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§ 2. General Character of Ante-Nicene Christianity.
We now descend from the primitive apostolic church to the Graeco-Roman; from the scene of creation to the work of preservation; from the fountain of divine revelation to the stream of human development; from the inspirations of the apostles and prophets to the productions of enlightened but fallible teachers. The hand of God has drawn a bold line of demarcation between the century of miracles and the succeeding ages, to show, by the abrupt transition and the striking contrast, the difference between the work of God and the work of man, and to impress us the more deeply with the supernatural origin of Christianity and the incomparable value of the New Testament. There is no other transition in history so radical and sudden, and yet so silent and secret. The stream of divine life in its passage from the mountain of inspiration to the valley of tradition is for a short time lost to our view, and seems to run under ground. Hence the close of the first and the beginning of the second centuries, or the age of the Apostolic Fathers is often regarded as a period for critical conjecture and doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversy rather than for historical narration.
Still, notwithstanding the striking difference, the church of the second and third centuries is a legitimate continuation of that of the primitive age. While far inferior in originality, purity, energy, and freshness, it is distinguished for conscientious fidelity in preserving and propagating the sacred writings and traditions of the apostles, and for untiring zeal in imitating their holy lives amidst the greatest difficulties and dangers, when the religion of Christ was prohibited by law and the profession of it punished as a political crime.
The second period, from the death of the apostle John to the end of the persecutions, or to the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is the classic age of the ecclesia pressa, of heathen persecution, and of Christian martyrdom and heroism, of cheerful sacrifice of possessions and life itself for the inheritance of heaven. It furnishes a continuous commentary on the Saviour’s words: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword."22 r. 4:10; Rom. 8:36; Phil. 3:10 sq. Col. 1:24 sq.; 1 Pet. 2:21 No merely human religion could have stood such an ordeal of fire for three hundred years. The final victory of Christianity over Judaism and heathenism, and the mightiest empire of the ancient world, a victory gained without physical force, but by the moral power of patience and perseverance, of faith and love, is one of the sublimest spectacles in history, and one of the strongest evidences of the divinity and indestructible life of our religion.
But equally sublime and significant are the intellectual and spiritual victories of the church in this period over the science and art of heathenism, and over the assaults of Gnostic and Ebionitic heresy, with the copious vindication and development of the Christian truth, which the great mental conflict with those open and secret enemies called forth.
The church of this period appears poor in earthly possessions and honors, but rich in heavenly grace, in world-conquering faith, love, and hope; unpopular, even outlawed, hated, and persecuted, yet far more vigorous and expansive than the philosophies of Greece or the empire of Rome; composed chiefly of persons of the lower social ranks, yet attracting the noblest and deepest minds of the age, and bearing, in her bosom the hope of the world; "as unknown, yet well-known, as dying, and behold it lives;" conquering by apparent defeat, and growing on the blood of her martyrs; great in deeds, greater in sufferings, greatest in death for the honor of Christ and the benefit of generations to come.33 Isaac Taylor, in his Ancient Christianity of the early church challenge our respect, as well as affection; for theirs was the fervor of a steady faith in things unseen and eternal; theirs, often, a meek patience under the most grievous wrongs; theirs the courage to maintain a good profession before the frowning face of philosophy, of secular tyranny, and of splendid superstition; theirs was abstractedness from the world and a painful self-denial; theirs the most arduous and costly labors of love; theirs a munificence in charity, altogether without example; theirs was a reverent and scrupulous care of the sacred writings; and this one merit, if they had no other, is of a superlative degree, and should entitle them to the veneration and grateful regards of the modern church. How little do many readers of the Bible, nowadays, think of what it cost the Christians of the second and third centuries, merely to rescue and hide the sacred treasures from the rage of the heathen!"
The condition and manners of the Christians in this age are most beautifully described by the unknown author of the "Epistola ad Diognetum" in the early part of the second century.44 "The Christians," he says, "are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and are made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are calumniated, and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell. In short, what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is diffused through all the members of the body, and the Christians are spread through the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; so the Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, invisible, keeps watch in the visible body; so also the Christians are seen to live in the world, but their piety is invisible. The flesh hates and wars against the soul, suffering no wrong from it, but because it resists fleshly pleasures; and the world hates the Christians with no reason, but that they resist its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh and members, by which it is hated; so the Christians love their haters. The soul is inclosed in the body, but holds the body together; so the Christians are detained in the world as in a prison; but they contain the world. Immortal, the soul dwells in the mortal body; so the Christians dwell in the corruptible, but look for incorruption in heaven. The soul is the better for restriction in food and drink; and the Christians increase, though daily punished. This lot God has assigned to the Christians in the world; and it cannot be taken from them."
The community of Christians thus from the first felt itself, in distinction from Judaism and from heathenism, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city of God set on a hill, the immortal soul in a dying body; and this its impression respecting itself was no proud conceit, but truth and reality, acting in life and in death, and opening the way through hatred and persecution even to an outward victory over the world.
The ante-Nicene age has been ever since the Reformation a battle-field between Catholic and Evangelical historians and polemics, and is claimed by both for their respective creeds. But it is a sectarian abuse of history to identify the Christianity of this martyr period either with Catholicism, or with Protestantism. It is rather the common root out of which both have sprung, Catholicism (Greek and Roman) first, and Protestantism afterwards. It is the natural transition from the apostolic age to the Nicene age, yet leaving behind many important truths of the former (especially the Pauline doctrines) which were to be derived and explored in future ages. We can trace in it the elementary forms of the Catholic creed, organization and worship, and also the germs of nearly all the corruptions of Greek and Roman Christianity.
In its relation to the secular power, the ante-Nicene church is simply the continuation of the apostolic period, and has nothing in common either with the hierarchical, or with the Erastian systems. It was not opposed to the secular government in its proper sphere, but the secular heathenism of the government was opposed to Christianity. The church was altogether based upon the voluntary principle, as a self-supporting and self-governing body. In this respect it may be compared to the church in the United States, but with this essential difference that in America the secular government, instead of persecuting Christianity, recognizes and protects it by law, and secures to it full freedom of public worship and in all its activities at home and abroad.
The theology of the second and third centuries was mainly apologetic against the paganism of Greece and Rome, and polemic against the various forms of the Gnostic heresy. In this conflict it brings out, with great force and freshness, the principal arguments for the divine origin and character of the Christian religion and the outlines of the true doctrine of Christ and the holy trinity, as afterwards more fully developed in the Nicene and post-Nicene ages.
The organization of this period may be termed primitive episcopacy, as distinct from the apostolic order which preceded, and the metropolitan and patriarchal hierarchy which succeeded it. In worship it forms likewise the transition from apostolic simplicity to the liturgical and ceremonial splendor of full-grown Catholicism.
The first half of the second century is comparatively veiled in obscurity, although considerable light has been shed over it by recent discoveries and investigations. After the death of John only a few witnesses remain to testify of the wonders of the apostolic days, and their writings are few in number, short in compass and partly of doubtful origin: a volume of letters and historical fragments, accounts of martyrdom, the pleadings of two or three apologists; to which must be added the rude epitaphs, faded pictures, and broken sculptures of the subterranean church in the catacombs. The men of that generation were more skilled in acting out Christianity in life and death, than in its literary defence. After the intense commotion of the apostolic age there was a breathing spell, a season of unpretending but fruitful preparation for a new productive epoch. But the soil of heathenism had been broken up, and the new seed planted by the hands of the apostles gradually took root.
Then came the great literary conflict of the apologists and doctrinal polemics in the second half of the same century; and towards the middle of the third the theological schools of Alexandria, and northern Africa, laying the foundation the one for the theology of the Greek, the other for that of the Latin church. At the beginning of the fourth century the church east and west was already so well consolidated in doctrine and discipline that it easily survived the shock of the last and most terrible persecution, and could enter upon the fruits of its long-continued sufferings and take the reins of government in the old Roman empire.
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