The century, which closes with the death of the great Theodosius and Ambrose, has been full of the deepest interest to the christian reader. Events, the most momentous — affecting the majesty and glory of God, and the wellbeing of mankind — have transpired. From 303 till 313, the church passed through her most trying ordeal under Diocletian. Ten years she was in a fiery furnace; but in place of being consumed, as her enemies vainly imagined, she seemed to increase in numbers as well as in purity and power. Satan was permitted to do his utmost against her; and he so moved and stirred up the heathen population, that in all parts of the empire they arose in arms; first, to defend their ancient polytheism; and, secondly, to root out Christianity, by persecuting the Christians, and destroying their sacred books. Thus the century commenced with the great and final struggle between paganism and Christianity, and closed with the total ruin of the former, and the complete triumph of the latter. The contest ended with the fourth century, and victory has rested with Christianity ever since.
Such has been the external history of the church, and the accomplishment, so far, of the word of the Lord in the Epistles to Smyrna and Pergamos. But there are other things which most reasonably demand a little of our attention before entering on the fifth century; and no part of the wide field which lies before us seems to have a stronger claim than the sphere and influence of the great prelates of the East and the West. It must also have occurred to our readers from the necessary allusions to baptism, that the observance of that rite had an immense place in the minds of those early Christians. They believed that the waters of baptism purified the soul completely. We have thought, then, of combining the two — of giving a brief history of baptism from the writings of the Fathers; which will, at the same time, give us an opportunity of seeing what views they held, not only on baptism, but on the fundamental truths of the gospel.
In the New Testament there is perfect uniformity, both as to precept and example, on the subject of baptism; but in our own day, and ever since the beginning of the third century, we find in the professing church endless variations both as to theory and practice on this important subject. Those not acquainted with ecclesiastical history naturally inquire, When, and by what means, did such differences arise in the church?
As it has been our plan all through these "Short Papers" to find out the beginnings of great questions which have affected the peace and prosperity of the church, we will endeavor, very briefly, to point out the beginning and early history of ecclesiastical baptisms. We use the term ecclesiastical, as distinguished from scriptural. Nothing is of divine authority, either in theory or practice, that was introduced after the days of the inspired apostles. So that nothing can be christian baptism that varies from the institution of Christ and the practice of His apostles. To bring in alterations is to change the thing itself, and make it not the same, but another baptism; hence we find in history there were baptisms many.
As the early history of these variations, and not controversy, is our object, we will avoid giving any opinion on the long agitated question. For more than sixteen hundred years the controversy has been maintained with great determination, and by able men on both sides. No controversy in the history of the church has been of such continuance, or conducted with such confidence of victory by both parties. As there is no express mention of infant baptism in scripture, the Baptists think that their position is beyond question: and the paedobaptists as firmly believe that it may be inferred from several well-known passages that infant baptism was practiced in the days of the apostles. There has not been so much controversy as to the mode of baptism. The Greeks, Latins, Franks, and Germans, appear to have baptised by immersion. "Baptism is a Greek word," says Luther, "and in Latin it may be rendered mersio, immersion;... and though among the greater part of us this practice has fallen into disuse, nevertheless they that are baptised ought to be entirely immersed, and forthwith lifted out of the water, and this the etymology of the word indicates, as also in the German language." Neander's testimony is to the same effect: "Baptism was originally administered by immersion; and many of the comparisons of St. Paul allude to this form of its administration. The immersion is a symbol of death, of being buried with Christ; the coming forth from the water is a symbol of resurrection with Christ; and both, taken together, represent the second birth, the death of the old man, and a resurrection to a new life." Cave, Tillorson, Waddington, etc., speak of the mode of baptism in a similar way. And as all these testimonies are from paedobaptists, we may dismiss this part of the subject as fairly proved in church history; nevertheless faith can only stand on the word of God. We follow not the Fathers, but Christ.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, is the first of the Fathers that alludes to infant baptism. He died about the year 200, so that his writings are placed towards the close of the second century. The apostolical fathers never mention it. By this time superstition, to a great extent, had taken the place of faith, so that the reader must be prepared to hear some extravagant notions advanced by some of the great doctors; yet many of them, we doubt not, were true earnest Christians. "Christ came to save all persons by Himself," says Irenaeus, "all, I mean, who by Him are regenerated — baptized — unto God: infants and little ones; children and youths, and elder persons. Therefore He went through the several ages: for infants being made an infant, sanctifying infants: to little ones He was made a little one, sanctifying those of that age: and also giving to them an example of godliness, justice, and dutifulness: to youths He was a youth," etc. Baptism was thus taught to be a complete lustration of the soul for all ages and conditions of mankind. But the controversy soon resolved itself into the one question — infant or adult. Regeneration, born again, baptism, are used as interchangeable terms, and as meaning the same thing, in the writings of the Fathers.
Here we have the origin, so far as ecclesiastical antiquity informs us, of infant baptism. The passage is somewhat obscure and extremely fanciful; but it is the first trace we have of the yet unsettled question, and probably the root of all its variations ecclesiastically viewed. The effect of such teaching on superstitious minds was immense. Anxious parents hastened to have their delicate infants baptised lest they should die under the curse of original sin, and the man of the world delayed his baptism until the near approach of death to avoid any subsequent stain, and that he might emerge from the waters of regeneration to the realms of pure and unmingled blessedness. The example and reputation of Constantine led many thus to delay their baptism, though the clergy testified against the practice.
Tertullian. The testimony of this Father would prove that infants were baptised in his day — he died about 240 — but that he was not favorable to the practice: as he says, "But they whose duty it is to administer baptism are to know that it must not be given rashly... Therefore according to every man's condition and disposition, and also their age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For what need is there that the godfathers should be brought into danger? because they either fail of their promises by death, or they may be mistaken by a child's proving of wicked disposition."
Origen, in discoursing on the sin of our nature, alludes to baptism as the appointed means for its removal. "Infants are baptised," he says, "for the forgiveness of sins. Of what sins? or when have they sinned? or how can any reason of the laver in their case hold good, but according to that sense that we mentioned even now: none is free from pollution, though his life be but of the length of one day upon the earth? And it is for that reason, because by the sacrament of baptism the pollution of our birth is taken away, that infants are baptised."
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, about the year 253, received a letter from one Fidus, a country bishop, inquiring whether an infant, before it was eight days old, might be baptised if need required. The answer proves, not only that infant baptism was then practiced, but the necessity of it in their minds because of its efficacy. Cyprian, with sixty-six bishops in council, says, "As to the case of infants; whereas you judge that they must not be baptised within two or three days after they are born; and that the rule of circumcision is to be observed, so that none should be baptised and sanctified before the eighth day after he is born: we were all in our assembly of the contrary opinion. For as for what you thought fitting to be done, there was not one that was of your mind; but all of us, on the contrary, judged that the grace and mercy of God is to be denied to no person that is born. For whereas our Lord in His gospel says, 'the Son of man came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them,' so far as lies in us, no soul, if possible, is to be lost," etc.
Gregory Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople, was a Father of great note about the year 380. He was the means of destroying the power of Arianism in the Eastern capital, where it had been maintained in great strength for nearly forty years. He had to encounter much opposition and even persecution at first; but by degrees his eloquence, the practical and serious tone of his teaching, and the influence of his godly life, began to tell, and gained him a firm footing, though he never liked the imperial style of the capital.
Dr. Wall quotes largely from Gregory on baptism; our extracts will be brief. Like the rest of the Fathers, he is wild on this subject. "What say you to those that are as yet infants, and are not in capacity to be sensible of either the grace or the lack of it? Shall we baptise them too? Yes, by all means, if any danger make it requisite. For it is better that they be sanctified without their own sense of it, than that they should die unsealed and uninitiated. And a ground of this to us is circumcision, which was given on the eighth day, and was a typical seal, and was practiced on those that had no use of reason." Against the practice of delaying baptism till a death-bed he speaks strongly and earnestly; comparing the service to the washing of a corpse, rather than to christian baptism.
Basil, bishop of Caesarea, is constantly associated with the two Gregories. Gregory of Nyssa was his brother; the other, his chief friend. Cappadocia gave birth to the three Fathers. Basil was faithful to the Athanasian creed during its days of depression and adversity, but did not live to behold its final triumph. He died about 379. He was a great admirer and a true example of monastic Christianity. He embraced the ascetic faith, abandoned his property, and practiced such severe austerities as to injure his health. He fled into the desert; his fame collected, as it were, a city around him; he built a monastery, and monasteries sprang up on every side.
His views of baptism are similar to those of his friend Gregory; he urges the necessity of it from the same superstitious feeling that they all had. "If Israel had not passed through the sea," he says, "they had not got rid of Pharaoh: and unless thou pass through the waters of baptism, thou shalt not be delivered from the cruel tyranny of the devil," etc. This he would apply to all ages, and enforce it by the words of the Lord to Nicodemus, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
Ambrose, bishop of Milan, like all the Fathers we have yet met with, is thoroughly mistaken as to the meaning of Joh 3:5:
"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
"You see," he says, "that Christ excepts no person, not an infant, not even one that is hindered by unavoidable accident."
John, surnamed Chrysostom, which means the golden-mouthed; he obtained this name from his smooth, flowing eloquence. He was such a favourite of the people, that they used to say, "We had rather the sun should not shine, than that John should not preach." He was evidently in favor of infant baptism, though it is not clear that he believed in original sin. "For this cause we baptise infants also," he says, "though they are not defiled with sin; that there may be superadded to them saintship, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, a brotherhood with Christ, and to be made members with Him." It would be difficult to say more as to the alleged benefits of baptism than what we have here enumerated. But extravagant as the whole sentence may seem, it has been the text of the paedobaptists from that day to this. Most of our readers are familiar with these words, "Baptism, wherein I was made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven." These words are taken, not from scripture, but from Chrysostom.
Dr. Wall is anxious to make it appear, that this great doctor was not unsound as to original sin. He suggests that the meaning of his words may be, "they are not defiled with their own actual sins." But Chrysostom does not say with their own, but that they are not defiled with sin. And surely every child is defiled, as saith the Psalmist, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." In vain do we look for soundness on many of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity among the Fathers; to say nothing of what they all overlooked, such as the presence of the Holy Ghost in the assembly, the heavenly calling, and the heavenly relations of the church, the difference between the house of God and the body of Christ, and the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ. (Tit 2:11-15.)
Enough, we believe, for our present purpose, has been said on the subject of infant baptism. The reader has before him the testimony of the most trustworthy witnesses for the first two hundred years of its history. The practice seems to have taken its rise, and derived all its wondrous influence, from a misinterpretation of Joh 3:5: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It was argued from this passage that baptism was necessary to salvation and all the blessings of grace. The efficacy of the blood of Christ, the purifying power of the word of God, and the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, were all attributed to the due observance of external baptism. And need we wonder at the place it has held in the professing church these sixteen hundred years, or at its mighty influence on all classes and all ages? though many do not hold baptismal regeneration.
The ancient Christians, Dr. Wall afirms, without the exception of one man, teach that these words of the Savior refer to baptism. Calvin, he believes, was the first man that ever objected to this interpretation, or that refused to accept it as teaching the necessity of baptism to salvation. Supposing these statements to be correct, they prove, that the great ecclesiastical fabric that arose out of baptism was founded on a misinterpretation. The church of Rome, Lutherans, Greeks, and Anglicans, continue to follow the Fathers in this misapplication of the truth. "Shall that," says Hooker, referring to Calvin's new interpretation of Joh 3:5, "which hath always received this and no other construction be now disguised with the toy of novelty? God will have baptism embraced, not only as a sign or token of what we receive, but also as an instrument or means whereby we receive grace." Bishop Burner also observes, speaking of the ancient times: "The words of our Savior to Nicodemus were expounded so as to import the absolute necessity of baptism in order to salvation. These words 'the kingdom of God,' being taken to mean eternal glory, that expression of our Savior's was understood to import this, that no man could be saved unless he were baptized," etc. Calvin taught, that the benefits of baptism were limited to the children of the elect, and thus introduced the idea of hereditary Christianity. The Presbyterians follow Calvin; and, as a consequence of his teaching, circumcision becomes both the warrant and the rule of infant baptism. But some of our readers may be anxious to know what we believe to be the true interpretation of Joh 3:5, seeing that so much is built upon it.
The expression "born of water," we believe, in no way means baptism. The new birth is the Savior's theme; without which no man can see or enter into the kingdom of God. It was not yet come visibly — "not with observation" — but it was there among them, as God's new sphere of power and blessing. Flesh cannot even perceive this kingdom. Christ had not come to teach and improve the flesh, as Nicodemus seemed to think; but that man might be partaker of a divine nature which is imparted by the Spirit. No mere external rite admits to the kingdom. There must be a new nature or life suited to the new order of things. "And Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Then the Lord shows Nicodemus the only way of entering into the kingdom. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Water is here used as the symbol of the cleansing and purifying power of the word of God; as in Peter, "seeing that ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit." Here, the truth is spoken of as the instrument, and the Spirit as the agent, in the new birth as he goes on to say, "Being born again not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God." Two things are necessary — the word and the Spirit. (1Pe 1:22-23.)
The passage obviously means the application of the word of God in the power of the Spirit — operating in the heart, conscience, thoughts, and actions; and thereby bringing in a new life from God, in which we have His mind, and His thoughts about the kingdom. The following passages will make it still plainer. "Of his own will begat He us with the word of truth." (Jas 1:18.) "That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word." (Eph 5:26.) "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." (Joh 15:3.) Here we have the moral cleansing or purifying of the soul, by the application of the word through the Spirit which judges all things, and which works in us new thoughts and affections, suitable to the presence and glow of God.
As a question of interpretation, then, we see no allusion to baptism in Joh 3:5: baptism may set forth that which is conveyed by it, but baptism itself conveys nothing. On the other hand — according to the inspired commentaries in the Epistles — baptism is the sign of death, not of giving life, as the Fathers uniformly affirm. "Know ye not," says the apostle, "that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death." (Romans 6; Colossians 2; 1 Peter 3.) Besides it is perfectly plain that Nicodemus could not possibly have known anything of proper christian baptism, as it was not instituted by our Lord till after He arose from the dead.
The church of Rome and all who follow the Fathers confess that the origin of their practice is tradition. But there are many in our day, as there have been since the Reformation, who hold infant baptism from the writings of the New Testament. The following are the principal passages they refer to: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God."…"Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy."... "For the promise is unto you, and to your children."... "Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." And many draw their arguments chiefly from the baptism of households, and from the Abrahamic covenant: Mark 10; 1 Corinthians 7; Acts 2; Ephesians 6; Acts 16; Genesis 17.
Anti-Paedobaptists, or "the Baptists," as they call themselves, simply affirm, that in all the allusions to baptism in the writings of the apostles, it is uniformly coupled with faith in the gospel; and that such expressions as "buried with Him by baptism," and "planted together in the likeness of His death," etc., must mean, that the person so baptised has part with Christ by faith. And, further, that as baptism is an ordinance of Christ, it must of necessity be celebrated exactly as He appointed. Nothing, it is said, but direct scripture ought to be the foundation of our faith and practice in divine things. And since to the very being of baptism a subject to whom it must be administered is necessary, and a mode of administering, without which it would only be a notion in the human mind, these things, therefore, are as necessary as baptism itself. And hence it follows that the true subjects, which are professed believers only, and the true mode, which is immersion only, are necessary to true Christian baptism.
When superstition in general takes the place of faith, and human notions the place of God's word, where will even serious and enlightened men not be carried! Augustine strongly advocated the practice of infant communion. But it followed infant baptism as a necessary consequence. The Fathers affirmed that the grace of God bestowed upon the subjects of baptism was given without measure, and without any limitation as to age; therefore, they reasoned, that the Lord's supper might consistently be administered to all who had been baptised, whether infants or adults. The custom prevailed for many ages; it is still observed by the Greek church; but we refrain from details. In general, the inward spiritual meaning and true design of the Lord's supper were greatly lost sight of; and the most superstitious reverence was expressed for the external symbols of the ordinance.
In studying the internal history of the church during the fourth century, innumerable things crowd for a brief notice: but we can only refer to those which characterise the period. The altered position of the clergy is an important one, and will account for many changes that were introduced by them. From the time of Constantine the members of the christian ministry attained a new social position with certain secular advantages. This led great numbers to join the sacred order from the most unworthy motives. Hence the sorrowful influence of this unhallowed mixture on the whole professing church. We constantly meet with it in the pride, arrogance, luxury, and assumed dignity of the whole clerical order. Thus, it is said that Martin of Tours, when at the court of Maximus, allowed the Empress to wait on him at table; and that when the Emperor had desired him to drink before him, and expected to receive the cup back after the bishop had drunk, Martin passed it to his own chaplain, as being higher in honor than any earthly potentate. This circumstance shows us where the clergy now were, what they thought of themselves and of spiritual dignity in opposition to secular rank. The church had now become like "a great house," wherein "are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honor and some to dishonor." And such it has been ever since, and such it will be to the end; but the path of the faithful is plain.
"If a man therefore purge himself from these, [the vessels to dishonor,] he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work." (2Ti 2:20-21.)
Before we approach the period of "the Church of Thyatira," it may be well to notice the rise and growth of the early ascetic tendencies. The influence of monasticism was indeed great during the dark ages, and throughout the Western churches. Let us trace it to its source. It is well to know the beginning of things, especially of important and influential things.
During the violence of the Dectan persecution, about the year 251, many Christians fled into voluntary exile. Among these was a young man named Paul of Alexandria; who took up his abode in the desert of Thebais, or Upper Egypt. By degrees he became attached to the mode of life he had adopted from necessity; and is celebrated as the first christian hermit, though without fame or influence at the time. Not so with his immediate and great successor.
Antony, who is regarded as the father of monasticism, was born at Coma, in Upper Egypt, about the year 251. In boyhood and youth, it is said, he was thoughtful, serious, and of a retiring disposition. He cared little for worldly learning, but desired earnestly the knowledge of divine things. Before reaching the age of nineteen, he lost his parents, and came into possession of considerable property. One day while in church, it so happened that the gospel concerning the rich young man was read before the assembly. Antony considered the words of the Savior as addressed from heaven to himself:
"Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow Me." (Lu 18:22.)
He forthwith made over his land to the inhabitants of his village, turned the rest of his estates into money, and gave all to the poor, except a small portion which he reserved for the maintenance of his only sister. On another occasion he was deeply impressed with the words of the Lord,
"Take therefore no thought for the morrow" (Mt 6:25-34),
and taking these words in a literal sense, he parted with the remainder of his property, placed his sister with a society of pious virgins, that he might be free from all cares about earthly things and embraced a life of rigid asceticism.
Antony is said to have visited Paul the hermit, and all the most famous ascetics he could hear of, endeavoring to learn from each his distinguishing virtue, and to combine all their graces in his own practice. He shut himself up in a tomb, where he lived ten years. By excessive fastings, exhaustion, and an over-excited imagination, he fancied himself beset by evil spirits, with whom he had many and severe conflicts. Antony became famous. Many visited the unnatural place of his abode in the hope of seeing him, or of hearing the noise of his conflicts with the powers of darkness. But he left his tomb, and dwelt in a ruined castle near the Red Sea for other twenty years. He increased his mortifications with the view of overcoming the evil spirits, but the same temptations and conflicts followed him.
Strange as it may seem, this remarkable and deluded man had a true heart for Christ, and a tender heart for his people. The persecution under Maximus (311) drew him from his cell to the public scenes in Alexandria. His appearance produced a great effect. He attended on the sufferers, exhorting them to unwavering confidence in their confession of Christ, and manifested great love to the confessors in the prisons and in the mines. He exposed himself in every way to danger, yet no one ventured to touch him. A kind of inviolable sanctity was supposed to surround these unearthly, ghostly-.looking men. When the fury of the persecution was past, he escaped to a new place of solitude in the side of a lofty mountain. Here he cultivated a small piece of ground; multitudes flocked to him; great numbers imitated him. Mourners came to him to be comforted, the perplexed to be advised, and enemies to be reconciled. Miracles were ascribed to him, his influence was boundless.
In the year 352, when he was a hundred years old, he appeared a second time in Alexandria. This was to counteract the spread of Arianism, and defend with all his influence the true orthodox faith. His appearance produced a great sensation; multitudes thronged to see the monk — the man of God, as he was called — and hear him preach; and many pagans were converted to Christianity by his means. Antony and his monks were steady and powerful supporters of the Nicene creed. He lived to the age of a hundred and five, and died only a few days before Athanasius found a refuge among the monks of the desert in 356.
Antony was evidently sincere and honest, though utterly mistaken and misled by the craft and power of Satan. In place of acting upon the Savior's commission to His disciples, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature," or following His example who went about doing good, he thought to attain to a more elevated spirituality by withdrawing from mankind, and devoting himself to austerity of life, and to uninterrupted communion with heaven. He was a Christian, but utterly ignorant of the nature and object of Christianity. Holiness in the flesh was his one grand object; though the apostle had said, "In me — that is, in my flesh — dwelleth no good thing." Therefore all was failure, utter failure; as it ever must be, if we think there is any good thing in human nature, or try to become better in ourselves. In place of sanctifying his nature by fastings and idleness, he found that every evil passion was excited to greater activity.
"Hence, in his solitude," says Neander, "he had to endure many conflicts with sense, which, in some active vocation demanding the exertion of all his powers, might perhaps have been avoided. The temptations he had to battle with were so much the more numerous and powerful, as he was given to idle self-occupation, as he busied himself in fighting down the impure images that were constantly coming in from the abyss of corruption within his heart, instead of forgetting himself in worthier employments, or in looking away to the everlasting source of purity and holiness. At a later period, Antony, with a conviction grounded on long years of experience, acknowledged this, and said to his monks, 'Let us not busy our imaginations in painting spectres of evil spirits; let us not trouble our minds as if we were lost. Let us rather be comforted and cheerful at all times, as those who have been redeemed; and let us be mindful that the Lord is with us who has conquered them and made them nothing. Let us ever remember that, if the Lord is with us, the enemy can do us no harm. The spirits of evil appear different to us, according to the different moods of mind in which they find us... But if they find us joyful in the Lord, occupied in the contemplation of future blessedness and of the things of the Lord, reflecting that everything is in the Lord's hand, and that no evil spirit can do any harm to the Christian, they turn away in confusion from the soul which they see preserved by such good thoughts.'"
It is perfectly plain from these counsels to his monks, that Antony was not only a sincere Christian, but that he had a good knowledge of the Lord and of redemption, though so completely turned aside by a deceived heart. We are never safe unless moving on the direct lines of the truth of God. The system which this man introduced in his false dreams of perfection in the flesh, became, in process of time, the very hot-bed of profligacy and vice. And thus it continued for more than a thousand years. It was not until the sixteenth century, that the divine light of the blessed Reformation, bursting upon a scene of dense moral darkness, revealed the deep-seated corruption and the flagrant enormities of the different monastic orders. The monks at that time, like swarms of locusts, covered all Europe; they proclaimed everywhere, as history informs us, the obedience due to holy mother church, the reverence due to the saints, and more especially to the Virgin Mary, the efficacy of relics, the torments of purgatory, and the blessed advantages arising from Indulgences. But as the monks lost their popularity and influence at the Reformation, a new order was necessary to fill their place and do their evil work: and such was found in the Society of Jesus founded by Ignatius Loyola — the Jesuits. But we must take another glance at the early history of monasticism.
The earliest form in which the ascetic spirit developed itself in the Christian church was not in the formation of societies or communities, as we find in later times, but in the seclusion of single individuals. They believed, however mistaken, that they had a special call to strive after a higher Christian life; and in order to attain this eminent holiness, they imposed upon themselves the most severe restraints. They retired to desert places, that they might give themselves up to close meditation on divine things, and that their minds might be entirely abstracted from all natural objects, and from whatever delights the senses. Both men and women supposed that they must emaciate their bodies with watchings, fasting, toil, and self-torture. As the poor body was considered an oppressive load and hindrance to their spiritual aspirations, they vied with each other in the extent to which they could carry their self-mortifications. They existed on the coarsest and most unwholesome diet: they sometimes abstained from food and sleep till nature was almost wholly exhausted. The contagion of this new device of Satan spread far and wide. The mysterious recluse was regarded as necessarily invested with peculiar sanctity. The hermit's cell was visited by the noble, the learned, the devout — all desirous to pay homage to the holy man of God; and thus spiritual pride was engendered by the flattery of the world. From this time the monastic life was held in such esteem, that many adopted it as a highly honorable employment; and afterwards formed themselves into communities, or monastic institutions.
Pachomius, who was, like Antony, a native of Thebais, was converted to Christianity in the early part of the fourth century. After practising austerities for some time, he was told by an angel in his dreams, that he had made sufficient progress in the monastic life, and must now become a teacher of others. Pachomius then founded a society on an island of the Nile. Thus began ascetics to live in an association. The institution soon extended, so that before the founder's death it embraced eight monasteries, with three thousand monks; and in the beginning of the following century the number of monks was no less than fifty thousand. They lived in cells, each of which contained three. They were under engagements of absolute obedience to the commands of the Abbot , or father. They wore a peculiar dress, the chief article of which was a goat-skin, in imitation of Elijah, who, with John the Baptist, was regarded as exemplifying the monastic condition. They were never to undress; they slept with their clothes on, and in chairs so constructed as to keep them almost in a standing posture. They prayed many times a day, fasted on the fourth and sixth days of the week, and communicated on the Sabbath and on the Lord's day. Their meals were eaten in silence, and with their hoods drawn over their faces, so that no one could see his neighbor. They employed themselves in agriculture and various forms of industry, and had all things in common, in imitation of the first Christians after the day of Pentecost. Pachomius founded similar societies for women.
Until nearly the close of the fifth century, the monasteries were placed under the superintendence of the bishops; the monks were regarded as simply laymen, and had no claim to be ranked among the sacerdotal order. Circumstances, however, in course of time, led the monks to assume a clerical character. Many of them were occupied in the work of reading and expounding the scriptures, and all of them were supposed to be engaged in the cultivation of the higher spiritual life; so that they were in great favor with the multitude, especially as they began to exercise their clerical functions beyond the confines of their establishments. Jealousies soon sprung up between the bishops and the abbots: the result was, that the abbots, to deliver themselves from dependence upon their spiritual rivals, made application to be taken under the protection of the Pope at Rome. The proposal was gladly accepted, and very quickly all the monasteries, great and small, abbeys, priories, and nunneries, were subjected to the authority of the See of Rome. This was an immense step towards the pontifical power of Rome.
The Pope could now establish in almost every quarter a kind of spiritual police, who acted as spies on the bishops as well as on the secular authorities. This event is carefully to be noted, if we would watch the ways and means of the rising power, and ultimate supremacy, of the Roman Pontiff.
The monastic system soon spread far beyond the borders of Egypt: and all the great teachers of the age, both in the East and in the West, advocated the cause of celibacy and monasticism. St. Jerome, in particular, the most learned man of his day, is regarded as the connecting link between the two great divisions of the church — the Greek and the Roman, or the Eastern and the Western. He was the means of powerfully forwarding the cause of celibacy and monasticism, especially among females. Many Roman ladies of rank became nuns through his influence. Ambrose so extolled virginity in his sermons, that the mothers of Milan restrained their daughters from attending his ministry; but crowds of virgins from other quarters flocked to him for consecration. Basil introduced monastic life into Pontus and Cappadocia; Martin, into Gaul; Augustine, into Africa; and Chrysostom was prevented by the wisdom of his mother from retiring in his youth to a remote hermitage in Syria.
Before leaving this subject it may be well, once for all, to notice the rise and establishment of nunneries.
From an early period of the history of the church we read of devout virgins, who professed religious chastity, and dedicated themselves to the service of Christ. Their duties and devotions were self-imposed, so that they might preserve their domestic relations, or enter without scandal into the state of marriage. But the origin of communities of female recluses is attributed to Pachomius, the great founder of the regular monastic systems. Before his death, which took place about the middle of the fourth century, no fewer than twenty-seven thousand females in Egypt alone had adopted the monastic life. The rules which he formed for the convents of nuns were similar to those which bound the monks. "They lived from common funds, used a common dormitory, a table, and wardrobe. The same religious services were prescribed; habitual temperance and occasional fasting were enjoined with the same severity. Manual labor was no less rigidly enforced; but instead of the agricultural toil imposed upon their 'brethren,' to them were committed the easier tasks of the needle or the distaff. By duties so numerous, by occupations admitting so great variety, they beguiled the tediousness of the day, and the dullness of monastic seclusion."
It is certain that many such establishments were founded during the fourth century, and that they were propagated throughout Egypt, Syria, Pontus, and Greece, and that gradually they penetrated into every province where the name of Christ was known; and even until now they abound in all Roman Catholic countries, and form a strange and incongruous appendage to the church.
The cruel and merciless spirit of popery is painfully felt, even by her own members, at the consecration of a nun. It is unnatural, unscriptural, an outrage on every feeling of our humanity, ruinous both to soul and body, and could only be submitted to through the blinding power of Satan. What a mercy to be far away from her unaccountable influence and fatal delusions! The following description of the ceremonial of a novice taking the vows, is from the pen of an eye-witness of the scene as it took place in Rome; slightly abridged.
"By particular favor we had been furnished with billets for the best seats, and, after waiting about half-an-hour, two footmen in rich liveries made way for the young countess, who entered the crowded church in full dress, her dark hair blazing with diamonds. Supported by her mother she advanced to the altar. The officiating priest was Vicario; the discourse from the pulpit was pronounced by a Dominican monk, who addressed her as the affianced spouse of Christ — a saint on earth, one who had renounced the vanities of the world for a foretaste of the joys of heaven.
"The sermon ended, the lovely victim herself, kneeling before the altar at the feet of the cardinal, solemnly abjured the world whose pleasures and affections she seemed so well calculated to enjoy, and pronounced those vows which severed her from them for ever. As her voice softly chanted those fatal words, I believe there was scarcely an eye in the whole of that vast church un-moistened with tears. The diamonds that sparkled in her hair were taken off, and her long and beautiful tresses fell luxuriantly down her shoulders.
"The grate that was to entomb her was opened. The abbess and her black train of nuns appeared. Their choral voices chanted a strain of welcome. It said, or seemed to say, 'sister spirit, come away!' She renounced her name and title, adopted a new appellation, received the solemn benediction of the cardinal, and the last embraces of her weeping friends, and passed into that bourne from whence she was never to return. A panel behind the other now opened, and she appeared at the grate again. Here she was despoiled of her ornaments and her splendid attire, her beautiful hair was mercilessly severed from her head by the fatal shears of the sisters; enough to make the whole congregation shudder. As she was shorn of her natural covering, the sisters hastened to invest her with the sober robes of the nun, the white coif and the noviciate veil.
"Throughout the whole ceremony she showed great calmness and firmness; and it was not till all was over that her eyes were moistened with tears of natural emotion. She afterwards appeared at the little postern gate of the convent, to receive the sympathy and praise and congratulations of all her friends and acquaintances, nay, even of strangers, all of whom are expected to pay their compliments to the new spouse of heaven."
The description now given refers to the profession of a nun on the taking of the white veil, a step which forms the commencement of the noviciate or year of trial, and is not irrevocable. The ceremony of taking the black veil at the end of the year is still more solemn and dreadful; but when it has been gone through, she is a recluse for life, and can only be released from her vow by death. In the eye of Roman law, both civil and ecclesiastical, the step she has taken is beyond recall. Imprisonment, torture, death temporal and eternal, are held out as the punishments of disobedience. And who can tell, outside the convent walls, what refined and prolonged cruelties may be practiced inside? The power is despotic; there is no appeal; until the deceiver and the deceived, the persecutor and the helpless victim, stand side by side before the righteous tribunal of God.
It is truly sorrowful to reflect on the many and serious mistakes, or rather positive errors, of the great doctors, or early fathers as they are usually called. We know of nothing more grave and solemn than the fact, that they greatly misled the people then, and that by their writings they have been misleading the professing church ever since. Who can estimate the evil consequences of such teaching for the last fourteen hundred years at least? The misinterpretation or the misapplication of the word of God is evidently the rule with these leaders; to teach sound doctrine, the exception. And still they are the boast and the alleged authority of a large portion of Christendom even until now.
On the subject of asceticism, any one having an ordinary acquaintance with scripture may see their ignorance of the mind of God, and their perversion of His word. We are exhorted, for example, to "mortify the deeds of the body," but never to mortify the body itself. The body is the Lord's, and to be cared for. "Know ye not," says the apostle, "that your bodies are the members of Christ? " True, they are to be kept under and brought into subjection, but that is the wisest way of caring for the body. (Ro 8:13; 1Co 6:15; 9:27.) Again, the apostle says, "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth;" and then he states what these are: "fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry." These are the deeds of the body which we are to mortify — to put to death practically; and this on the ground that the flesh was put to death on the cross. "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts;" not, observe are crucifying it, or ought to crucify it, but have crucified it. God has put it out of His sight by the cross, and we are to keep it out of sight by self-judgment. The body, on the contrary, has in the New Testament a most important place as the temple of the Holy Ghost; but the tendency of asceticism is to starve the body, and feed the flesh.
"Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh." (Col 2:23.)
The Fathers seem to have overlooked that asceticism was the offspring of heathen philosophy, and not in any way of divine Christianity; but they never fairly looked into scripture for the mind of God on these subjects. The total ruin of man in the flesh not being understood by them, they vainly thought it might be improved, and were thus led astray in ways innumerable; especially as to the work of Christ, God's judgment of the flesh, the true principle of worship, and the whole path of Christian service.
Having now seen the foundation laid of the great monastic system, which was to exert so powerful an influence in connection with Christianity, literature, and civilization, throughout the dark ages, we may leave it for the present, and return to our general history.
Theodosius the Great left two sons, Arcadius, aged eighteen years, and Honorius, who was only eleven. The elder succeeded to the sovereignty of the East, the younger to that of the West. Nothing can be more striking than the condition of the Roman world at this moment, or more fitted to excite our compassion: two Emperors of such weakness as to be incapable of conducting the administration of public affairs, and the whole empire in a state of danger and alarm from the Gothic invaders. The hand of the Lord is manifestly here. Where is now the genius, the glory, and the power of Rome? They expired with Theodosius. At a moment when the empire required the prudence, the martial skill, and the talents of a Constantine, it was professedly governed by two imbecile princes. But its days were numbered in the providence of God, it was fast passing away.
The fiercest storm that had ever assailed the empire was now ready to burst upon it in its hour of weakness. The able general, Stilicho, the only hope of Rome, was assassinated soon after the death of Theodosius, and all Italy lay within the grasp of the barbarians. The Goths had yielded to the arms and especially to the policy of Theodosius, but it needed only the news of his death to arouse them to revolt and revenge. The famous Alaric, the crafty and able leader of the Goths, only waited for a favorable opportunity to carry out a scheme of greater magnitude and daring than had entered into the mind of any of Rome's enemies since the time of Hannibal. He was, we doubt not, the minister of God's righteous judgments on a people so deeply stained with the blood of His saints, besides having crucified the Lord of glory, and slain His apostles. Details we must leave to the civil historian of Rome's decline and fall: but we may briefly say, that Alaric was now followed, not only by the Goths, but by tribes of almost every name and race. The fury of the desert was now to be poured out on the mistress and corrupter of the world. He led his forces into Greece without opposition; he devastated its fruitful land, and plundered Athens, Corinth, Argos, and Sparta; and that which was impiously called "the eternal city," he besieged and sacked. For six days she was given up to remorseless slaughter and universal pillage. Thus fell the guilty, the devoted, city by the judgment of God: no hand held out to help: no man lamenting her fate. The richest provinces of Europe too, Italy, Gaul, and Spain, were laid waste by the immediate successors of Alaric, especially Attila, and new kingdoms set up by the barbarians. Thus the history of the fourth great world-empire closes about A . D . 478, and in the twelve hundred and twenty-ninth year from the foundation of Rome.
Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, a prince alike excellent in the arts of war and of government, restored an age of peace and prosperity, swept away all vestiges of the imperial government, and formed Italy into a kingdom.
The christian reader may here find it profitable to pause for a moment and contemplate the overthrow of the Western empire, and the division of its territory amongst the various hordes of the barbarians. It is our privilege and for our edification in all this, to see the fulfillment and harmony of scripture, the overruling providence of God, and the accomplishment of His purposes. We can also afford to drop the tear of compassion over the miseries of our deluded fellow-men. This would be nothing more than the tender compassion of Him who wept over the devoted city Jerusalem. It is our duty to study history by the sure light of scripture; not scripture — as some have attempted — by the uncertain light of history. Thus we may be happy in the presence of God with the page of history open before us, and our faith strengthened by the mighty contrast between the kingdom of God and all earthly glory. "Wherefore," says the apostle,
"we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear." (Heb 12:28.)
The superiority of Christianity to the most powerful of Pagan institutions was now manifest to all. When the overwhelming judgments of God fell upon Italy, and broke in pieces the iron rule of the empire, the church suffered no harm. It was rather shielded, and the means of shielding others, than exposed to danger. Like the ark which rose above the dark waters of the deluge, the church was preserved from the fury of the invader. There was no instance of the barbarians embracing the old religion of Greece and Rome; they either adhered to the superstitions of their ancestors, or adopted some form of Christianity. There is no sure footing for the sinner amidst the convulsions of earth, the rise and fall of empires, but the Rock of Ages-the risen and exalted Christ of God. "Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him." (Ps 2:12.) The Lord provided for the safety of His people by the previous conversation of those who subverted the empire.
It is always interesting and edifying to trace the hand of the Lord in turning the wrath of man to His own praise, and in bringing the greatest good to His own people out of that which appears to be their heaviest calamity. In the reign of Gallienus, about 268, a great number of Roman provincials had been led away into captivity by the Gothic bands; many of these captives were Christians, and several belonged to the ecclesiastical order. They were dispersed by their masters as slaves in the villages; but as missionaries by the Lord. They preached the gospel to the barbarous people, and numbers were converted. Their increase and order may be inferred from the fact that they were represented at the Nicene council by a bishop, named Theophilus.
Ulphilas, who is commonly called "the Apostle of the Goths," has deserved the grateful remembrance of posterity, but especially of Christians. About the middle of the fourth century, he invented an alphabet and translated the scriptures into the Gothic language, with the exception of the books of Samuel and Kings, lest their warlike contents should be found too congenial to the ferocity of the barbarians. At first they appear to have been simple and orthodox in their faith, but afterwards became deeply tinged with Arianism, especially after the Arian ministers, who were ejected from their churches by Theodosius, had labored diligently among them.
Alaric and his Goths were professed Christians; they directed their wrath against the heathen temples, but greatly reverenced the churches. This was the great mercy of God to His people; numbers of whom fled to the churches, where they found a sanctuary. The earnest faith and the indefatigable zeal of Ulphilas, together with his blameless life, had gained the love and confidence of the people. They received in faith the doctrines of the gospel, which he preached and practiced: so that the first invaders of the empire had previously learnt in their own land to profess, or at least to respect, the religion of the vanquished. And herein we see the truth, or rather the fulfillment of the Apostle's words in his Epistle to the Romans: "The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first and also to the Greek;" and again, "I am debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians; both to the wise and the unwise." The learned citizens of the Roman empire, and the rude inhabitants of Scythia and Germany, were alike brought under the saving power of the gospel.
As the conversion of Clovis is said to have been the most important in the fifth century, we must give a few particulars of the event — important, we mean, as to its consequences, both immediate and remote, on the history of Europe, and so far of the church.
The Franks, a people of Germany, had settled in the north of France, near Cambray; a most religious part of the country, rendered famous by the shrine of Saint Martin of Tours, and by the legendary virtues of other saints. Clovis was a pagan, but Clotilda, his wife, had embraced the Catholic faith. She had long urged him to become a Christian, but he was slow to believe. At length, however, when engaged in battle with the Alemanni, and finding himself in danger, he thought of Clotilda's God, and prayed to Him; declaring that his old gods had failed him, and vowing to become a Christian if he should gain the victory. The tide of battle turned; his enemies were defeated; and true to his vow, at Christmas, 496, Clovis was baptised at Rheims by the bishop, Remigius. Three thousand warriors followed his example, declaring their readiness to be of the same religion as their king.
Here we have another Constantine. Clovis found the profession of Christianity most favorable to his political interests, but it produced no change for the better in his life. His object was conquest, his ambition was boundless, his deeds were daring and cruel. From being only a Frankish chief with a small territory, he became the founder of the great French monarchy. And from his confession of the Catholic faith, and his alliance with the Roman Pontiff, he was acknowledged champion of Catholicism, and declared to be the only orthodox sovereign in the West: all the others were Arians. Alaric who conquered Rome, Genseric who conquered Africa, Theodoric the Great who became king of Italy, and many of the Lombard kings, were Arians. Hence the kings of France derive from Clovis the title of "eldest Son of the Church."
To the student of prophecy it is interesting to see, that by this time at least five or six barbarian kings were in possession of the Roman provinces, and ruled over what had been the Latin empire. But this had passed away. It had died as an empire, and must remain in the place of death until resuscitated, according to the word of the Lord, in the latter day. (Re 13:1; 17:1.)
Before concluding the Pergamos period, we find it will be necessary to notice, however briefly, three things — the internal state of the church, the Pelagian and Nestorian controversies.
The more general adoption of Christianity, as will easily be imagined, was followed by an increase of splendor in all that concerned the worship of God, so-called. Churches were built and adorned with greater cost; the officiating clergy were attired in richer dresses; the music became more elaborate, and many new ceremonies were introduced. And these usages were then justified on the same ground that we find the high church party justifying the extraordinary rites and ceremonies of the present day. It was intended to recommend the gospel to the heathen by ceremonies which might surpass those of their old religion. Multitudes were drawn into the church then, as they are now, without any sufficient understanding of their new position, and with minds still possessed of heathen notions, and corrupted by heathen morality. Even in the earliest days of Christianity we find irregularities in the church at Corinth through the un-forgotten practices of the heathen. The burning of candles in daylight, incense, images, processions, lustrations, and innumerable other things, were introduced in the fourth and fifth centuries. For, as Mosheim observes, "While the good-will of the Emperors aimed to advance the christian religion, the indiscreet piety of the bishops obscured its true nature and oppressed its energies, by the multiplication of rites and ceremonies."
The tendency of all ecclesiastical ritualism is to produce a spirit of superstition to the subversion of faith, of mere formality to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and of resting in our own good works to the rejection of the finished work of Christ. The word of God is thus practically set aside, the Holy Spirit grieved, and the heart laid open to the inroads of Satan. When faith is in lively exercise, the word of God strictly followed, and the promised guidance of the Comforter relied upon, the soul is strong and vigorous in the divine life, and the suggestions of the enemy unheeded. Satan is a keen observer of the different states of the believer's soul, and of the professing church. He knows when he will be successful in his attempts against the individual believer or the church; he waits his time — he watches his opportunity. When he sees the mind taking a wrong direction, he soothes, flatters, stimulates. Solemn thought for us all!
The condition of the church in the beginning of the fifth century gave the adversary an opportunity to bring in a new heresy, which introduced a fresh controversy that has continued with more or less violence from that day even until now. This was Pelagianism. The great heresy, Arianism, which had hitherto agitated the church, originated in the East and related to the Godhead of Christ; one was now to arise in the West, which had for its subject the nature of man after the fall and his relations to God. The last misrepresented the lost sinner; the first, the divine Savior.
Pelagius is said to have been a monk of the great monastery of Bangor, in Wales; and probably the first Briton who distinguished himself as a theologian. His real name was Morgan. His follower, Celestius, is supposed to have been a native of Ireland. Augustine speaks of him as younger than Pelagius — bolder and less crafty. These two companions in error visited Rome, where they became intimate with many persons of ascetic and saintly reputation, and disseminated their opinions with caution and in privacy; but after the siege in the year 410 they passed into Africa, where they more openly advanced their opinions.
It does not appear that Pelagius was animated by any desire to form a new doctrinal system, but rather to oppose what he considered moral indolence, and a worldly spirit among his brethren. Hence he maintained that man possessed inherent power for doing the will of God, and for reaching the highest degree of holiness. In this way his theological views were to a great extent formed and determined. But utterly false as they are, they were only consistent with his rigid asceticism, and its native fruit. As scripture undeniably refers all good in man to the grace of God, Pelagius too, in a sense of his own, acknowledges this; but his ideas of divine grace were really nothing more than outward means to call forth man's efforts: a work of heavenly grace in the heart, and the operations of the Holy Spirit he did not think were needed. This led him to teach that the sin of our first parents had injured no one but themselves; that man is now born as innocent as Adam was when God created him, and possessed of the same moral power and purity. These doctrines, and such as are connected with them, especially the idea of man's free will — "an unbiased power of choosing between good and evil," Pelagius and his colleague, Celestius, secretly disseminated in Rome, Sicily, Africa, and Palestine; but, excepting in the East, the novel opinions were generally condemned. There, John, bishop of Jerusalem, who considered the doctrines of Pelagius as agreeing with the opinions of Origen, to which John was attached, patronised Pelagius, allowing him to profess his sentiments freely, and to gather disciples.
Augustine the famous bishop of Hippo, the great evangelic light of the West, and the most influential of all the Latin Christian writers, began about this time to assail with his pen the doctrines of Pelagius and Celestius; and to him chiefly is due, as God's instrument, the credit of checking the growth of this sect at that time. By a remarkable conversion, and by deep exercise of soul, he had been trained under the Lord's discipline for this great work. Thus did the all-wise God secretly raise up a testimony in opposition to Pelagius, and by means of his heresy, bring out more scriptural views of the gospel of grace than had been taught since the days of the apostles; and also fuller views of Christian truth, holiness and humility. The Western churches, led on by Augustine, continued perseveringly to assail the false doctrines with councils, books, and letters. The Gauls, the Britons, and even the Palestinians, by their councils, and the Emperors by their laws and penalties, so far crushed the controversy in its commencement; but the fundamental principles of Pelagianism in many forms and degrees remain to the present time. Rather, however, than pursue the history of this heresy, we will briefly refer to what the scriptures teach on the two main points of the subject.
If mere human reason be allowed in this controversy, it must be interminable; but if the authority of the word of God be owned, it is soon settled. That there is something good in fallen human nature, and that man, as such, has power to choose what is good and reject what is evil, lies at the root of Pelagianism in its numerous forms. The total ruin of man is denied, and all ideas of divine grace that appear inconsistent with man's free will are excluded from their system. But what saith the scripture? A single line of God's word satisfies the man of faith. And this ought to be the only argument of the teacher, the evangelist, and the private Christian. We must always take the ground of faith against all adversaries.
In Genesis 6 God gives His estimate of fallen human nature. "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." God could find nothing in man but evil, and evil without cessation. Again, in the same chapter, we read, "And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth." Not some flesh, observe, but all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. Here we have God's judgment of corrupt nature; but at the same time, He reveals His sovereign grace to meet the condition of man as thus judged.
God provides an ark of salvation, and then sends forth the free invitation, — "Come thou and all thy house into the ark." The cross is the standing witness, and the grand expression, of the great truths shadowed forth by the ark. There we have in a way, as nowhere else, God's judgment of human nature with all its evil; and at the same time, the revelation of His love and grace in all their fullness and saving power.
But all scripture is consistent with Genesis 6 and the cross of Christ. Take, for example, Romans 5 and Ephesians 2. In the former we are said to be "without strength," but in the latter, that we are "dead," dead in trespasses and sins. The apostle, in an earlier part of his Epistle to the Romans, most carefully proves the ruin of man and the righteousness of God; here we have His love displayed in the great fact of the death of Christ for us. "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." But why say the "due time" ? Because man had been fully proved to be not only "ungodly," but "without strength" to do one good thing Godward, or move one step in that direction. Under the law God showed man the way, appointed means, and gave him a long trial; but he was powerless to come out of his sad condition as a sinner. How humbling, but how wholesome, the truth of God! It is good to know our lost condition. How different from the false theology, and the proud philosophy of men! But on God's part, blessed be His name, man's state (so demonstrated) was just the opportunity for the manifestation of His saving grace; and for such Jesus died. "God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Now man has to do either with God's judgment in unbelief, or with His salvation by faith. There is no middle path. The fullest proof of our lost condition and of God's gracious love is,
"that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Ro 5:6-10.)
In Ephesians 2 it is not merely a question of man's moral disease, but of his death. "You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins." In Romans man is viewed as powerless, godless, a sinner, and an enemy; here, as morally dead: and this is the worst kind of death, for it is the very spring of the most active wickedness. "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience."
What a blow to man's boasted unbiased power of choosing between good and evil! Here, on the contrary, he is viewed as under the government of demons — as the slave of Satan. Man will much more readily admit that he is godless than that he is powerless. He will boast of having his own opinion — of being independent and quite able to judge and choose for himself in spiritual things.
It was one of the favorite dogmas of Pelagius, if not the foundation of his system, "That as man has ability to sin, so has he also not only ability to discern what is good, but likewise power to desire it and to perform it. And this is the freedom of the will, which is so essential to man that he cannot lose it." We refer to this false notion, simply because it so cleaves to the natural mind, and is most difficult to get rid of even after we are converted, being always a great hindrance to the work of God's grace in the soul. Since man is dead in his sins, God and His own work must be everything. Of course there is great variety amongst men naturally, when they are "fulfilling the desires of the flesh, and of the mind." Some are benevolent and moral, some living in gross and open wickedness, and some may be gratifying a kind and feeling heart: but from what motive? To do the will of God? Certainly not! God is not in all their thoughts. They are energized by the spirit of Satan, and driven by him according to the course of this world.
"No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Lu 16:13.)
But where, it may be asked, and in what way does man's responsibility come in? Surely man is responsible to own that God is true, and to accept as just, however humiliating, His judgment of his nature and character. "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater." Take up the dark picture which God has drawn of man, and say, That is myself, that is what I have done and what I am. Salvation is by faith; not by willing, choosing, doing, but by believing.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved... And this is the condemnation that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (Joh 3:16-19.)
Who can fail to see that a responsibility is created by this display of divine goodness in Christ, and that of the most obvious, solemn, and weighty character? So much so indeed, that the evidence is decisive and final, and the unbeliever judged before God. It is not a question, observe, of their not finding forgiveness, but of their preferring darkness to light, that they may continue in sin. This is what God lays to their charge, and could there be a more just or reasonable ground of condemnation? Impossible. May it be the happy lot of all who read these pages to bow to the humiliating sentence of scripture upon our nature, and to take the ground of lost sinners in the sight of God. So shall an all-merciful and gracious God meet us in the greatness of His love, and bless us with all that is due to Christ as the Savior of mankind.
As the sect, called Nestorians, occupies an important place in church history, we must briefly notice its formation. They are sometimes called Syrians, their founder being a Syrian. They are numerous, we believe in Syria at the present time; but they have not received from the Turkish government that protection to which they are entitled; and hence they have been exposed to frequent assaults from the predatory tribes. Thousands of the Nestorians in the mountains of Kurdistan, including men, women, and children, were massacred in 1843, and their villages utterly destroyed, by the Kurdish tribes. Since the year 1834 an interesting mission has been established among them by the American Board of Foreign Missions. The character and proceedings of the mission are highly spoken of. Dr. Grant, one of the missionaries, who resided among the Nestorians for a considerable time, and had studied their manners and customs with the greatest minuteness and care, published a treatise with the view of proving that this interesting class of people are the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. But his conclusions, like others on the same subject, may well be doubted.
Nestorius, a Syrian monk, became a presbyter of the church at Antioch. He was esteemed and celebrated on account of the rigid austerity of his life, and the impressive fervor of his preaching. He attracted large and attentive audiences, and soon became a great favourite with the people. In the year 428 he was consecrated patriarch of Constantinople. But the discipline of the cloister had ill prepared him for so important a position in public life. No sooner was he promoted to this elevation than he began to display an intemperate zeal against the various descriptions of heretics, which partook more of the bigotry of the monk than of the gentle forbearing spirit of genuine Christianity. In his inaugural discourse, addressing the Emperor, Theodosius the younger, he gave utterance to these violent expressions, "Give me a country purged of all heretics, and in exchange for it I will give you heaven. Help me to subdue the heretics, and I will help you to subdue the Persians." But it was not long till Nestorius himself was also accused of heresy.
The new bishop soon followed up his declaration of war against the heretics by deeds of violence and persecution. He excited tumults among the people: the Arians were attacked, their meeting-house burnt down; and other sects were persecuted. Such proceedings, however, soon raised up against Nestorius, even amongst the orthodox, a numerous host of enemies, who sought and soon accomplished his downfall. It happened in this way.
Anastasius, a presbyter who had accompanied Nestorius from Antioch, and was his intimate friend, attacked, in a public discourse, the use of the expression, Mother of God, as applied to the Virgin Mary. The term thus violently opposed had on its side the authority of ancient usage, and many names of great weight with the people. Nestorius approved the discourse, supported his friend, and in several addresses explained and defended his attack. Many were pleased with these discourses, and many were stirred up against Nestorius and his friend: the excitement at Constantinople was immense; but the cry of heresy, heresy, arose, and the flames of a great and painful controversy were kindled.
Never was there a doctrinal strife in which the contending parties approximated so closely. Both subscribed, both appealed to, the Nicene creed: both believed in the absolute Godhead and the perfect manhood of the Lord Jesus; but it was inferred by the enemies of Nestorius, especially by Cyril, that he was unsound as to the incarnation from his objecting to the term, "mother of God." The meaning or import of the disputed term, as used by the doctors in the preceding century, was not to imply that the Virgin communicated the divine nature to the Savior, but to affirm the union of Godhead and manhood in one Person — that "the child born, the son given," was God incarnate. It was attributed to Nestorius, that he maintained the mere humanity of the Redeemer, and that the Spirit only dwelt in Him after He became a man, as of old in the prophets. But Nestorius, as long as he lived, professed himself utterly opposed to such sentiments. Nor does it appear that such sentiments were ever directly made by him, but only inferred by his adversaries from his rejection of the epithet, Mother of God, and from some incautious and ambiguous terms which he used in his public discourses on the subject.
Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, in the controversy which had thus arisen, appears as the great champion of orthodoxy. But all historians agree in giving him a most un-christianlike, imperious, character. He is accused of being moved with jealousy because of the increasing power and authority of the bishop of Constantinople; and of being restless, arrogant, and unscrupulous in his ways. He was also as violent against the heretics, as Nestorius. He persecuted the Novatianists, and expelled the Jews from Alexandria. An honest and pious zeal may have animated these great prelates, but they utterly failed in uniting with their zeal Christian prudence and moderation, and too readily allied with it the worst passions of human nature.
Cyril was first drawn into the controversy by finding that copies of Nestorius' sermons had been circulated among his monks in Egypt, and that they had abandoned the term, Mother of God. He at once blamed both the monks and Nestorius, and denounced the novelty as heretical. All parties were soon excited, and angry words were used by all parties which need not now be repeated. Suffice it to say, that when Nestorius found that Cyril had skilfully managed to secure the influence of Celestine, bishop of Rome, and that he was beset with other difficulties, he appealed to a general council. As some of his opponents had already petitioned for such an assembly, it was agreed to, and the Emperor Theodosius issued orders for the meeting of one at Ephesus in the year 431, which is called the Third General Council. They met in June. Cyril, in virtue of the dignity of his see, presided. Matters went against Nestorius. He was condemned as guilty of blasphemy, deprived of the episcopal dignity, cut off from all part in the priesthood, and sent into banishment, in which he closed his days about the year 450.
About two hundred bishops signed the sentence against Nestorius; still it remains a question with most historians, whether he was really guilty of holding the errors for which he was condemned. But all are agreed that he was rash and intemperate in his language, vain of his own eloquence, disregarded the writings of the earlier Fathers, and was apt to see heresy in everything that differed from the dogmatic phraseology which he had been accustomed to in his youth. But it is difficult to determine which was the principal cause of this great contest, Cyril or Nestorius.
The council of Ephesus was far from putting an end to these disgraceful contentions; in place of restoring harmony to the church, it rather increased her troubles. John, bishop of Antioch, and other Eastern prelates, judged Cyril and his friends to have acted most unfairly and with unbecoming haste in the matter of Nestorius: hence arose a new controversy, and out of this sprang a new heresy - Eutychianism - which greatly troubled the Eastern churches for about twenty years.
Eutyches, abbot of a convent at Constantinople, in the eagerness of his opposition to Nestorianism, ran into the opposite extreme. He was accused of unsoundness on the doctrines of the incarnation, and denounced as a heretic. This led to another council which was held at Chalcedon in the year 451, and is called, The Fourth General Council. But the details of these local contests fall not within the limits of our "Short Papers." Our plan is to give the reader a distinct outline, in the smallest space possible; and only to present a few details in cases where the name of the person has become a synonym for the opinions he taught; such as Arius, Pelagius, etc., or when the events, such as the great persecutions, have a claim on the sympathy of the church throughout all ages.
In carrying out these purposes, it will now be necessary to turn our attention more especially to the growing power and the lofty pretensions of the church of Rome. In Leo the Great we may see the passing away of the Pergamos period, and the approach of the papal monarchy. But before venturing on these troubled waters, we shall do well to study our divine chart — God's prophetic history of the church during that dark and often stormy period.
Chapter 13 - The Epistle to the Church in Thyatira