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PREFACE TO ENGLISH EDITION.
OF all the topics of the day, none is of graver importance than the early history of Christianity, and the foundation of the Church. Every thing points inquiry in this direction. A bold criticism claims the right to snatch from our hands the documents of this great history, and to scatter them in fragments to the winds. It is not enough for us to take refuge in our faith as in an inviolable sanctuary; we must establish that faith on solid ground, and produce its original titles. Our part is not to linger on the shore, lamenting the constraint which keeps us there, but rather to abjure the false dominion of a faith imposed by authority, to cross the stormy sea, and plant our feet in the enemy's country, on the much-cultivated soil of contemporary criticism. The fact is not to be disguised that science, hostile to Christianity, has long ago left the lonely height from which it was once wont to bend a pitying eye upon the ignorant masses. No lips take up in our day the cry, "Odi profanum vulgus;" every one feels that such a motto would be the confession of weakness. The law of most democratic reform has finally asserted itself in the world of thought; we are governed by the universal suffrage of minds. Therefore science has assumed, in its hostility to Christianity, a popular form. It has not contented itself with the light, quivering arrows, as piercing as they were brilliant, discharged in such rapid flight by the great satirist of the eighteenth century. It has forged other weapons; it has transfused into the vulgar tongue the results of criticism; it has coined a currency, which circulates from hand to hand, out of those heavy ingots which seemed immovable in their ponderosity. While in Germany, Strauss's "Leben Jesu" has been read and pondered in cottages and workshops, men in France, unaware of the very existence of that famous book, have been initiated into its conclusions. M. Renan's "Vie de Jésus"—circulated by thousands of copies—has given a new popularity to the results of negative criticism, by casting them into a poetic mold. Thus, from day to day, a form of skepticism is being developed which is so much the more dangerous because it conceives itself better informed. It is present in the very air we breathe; it finds its way into the lightest publications; the novel and the journal vie with each other in its diffusion; short review articles, skilled in giving grace and piquancy to erudition, furnish it with arguments which appear weighty, because they are so in comparison with the. pleasantries of Voltaire. Such a condition of things is critical, and calls for grave and special consideration. If those who are convinced of the divinity of Christianity slumber on in false and fatal security, they must be prepared to pay dearly for their slothfulness; and the Church and mankind—which have need of each other—will pay dearly for it also. The voice of skepticism will alone be heard, and the sweeping assertions of an unbelief—often more credulous than bigotry—will pass for axioms.
There can be no doubt of the ignorance which extensively prevails, even among the highly cultivated, as to the nature and origin of Christianity. This is the newest of themes, because that which has fallen into deepest oblivion. We are persuaded that the best method of defense against the shallow skepticism which assails us, and which dismisses, with a scornful smile, documents, the titles of which it has never examined, is to retrace the history of primitive Christianity, employing all the materials accumulated by the Christian science of our day; for it must be well understood among us that there is in truth such a thing as Christian science in the nineteenth century. Those who have taken upon themselves, during the last few years, to initiate other countries into the scientific movement of Germany, have only brought into view one side. The other side deserves a like publicity; and as this very subject of the early history of Christianity has been treated with a marked predilection by the greatest Christian divines of our age, we are bound, in approaching it, to remember their labors, and profit by all the treasures their patient researches have amassed.
This subject commends itself to us also from another point of view. We are the witnesses of an unparalleled triumph of ecclesiastical authority, which takes advantage of all the ground left at its disposal by the general indifference. Our century has seen that which would not have been endured by any previous age. It has received the gift—fatal or precious—of pushing every principle to its ultimate issues. The Roman—I will not say the Catholic—principle achieved its most signal victory when a new dogma was proclaimed by a single man. The intoxication of success has closed the ears of the Ultramontane party against the protestations—dull as yet—of the Christian conscience in the bosom of that very Church, whose rights have thus unscrupulously been trodden under foot. The approaching Council, if we may judge by the letters of convocation, is about to formulate as dogmas the most senseless pretensions of Ultramontanism—the infallibility of the Pope, the temporal power, and the negation of liberty of conscience. Discussion would be perfectly useless with the heads of this party, who will see nothing, hear nothing, that differs from their own opinion, "Let the dead bury their dead," and let us not concern ourselves with them, except when they seek to bury us also in the same tomb. But it would be a serious mistake to suppose that this intolerant faction has succeeded in overcoming all resistance. A formidable crisis has commenced in the history of Catholicism, and nothing will check it. Grave questions are proposed; it must be ascertained whence the Papacy has derived this vast authority which it has so boldly assumed. Let us produce its titles. It is cited before the bar of history. Now or never is the time to listen to that inflexible judge, whose sentence, thanks to the discovery of numerous documents, we can hear for ourselves. It is clear what interest must attach under these circumstances to an investigation of the history of primitive Christianity.
Nor has the subject a lower claim on Protestants. Before them also there are serious questions for solution, both in the domain of theology and in that of the Church. There is not a single religious party which does not feel the need either of confirmation or of transformation. All the Churches, born of the great movement of the sixteenth century, are passing through a time of crisis. They are all asking themselves, though from various stand-points, whether the Reformation does not need to be continued and developed. Aspiration toward the Church of the future is becoming more general, more ardent. But for all who admit the divine origin of Christianity, the Church of the future has its type and ideal in that great past, which goes back not three, but eighteen centuries. To cultivate a growing knowledge of this, in order to attain a growing conformity to it, is the task of the Church of to-day. This is the path in which it will find liberty and holiness—those two attributes so closely linked together, and so necessary to enable the Church to rise to the height of its true vocation. In the same direction it must move, in order to make that advance in its theology which prudence and necessity alike dictate, and which will consist only in an ever-deepening appropriation of apostolic doctrine. Thus by a concurrence of circumstances, which reveal the manifest will of God, the attention of our age is directed to the question of the origin of Christianity.
This great subject we have attempted to treat in the present work, going back always for our materials to original documents. It is indeed an enviable task to take up the history of the early ages of Christianity, thanks to the abundant sources of information now opened, and to the invaluable discoveries of manuscripts made during the past few years.
It is our aim to present as full a picture as possible of this period, commencing with the apostolic age, which is so little understood, either from religious indifference or because of the unintelligent veneration which surrounds it with a legendary glory, behind which its types lose all distinctness and originality. St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John appear too often like those fabulous heroes placed by tradition on the threshold of the historic age, after whose era history, properly so called, begins. We feel the necessity of reconquering, as part of the domain of history, this primitive age of the Church. It will thus regain color and life.
It is not possible in this day, and in view of the recent attacks of criticism, to neglect the study of the first century, and to proceed at once to that of the second and third. Such a course would leave untouched delicate problems which demand a solution. We have placed in notes all that relates to the discussion of documents, without which no serious history of the Church would be possible. We have endeavored to depict, in its true colors, the great conflict of Christianity with the society of the old world, which assailed it—without by persecution, within by heresy; and which, though vanquished so signally, avenged itself in a manner by the leaven of error which it left within the bosom of the Church. To follow closely this triumph and this inner transformation—to watch all the shifting scenes of the drama, make the personages live again and speak their own words—to let constant streams from the original sources flow throughout the whole course of the narrative, so that all religious parties may find exact information in our book, even though they differ from our conclusions—such has been our aim. It will be much to have contributed any thing, by earnest effort, toward such an end. We confine ourselves in this work to the first three centuries of the Church, because the period which precedes the great Councils has a peculiar interest. The Church of this early period has not yet bowed under the yoke of a mechanical and external unity. Its various sections have each a distinct physiognomy, and we can speak of the Church of the East and the Church of the West; in short, we are upon the fruitful soil of freedom. We may add that this period is also the least known, because the official documents are few. In it all the elements of Christian greatness are manifest; in it are also present all the germs of error and enslavement which the following age will develop.
Interest in the glorious past of the Church is reviving in our day on every hand. Even in a literary point of view, there are few themes more fertile and more attractive. For ourselves, while we do not overlook this aspect of our subject, our great desire is to bring once more into the full light of day those immortal truths of Christianity, of which our age, even while it repudiates them, feels such a mighty need. We have observed singular analogies between this our generation and that Roman society which concealed so much corruption under a glittering gloss, and so many aspirations after the future under the mask of an ill-assured incredulity. Our faith in the divinity of Christianity is deep and absolute; it has inspired this book; it has never, however, laid any fetters on our freedom of examination. We believe because we have examined; and we have been careful, in our historical criticism, to set aside all preconceived ideas. We have endeavored to recognize always the sovereign authority of history—that is to say, of facts accepted as we find them before they have undergone any transformation from the spirit of system. We have faithfully stated the result of our researches on all points, ever remembering that our duty here on earth is not to take the mean of opinions received in one quarter or another, but to speak out all the truth as it appears to us. We may say, further, that we have not brought the paltry prepossessions of sectarians into the history of the ancient Church. We have pointed out its errors and blemishes, while we have done justice to its pure and primal glory; nor have we turned aside from the Church of the Fathers, to seek in some inaccessible hiding-place an unbroken tradition of spotless orthodoxy. In every period of its history—the first alone excepted—we find the visible Church in all its manifestations far below its own ideal. And yet, while we hold fast out preferences, we rejoice to repeat the ancient adage, Ubi Christus, ibi Ecclesia. This is no reason, however, why the Church should not aspire to rise higher and higher toward its ideal; to realize that is ever increasingly its true idea. May it succeed in our day less imperfectly than in the past, and, casting aside all human trammels, and the darkness which clings around them, become conformed, both in doctrine and organization, to the very apostolic type! Most needful is such preparation for the impending conflict. Our highest wish will be fulfilled, if we may contribute in some measure to lead the Church back to its origin, as to the fountain of its life.
The reproduction in English of this "History of the Early Years of Christianity" is not a mere translation of the French edition, but the presentation of that work in a considerably altered form. We have, in the first place, dispensed with the long introduction treating of the history of religions prior to Christianity, partly because this has already appeared separately in England, and partly because a very full résumé is given of it in our book on "The Life, Work, and Times of Jesus Christ," to which the present work may be regarded as a sequel. We have, further, endeavored to bring the English edition into a smaller compass than the French, without curtailing it in any necessary or important branch. By this means we have condensed into one volume the whole history of the apostolic age. The next volume will comprise all the great conflict of the Church with paganism, and will be entitled "The Martyrs and Confessors." We hope to give, in a concluding volume, the entire history of Christian thought and doctrine, treating of all that bears upon theological and ecclesiastical questions during the same period.
The English work will thus have its own special character, and will be more concise than the French. By removing some branches from this rather overgrown forest, we hope to let in more light.
Edmond de Pressensé.
Paris, October 27, 1868.
Note by the American Publishers.—By the above statement it will appear that our author's plan was to embrace the entire subject in three volumes. Upon further reflection, however, he has concluded that both the requisite fullness of treatment and the proper division of the matter demanded FOUR VOLUMES; and the publishers, both English and American, concur in his proposal. The topics of the FOUR VOLUMES will, therefore, be as follows: I. APOSTOLIC ERA. II. MARTYRS AND APOLOGISTS. III. DOCTRINE AND HERESIES. IV. THE CHURCH WORSHIP AND CHRISTIAN LIFE. The author's expectation is, that the French volume will be ready for the English translation in November, which will be forthwith followed by its issue from our press.
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