committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

Chapter 5

ONE HUNDRED TO TWO HUNDRED A.D.

The Rise of Christian Sects

The first century closed with the death of the last of the apostles and writers of the New Testament, the Apostle John. No sooner had the apostles and disciples, who had been with Jesus, fallen asleep, than a new order arose and a different class of writers began to pen religious epistles. Hurlbut says of this change, in his Story of the Christian Church:

"For fifty years after St. Paul's life, a curtain hangs over the church, through which we vainly strive to look; and when at last it rises, about 129 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul." -- Page 41.

 

The Great Apostasy

  The apostle Paul declared that the day of the Lord could not come, " Except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition . . . For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way," II Thessalonians 2:1-7.

Paul also wrote as follows, "I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them," Acts 20:29, 30. In verse 32 he says, "And now, brethren I commend you to God, and to the Word of his grace."

The above prophecies of Paul have been most strikingly fulfilled, as will be shown by the following historical notations taken from reliable sources. The great falling away came, and that man of sin, "The Papacy," was revealed in his time.

Mr. Dowling, in his History of Romanism bears the following testimony: "There is scarcely anything which strikes the mind of the careful student of ancient ecclesiastical history with greater surprise than the comparatively early period at which many of the corruptions of Christianity, which are embodied in the Romish system, took their rise; yet it is not to be supposed that when the first originators of many of these unscriptural notions and practices planted those germs of corruptions, they anticipated or even imagined they would ever grow into such a hideous system of superstition and error as that of popery. . . . Each of the great corruptions of the latter ages took its rise in a manner which it should be harsh to say was deserving of strong reprehension . . . The worship of images, the invocation of saints, and the superstition of relics, were but expansions of the natural feelings of veneration and affection cherished toward the memory of those who had suffered and died for the truth." -- Book 2, Ch. 1, Sec. 1.

The working of the mystery of iniquity in the first centuries of the Christian church is thus described by a recent writer:

"During these centuries, the chief corruptions of popery were either introduced in principle, or the seeds of them so effectually sown as naturally to produce those baneful fruits which appeared so plentifully at a later period. In Justin Martyr's time, within fifty years of the apostolic age, the cup was mixed with water, and a portion of the elements sent to the absent. The bread, which at first was sent only to the sick, was, in the time of Tertullian and Cyprian, carried home by the people, and locked up as a divine treasure for their private use. At this time, too, the ordinance of the supper was given to infants of the tenderest age, and was styled the sacrifice of the body of Christ. The custom of praying for the dead, Tertullian states, was common in the second century, and became the universal practice of the following ages; so that it came in the fourth century to be reckoned a kind of heresy to deny the efficacy of it. By this time the invocation of saints, the superstitious use of images, of the sign of the cross, and of consecrated oil, were become established practices, and pretended miracles were confidently abduced in proof of their supposed efficacy. Thus did that mystery of iniquity, which was already working in the time of the apostles, speedily after their departure, spread its corruptions among the professors of Christianity." -- The Modern Sabbath Examined, pp. 123,124.

"Toward the close of this century (second), the controversy concerning the proper time of the observation of Easter (Passover), was unhappily revived. Synods were held concerning it, and uniformity was attempted in vain throughout the church . . . That this controversy should appear to be a matter of such moment, at this time, proves that the power of true godliness had already suffered considerable declension. When faith and love are simple, strong, and active in an eminent degree, such subjects of debate are ever known to vanish as mists before the sun." -- Townsend's Abridgment, p. 87, Ed. 1816.

Robinson, author of the History of Baptism speaks as follows: "Toward the latter end of the second century, most of the churches assumed a new form, the first simplicity disappeared; and insensibly, as the old disciples retired to their graves, their children, along with new converts, both Jews and Gentiles, came forward and new-modeled the cause." -- Eccl. Researches, Chap. 6, p. 51, 1792.

"At the end of the second century, . . . it is obvious to remark the changes that had already been introduced in much of the Christian worship. The garb of heathenism was already being worn. The seed of most of these errors . . . marred its beauty and tarnished its glory, also that distinction of grades began to be established that ended in the papal hierarchy." -- Wharey's Church History.

"By the ambitious intrusions of selfrighteousness, argumentative refinements, and Pharisaic pride, the Spirit of God was grieved, and godliness in the professed friends of Christ, began in this Century (second) to decay." -- Townsend's Abridgement, p. 88.

Mosheim's History speaks of a sect of Christians, who met on the first day of the week, with their faces turned toward the sun to pray, also of their singing songs in honor of the sun and moon. They taught that Christ was in both, and that the soul after death first went to the moon to be cleansed of outward sins, and then to the sun to be purified within, after which they flew out among the stars to shine forever more.

The steady gains made by the Church of God in diffusing their pure religion among the Romans, who were sun-worshipers, could not long pass unnoticed. Their open attacks upon paganism made them extremely obnoxious to the populace. Horrid tales of their abominations were circulated throughout the Roman empire, during the century, and thus the minds of the pagans were prepared for every act of cruelty possible to inflict upon them. Rome was set on fire and much of the city destroyed, and it is not strange that Nero should try to transfer to this hated sect the guilt of which he was strongly suspected, that of having caused the fire. With this view they inflicted upon the church terrible persecution. Some were crucified, some thrown to wild beasts, and many wrapped in clothes saturated with tar, were burned as torches in the garden of Nero, and in other parts of the city of Rome. The virtues of the church, their zeal for truth, and constancy in suffering, contributed to their respect and made this sect generally known. The death of these humble martyrs thus won thousands to the cause by inflaming zeal, uniting hearts, and putting to shame their enemies. -- Hugh Smith's Church History.

"The first Christians, with the purest benevolence toward the persons of heretics, gave their errors no quarter, and discountenanced them by every reasonable method. The real heretics, on the contrary, endeavored to unite themselves with Christians. This they did, with a view, no doubt, to obtain a more extensive circulation of their errors, under the cloak of their being still in fellowship with those, whose real piety and soundness in the faith could not be doubted." -- Townsend's Abridgement, p. 60. Ed. 1816.

 

Early Writers

  After the death of the Apostles Paul, Peter, and John, history of the early church is confined to the writings of the Church Fathers, so called, who penned their epistles perhaps in sincerity, but not under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as did the apostles. While we may consider the epistles of these early writers from a historical viewpoint, we cannot consider them as a basis of doctrine, or faith, for their opinions are varied, the one contradicting the other.

Lamson says of these early writers: "Many of them were learned, but few of them knew how to apply their learning to any good purpose . . . The theology of most of them exhibited a strange and unnatural union of Christian doctrines with the philosophy taught in the Platonic schools of Alexandria, the most worthless that ever tasked the speculative intellect; and they were, almost without exception, addicted to the fanciful modes of interpretation, and particularly the allegorizing spirit, which characterized the same schools. There is no species of absurdity, in the interpretation, reasoning, faith, or opinion, of which their writings do not furnish abundance of examples." -- Lamson, Church of the First Three Centuries, Ed. 1874, pp. 331, 332.

He further says: "There is not an opinion so extravagant that an advocate for it may not be found among the old Fathers of the Church." -- Idem, p. 335.

Irenius, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, and Apolinaris, were all early writers of the church. Their writings in the first centuries, after the death of the original apostles and disciples, were laborious and expensive, being mostly confined to baked clay tablets, and some parchments, and bark from trees. These writings remained, much of which was found in the great library of Alexandria, Egypt, where they were totally destroyed by the followers of Mohammed, early in the sixth century. Upon the capture of Alexandria by the Mohammedans, they decided that if this vast library agreed with the writings of Mohammed they did not need them, and if they disagreed they should be destroyed, says Sales, in his history of Mohammedanism. Thus these early writings became extinct with the exceptions of fragments having been taken to Rome and Constantinople. As the contention between the Bishops of Jerusalem and Alexandria with those of the West, and especially with Rome, became intense, the original writings of these men were either totally destroyed, or forever concealed, and new and spurious works printed during the seventh century, the writings being so changed, in revisions, they could scarcely be recognized. Such work, however, sufficed in putting down opposition to the Roman hierarchy; for, as these volumes were circulated throughout the Eastern churches much opposition to the interpretation on doctrine, as taught by the bishops of the West, ceased. Many books of the early writers were never reprinted, as those of Hierapolis on the defense of the Christian religion, Symmachus, Melito, Apolinaris and others.

Concerning Tertullian, one of the leaders in the province of Africa, who flourished from the year 194 to 220, if historians are correct concerning him: "He exhibited a striking instance how much wisdom and weakness, learning and ignorance, faith and folly, truth and error, goodness and delusion, may be mixed up in the composition of the same person." -- Haweis' Church History, Vol. 1, p. 192.

 

The True Church

  "It has been observed that on the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 A.D., by Titus, the church retired to Pella. In this situation they were forbidden to return to Jerusalem. Languishing for sixty years deprived of revisiting the place of their dearest hope, they evaded the law, directed against Jews, by electing Mark, a prelate of the Gentile race for their bishop. Thus, they were permitted entrance into the city, and the standard of Christianity, 130 A.D., was again erected in the Holy City. A considerable part of the Jewish Christians, however, for various reasons remained behind at Pella." -- Hugh Smith's History, p. 72.

Professor Hugh Smith, the Presbyterian writer, in his church history says, of these so-called Nazarenes, "Abhorred and publicly execrated by the Jews for their attachment to Christianity, and despised by the Christians for their prejudice in favor of the Mosaic law (the Sabbath), they were peculiarly oppressed and unfortunate. Traces of this sect appear as late as the fourth century, being joined by what is known as the Ecesaites, a mixture of Judaism and Christianity." -- p. 72.

Dr. Francis White, Lord Bishop of Ely, mentions the Nazarenes as one of the ancient bodies of Sabbath-keepers who were condemned by the church leaders for that heresy; and he classes them with heretics, as Morer has done (Decline and Fall, chap. 15). Yet the Nazarenes have a peculiar claim to our regard, as being the apostolic church of Jerusalem, and its direct successors.

"The Jewish converts, or, as they were afterwards called, the Nazarenes, who had laid the foundations of the church, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ . . . The Nazarenes retired from the ruins of Jerusalem to the little town of Pella beyond the Jordan, where that ancient church languished above sixty years in solitude and obscurity." -- Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chap. 15.

Although, as we have stated previously, the writings of the Church Fathers cannot be taken for scriptural doctrines, yet we may glean from them items of historical note. For instance, we find in their writings, addressed to the various assemblies, the title of "The Church of God" as applying to the various bodies, showing that the true name was still retained generally in the first centuries.

In the writings of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, in the second century, he addresses the church of Smyrna thus: "The Churches of God." On page 79, in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, he says, "To the Church of God, which is at Philadelphia."

The churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia are spoken of by the Apostle John in Revelation, Revelation 2:8, and chapter 3:7. The church of Antioch is mentioned in Acts 11:26, and Ignatius on page 85, in his "Epistle to the Philadelphians," writes thus: "To the church which is at Antioch . . . it will become you as a Church of God to elect a deacon to act as the ambassador of God for you. We see how, therefore, the New Testament name "Church of God," was preserved and used to this time in speaking of the true followers of Jesus Christ, even though the world characterized them by other names.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved