner will you find those chargeable with every crime, than not chargeable with any; sooner those addicted to the greatest crimes than those guilty of the less. I mean to say, more are living in the perpetration of the greater as well as of the lighter vices, than of the lighter alone. Into this shameless dissoluteness of manners, is nearly the entire ecclesiastical mass so sunk, that throughout the Christian community it has come to be 'regarded as a species of sanctity, if one is a little less vicious than others. And so it is that the churches, or rather the temples and altars of God, are by some held in less reverence than the most inferior courts and common magistrates' rooms. . .
"The churches are outraged by indecencies, and by the irreverence of those who rush thence, after the formal confession of their past sins, to the perpetration of more. You may well imagine what men have been thinking about at church when you see them hurry off, some to plunder, some to get drunk, some to practise lewdness, some to rob on the highway. . "Let us then see whether any of this rank the rich and noble can plead exemption from one of these two capital crimes -murder and adultery. Who is there, that if his hands do not reek with human blood, is not soiled with foul impurities? And yet, though one of these burdens is enough to sink a man to perdition, hardly is there a rich man who is not chargeable with both!"
He goes on to assert plainly that the Christians were actually worse than the heathen around them, differing from them in nothing save in "the knowledge and profession of Catholic doctrine." And he goes on to say :- "I must not be understood as affirming this absolutely of the entire mass of the Roman world. For I except, first, all the monks,' and then some even of the seculars, not inferior to them, or, if that be saying too much, at least comparable to the monks in virtuous behaviour. As for the rest, all, or nearly all, I affirm to be more guilty than the heathen. Reader, art thou angry at seeing this stated? Condemn me if I lie; condemn me if I do not make good what I assert."
If the writer had declared that most of the monks were free from these charges it would be a grateful relief from the terrible darkness of the picture. But when he says "I except all the monks" it is too obvious that he does so merely on grounds of policy. The sequel, moreover, makes this clear. Later on he breaks through the reserve he had imposed upon himself, and speaks out thus:- "But it is only the laity, I warrant you, who sin, at this rate! surely not some of the clergy; worldly men, but surely not many of the monks? Aye, indeed, under a colour of religion, sold to worldly vices, these men who, inscribing themselves with a title of sanctity after a course of shameless profligacy and crime, differ from what they were in profession only, not in conduct. . . Can any one believe that men should have been thinking anything of conversion and of God, who, abstaining from intercourse with their own wives, have made no scruple of trenching upon the rights of others; and who, while they make profession of bodily continence, act like bacchanals in the debaucheries of the mind?
One quotation more :- "How should we exult and leap for joy if indeed we could believe that the good and the bad were nearly balanced in the Church as to numbers. . . . Yea, how could we be but happy in so thinking, when, in fact, we have to mourn over almost the whole mass as guilty.
If all are not equally bad, they would fain be so if they could, and even display an ambition not to be outdone in wickedness."
These are but extracts. There is far more besides of the same character. He refers, for example, to the infamous profanity of swearing by the name of Christ - a habit that had long been common with the monks, and in Salvian's time had apparently become habitual. "They seem to think (he says) that when they have sworn by Christ their crimes are in some way sanctioned by religion." He cites cases even where men committed shameful acts of wrong because they had already sworn to Christ to do them!
The morality of the Early Christians is one of Gibbon's "Five causes of the growth of Christianity. And Tertullian could boast that among those who were brought to justice for offences against the law no Christian could be found, "unless, indeed, the name of Christian were his only offence." Any, he declared, who transgressed the strict rules of Christian discipline and propriety were no longer considered Christians at all.' And yet, two centuries later, "ALMOST EVERY ASSEMBLY OF CHRISTIANS HAD BECOME A SINK OF VICES." If the ages which followed were "dark," as indeed they were, it was because the Church had utterly failed of its mission, and was sunk in error:, and evil of every kind. God has never left Himself without a witness and doubtless there were those who feared Him and thought upon His name. But organised Christianity had disappeared from the earth. When Pagan baptism became the initiatory rite of Christian fellowship, the Church of Christendom morally ceased to be the Church of God; and when, the fear "of persecution having ceased, Pagans flocked in through that open door in thousands, the entire mass soon sank to the level of the heathen world. Indeed, the case might be stated still more strongly. Even the heathen world was scandalised by the exhibition of impurity and hatred presented by what is blasphemously called the Church of God. "See how these Christians love one another" had given place to "See how these Christians hate one another." In the fight for the Popedom between the faction of Damasus and of, "Ursinus one hundred and thirty-seven corpses were left on the pavement of one of the churches of Rome in a single day.' What wonder that a Pagan historian of that age - a man whose writings are praised for the moderation with which he speaks of, the Christians - declared that no savage beasts could equal the cruelty of Christians to one another! What wonder that penal laws of merciless severity were needed to keep the baptismally regenerated Pagans from turning back to paganism!
If the reader will but bring an 'honest atid intelligent mind to bear upon the problem he cannot fail to recognise the moral of it. A tree is known by its fruits. In no possible circumstances could Christianity produce results such as have here been depicted. As surely as ever effect followed its cause, these results were the natural outcome of the doctrinal teaching - the christianised paganism which had taken the place of Christianity in this much vaunted primitive Church - the Church of the Fathers. The theory that that Church entered the Dark Ages united and pure, and that the corruptions which, characterised it when the light of a brighter age began to shine in Christendom are to be attributed to Rome - this is a delusion.
And the delusion is a mischievous one. The misguided men who are now seeking to drag England back into the darkness are only embittered by charges based upon this error. Among them there are Jesuits, who from base motives cling to the Church which they betray. But these are an unworthy minority. The Ritualists as a body are sincere. And they know that the main doctrines for which they contend are derived, not from Rome, but from "the primitive and undivided Church" of the Fathers. The Reformers knew this also; and therefore they appealed, not to the cult of primitive Christendom, but to the Christianity of the New Testament. And no other appeal is worth struggling for. In the sixteenth century "The Bible was the religion of Protestants"; and if "the Evangelical Party" to-day is powerless to rally the country round them, or to stem the rising tide of error and superstition, it is because the Bible is no longer the labarum of the Evangelical cause.
(Footnote - There are very many of the evangelical clergy, and vast numbers of the laity, to whom my words do not apply. But I am speaking of the party as a unit; and the influence of the party is destroyed by the attitude of compromise maintained by the majority of its clerical members. If the evangelical party stood to-day where it stood half a century ago, it would have the country behind it, and it could dictate terms to those in authority. But instead of taking their stand upon the Bible, these men seek to go as far as they possibly can with the Romanisers, and slavishly follow them in many of their evil practices. How can such men excite enthusiasm for the principles of the Reformation? Fancy a temperance movement led by men who drink with the drunkards, stopping short only at getting drunk themselves! The old evangelicals put Christ first in everything; the modern ritualists put the Church first in everything. The one position is Christianity; the other the Christian religion. Modern evangelicalism in the Church of England is a feeble attempt at compromise between the truth and the error. Instead, therefore, of being a barrier against ritualism, it is but a halfway house on the road to it; as ritualism is a halfway house on the road to Rome. We can understand the position of those who hold that the Episcopal Churches of Christendom constitute the Church. But what can be said for men who imagine that the Church of England is the Church, though they have reserves about the Ritualists? They are like the old Scotchwoman who narrowed the pale of orthodoxy to herself and her husband, adding, after a pause, "And I'm no' sure about my husband!")