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Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
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§ II. Internal Condition of the Churches. Heresies. Church Organization.

The position of the Churches at the close of the apostolic age was one full of peril and temptation To the period of first enthusiasm, when no difficulty seemed to damp the ardor of zeal and love, had succeeded a period when the obstacles to be overcome became more and more apparent, when numerous defections cast a doubt upon the fairest promises, when, finally, evils which had seemed completely subdued sprang again into life. We see, in fact, from the picture drawn in the Revelation of the seven Churches in Asia Minor, that shortly after the death of Peter and Paul, influences from without had effected a wide entrance in their midst.608608One of the most astonishing examples of the arbitrary criticism which has been used in the interpretation of the Apocalypse is the symbolical explanation frequently given of the names of the seven Churches, which are regarded as the types of seven periods of the history of the Church. This is a pure invention, without any basis in exegesis. Of these seven Churches two only are in a prosperous condition—those of Smyrna and Philadelphia; (Rev. ii, 9; iii, 8;) two are in a most deplorable state—those of Sardis and Laodicea; (iii, 2, 15;) at Ephesus, (ii, 4-6,) at Pergamos, (ii, 13-15,) and at Thyatira, (ii, 19,) good and evil are nearly balanced. There was not, in the case of these Churches, any violent crisis, as at Corinth, where the elements alien to Christianity came into strong collision, and the evil, like the good, was of a decided character. Such crises give hope of restoration to the truth as speedy as the aberration. But the case was very different to which St. John addressed himself in the book of the Revelation. The sap had almost ceased to circulate in the branches; first love was ready to die,609609Τὴν ἀγάπην σου τὴν πρώτην ἀφῆκες. Rev. ii, 4. and luke-warmness was taking the place of ardor and zeal. Rev. iii, 15. Such a condition is all the more perilous, because it is unconscious and easily accompanied with serious self-deception. Since the time of their foundation the Churches had considerably increased; they were still constantly gaining in external importance. Many of the first generation of Christians—those who had taken the decisive step, and forsaken their idols for the true God—were dead. Nominal Christianity had crept into the Churches. Thus, some of them thought themselves rich while they were really in' the deepest spiritual poverty. Rev. iii, 17. The world had joined hands with the Church, and as the world in those rich and voluptuous cities of Asia Minor represented oriental corruption, scandalous falls were sure to result from this fatal association of Christians with the heathen. The former did not always maintain in their relations with the latter the prudent reserve so necessary in contact with a social system deeply defiled by paganism and its shameful practices. They were too often found taking their place at feasts, which were naturally and almost inevitably accompanied by sinful and impure indulgences. The very ties of kindred and friendship became serious temptations.610610Φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα καὶ πορνεῦσαι. Rev. ii, 14. Baur sees in this passage a clear condemnation of the ideas of St. Paul; but it must be observed, that John does not speak simply of eating things offered to idols; he alludes, at the same time, to pagan debauch. He is not treating here a question of principle, but rebuking the melancholy inroads of pagan corruption in the Church. Nor were there wanting more subtle snares than those of sensuality. The spirit of rivalry was provoked, and men like Diotrephes found scope for their ambition in Churches which had acquired considerable importance. 3 John 9, 10. This desire for pre-eminence is, as yet, kept within bounds, but it gives a presage of the assumptions of clerical domination in the age succeeding that of the Apostles. Nevertheless, faith and love still bear their fair fruits even in these Churches. They contain a nucleus of sincere believers, who, like Gaius, display all the Christian virtues, (3 John 5, 6,) and give full proof of their broad charity by heartily welcoming to their homes brethren from far countries, or the faithful missionaries who go from place to place. Many young Christians are also to be found who have overcome the evil one. 1 John ii, 13. The general condition of the Churches, however, fills John with just anxiety, because he sees clearly what will be the issue of this outward and nominal Christianity, which is, as yet, restrained within certain limits, but which will ultimately stifle so many noble impulses in the Church, and will so often impede its progress.

Heresy, during the period of John, is no longer vague and floating as in the preceding age; it takes a more decided form. We have traced this process of transformation with reference to the Judaizing heresies which do not come within the scope of the Apostle, but which, from the time of the fall of Jerusalem, gradually assumed a settled form. A similar change is passing upon the heresies arising out of paganism, the first manifestations of which we noted in Asia Minor, where the double current of Western philosophy and Eastern theosophy met. Gnosticism is just emerging from its formative state. We cannot yet give a general description of the system, for we should be in danger of committing an anachronism, and attributing to the apostolic age that which really belongs to a much later period. When we come in contact with the systems of Valentinus and Basilides we shall give a summary of all the various features of Gnosticism as they were successively developed. We shall then have a complete idea of this important reaction of the spirit of paganism on the Church. We know already that Gnosticism is essentially dualistic; it rests upon that antagonism between matter and spirit which was a fundamental element of Greek philosophy and of all oriental religions. In the time of St. Paul, heresy terminated in an exaggerated asceticism, founded upon a false spirituality; it had even gone so far as to deny the resurrection of the body. In the time of St. John the doctrine of the Gnostics took a wider range; it tended more and more toward Docetism, that is, to the theory which holds the bodily existence of Christ to have been a mere semblance.611611Docetism comes from the verb δοκεῖν, to appear. From the dualistic stand-point, in fact, the body, as the material element, is infected with evil; it was impossible, therefore, to suppose that He who was to overcome evil could have brought a body with him into the world. The natural consequence of these ideas was the doctrine that Jesus Christ had possessed only a semblance, a shadow of corporeal life. It would be erroneous, however, to suppose that in the time of St. John Docetism had assumed a thoroughly systematic form; it was a tendency rather than a doctrine; but it was constantly gaining ground. It is for this reason the Apostle insists with so much emphasis upon the incarnation: "Every spirit," he says, "which confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; this is that spirit of Antichrist."612612Πᾶν πνεῦμα, ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν, ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστι· καὶ τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου. 1 John iv, 3. We should note also the urgency with which he dwells on the essentially practical character of the truth—of that truth which needs not only to be known but to be fulfilled, and which implies absolute submission to the commands of God.613613Ὁ λέγων· ἔγνωκα αὐτόν καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ μὴ τηρῶν, ψεύστης ἐστὶ, καὶ ἐν τοὺτῳ ἡ ἀλήθεια οὐκ ἔστιν. 1 John ii, 4. We perceive that even the partially developed Gnosticism of his day tended to reduce Christianity to a mere intellectual theory without influence upon the moral life, and that it fostered the serious inconsistencies of conduct to which we have alluded. It is not surprising, that as it reinstated the fundamental principle of paganism, it should have justified its works and shielded its corruption.

Like the prophet Balaam, and wicked Jezebel, who led the ancient people of God to make a league with the idolators, the heretics sought to lower the barrier between the Christians and the heathen. Thus the Revelation speaks of them in symbolic phrase, under those well-known names which so accurately characterized their conduct. Rev. ii, 14-20. It appears that these dangerous persons had found a leader in the ranks of those who, standing nearest to the Apostles, should have been the surest guardians of purity of doctrine and of life.614614Ἔχεις καὶ σὺ κρατοῦντας τὴν διδαχὴν τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν. Rev. ii, 15. The majority of German theologians maintain that the Nicolaitans were identical with the Balaamites. They argue from the etymology of the two words. Balaam, according to them, comes from the Hebrew verb בָּלַע, which signifies to swallow, to destroy, and from the substantive עָם, people. Balaam thus signifies, he who destroys the people. On the other hand, Nicolaitans comes from the two Greek words νικᾶν λαόν, which mean to subdue, to seduce the people. We have thus two synonyms conveying one idea. (Hengstenberg,) "Balaam," 23.) This explanation seems to us very erudite and very subtle. The writer of the Apocalypse, however, distinguishes between those who hold the doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, (verse 15 is connected with verse 14 of chap. ii, by a καὶ.) The testimony of Hippolytus, so well versed in the sources of heresy, appears to us conclusive. "Philosoph.," p. 258. Comp. Irenæus, "Contr. Hæres.," i, 27; "Epiphanes, Hæres.," xxv. According to Hippolytus and Irenæus, the Deacon Nicholas asserted that the Christians were not bound to abstain from heathen practices, and that they might, without scruple, allow themselves sensual indulgence.615615Ἐδίδασκεν ἀδιαφορίαν βιοῦ. "Philosoph.," p. 258. St. John characterizes such doctrine as the "depths of Satan."616616Τὰ βαθέα τοῦ Σατανᾶ. Rev. ii, 24.

Already, in the heresies of this age, an idea began to gain currency which became widely diffused in the second century—the idea, namely, that the world was not created by the Supreme God, but by an inferior and antagonistic deity, known as the demriurge,617617Demiurge comes from δημιουργὸς, fabricator. It is the name of the inferior deity, creator of the material world. the spirit of evil and controller of matter. Cerinthus, the adversary of St. John, accepted this hypothesis of an inferior and evil creator; not, perhaps, with all the clearness of precision attributed to him by Irenaeus and Hippolytus, but, at least, in substance. It was a natural consequence from dualism, and seemed to guard the holiness of God much more effectually than the theory of emanations, since it supposed no contact on his part with evil and with matter. The two principles being opposed to each other as eternally hostile, it was better to suppose that the evil principle had worked without any participation on the part of the spiritual. Cerinthus was by birth a Jew, but imbued with Alexandrian Gnosticism618618Κήρενθος δέ τις αὐτὸς Αἰγυπτίων παιδείῳ ἀσκηθείς. Hipp., "Philosoph.," p. 256. and oriental Theosophy. The power which created the world was, according to him, a force separate from the Supreme God, and acting without his concurrence.619619Ὑπὸ δυνάμεως τινὸς κεχωρισμένης, τῆς ὑπὲρ τά ὅλα εξουσίας. Hipp., "Philosoph.," p. 257. Jesus Christ was not born of a virgin; he was the son of Joseph and Mary, like other men, but distinguished from others by his righteousness and holiness. At his baptism the divine power, which is above all, descended upon him in the form of a dove.620620Καὶ μετὰ τὸ βάπιισμα κατελθεῖν εἴς αὐτὸν τὸν τῆς ὑπὲρ τὰ δλα αἰθεντίας τὸν Χριστὸν. Hipp., "Philosoph.," p. 256. From that time he wrought miracles, and revealed to men the unknown God. But, at the close of his life, this invisible power, which was the Christ, or the divine element in him, returned into heaven, and it was the man Jesus alone who suffered and rose again, while the celestial Christ was subject to no suffering because of his spiritual nature.621621Προς δὲ τῷ τὲλει, ἀποστῆναι τὸν Χριστὸν ἀπὸ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ. "Philosoph.," p. 257. Comp. Irenæus, i, 25. Cerinthus united the most exaggerated millenarian notions with this absolute dualism. He reverted by a circuitous path to materialism. This ingenious system skillfully combined the Gospel narrative with the principles of dualism. We meet, again and again, both in the fourth gospel and in the epistles of John, with allusions to these false doctrines, which were equivalent to the negation of Christianity. The prologue of the fourth gospel is designed to establish that there is no separation between the Jesus and the Christ; that the man Jesus was in very truth the Word made flesh. We read in the first epistle: "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" 1 John v, 1, 5. John has evidently in view the fatal errors of Cerinthus in reference to the baptism of the Saviour and his crucifixion, when he says: "This is he that cometh by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood."622622Οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ τῷ αἵματι. 1 John v, 6. In other words, he wrought out our salvation no less when he shed his blood than when he came up out of the waters of Jordan. It is not true that in the hour of his death his divinity had forsaken him. Thus, at the close of the apostolic age, John, like Paul, plants with a firm hand the standard of the cross, to be a beacon of light shining through all the darkness of coming storms. The folly of the cross is to be for ever the wisdom of the Church, and against this rock all the surges of heresy will break in vain. Many causes contribute at this period to strengthen ecclesiastical organization. We may point, in the first place, to the development of heresy, and the sensible diminution in the miraculous gifts bestowed on the Church. Less miracles are cited of the Apostle John than of any of the rest. A new era is opening; the first full burst of waters from the divine spring is to be succeeded by the steady flow of the river between its banks. The miraculous does not cease; on the contrary, it assumes a permanent character, but it bears less and less the appearance of prodigy. In such a condition of things the organization of the Church would naturally take a more definite form. It is erroneous, however, to attribute to St. John the institution of episcopacy, properly so called. For a long time yet to come we find only two orders in the hierarchy; deacons and elders or bishops are alone mentioned as governing the Church. The angels of the seven Churches, to whom are addressed the solemn exhortations of the opening chapters of the Revelation, are not bishops, as has been asserted. Each one is the symbolic personification of a Church, or its guardian angel.623623M. Bunsen supports the old interpretation; ("Ignatius und seine Zeit.," p. 133;) as does Thiersch; (work quoted, p. 278;) and Rothe, "Anfänge," p. 423. But Ritschl points out, with justice, that the notion of an ideal representation of the Church is far more in harmony with the symbolism of the Revelation than the notion of a typical representation of bishops; (work quoted, p. 417.) No stress can be laid on what is said about Diotrephes as establishing the existence of the episcopate at this period, (3 John 9, 10;) for John speaks reprovingly of Diotrephes' ambition. Thiersch regards the superscription of the second epistle, Ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ, as the designation of a metropolitan Church, not of an elect lady (work quoted, p. 282.) It is not needful to refute such a supposition. The name elder or bishop is still used interchangeably, and we gather from the beautiful account of St. John, given by Clement of Alexandria, that the ecclesiastical constitution of that time is eminently democratic. The Apostle calls the assembly to witness of the trust he has committed to one of its directors, so as to make the latter feel that he is in no way above his brethren, and that he is responsible to them for the manner in which he fulfills his duties. St. John gives explicit recognition to the inalienable rights of Christian people, when he declares that every believer receives for his guidance the anointing of the Holy Spirit. 1 John ii, 27, 28. This exalted view held by the Apostle of Christian freedom was still borne in mind in the second century, for in the Coptic constitutions of the Egyptian Church we find these words addressed in his name to all the Christians: "You have also the Holy Spirit for your guide, if any thing is wanting in our exhortations."624624Εἰ δὲ παρὴκαμεν, τὰ πράγματα δηλώσει ὑμῖν, ἔχομεν γὰρ πάντες τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ Θεοῦ. "Const. Eccles. Ægypt.," canon 44.

The worship of the Church retained the same character of freedom as in the preceding century. The narrative of Clement of Alexandria shows us that no hesitation was felt in freely discussing the interests of the Church in the sacred assemblies. The conversation between St. John and the bishop with reference to the young apostate took place at a time when the whole Church was gathered together. The Revelation, however, puts us on the track of a gradual transformation even then commencing. The glowing description given by St. John of the heavenly worship is an indirect invitation to the Church on earth to conform to this ideal. That Church would, doubtless, delight to repeat or to paraphrase some of those sublime songs which gave such glorious expression to the religious feeling. Nothing could be more alien to the spirit of this grand epoch than the work of determining liturgical formularies. Nevertheless, as one by one the miraculous gifts were withdrawn, the great monuments of apostolic inspiration would naturally become the models and types of Christian adoration. We catch the echo of the anthems of the Revelation in those remarkable prayers of the Church of the second century, which have come down to us.

With reference to Christian festivals, the observance of the Lord's day becomes more marked than formerly. It was already so called in commemoration of the resurrection.625625Κυριακῇ ἡμέρᾳ. Rev. i, 10. But we find no trace of any formal substitution of the Christian for the Jewish Sabbath, nor any legal appointment of its observance. The only great annual feast of which mention is made is the Passover. The Churches of Asia Minor, following the example of St. John, celebrated the anniversary of the Lord's death on the I4th of Nisan, at the same time as the Jews partook of the Paschal lamb. The anniversary of the resurrection thus fell on various days of the week, since it was always fixed for the third day after the 14th of Nisan. The Western Churches, on the other hand, always made the Easter, the closing day of the Passover fast, coincide with the Sunday.626626Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," v, 23. This difference of practice produced in the following century a violent controversy, which we shall trace through its various phases. In the first century the peace of the Church was not so lightly broken. There is no ground for regarding as a concession to Judaism the fact that St. John fixed on the 14th of Nisan, in determining the date of the great Christian festival. The Apostle recognized in Jesus Christ the true Paschal Lamb, who had taken the place of the prophetic lamb, as the reality substitutes the type. By celebrating the anniversary of the Redeemer's death on that very day, he proclaimed the abrogation of the old covenant. It is further proved that this celebration was not at all Jewish in character, but was thoroughly in harmony with the spirit of Christian worship.627627Hippolytus says of the observers of the I4th day, who, in the second century followed the practice of John in the celebration of the Passover, that, on all other points, they were in agreement with the Church, (ἐν τοῖς ἑτέροις συμφωνοῦσι.) " Philosoph.," 275. This proves that some observed the 14th of Nisan without being Judaizers.

With St. John the apostolic age closes.

Revelation is before us in all its wealth, in its inexhaustible freshness, its infinite variety, and mighty unity. The various types of apostolic doctrine succeeded and supplemented one another. But there is not one of these elements which the Church is not bound to make its own, and its whole history will be but a progressive appropriation of the true Christ—of him whose image in all its divine lineaments the first century of the Church faithfully preserved.

That eventful and checkered history is about to begin. The last of the Apostles has passed away. The Church will no longer have that visible protection, that gentle and firm guidance, which has hitherto saved it from so many perils; but these very perils are necessary to its earnest appropriation of the truth. Though the Apostles are removed, He who gave the Apostles remains, and in him the Church will find light in all darkness, lifting up after every fall—victory over every foe.


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