corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 1 — Progress From the First to the Fourteenth Century

Chapter 2 — Declension of the early Christian Church

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

Early Triumphs of the Truth — Causes — The Fourth Century — Early Simplicity lost — The Church remodeled on the Pattern of the Empire — Disputes regarding Easter-day — Descent of the Gothic Nations — Introduction of Pagan Rites into the Church — Acceleration of Corruption — Inability of the World all at once to receive the Gospel in its greatness.

ALL through, from the fifth to the fifteenth century, the Lamp of Truth burned dimly in the sanctuary of Christendom. Its flame often sank low, and appeared about to expire, yet never did it wholly go out. God remembered His covenant with the light, and set bounds to the darkness. Not only had this heaven-kindled lamp its period of waxing and waning, like those luminaries that God has placed on high, but like them, too, it had its appointed circuit to accomplish. Now it was on the cities of Northern Italy that its light was seen to fall; and now its rays illumined the plains of Southern France. Now it shone along the course of the Danube and the Moldau, or tinted the pale shores of England, or shed its glory upon the Scottish Hebrides. Now it was on the summits of the Alps that it was seen to burn, spreading a gracious morning on the mountain-tops, and giving promise of the sure approach of day. And then, anon, it would bury itself in the deep valleys of Piedmont, and seek shelter from the furious tempests of persecution behind the great rocks and the eternal snows of the everlasting hills. Let us briefly trace the growth of this truth to the days of Wicliffe.

The spread of Christianity during the first three centuries was rapid and extensive. The main causes that contributed to this were the translation of the Scriptures into the languages of the Roman world, the fidelity and zeal of the preachers of the Gospel, and the heroic deaths of the martyrs. It was the success of Christianity that first set limits to its progress. It had received a terrible blow, it is true, under Diocletian. This, which was the most terrible of all the early persecutions, had, in the belief of the Pagans, utterly exterminated the "Christian superstition" So far from this, it had but afforded the Gospel an opportunity of giving to the world a mightier proof of its divinity. It rose from the stakes and massacres of Diocletian, to begin a new career, in which it was destined to triumph over the empire which thought that it had crushed it. Dignities and wealth now flowed in upon its ministers and disciples, and according to the uniform testimony of all the early historians, the faith which had maintained its purity and rigor in the humble sanctuaries and lowly position of the first age, and amid the fires of its pagan persecutors, became corrupt and waxed feeble amid the gorgeous temples and the worldly dignities which imperial favor had lavished upon it.

From the fourth century the corruptions of the Christian Church continued to make marked and rapid progress. The Bible began to be hidden from the people. And in proportion as the light, which is the surest guarantee of liberty, was withdrawn, the clergy usurped authority over the members of the Church. The canons of councils were put in the room of the one infallible Rule of Faith; and thus the first stone was laid in the foundations of "Babylon, that great city, that made all nations to drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication." The ministers of Christ began to affect titles of dignity, and to extend their authority and jurisdiction to temporal matters, forgetful that an office bestowed by God, and serviceable to the highest interests of society, can never fail of respect when filled by men of exemplary character, sincerely devoted to the discharge of its duties. The beginning of this matter seemed innocent enough. To obviate pleas before the secular tribunals, ministers were frequently asked to arbitrate in disputes between members of the Church, and Constantine made a law confirming all such decisions in the consistories of the clergy, and shutting out the review of their sentences by the civil judges. [1] Proceeding in this fatal path, the next step was to form the external polity of the Church upon the model of the civil government. Four vice-kings or prefects governed the Roman Empire under Constantine, and why, it was asked, should not a similar arrangement be introduced into the Church? Accordingly the Christian world was divided into four great dioceses; over each diocese was set a patriarch, who governed the whole clergy of his domain, and thus arose four great thrones or princedoms in the House of God. Where there had been a brotherhood, there was now a hierarchy; and from the lofty chair of the Patriarch, a gradation of rank, and a subordination of authority and office, ran down to the lowly state and contracted sphere of the Presbyter [2] It was splendor of rank, rather than the fame of learning and the luster of virtue, that henceforward conferred distinction on the ministers of the Church.

Such an arrangement was not fitted to nourish spirituality of mind, or humility of disposition, or peacefulness of temper. The enmity and violence of the persecutor, the clergy had no longer cause to dread; but the spirit of faction which now took possession of the dignitaries of the Church awakened vehement disputes and fierce contentions, which disparaged the authority and sullied the glory of the sacred office. The emperor himself was witness to these unseemly spectacles. "I entreat you," we find him pathetically saying to the fathers of the Council of Nice, "beloved ministers of God, and servants of our Savior Jesus Christ, take away the cause of our dissension and disagreement, establish peace among yourselves." [3]

While the, "living oracles" were neglected, the zeal of the clergy began to spend itself upon rites and

ceremonies borrowed from the pagans. These were multiplied to such a degree, that Augustine complained that they were "less tolerable than the yoke of the Jews under the law." [4] At this period the Bishops of Rome wore costly attire, gave sumptuous banquets, and when they went abroad were carried in litters [5] They now began to speak with an authoritative voice, and to demand obedience from all the Churches. Of this the dispute between the Eastern and Western Churches respecting Easter is an instance in point. The Eastern Church, following the Jews, kept the feast on the 14th day of the month Nisan [6] — the day of the Jewish Passover. The Churches of the West, and especially that of Rome, kept Easter on the Sabbath following the 14th day of Nisan. Victor, Bishop of Rome, resolved to put an end to the controversy, and accordingly, sustaining himself sole judge in this weighty point, he commanded all the Churches to observe the feast on the same day with himself. The Churches of the East, not aware that the Bishop of Rome had authority to command their obedience in this or in any other matter, kept Easter as before; and for this flagrant contempt, as Victor accounted it, of his legitimate authority, he excommunicated them. [7] They refused to obey a human ordinance, and they were shut out from the kingdom of the Gospel. This was the first peal of those thunders which were in after times to roll so often and so terribly from the Seven Hills.

Riches, flattery, deference, continued to wait upon the Bishop of Rome. The emperor saluted him as Father; foreign Churches sustained him as judge in their disputes; heresiarchs sometimes fled to him for sanctuary; those who had favors to beg extolled his piety, or affected to follow his customs; and it is not surprising that his pride and ambition, fed by continual incense, continued to grow, till at last the presbyter of Rome, from being a vigilant pastor of a single congregation, before whom he went in and out, teaching them from house to house, preaching to them the Word of Life, serving the Lord with all humility in many tears and temptations that befell him, raised his seat above his equals, mounted the throne of the patriarch, and exercised lordship over the heritage of Christ. The gates of the sanctuary once forced, the stream of corruption continued to flow with ever-deepening volume. The declensions in doctrine and worship already introduced had changed the brightness of the Church's morning into twilight; the descent of the Northern nations, which, beginning in the fifth, continued through several successive centuries, converted that twilight into night. The new tribes had changed their country, but not their superstitions; and, unhappily, there was neither zeal nor vigor in the Christianity of the age to effect their instruction and their genuine conversion. The Bible had been withdrawn; in the pulpit fable had usurped the place of truth; holy lives, whose silent eloquence might have won upon the barbarians, were rarely exemplified; and thus, instead of the Church dissipating the superstitions that now encompassed her like a cloud, these superstitions all but quenched her own light. She opened her gates to receive the new peoples as they were. She sprinkled them with the baptismal water; she inscribed their names in her registers; she taught them in their invocations to repeat the titles of the Trinity; but the doctrines of the Gospel, which alone can enlighten the understanding, purify the heart, and enrich the life with virtue, she was little careful to inculcate upon them. She folded them within her pale, but they were scarcely more Christian than before, while she was greatly less so. From the sixth century down-wards Christianity was a mongrel system, made up of pagan rites revived from classic times, of superstitions imported from the forests of Northern Germany, and of Christian beliefs and observances which continued to linger in the Church from primitive and purer times. The inward power of religion was lost; and it was in vain that men strove to supply its place by the outward form. They nourished their piety not at the living fountains of truth, but with the "beggarly elements" of ceremonies and relics, of consecrated lights and holy vestments. Nor was it Divine knowledge only that was contemned; men forbore to cultivate letters, or practice virtue. Baronius confesses that in the sixth century few in Italy were skilled in both Greek and Latin. Nay, even Gregory the Great acknowledged that he was ignorant of Greek. "The main qualifications of the clergy were, that they should be able to read well, sing their matins, know the Lord's Prayer, psalter, forms of exorcism, and understand how to compute the times of the sacred festivals. Nor were they very sufficient for this, if we may believe the account some have given of them. Musculus says that many of them never saw the Scriptures in all their lives. It would seem incredible, but it is delivered by no less an authority than Amama, that an Archbishop of Mainz, lighting upon a Bible and looking into it, expressed himself thus: 'Of a truth I do not know what book this is, but I perceive everything in it is against us.'" [8]

Apostasy is like the descent of heavy bodies, it proceeds with ever-accelerating velocity. First, lamps were lighted at the tombs of the martyrs; next, the Lord's Supper was celebrated at their graves; next, prayers were offered for them and to them; [9] next, paintings and images began to disfigure the walls, and corpses to pollute the floors of the churches. Baptism, which apostles required water only to dispense, could not be celebrated without white robes and chrism, milk, honey, and salt. [10] Then came a crowd of church officers whose names and numbers are in striking contrast to the few and simple orders of men who were

employed in the first propagation of Christianity. There were sub-deacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, choristers, and porters; and as work must be found for this motley host of laborers, there came to be fasts and exorcisms; there were lamps to be lighted, altars to be arranged, and churches to be consecrated; there was the Eucharist to be carried to the dying; and there were the dead to be buried, for which a special order of men was set apart. When one looked back to the simplicity of early times, it could not but amaze one to think what a cumbrous array of curious machinery and costly furniture was now needed for the service of Christianity. Not more stinging than true was the remark that "when the Church had golden chalices she had wooden priests."

So far, and through these various stages, had the declension of the Church proceeded. The point she had now reached may be termed an epochal one. From the line on which she stood there was no going back; she must advance into the new and unknown regions before her, though every step would carry her farther from the simple form and vigorous life of her early days. She had received a new impregnation from an alien principle, the same, in fact, from which had sprung the great systems that covered the earth before Christianity arose. This principle could not be summarily extirpated; it must run its course, it must develop itself logically; and having, in the course of centuries, brought its fruits to maturity, it would then, but not till then, perish and pass away.

Looking back at this stage to the change which had come over the Church, we cannot fail to see that its deepest originating cause must be sought, in the inability of the world to receive the Gospel in all its greatness. It was a boon too mighty and too free to be easily understood or credited by man. The angels in their midnight song in the vale of Bethlehem had defined it briefly as sublimely, "goodwill to man." Its greatest preacher, the Apostle Paul, had no other definition to give of it. It was not even a rule of life but "grace," the "grace of God," and therefore sovereign, and boundless. To man fallen and undone the Gospel offered a full forgiveness, and a complete spiritual renovation, issuing at length in the inconceivable and infinite felicity of the Life Eternal. But man's narrow heart could not enlarge itself to God's vast beneficence. A good so immense, so complete in its nature, and so boundless in its extent, he could not believe that God would bestow without money and without price; there must be conditions or qualifications. So he reasoned. And hence it is that the moment inspired men cease to address us, and that their disciples and scholars take their place — men of apostolic spirit and doctrine, no doubt, but without the direct knowledge of their predecessors — we become sensible of a change; an eclipse has passed upon the exceeding glory of the Gospel. As we pass from Paul to Clement, and from Clement to the Fathers that succeeded him, we find the Gospel becoming less of grace and more of merit. The light wanes as we travel down the Patristic road, and remove ourselves farther from the Apostolic dawn. It continues for some time at least to be the same Gospel, but its glory is shorn, its mighty force is abated; and we are reminded of the change that seems to pass upon the sun, when after contemplating him in a tropical hemisphere, we see him in a northern sky, where his slanting beams, forcing their way through mists and vapors, are robbed of half their splendor. Seen through the fogs of the Patristic age, the Gospel scarcely looks the same which had burst upon the world without a cloud but a few centuries before.

This disposition — that of making God less free in His gift, and man less dependent in the reception of it: the desire to introduce the element of merit on the side of man, and the element of condition on the side of God — operated at last in opening the door for the pagan principle to creep back into the Church. A. change of a deadly and subtle kind passed upon the worship. Instead of being the spontaneous thanksgiving and joy of the soul, that no more evoked or repaid the blessings which awakened that joy than the odors which the flowers exhale are the cause of their growth, or the joy that kindles in the heart of man when the sun rises is the cause of his rising — worship, we say, from being the expression of the soul's emotions, was changed into a rite, a rite akin to those of the Jewish temples, and still more akin to those of the Greek mythology, a rite in which lay couched a certain amount of human merit and inherent efficacy, that partly created, partly applied the blessings with which it stood connected. This was the moment when the pagan virus inoculated the Christian institution.

This change brought a multitude of others in its train. Worship being transformed into sacrifice — sacrifice in which was the element of expiation and purification — the "teaching ministry" was of course converted into a "sacrificing priesthood." When this had been done, there was no retreating; a boundary had been reached which could not be recrossed till centuries had rolled away, and transformations of a more portentous kind than any which had yet taken place had passed upon the Church.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology