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COMMENCEMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.22See Note C, on the principal source of the history of the Apostolic Age.
JESUS CHRIST came to restore the kingdom of God upon earth. He came not simply to offer salvation to every individual man. It was his design to found a holy community, from which, as from a new humanity reconstituted by him, filled with his Spirit and living by his life, the Gospel should go forth into all the world. The holy community thus founded is the Christian Church. It differs from all the religious institutions which preceded it. It is not limited, like the Jewish theocracy, to one special nation; it is not bounded by the frontiers of any land. It forms the kingdom which is not of this world, and which is destined to triumph over all the powers of earth leagued against it. Placed beyond the external conditions of Judaism, the Church is primarily a moral and spiritual fact, the character of which is essentially supernatural. Born of a miracle, by a miracle it lives. Founded upon the great miracle of redemption, it grows and is perpetuated by the ever-repeated miracle of conversion. It is entered, not by the natural way of birth, but by the supernatural way of the new birth. Resting upon free convictions, the Church—the holy community of souls—wins them one by one, and conquers them in a hard struggle with the world and with themselves; it requires from each one an adherence, which implies the sacrifice of the will. It makes the most powerful appeal to the individual, just because it addresses itself to all the race. The Church, resting on no national or theocratic basis, must gather its adherents simply by individual conviction, and such a basis alone corresponds with the breadth of Christianity, because it alone places the Church beyond the narrow bounds of nationalities and of territorial circumscription. In truth, setting aside in man the contingent of race and distinctions of birth, all that remains is the moral personality, the individual soul to be brought into direct contact with God. Individuality is therefore the widest conceivable basis for a religious community. When Jesus Christ sent forth to the conquest of the world the few disciples whom he had gathered around him, and who formed the nucleus of the Church, he by that act abrogated the old theocratic distinctions, and implicitly founded the new community, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision.
Strange conquerors, we must own, are these Galilean fishermen, without repute, without learning, the poorest of the poor, sent forth in their simplicity into the midst of a state of society in which dazzling splendor is combined with a power hitherto irresistible. Brute force will be let loose upon them, and they have neither might nor right to meet force with force; their weapons are to be of the Spirit only. Reviled and persecuted, they must offer no other resistance than the fortitude of their patience and the vigor of their faith; for let them at all avenge themselves on their adversaries, and they will do themselves irremediable wrong by dishonoring and striking a death-blow to their own principle. They are not suffered for one moment to forget that their strength comes from that higher and invisible world, of which they are the representatives upon earth, and which is at once their fatherland and their goal.
The Christian Church has a double vocation. It is called first to assimilate to itself more and more closely the teaching and the life of its divine Founder, to be joined to him by tender and sacred bonds, to grow in knowledge, in charity, in holiness. It is then to carry every-where the light and flame thus kindled and fed in the sanctuary of the soul, so that it may illuminate and vivify the world. To purify itself within, and to extend itself without, such is the twofold task of the Church, and the ages are given for its fulfillment.
There is, however, one period of its history which claims to be distinguished from the rest—namely, the apostolic age. Its peculiar mission was to preserve to the world the living memory of Christ. The primitive Church is of necessity the medium between us and him; through it alone can we know him; it is to us as the channel which conveys the water from the fountain. It is endowed, therefore, with the gifts necessary for the fulfillment of this mission. Of these gifts two especially are peculiar to it. It is the Church of the apostolate, and the Church of inspiration. On the one hand, it is the direct witness of Christ; on the other, it has received the Spirit of God in extraordinary measure, to enable it to lay a solid foundation upon which the Church of all ages may be built up. Our task is to study closely these two great facts of the apostolic age.
We say at once, that neither by the apostolate nor by inspiration was the primitive Church spared the salutary labor of the assimilation of the truth. It is a grave mistake to suppose that a definite constitution was given to the Church from its very commencement, by decrees promulgated by the Apostles, and that it was at once lifted on the wings of inspiration to the luminous height from which, subsequently, the eye of a St. Paul and a St. John surveyed the whole extent of the Gospel revelation. Many conflicts, many dissensions, many lessons of experience were to precede and to prepare this closing period of the apostolic age, which was the result and crown of all.
The revelations of the Old and New Testament were always given progressively, because it was the will of God to establish a real harmony between the truths which he communicated and the soul by which they were received. This inward, penetrating, progressive action of the Divine Spirit, reaching its ends without doing any violence to human nature, is far more beautiful than any sudden and irresistible operation. Between the two methods there is all the' difference between grace and magic. Every one who admits that the ideal of the new covenant shines forth resplendent in the person of the God-Man, must equally admit that the complete blending of the human with the divine element is the great consummation of the Gospel design. This, which is to be the aim of every age, finds its first perfect realization in the age of the Apostles. Their era, therefore, may be regarded as having furnished, as it were, the theme of the history of the Church; for that history is but a free and vigorous development of the great results gained in the first century. The first subject, then, for our consideration, is this normal and ideal union of the human and the divine element in the life of the primitive Church.
We shall divide its history into three periods, each of these designated by the name of the apostle who exercised the greatest influence upon it. We have thus the period of St. Peter, that of St. Paul, and that of St. John.
In the first, the divine element predominates almost to the exclusion of the human, which is, in comparison, reduced to passivity. This is the period of the purely supernatural; it follows the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and precedes the great internal deliberations in the Church. In the second and third, the human element is more apparent, though always controlled and purified by the divine: great questions are stated and debated, Church organization begins, doctrine becomes more defined, and if miracles are still many, they are less abundant than before. The latter fact, so far from implying any inferiority in the closing periods of the apostolic age, seems to us to mark a real superiority. For in truth, when the supernatural element is so infused into human nature that it animates it, as the soul the body, it may be said that the union between God and man is fully realized, and the most glorious results of redemption achieved.
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