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331

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE NEED OF MACHINERY FOR THE PRESERVATION AND TRANSMISSION OF THE FAITH.—THE MACHINERY OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH.

“Thou therefore, my child, be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also”—2 Tim. ii. 1, 2.

In this tenderly affectionate address we have a very early indication of the beginnings of Christian tradition and Christian schools, two subjects intimately connected with one another. St. Paul having pointed out as a warning to his “child” Timothy the cold or cowardly behaviour of those in Asia who had turned away from him, and as an example the affectionate courage of Onesiphorus, returns to the charge of which this letter is so full, that Timothy is “not to be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord,” but be willing to “suffer hardship with the gospel according to the power of God” (i. 8). “Thou therefore, my child,” with these instances in mind on the one hand and on the other, “be inwardly strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” In his own strength he will be able to do nothing; but in the grace which Christ freely bestows on all believers who ask it of Him, Timothy will be able to find all that he needs for the strengthening of his own character and for the instruction 332 of others. And here St. Paul, in a way thoroughly natural in one who is writing a letter which is personal rather than official, diverges for a moment to give utterance to the idea which passes through his mind of securing permanence in the instruction of the faithful. Possibly it was in reference to this duty that he feared the natural despondency and sensitiveness of Timothy. Timothy would be likely to shrink from such work, or to do it in a half-hearted way. Or again the thought that this letter is to summon Timothy to come to him is in his mind (iv. 9, 21), and he forthwith exhorts him to make proper provision for continuity of sound teaching in the Church committed to his care. “The things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” In other words, before leaving his flock in order to visit his spiritual father and friend, he is to secure the establishment of apostolic tradition. And in order to do this he is to establish a school,—a school of picked scholars, intelligent enough to appreciate, and trustworthy enough to preserve, all that has been handed down from Christ and His Apostles respecting the essentials of the Christian faith. There is only one Gospel,—that which the Apostles have preached ever since the Ascension. It is so well known, so well authenticated both by intrinsic sublimity and external testimony, that no one would be justified in accepting a different Gospel, even upon the authority of an angel from heaven. A second Gospel is an impossibility. That which is not identical with the Gospel which St. Paul and the other Apostles have preached would be no Gospel at all (Gal. i. 6–9). And this Divine and Apostolic Gospel is the Gospel which has been 333 committed to Timothy’s charge. Let him take all reasonable care for its preservation.

For in the first place, such care was commanded from the outset. Christ has promised that His truth shall continue and shall prevail. But He has not exempted Christians from the duty of preserving and propagating it. He, Who is the Truth, has declared that He is ever with His Church, even unto the end of the world (Matt. xxviii. 20); and in fulfilment of this promise He has bestowed the Spirit of truth upon it. But He has nowhere hinted that His Church is to leave the cause of His Gospel to take care of itself. On the contrary, at the very time that He promised to be alway with His disciples, He prefaced this promise with the command, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, ... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you;” as if His promise were contingent upon their fulfilment of this charge. At the very moment when the Church received the truth, it was told that it had the responsibility of safeguarding it and making it known.

And, secondly, experience has proved how entirely necessary such care is. The Gospel cannot be superseded by any announcement possessing a larger measure of truth and authority. So far as the present dispensation goes, its claims are absolute and final. But it may be seriously misunderstood; it may be corrupted by large admixture of error; it may be partially or even totally forgotten; it may be supplanted by some meretricious counterfeit. There were Thessalonians who had supposed that the Gospel exempted them from the obligation of working to earn their bread. There were Christians at Corinth and Ephesus who had confounded the liberty of the Gospel with antinomian 334 license. There was the Church of Sardis which had so completely forgotten what it had received, that no works of its doing were found fulfilled before God, and the remnant of truth and life which survived was ready to perish. And the Churches of Galatia had been in danger of casting on one side the glories of the Gospel and returning to the bondage of the Law. Through ignorance, through neglect, through wilful misrepresentation or interested opposition, the truth might be obscured, or depraved, or defeated; and there were few places where such disastrous results were more possible than at Ephesus. Its restless activity in commerce and speculation; its worldliness; the seductiveness of its forms of paganism;—all these constituted an atmosphere in which Christian truth, unless carefully protected, would be likely to become tainted or be ignored. Even without taking into account the proposal that Timothy should leave Ephesus for awhile and visit the Apostle in his imprisonment at Rome, it was no more than necessary precaution that he should endeavour to secure the establishment of a permanent centre for preserving and handing on in its integrity the faith once for all committed to the saints.

“The things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses.” The last three words are remarkable; and they are still more remarkable in the original Greek. St. Paul does not say simply “in the presence of many witnesses” (ἐνώπιον or παρόντων πολλῶν μαρτύρων) but “by means of many witnesses” (διὰ πολλῶν μαρτύρων). In the First Epistle (vi. 12) he had appealed to the good confession which Timothy had made “in the sight of many witnesses.” As regards Timothy’s confession these were witnesses and no more. They were able for ever afterwards to testify 335 that he had made it; but they did not help him to make it. The confession was his, not theirs, although no doubt they assented to it and approved it; and their presence in no way affected its goodness. But here those who were present were something more than mere witnesses of what the Apostle said to Timothy; they were an integral part of the proceeding. Their presence was an element without which the Apostle’s teaching would have assumed a different character. They were not a mere audience, able to testify as to what was said; they were guarantees of the instruction which was given. The sentiments and opinions which St Paul might express in private to his disciple, and the authoritative teaching which he delivered to him in public under the sanction of many witnesses, were two different things and stood on different grounds. Timothy had often heard from his friend his personal views on a variety of subjects; and he had often heard from the Apostle his official testimony, delivered solemnly in the congregation, as to the truths of the Gospel. It is this latter body of instruction, thus amply guaranteed, of which Timothy is to take such care. He is to treat it as a treasure committed to his charge, a precious legacy which he holds in trust. And in his turn he is to commit it to the keeping of trustworthy persons, who will know its value, and be capable of preserving it intact and of handing it on to others as trustworthy as themselves.

Some expositors interpret the passage as referring, not to the Apostle’s public teaching as a whole, but to the instructions which he gave to Timothy at his ordination respecting the proper discharge of his office; and the aorist tense ἤκουσας favours the view that some definite occasion is intended (comp. 1 Tim. iv. 14; 336 2 Tim. i. 6). In that case the Apostle is here showing anxiety for the establishment of a sound tradition respecting the duties of ministers,—a very important portion, but by no means the main portion of the teaching which he had imparted. But the aorist does not compel us to confine the allusion to some one event, such as Timothy’s ordination or baptism; and it seems more reasonable to understand the charge here given as a continuation of that which occurs towards the close of the first chapter. There he says, “Hold the pattern of sound words which thou hast heard” (ἤκουσας) “from me;” and here he charges Timothy not merely to hold this pattern of sound words fast himself, but to take care that it does not perish with him.

This, then, may be considered as the earliest trace of the formation of a theological school,—a school which has for its object not merely the instruction of the ignorant, but the protection and maintenance of a definite body of doctrine: That which the Apostle, when he was in Ephesus, publicly taught, under the sanction of a multitude of witnesses, is to be preserved and handed on without compromise or corruption as a pattern of wholesome doctrine. There are unhealthy and even deadly distortions of the truth in the air, and unless care is taken to preserve the truth, it may easily become possible to confuse weak and ignorant minds as to what are the essentials of the Christian faith.

The question as to the earliest methods of Christian instruction and the precautions taken for the preservation of Apostolic tradition is one of the many particulars in which our knowledge of the primitive Church is so tantalizingly meagre. A small amount of information is given us in the New Testament, for the most part 337 quite incidentally, as here; and then the history runs underground, and does not reappear for a century or more. The first few generations of Christians did not contain a large number of persons who were capable of producing anything very considerable in the way of literature. Of those who had the ability, not many had the leisure or the inclination to write. It was more important to teach by word of mouth than with the pen; and where was the use of leaving records of what was being done, when (as was generally believed) Christ would almost immediately appear to put an end to the existing dispensation? Out of what was written much, as we know, has perished, including even documents of Apostolic origin (Luke i. 1, 2; 1 Cor. v. 9; 3 John 9). Therefore, much as we lament the scantiness of the evidence that has come down to us, there is nothing surprising about it. The marvel is, not that so little contemporary history has reached us, but that so much has done so. And what it behoves us to do is to make a sober use of such testimony as we possess.

We shall be doing no more than drawing a reasonable conclusion from the passage before us if we infer, that what St. Paul enjoins Timothy to do at Ephesus was done in many other Churches also, partly in consequence of this Apostolic injunction, and partly because what he enjoins would be suggested in many cases by necessity and common sense. This inference is confirmed by the fact that it is precisely to the continuity of doctrine secured by a regular succession of authorized and official teachers in the different Churches that appeal is continually made by some of the earliest Christian writers whose works have come down to us. Thus Hegesippus (c. A.D. 170) gives as the result of 338 careful personal investigations at Corinth, Rome, and elsewhere, “But in every succession (of bishops) and in every city there prevails just what the Law and the Prophets and the Lord proclaim” (Eus., H.E., IV. xxii. 3). Irenæus, in his great work against heresies, which was completed about A.D. 185, says, “We can enumerate those who were appointed bishops by the Apostles themselves in the different Churches, and their successors down to our own day; and they neither taught nor acknowledged any such stuff as is raved by these men.... But since it would be a long business in a work of this kind to enumerate the successions in all the Churches,” he selects as a primary example that of “the very great and ancient Church, well known to all men, founded and established by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul.” After giving the succession of Roman bishops from Linus to Eleutherus, he glances at Smyrna, presided over by St. John’s disciple, Polycarp, whose letter to the Philippian Church shows what he believed, and at Ephesus, founded as a Church by St. Paul and presided over by St. John, until the times of Trajan (III. iii. 1–3). Again he says, that, although there may be different opinions respecting single passages of Scripture, yet there can be none as to the sum total of its contents, viz. “that which the Apostles have deposited in the Church as the fulness of truth, and which has been preserved in the Church by the succession of bishops.” And again, still more definitely, “The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the Apostles and their disciples the belief in one God, Father Almighty, etc.... Having received this preaching and this belief, the Church, as we said before, although dispersed about 339 the whole world, carefully guards it, as if dwelling in one house; and she believes these things, as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and with perfect concord she preaches them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For although the languages up and down the world are different, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For neither the Churches which are established in Germany believe anything different or hand down anything different, nor in Spain, nor in Gaul, nor throughout the East, nor in Egypt, nor in Libya, nor those established about the central regions of the earth.... And neither will he who is very mighty in word among those who preside in the Churches utter different [doctrines] from these (for no one is above the Master), nor will he who is weak in speaking lessen the tradition” (I. x. 1, 2). Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) tells us that he had studied in Greece, Italy, and the East, under teachers from Ionia, Cœlesyria, Assyria, and Palestine; and he writes of his teachers thus: “These men, preserving the true tradition of the blessed teaching directly from Peter and James, from John and Paul, the holy Apostles, son receiving it from father (but few are they who are like their fathers), came by God’s providence even to us, to deposit among us those seeds which are ancestral and apostolic” (Strom., I. p. 322, ed. Potter). Tertullian in like manner appeals to the unbroken tradition, reaching back to the Apostles, in a variety of Churches: “Run over the Apostolic Churches, in which the very chairs of the Apostles still preside in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them;” and he mentions in particular Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, 340 Ephesus, and Rome. “Is it likely that Churches of such number and weight should have strayed into one and the same faith?” (De Præs. Hær., xxviii., xxxvi.).

This evidence is quite sufficient to prove that what St. Paul charged Timothy to do at Ephesus was done not only there but at all the chief centres of the Christian Church: viz., that everywhere great care was taken to provide continuity of authoritative teaching respecting the articles of the faith. It indicates also that as a rule the bishop in each place was regarded as the custodian of the deposit, who was to be chiefly responsible for its preservation. But the precise method or methods (for there was probably different machinery in different places) by which this was accomplished, cannot now be ascertained. It is not until near the end of the second century that we begin to get anything like precise information as to the way in which Christian instruction was given, whether to believers or heathen, in one or two of the principal centres of Christendom; e.g., Alexandria, Cæsarea, and Jerusalem.

St Paul himself had ruled that a bishop must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. iii. 2; comp. Tit. i. 9); and although we have no reason to suppose that as a rule the bishop was the only or even the chief instructor, yet he probably selected the teachers, as Timothy is directed to do here. In the great Catechetical School of Alexandria the appointment of what we should now call the Rector or senior professor was in the hands of the bishop. And, as we might expect, bishops selected clergy for this most important office. It forms one of the many contrasts between primitive Christianity and heathenism, that Christians did, and pagans did not, 341 regard it as one of the functions of the priesthood to give instruction in the traditional faith. The heathen clergy, if consulted, would give information respecting the due performance of rites and ceremonies, and the import of omens and dreams; but of their giving systematic teaching as to what was to be believed respecting the gods, there is no trace.

It is more than probable that a great deal of the instruction both to candidates for baptism and candidates for the ministry was from very early times reduced to something like a formula; even before the dangers of corruption arising from Gnosticism rendered this necessary, we may believe that it took place. We know that the Gospel history was in the first instance taught orally; and the oral instruction very soon fell into something that approached to a stereotyped form. This would probably be the case with regard to statements of the essentials of the Christian faith. In Ignatius (Philad., viii.), Justin Martyr (Apol., I. 61, 66), and in Irenæus (Hær., I. x. 1) we can trace what may well have been formulas in common use. But it is not until the middle of the fourth century that we get a complete example of the systematic instruction given by a Christian teacher, in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, delivered, however, before his episcopate.

But what is certain respecting the earliest ages of the Church is this; that in every Church regular instruction in the faith was given by persons in authority specially selected for this work, and that frequent intercourse between the Churches showed that the substance of the instruction given was in all cases the same, whether the form of words was identical or not. These facts, which do not by any means stand alone, are conclusive 342 against the hypothesis, that between the Crucifixion and the middle of the second century, a complete revolution in the creed was effected; and that the traditional belief of Christians is not that which Jesus of Nazareth taught, but a perversion of it which owes its origin mainly to the overwhelming influence of His professed follower, but virtual supplanter, Saul of Tarsus.

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