BEFORE the last of the apostles had passed away, there were unmistakable signs of degeneracy and corruption in the Christian churches. Warnings against heresies and false teachers, not as future dangers but as present, are found in all of the later New Testament writings. From the very first, the preaching of the cross was to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness; and even when Jews and Greeks were converted they endeavored to amalgamate the old religion with the new. In spite of our Lord's assurance that the new wine could not be put into the old bottles without the loss of both, this attempt went on. Profoundly as the religion of the Jews differed from that of the Greeks and of other heathen nations, yet all pre-Christian religions had one element in common—they promised salvation to those who would attain the scrupulous observance of ecclesiastical rites. The note of all religions before Christianity was salvation by works; Christianity alone taught salvation by faith.
The efforts of converts imperfectly converted to assimilate Christianity to their former faith were only too successful. They failed to grasp the fundamental principles of the new religion, that each soul's destiny is the result of a personal relation to Jesus Christ, that eternal life is not the mere escape from retribution hereafter, but that it begins here in an intimate and vital union with the Son of God. They imagined that eternal destiny is settled by outward act, that the wrath of God may be averted by rites and ceremonies. The natural result was the substitution of formalism for spirituality, devotion to the externals of religion taking the place of living faith. To this one root may be traced in turn every one of the corruptions of the church, all of its aberrations of doctrine and practice. So soon as the churches founded by the apostles lost sight of the truth that man must be born again, and that this new birth is always associated with personal faith in Christ, the way was prepared for all that followed.
In the earliest Christian literature, after the apostolic period, we may trace three tendencies toward degeneration, all proceeding from this common cause, developing along lines parallel at first, yet distinct, afterward converging, and at length constituting a logical, consistent whole. These are: the idea of a Holy Catholic Church, the ministry a priesthood, and sacramental grace.
Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one, and his apostles taught that the church is the temple of the Holy Ghost, and therefore both one and holy. Early in the second century, however, these ideas assumed a different form from that of the New Testament. The churches were conceived of as forming together one Church, not spiritual merely, but visible, extending throughout the world, and therefore catholic (i. e., universal). Persecution doubtless had much to do with emphasizing in the minds of Christians their unity, but an exaggerated notion of the value of formal oneness came to prevail, until schism was reckoned the deadliest of sins a Christian could commit. The preservation of outward unity thus becoming the paramount consideration, it followed that whatever error a majority in the church might come to hold, the minority must accept it, rather than be guilty of this deadly sin of schism. This ideal of a Holy Catholic Church, outside of which was no salvation, unity with which was necessary tcf unity with Christ, prepared the way for all the corruptions that were introduced.
Another parallel development downward in the second century was the attribution of some mystical or magical power to baptism. It must be confessed that there are a few passages in the New Testament writings which, if they stood alone, would favor this view. Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of Gods? (John 3 : 3). "Which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism" (I Peter 3 : I4). "Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins" (Acts 22 : I6) If passages like these stood alone, unmodified, we should be compelled to the conclusion that faith alone, without baptism, does not avail to save. By ignoring to a great degree those other and relatively numerous passages in which the spirit is exalted above the letter, and faith is made the vital principle of the Christian life instead of ritual, the churches soon made outward rites of more significance than inward state. Baptism was regarded, not perhaps as absolutely necessary to salvation, but as so necessary an act that if it could not be performed precisely in accordance with Christ's command and apostolic precedent, some simulacrum of it must be substituted.
The Christians of that age were indeed justified in laying great stress on the importance of obeying Christ in baptism. It never seems to have occurred to them, as it has occurred to Christians of recent times, to evade this command, because to obey was inconvenient or distasteful; or on the avowed ground that something else might be substituted for the act commanded that would be more accordant with the delicate sensibilities of cultivated and refined people. Their obedience was implicit, ready, complete. Its one fault was an excess of virtue—an attempt to obey in cases where obedience was im possible. When water in sufficient quantities for immersion was wanting, there could be no proper baptism; but, as baptism was now conceived to be so very important, something must be done, and water was in such cases poured upon the head thrice, in quantities as profuse as possible, no doubt, thus counterfeiting immersion as nearly as might he. The true principle was missed? that where obedience is impossible God accepts the willingness to obey for obedience itself; and the wrong principle was adopted—that God can be obeyed by doing something other than what he commands.
We see the first step in this process in the document known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," which scholars assign to the first half of the second century. The injunction regarding baptism is: "Now concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first uttered all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if thou hast not running water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water upon the head thrice, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer and the baptized fast, and whatsoever others can; but the baptized thou shalt command to fast for two or three days before." There is only a bare hint here of a sacramental idea, but by the time of Justin Martyr (about A. D. 150) the process of identifying the sign with the thing signifled had made no little progress. He calls baptism "the water-bath of regeneration." "Those who believe our doctrine," he says, "are led by us to a place where there is water, and in this way they are regenerated." By the time of Tertullian (200) the idea of baptismal regeneration is firmly established. That is to say, baptism is no longer regarded as merely a type or symbol of regeneration, but the means by which the Spirit of God effected regeneration. In the writings of the AnteNicene church Fathers, the use of "regenerate" to mean "baptize" is so common as to be almost the rule. For a time, doubtless, the usage was figurative, but the figure was soon lost sight of, and baptism was accepted as a literal means of regeneration.
One of the first practical consequences of this doctrine regarding baptism was the usage known as "clinic" baptism (from kline, a couch), or the baptism of those supposably sick unto death. The first recorded case of this kind, though others may have occurred before, is that of Novatian (sometime before 250). Being very ill, and supposed to be near death, yet desiring to be baptized and wash away his sins, water was brought and poured about him as he lay on his couch, immersion being thus simulated as closely as possible under the circumstances. Novatian recovered, however, or we should probably never have heard of this case, and afterward entered the ministry, but the sufficiency of his clinic baptism was from the first disputed. The question of the validity of such baptisms was submitted to Cyprian, bishop of Africa, and in one of the letters of that ecclesiastic we have an elaborate discussion of the matter. He was asked, he tells us, "of those who obtain God's grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, for that they are not to be washed, but affused (non loti sunt, sed per fusi) with the saving waters." His chief argument was one since common among mutilators of the ordinance, that a little water would answer as well as much. His conclusion was that "the sprinkling of water (aspersio), prevails equally with the washing of salvation; and that when this is done in the church, when the faith both of receiver and giver is sound, all things hold and may be consummated and perfected by the majesty of the Lord, and by the truth of faith."
It will be noted by the attentive reader of these words that the decision rests wholly on the sacramental notion that baptism conveys God's saving grace. It was a natural conclusion by those who held this view that God's grace could work with a little water as well as with more. But it was long before Cyprian's view fully prevailed in the church. It was agreed, to be sure, thac clinic baptism would suffice for salvation, but it was felt to be an incomplete and unsatisfactory form, and ordination was long refused those who had been subjects of this mutilated ceremony. The idea that affusion would serve as baptism in other than cases of extreme necessity made its way very slowly in the church, and that form of administration had no official sanction until the Synod of Ravenna, in 1311, decided that "baptism is to be administered by trine aspersion or immersion."
The first clinic baptisms, as we have seen, were performed by so surrounding the body of the sick person with water that he might be said to be immersed in water. It was, however, a short and easy step to diminish the quantity of water, and then to apply it to other than rick persons. The practice of perfusion and affusion gradually increased from the time of Novatian, though for several centuries immersion continued to be the prevailing administration of the ordinance.
Another consequence of the idea of baptismal regeneration was the baptism of infants. It logically followed, if those unbaptized were unregenerate, that all who died in infancy were unsaved. This was a conclusion from which the Christian consciousness of the early centuries revolted as strongly as that of our own day, which utterly rejects the Westminster declaration that "elect infants" are saved, with its logical corollary that non, elect infants are lost. The true solution of the difficulty would have been found in a return to apostolic ideas of the nature and function of baptism; but a contrary idea having become too deeply settled in the church for such a return, the only alternative solution was to baptize infants, so that they might be regenerated and saved if they died before reaching the years in which personal faith is possible.
Just when infant baptism began is uncertain; scholars have disputed long over the question without arriving at any decisive proof. The passages often quoted from the writings of Justin and Irenćus are admitted by candid Pedobaptist scholars to fall far short of proof that infants were baptized in their times. It is tolerably certain, however, that by the time of Tertullian the practice was common, though by no means universal. We know, for example, that Augustine, though the son of the godly Monica, was not baptized in infancy, but on personal profession of faith at the age of thirty-three. Gregory of Nazianzum and Chrysostom are two others. Similar cases were frequent without a doubt, though from this time on they became more rare, until after the sixth century the practice of infant baptism was universal, or nearly so. Nothing in the history of the church did so much as this departure from apostolic precedent to prepare the way for papacy. It introduced into the church a multitude whose hearts were unchanged by the Spirit of God, who were worldly in aims and in life, and who sought for the worldly advancement of the church that thus their own power and importance might be magnified. This consummation was doubtless aided and hastened by the rapid contemporary growth of the church in numbers and its increase in worldly prosperity.
In the section concerning baptism, already quoted from "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," the catechumenate is already recognized, at least in germ. Baptism was no longer to be administered upon the mere confession of faith, but was to be preceded by a somewhat elaborate instruction, for which the first six chapters of the "Teaching" were originally devised. The catechumenate was not in itself a departure from the fundamental principles of the primitive churches. There was a necessity, such as is felt by the missionaries in heathen lands at this day, of instructing converts in the first principles of the Christian faith. It is true now in heathendom as it was then, that a sufficient knowledge of the Christian faith for salvation may be gained in a comparatively brief time, while the convert is in a dense state of ignorance regarding all else that separates Christianity from his heathen faith. Accordingly, our own missionaries are compelled in some cases, perhaps in all, to exercise caution in the reception of those heathen who profess conversion, and to give them such preliminary instruction in Christian doctrine as will enable them intelligently to become disciples of Christ and members of a Christian church. But it is evident that instruction of this kind, prior to baptism, should be extremely simple and elementary, and need not be greatly protracted. So soon as the catechumenate was an established institution in the Catholic Church, its system of instruction became elaborate and prolonged, and candidates were delayed in these schools of instruction for many months, even for several years, before they were allowed to be baptized. The tendency of such an institution was to foster the idea that men might be educated into Christianity, and to decrease the reliance of the church upon the agency of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of men. The practical result was to introduce many into the church who had never been subjects of the regenerating grace of God, but had simply been instructed in Christianity as a system of theology or philosophy, and their intellectual assent to its teachings was accepted as equivalent to saving faith. What might have been and doubtless was at first an effective agency for good, became an instrument for the corruption of the church. While it endured and flourished, however (from the second to the fifth centuries), the catechumenate was an evidence not to be controverted of the general prevalence of adult baptism. Its decline and the growth of infant baptism were synchronous.
The idea of sacramental grace did not stop with the corruption of the doctrine of baptism, but extended to the Communion, or Eucharist, as it came to be generally called from the second century onward. There are passages in the early Fathers that amply justify the later doctrine known as the real presence and consubstantiation, if they do not go to the extreme length of transubstantiation. With the decrease of vital faith the increase of formalism kept pace, and the administration of the Lord's Supper, from being a simple and spiritual ceremony, became surrounded by a cloud of ritual and finally developed into the mass of the Roman Church. Laying as great a stress as Luther did later upon the mere letter of Scripture, the church of the third and fourth centuries insisted that the words "This is my body" were to be accepted by all faithful Christians as a literal statement of truth, and that Paul's words when he says that the broken bread is the body of Christ do not indicate a spiritual partaking of Christ's nature, but a literal and materialistic reception of it and through the bread and wine.
The development of the sacerdotal idea was an equally powerful agency in corrupting the church. Though the idea of a priesthood, other thaljthe priesthood of all believers, is not found in the New Testament, we find it very early in the post-apostolic literature. Both Jews and pagans were familiar with this idea of a priesthood, and they naturally, almost inevitably, carried their old religious ideas over into the religion that they had adopted in their adult years. For a time the Fathers seem to have used saeerdotal terms as they used sacramental terms, with a figurative rather than a literal meaning. When they speak of "sanctuary" and "altar" of "priest" and "sacrifice," they do not at first mean all that those words literally imply; but it was not long before the figure of speech disappeared and the literal meaning only remained. Clement of Rome was the first writer to draw a parallel between the Christian ministry and the Levitical priesthood, and is the first to speak of the "laity" as distinct from the clergy. In Tertullian and Cyprian we may trace the completion of the process, and by the end of the third century or early in the fourth, the idea was generally accepted that the clergy formed an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal order, a priestly caste completely separate from the laity.
So great a corruption in the idea of the functions of the ministry could hardly be unaccompanied by a change in its form; and the degeneration we have traced in the practices of the church would naturally affect its polity. What we might reasonably expect to happen did in fact come to pass. In the New Testament we find presbyterbishops, one office with two interchangeable titles, but early in the second century we find bishops and presbyters, two offices, not one, the bishop being superior to the presbyters. Just how this happened is not known, but it is supposed that in churches where a plurality of elders was found, one of the presbyters became the leader or president—whether by seniority, force of character or election can only be conjectured, and is unimportant. To him the title of bishop was gradually appropriated, so that from being at first only primus inter pares he came, after a generation or two, to be regarded as superior to the presbyters. This is the state of things that we find in the letters of Ignatius, written about the year A. D. 115. But the bishop was as yet bishop of a single church, though there may have been several congregations, each with its presbyters. The state of things was not unlike that which we find now in some of our large cities, where a church has a pastor and several assistants, ministers like himself, who have charge of mission stations in various parts of the city. If, now, we were to give to such a pastor the exclusive title of bishop, and regard his assistants as presbyters only, we should almost exactly reproduce the polity that we find in Jgnatius.
How and when this episcopate became diocesan we do not exactly know. As the churches of the great cities in the empire sent out preachers into the suburbs and adjacent towns, and new churches were formed, they would not unnaturally come under the authority of this bishop. We find from Irenćus onward his jurisdiction, originally described as his parish (paroikia), gradually enlarging, until the third century sees the diocesan system quite fully established. Cyprian goes so far as to tall the bishop the vicegerent of Christ in things spiritual, and almost to make him the church itself: "The church is in the bishop, and the bishop is in the church, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church."
We may also trace in these early centuries the beginn ings of the characteristic doctrines and practices that we associate with Romanism. "The church of the first four centuries" is the shibboleth of many High Churchmen, but they who adopt this motto must assuredly be wofully ignorant of the Fathers about whom they talk so much. If alt roads do not lead to Rome, this one certainly does. Make antiquity the test of truth and Rome has the argument—if by "antiquity" is meant as is usually the case, the first four centuries of Christianity, exclusive of the evidence of the New Testament. In those centuries we find the full doctrine of the mass, the doctrine of penance, confession and priestly absolution, purgatory, the invocation of saints and the use of images in worship. In short, we find all of Romanism but its name and the pope.
We find another thing, not alone characteristic of Romanism, though most prominent in that system, a growth of asceticism resulting in the practice of clerical celibacy and monachism. This likewise may be traced to the root-idea of salvation by works. The Gnostic and Manich~an heresies, though nominally rejected by the Church, were in part accepted. Teaching an eternal conflict between spirit and matter, and that the latter is the source of all evil, this philosophy was easily reconciled with the idea of salvation by works. Sin was held to be the result of the union of man's spirit with a body, and only by keeping the body under, mortifying the flesh by fasting and maceration, could sin be overcome. The contempt for marriage and the undue exaltation of virginity that appears in the Fathers, notably in Jerome, not only gave impetus to monachism and the celibacy of the clergy, with their vast train of evils, but laid the foundation for the exaltation of Mary above her Son, and the idolatries and blasphemies of Roman Catholicism.
It would be unprofitable to go further into the details of this doctrinal and moral corruption of Christianity. All its ramifications sprang from the one idea that salvation is not the free gift of God through Christ, but something to be earned by human effort or purchased from a store of merits laid up by the saints. But it is worth our while to note, in conclusion, that the rapidity with which the doctrine, ritual, and polity of the early church degenerated, was directly proportioned to its growth in wealth and worldly prosperity. There is no lesson taught by the first centuries that needs to be learned now by Baptists more than this. So long as the church was feeble, persecuted, and poor, though in some things it departed from the standard of the New Testament, it was comparatively pure in both doctrine and life. Adversity refined and strengthened it; prosperity weakened and corrupted it. What the persecutions of Nero and Domitian were powerless to accomplish, the patronage of Constantine and his successors did only too well. Baptists have had their period of adversity, when they inherited Christ's promise, "Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." Will they endure the harder test of prosperity, when they are great in numbers, in wealth, in influence, so that all men speak well of them?