The Church Past and Present
A review of Its History
by the Bishop of London, Bishop Barry, and Other Writers
Edited by Henry Melvill Gwatkin
Thomas Whittaker, 1900
Chapter I The Apostolic Age (Chapter 1-7 this page below)
By the Rev. J. Llewelyn Davies
Chapter II The Second Century
By the Editor
Chapter III The School of Alexandria
By the Rev. C. Bigg
Chapter IV The Age of Councils
By the Rev. G. A. Schneider
Chapter V The Latin Church
By the Editor
Chapter VI England Before the Reformation
By the Rev. W. E. Collins
Chapter VII The Reformation
By the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of London
Chapter VIII The Rise of Dissent in England (Chapter 8-13)
By the Rev. J. Hunt
Chapter IX The Origins of Church Government
By the Editor
Chapter X History of the Lord’s Supper
By the Rev. Canon Mayrick
Chapter XI Protestantism
By the Editor
Chapter XII Romanism since the Reformation
By the Rev. Chancellor Lias
Chapter XIII English Christianity Today
By the Right Rev. Alfred Barry
[Footnotes relocated in square brackets.]
We write not as advocates of this or that party in Church or State, but as students who are persuaded that history as well as science is the message of the Spirit to our own time. Our bond of union is the conviction that our Saviour’s Person is itself the revelation, of which Scripture and the Church are only the record and the witness; but that His Holy Spirit is the Teacher of all ages, revealing more and more of Christ as men can bear it – to nations in history, to individuals in life. We believe that Spirit speaks in the creative thought and work of every age – in Origen and Athanasius, in Augustine and Gregory VII, in the reformers and the authors of our own Liturgy and Articles, and in the great discoveries of history and science in our own time. We are the heirs of all the ages, and we claim all truth as ours in Him who is the Truth. Though the historical facts which constitute the Gospel are recorded once for all, we believe that the unfolding of their meaning is a work of many ages, that its fullness far transcends the systems of Latin sectarianism, and that every return to the limitations of a buried past is so much sin against the Holy Spirit’s teaching to our own time.
The above paragraph was the basis of the present volume, and states its general purpose.
Be it clearly understood that each contributor is responsible for his own work, and for nothing more. The writers approach their subjects from very different standpoints, and sometimes differ considerably in opinions; and no attempt has been made to conceal differences; for they do but emphasize their general agreement.
It was no part of the original plan that the Editor should write as many as four chapters out of thirteen. Only the failure of a valued contributor at the last moment obliged him to undertake four chapters instead of two, and to write the last of the four without access to his own reference books. He would have much preferred to leave it in Professor Allen’s abler hands.
Sept. 9, 1899.
Chapter I – The Apostolic Age
By the Rev. J. Llewelyn Davies, M.A.
The records of the life and teaching of our Lord and of the founding of the Christian Society cannot but have a unique authority to all who claim to belong to that society; and it is not wonderful that it should often have been assumed that the constitution and customs of the Church in any age ought to imitate as closely as possible what is shown us in the New Testament. But our sacred volume itself contradicts such an assumption; for, the more thoroughly and intelligently it is examined, the more clearly is it seen to describe, not a fixed arrangement such as might be copied and reproduced, but a growing organism. This character of the Church of Christ, that it began as a germ and grew with the years, is a part of its glory, and declares it the more manifestly to be a product of the creative power of the Eternal. We contemplate in the New Testament the powers of the new age exhibiting themselves and doing their earliest work; and the faithfulness of each Christian communion is proved in its letting those forces work freely and with effect upon the historical conditions of the time.
The Church of Christ had its birth on the Day of Pentecost. But preparation had been previously made for the great event of that day. The Apostles, “Peter with the Eleven,” who stood forth as the founders of the Church, had been instructed and commissioned for their work. They were envoys of the Lord Jesus, agents whom He chose and sent forth. Their task was to bear witness of Him; to proclaim Him as the Messiah who after being rejected and crucified had risen from the dead, and to invite men to believe in Him. Promises had been given them which were fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost: their eyes were to be opened by an Ephphatha from above, emotions and thoughts were to be breathed into them by a Divine Spirit, and they were to find themselves in a Home with Christ and the Father and their brethren; they were to be clothed with power from on high. And that was what they experienced. They spoke, those few Galileans, in their new strength, with confidence and dignity and fervour, and the Spirit spread from them to their hearers. Men were touched and moved, and drawn to the Crucified and to the Father, and this common attraction bound them together in a rudimentary association. So the Church began its life of the ages.
Even the forming of the society was a natural result, rather than an express project. All turned upon the action of the Apostles; and they, we must assume, were possessed and absorbed by the vision of their Heavenly Lord as present with them, and by that power of the Spirit which had first lifted them from their feet and carried them away, and then had settled into a strong joy and hope within them. What could believers in the Crucified do but keep together? There were, indeed, two injunctions of their Master which the Apostles remembered and followed. Those who should be brought to believe in Jesus and the Father were to be cleansed from their sins by a washing of forgiveness. So this baptism was from the first the mark put upon those who desired to join themselves to the Apostles. The other ordinance was the joint feeding upon the Body and Blood of Christ. When we look at the narratives of the Last Supper, we see no inclusion of others besides the Twelve in the privilege then conferred, nor is there any word of Christ recorded in the Gospels which made this ordinance a universal one. The character of suspense which belongs to the period between the Resurrection and the Pentecost would incline us to the belief that the Apostles did not begin the observance of the Lord’s Supper for themselves in those days. But when the outpouring of the Holy Spirit brought the Apostles and the other believers together in joy and brotherhood, we can hardly imagine that the Twelve could have helped associating their brethren with themselves in the act which drew them closest to the invisible Christ. We seem to see what could not have been otherwise in the Church life of the very first days; “they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The Church, then, at its beginning was a fellowship of men and women who gathered round the Twelve, believing in the Crucified Jesus as the Son of God and as present with them, animated by a spirit of enthusiastic thankfulness and joy, all having been baptized and observing for their one distinctive custom the joint partaking of the bread and the wine which represent the Body and Blood of their Lord, and looking forward with a yearning hope to a triumph of His royal authority.
What is most necessary for the understanding of the history of the Church in the Apostolic age, is to bring to bear upon it the belief of its members in the active Lordship of Christ, and their consciousness of the continued influence of the Spirit. If these powers had been nothing but delusions, they were delusions which had the full force of living realities to the founders of the Church, and with that authority impelled and guided their action. After the Pentecost the Society went on, conscious of a marvellous salvation, referring its call and its spiritual life to the one Lord and the one Spirit, assuming its duty to be to carry out the purposes of the Redeemer of mankind, which were those of the One Eternal Father. The Church organised itself, not on any prescribed plan, but just as organisation was called for by its nature and its task, combined with the circumstances of its history.
It was led on step by step. Our attention is drawn by the sacred history much more to the propaganda committed to the envoys of Christ, and to the working of the Spirit in the lives of the believers, than to details of the Church’s internal constitution. The first creation of an office was a typical instance of the manner in which Church order was developed. The Seven were appointed to meet a need which called for some action, and to guard the concord and mutual trust which it was the glory of the Spirit to produce. The Twelve were still exercising their original authority, but they asked the brethren to make choice of seven good men, and to these they committed, with prayer and the laying-on of hands, the charge of distributing aid to the poor. The Twelve and the Seven now held office in the Church at Jerusalem. A more serious movement of expansion came on by degrees and slowly. The Church was a Jewish body, believing in a Messiah, and its original home was in Jerusalem. But its Gospel soon showed that it could not be confined within the Jewish enclosure. The receiving of Gentile proselytes into the fold of the Abrahamic covenant had long been a familiar thing to the Jews, and the Apostles had been prepared by some intimations from their Master for the universal dominion of the Son of Man. The leader of the Twelve had the privilege of baptizing the first Gentile as a brother of those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah; and he was induced to do this by various indications which he understood to be signs of the will of God, conspiring as they did with the pious hope which was waiting to be stirred into energy. But a new envoy of Christ was chosen and commissioned for the bold action which was to claim all Gentile races for the Kingdom of the crucified Messiah, and to turn the Jerusalem brotherhood into a world-wide Church.
The place of St. Paul in the history of the Church has much to astonish us, and nothing could illustrate more strikingly than his career the free working of the powers of the new Dispensation.
We see the Church called into existence by the Twelve, and taught and governed for a time by them as a society entirely depending upon themselves. The dependence is qualified by the direct rule of Christ and the moving power of the Spirit, but not by any other human authority. Then they begin to fade as a governing body out of the history of the Church. No explanation is given us of this disappearance. Yet not only were they the de facto supreme and sole authority in the Church, but the Gospels show us what a distinct and solemn commission they received from their Master, and with what comprehensive forethought they were prepared for the unique task to which they were appointed. We see them the envoys of the risen Jesus, sent forth by Him as He had been sent forth by His Father, charged to proclaim their Lord as King and to draw men to belief in Him, enabled by their intimacy with Him to convey to other men trustworthy knowledge concerning Him, endowed with a heavenly Spirit, having the promise that they should sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All this was fully recognised by the early Church, and is set forth in its records. It does not appear that there was any dissension caused by differences of judgment amongst them. Precedence was yielded to Peter and James and John, and of these to Peter. We read of their acting with joint authority as the governing body of the Church when they send Peter and John to Samaria, to receive into the fellowship of the Spirit the converts made by Philip. They are mentioned again when Barnabas, acting as surety for Saul, “brought him to the Apostles” at Jerusalem. After that time the Twelve appeared to lose by degrees their coherence as a governing body, and the Church at Jerusalem, whilst it remains the Mother Church, obtains an organisation of its own. The report of the success of the Gospel at Antioch “came to the ears of the Church which was at Jerusalem, and they sent forth Barnabas as far as Antioch.” When the disciples at Antioch were moved to send relief to the brethren which dwelt in Judaea, they sent it “to the elders.” When James the brother of John was put to death, we do not read that his place was filled; the Twelve must have come by this time to the momentous conviction that they were appointed for a special work, and that they were not to co-opt successors as a permanent governing body. Another James appears on the scene. Peter, after his deliverance from prison, coming first to the house of Mary the mother of John, declares to those who were assembled there “how the Lord had brought him forth out of the prison,” and then bids them “tell these things unto James and to the brethren,” and goes away to another place. The brethren at Antioch, when they were troubled by the question whether Gentile converts should be circumcised or not, appointed that Paul and Barnabas and others “should go up to Jerusalem unto the Apostles and elders about this question.” The phrase, “the Apostles and elders,” is repeated. The Antioch envoys were received by “the Church and the Apostles and the elders.” “The Apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider of this matter.” There was much questioning, and then Peter rose up, reminding his audience that he had been chosen to receive the first Gentile into the Church. It is James who pronounces the final judgment of the Assembly. And the action taken is thus described: “It seemed good to the Apostles and the elders, with the whole Church,” to send two of their chief men with an official letter to Antioch; and the letter begins, “The Apostles and the elder brethren unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.” Some time after, when St. Paul went up on his last visit to Jerusalem, we read, “The brethren received us gladly. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James, and all the elders were present.” It seems a reasonable inference from these passages that, when the Church began to spread beyond Jerusalem, the Twelve withdrew from the actual government of the Jerusalem society, and did not retain any official unity as the governing body of the whole Church. What deference was paid to them was paid to their personal authority, and they occupied themselves as each was moved and led in bearing their witness and proclaiming their Gospel.
The question is a little complicated by the habit which arose of giving the name Apostles to others besides the Twelve. If, when Andronicus and Junias are said by St. Paul to be “of note among the Apostles,” it is meant that they were leading and conspicuous Apostles, a wide extension seems to be given to the term. We should hardly expect persons of whom we know nothing but their names to be Apostles at all, in that age of the “Acts”; but that they should be Apostles of note, sets us wondering how many Apostles there may have been who were not of note. Critics are putting us on our guard against assuming titles like επίσκοπος and απόστολος and διάκονος and even πρεσβύτερος to be always official names; but St. Paul more than once appears to give a definite first place to “Apostles” amongst the ministries of the Church. The view that the designation was limited to those who had seen the Lord Jesus after His resurrection has much to commend it, but it is hardly in harmony with the significance of the word “envoy,” or with the sub-apostolic use of the title. Perhaps “Apostles” are named first as being those who began the work of building up the Church in any new place by making a first appearance there as heralds of the Christ. Or the title may have been given to those who were known to have been sent on special missions by leading Churches, as Barnabas and Saul were by the Church at Antioch.
Whilst the Twelve were decreasing, another was increasing. Saul of Tarsus showed no eagerness to head a party in the Church. He took time for convictions to mature and develop themselves in his great soul. He was content for a while to act as coadjutor to the genial and fervid Barnabas. He did not make himself dictator of the society at Antioch which owed so much to his labours. Remarkable as his call had been, and as he thoroughly well knew it to have been, he waited for guidance as to what he should do and where he should go. It is quite open to us to believe that it was not without suggestions from Barnabas and Saul themselves that these two zealous preachers were sent forth by the Church at Antioch on that mission which was bold and adventurous from the first, and which proved so supremely important in the history of the Church. But it is made clear that the Twelve had nothing to do with it. What St. Paul did afterwards on his own authority justified him in leaving out of account the fact that he had accepted a definite commission from men, in the fulfilling of which he was made the actual Apostle of the Gentiles. But the journey of the two missionaries ended with their duly making their report at Antioch, “from whence they had been committed to the grace of God for the work which they had fulfilled.” These words suggest a question whether the opening of the Church to Gentiles had been discussed by the chief persons of the Church at Antioch before their envoys started. It is not easy to explain why more is not made of the conversion of so important a Gentile as Sergius Paulus the proconsul, but perhaps we are not to conclude that he was baptized and became a professed Christian. The word, “Lo, we turn to the Gentiles,” was not spoken at Paphos. It was in a curiously obscure region that the gospel was first preached freely to Gentiles, and churches formed of Gentile as well as Jewish believers. The proclamation of Jesus the Crucified, in being thus extended, was also itself exalted. Jesus believed in by Jews as their Messiah, even with a promise of His future dominion over the world, was hardly the same object of faith as Jesus the Son of God inviting all men to come to the Father and be forgiven. It was this Son of God of whom Paul was henceforth the herald. The relations of his expanding work to the Jewish Christian societies in Judaea and Syria became a question of great interest and importance. As we have seen, there was no chief Apostle, no governing body, presiding over the church as a whole. But St. Paul was as loyal as the most devoted of the companions of Jesus to the invisible Head of the Church; and the one Spirit moving in all the societies and all the members was as real and divine to him as it had been to the 3000 of the Day of Pentecost. These powers – the rule of Christ, the influence of the Spirit – continue to carry the Church forward, and they preserve its unity in the most difficult circumstances. Over the churches which owed their existence to him St. Paul exercised what we must call an autocratic authority. His personal rule kept these churches together. Paul was the one Apostle, the one teacher, to whom they looked up. But he never allowed them to forget that he was the slave of the Jesus who had shown Himself in Galilee and been put to death in Jerusalem, of the Messiah whom the Jews had been taught by their prophets to expect. And whilst he owned no subjection to any other Apostles, claiming firmly to have an independent commission from Christ, his loyalty to Christ made him set the highest value on the spiritual fellowship of all Christ’s flock, and urged him to do his utmost to preserve that fellowship unbroken. What we see as regards the Church in general, in the latter years of the Apostolic age, is – Paul by far the most commanding figure in the Church, those who remained of the Twelve working here and there and regarded with great personal respect, the Churches of St. Paul acknowledging his authority, those of Judaea and Syria held together by their traditions and by deference to the Church of Jerusalem, and unity preserved between the Pauline and the Judaean Churches by the profound reverence of all for their one Heavenly Lord and by their consciousness of the active influence of the one Spirit.
Each society had some internal organisation, and no doubt the example set by the earliest societies was followed by the others. “The elders” in the Church of Jerusalem are mentioned frequently, and there were elders in every Church. The precedents afforded by the Jewish communities in Judaea and throughout the Dispersion, and by the confraternities of various kinds which then abounded in the Roman Empire, were hardly needed to suggest what was so rudimentary and natural a constitution. It is a matter of course for an association to have a committee [The word committee appears to be derived, through the French comité, from comitatus.] under some name or other, and a committee will, in general, have a chairman. The elders of a church were a representative committee, consisting of persons, for the most part elderly men, in whom their brethren had confidence; and in some cases the leading elder would have an acknowledged precedence. In later years the presiding elder was specially designated by the title επίσκοπος, and became the bishop of the local church. But in the New Testament, it would seem, επίσκοπος should rather be rendered overseer than bishop, being used to describe the functions of an elder. In addition to the elders, there might be in any Church another class of persons, resembling the Seven who were appointed by the Twelve at Jerusalem, and called ministers or servers. The word διάκονος, had hardly then obtained a strictly official sense, but was used in accordance with its ordinary meaning. A Christian Society, whether in Judaea or founded by St. Paul, consisted of “the brethren”; and these had their elders, with or without a recognised chief elder, and their deacons.
There were two features of the Apostolic age, which, while they existed and when they passed away, must be considered as having had an important influence upon the organisation of the Church. One was, the personal authority of the Twelve and St. Paul; the other, the worship offered in the Temple at Jerusalem. The departure of the Apostles made room for the development of the order of bishops; and it may be supposed that the sacrificial ideas and sentiments which had been associated with the Temple-worship sought some satisfaction, when the Temple was destroyed and its worship abolished, in the regular ministry and worship of the Church.
We contemplate with astonishment the work done by the Apostle of the Gentiles during the few years of his Apostolic service between Antioch and Rome. It is evident that there was a wonderful persistent enthusiasm by which he was himself impelled, and which he was able in some degree to communicate to strangers who heard him. We can understand the impression that might be made by the proclamation of the Cross and the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the Apostle’s testimony produced in the minds of the believers not only a response to Divine grace, but also a conviction that there was something before them, something to live for, a movement to which they were surrendering themselves. The Christians of the Apostolic age were looking forward to a Coming, an Appearing, a Day, of the Lord. What this exactly signified to St. Paul and the Apostolic teachers in general it is not easy to determine. There are some passages in the New Testament which suggest that they expected an “end of the world” as it would be popularly understood now. But other passages convey a different impression, and would lead us to believe that St. Paul was rather looking for a fuller diffusion of light which had already shone, for the prevailing over the world of a kingdom which had been already established, for a gradual accomplishment of Divine purposes of which the working was already manifested.
The reader of the Epistle to the Ephesians, for example, would conclude that the writer had his mind set upon a gradual consummation of what had been gloriously begun. The believers were contemplated and addressed as having been raised from the dead and exalted with Christ; the future was to be in accordance with the power already working in them; God was to show in the ages coming on the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness towards men in Christ Jesus; the body of Christ was to be built up through the action of the ministries provided for that purpose. The Day of the Lord was regarded as the coming of light; and the believers at Thessalonica and at Rome were bidden to understand that for them the light had already come, that they were sons of light, sons of the day, and that they were bound to walk as in the light. In the perplexing address of St. Peter given in Acts iii., he calls upon his countrymen to repent, so that God may send them the Christ who had been appointed for them. The time in which he is speaking is that of which all the prophets had spoken, the time of the restoration or resettlement of all things, introduced by a second Elijah. Indeed, the risen Christ was already sent, if only the people by repenting would open their eyes to see Him. “To you first God, having raised up His Servant, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” The consummation was to be brought about through the turning to God of Israel and of all the families of the earth. On the whole, the Christians were taught that there was Divine glory to be revealed, that they were enlisted into an army of light for which victory and triumph were prepared, and that they and all men were to be blessed in knowing Christ and the Father. Appeal was constantly made to the Spirit working in the societies and in each believer; this Spirit was an earnest of the future inheritance, a sign and guide as to the Divine purpose. So that the consciousness of the believers was not that, when they had been saved out of estrangement and darkness, things had been settled for them, and that each had only to look forward to being removed by death into a condition of perfect felicity, but rather that they were called to have a part in an approaching triumph, and that they had to follow such a leader as Paul in a campaign against the evil powers which was to end in a conquest of the world for Christ. And we can understand this to have been an inspiriting consciousness.*
[* There are symptoms of impatience and disappointment following the excited expectations of the early Christian years. But on the other hand there can have been no general collapse of the Church at the close of the Apostolic age, when the Christians saw that the age was closing without that visible return of the Lord in celestial glory which many had expected. And it is remarkable that the prophecies of the Lord’s coming which had been preserved in the Apostolic memoirs and letters were studied and edited in the second century without any apparent uneasy feeling that the prophecies had been fallacious. The Church lived and grew through a period of what might be represented as overwhelming disillusionment.]
As we look back from our existing environment upon the Church of St. Paul and his fellow-believers, the differences between our condition and theirs multiply upon the imagination till it becomes a little difficult to pronounce distinctly what we have as Christians in common with them. We have at least a negative point of agreement, upon which I have thought it important to dwell. There is now no earthly head or governing body of the universal Church. It is sometimes depressing to many of us to reflect that Christendom is made up of a number of bodies independent of each other, and that there is no authority over all to tell them what they are to believe and how they are to act, so that they may believe and act in unison. But there was similar independence, a similar absence of a constitutional governing body over the Church, in the Apostolic age. In that age the Christians were taught to believe that Christ and His Spirit were governing the Church, and that those who sought guidance from Christ and the Spirit might rely on the promise, “I will not leave you bereaved, helpless,” and would receive the guidance they needed. If it was, and is, the will of the Divine Saviour that His people should always look to Him and the Spirit, would not that explain why the Church is without a visible governing authority? Divided as Christians are now, we have great unities to which we all profess allegiance in common with the Apostolic Christians. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also we were called in one hope of our calling ; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” If we would accept the monition of the Apostolic age, the way to the vital and perfect unity of the body of Christ, the hope of justifying more obviously the name of the Catholic Church, is not through agreeing to submit to one governing authority, still less through bringing all Christian societies into one pattern of outward organisation, but through adhering more closely to the one Heavenly Head, submitting more simply to the impulses of the one Spirit, and cherishing with more fervour the common ambitions of the Divine kingdom.
Chapter II – The Second Century
By the Editor
The revelation to which the Church of God bears witness is neither a body of dogmas, nor a code of laws, nor a system of philosophy, but a living Person. Christ our Saviour, Son of God and Son of Man, is Himself the revelation, at once of God to man and of God in man. The gospel of His thirty years or so of sojourn here on earth is only the light from heaven by which His mighty working in heaven and earth is thrown on the majestic background of eternity. Christ came to destroy nothing at all, save the works of the devil, but to fulfill the fair promise of God’s world, which man had marred by sin. He came that we might have life, and have it in abundance; not to stunt or mutilate even the bodily nature, but to quicken the dormant spirit and hallow every deed and word and thought of man with life divine.
Hence the elasticity and vast variety of Christianity. Dogma is satisfied with assent, law with obedience, philosophy with understanding; but a living Person calls for nothing short of the whole man’s personal devotion. Given only that personal devotion, the Lord receives men as He finds them, with all their weaknesses and errors, and all their limitations of race and time and individual character. Through all these His Spirit works, guiding them into truth as they are able to receive it. Thus, though Christianity – the love of Christ – is always in itself the same, its outward and historic form is shaped by outward and historic causes. Just because the living power is from heaven, heavenly, its working in the world is natural, not magical. At once transcendent and immanent, it works in and through natural laws, yet lifts up nature to a higher level. The lifting process may seem slow and partial, though we can trace out something of its course in history; but if ages of ages were needed to prepare the world for the coming of the eternal Word, ages may be needed again for the working of the power that is to lift up man above the angels.
Christian duty is the love of Christ and nothing more : but love must work on knowledge and show itself in action. The knowledge is of the Lord’s person, for there is no Christian doctrine but this—the rest are inferences of reason from it. The action ranges through the whole of life, for no part of life in Christ is common or unclean. Religions may be content with a ritual, but the revelation calls for the whole man. If there be right action, or true fact, or living force apart from Christ, then Christ is neither the way, nor the truth, nor the life.
Now the natural man – and we all have a good deal of the natural man – cannot give this personal devotion. His religion is a religion of fear, as the Cambridge Platonists used to say; and he cannot get rid of his fear by simply calling himself a Christian. He fears Christ, and searches heaven and earth for mediators – angels and saints in heaven, saints and priests on earth, who seem nearer to him and less terrible than the gracious Saviour. He fears Christ, and seeks by all means to escape the searching sternness of the Saviour’s claim – the claim of perfect love – on every act and word and thought. Sometimes he ignores its practical side, and contents himself with right belief or right feeling which leaves his life untouched. More commonly he tones it down till he thinks he can meet it, requiring perhaps what he fancies a higher standard from saints or clerics. He may limit its range like the Pharisees, and take refuge in ceremonialism and formality; or he may turn ascetic, and fight the body instead of the carnal nature. Above all, he walks by sight and not by faith, and craves a carnal certainty which the Lord never promised. He may make gods to go before him, and worship any sort of idols; or he may make for himself masters upon earth – popes, councils, churches, priests, or spiritual directors, who shall precisely tell him what he must believe and do.
These are permanent tendencies of human nature, abundantly illustrated in the history of religions. Mahometanism, Buddhism, and other systems, have run courses very like that of Christianity. The tendencies are much the same in all, though in each case one or another of them may find a check. Thus Mahometanism has developed saints and ascetics in abundance, and an uncreated Koran, but neither priests nor idols. Judaism had its priestly ritual and traditions of the elders, but was quite free from idols. Greek and Roman heathenism had gods many and lords many, each with his peculiar worship; but their authoritative traditionalism was more political than religious. The tendencies of the natural man are clearly seen in the common features of the development of religions, and we may expect to meet them again in the history of the revelation.
We shall not be disappointed. The race is like the man. Age after age starts with fresh enthusiasm, rejoicing as a giant to run his course; and age after age sinks paralysed with sin, its work but half begun, its ideals defiled and cast aside. History is a record of failures, of ruined empires and forgotten peoples, vanished civilisations and fallen Churches, for even the power of God seems drawn into the vortex of universal failure. Yet history is the most inspiriting of all studies. Through shames and failures the uplifting hand is working hitherto. The shames remain for warning, the failures do but lay foundations deeper, and the work that is done in Christ abideth. To each generation is given some new view of truth; and that remains. The veil is lifting slowly; but in these latter days we begin to see how the long procession of the ages is gathering round the glorious figure of the Son of Man who is the Lord of all.
We begin, then, with the Apostolic age, when the steps of Christ were fresh, and echoes of His gracious words remained with hundreds who had followed Him. It was an age of great things. Churches overspread the empire in one generation, from Gaul to Pontus; and they not only witnessed the new life that had come into the world, but showed its working. In them the love of Christ had overcome the deepest prejudices of the ancient world – Jew and Gentile, slave and barbarian, were brethren alike – and solved the social problems which baffled Rome, and baffle Europe still. They had abolished beggary, lifted woman to her rightful place, and even drawn the sting of slavery. No marvel if all generations have called them blessed. Yet even the Apostolic age was no golden time of purity. Mightily as the spirit of Christ was working, the spirit of Antichrist was working too. There was lying at Jerusalem, strife at Antioch, apostasy in Galatia, fornication at Corinth, “philosophy” at Colossae. The scandals were great, the divisions quite as deep as those of later times.
The Apostolic age is separated from the sub-Apostolic by a storm that shook the world. First the fires of Nero’s persecution shone out in lurid horror like the dawning of the day of doom. Then came the last great strife of Rome and Israel for the dominion of the East. Then the Empire was itself convulsed with the great civil wars which revealed its fatal weakness of dependence on the legions. And when the storm had spent its fury, the scene was changed. Rome, indeed, seemed as glorious as ever; yet something had passed away with the house of Divus Julius. With the measured strength of middle life – still ample, but not without a conscious limit – she entered on a silver age of prosaic peace, unstirred by civil war, before the death of Commodus. But the Temple was in ruins, Jerusalem a desolation, Israel uprooted from its place among the nations. The Christian Church was uprooted too. The Churches were cut loose in one direction from apostolic guidance, in another from their Jewish origins, in yet another from Roman toleration. Some strands of connection with the past remained, like St. John at Ephesus, but, upon the whole, the Churches became more and more Greek Churches, guided by successors of Apostles, while Rome had now declared herself a standing enemy. In equal contrast to the particularism of ancient times, the Empire and the Church were universal forces, and between them lay the future of the world. Hence three centuries of bitter enmity, followed by a thousand years of firm alliance.
There is the sharpest possible contrast between the bursting fullness of apostolic writings and the intellectual poverty of the next generation. Its greatness was not on that side. Perhaps even Polycarp understood the deeper teachings of St. John no better than Clement understood St. Paul. Yet the sub-Apostolic fathers are striking characters. There is Clement, the lover of concord, setting forth the order of God’s world as a plea for order in God’s Church at Corinth; and the martyr Ignatius, whose rugged sentences are sparkles of intense conviction; and the saintly Polycarp, who “stood like an anvil,” and could speak with all the sternness of St. John himself. But all three are alike in a deep and thankful piety unsurpassed in later ages. There is a loveliness of its own in this afterglow of Apostolic times.
The problem before them was one that called for all their piety, and more than all their wisdom. The Churches had suddenly lost their ready appeal on doctrine to the witness of Apostles, and could no longer call in the authority of Apostles to put down corporate disorder; and the organisation which remained when Apostles were withdrawn was very weak. They needed stronger local government and stronger bonds of union with each other, if they were to face the dangers of the new age. The outward danger from persecution was not small, for persecution falls first on leaders, and cuts off the very men whose wisdom is most needed. True, it calls out heroic examples, and greatly helps to weed out the time-servers and the unstable brethren; but it seldom softens those whom it fails to overcome. Its hardening influence is conspicuous in the later persecutions which we know best, and the sudden arrests and executions must have done a good deal to confuse order and relax discipline. But the internal dangers were the greatest. Our scanty information gives us no reason to suppose that the strifes and rivalries of the Apostolic age were followed by unruffled calm. The quarrels might be merely personal, as they seem to have been at Corinth when Clement wrote; but they were often also doctrinal. The disorders of Galatians, Colossians, or Corinthians sprang from permanent tendencies of human nature, and have therefore been reproduced in all ages. Galatians were now represented by Judaizers generally, and Colossians by Gnostics, while the partisanship and immorality of Corinth is always a practical danger. Christian duty was fairly clear, however it might be neglected; and indeed it differed from the better popular ideas of duty more in motives and sanctions, and therefore in intensity, than in substance and contents. But the Christian doctrine, which is the ground of Christian motive, was less easily kept in view, so that it was necessary to put its essential parts into simple forms for common use, and to provide for it more lasting guardians than the original witnesses. Furthermore, the Churches were compelled by the attacks of heathens and heretics not merely to define their positions, but to defend them, to show their historic soundness and consistency with reason, and to refute current objections. If they began with simple apologies like those of Aristides and Justin, they were gradually drawn on to the historical criticism of Irenaeus, to the philosophy of Clement, and to the fuller doctrinal schemes of Origen and Cyprian.
Thus there were three great needs. Church government needed strengthening, to check disorders like those of Corinth and to secure continuity of teaching. That teaching needed to be placed on a basis of Scripture, now that even the disciples of the old witnesses were passing away; and it needed also to be summed up in simple forms, so that neither friends nor enemies could mistake its main contents. The revelation moreover needed to be set forth in its relation to the thought of that age and of past ages, not merely answering Jewish or heathen objection, but showing its bearing on current forms of religion and philosophy, and showing also the abiding power of the risen Son of Man to satisfy the deepest needs of human nature in its widest range.
In each of these three directions the Apostles had laid foundations. If they had no wish to solve prematurely the problems of the next generation, they left hints on which it could work. The first problem, as we saw, was that of Church government, and a few words will suffice on this, for its growth will be more fully traced in another chapter. There is no trace of (monarchical) bishops in the New Testament, whereas by the end of the second century every city has its one bishop, who for his lifetime is head of the presbyters and official guardian of orthodoxy in that city. It is needless as well as unhistorical to suppose that the Apostles ordained episcopacy as the one lawful form of Church government. Yet St. John must have seen its rise in Asia, and seen it without disapproval, to say the least. There was an earlier hint in such a vicar-apostolic as Timothy. The only reason (though it is a sufficient one) for refusing to recognise Timothy as bishop at Ephesus is that he was no more than a special commissioner. He was soon recalled, and there is no reason to suppose that he ever saw Ephesus again. But other vicars-apostolic may have been left stranded by an apostle’s death, and remained at their post as bishops. It cannot have been a common case; but it was hint enough. Monarchy is the natural resource of men in times of danger. Just as the nations of Europe strengthened their kings against the anarchy which constantly threatened the later Middle Ages, so the sub-Apostolic Churches strengthened their bishops as centres of unity and guardians of orthodoxy. Episcopacy was so visibly the best and strongest form of government for the second century, that hardly anything short of a definite prohibition by the Apostles could have prevented its spread.
We come now to the source and the expression of Church teaching. The Old Testament was the Bible of the Apostles, so that Christianity was never a purely traditional faith. But the formation of a New Testament was unavoidable, when they put the words they had heard from the Carpenter’s lips on a level with the words which God spake from Sinai to them of old. It was complete, with just a fringe of doubt concerning certain books, long before the last of their disciples passed away, and thenceforth remained for many generations the one unquestioned source of all Christian doctrine. However interpretations might differ, its supremacy was never doubted in the early Church. It is as fixed an axiom with Athanasius as with the Church of England.
But if Scripture was acknowledged as the court of final appeal, it did not follow that every man was free to interpret it exactly as he pleased, – to force on it, for instance, Ebionism or Gnosticism, in defiance of statements whose meaning could not fairly be called doubtful. For this reason as well as others, it was necessary to sum up in a short form the chief points, not so much of Christian doctrine as of the apostolic testimony. There was an outline ready in the Lord’s baptismal Formula (Matt. xxviii. 19 ; I see no reason to doubt its genuineness), and several passages of the New Testament give something like summings-up, though not of the sort required. So ancient creeds are always modelled on the Formula, and for this reason make slight mention of Baptism, and none at all of the Lord’s Supper, of Justification, the Atonement, and other important doctrines. But all these summaries were matters of usage. A Church might have a very short confession for the catechumen to pronounce with his own lips, and a somewhat longer creed to form the basis of his instruction; but its next neighbour might word them very differently. Every Church did that which was right in its own eyes, and to this day there has never been a Catholic creed, in the sense of one acknowledged by all churches. An Eastern Christian will tell us that the Apostles’ creed and the Quicunque are not creeds of the orthodox Church, and that our Nicene creed is shamefully interpolated. Yet though the early creeds varied much in wording, in substance they differed little. Agreement in the midst of diversity summed up in the most emphatic way the historical facts which constitute the Gospel, and defined better than any law could have done the limits which none who bear the name of Christ may overpass.
There still remained the hardest task of all. Though no language of men can fully express the truth of God, it was none the less necessary to show that the revelation could bear the keenest scrutiny of thoughtful heathens – not only that it practically answered the spiritual needs of all men, but that the truth it declares is one that satisfies, and more than satisfies, the noblest aspirations of human thought. And for this the sub-Apostolic age was hardly ripe. A full century of pondering was needed before a measure could be attempted of the stupendous facts connected with our Saviour’s coming. Love might recognise at once the true light; but reason wanted time to gaze, and to realise its bewildering grandeur. Small wonder if men stumbled in that dazzling light, and formed strange theories of Him whom Ebionites at one end and Gnostics at the other perforce acknowledged as the centre of the world’s history. Nor were the sub-Apostolic fathers men who could rule the intellectual anarchy which the coming of the Son of Man had thrown into the ancient world. Their task was to preach and iterate the Apostolic story, not to mix it up with philosophy. No man was ever less fit than Polycarp to understand the strange thoughts of a younger generation. Their firm conservatism was absolutely needed for their time: and, after all, the second century did its fair share of the work of ages in organising Churches, settling the canon, and framing creeds. The way forward was pointed out by the Biblical studies of Tatian and Melito, by the commentaries of Papias and Heracleon, by the Apologies of Aristides and Justin, and above all by the historical criticism of Irenaeus and his deep thoughts on the Incarnation and the Supper of the Lord. Even the errors of Gnostics and Montanists were found useful warnings when the School of Alexandria came forward to essay the great problem. Origen and Athanasius are beyond our present limits; but the twentieth century will have to go back to school (not to slavery) at Alexandria. Latin doctrine came in like the Law, by reason of transgressions; and now that its work is done, we must return to that older and freer covenant of God with Greece, which no later Latin law can disannul.
The second century has points of likeness to many later ages. In one direction it recalls the iron conservatism of the changeless East; in another the firm discipline of Rome or Geneva; in another the Scripturalism of Protestant Churches; in another the excitement of the old Methodists or the new Salvation Army. In yet another it reflects the anarchy of thought in our time, for most of the disputed questions were astonishingly modern; and the final question behind them – Christ or Agnosticism? – is the final question of all ages.
Yet it differed greatly from them all. Lines of thought were less defined, and language was less fixed than in later times. Words were still fluid which afterwards became technical terms, and many technical terms were not yet invented. Whole regions of doctrine were so far unexplored, and the best studied parts of it were not yet worked out with the many-sided care of many ages. There was no possibility yet of anything like our modern Confessions, where every phrase recalls the controversies of the past, and every sentence is shaped by the struggles of centuries. With this state of things there naturally went many crudities of doctrine. Some of them have seldom been revived in later times, like the materialising views of both sacraments connected with the materialising idea of the soul derived from the Stoics. Even if the material water of baptism or the material bread of the Lord’s Supper be supposed to have a quasi-material influence, nobody would now explain it by their affinity to a material soul. But most of the crudities are the recurring ideas of all ages. The Millennarians, for instance, are always with us, and the computers of the number of the Beast and of the end of the world, and the believers in the material fires of hell, for the literalists are men of all times. The Quakers are not the first who scrupled oaths and war; and there is no novelty in the vegetarians, or in the temperance men who refuse the eucharistic wine. There were thought-readers, too, and spiritualists and mediums – no mean practitioners – and conjurers and impostors in rich variety, ranging down from hypnotists as devilish as some of our own to the common quacks of the market. Hardly a folly of our time was wanting – Anglo-Israel of course excepted. Graver thoughts were also very like our own. The difficulties of Theism and Agnosticism were most of them familiar to the Gnostics; and things like Mariolatry and transubstantiation were not unknown among them, for it would not be easy to find a heresy the Gnostics never thought of. So modern is it all, in many ways more modern than a world our fathers could well remember.
How then shall we class the Church of the second century with regard to modern Churches? Protestant it was not, for Protestantism never succeeded very well in its persistent endeavour to return to primitive models. It is no harder to raise the dead than to restore a vanished past. For good and for evil, the simplicity of early times was gone for ever long before the Reformation. The long centuries of Latin tutelage had left an indelible mark on Western thought; and Protestantism – at least Lutheran and English Protestantism – was far too reverent and wise to undo with one fell blow the work of ages. It was too Christian and too Northern to accept without reserve, too Christian and too Latin to set aside without discrimination, the great structure of Latin thought which faced it at the Reformation. Thus the part rejected was rejected with an emphasis unknown to earlier times, and the part retained had much in it of purely Latin and not of primitive growth. Protestantism might speak in deliberate opposition to Rome, or in deliberate agreement with Rome; and either way was a clear departure from primitive models. The one thing it could not possibly do was to speak in primitive unconsciousness of Rome’s existence. Thus though we find in the second century plenty of the Protestant doctrine which the Latin Church rejects, it is hardly ever laid down with the distinctive emphasis of Protestantism. In this sense, and chiefly in this sense, the second century is not Protestant.
On the other hand, we find very few traces of the Latin doctrine which Protestantism, at least Lutheran and English Protestantism, rejected; and those we do find are chiefly Gnostic. There were germs of evil in prayers for the dead, in enthusiastic admiration of martyrs, and in overmuch regard for the physical facts of fasting and virginity, and perhaps in other things; but they were hardly more than germs. Speaking broadly, the Church of the second century meets the current Latin doctrine of the Middle Ages with a negative protest of silence and of contrary teaching and example, which to the student is even more impressive than the positive protest of the Reformation. Thus we find no traces of Papal jurisdiction, but abundant signs that every Church in Christendom would have resented any such claim as a piece of arrogance. All are agreed that the Church bears witness to the broad facts of the creed; but nobody contemplates a further Catholic tradition of ritual, discipline, or dogma, which individual Churches are not free to alter as they think fit. The infallibility of councils is unknown to this age and the next; and even in the fourth century the first faint suggestion of it by the Arians rouses the indignant scorn of Athanasius. The supremacy of Scripture is everywhere taken for granted; and if Scripture is nowhere directly and expressly opposed to tradition, neither is tradition anywhere made an independent source of doctrine. Even Tertullian maintains no more than Hooker’s position, that a Church is not bound to show a direct command of Scripture for every ceremony it ordains. There is no trace of a sacrificing (not purely pastoral and eucharistic) priesthood till after Irenaeeus and Clement of Alexandria; and Cyprian himself strictly limits that priesthood to the bishop, and calls the presbyters no more than Levites. Sacrifice is commonly spoken of, but only sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the altar, Irenaeus tells us, is in heaven. The bread of the Lord’s Supper is no longer common bread; but bread it always is, though “bread with a blessing,” for nobody dreams of anything like transubstantiation unless it be a few Gnostics. If Protestantism has too sharply limited the possibilities of God’s mercy to the dead, it at least went wrong with Irenaeus; and the hardest Calvinism never preached a more horrible gospel of hell fire than Cyprian in the next age. Altogether, the questions are few on which there is any reason to suppose that the Church of the second century would have preferred Roman statements to those of the English Articles.
Chapter III – The School of Alexandria
By the Rev. C. Bigg, D.D.
Christianity was a new life cast into the midst of an old civilisation. With amazing strength and speed it flew forth beyond the narrow limits of its birthplace, the land of Judaea, circling through every region of the empire, and rising from class to class of society.
At first it was little more than a life, with many intuitions and few formularies, yet carrying within it the germs of thought which experience must necessarily develope. It went forth like a child, naïve and unconscious, yet always serenely confident that it was endued with a power capable of regenerating the whole world.
As the Church passed on its way, onwards and upwards, it came into contact with all the convictions and all the doubts of Jew and Gentile, of all sorts and conditions of men. The old state of unreasoned assurance could not endure. Sooner or later the Christian was bound to give account of himself, to himself and to others, in the light of the best knowledge of the day, and in language that could be accepted or disputed. Was the Church fit only for cobblers and fullers, as Celsus asserted, or could it take charge of intelligence? Could it really widen the horizon by raising the point of view? Could it help the statesman and the scholar? Was Christ, in truth, the light that lighteth every man? These were the questions that demanded answers.
By the end of the second century the Church was emerging from the contest with Gnosticism, or rather, was rising above that social stratum in which Gnosticism abode. Gnosticism was essentially a bourgeois phenomenon, borrowing much from the wild and coarse imagination of Egypt or Syria, but still more from the narrowness, the recalcitrance, and the pessimism of the ill-educated and ill-used middle class. Take a serious but unenlightened man of inferior social grade, born and bred in the Greco-Roman Empire, where a score of mythologies seethed in confusion, give him a smattering of philosophy, then introduce him to Christianity as a new religion somewhat better than the rest, and he will form a Gnostic system with its evil God, its asceticism or antinomianism, and its families of Aeons, in which Christian graces, heathen gods, Oriental angels or demons play their part as in a wild kind of religious melodrama.
Gnosticism never produced an eminent man, yet it possessed extraordinary vitality among the middle class, enduring under one shape or another till late in the Middle Ages. It raised just those formidable problems which are obvious to everybody, but it answered none of them, nor did it even point the way to an answer. Its sourness and its recalcitrance are best exemplified in the phrase of Basilides: “I will say anything rather than admit that Providence is evil.” Truth does not reveal herself to men who court her thus. If the reader thinks this description of Gnosticism harsh, he should read the Pistis Sophia, of which an English translation is accessible, or the account of the Manichees in the Confessions of St. Augustine.
But in the second century the Church was coming daily into closer contact with men of the highest education. Plutarch knew something of the Bible, and Celsus knew much. The Emperor M. Aurelius disapproved of the “obstinacy” of the Christians whom he put to death; and Fronto, his tutor, is said to have written against them. Two illustrious names in the history of Neo-Platonism are those of Numenius and Ammonius Saccas. Ammonius was at one time a Christian. Numenius spoke of Plato as “an Attic Moses,” and, if we may venture on an inference from the curious dislike shown towards him by the friends of Plotinus, may have been a Jew, or even a Christian.
Clearly the hour had come for an explanation between Christianity and philosophy, and the times were favourable for such an attempt. Platonism, a noble and religious form of idealism, was in the ascendant, and offered many points of contact with the Church, especially in its doctrines of spirit and of the immortality of the soul. And, as a natural consequence of this change in the temper of the schools, the old hostility to Greek thought, which is so strongly marked in the Apologists, with the single exception of Justin, was giving way. The rank and file of the Church were still as strong as ever in their dislike of the wisdom of the world, and the same feeling is still very evident in Tertullian. No Christian would have dreamed of putting philosophy above the Creed, or substituting it for the Creed. But many were beginning to ask whether a highly-trained human intelligence could not throw light on the difficulties of Scripture, on the details of moral duty, even on the axioms of the Creed itself. God made man in His own image. Surely, then, thought can meet revelation. The one is higher, the other lower, but there must be some affinity between the two. Reason cannot predict revelation, nor judge it when it comes, but it can prepare the way for it, test at any rate its operations, and so believe in its source, as a child believes in the larger wisdom of its father.
We must confine ourselves in the present paper to the two great Alexandrine doctors, Clement and Origen. It will not be possible to enter largely on their biographies or their personal characteristics. They were very different men. Clement, we may say, was the first Christian mystic; Origen, the first Christian schoolman. Clement was much the braver and the brighter of the two. There is a large lay element in his charming temper. He loved letters, prose or verse, tragic or comic, grave or gay. He was mystic in the same sense as Fenelon, believing that the purified spirit truly sees God and becomes one with God, and his mysticism gives him extraordinary freedom, tenderness, and tolerance. He seems to rise above all forms, “touching earth,” to use his own phrase, “with but one foot”; yet he is a severe disciplinarian, bidding men seek freedom through law. But his severity, though it strikes the modern reader as rather Puritanical, is in principle always kindly and moderate, like that of St. Anselm, who loved to see his guests enjoy themselves, though he himself took none but the simplest fare.
Clement seems to roam through the fields of knowledge picking every beautiful flower that comes in his way, without stopping to think how it will harmonise with the rest of his nosegay. Origen is of quite another type, laborious, erudite, critical, always desperately in earnest. He saw into things far more deeply than Clement. Clement has no doubts; Origen has many, and he drags them all into the light, in full assurance that there is an answer, and that God has somewhere revealed it. Scripture must be a sufficient key to all spiritual truth, and so he collects manuscripts, revises texts, publishes the Hexapla, ransacks the stores of grammar, science, philosophy, and brings all this mass of human learning to bear upon the sacred text. This is, of course, very much what we do ourselves, but still there is a broad difference. The modern scholar wants to see the Bible exactly as it is, and is prepared to admit that revelation is limited by its purpose and by the circumstances under which it is given. Origen, holding the great Platonic maxim that God is all in all, and all in every part, maintained that the whole body of truth lies hidden in Scripture. Any sentence, any word, rightly and fully explained, is a microcosm, and involves all heaven and all earth, like “the little flower” of which Tennyson sang. Hence the Bible is the one book needful. Science is not a revelation so much as the key to a revelation; it is that “key of knowledge” of which our Saviour spoke, a necessary instrument for the commentator, but of no value except as an instrument.
It has been said that self-limitation is the condition of strength. Origen is certainly limited. The realm of beauty in nature and art, in which Clement finds a keen enjoyment, does not exist for him. All his great faculties were bent with superb energy on the establishment of ecclesiastical knowledge; theology swallows up everything. It is true that his conception of theology is broad and noble, and that he accomplished great things in every department of the science. Still he is ecclesiastical, professional, and judges everything from the one point of view. He said of philosophy, “Few are they who have taken the spoils of the Egyptians and made of them the furniture of the tabernacle.” Clement wrote: “There is one river of Truth, but many streams fall into it on this side and on that.” There are dangers on both sides; but Clement’s view is the more genial, the more modern, and, we may add, the braver.
The teaching of the Alexandrines was shaped to meet the problems of their times. They are the problems of all times, but from age to age they take different forms, and the solution, as far as a solution can be attained, needs to be continually revised.
We may take first their treatment of Scripture, and here we must think chiefly of Origen.
He held that the Bible is one book, “the Word,” and not “the words,” of God. Till the other day every one would have repeated this phrase; it is the expression of what was called “the plenary inspiration” of Scripture.
But, when the scholar began to study the recently completed canon of Scripture as a whole, he became aware of numerous and grave difficulties. Manuscripts were corrupt, and readings varied. There were discrepancies of statement between one writer and another. There were divergences of view between one apostle and another. The mysticism of St. Paul is not quite the same as the mysticism of St. John, and neither could be reconciled without some effort with the strong discipline of the existing Church. What then was the function of Law? and what was the precise relation of the Mosaic Law to the Gospel? in what sense was it abolished, and in what sense did it still endure?
Other questions were forced upon Origen from the outside, by heathen thinkers like Celsus, or by Christians like Ambrosius, who had felt the attractions of Gnosticism. One was the homeliness, and, as it seemed to the rhetorical taste of the day, the vulgarity of the Scripture narrative. Another was the contradiction between Scripture and science or common sense, for instance in the account of Creation. Above all, the morality of the Old Testament was vehemently impugned from many different sides by Ebionites, Gnostics, and enlightened pagans. Men pointed to the naïve anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Scriptures, to the polygamy of the Patriarchs, to the wars of extermination, to the fierce language of some of the Psalms, to the story of Tamar, and asked in what sense a book which contained all these extravagances could be regarded as divine. Some went so far as to ascribe the authorship of the Old Testament to an inferior and evil god.
The Alexandrines were not troubled by those theories as to the date and composition of the different books which have been suggested in our own times by Greek and Hebrew philologers. How Clement would have regarded the refinements of modern scholarship may be doubtful, but that noble and intrepid spirit, with which he compared philosophy to God’s rain falling on all kinds of soil, and causing all kinds of seeds to grow, was hospitable to truth from whatever quarter it came. Origen’s mind was not so open, and when we remember how he refused to be convinced, even by Africanus, that the story of Susanna was not an integral part of the Hebrew book of Daniel, on the ground that it is not well “to remove the eternal landmarks which those set up who were before us,” we may guess that he would have looked with a jealous eye on the audacities of German scholarship. He was far from being uncritical, and ventured to question the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But theological caution, strange as this may sound, was a strong feature in his character, and, if he had yielded assent to the modern view of the Book of Genesis, it would have been after a severe struggle. But this has been the experience of many among ourselves.
The grave perplexities which attach to the idea of Evolution were of course unknown to the Alexandrines. Evolution may be compared to the spear of Achilles; it heals at any rate some of the wounds which it causes. In particular it has supplied a sufficient answer to the moral problems of the Old Testament, by telling us of “the light which slowly broadens down,” and how, in all manifestations of the eternal law, the lower must always prepare the way for the higher. The fine intelligence of St. Augustine had grasped this idea at least in its ethical application, and in a remarkable passage of the Confessions the saint defends the morality of the Hebrew Scriptures on this very ground. In the days of his Manichaean willfulness he too had measured the past by the stiff rule of the present. “I did not know,” he writes, “the true inner righteousness which judges not conventionally but by the upright law of Almighty God, whereby the customs of countries and times are adapted to the countries and times, though the law is the same everywhere and always.” But Origen had not risen to this height. Like all the men of his day, and many men of our day, he thought that the precept was as unchangeable as the principle.
Hence, as he could not and would not strangle his doubts, he was driven to adopt that mode of interpretation which we call Allegorism. It had been invented by pagans to defend their myths, and came to Origen stamped with the approval of Philo and Clement. But he greatly extended its application, using it with the utmost freedom for four different purposes – (1) as a weapon of defence; (2) as a means of demonstrating the unity of Scripture; (3) as an engine of prophecy; (4) as a necessary interpretation of the dogma and discipline of the Church.
Allegorism in our times is almost universally misunderstood. Quite recently the author of an excellent work upon Clement, M. de Faye, has spoken of it as “resting entirely upon fiction.” It is indeed “the art of making one thing mean another.” But then everything does mean something else. Everything is symbol. Every atom is vitally linked to its neighbour atom, and every effect is an image of its cause. Undoubtedly there is such a thing as analogy; but some analogies are much deeper than others, and if we cannot distinguish between the trivial and the profound, there is, of course, great possibility of error.
The Alexandrines fell into this error, but this must not blind us to their great merit. They were allegorising when they found in the number three hundred and eighteen, the number of the servants of Abraham, a type of Christ. But they were also allegorising when they said that God is Spirit and not matter, or when they said that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not corporeal. The fact is that many of us are allegorists without knowing it. And we may admire the hard fate of the Alexandrines. The trivialities of their symbolism were found interesting and edifying, were eagerly caught up by the Church and lived on till the other day. Their noble evangelical spiritualism, except as regards the doctrine of the Trinity, was rejected by the Church, was recovered only by a few, and only after a bitter struggle. We forget that this too is Allegorism and Alexandrinism.
The working rule of Allegorism was that Scripture contains three senses, the literal, the moral, and the spiritual, and that many passages possess all three. Origen added to this rule another, that many passages have no historical truth at all, because in the literal sense they contain impossibilities. Such were the whole account of Creation and the Fall, many precepts of the Law, and some even of the Gospel – for instance, the command to pluck out the offending eye. The main fault of these rules is just that they are rules. All language descriptive of spiritual experience is metaphorical, and has more senses than one. But when we set to work upon a text with the conviction that the more erroneous or the more trivial it may appear, the more profound must be its significance, or that the New Testament must lie hid, not merely in germ but in actual detail in the Old, great errors are at hand. They are errors not of substance, because the rash Allegorist finds only what he already possesses, but they confuse to an intolerable degree our knowledge of the past.
Yet Allegorism rests on profound truths, that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” and that “nothing unworthy ought to be believed of God.” It insisted that the whole world was made by God and bears His sign-manual. Further it maintained that the Bible, being the creation of the same author as Nature, must necessarily exhibit the same method of workmanship; this was the thought from which sprang Butler’s Analogy. Yet again that the Old Testament is not against the New, but is part of one Divine scheme for the education of the world, and contains previsions, foretastes, shadows of the better things to come. These are great thoughts, however they may have been misapplied.
But we must pick up our thread again, and consider in sufficient detail the four uses to which Allegorism was applied.
Its apologetic worth varies very greatly with the character of the objections against which it was directed. The homeliness of Scripture, which shocked Origen, does not shock us. We see no difficulty in the wells of water which Caleb gave his daughter, or in the cakes which Abraham baked, or in the touching story of Ruth. Our taste has been formed upon the Bible, and we condemn the vapid Byzantine rhetoric, which had no dignity because it had no simplicity. But many of the doubts urged by the Gnostics, or by the keen and haughty Celsus, were of a very different type. Among the chief was that arising out of the justice of God. They were all answered by Allegorism, but we need not dwell upon them here, as we must recur to the more important later on.
Neither must we linger on the second use. Types and prophecies undoubtedly exist in Scripture, though our modern scholarly ways teach us to be much more discreet in their discovery and application. Few will doubt that Isaiah foresaw the advent of our Lord, though but darkly as in a glass. The Alexandrines – Origen more especially – were carried much too far in their desire to make all Scripture eloquent of Christ. It was the fault of their time; after all it was not a grave fault, and what we have said upon the subject will amply suffice.
A much more serious question, arising out of the belief in the unity of Scripture, is that which concerns the relation of the Law to the Gospel. It lies at the bottom of much of the religious confusion of our own times.
In what sense was the Law abolished? Is the Gospel itself a law? Is obedience to a law, which as yet we imperfectly comprehend, a duty, a virtue, and a help? Or are we to regard all true believers as a law unto themselves, or as so informed by the Holy Spirit that they need no rule and see for themselves exactly what they ought to do and believe?
The question is by no means an idle one. Epiphanius, the Gnostic, taught that the precept makes the sin. Nature is not chaste; or, as he expressed it, “the vine welcomes both the sparrow and the thief.” Since his time many so-called Christians have looked upon the Gospel freedom as implying moral anarchy. This is putting the difficulty in its most brutal shape, but it has many milder forms. Can there be any moral and religious worth in belief in the Unknown, or, to use the common phrases, in Faith and in Authority? Does the Act affect the Motive, or, in other words, what is the value of good works, and what is the place of moral philosophy? What is the precise meaning of Continuity in the spiritual life? Does the present grow out of the past, or are there breaks and new beginnings? And if history, both in the Church and in the individual, is a development, how are we to distinguish between growth and degeneration? What is Unity, and by what means is it secured? These are crucial questions arising out of the connection between the Old Testament and the New. The answer we give them marks us off as belonging to one or the other of the two great types of Christianity.
The Alexandrines ranged themselves emphatically on the side of authority. They held that the Creed itself was a law, which must be accepted before it could be understood, like the axioms of metaphysics or the rules of a practical art. The only difference is that the Christian Creed belongs not to what Whichcote calls “things of natural knowledge, or of first inscription in the heart of man by God, which are known to be true as soon as ever they are proposed,” but to revelation. “The great things of revealed truth,” Whichcote proceeds, “though they be not of reason’s invention, yet are they of the prepared mind readily entertained and received.” This is a good statement of the Alexandrine position. The Christian revelation is a manifestation of the higher reason of God, and is possible only because it completes the “truth of first inscription.” We could not have “invented” it, but the “prepared mind” can recognise it. The mind must be prepared by discipline, because the truth is largely, indeed fundamentally, moral. From this point of view action under discipline becomes of very high importance.
The Alexandrines, no doubt, took a strictly legal view. When we use the word legalism we are thinking of the Rabbis, with their stiff, unchanging, slavish mechanism. But law, as it is understood by Clement, or Origen, or Hooker, or Ruskin, is a noble thing, the guide of aspiration, the bond of unity, the nurse of freedom. Let us see what Origen says of the different kinds of law.
Take first the Law of Nature. St. Paul says in the words of the Psalmist, “There is none that doeth good, no, not one.” “What,” asks Origen, “was there none who sheltered a stranger, or gave bread to the hungry, or clothed the naked, or rescued the innocent from the grip of the oppressor? I do not think that the Apostle Paul wished to make so incredible a statement.” He goes on to say that, though the heathen are excluded from the Beatific Vision, they cannot wholly lose “the glory, honour, and peace of good works.”
The Law of Moses Origen held to have been a means of grace, adapted to the times though imperfect, transitional in form but not in substance, absorbed and transfigured but not abolished by the Gospel. It corresponds to a stage of the Christian experience, that of “washing.” Men must be washed before they can be clothed, before they can “put on Christ.” “Let Moses, therefore, wash thee. ... It is the law of God which washes thee, cleanses thy filth, removes, if thou wilt hear it, the stains of thy sins.”
Even the Gospel itself is constantly spoken of as a Law. Origen distinguishes three stages of Justification. The first is that of Faith, which, if accompanied by Repentance, receives pardon through Baptism. The second is that of “imputed righteousness,” of imperfect obedience, of hope on man’s side and on God’s. The third is real and true righteousness; the man is righteous, a son and no longer a servant, a man not a babe, and no further imputation is needed; hope has given way to love.
To the Alexandrines, as to all Platonists, Law is Freedom. Freedom is not self-assertion, but inner conformity to the perfect will of God.
Origen is more practical than Clement, and did not believe that man can become absolutely one spirit with the Lord in this short life. Clement, as was said above, is more mystical. His “Gnostic,” or finished Christian, lives in uninterrupted communion with the Saviour, and needs no helps, forms, or symbols of any kind, except the Eucharist. But there is a very broad distinction between Clement and some of the later mystics. He would have said that the Gnostic must still obey, for the sake of others if not for his own. Though he needs no forms others do, and therefore he will still go to church, hear sermons, say his prayers, and observe the customary regulations. The Body must care for all, the weak as well as the strong, and the saint is still a member of the Body. Clement was no Quietist, nor would he have broken unity for a form which his brethren valued.
The Alexandrines did not differ from the Church of their time in their notion of unity, or in their belief that all Christians were not free. Where they did differ was in thinking that all Christians ought to become free, and that the Church ought to leave much more space for freedom.
Allegorism was also used as an engine of prophecy, and this was its most dangerous application. The Alexandrines craved more light than God has been pleased to give, and set to work to manufacture it; or rather, we should say, to extort hidden mysteries from Scripture by means of exegesis. Origen regarded the commentator as qualified for his task by a special inspiration. There is much truth in this. “Scripture,” it has been said, “can only be understood by the aid of the same Spirit by whom it was given.” The scholar ought to be a revealer. But he is an interpreter of prophecy, not a prophet. The prophet, as we see him in Scripture, is one who has received a direct communication from God. He does not argue or reason, he proclaims what the Voice has told him. He gives from God an order, a judgment, an intimation of things to come. The last is the function that specially belongs to him. He was not, as such, a preacher or a teacher, though the difference lies not so much in the substance of the message as in the mode of its communication.
In the time of Origen the Montanist prophetism had been practically suppressed, and the gift of prophecy in the Church was very rare. Origen had never seen a prophet; but he bent his eyes with eager curiosity towards the darkness of the future. Could not the veil be lifted? Were there not hints in Scripture? Might not scholarship and devotion attain to at least something of prophetic strain?
He found his clue in the “Eternal Gospel” of St. John, and in the text, “God shall be all in all.” How far he was right in his interpretation of these words of St. Paul it is hard to say, but he took them to mean that the end shall be like the beginning, that as all came from God, so all shall return to God, and that evil will cease to be.
I need not here describe his theory of Restitution at length. He found it in Scripture, in a thousand texts, but he had previously borrowed it from Plato. From the Gorgias he had gathered the belief that all pain is corrective; by the Phoedrus and the Republic he had been taught that the soul lived and sinned before it came down to earth, that the short span of its existence here is but an episode in its age-long probation, that the great drama goes on for aeon after aeon, till at last, one by one, all spirits have found rest in the bosom of God. All this Origen held only as a speculation, as a hope or pious opinion. There are many passages where he expresses doubts.
It is a very bold and a very noble theodicy. We need not criticise it in detail. But one point involved is of such far-reaching importance as to call for a few remarks.
The belief that all pain is corrective is certainly wrong, and it is most singular that neither Clement nor Origen perceived this. How could they, on this Platonic theory, account for the death of our Lord, and the efficacy of the Cross? Or how could they explain the patent fact that ignorance and hardness are not only the cause but the effect of vice? Origen has more than one fine passage on the value of the deaths of martyrs and heroes, but somehow he never pushed the thought of vicarious suffering to a conclusion. The heathen Platonists laughed at the idea of an unjust man being made better by the unmerited suffering of the just, and many Christians are half-ashamed of it. Yet, if self-sacrifice is not the chief agent in moral regeneration, what becomes of the Church? My pain may make me better, but why should I suffer for others who can only be healed by their own pain? Thus we lose the noblest of all motives to which the dullest of mankind will respond.
The doctrine that pain is corrective means, in coarse language, that moral evil is cured by flogging. This is so manifestly untrue that the Church could never wholly believe it. Yet the old disciplinarians came very near to the belief. The death of Christ, it was held, availed to purchase free pardon for the sinner at his baptism, but all subsequent misdeeds must be atoned for by full satisfaction. Here we have the root of the medieval doctrine of Penance with all its abuses. Tetzel stands on the same ground as Origen.
The last point that we need consider is the bearing of Allegorism upon the doctrine and organisation of the Church. On this field it rendered its noblest services, but within the limits at our disposal it is not possible to do more than briefly point out the chief of them.
Down to the end of the second century theology had been sadly hampered by Stoic materialism. The soul was very generally regarded as possessing shape and capable of division. The Platonists, who hardly existed in the first century and did not acquire wide influence till rather late in the second, were the men to whom we owe the interpretation of our Lord’s words, “God is Spirit.” Here we have the most conspicuous justification of Clement’s love for philosophy. The tremendous importance of this new view – we may call it new, for it had been practically lost – is best seen in the life of St. Augustine. The belief that God has neither body parts nor passions, that His Spirit is all in the whole and all in every part, and that consequently it is not a bare logical or mathematical unity but the fullness of life, destroyed Gnosticism with its second and evil god, destroyed Chiliasm, greatly strengthened the conviction of the soul’s immortality, and rendered it possible to explain, at any rate in some degree, the mystery of the Creed. Further it explained also the Church itself, because it showed how men may be one with each other and with God. Unity in diversity is a great spiritual allegorical truth, and we owe its currency to the Alexandrines.
There were differences in detail between Clement and Origen, but it may be said that they made the doctrine of the Trinity what it has since remained. The main task left to religious thought was the definition of our Lord’s Humanity. In this field the rather old-fashioned Platonism of the Alexandrines was to some extent a hindrance.
Almost equally conspicuous is the working of their free spiritual liberality in the region of practical theology. Here Allegorism is what we term Evangelicalism. But here they were ages before their time.
We find it difficult to estimate their service because so little is known of the actual working of the Church in their day. Great changes were taking place. Down to the time of Clement there is good reason for thinking that the Bishop of Alexandria had been elected and consecrated by the city rectors. The liturgy was assuming its final shape, and the power of the priesthood was becoming much greater. We can see that Clement’s use of philosophy excited violent opposition among those whom he calls “Orthodoxasts,” and Origen also was clearly not in harmony with “the simpler brethren.” In later times the hatred of Origen was justified mainly by his Universalism and his Subordinatianism, but in his own day there were many other causes of dislike which it is not difficult to find. The Alexandrine attitude was at once too spiritual and too conservative for the drift of the time, which ran strongly in the direction of stricter discipline and closer definition.
At what date was the Epiclesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit, in the prayer of consecration altered? If we could only answer this question, we should gain a great accession of light.
The ancient Egyptian Church Order has, “We pray Thee instantly that Thou send Thy Holy Ghost upon the sacrifice of this Christian Church.” Equally broad is the language of the old Nestorian Liturgy of SS. Adaeus and Maris. But in the great bulk of the Eastern Liturgies the Holy Spirit is invoked to “make” the bread and wine the Body and Blood of our Lord. And by the end of the fourth century, Jerome, a Western, says of the priest that he conficit corpus Domini. The Body is material, and it is “made” by the celebrant, no longer by the Holy Spirit. Here we discern two very important steps in advance. The early Church had been content to take our Lord’s words as they found them, without any attempt at definition.
Origen found the doctrine of the Corporeal Presence in existence, but he could not accept it, partly because he held a low view of our Lord’s Humanity, which he regarded as little more than the veil of His Divinity, partly because his Platonism made any approach to materialism impossible. Like Clement he held a purely spiritual view of our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. But what we should notice is that this Evangelicalism – shall we call it so? – is part of his philosophy, of his Allegorism. He does not deny “the common explanation,” nor does it make him furious. But he relegates it to “the lower life.” The body of the Church holds it, and may hold it, but the educated Christian may think otherwise. He claims for himself and for others full enjoyment of the liberty which God has given, yet without a thought of breaking communion.
Another grave question was that of Penance and Absolution. The old discipline of public confession in the Church had been found to be more than men would endure, as we can well understand. People were beginning to ask whether it was really necessary that every peccadillo should be laid bare before an assembly in which there would be many rigorists and possibly some enemies. Hence there grew up among the wealthy a custom of attaching to their households a spiritual adviser, as the rich heathen had a domestic philosopher. These directors were often laymen, but often also priests, and a priest in this position would be naturally disposed to give absolution on his own authority, and on his own private knowledge. Origen complains that there were many priests in his own time who ventured to forgive even mortal sins “by their own prayer.” Not only did he oppose private absolution, but he held, like Cyprian, and like Wyclif, that the “power of the keys” depended on the worthiness of the minister.
All this was too spiritual, too conservative for the Church of his time. Men took from Origen what they liked, and reviled him fiercely for what they did not like. They could not understand how he should be against them on some points, when he had been with them, heart and soul, in others. He seemed to be not only an opponent but a traitor.
Now what lesson are we to draw from the Alexandrines? Perhaps the reader will be best pleased if he is left to draw his own. There are points on which we are all in deep agreement with them, points on which, for one reason or another, everybody will be against them. Yet a few inferences may be suggested.
The first is that we can no more go back to the time of Origen than we can to that of Pope Innocent III. Theology has been immensely changed by the Augustinian doctrine of Grace, and by Anselm’s doctrine of the Atonement, which, with all its defects, was an abiding gain to religious thought; and our practical problems are not the same as those of Origen.
A second is the vital necessity of free thought – free not because it is willful, not because it is built on alien premises, but because it has risen with Christ and can see all things as they are in Him. Two great marks of free thought are that it is not contentious, and that it makes for unity. It springs from faith, it is widened by discipline, and it is blessed with unction.
A third is that of all symbols it may be said “the best of this kind are but shadows.” As shadows they are true, yet but shifting and impermanent. They have a spiritual meaning; we do not invent it; but they are helps which always tend to become hindrances as we advance towards the realities. “They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure.”
Lastly, may we say that one of the chief lessons that the Alexandrines have to teach us is to be found in that doctrine of reserve which Englishmen incline to regard with suspicion and even with abhorrence? We are a political race, talking publicly about everything, inclined to regulate everybody’s opinion, waxing hot against contradiction, and using adjectives of absurd intensity. We could not get on at all in private life unless we agreed sometimes “to banish politics.” The Alexandrines proposed to banish religious differences, and let every good Christian enjoy a sphere of liberty in his own inmost convictions. They thought it not only right, but quite natural, that one man should be High Church, and another Low. But they knew that this reign of tolerance could not endure, if each was to flaunt his views in the face of his neighbour.
One day all differences will be composed in the light of the eternal day. Meantime the Church is richer and more truly one for embracing in her Catholic bosom every aspect of the infinite truth. All aspects are partial, but aspects of truth can never be really antagonistic.
Chapter IV – The Age of Councils
By the Rev. G. A. Schneider, M.A.
The fourth and fifth centuries form an important epoch in the history of Christian thought, for they are the age of Creeds and of General Councils. During this period the great doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, hitherto partially apprehended and tentatively formulated by leading teachers, were more fully developed. And since the need for accurate definition of Christian truth had come to be more strongly felt, General Councils of the Church were held, at which these doctrines were embodied in authoritative Creeds. In this work Eastern Christendom took the principal share.
Christianity is the Revelation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Christ is not merely the Teacher, not merely the Founder, not merely the Example, but Christianity is based on His Person, is inseparable from it – indeed, He constitutes Christianity. Accordingly the Church felt from the first that the Person of the Lord had a unique significance. The first duty of the disciple was allegiance to Him; the secret of strength was union with Him; the life obtained through Him was more than human life. Thus the Lord’s divinity was from the beginning the guiding principle of the Church. “Jesus is Lord,” was the first Christian confession. In the thought of the early Christians Christ, though born into this world as one of our race, was far exalted above every creature.
Next to this, there was another fundamental principle, one which the Church had inherited from Judaism, one which in view of the surrounding heathenism it was constantly called upon to assert and to maintain, namely, the unity of God.
The difficulty was soon felt of reconciling with each other these two principles, the divinity of Christ and the unity of God. If Christ is in the fullest sense a divine being, are there not two Gods? How then can the charge of polytheism be avoided? The problem might be approached from two different sides, and two opposite forms of error were possible, both of which occurred in the early Church. On the one hand, a rationalizing tendency was at work which endeavoured to maintain the unity of God by denying to Christ divinity in the highest sense, regarding Him as a man in whom a divine power dwelt, and who was raised to divine honour because of His obedience to the Father’s will. Such was the Ebionite view. On the other hand, a mystic tendency was at work which sought to maintain the unity of God by denying the personal distinction between Father and Son, so that Father and Son are not two separate Persons, but two successive manifestations of the One divine Person. This was the view of the Sabellians.
Both of these extremes were condemned as heresies, yet the teaching within the Church itself was still indeterminate. Many problems were still unsolved concerning Christ’s relation to the Father. If Christ is the Son of God, what is the nature of this Sonship? Had the Son a beginning? If not, how can He be Son at all? And if He had a beginning, does not this imply that He must have been created, and is He not then a creature? On these questions the Church of the first three centuries gave no clear answer. Not indeed that the Church was heretical, for there is a broad line of distinction between heresies and defective stages of Christian knowledge. The early Christians felt within them the power of the new life which they had received from their Lord; they were filled with love to Him; they were ready to accept all that the New Testament Scriptures revealed of Him. But then it was not fully understood as yet what they did reveal, and so various inadequate hypotheses were put forward concerning His Person.
For all that, progress was made by Christendom at large in the apprehension of this doctrine. Some of the difficulties were cleared up by the ante-Nicene Fathers. Tertullian (about 200 A.D.), who was the first writer to use the word “Trinity,” was the first also who taught expressly that tripersonality belongs to the one God as He is in Himself. The Son is of the same essence as the Father, and Tertullian compares their relation to each other with that of the tree to the root, the ray to the sun, the river to the fountain. Yet Tertullian falls short of the full truth. The Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity, is with him at first the impersonal reason of God; He does not emerge into separate personality till the work of creation is to commence. Thus the Trinity is not one of essence, but merely an economic Trinity. Not long afterwards Origen (about 230 A.D.) cleared up the significance of the generation of the Son by the Father, showing that it does not denote any definite act, either in time or before time, but an eternal relation. From all eternity, and to all eternity, the Son has His being of the Father, just as the will proceeds from the mind, and the brightness from the light. And it is erroneous to say that “there was ever when the Son was not.” But side by side with this Origen holds the subordination of the Son. The generation of the Son is not by necessity of nature, but by the will of the Father; and hence the Father alone is in the highest sense God, while the Son is “the second God,” subordinate to the Father, and in some not clearly defined sense inferior to His original.
By the close of the third century Western Christendom for the most part had come to emphasize the unity between Father and Son, while partially obscuring the distinction of Persons. Eastern Christians, on the other hand, following the last-mentioned side of Origen’s teaching, tended to some theory of subordination, regarding Christ as a kind of secondary God. The Sabellian controversy, which had lately disturbed the East, had aroused the fear lest an acknowledgment of the unity of essence between Father and Son might lead to a denial of their personal distinction.
What was needed, in order that the Church should advance to a firmer grasp of the truth, was that the conception of deity should be revised. Christianity is indeed a monotheistic religion, but its monotheism is not the same as that of Judaism, or of Mohammedanism, or of ancient philosophy. In the latter systems God is conceived of as a far-off Supreme, enthroned in inaccessible mystery, absolutely one and absolutely simple, with an insurmountable barrier separating His creatures from Him. There can be no real union between such a God and man; no place is left on such a view for the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
Our God, on the other hand, is a single, but not a simple God; His being is complex. God is love, and love is not merely one aspect of the divine essence, but that essence in its fullness. And if God is love, He must have lived an inner life of love; He must from eternity love Himself in the threefold relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus there is, and ever has been, a society within the Godhead. Hence, not only the Father, but the Son and the Holy Spirit, existed eternally. The generation of the Son by the Father is not a matter of will, as though the Father had chosen to have a Son, but of nature. This conception of God, we may remark, is not the outcome of metaphysics, it is a deduction from the revelation recorded in Holy Scripture.
But converts to the Church during the early centuries, whether they came from Judaism or from Heathenism, brought with them a conception of the deity at variance with the Christian idea. Not till this was given up could Christian thought advance. And Arianism, which based its entire system on this non-Christian conception of God, and which caused a stir throughout the whole of Christendom, rendered the Church the great indirect service of compelling it to reconsider and remodel its idea of divine unity.
Arianism arose about 318 A.D. at Alexandria, where Arius was a presbyter. He was a man of high character, and had been a pupil of the venerated martyr, Lucian of Antioch. His doctrinal system started from the belief in one God, who is alone ingenerate, alone eternal, alone unchangeable – and who is far exalted above all creatures. As to the Person of Christ, Arius rightly felt that He must have had a real existence before the world, independent of the Incarnation. But wishing to avoid on one side the Sabellian confusion of persons, and on the other heathen polytheism, he denied to Christ divinity in the highest sense. The Father alone is ingenerate, the Son is generated, and Arius refused to allow any difference between generation and creation. The Arian Christ is then the created Word (Logos) of God, the highest of creatures, created before the world, through whom all other things were made – but still a creature. He is not from eternity, and “there was when He was not.” Being a creature, He depends, like any other creature, on divine grace. He is morally changeable for good or for evil. Sinless He was, but He might have sinned like us. Arius was indeed willing to allow to Christ the title “God” and “Son of God,” but not in the primary sense of likeness to the Supreme. If Arius degraded the divinity of Christ, he degraded His humanity even more. He assigned to Him a human body, but neither human soul nor human spirit, the place of the latter being taken – as he supposed – by the Logos.
Thus the Arian Christ is neither truly God nor truly man, but a being not unlike a heathen demigod, and Arius, who began by establishing the unity of God, ended by reintroducing polytheism. Such a Christ, who is neither truly divine nor truly human, cannot bridge the gulf between God and man, cannot bring the latter into fellowship with the Almighty, nor be the giver of life and immortality.
Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, summoned a synod of Egyptian bishops about 321 A.D., at which Arius was condemned and excommunicated. But he was too much in earnest to desist from his teaching, so he moved to Caesarea, and there found not a little sympathy among the bishops of Syria and Asia, many of whom, like himself, had been pupils of Lucian of Antioch.
The controversy was widespread, and caused the greatest excitement, so that when Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 323 A.D., he felt it necessary to intervene. Not that Constantine personally understood the gravity of the questions discussed, but he was alarmed to see the East torn asunder by the dispute. After some abortive negotiations, he conceived the idea of holding a General Council, to deal both with this and with other questions which needed to be settled. During the third century local councils had frequently been the resource in controversies which agitated one part of the Church. It seemed natural then to suggest an OEcumenical Council as a means of settling a controversy which agitated the whole Church. This Council met at Nicaea in the summer of A.D. 325.
We cannot linger over the external features of the Council. [These have been ably described in Stanley’s “History of the Eastern Church,” Lectures II. to V.] Suffice it to say that 318 bishops, with a number of presbyters and deacons, were assembled, and that these came from all parts of the Empire, and a few even from beyond its confines, such as Theophilus the Goth and John the Persian. Eusebius compares the gathering with the Day of Pentecost, when devout men of every nation under heaven were convened, or with a garland of flowers woven together as a bond of peace. By far the greater number were Easterns, though seven bishops came from the West, while Sylvester, the Bishop of Rome, who was too old to come himself, was represented by two presbyters. There was a peculiar brightness and hopefulness resting over the Council. It was barely twenty years since the last and most terrible of the persecutions, that of Diocletian, had swept over the Church; several of the bishops present bore the marks of the sufferings which they had undergone for the faith. And now the Emperor had bowed before the Cross of Christ, and the bishops of Christendom were assembled at the summons and under the protection of that very power which had hitherto been the great enemy of the Church, and its most formidable rival in claiming the allegiance of mankind. We cannot wonder that to some it seemed as though the kingdoms of the world were already become the kingdom of God.
But what was the attitude of the Council towards Arianism? The pronounced Arian bishops scarcely numbered twenty; they were from Syria and Asia, and the most prominent of their number was Eusebius of Nicomedia. Hardly more numerous were the pronounced orthodox leaders; they included Eustathius of Antioch and Alexander of Alexandria. With the latter was his young Archdeacon, who was destined to become the most prominent figure, both at the Council and in the long warfare which followed it, the great Athanasius. Between these two extremes there was a large middle party. These were not Arians, for when at the commencement of the proceedings an Arianizing Creed was presented, it was angrily rejected by the Council. But neither were they definitely orthodox. They may best be described as Conservatives, that is to say, they wished the doctrine of the Lord’s divinity to be stated in such general terms as had sufficed before the outbreak of the controversy. With a few exceptions, they were not men of learning, indeed they scarcely understood the full bearing of the controversy. Their minds, too, were full of the last heresy which had disturbed the Church, Sabellianism. If Arius was in error, so they thought, his system was at least a protest against a more dangerous error, for he upheld the personal distinction between the Father and the Son, which Sabellianism obliterated. And to condemn Arianism might be to open the door to Sabellianism. We may say at once that the attitude of this large section enables us to understand why Arianism suffered a crushing defeat at the Council, and yet was restored a few years later.
It was recognised on all hands that the best mode of dealing with the question was to issue a new Creed. It was not, however, intended that this should supersede any existing Creed, but merely that it should serve as a test Creed which bishops might be called upon to sign whose orthodoxy was called in question. So Eusebius of Caesarea, the Church historian, laid before the Council the ancient Creed of his own Church, which spoke of Christ as “the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, the only begotten Son, the Firstborn of all Creation, begotten of the Father before all worlds, by whom also all things were made, who for our salvation was made flesh, and lived amongst men.” This Creed was unanimously adopted. Its scriptural language, and the fact that it necessarily ignored the question at issue, made it acceptable to the Conservative centre; the orthodox leaders could find no heresy in it; and even the Arians were willing to accept it, for it did not exclude their views. Its “God of God” was compatible with the Arian doctrine of Christ as a secondary God, and its “Firstborn of all Creation” lent itself to the interpretation that Christ was a creature made before all other creatures. The unanimity with which the Creed was accepted convinced Athanasius that it was insufficient. Now that the vital question had been raised, whether Christ was in the fullest sense God or not, that question must not be left open. If the Creed was to contain everything that Christian bishops needed to confess, it must be made to exclude the view that our Lord is a creature. Thus a number of additions and alterations were pressed upon the Council, which after much hesitation were accepted, and so the Creed of Nicaea took shape. In it the doctrine of the Lord’s Person was stated as follows: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father.” Lower down the words “and was made man” were added to “was made flesh,” in order to exclude the Arian teaching that our Lord had nothing human but the body. At the close anathemas were appended, expressly condemning the Arian tenets. The most important additions were the two clauses “that is of the essence of the Father” (τουτ εστιν εκ της ουσίας του Πατρός) and “of one essence with the Father” (ομοούσιος τω Πατρί). It was on the former of these that Athanasius laid the greater stress. “Ousia” is a term derived from Greek philosophy, denoting the unknown something which makes a thing what we apprehend it to be. To say then that Christ is “of the Ousia of the Father,” is to declare that His existence is an essential part of the idea of deity. In other words, it is as essential to the nature of God that there should be both a Father and a Son, as that God should be just and holy and good. Thus the existence of the Son of God is no result of the Father’s will, but an expression of the Father’s nature. Next comes the word “Homoousios,” which is one of a group of words of similar form, that denote the sharing in a thing in common. The word then denotes that the Son is the common possessor with the Father of the divine essence. The word had Sabellianizing associations, had indeed been condemned as Sabellianizing by a previous Council, and hence was unwelcome to the Fathers at Nicaea. Nor can it be denied that, as used at first by the orthodox leaders, it failed to emphasize the distinct personality of the Son. It was only some half century later that the word was understood to convey the meaning which we now attach to it, namely, that the Son possesses all the divine attributes which the Father has.
We have said that it was only after much hesitation that the Council was prevailed upon to accept these alterations in the Creed. Indeed the bishops were most reluctant to insert in the test Creed a word which had been condemned by a previous Synod, and which was not found in Scripture. Gradually the majority came to see that there was no other way of excluding Arianism. The Arians were willing to accept every Scriptural expression that was proposed, putting their own sense upon it. It was recognised accordingly that, when a definite meaning was to be placed on Scripture passages, it was necessary to go outside Scripture for terms to define that meaning.
Ultimately they all signed the amended Creed except two Egyptian bishops; and these, together with Arius, were sent into exile by the Emperor. The great Council broke up.
But the controversy was not ended. The policy of Athanasius had been a bold one, however necessary; the majority of the Conservatives had been persuaded against their will, and a reaction was inevitable. The reaction was largely due to the Conservatives; the Arians were merely the extreme wing of those who sought to upset the decisions of Nicaea. It was not till the time of the second General Council, that of Constantinople, in 381 A.D., that Arianism was finally crushed within the Roman Empire. The strife was a long and weary one, often degenerating into personal retaliations; and we cannot do more now than indicate some of its more important features.
The great champion of orthodoxy continued to be Athanasius, who on the death of Alexander in 328 A.D. became Bishop of Alexandria, and who lived till 373 A.D. His character impressed friends and foes alike; his career was as chequered as a romance. Five times was he sent into exile, yet from the Egyptian desert he ruled his Church. Alone he stood against the Emperor, the Court, the Councils of his time. Hooker’s expression, “the whole world against Athanasius, and Athanasius against it,” has become proverbial. His life was consecrated to a single purpose, to witness to the co-essential divinity of the Incarnate Son of God. Athanasius has sometimes been accused of “fighting in behalf of a dogma which, when riveted on the Church, limited its intellectual freedom.” But it has been well pointed out that in reality he was the champion of personal liberty. [See Allen’s” Christian Institutions,” p. 307 ff.] If Christ is in the highest sense God, then in Him God has entered into humanity. Thus the whole race which Christ took into organic union with Himself is ennobled. “He was made man that we might be made God.” No one proclaimed to such a degree as Athanasius the dignity and consequent freedom of man, which he had learnt to see in the Incarnation of the Son of God. In this strength he could oppose single handed, and oppose successfully, the tyranny of the Roman Empire. The Arian conception of God, on the other hand, fell in with the principles of imperial despotism. The Arian God is not the God of love, but a far-off Supreme, unconditioned, incomprehensible to man, ruling by an arbitrary will which does not appeal to man’s sense of justice and truth, but merely calls for unconditional obedience. It is significant accordingly that the Arian reaction owed its temporary success largely, if not exclusively, to the support of the Emperors, of Constantine in some degree, and in a larger measure of his son Constantius (337 to 361 A.D.), and of Valens (364 to 378 A.D.).
To turn now to the actual course of events, the first effort of Conservative policy was to obtain the recall of the Arian leaders on the strength of indefinite and evasive confessions. This done, they next sought to procure the exile of the orthodox leaders on any charges, political or moral, which lent themselves to the purpose. It may seem strange that Constantine should have consented to the exile of Athanasius, but probably this was not due to any change of principle or policy. He simply regarded Athanasius as a troublesome personage whose presence disturbed – what Constantine most valued – the unity of Christendom. The third effort, marked by the Councils of Antioch (A.D. 341), Sardica (A.D. 343), Seleucia and Ariminum (A.D. 359), was to replace the Nicene Creed by some formulary which would secure the adhesion of all parties. But such an effort was doomed to failure. The Orthodox would not consent to leave the Lord’s divinity an open question; hence they would not accept any colourless Creed, however unexceptionable in itself; no Creed would suffice which did not expressly exclude Arianism. Thus, if the Arians came in at one door, the Orthodox went out at the other; and, though a number of Creeds were issued, not one could secure general acceptance. Towards the close of the reign of Constantius, largely owing to the policy of the Emperor and the intrigues of the Court, Arianism obtained the supremacy; and not only the Orthodox, but also the Conservative bishops were sent into exile (A.D. 360). But this supremacy was purely artificial. In A.D. 361 the last heathen Emperor ascended the throne, Julian the Apostate. He hated all parties within the Christian Church alike; he recalled all the exiled bishops, rejoicing in the prospect of the strife and confusion which would ensue. But confronted with a heathen foe, softened too by the endurance of like sufferings, many of the Christian leaders were ashamed to continue the fierce strife. Moreover, the Conservatives were of themselves drawing nearer to the Nicene position at this time. Though still rejecting the word “Homoousios,” they took as their watchword “Homoiousios,” i.e., they asserted that the Son is of like essence with the Father. The old age of Athanasius was devoted to the work of conciliation between Homoousians and Homoiousians, though their complete union was still retarded by the Arianizing policy of the Emperor Valens, who succeeded Julian, and by other causes. A new Nicene party now came to the front, the chief leaders of which were the three great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caeesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. These had started with Homoiousian traditions, but “owed to Athanasius a more perfect understanding of their unaltered belief.” Their great merit is that they differentiated the term “Hypostasis” from “Ousia,” with which it had been synonymous at Nicaea. They used “Ousia” to designate the indivisible divine essence, and “Hypostasis” to denote the personal modes in which the Deity is realised. In a word, emphasis was laid on the distinction of persons within the Trinity, along with unity of essence: “One Ousia, three Hypostaseis.” This party did much to secure the general acceptance of the Nicene faith, which by their efforts was freed from any leaning to Sabellianism.
When the Emperor Valens fell in battle in A.D. 378, the deathblow was given to Arianism. Theodosius, who became ruler of the East, adopted a vigorous policy in the interests of orthodoxy. He expelled Demophilus of Constantinople on his refusal to accept the Nicene faith, and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus in his place. He next summoned a Council to meet at Constantinople in A.D. 381, and at this Nicene orthodoxy was finally established. The Council was attended by one hundred and fifty bishops, all of whom were Easterns; it was a “General” Council, therefore, only in the wider sense that its decisions were ultimately accepted by the whole Church. There was little of the brightness which had characterised the Council of Nicaea; all were thankful that the weary strife was at last at an end. The Nicenes and the Conservatives were now finally united, except a section of the latter who would not admit the co-essential divinity of the Holy Spirit. This latter doctrine had not been put forward at Nicaea, but in the course of time the orthodox leaders came to recognise that it was a necessary corollary of the co-essential divinity of the Son. Some thirty-six Conservative bishops, however, were unwilling to acquiesce in this conclusion, and held that the Holy Spirit was divine in some lower sense than the Son. These, who were called Macedonians or Pneumatomachoi, surrendered their churches and withdrew from the Council. Thereupon the first Canon was adopted: a formal condemnation of all the Arianizing parties, and a solemn ratification of the Nicene Creed in its original shape.
The Creed drawn up at Nicaea and ratified at Constantinople is not, however, that which occurs in our Communion Office and is generally called “the Nicene Creed.” For a long time it was the received view that the original Creed of Nicaea was expanded at the Council of Constantinople by the addition of all that follows the sentence, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” But neither external nor internal evidence favours this view. On the contrary, the contemporary writers tell us that at Constantinople the original Creed of Nicaea was reaffirmed unchanged. And a comparison of the two Creeds shows us that, supposing our present Creed to be a revision of the original Creed of Nicaea, not only must a number of unnecessary and meaningless changes have been made in the latter, but – what is inconceivable – that clause on which Athanasius chiefly insisted as laying down the Lord’s full divinity in the most decisive terms, namely, the clause, “that is of the essence of the Father,” must have been dropped altogether. It has been shewn conclusively [See Hort’s “Two Dissertations,” No. II.] that the Creed now called “the Nicene” is the old local Creed of the Church of Jerusalem, revised and enlarged between 363 and 374 A.D., the revision being the work most probably of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem. It would seem that about this period a desire was felt in Palestine to furnish the local Creed with clauses which would guard against the worst errors then current on two great doctrines of the faith, the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The former doctrine could be best safeguarded by the introduction of some portion of the definition of Nicaea, including the word “Homoousios”; for the latter new clauses had to be devised. But how came this Creed to be ascribed to the Council of Constantinople? There are strong reasons for thinking that at this Council Cyril’s orthodoxy was called in question, and was vindicated. If this was so, what more likely than that Cyril should have produced the ancient Creed of his Church, as he had enlarged it, and that the Council should have expressed approval of this Creed. After a lapse of time, when the exact circumstances were forgotten, it might well happen that tradition would regard the Fathers at Constantinople as the authors of a Creed which they had approved. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. no mention was made of any other Creed than that drawn up at Nicaea. At Chalcedon in 451 A.D. both Creeds were read, but, while the original Creed of Nicaea was received with enthusiasm by the members of the Council, the other Creed was evidently still unknown to a majority of them. From that time onwards, however, the Revised Creed of Jerusalem gradually superseded the Creed of Nicaea. It superseded it by its own intrinsic merit, and by its greater fitness for congregational use. The Creed of Nicaea was a dogmatic standard, drawn up, not for popular use, but as a test Creed for bishops, and its anathemas made it unfit for liturgical use. Moreover, the Revised Creed of Jerusalem is really a more complete Creed. Not only does it expand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but it also lays down the doctrine of the two natures of our Lord in its sentence, “And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary.” These facts need not cause distress to a Churchman of the present day. The Revised Creed of Jerusalem has yet more venerable associations than the Creed of Nicaea. It is the ancient Creed of the Mother Church of Christendom, while at the same time it embodies the most important portion of the decisions of the Fathers assembled at Nicea.
The year 381 marks a turning-point in our history. Till then the controversies about the Person of the Lord had been trinitarian; henceforth they are christological. That is to say, it was now recognised by all that Christ was in the fullest sense a divine Being, co-essential with the Father; but the question remained to be solved: Granted that there are two elements in the Person of the Lord, the divine and the human, what is the connexion of these two with each other? How can they be joined together to form one Person?
But on a narrowed battlefield the same tendencies of thought can be traced as in the earlier period, a more rationalizing tendency which laid stress on the human element in the Person of Christ, and a more mystic tendency which laid stress on the divine element. The former was represented by the School of Antioch, which had always been characterised by its sober, grammatical exegesis of Holy Scripture, and by the ethical character of its theology. In the latter the moral development of man, and so too of the man Jesus Christ, was all-important; and since moral development implies a free exercise of moral choice, freedom of the will is essential. But any mixture between the divine and the human natures in the Person of Christ would limit the freedom of the latter. Accordingly the Antiochenes regarded the union between these two natures as a loose one. The Logos has taken up His abode in a perfect man; there is no real unity, but only a moral fellowship, yet so that the man shares in the honour and glory which belong to the Logos. For all that, the School desired to hold fast the oneness of the Person of Christ, though they were unable to explain how it comes about. Pushed to an extreme, the teaching of Antioch led to Nestorianism, according to which the Logos takes up His abode in a man created for the purpose, without communication or interchange of attributes, the result being something which it is hard to distinguish from two Persons.
The mystic tendency was represented by the School of Alexandria, who regarded the Lord’s divine nature as the all-important factor in His Person. Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers who follow him, insist indeed as against Arianism and Apollinarianism on the truth that Christ assumed the totality of human nature, for otherwise that portion of man which He did not assume would have no part in the redemption. They affirm the two natures of Christ; they distinguish between the properties which belong to the Logos and those which belong to the flesh. Yet they speak of the two natures as “flowing into one”; they say that there is a physical union between the two, and that the flesh when mixed with the divine nature no longer continues in its own limitations and properties. This teaching also, when pushed to an extreme, becomes heretical. The result is Monophysitism, according to which the humanity of Christ, after the union, becomes merged in the divinity as a drop of water in the ocean, and thus practically disappears altogether.
The controversy arose soon after 428 A.D., in which year Nestorius, a presbyter of Antioch, became Bishop of Constantinople. After his arrival there he preached sermons against the title “Theotokos” (Mother of God) as applied to the Virgin Mary, which had come into frequent use. His objection was on theological, not on practical, grounds. The Virgin, he thought, should be called “Mother of Jesus,” or “Mother of Christ,” for she was in no sense the Mother of God; she was the Mother of the man to whom the Logos was united. In a word, Nestorius objected to transferring the human attributes to the divine Logos; he would not allow, for example, that the Logos participated in the sufferings of the human nature of Christ. Logically his doctrine implied two distinct personalities in the Lord.
Such teaching naturally excited much opposition at Constantinople. In the end, however, Nestorius agreed to accept the term “Theotokos,” and the matter would probably have been allowed to rest here, had not Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, intervened. Cyril was a great theologian who understood fully the bearings of the controversy, but he was a man of violent temper and very unscrupulous in the means which he employed. Doubtless ecclesiastical rivalry between the ancient see of Alexandria and the new see of Constantinople had a share in inducing Cyril to take up the cause of the adversaries of Nestorius. Before long, however, he turned the controversy into an attack upon the whole School of Antioch. To settle the dispute the Emperor Theodosius II summoned a General Council to meet at Ephesus in A.D. 431. Cyril, with a large number of Egyptian bishops and monks, arrived there first, opened the Council without waiting for the Syrian bishops, and, supported by the Bishop of Ephesus, condemned and deposed Nestorius. A few days afterwards John, Bishop of Antioch, with the Syrian bishops, arrived. He in turn opened a Council, at which he condemned and deposed Cyril. Thus there were two rival Councils confronting each other; Cyril had a majority on his side, but he had proceeded with utter irregularity. The Emperor Theodosius, having to decide between the two Councils, at first ratified the deposition, both of Nestorius and of Cyril. But by extensive bribery at Court the scale was turned in favour of Cyril; the Emperor restored him, while allowing the deposition of Nestorius to remain valid. Two years later peace was made between Cyril and the School of Antioch, the former accepting a Creed drawn up by the Antiochenes, the latter agreeing to the condemnation of Nestorius. The followers of Nestorius retired into Persia and founded a separate Church, which has survived to the present day.
A further stage in the warfare commenced in A.D. 448. In that year Eutyches, the head of a monastery near Constantinople, an adherent of the Alexandrian School, propounded an opinion which went beyond that of his School, namely that, while Christ is of two natures – two natures entering into the Incarnation – yet after the Incarnation there is only one nature. Moreover, Eutyches held that the body of Christ was not of the same essence (homoousios) with our bodies. For this teaching, known as Monophysitism, Eutyches was condemned by a local Council under Flavian of Constantinople. Both Eutyches and Flavian wrote to Leo I, Bishop of Rome, who in his famous “Letter to Flavian” expressed approval of the condemnation of Eutyches, and proceeded to set forth in clear language the doctrine of the two natures in the Person of the Lord. Meanwhile Dioscorus, who now held the Bishopric of Alexandria, a man of fierce, fanatical character, who had the failings of Cyril without his greatness, took up the cause of Eutyches, and induced the Emperor to summon a Council to meet at Ephesus in A.D. 449. The result was a scene of unparalleled violence. Dioscorus, who took the chair, carried all before him by means of threats and coercion; Leo’s letter to Flavian was not allowed to be read, his legates were pushed aside, and a decree was passed in favour of Eutyches. Thus ended the Latrocinium, or Robber-Synod, as Leo not unjustly called it; and for the moment Monophysitism was triumphant in the East. But not for long. In the next year Theodosius II died, and his sister Pulcheria, who practically succeeded him on the throne, was determined to break the power of the Bishop of Alexandria. With the support of Leo of Rome she summoned a new General Council to assemble at Chalcedon in October 451. This Council ratified the three previous OEcumenical Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. It deposed Dioscorus for his crimes. It condemned Nestorianism on the one hand, Monophysitism on the other, expressing approval of Leo’s letter to Flavian, and making it the basis of its own decree. This decree stated that the Lord is “perfect in His godhead and perfect in His manhood, both truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body, co-essential (homoousios) with the Father as to His godhead, co-essential with us as to His manhood, that He is in two natures united without confusion, without change, without division, without separation (ασυγχύτως, ατρέπτως, αδιαιρέτως, αχωρίστως), the properties of each nature being preserved and combining into one Person.” The doctrine then is that our Lord assumed – not a man – but human nature, that this was perfect and complete, and that He assumed it for ever, so that it is not a mere vesture.
In bringing to a close our account of the first four General Councils we are naturally led to ask, what is the nature of their authority. At a later period the view came to be held that, when the entire Church assembled in a General Council agrees on any statement of doctrine, that statement must be infallibly certain, must indeed be received as a divinely inspired utterance. But the actual history of the Councils is opposed to such a theory. Contemporaries did not deem it a matter of faith to believe in the infallibility of General Councils; the language used in reference to them by such Fathers as Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus is very different. Moreover, not one of the General Councils was accepted by Christendom at large without a long struggle. The story of the Arian reaction shows how lightly even the most venerable of all Councils, that of Nicaea, was respected by many, for at one Council after another during the next fifty years efforts were made to reopen the question already settled at Nicaea, and to modify the Nicene decisions. As to the Council of Constantinople, it was unacceptable in the West because of a canon which it passed bearing on the Roman primacy, and until the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 it does not appear to have ranked as a General Council at all. At Ephesus in A.D. 431 the Council broke up into two rival portions, each condemning the other, and it was the Emperor who decided between the two.
Nevertheless, the decisions of the first four General Councils are of the greatest value to us Christians of the present time. They bear an important witness to the belief of the Church in their days. But that is not all. Christ promised that His Holy Spirit should be with His followers, and should guide them into all truth. So we may well believe that, when the ministers of His Church were met together for deliberation on great religious questions, with a sincere desire to reach the truth, His blessing was not withheld from them; and that in spite of human infirmities and vacillations divine guidance was vouchsafed; nay, that these very infirmities were in time overruled by Him for good. If the General Councils have obtained great authority, it is because the doctrines set forth by them are true. Such documents as the Creed of Nicaea and the Decree of the Council of Chalcedon, though they do not contain all truth, will bear careful testing, both by Holy Scripture, and by the spiritual experience of men. Their guidance has been found trustworthy in the past; doubtless it will be found trustworthy also in the future.
We have said that they do not contain all truth, and it will at once be noticed that the range and subject-matter of the ancient Creeds and other conciliar definitions is limited. What they contain is mainly the theology of the Trinity and of the Incarnation. On other departments of truth, for example on the theology of the Atonement, they are silent; and in this respect they differ markedly from the Confessions of the sixteenth century. Nor is this accidental. The Incarnation is the union of God with the whole human race; the Atonement is the application to the needs of the individual soul of the blessings brought into the world by the Incarnation. Hence in the order of Christian thought and apprehension the Incarnation will have the first place. Over and above this, the thoughts of Christ’s atoning work, of the guilt of sin, of forgiveness, justification, personal salvation, were much less prominent in Eastern than in Western Christendom. Such teaching is not indeed absent from any great Eastern Father, but it is not prominent. To the West it was given to work in these regions of truth, whereas the decrees of Councils were mainly due to the labours of Easterns.
But to what purpose are these minute definitions concerning the Godhead? Cannot a practical piety safely dispense with them? We answer that it is a distinctive mark of the Gospel that it makes the knowledge of truth indispensable for the highest service of God. [The writer is indebted for several thoughts in the sequel to Hort’s Hulsean Lectures, “The Way, the Truth, the Life.”] When our Lord says, “This is the eternal life that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Him whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ,” He speaks of eternal life being dependent on knowledge, the objects of this knowledge being God, the only true God among many phantom gods, and He whom God sent, His Word, the utterance of His truth. Every sincere Christian will aim at righteousness of life; this righteousness is to be obtained through Christ, and only as Christ can be explained to the intellect can He command the conscience. And though Christ is Himself the Truth, yet man – constituted as he is – cannot do without separate derivative Christian truths, communicable fragments, as it were, of the knowledge of God and of His Son Jesus Christ.
It is not a valid objection to urge that the finite cannot know the infinite, and that accordingly the human mind is incapable of forming any accurate notions concerning God. It is sufficient to answer that man is created in the image of God, and that therefore he will be able to attain to some knowledge of his great Archetype. Limitations, doubtless, there will be on all sides; but our knowledge of the spiritual world, though fragmentary and imperfect, will not therefore be unreal or false, any more than our scientific knowledge is unreal, though this also has its imperfections due to the limits of the human faculties.
Nor again would it be a valid objection to urge that the definitions of the ancient Councils are of little value, because they were affected by the intellectual environment of those who drew them up. It is true that the form of these statements was determined by the philosophic thought of the age; it is true that such terms as Ousia, Homoousios, Hypostasis, rest on philosophical ideas which are not those of our present-day thought. But may not Greek philosophy have had its place and function in God’s providential guidance of mankind? And the substance of the statements remains unaffected by such influences; it has its source in the revelation contained in Scripture, its constant verification in the spiritual experience of Christians. Yet undoubtedly the knowledge of this fact may well stimulate us to penetrate afresh through the form to the substance.
This brings us to another point of great importance. We have dwelt on the authority of the General Councils, which is unquestionably great. But, as it has been well said, their authority, like all other authority in matters of belief, is salutary only in so far as it is educative. That is to say, authority gives us valuable help towards forming a judgment; the teaching is commended to our hearts and consciences by the authority which promulgates it; but authority ought never to demand that we should accept its ruling against our own conviction. Our power of recognising truth presented to us is greater than our power of discovering truth for ourselves. Accordingly, while we have to depend on what the past generations of Christians have handed down to us as the sum of their religious experience, while without such dependence our own view is sure to be crude and distorted, yet at the same time we need to verify for ourselves what has been thus transmitted to us. Dogmas should be to us the living expression of our own faith, and not dead forms, however venerated, recording the conviction of past generations, and submitted to without inquiry. For that truth which we have learnt to see and know for ourselves – it may be by a laborious struggle – is the only truth which has for us the power of truth. These two duties then are indissolubly united for us, to stand fast in the truth handed down to us, and to make unceasing progress in apprehending it for ourselves. “Bonds exist that men may he free; traditions exist that men may see and know.” Some portion of what is transmitted will be within the range of our own experience; and when we have verified that for ourselves, it will in turn be an assurance to us of what lies above experience.
The need of such personal apprehension of religious truth is increased by the difference between the age of Creeds and Councils and our own age. At that time no truth except theological truth was ascertained by the Christian world. The main substance of the Christian revelation is the knowledge of God, and this knowledge it was given to Christendom to learn first, for this knowledge alone was indispensable to the life of faith and holiness. Thus Christians in the early ages might easily come to think that no other kind of truth was attainable by man. In this scientific age, however, in which we ourselves live, many new departments of knowledge are being cultivated. The world of man – man’s past history, his thought, his language – has become the subject of systematic study. By the contemplation of nature entire realms of fresh knowledge have been opened up. Theology is called upon to take account of this new teaching, now that traditional beliefs, such as those handed down to us in the Creeds, are placed face to face with fresh data gathered from historical and scientific research. In some instances, as we know, the result has been a disparagement of theology. Yet, in the long run, this progress of knowledge is calculated to benefit and invigorate theology. The Church is in danger at times of becoming slothful in the search after truth, and of substituting for truth a belief which has been merely handed down and accepted without inquiry. It will be stimulated afresh to pursue and value truth, when it is called upon to instruct those who are already trained to learn and value truth and cannot rest satisfied with anything lower than the truth. Furthermore, just as it will be the duty of Christians to carry the light which they possess into all the regions of knowledge, to show that, only as Christianity is accepted as true, can a purpose be discerned in the universe, and that the Gospel alone can assign to each separate truth its fitting place and use in the life of man, so Christianity in turn will reap a reflex blessing. The more the Gospel is used to illuminate other departments of knowledge, the better it will itself be understood. The progress of knowledge will bring in its train a growing sense of the vast range of the truths of the Gospel, and of their power to fulfill all the varied needs of men. Every addition to our knowledge of nature adds to our knowledge of God. To take but one instance, there can be no doubt that those who drew up the words of our Creed, “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” thought of God as an Artificer, forming the universe at once by a single creative act. If in the present day we have come to think of this world as the close of a long process of transformation, and of ourselves as slowly developed through an ascending series of lower beings, the great truth witnessed to by our Creed stands unchanged, namely, that all things are of God – while yet the new view, so far from diminishing, will greatly increase our reverent awe and admiration of the divine working. Thus increased knowledge of the earth may lead to increased knowledge of things divine.
Lastly, in considering the Creeds and the decrees of General Councils, we must be on our guard lest their metaphysical character should at any time veil from us their deep moral significance. The history of the Eastern Church may serve here as a warning. The leading Fathers, indeed, such as Athanasius, did not forget, in the midst of their controversies, the claims of practical godliness. But with some the love of contention on speculative points was so great that it well-nigh destroyed true piety and Christian charity. And this attitude brought its own punishment. The result was a growing sense of the importance of holding orthodox views, an increasing respect for authoritative decisions as to what ought to be believed, and an almost morbid anxiety to brand as heretical all teachers whose views did not conform to a recognised standard. Hence the East came to be bound in the fetters of traditionalism, and all creative life, all advance in the apprehension of Christian truth, came to an end about the sixth century. It shall not be so with ourselves. The sentences of the Creeds place before us a summary of Christ’s life on earth, and that life is for us the expression of His nature. When they tell us that “He was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, that He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven,” they rehearse to us what may be known of One whose love to us is immeasurable, to whom we owe our own selves, with whom we are to enter into the closest union and fellowship. And those clauses, too, which assert Christ’s divine nature, His pre-existence from eternity, His equality with the Father, will be pregnant in meaning for the Christian believer; he will find much in them for daily practical application, for they teach our Lord’s supremacy over the realm of nature and the realm of grace, over our own conscience and over the whole moral world.
Chapter V – The Latin Church
By the Editor
We know what the old Romans were like, whose heroic tenacity overcame the fleets of Carthage and the genius of Hannibal. Hard, narrow, brutal men they were, who never stuck at any cruelty, full of class pride and utterly unconscious of any duty to aliens, great soldiers and great rulers, with much taste for law and little for philosophy, and even less for spiritual things. Religion, indeed, was real enough among them, pervading life with ritual, but not with virtue. The state had its gods, too, as well as the family, and enforced their rites whenever it thought fit, for private judgment in the choice of gods was a public danger. Religion was purely social and ceremonial, and had nothing to do with truth or virtue. To give the gods their due was piety: to know the ritual was holiness.
The conquest of the world brought mighty changes. The old farmers who fought the Samnite and Punic wars were extinct before the world was lost in Rome; and the sharp edges of the old Roman character were gone when Rome was lost in the world. If the old sense of public duty was weakened, the old hardness was disguised by literary polish and sensibility. The senators of the declining Empire found more pleasure in country living and literary trifling than in the heroic virtue or outrageous vice of the past. They were much sounder morally than is commonly supposed. Yet the change was less than it seemed. The old pride of class was unabated; and Symmachus is as careless of barbarian bloodshed as Tacitus. Indeed, the ruin of the Empire was largely caused by the truly Roman greed of these polished aristocrats, who laid field to field without a thought either of the danger of the state or of their duty to the Roman poor and to the barbarian stranger.
God sometimes teaches by revolution; and something of that duty was learned in the crash of the ancient world. But in the main, the Roman Church is like the Roman state before it. Her popes are commonly lawyers and administrators like the old proconsuls, hardly ever thinkers or philosophers. Her first word by Clement is of law and order; and of law and order is her last word by Leo XIII. A noble work she did for law and order in the evil days of barbarian confusion and feudal anarchy, and it would be ungrateful to refuse her full admiring homage for it; but with law and order she has always been content. She never greatly cared whether her law and order was that of charity and truth. She always aimed at something of a military discipline; and there is something of military sharpness even in the noble collects of Leo and Gelasius. So for law and order she has outraged nature, trampled on charity, and shut her eyes to truth far more deliberately than any other great Church.
“The Church of God which sojourneth in Rome” was a Greek colony which needed time to become thoroughly Latin. It is the converse of Rome’s own great colony at Byzantium, which took a long time in becoming a thoroughly Greek Constantinople. Hints of the character already shaping may be found on Clement’s grave plea for order in “the Church of God which sojourneth at Corinth”; in Soter’s behaviour as a Father of Christendom; in the appeal of Irenaeus to the great central Church whose orthodoxy was kept fresh by never-failing streams of travellers; in the statesmanship of Victor; in the practical compromises of Callistus with the spirit of his own time. But the Latin theory was not developed in Rome herself, but in another great colony of Rome across the sea. The first great utterance of the Latin spirit came from the Roman centurion at Capernaum, who imaged the Saviour of the world as the Imperator of the host of heaven; and its first great development was due to the son of a Roman centurion at Carthage. Tertullian showed how to shape the Gospel by the principles of Roman law. The faith is an estate committed to the Church by Christ; and now that heretics have arisen to dispute her title, there must be no appeal to Scripture. The Church has the truth and does not need to seek it. Heretics have no property in Scripture, and get inconvenient arguments from it. The Church will do best by refusing to touch the merits of the case at all. She has only to enter a demurrer of uninterrupted possession, then judgment must be given in her favour. The argument is simple enough, but it is not conclusive unless we assume either that there is no such thing as gradual change of doctrine, or else that such change is always and without reserve legitimate. Nor can we take for granted that an earlier age is more likely to be right than a later, unless we go back to the earliest age of all, which is practically unknown except from Scripture; and this is precisely the appeal to Scripture which Tertullian calls waste of brains and temper.
Under Cyprian of Carthage and Cornelius of Rome, the two great Western sees were held for the first time by men of the world who moved in the highest circles of heathen society. Cyprian was a born ruler of men, courteous and literary as the great proconsuls often were; a Christian man withal, and saint and martyr too. Yet Cyprian it was who showed how to shape the Gospel by the principles of Roman religion. He was a practical man, who took his ideas from the air around him without seriously thinking them out for himself; and these ideas are mostly heathen. As the heathen god’s favour is strictly limited to his worshippers, so God’s grace is strictly limited to the visible Church. As the idol’s favour is dispensed by the priests, so God’s grace is dispensed by His priests the bishops – for Cyprian would have been as horrified as any Protestant at the impiety of turning presbyters into priests. As a Roman magistrate held a defined authority by regular transmission, so it must be, and so it must always have been, with the Christian ministry. Thus sound doctrine is guaranteed by the outward succession, and the legal questions of a valid transmission become vital. Cyprian starts from the unity of the Church, which practically means with him the visible unity of a visible society ruled by an aristocracy of co-equal bishops. The Christian priesthood differs from the Jewish in nothing but its permanence. He might have added, that it is precisely like the heathen except that it is not the priesthood of an idol.
The bishop is the priest, and resistance to him is the sin of Korah. No grace outside the Church. Baptism will save the infant, and martyrdom the catechumen; but as for one who never heard the Gospel, or wandered into heresy, or died out of communion with the bishop – no innocence, no virtue, no repentance, not even death for Christ, will in the least avail to save him from the everlasting fire of hell. In this direction Cyprian was as hard as any Calvinist. On this theory, Church pardon and divine forgiveness are closely linked together. It is plain that God forgives none to whom the Church refuses pardon; and the converse was an easy inference, that God forgives whomsoever the Church pardons.
The Cyprianic theory has long since drifted from its Cyprianic moorings. No Church but Rome now denies all salvation beyond its own limits. No Church now counts all bishops equal. No Church now counts the presbyter a Levite. In the Church of Rome he is only the bishop’s deputy, but it is still the essence of his office to be a priest, not a Levite. But these are secondary modifications. In its broad outlines the Cyprianic theory, as completed by Augustine and worked by Roman bishops, has shaped the Western Church ever since, and deeply influenced both the orthodox East which never accepted it, and the Protestant North which rebelled against it.
We come now to the third great development of Latin thought. Augustine indeed was too great a man to be so purely Latin as Cyprian, and has points of affinity both with Eastern Orthodoxy and with Northern Protestantism. Yet he too is flecked with human infirmity. He never fully overcame the dualism of his old Manichean theosophy. It rather increased on him as he grew stiffer and harder in his old age, and renounced, like Sir Thomas More, the gentler thoughts of his earlier years. But hope was hard in the age when the ancient world was overthrown. It was not the sense of sin that deepened in the deepening gloom: only the sense of God’s love became less able to contend with it. The Greek Church has but one doctrine, for the Incarnation lights up all the rest: the Latin also has but one, for the rest are overshadowed by the Church. The Gloria in Excelsis is the voice of one, the Dies Irae of the other. For us men and for our salvation, sang the Fathers of Nicaea. From this evil world to ransom his elect, replied the Western monks. Augustine’s high Calvinism was not an accident of Latin thought, but represents it more worthily than the practical Pelagianism of medieval asceticism. Cyprian had long ago declared the necessity of communion with the visible Church for salvation: Augustine accounted for that necessity by the guilt of original sin, which dooms to perdition all but those who through the Church are guided by special grace. And a change in our view of man involves a change in our view of God. All-ruling Love fades out before almighty Will, and our heavenly Father becomes a Nebuchadnezzar in heaven – whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive. Latin theology rejected as sharply as Mahometanism the revelation of God as Love commending itself to us, and justifying itself at every step to the image of God within us: and fell back like Mahometanism on the idea that God is Will inscrutable – which is a form of Agnosticism. The short heroic age of Islam was fired by the conviction that the Inscrutable had somehow declared for righteousness; but a still nobler belief never ceased to struggle within the Latin Church, for Rome never quite forgot that story of Christ crucified which witnesses to all ages that So God loved the world. Obscured it might be, and that very grievously, as by saint worship and all the rest of the carnality; but in the Middle Ages it was never utterly forgotten. Even Augustine could not reconcile the Agnostic and the Christian ways of thinking; and sooner or later the struggle between them was bound to tear the Western Church in sunder.
Latin theology was now complete in outline. The Middle Ages worked out one side of Augustine’s teaching, the Reformers groped for another, and both counted him their spiritual father. But this African system needed Rome’s imperial instinct to put on it a cornerstone. Now that the Church was as concrete as the State, it equally called for an earthly head; and this was more than Carthage could supply. The choice lay between Rome and New Rome. But Constantinople was an upstart and a creature of the court, whereas the Roman See was apostolic as well as imperial, and by this time Latin too. When the East was torn with heresies, Rome could take a commanding tone as the mouthpiece of Western orthodoxy; and indeed she fared badly in the few cases when she ventured to speak without the West behind her. Her supremacy begins to be practical in Augustine’s time, though even then it is firmly and successfully resisted by the African bishops. As soon as Africa was wasted by the Vandals, Leo I obtained from Valentinian III. an edict (445), which practically subjected to him the Western Churches of the Empire. Thus the first effective Roman supremacy was a grant from the State: and it was more than the perishing State could enforce. In another generation the Empire had vanished from Italy, and Rome was subject to the Herul and the Goth: and if she was made Roman again by Belisarius, the Byzantine yoke proved heavier than the Gothic.
In her deep humiliation she began to recognise the great work before her. As the Roman State had made Southern Europe Latin, so was the Roman Church to make Northern Europe Christian. She could not make it Latin, for the Teutons have a character of their own, and even the Celts have never been thoroughly Roman. It was “Gregory our father” who cast aside the contempt of barbarians which had ruined the Empire, and laid a firm foundation for the future Papacy by his mission to the wildest of them all. The decisive step was taken when he welcomed the English to the Christian fold. The conversion of the English directly led to the conversion of Germany, and that again to the reformation of the Gaulish Churches and the restoration of the Empire in the West which delivered Rome from her Byzantine captivity.
The feud of ages was forgotten when the holy diadem of Empire was laid on the great Karl’s barbarian head. The Roman and the Teuton were reconciled at last; and for a while pope and emperor worked together as twin heads of Christendom, though the emperor was much the greater of the two. Karl’s own great work was the conquest and conversion of Northern Germany, which cleared the way for the conversion of Scandinavia. But the Empire of the Karlings was too weak for its work. Its strength was wasted in civil wars, and its oppressive military system broke down helplessly before the attacks of Northmen and Moors and Magyars, which carried fire and sword throughout its bounds. Hardly a city escaped but Rome. Dark as was the outlook before the Karlings rose, it was even darker when they fell. And if civilisation was saved by feudalism from the outside enemies who were breaking it to pieces, it was only saved at a fearful cost of anarchy within.
The tenth century was one long wail of misery. Gaul and Italy were sunk in feudal anarchy, Spain in Moorish slavery: only in England and Germany stronger kingdoms had been organised by Alfred and by Heinrich the Fowler, and even they kept very imperfect order in the land, though Athelstan and Otto the Great were splendid kings. But towards the end of the century the English monarchy crashed down before the Danes, and the German was dreadfully shaken by the disaster of Cotrone in 982. Europe seemed dissolving into universal ruin. No panic of the end of the world was needed to melt the hearts of men in that day of trouble and distress, of wasteness and desolation. Small wonder if they turned away from this world’s wretchedness to win by painful asceticism the glories of another. Monasticism crept into the Church in the fourth century, and was organised in the sixth by Benedict of Nursia; but now it came forth from Cluny in a sterner form to preach its gospel – of forgiveness truly, but forgiveness to be won by self-chosen and self-inflicted suffering. Asceticism despairs of the world like Calvinism, as though God could not or would not save more than a remnant; and it is as common a form of that despair for weak natures as Calvinism is for strong. The old prophet’s mantle rested on the monk when he preached wrath and doom on a corrupted Church; but there was no power in his asceticism to purify it, for the ascetic takes as low and physical a view as any sinner of the revelation of God in common life, and the conclusion he draws from it is hardly less demoralising to the world outside his monastery.
However, the worst was really past. The North-men had been checked by Alfred and Count Odo in the peace of Wedmore and the three years’ siege of Paris; the Magyar hosts were scattered to the winds by the great Otto on the Lechfeld, and at last the Moors were driven from Provence. But now that the outside enemies were beaten off, the internal anarchy of feudalism seemed hardly less intolerable than the ravages of the Northmen. Yet what remedy? Kings were helpless, the Church was deeply feudalised. Fighting bishops compared badly even with fighting barons. The popes indeed had seemed for a while to rise on the ruins of the Empire. The Field of Lies was a premature Canossa; and Nicolas I was the most commanding pope yet seen. But the Papacy was soon swept into the whirlpool of Italian anarchy, and became the sport of harlots and factions for more than a century. It had some strong popes like Gerbert, and even the weak popes commanded a certain respect beyond the Alps. But a real reform was clearly needed. The ninth century had outlined it in the False Decretals, and provided a weapon in transubstantiation: now the work had to be done in the eleventh.
The reforming party leaned on the Empire, which had recovered its power under Heinrich III. (1039–1056). Three quarrelling popes were set aside at once, and unity and decency restored, but at the cost of subjection to the Empire. The next thirty years are the critical period, in which the reforming movement passed from German to Italian hands, and developed its policy of putting down the fighting clergy, the marrying clergy, and the simoniac clergy. At a later stage the last became a prohibition of investiture by a layman, which brought it into collision with the kings. The object was to separate the Church sharply from the world, and the means thereunto was the elevation of the Papacy above the Empire. The sanction of transubstantiation came later still, for Gregory VII does not seem to have seen the importance of the doctrine.
The Hildebrandine reformation was the answer of the Church to the world’s appeal for help. We utterly misread it if we see in Gregory VII nothing more than priestcraft and vulgar scheming. He is more like some old Hebrew prophet whom the Lord has lifted up on high, to rebuke the kings of the earth and smite its evildoers. The aim of the mediaeval Papacy was a noble one – to purify the Church into a kingdom of righteousness overlooking and controlling the world. It was a splendid service to hold up such an ideal as this to an age of wrong and violence, however the reality may have fallen short of it. Yet Rome was not unworthy of the great position which the world had thrust upon her. Nicolas of Langley was not the only pope who felt his crown a crown of fire. Rome’s influence in England, for example, was upon the whole for good, from Augustine’s landing till past the times of Anselm and Thomas of Canterbury. But the dilemma was hopeless. If the Church stood aside from the world, it might drain away its best elements, but it would only debase what remained; and, if it endeavoured to govern the world, a carnal fight would have to be fought with carnal weapons. Meanwhile asceticism cooled down in spite of sundry revivals, and passed by easy stages into indifference and licence. The higher the Papacy rose, the more worldly it became. Gregory VII began the contest with the Empire in the spirit and power of Elijah; Innocent IV triumphantly finished it in the spirit of Simon Magus. “The seller of sacred things is dead,” said his successor.
The twelfth century is, upon the whole, a continuation of the eleventh; but the Hildebrandine enthusiasm was dying out. Gregory himself would gladly have swept away the “brigands, and sons of brigands,” as he called the kings, but his successors had to make terms with the world. The feature of its first half is the Cistercian revival, represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and in a different way by Nicolas of Langley; that of its second is the parallel reigns of Frederick Barbarossa in Germany, and of Henry Fitz-Empress in England and Aquitaine, and the beginning by Albert the Bear and Henry the Lion of the great north-eastern expansion of Germany in Slavic lands.
The thirteenth century saw the culmination of the Latin Church and the beginning of its decline. We pass in it from the triumphs of Innocent III to the gasconades of Boniface VIII; from the consolidation of Latin doctrine in transubstantiation and auricular confession by the Lateran Council of 1215 to its codification by Thomas Aquinas, and then again to its disintegration by the subtle unbelief of Duns Scotus. The panorama of events is magnificent – the capture of Constantinople, the breaking of the Moorish power in Spain at Navas de Tolosa, King John’s submission and the Charter, the extirpation of the Albigenses, the rise of the mendicants, the Mongol devastations, the last and mightiest struggle of the Hohenstaufen Empire, the Barons’ War in England, the loss of Antioch and Acre, and the rise of France to a position in Europe almost as commanding as Napoleon’s. This was the age of the schoolmen, the age of Roger Bacon, the age of the great cathedrals. A wave ran through the world, from the Irrawaddy to the Scottish border, from the gold and silver temples of Pagan to the minsters of York and Lincoln. So glorious was the start of the young nations of Europe. The age was one of revolution. Pope and emperor were in theory twin rulers of a Catholic world, so that the fall of the Hohenstaufens undermined the whole Catholic theory of society, and left the popes exposed alone to the impact of the growing world of nations. There was little help in the Hapsburgs put up by Gregory X. Frederick II is emperor as well as king, but St. Louis after him and Edward I are purely national kings. Rome’s last good gift to England was Stephen Langton; and before the century is out she has had her decisive repulse from Edward I with a nation behind him, and this is followed by a still more disastrous overthrow from Philip of France. Universities are formed instead of monasteries built, and even the mendicants are monks of a new sort. Asceticism is coming out from the cloister to preach and teach and minister to the people, and even to share the aspirations of the people, like the English Franciscans in the Barons’ War. The schoolmen show new stirrings of northern thought inside the Latin Church, for they are mostly northerners, and largely Englishmen. Even Thomas Aquinas had a father related to the Hohenstaufens, and a Norman mother. The Inquisition, to be sure, was not northern. It was chiefly in Dominican hands, and the difference of Dominican and Franciscan is very much the difference of Spain and Italy. But its great significance – the bishops would not work it – is that the Church was ceasing to be a Church of the people, and forming a new alliance with kings and nobles rather than with peoples. Robert of Lincoln shows us what is passing away, Lewis of Beaumont what is coming.
The change from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century is well figured by this change from the learned and saintly son of a peasant to the illiterate aristocrat who could not read his profession of obedience to the metropolitan. The great Edward slept with his fathers, and an asinus coronatus reigned in his stead. Though the thirteenth century was no more perfect than the sixteenth – Adam Marsh had reason for his His diebus damnatissimis – it was almost as full of bursting life, and of promise in all directions that remained for generations unrealised. The fourteenth was a showy, hollow, barren age, which fully revealed the decay of Latin Christianity. The only wave that ran through the world in it was the Black Death. Its landmarks are the decisive defeat of the Papacy under Boniface VIII by the new nations, its “Babylonish Captivity” at Avignon, and following this the Great Schism and the rise of Lollardism in England. Hardly less important was the failure of Monasticism. Its first ideal, falsely called chastity, was plainly impossible for men in general. The endeavour to enforce it even on the clergy was a practical failure, and had caused the most appalling evils; and now experience was showing that the family life on which the nations rested is purer and nobler than the monastic. Its second ideal of poverty received a fatal blow from John XXII in 1322. For centuries the popes had been balancing between the bishops as the official heads of the great system and the monks who stood for individualism inside it; but now the very principle of the mendicants was declared contrary to Christ’s example. The dead mass might go on by vis inertiae; but the more earnest of the monks henceforth looked restlessly to mysticism, to new forms of association, or even to heresy. Small wonder if the Reformation (which finally discredited for Northern Europe the third monastic vow of obedience) found so many of its leaders from Brother Martin downward in the monasteries.
So in the fifteenth century we see the Latin Church in deep decay. The thoughts of the Middle Ages were thrust aside by the growth of nations, of commerce and of family life. One after another its ideals had been discredited. The emperor was the first to go. True, they had set up Caesar in his place again; but the Hapsburg emperors were the merest shadows of their mighty predecessors. The lord of the world had shrunk into a second-rate archduke in Germany, in real power quite unequal to Charles of Burgundy. The pope went next. The scandals of the thirteenth century were followed by subjection to France and greater scandals in the fourteenth; and the culminating scandals of the Great Schism made irresistible the cry for reformation of the Church in head and members. For a while the Papacy seemed subjected to Councils. Three popes were deposed; and for a moment even the Luxemburger Sigismund could mimic a great emperor. But the Church was too far gone for reform from within. Councils could not even limit the Papal supremacy, much less replace it by their own; and least of all did they even wish to reform the false doctrine which underlay the scandals. If they set aside an infamous pope like John XXIII they were bound to replace him by a decent pope; and before a Martin V they were helpless. A little diplomacy was enough to dispose of the Councils; and then the Papacy seemed restored to its former splendour.
Seemed, and only seemed, for it was but a restoration like the Hapsburg Empire, though not so badly tarnished. For the last half century before the Reformation, the serious policy of the popes is very much limited to Italy. Albigensic, Lollard, and Hussite heresy had witnessed wide and bitter discontent in Romance, Teutonic, and Slavonic Europe; and that discontent was kept in check by a threefold policy: for unbelief, however heathen, there was licence, witness Pomponazzo; for sin, however gross, there was formal penance and easy payment. “God willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should pay and live”; only for attacks on Church privilege there was merciless repression. Though the records of persecution were systematically destroyed, it seems to have raged on quite as great a scale before the Reformation as after it.
Latin Christendom undertook a burden never laid by God upon His Church, and broke down under it. From being a witness of Christ and guide of men, it aspired to be a governor of men and final judge of truth, and forgot its proper work of ministration. The oversight of nations with which the Hildebrandine reformation started, developed into a systematic and demoralising interference with government which ought to be national. Rome could not really govern nations from one centre, so she only meddled, and meddled only for the sake of gain. The oversight of private life with which the Latin Church began developed into a systematic and demoralising interference with conduct which ought to be individual. Rome could not really govern private life by any central church law, so she only meddled, and seemed to meddle only for the sake of gain. The condemnation of the Latin Church is not that great sins were done in the twelfth century, but that under her guidance sin had almost ceased to be recognised as sin in the fifteenth. She had made shipwreck of conscience in Western Europe. She had degraded the world, and yet more degraded herself, by absorbing into the Church the proper work of the nation and the individual, as though the Church were God’s one voice on earth, till it was time for the world to take the Church in hand and teach it something better.
Chapter VI – England Before the Reformation
By the Rev. W. E. Collins, M.A.
The conversion of the English was but one act in the making of the great Christian commonwealth of the Middle Ages, and yet the English Church has always had a position and a character which is unique in Christendom. On the one hand, it is no more than an incident, though a most important one, in the growth of Western Christendom. On the other, the English Church is an entity from the first; and even the great convulsion of the Reformation movement, whilst it has added to our insularity and given new directions to our activities, has but emphasized and developed a determinate character which was there from the first.
It is unnecessary here to speak in detail of the work of conversion which began with the coming of Augustine in 597. Suffice it to say, that the resultant of the various forces which took part in that process was a Church and a Nation which was most intimately bound up with the West as a whole. The English peoples were still “barbarian” when it began, and as yet practically outside the pale of the historic civilisation of the West. Our conversion gave us a place amongst the infant nationalities of Europe, and left us with a strong national life which bore in every feature the impress of the new faith and the new Society. It found us entirely heathen, although our Celtic neighbours had been to a large extent Christian for centuries: it left us not only Christians, but also, for good or for evil, bound up with the life-history of Latin Christendom. It found isolation and division: it left a strong united Church life which quickly absorbed and gathered into itself the Church life of the Celtic peoples, wherever the two came into close contact. No other result was possible. The Celtic peoples, wherever they had renounced their heathenism, were earnestly and passionately Christian. But theirs was an isolated and tribal Christianity which still retained many elements which were directly heathen. It was a private religion which, if it did not actually foster strife, at least proved itself singularly incapable of overcoming the tendencies to disunion and disintegration to which their temperament and the character of their institutions only too readily exposed them. With a few conspicuous exceptions, it seems to have been remarkably lacking in expansive power, and this in spite of a very real missionary spirit. With all its poetry and all its beauty, it showed singularly few signs of containing a Power of Life for wayfaring men.
It need hardly be said that the illusive dream must be once for all abandoned which would regard “the British Church” as one of transcendent purity, directly apostolical in origin, scriptural in doctrine, and free from papal corruptions, and which holds that this pure Church was confronted, displaced, and superseded by a corrupt and popish organisation. There can be no real question that the Christianity which the English received from the continent of Europe was far nobler than that which the Britons intentionally withheld from them. The theology of Latin Christendom as set forth by Gregory the Great may be in some ways unsatisfying, but at least it is equal to that of Gildas the Wise. The moral life of Rome and Italy compares very favourably with that which is revealed to us in the canons of the early Welsh Synods, and certainly the level of civilised life was far higher. But above all, we were launched upon the full stream of human life and progress, instead of being drawn aside into what was after all no more than a backwash, in which certain primitive elements still survived simply because they had drifted aside out of the current. No doubt there were dangerous tendencies in the new life which were not present, or at least were hardly perceptible, in the old: such is always the case, for there is no human progress which does not involve the loss of much that is good, the generation or development of much that is merely partial or transitory, or that may become dangerous in the future. But we are not therefore at liberty to prefer that which is ready to vanish away; it does not follow that “the former days were better than these.” In a word, the Christianity which we received through our fathers in the faith was immeasurably richer and higher than anything else of its own day. Of course, it is easy enough to see the imperfections of that which we received, and easy enough to set before ourselves something that should better satisfy our own imaginations. But to conclude that Celtic Christianity would have supplied this is to he absolutely at variance with the plain teaching of the facts.
For good or for evil, then, the English Church was entirely bound up with the history of Latin Christendom; and in spite of our strongly marked individual character we shared fully in that life. As the Gallican or the Spanish Church, or the daughter Church of Germany, became gradually more subject in consequence of the growth of the Papacy, so also did we. We shared also with them the effects of that process of gradual centralisation, and elimination of local characteristics and landmarks, which is so marked a feature of the Middle Ages. It is this, and this alone, which rendered possible that strange misuse of terms whereby people have come to speak of the greater part of Western Christendom as the Roman Church.
If we compare the circumstances of the English Church in these two respects, with those of others, it would be true to say, that (1) the English Church, which has taken the lead in emancipating itself from the papal tyranny, was in some ways even more closely connected with the Papacy than the other Churches of the West, owing to the circumstances of our first reception of the faith. The offerings which were made to the Holy See in its tribulations by grateful Englishmen grew by degrees into the earliest of papal taxes. In later days, when Honorius III and other popes were seeking the munitions of war against the Empire, it was England which gained the unenviable honour of being par excellence the papal treasure house; and many of the encroachments upon the episcopal office were essayed in England before they were extended to other nations. (2) On the other hand, our remoteness, and the sturdy independence of the English character, often delayed for a time the introduction into England of new developments of various kinds. And consequently, everything that brought about renewed intercourse between England and the Continent was likely to bring with it some fresh impetus or some new fashion in religion. Thus the coming of the Normans led to the introduction of the revived monastic spirit and the strongly developed “High Churchmanship” which had taken so firm a hold upon their character, together with the new Frankish theory of the nature of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Subsequent intercourse with the Continent gave us the full benefit of the Hildebrandine reformation, and later still the all-embracing system of the Roman Canon Law. One precedent led to another, and the result of each was that the English Church had become more closely involved in the toils of this great human system than it was before. And thus, little by little, the whole fully-developed structure of the Papal Monarchy cast its protecting shadow over us as it did over the rest of Western Christendom.
It is easy to see the inevitableness of this system of ever-increasing centralisation, and hardly less easy to see that it served a very real purpose in its own day. Without really making for peace, or even for a good understanding between the gradually shaping nationalities of Europe, it provided a background and an order of life which was common to them all, and thus helped to bring them into relations of mutual intercourse. In such ways it supplied the place which had formerly been occupied by the Roman Empire, and which is occupied in our own day by that interdependence of all the activities of modern civilised life which transcends all national boundaries, and has made the whole world one as it never was before. It gave the consciousness of a great unity to all the nobler aspirations of men, thus lending to them a force which they could never have possessed in isolation. It presented an embodiment of the claims of faith and righteousness which often compelled obedience where nothing else could have done so, thus making for freedom even when its methods seemed to be those of tyranny. It supplied a sphere of education for the Christian intellect, narrow and over-rigid in itself, but so subtle and methodical that, when once the bonds and limitations were removed, learning itself formed the best solvent for that system which it had hitherto been used to defend.
In all this, and much more, England and the English Church shared quite as largely as any other part of Western Christendom. The theology current in England was not less medieval in character; the intercourse between the English Church and the Papal See was in no way less frequent. Of all the nations of the West, as has been said above, England was second to none in deference for the Holy See. Respect for the papal office was unbounded, and for papal ordinances so far as it was convenient to observe them. It was the ordinary thing to solve dilemmas in ecclesiastical matters by having recourse to the Papal Chancery and the Curia, and this continued, by a kind of mutual accommodation between King and Pope, in spite of the legislation which from time to time aimed at restricting it. Nevertheless, during the later Middle Ages the Papacy was undoubtedly very unpopular in England. The main reason for this unpopularity was not that the system was felt to be wrong in principle: quite the contrary. When Grosseteste is writing most severely against the Papacy of his own day he does not suggest that it is in itself an evil, but simply that the abuse of such power as the Pope possesses is a thing antichristian. And not for centuries, not until legend had given place to a truer knowledge of the history of the Church, was it possible for Englishmen as a whole to advance beyond this. But in England the Papacy was unpopular, from the thirteenth century and onward, because in its practical working it led to consequences which were very objectionable. It gave rise to continual delays and uncertainties in matters which had a very direct bearing upon everyday life. It conveyed a continual stream of good English money out of the country, and this often at times when it could ill be spared. Moreover, during the greater part of the fourteenth century the Popes were Frenchmen and dwelt at Avignon, which, if not actually in French territory, was the next thing to it; so that our money was being sent out of England virtually to support our enemies the French. Above all, great causes were continually and inevitably settled, by the power which professed to be the supreme spiritual arbiter of Christendom, upon grounds which were simply and indubitably political. Such political decisions were not always made with our interests in view, but rather against them; and it even happened sometimes that the settlement was dictated by the ambassadors of some prince with whom we were actually at war. Considerations such as these had undoubtedly much to do with the actual breach with Rome when it occurred. And yet no mistake could well be greater than that of thinking that these were the causes which led to the English Reformation, or even to the particular side of it which was concerned with the Pope – the abolition of his jurisdiction in England. The fact is that the system contained within itself, in its rigidity and its one-sidedness and its ever-increasing narrowness, the seeds of its own decay. An institution which had arisen to supply the needs of the Middle Ages could not possibly be suited in the same degree to an age in which every characteristic feature of medievalism had been shattered to pieces. The measure of its previous success was the measure of its present failure. As one transitory method of God’s working, the Papacy had had its value for us and for others. But when it claimed to be not a partial agency in God’s providence, but a revelation of essential truth, men came by degrees to see for themselves that it was a lie; and where they could not see, the logic of facts made it clear.
A Reformation of some kind was a thing inevitable, and not least so in England, long before the opening of the sixteenth century. Its precise nature and scope were still indeterminate, and would depend upon the circumstances which should actually give rise to it, and the persons who should be immediately concerned in it. But the thing itself was bound to come: it was the result of forces which were already in operation and of tendencies which were already at work.
(a) The first of these was the New Learning. There had arisen a spirit of inquiry which was no longer content to exert its faculties upon questions the answers to which were regarded as already completely known; or to accept things precisely as it found them, on the ground that they were stamped with the sanction of authority acting in and through the machinery of the Church. A great army of scholars was beginning to look for the bases of authority in a new direction; which was inevitable when once the study of the New Testament was put in its rightful place, as the primary record of God’s revelation in Christ. This, no doubt, might easily degenerate, and often did, into a literalism which was almost as slavish as the theory of Church authority which it displaced; but in itself there could be nothing more noble than the conviction of the New Learning, as it was expressed by Erasmus, that in the pages of the New Testament they might behold the Master, and know His will more clearly than if He were actually before their bodily eyes. Meanwhile an enlightened criticism was sweeping away the foundations upon which the very existence of the Papacy depended; whilst from the printing press there came forth into common knowledge the writings of the Fathers, the records of a Catholic antiquity to which the Papacy in the mediaeval sense was a thing unknown. If the Corpus Juris Canonici had been powerful as a code of ecclesiastical law, its influence had been hardly less great as a kind of authorised commentary on the past history of the Church; and the pages of Gratian’s Decretum, with its large incorporation of the pseudo-Isidorian decretals and other forged documents, assured the mediaeval student that from the beginning things had been as they were in his own day. Whatever other learning he might have, it was this which formed the basis and pattern of all his ideas of the history and constitution of the Church. Now came the great awakening: the student learned that from the beginning it was not so. Controversialists might still dispute about isolated facts, or produce spurious or interpolated texts of the Fathers, but the case in its broad outlines was too clear. Henceforward, if the Papacy was to stand, it must stand on its own merits and not by any inherent right.
Nor was the necessity for its existence so clear as it had once seemed to be. The unity of Christendom was almost a necessity of thought to the mediaeval mind, and hitherto the Papacy had seemed to be an absolutely essential part of that unity. For the Catholicity of the Middle Ages was a very imperfect Catholicity, and Christendom was commonly taken to mean no more than the Christians of the Roman obedience. Western writers, even great writers like Gerson and Thomas More, commonly use the word Christendom in this sense; and it is therefore a significant fact when thinkers like Wyclif turn their thoughts further abroad, and conceive it as a possible thing that we should live without a pope like the Greeks. By degrees the conception of the oneness of Christendom which centred in “the Holy Roman Church, mother and teacher of Churches,” began to give place to one which was at once less arbitrary and more Catholic.
(b) Another change which was coming over the thought of the West had reference to the relations between Church and State. According to the conception which found its strongest expression in the work of Gregory VII and his successors, the Church was an organisation existing over against the secular organisation, and standing in contrast to it as the heavenly to the earthly. Meanwhile, largely owing to the practical neglect of Confirmation and the partial loss of the conception of public worship, the rights and functions of the layman, and the fact that he is after all the primary unit of which the Church is composed, were more and more completely overlooked. And thus the Churchmanship of the Middle Ages came to be as imperfect as its Catholicity. In practice an entire confusion was made between the Church and the officers of the Church, and when men spoke of the one they were really thinking of the other. To them the Church meant primarily the great hierarchy, from the Pope down to the lowest person in minor orders. It existed, no doubt, for the benefit of the secular world outside, but still it stood outside of and over against this world. The phrase “to go into the Church,” which we are sometimes asked to regard as an invention of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, is in reality a mediaeval idea expressed in mediaeval language. So far as this idea can be said to have been displaced at all, the fact is certainly one of the results of the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century. To this extent, and no further, there is real truth in the statement which has often been made, that the Reformation was a layman’s revolt for the recovery of the things which belong to him by right.
The consequence of this accentuated clericalism was that the clergy became an estate, with interests and instincts peculiar to themselves. They never actually degenerated into a caste, because of the prevailing law of celibacy, which, in part the expression of an exaggerated asceticism, expressed also a true instinct for its own day. But the gulf between clergy and laity, at all times and in every religion a possible danger, had now become a very grievous one, and the lay folk began to look elsewhere for help which should really supply their souls’ needs. And this was not all. From being a sharply defined estate, the clergy came to be a kind of imperium in imperio, nominally subject to the laws which bound other men, but in practice claiming that they were only bound “saving their order,” and making this reservation cover a very large part of their lives. In truth, they were only “half the king’s subjects.” Although a working arrangement might be reached from time to time, the position was one of constant friction. As soon as the nation became conscious of its own unity, it became impossible. When Henry VIII called attention to the incompatibility between Cranmer’s oath to the Papacy, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, and his duty as a subject, he had made no new discovery, but was only saying what all men had long known to be perfectly true. It might be met by a definite recognition on the part of the clergy of their position as subjects (leaving them still free, of course, to disobey for conscience’ sake if need be, and to take the consequences), or the settlement might be veiled under a series of concordats and somewhat unreal “accommodations.” But in one or other of these two ways the royal supremacy had to be vindicated, and vindicated it was, sooner or later, in every country of Western Christendom.
(c) A third side must be briefly noticed, the most important of all, upon which a reformation was already being prepared for. The mediaeval system was one of ever-growing complexity and uniformity, and consequently one of increasingly mechanical character. Meanwhile, although some of the elements which underlay it were permanent, many features of the system were growing old, and were no longer suited to the requirements of a new age, which was striving to find an expression of its own. The strenuous and ever-renewed life which coursed along its channels was bound in time to burst its bonds and break away the limitations of a system which had become too narrow for it. The same thing was the case with religious rites and customs. Men naturally endeavour to find an outward expression for the impulses of devotion, to enshrine their religious worship in acts of reverence. But herein lies a danger: the outward act remains after the reverent impulse which gave rise to it has become habitual or has passed away. A new impulse of reverence generally seeks to find for itself some new form of expression, not being content simply to revivify that which is there already. It is very jealous, however, of any attempt to remove the rites or ceremonies which it finds already in possession; and thus a continual process of accretion is going on, until the fringe of outward acts may only serve to hide that which it was intended to show forth, and to become an end in itself instead of a means to an end. Opinions may differ as to whether this point has been reached; but, granted that it has been reached, there can be no question that the only thing to be done is to clear away with a bold hand, in spite of the fact that the process is one of no little danger. There is the clearest evidence of a widespread feeling in the sixteenth century that this point had been reached. Again, as regards theology: the current theology of any particular age is in constant danger of becoming depraved by over-definition in some particular direction. And this result is almost inevitable when it is divorced in a measure from practical religion and treated as an abstract science. The great foundation truths get to be taken for granted and thus overlooked, whilst theological study tends to become a mere intellectual exercise upon points of detail. And thus, not only are the opinions of theologians made to rank with the facts of the Christian creed, but the whole proportion of the faith is lost. The student of mediaeval theology can hardly fail to see to how large an extent this had come to be the case. And now the inevitable reaction was at hand, in the shape of a return to first principles, and a reconstruction of theological systems from the primary facts upon which they were based. And once more, as regards the individual religious life. The fundamental question as to all religion is, which end does it start from? Is what I am doing for God the basis of everything, or what He is doing for me? In other words, are Works the primary fact, or is Grace? The one view is essentially pagan, the other is essentially Christian. But the difficulty is, that we are continually liable to slip back into a pagan doctrine of works, owing in part to the self-centredness which is at the root of our sin, in part to the fact that the grace of God must needs produce works in us, unless we have received it εις κένον. That this was a dominant tendency in the later Middle Ages is indisputable, in spite of many and most beautiful exceptions. Personal religion frequently degenerated into an endeavour to make an atonement for sins, and thus to appease an offended God. We can see signs of it in the multiplication of expiatory masses, in the undue stress which came to be laid upon the performance of external acts of penance, and in many other ways. It has even been said that religion had become an elaborate system of safeguards against the consequences of human sin. This, no doubt, is as true and as false as many other smart sayings; but the fact remains that it is in part true. And perhaps there was hardly anything against which the reaction of the sixteenth century was so keen. Certainly there were very many who had little or no sympathy with Luther’s theory of justification by faith, at any rate in the form in which he stated it, who yet strove strenuously to vindicate again the Catholic doctrine of grace.
Now all these things, the huge pretensions of the papal monarchy, the withdrawal of the whole clerical body from the duties of ordinary citizenship, and the increasingly mechanical character which was coming over religion as a whole, affected other parts of Western Christendom not less than England. And the solvent forces which were gradually undermining the mediaeval fabric are to be perceived as clearly on the continent as here. And yet the course of the movement was entirely different here from what it was there. On the continent the movement was either one of radical reconstruction, or else it degenerated into a mere sweeping away of practical abuses and a forging of the old chains yet closer. In England, on the other hand, it is clear that what was aimed at was not to make anything new but rather to protect and invigorate what was really old, and to cut away everything which obstructed its free growth. And whatever failures there may have been in the process, it is at least clear that this description fits the English Reformation better than any other could do. How then is the fact to be accounted for, that the course of the Reformation was so different here from what it was elsewhere? Why did not England go the way of Spain or of Germany? The answer is obvious. The Reformation in England no doubt largely depended upon the special circumstances of our history in the sixteenth century; but it was largely conditioned also by what the English Church and nation already was and had always been.
To speak first of our relations with the Papacy. Englishmen were quite accustomed to think of Britain as having a distinct position in Europe. The strip of sea was a barrier to an extent which we can hardly realise now, and to the inhabitant of the mainland the Englishman long continued a stranger, with a character which was at least full of individuality. English kings had proudly repudiated the idea that their realm was in any way bound to the Empire, and had claimed the proud title of Imperator or Basileus in witness of the fact. No English king but Richard the Lion-hearted had ever recognised that he held his crown from an Emperor; and he only did so in order to regain the freedom which would enable him to repudiate his bargain. Nor was this aloofness confined to civil concerns; and bearing in mind the relations of Anselm with Dublin and St. Andrews, there is a real fitness in the salutation of the Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Urban II as quasi alterius orbis papa. Again, it must be borne in mind that there was no mediaeval theory without its counter-theory; and this was very definitely the case with the current theory as to the relation of the Papacy to the Church. Of the great schoolmen who set themselves against it in one way or another, three, Alexander of Hales, William of Ockham, and John Wyclif, were Englishmen. Although it would not be true to say that their view was in any sense that of English Churchmen as a whole, there are many signs that the other theory had begun to sit very lightly upon thoughtful men. No doubt, there were great Churchmen who magnified the Papacy on every occasion, and made use of language about it which modern Papists can read and quote with complacency; but there are also others who did their utmost to check its constant encroachments, and to secure that English affairs should be settled in England. Once more, the English character of the sixteenth century did not greatly differ from that of the nineteenth. The temperament which thinks more of what is practically useful than of what is logically unassailable was as characteristic of us then as it is today. The Englishman cared little for the precise credentials of the system by which he was governed so long as it worked well; on the other hand, a system which had been proved and found to work ill need look for little mercy at his hands. Consequently, resistance to Papal tyranny was no new thing to us: time after time English Churchmen and English statesmen had had recourse to it. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that there had been a growing tendency to resist these encroachments for two centuries before the abolition of the papal jurisdiction. But at length, in the sixteenth century, there were new facts. The New Learning had shown us that, in Tonstal’s words, “The Church of Rome had never of old such a monarchy as of late it hath usurped.” Since therefore the papal monarchy was not of divine right, and since experience had shown that it was a nuisance, the practical Englishman wished nothing better than that it should be swept away, so far as he was concerned. Others who were less practical, or to whom the existence of a Papacy had become a kind of second nature, might do as they thought good; but at least they claimed the right to exercise a corresponding discretion. In doing this, however, he never dreamt of separating himself from the unity of the Church. The English theologians, Tonstal and Gardiner, Stokesley and Sampson, make this perfectly plain in their defence of the king’s proceedings against attacks from without. All that we had done was to remove an innovation which had come to be a notable obstacle to that unity, so far as no small part of Christendom was concerned.
Turning now to the relations between Church and State, and the position of the clergy: here also the action which was ultimately taken in England had been led up to by previous events. The question was to us no new one; it had been raised again and again, now on this point, now on that. Conflicts of jurisdiction, divergences between the canon law and the law of the realm, questions of immunity, and disputes about taxation were of frequent occurrence: questions hardly spiritual at all in any real sense, although at the time they were contested as if the whole spiritual order stood or fell with them. Now there was no great difference between the claims of the civil power in England and elsewhere. But the course of the struggle in England was profoundly modified by the fact that the civil power was far stronger as a rule than elsewhere. In England, and here alone, there was a government and a civil administration of justice as widespread and as constant as that of the Church itself. This being so, a contest between Church and State, on matters which were not really vital to either, could have but one result. And in fact the contest always ended, sooner or later, in a victory for the Crown. It might be glossed over, the rights of the Church might be set forth in imposing language, but the result was uniformly the same. In other words, in England the Royal Supremacy was from the first a reality and not a shadow. If there existed for a time an imperium in imperio, it only existed on sufferance; and little by little the civil power extended its sway.
At length, at the Reformation, the civil power called for a formal recognition of its authority, and laid hold upon that which it claimed with no light hand. Henceforward there was to be no imperium in imperio; henceforward there was to be no question of the fact that the King of England was king of all his people. But still, excepting for the temporary excesses of the period of transition, no new principle was introduced. If we compare the Reformation Settlement in this respect with the famous principles of William the Conqueror as recorded by Eadmer, there is little if anything that is new in principle. All that has happened is that what was once arbitrary and occasional has now been made regular and precise. Here again, the Reformation was but the completed work of forces which had been in operation long before.
And once more, with regard to the clearing away of what had become formal or out of proportion in faith and worship. Such a task appealed to some of the most deeply-rooted elements of the English character; and above all, it commended itself to Englishmen at a time when they were busily engaged in weighing the existing order and ascertaining for themselves how much of it was practically useful. The only danger was lest they should do their work over-sweepingly, with too utilitarian an eye and with too little of real spiritual insight. But the process itself of regulation and simplification was the carrying out of an aim which had long been before the English mind. It is hard to make a hero of Reginald Pecock, but be was a very far-seeing man, and often represents the best spirit of the English Church of his day as no other does. Never is this more convincingly the case than when he warns his fellow bishops that it is not wise to make the way of salvation narrower by multiplying definitions and rules, and so to place additional difficulties and stumbling blocks in the path of the wayfaring man. The warning is taken up by John Colet when he advises his scholar to keep to the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and let divines, if they will, dispute about the rest. It finds its most perfect expression in the words of Launcelot Andrewes, “God hath made plain those things that be necessary; those that are not plain, not necessary.”
It is sometimes said that the English Church steered a middle course in the religious revolution of the sixteenth century. If this means that we deliberately made a compromise, nothing could be further from the truth. Men were not in the mood for compromise; rather they often fought about minor points of personal preference and individual opinion when they might very well have left them open. But on the other hand, if it means that the English Reformation aims at giving expression to the many-sidedness of God’s revelation, it is doubtless most true. It is true in the sense that our Reformation was the work of the body as a whole and not of any particular section. And it is true in the sense that the English Church made a deliberate effort to assimilate what was good, whencesoever it came. That our Reformation took such a course is due in part to the fact that many of the elements in it were familiar to us already; in part to the fact that the English Church already possessed the type which has been developed more strongly since.
Such a Reformation is no doubt open to attack from many quarters. For example, the Via Media may be the way of loftiest aspirations, but it may be no more than the line of least resistance. The practical man is frequently a bungler, and his handiwork does not always serve the purposes which it was intended to serve. The work in which a whole people is occupied will hardly be done without gathering round it the harpies and the vultures. And a change which was carried out in so businesslike a fashion does not satisfy those who are accustomed to judge of spiritual fervour by excitement.
Much loss and failure there undoubtedly was. But it ought not to discourage us to find that the English Reformation can be so spoken against, and from so many contradictory points of view.
Chapter VII – The Reformation*
By the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of London
[* A Paper read at the Church Congress, Carlisle, 1884.]
All great movements which affect the organisation of society are of slow growth, and are complex in their nature. It is difficult always to keep this truth in mind. There is a tendency to investigate one cause to the exclusion of others. There is a tendency to regard only the immediate steps which produced a change, or criticise only the immediate results which that change produced. I propose to regard the Reformation in England under three aspects: political, moral, and intellectual; and to consider the larger and more permanent causes and results.
1. Politically the Reformation expressed the dissatisfaction of the national spirit with the Papal government of the Church. The Middle Ages tell a continuous tale of opposition to Papal interference. In England, earlier than in any other country, a national spirit was developed. The end of the thirteenth century saw England united under a truly national system of government. The Pope was not allowed to exercise any influence on English affairs. Clergy and laity alike saw with growing discontent the drain of English money to the Roman Court. So far as the Reformation declared that the affairs of the English Church should be managed within the realm, it only expressed a long-prevailing sentiment of the English people.
2. Morally, the organisation of the mediaeval Church had become unwieldy. Institutions once useful had survived the period of their usefulness. Monasticism fostered an indolent class. There were too many clergy, and many of them acted unworthily of their calling. Ecclesiastical discipline had become a vexatious means of exacting money. Ecclesiastical disputes were common, and appeals to Rome were encouraged. A process in the Papal court was costly and was endless. Diocesan and provincial jurisdictions were almost destroyed by the system of appeals. The encroachments of Rome had thrown into confusion the old machinery of the Church. Thoughtful men had long seen the dangers of this disorganisation, and the need of reform; but national or provincial Synods were powerless without the Pope. Even Europe, united into the reforming Councils of the fifteenth century, failed to discover a practicable scheme for reform. Nothing could be done save through the Papacy, and the Papacy became more and more secular in its aims, more and more immersed in Italian politics. Meanwhile the feeling of nationality grew apace. In England the rise of a prosperous middle class created a practical spirit which wished to see the Church made more useful to the people. The associations of the past ceased to outweigh the needs of the present. The clergy were bidden to feel that they were made for the people, not the people for them. The moral aspect of the Reformation was a desire for a simpler Church system, more intimately connected with the aspirations of national life.
3. Intellectually, the Reformation movement was helped by an increased knowledge of the world, of literature, and of the language of the Scriptures. Men were not satisfied with being told that doctrines or ceremonies were the traditions of the Church; they asked for the grounds of these traditions; they demanded proof of their agreement with the words of the Church’s Divine Founder.
These three tendencies were each of them of long growth. No one of them necessarily involved the overthrow of the Papal headship, or any breach in the outward unity of the Church; but when they all came together, they created a mass of opposition to the existing system, which ended in a series of revolts.
The importance of Wyclif in religious history lies in the fact that in him these three tendencies first converged, and were embodied in his career. At first he was an ecclesiastical politician, who employed his learning in finding arguments for combating the Papal claims to interfere in the affairs of the English Church. Next, he laboured at the restoration of preaching and a revival of religious life. The more he increased in spiritual earnestness, the more he felt that the spiritual interests of men were sacrificed to an overgrown ecclesiastical system. He asserted that the Church was the congregation of faithful people, and that the Papal primacy ought to be exercised solely for the purpose of ministering to their needs. His noble translation of the Bible put into the hands of Englishmen the whole of Scripture; “Our great charter,” he calls it, “written and given to us by God, on which alone we can found our claims to His kingdom.” Then, in the interests, as he thought, of theological learning, Wyclif went on to attack the current form in which the doctrine of the Sacrament of the Altar was expressed. He invoked “grammar, logic, natural science, and the sense of the Gospel,” against a definition which stated that the words of the priest at consecration wrought a change in the actual substance of the bread and wine. He did not deny, nay, he condemned those who denied, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Christ’s body, he said, was sacramentally and spiritually, but still actually, present in every part of the Host, as the soul was present in the human body. Wyclif did not seek to overthrow the current belief in the nature of the Sacrament; he only demanded that the philosophical definition of its operation should be less material and more spiritual. He thought that the language in ordinary use was unscientific, and led to a low view of the Sacrament itself, and to an undue exaltation of the person of the priest.
Thus, politically, Wyclif asserted the freedom of England from Papal interference; morally, he strove to adapt the ecclesiastical system to the needs of the people; intellectually, he demanded that doctrines should be defined in accordance with “logic, natural science, and the sense of the Gospel.” Wyclif strove to gain these ends within the existing framework of the Church; but this was not to be. The Papacy refused to move in the direction of reform till it was startled by the revolt of half of Western Christendom. It then became less powerful for political interference, in the countries which remained in its obedience. It reformed the more glaring abuses in its ecclesiastical system, and developed a strong organisation for defensive and offensive purposes. Intellectually, it made little change in its traditions.
The question of the influence of the Reformation on England can only be answered by considering what England gained and lost by abandoning the Papal headship. This is only possible by comparing the chief features of the English Church, not with an idealised Church of the Middle Ages, but with the Roman Church as it has been in operation since the Council of Trent. I wish to be as impartial as inherent prejudice will allow an English Churchman to be. You will pardon me if my language sounds cold, as I briefly indicate a few considerations of the results of the three causes which I have traced.
1. Politically, the Reformation largely developed the national spirit of England, through the need of antagonism to the Papacy and the Pope’s adherents. First, the war with Spain, which was a direct result of the Reformation, directed England into the career of colonisation, to which her present greatness is due. Next, the breach between England and her chief neighbours on the Continent produced a feeling of isolation, which forced Englishmen to think and act for themselves. The national spirit of England became more resolute, adventurous, and practical. Englishmen were driven to face actual facts, and deal with them promptly and sensibly. It was this training which enabled England to overcome her competitors for the mastery of the New World; but she would not have overcome them permanently unless she had also shown a greater civilising power, which means greater honesty, greater straightforwardness, greater love of justice. National morality, it must be remembered, can only be judged by comparison. I cannot say that before the Reformation England’s policy showed a greater care for righteousness than did that of her neighbours; but since the Reformation there have been many conspicuous instances in which England has shown a more exalted standard of national morality. England has gained by the Reformation in the more sterling qualities of national life. On the other hand, it must be admitted that Europe as a whole lost somewhat by the breach of its religious unity. Its aims became narrower, more self-interested, less concerned with matters of European policy. As regards England itself, increased strength of national character was won by a sacrifice of larger interests. The Reformation intensified England’s tendency to isolation. It deepened, if it did not create, the less attractive features of the English character – a narrowness of sympathy, an inability to recognise problems which lie outside the sphere of immediate practice, and a disregard of logical principles of national action. This was in a great measure England’s loss from the Reformation.
2. I turn to the ecclesiastical system of England as it was affected by the Reformation. First, as regards the mechanism for the self-government of the Church, the Reformation did not go far enough. The Papal headship was abolished, and the temporal privileges of that headship were transferred to the Crown. Nothing was done to re-establish the organisation of the Church as a self-governing community in spiritual matters. It must be noted that the loss of its old mechanism was the result of a long course of Papal aggression. The English Church inherited confusion, and the time of the Reformation was not propitious for amending that confusion. The royal supremacy took the place of the Papal supremacy; but the Church as a spiritual community gained no greater liberty of action. As a consequence of this, the English Church has shown too great a tendency to Erastianism. Its discipline is defective; it lacks a logical or settled system of jurisdiction. This must be admitted; but again an impartial comparison with other countries suggests some compensation. The English Church has been in close relation with the national life. Its demands may not have been so precise as those of the Roman Church, but its pervading influence has been greater. It has had no exact theory of the relations between Church and State; but the exact theory of Rome has never been successful in practice. A theory may be very imposing; but when it is whittled away by separate concordats, which are being constantly eluded, it ceases to command much respect. The English Church may still repair its system in the future; but I doubt whether it has much to learn from the success of the system of the Church of Rome.
As regards the relations of the Church to the people, it must be admitted that the changes made at the time of the Reformation were too exclusively made in the interests of the prosperous middle class. The old services were adjusted to their intelligence, were made simpler and more practical. Moreover, the exigencies of a time of change demanded one intelligible and uniform mode of worship. Everything combined to make the new system narrower and smaller than the old one. It contained fewer elements which appealed to higher and lower minds; it aimed more exclusively at the average man; it had little outlying region of mysticism in which finer souls might wander at will; it did not enthral the unintelligent by appeals to their feelings; it disregarded the teaching of the eye; it aimed at practical edification, at an orderly, but comprehensive organisation of religious society. I pass by the question how far the Anglican Church did the utmost, or the best, that the times allowed. She certainly achieved one great object, which marks her as distinct from other deviations from the old system. She preserved intact the institution of the Church and of the Sacraments as they were in the Apostolic age. By so doing she retained the possibility of strong organic life. On the other hand, she lost some of the more imaginative elements of religious feeling; adopted a form of worship which was simple, but somewhat inflexible; and became too exclusively connected with the aspirations and desires of the active and influential classes in English society. Hence, in a time of spiritual awakening, she could find no room for John Wesley, and was so well satisfied with her own work of edification that she looked coldly on the work of evangelisation. In another time of spiritual awakening she lost the allegiance of many fine minds, which missed in her the definite assertion of the principles of ecclesiastical life.
Admitting these defects, let us again turn to comparison with the history of the Roman Church. The Church of England has not, at all events until recent times, produced the same number of individuals who have scaled the higher regions of the spiritual life. She has not in the past succeeded in laying so firm a hold upon the masses. But she has undoubtedly succeeded in carrying Christianity into the principles which direct the life and conduct of the community, in a larger degree than prevails in any other country. Her directness, her demand for a sense of individual responsibility, her full offer to all of the means of grace – these things have tended to keep strong in Englishmen that which is the chief element of the religious life, a sense of sin. The more elaborate system of the Roman Church has not been so successful in this point in those countries where it has worked unimpeded. This consideration seems to me to be a very weighty one; for the sense of sin is the most powerful bulwark against the temptations of unbelief. On their capacity for quickening and keeping alive this sense of sin, the future of all religious organisations will more and more closely depend. The strength of the Church of England lies in the fact that she has created and maintained a high average of practical Christianity. The national difficulties which impressed upon her in the sixteenth century somewhat limited aims have now passed away. Made wise by experience, she has the promise of a great future. Without any change in her constitution she has made her system more definite, has found room for higher aspirations, has shown that she can influence the masses, has developed great missionary activity, and has spread her influence in every quarter of the globe. Only in later years has she begun to reap the full harvest of the Reformation.
3. Intellectually, I see no losses to be set against the gain of a frank acceptance of Holy Scripture as the sole basis of doctrine and Church government, and a recognition that the sense of the Gospel has to be determined by strict adherence to “logic, grammar, and natural science.” The modest claim of the Anglican Church to be “a witness and keeper of Holy Writ” has been fully maintained. The greater pretension of the Roman Church to inherent powers of authoritative interpretation has not proved so efficient a barrier against unbelief. An extensive frontier affords weak places for attack. The process of slow retreat from untenable positions is hard to accomplish. The imposing appearance of strength and organisation vanishes on closer inspection. English theology has shown a capacity for facing the actual questions which perplex men’s minds. It has been strong in its readiness to accept the historic method, and in its desire to obtain scientific results; it has done this in a careful and sober spirit, which has made it powerful to mediate between conflicting opinions. The English Church has been especially successful in retaining the allegiance and directing the thought of vigorous minds.
To sum up these fragmentary remarks. The teaching and the personality of Wyclif expressed and foreshadowed the great characteristics of the English Reformation. The influence of the Reformation in England was strong in directing our national history and moulding our national character. The reformed Church of England has kept alive the spirit of personal religion in a way which contrasts favourably with other religious organisations. Her defects have been serious, but they are not irremediable, and she has shown a capacity to remedy them. In the region of thought she has held the strongest position, for she has elected to stand by the strength of her great central fort, the power of the Scriptures as the Word of God, and the historical truth of the facts which they relate.
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