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CHAPTER VI

THE ECLIPSE OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY

FROM the close of the apostolic era, even beginning in the days of the apostles, we have seen two opposing tendencies struggling for the mastery in the churches of Christ, which may be briefly described as the spiritual and the worldly. Jesus and his apostles taught salvation by faith, but almost immediately some Christians taught salvation by works. According to the former teaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordinances to be observed by those regenerated by the Spirit of God; according to the other teaching baptism and the Lord’s Supper were sacraments, channels of divine grace, by which men were made regenerate and confirmed in holiness. The administration of such sacraments demanded a priesthood. So step by step, and by an inevitable process of evolution, the doctrine of salvation by works produced what we know to-day as the Roman Catholic Church, at its head an infallible pope, outside of which church salvation is assured to none. Against this process of development various bodies of Christians, as we have seen, contended in vain during the first four centuries. There were similar contentions throughout the process. The truth was never quite crushed to earth; there were always parties or sects, bitterly hated and persecuted by Catholics, that held with more or less consistency to the evangelical religion. These comparatively pure survivals are found latest in the two extreme portions of the then civilized Europe, in Britain and in Bulgaria.

Rome’s most audacious theft was when she seized bodily the Apostle Peter and made him the putative head and founder of her system; but next to that brazen act stands her effrontery when she “ annexed” the great missionary preacher of Ireland and enrolled him among her saints.” In order to conceal the true character of the transaction, Romanists have published lying biographies of Patrick without number, until the real man has been quite forgotten. Modern research has, however, brought the truth to light once more.

Patrick was born about 360, probably near what is now Dumbarton, Scotland. His father was a deacon and a Roman civil officer. At the age of sixteen he was carried away captive and sold into slavery in Ireland. Six years after he escaped, and in later life he was moved to become a Christian missionary to the people among whom he had lived as a slave. These facts, and all other trustworthy information about Patrick, we learn from two of his writings that have survived, his “Confession” or “ Epistle to the Irish,” and an “ Epistle to Coroticus.” The date of his death is as uncertain as that of his birth, but tradition ascribes to him extreme old age

From these writings of Patrick we learn that his teaching and practice were, in many particulars at least, evangelical. The testimony is ample that he baptized believers only. For example, he writes: “ So that even after my death I may leave as legacies to my brethren, and to my Sons whom I have baptized in the Lord, so many thousand men.” “Perhaps, since I have baptized so many thousand men, I might have expected half a screpall [a coin worth six cents] from some of them; tell it to me and I will restore it to you.” Not only is there no mention of infants, but he uniformly speaks of “men," “handmaidens of Christ,” “women,” and “baptized believers.” It is inconceivable that he should not have added “infants” had he baptized such.

Again, from all that we can learn, Patrick’s baptism was that of apostolic times, which was still general throughout Europe, immersion. He does not speak explicitly on this point in his own writings, but the earliest accounts of his labors agree that his converts were baptized in fountains, wells, and streams. His baptism probably differed from the apostolic in being trine immersion, since that was the form practised in the ancient British church, and in practically the whole Christian world in his day.

Patrick also pays great reverence to Scripture as the supreme authority in religion. He never appeals to the authority of church, or council, or prelate, or creed, but to the word of God; and in his extant writings, brief as they are, no fewer than one hundred and thirteen passages of Scripture are referred to or quoted. There is no trace in his letters of purgatory, mariolatry, or submission to the authority of pope. He did not oppose these things, he was simply ignorant of them, it would appear, though in some parts of the church they were fast gaining ground.

The churches founded by Patrick, and those existing in other parts of Britain, were not according to apostolic pattern in some things. Patrick was himself a bishop, and the three orders of the ministry seem to have been already developed in the British churches of his day. Though celibacy of the clergy was not required, there was a strain of asceticism and monasticism in these churches that became very pronounced in succeeding ages. It is probable that few, if any, of these monasteries came into existence during Patrick’s life, and in their earlier stages they were valuable educational and missionary centers, not what they afterwards became.

The theology of these churches, up to the ninth century, continued to be remarkably sound and scriptural. They taught original sin and the impossibility of salvation by human merits or effort, Christ alone being the sinner s righteousness. They taught the vicarious atonement, the agency of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of men, justification by faith, the intercession of Christ alone for the saints, and held firmly to the administration of the Lord’s Supper in both kinds. Sacramentalism began to make inroads soon after Patrick’s time, however, for we find such phrases as “a sacrificial mystery,” “the holy Eucharist,” “the mysteries of the sacred Eucharist” and the like used to describe the Supper. This is a long way short of the mass; and so late as the ninth century John Scotus Erigena maintained that the bread and wine are no more than the symbols of the absent body and blood of Christ. These churches too knew nothing of the doctrine of purgatory, but from Patrick onward for centuries taught that the souls of the saints immediately after death enter paradise and are with God.

The progress from the simplicity of the gospel to the corruptions of Romanism was slower in Ireland and Britain than in any other part of Europe. Primitive doctrine and practice survived there, not in absolute but in relative purity, long after they had vanished from the continent. The inevitable end came at last, and these churches also became Romanized; but it was not until the twelfth century that the papacy succeeded in establishing, with tolerable completeness, its jurisdiction over the churches of Great Britain and Ireland.1

In the East, as well as in the Vest, the corrupted form of Christianity did not become supreme without a strenuous and long-continued resistance on the part of a more evangelical religion. This was especially true of the region now known as Bulgaria. From the fourth century onward we find a group of sects in various parts of Europe, having a practical continuity of belief, if not a demonstrable historic connection. They are variously known as Paulicians, Cathari, Albigenses, Bogomils, and by half a score of other names. These sects have one fundamental doctrine in common, derived from the Mauichieans. Manich?sm is not properly a form of Christianity, but a distinct religion, as distinct as Mohammedanlsm. It originated in Persia, about A. D. 250, in the teachings of Maui. Its distinctive feature is a theodicy, rather than a theology, an explanation of the moral phenomena of the universe by the hypothesis of the eternal existence of two mutually exclusive principles or forces, one good, and the other evil. These forces, conceived as personal, and corresponding to the God and Satan of the Christian theology, are in everlasting conflict, and neither can ever overcome the other. In Manickeism the good spirit was represented as the creator of the world, but his work was vitiated by the agency of the evil spirit, which introduced sin and death.

The Paulicians, accepting this dualistic system, taught that the world is the creation of the evil spirit, not of the good. Manich?sm, as it advanced from Persia through the Roman empire, came into contact with Christianity, and borrowed from it some of the latter’s features that lent themselves most easily to such grafting, but it was essentially an alien religion, and not a Christian heresy.

The Bogomils are a typical form of this party, more Christian and less Manich?n than some others, and especially interesting because they survived all persecutions down to tile Reformation period. Various explanations have been given of the name; some say it means “friends of God”; others trace the party to a Bulgarian bishop named Bogomil, who lived about the middle of the tenth century. What is certain is that the thing is older than the name; that the party or denomination called Bogomils existed long before this title was given to them. They represented through the medieval period, as compared with Rome, the purer apostolic faith and practice, though mixed with some grotesque notions and a few serious errors.

It ought always to be borne in mind, however, that for the larger part of our information regarding those stigmatized as heretics we are indebted, not to their own writings, but to the works of their opponents. Only the titles remain of the bulk of heretical writings, and of the rest we have, for the most part, only such quotations as prejudiced opponents have chosen to make. That these quotations fairly represent the originals would be too much to assume. With respect to the Bogomils, our knowledge is exclusively gained from their bitter enemies and persecutors. All such testimony is to be received with suspicion, and should be scrupulously weighed and sifted before we accept it. Where these prejudiced opponents did not knowingly misstate the beliefs of “heretics,” they often quite misunderstood them, viewing these beliefs as they did through the distorting lenses of Roman or Greek Catholicism.

We get our chief information about Bogomil doctrine from the writings of one Euthymius, a Byzantine monk who died in III8, who wrote a learned refutation of these and other “heresies” of his time. His account is generally accepted by historians as substantially correct—a most uncritical conclusion. The Bogomil theology as set forth by Euthymius was a fantastic travesty of the gospel, with marked Manich?n elements. God had two sons, the elder of whom, called Satanael, was chief among the hosts of heaven and created the material universe. In consequence of his ambition and rebellion he was driven from heaven with his supporters among the angelic hosts. Then God bestowed power on his younger son, Jesus, who breathed the breath of life into man and he became a living soul. Thenceforth there was constant conflict between Satanael and Jesus, but the former met with signal defeat in the resurrection of Jesus, and is destined ultimately to complete overthrow. There are also traces of the docetic heresy in the theology of the Bogomils; they were said to deny that Jesus took real flesh upon himself, but believed his body to be spiritual.

Euthymius charges the Bogomils with rejecting pretty much everything believed by other Christians. They did not accept the Mosaic wrtings as part of the word of God, though they did accept the Psalms and New Testament; they rejected water-baptism, like the modern Quakers; they declared the Lord’s Supper to be the sacrifice of demons, and would have none of it; they thought churches the dwelling-places of demons, and the worship of the images in them to be mere idolatry; the fathers of the church they declared to be the false prophets against whom Jesus gave warning; they forbade marriage and the eating of flesh, and fasted thrice a week.

Some of these charges clearly appear to be misapprehensions. Trine-immersion, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and infant baptism, were taught by the Catholic Church. Denial of these may have been taken by prejudiced prelates to be denial of baptism itself. There is evidence that the Bogomils practised the single immersion of adult believers. No doubt they did call the mass “the sacrifice of demons,” or something to that effect; but only to a bigoted and ignorant Catholic would that imply rejection of the Lord’s Supper, scripturally celebrated.

The chief peculiarity of the Bogornils is said to have been the division of their members into two classes: the credentes, or believers, and the perfecti, or pure ones—a division Characteristic of Manich?n sects generally, as well as corresponding to the “ novices “ and “ adepts” of many orders and societies. Before admission among the perfectione must have passed a period of probation and received the consolamentum, or rite of initiation, by the laying on of hands. The perfecti were celibates—women were admitted to this rank—and lived an ascetic life, devoting themselves to the preaching of the gospel and charitable works. It does not appear that marriage was forbdden to the credentcs. The perfecti received the title of “elders,” and were preachers to and pastors of the congregations, as well as missionaries and evangelists. There was a total absence of a hierarchy among them. It is charged against them that they held the per fecti to be above the law and incapable of sin—the same error of antinomianism into which some Calvinists, Baptists among them, fell later.

The most prominent man among the Bogomils toward the close of the eleventh century was a venerable physician named Basil. He is sometimes described as their “bishop”; he was really one of the “elders” or perfecti, and his preeminence was due to his learning and character, not to his official rank. The emperor Alexander Coitnenus I., was a bitter persecutor. He did not hesitate to lay a trap for Basil by inviting him to the imperial table and cabinet, and by pretending a deep interest in the Bogomil’s views drew from his victim a full exposition of them. A scribe hidden behind tapestries took it all down, and then the perfidious emperor arrested his venerable guest and put him in prison. Basil was condemned and burned at the stake, to the last steadfast in his faith and meeting his cruel death with unfaltering trust in Christ. No charge was or could be brought against him, but his “heresy.” To the elevation of his character and his life of good works even the daughter of the emperor, who recorded her father’s shame, bore unwilling witness. We learn from her also that many families of the highest rank had embraced the Bogomil doctrines. At the height of their prosperity the credentes are said to have numbered two millions, and the per fecti perhaps four thousand.

Through the early medieval times, therefore, down to the eleventh century, we find evangelical Christianity suppressed with virtual completeness throughout Europe. Even those forms of Christianity that may, in comparison with Rome, be called evangelical are far from bearing a close resemblance to the doctrine and practice of the apostles. No other conclusion can be drawn from a careful and impartial survey of all the evidence.

 

1 For a fuller discussion of Patrick and his work see “Ancient British and Irish Churches,” Rev. William Cathcatt, D. n. Philadelphia, 1894. Also, Bury, “Life of St. Patrick and his Place in History.” New York, 1905.

 
 
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