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Church History

Church History. The history of the Christian Church is divided into three principal epochs. The first, the Ancient, begins with the foundation of the Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts ii.), and lasts till the establishment of the Carolingian dynasty. From that date to the Reformation in the 16th century is the Mediaeval period; and then succeeds the Modern. The historians who record the history of these periods are, first, those who were eyewitnesses of the events they record, or who lived within comparatively short distance of them; and, secondly, those who have compiled their narratives. from records and memorials of the past.

I. The Ancient Epoch. The earliest book of Church history is the Acts of the Apostles, written, according to the universal tradition of early times, by St. Luke. This book does not contain the history of the work of the twelve Apostles, but confines itself to two main subjects - the foundation of the Church at Jerusalem and its organisation there, and the first beginnings of the evangelisation of the Gentile world, begun with the conversion of Cornelius and the extension of the Church to Samaria and Antioch, but carried on with marvellous success by St. Paul and his companions. From the close of the Acts till the next book of Church history there is a large gap, though the materials for the compilation are many. The Christian writings of the age immediately following the Apostles are mostly of a practical and hortative character, and these throw continual side lights on Church history. A few words should be said about these writings. We have first the Apostolical Fathers, Epistles of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome, The Visions of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas, the genuineness of which, as a writing of the companion of St. Paul, is very doubtful. The chief value of these writings is the evidence which they furnish of the acceptance by the Church at the beginning of the second century of the New Testament writings. A little later there arose an "Apocryphal Literature," a collection of spurious Gospels and Epistles, written to propagate the Gnostic and other heresies. The Apologetic works of Justin Martyr and others were addressed to the unbelieving world in defence of the Faith which had now diffused itself so largely through the world, and was beginning to excite suspicion, fear, and hatred. Many of the Apologies have been quite lost, and of some only a few fragments remain.

The bitterest persecutions by the Imperial power of Rome began in the second century, and continued with intervals of repose till the year 311, when the conversion of Constantine was followed by the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire. The two fiercest persecutions were those of Decius and Diocletian. Of the ten usually enumerated, several were only local. Simultaneously with these, a new philosophy - Neo-Platonism, the expiring effort of Gentile wisdom - attempted the construction of an eclectic system intended to supersede the Christian faith, and to re-interpret, in a theological and philosophical sense, the myths and traditions of Paganism. It was encountered by the formation of the magnificent Christian literature and theology of Alexandria. The greatest father of this school was Origen, a brilliant Biblical critic and scholar. The second great name is that of Clement of Alexandria. The West soon followed, though Latin Christian literature began, not at Rome, but at Carthage with Tertullian. Clear differences of view are manifest from the beginning between East and West. In the Alexandrian divines there is great boldness of speculation and love of abstract ideas; in the West such men as Irenaeus, Tereullian, Cyprian represent a pure supernaturalism in the form of tradition, embodied in symbolism and regulae fidei, in opposition to all speculation; all that differs is rejected as heresy: "adversus regulam nihil scire est omnia scire." From the days of Cyprian the magnificent stream of Christian literature flows on unbroken even until now.

The struggle of the Christian faith against the world, not for existence but for mastery, had won a decisive victory when Constantine gave his adherence to it. There "remained very much land to be possessed," but the sins of heathenism made their way into the fold. But from that time until our own it has been manifest that civilisation has entered into alliance with Christianity and has become its servant. As soon as Christianity became recognised and its victory became manifest, the line of Ecclesiastical historians began. There is but one previous to the epoch we have named, Hegesippus, and of his history only a few fragments remain. The father of Church History is Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea. He wrote a History of the Church to the year 324, and a Life of Constantine. His work was continued by Theodoret to A.D. 428. To these historians of the first period must be added Socrates Scholasticus, a candid and judicious author, and Sozomen, of less weight, florid and monastic. All these were Greek writers. Their Latin contemporaries, though they had (as their heathen brethren had done) begun by imitating the Greek, were assuming a more independent character. They were not historians, but their value to the modern historical student is inestimably great. The three principal Latin writers of this period were Hilary of Poictiers, Ambrose, and Augustine of Hippo, greatest of all the Latin fathers.

The age of Councils followed. The decrees of these Councils, and the collections of Canon Law, formed in the spirit of the Emperor Justinian's codification of the laws of the Empire, must be classed among the historical writings of the Church. Evagrius continued in Greek the histories of Socrates and Sozomen till the year 594. And now a fresh start began to be made in the history of national Churches. It marks the beginning of the modern nationalities, and the progress of the Church among the Teutonic nations. Gregory, Archbishop of Tours, who died in 595, wrote in Latin an Ecclesiastical History of the Franks, and the writings of our own Alfred, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and The Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede, are all priceless historical records. Bede, who died in 735, is styled "the Father of English Church History."

Meanwhile the rapid rise of monasticism involved the end of the old classical style, and for years to come literature was a monopoly of the religious communities. And this synchronises accurately enough with the close of what has been called the Ancient Period of Church History.

II. Medieval Epoch. Theological culture had almost died in the East. In the West the end of the Greek exarchate in Italy (752); the destruction of the kingdom of the Lombards (774); the formation of the powerful Frank empire under Pepin, and his successors; the allieence between this empire and the Papacy, involving the final rupture between Rome and Constantinople; the rise of the German Church, subdued by Charlemagne, and organised in subjection to Rome, all mark a great turning-point in the history of the Church. England, following the Continental lead, became a united monarchy under Egbert (827). Charlemagne's ambitious attempt to form a united Western Empire was shattered by the incapacity of his descendants, but it made the Christian Church the paramount influence in the centre and west of Europe. Charles had claimed and exercised imperial rights in the Church, even in respect to the election of the Pope. But, the feuds which accompanied the dissolution of his empire vastly increased the Papal power. Bishops and abbots resorted to Rome when oppressed by their monarchs. These claims were further extended and legalised by the forged decretals which about the middle of the ninth century were received as authoritative by a credulous age unused to historical criticism. The resistance of the Roman claims ended in the separation of the Greek and Latin Churches.

The theological culture of this period was learned rather than profitable. The Eucharistic and the Predestinarian were the most prominent controversies. But in the East we have the beginning of a series of valuable Byzantine chronicles, Nicephorus to 770; Genesius 813 to 867; Leo Diaconus to 975; Simeon Metaphrastes to 963; Theophanes, Chronicon to 813. Of German annalists we have Regino to 907, Flodoard to 948. Eginhard to 850. In England Alcuin was one of the great lights of the West. He was invited to France by Charlemagne, and was greatly instrumental in the promotion of learning. He died 804. The establishment of schools is a marked feature of the period.

The Saeculuin Obscurum came on, the period of transition from the Ancient to the Modern order. It was a period of war and strife. The schools were closed, the Papacy became involved in the bitter feuds of the times, and fell under the power of a Roman faction, who placed in the chair, which Leo and Gregory had filled, some of the vilest of men. Order was restored, and the Church reinvigorated by the renovation of the German Empire under Otto the Great (936). This gave Germany a centre of unity, reduced North Italy to subjection, and controlled the Papacy. From Otto to Henry IV. all the Popes were confirmed by the Emperor. But the growth of learning and the revival of discipline in the monasteries enabled the great monk Hildebrand to turn the balance, and in the fierce struggle between him as Pope Gregory VII. and Henry IV. he put forth his claims of Theocratic Monarchy, and for a while the Papacy was the strongest power on earth. The Pope was held to be janitor regni coelorum, and the false decretals were made supreme over the old Canon law. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Churches were formally sundered by mutual excommunication.

Learning revived in the West in the eleventh century in the form of Scholasticism, and in 1120 began a great revival of Greek literature under the Comneni. In England we have valuable historians : - Eadmer, Abbot of St. Alban's (Hist. Novorum, 1066-1112); Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester (Textus Roffensis); Simeon of Durham, flor. 1130 (Chronicles, etc.); Geoffrey of Monmouth, d. 1138; William of Malmesbury (De Regibus Anglorum); Florence of Worcester, d. 1118; Henry of Huntingdon, c. 1150; William of Newbury, d. 1208; John of Salisbury (Polichronicon); Roger of Hoveden (Hist., 731-1202); Caradoc, d. 1157 (History of Wales).

Under Innocent III. the Papal power reached its height. Then it began to decline, though the pretensions of Boniface VIII. were higher than those of any of his predecessors. The system had done a good work in drawing to the Gospel the rude tribes of Central and Northern Europe, in keeping the Church independent of the State, and in collecting and transmitting ancient learning. It was a schoolmaster of the nations, and when it had done its work their pupilage ceased. It diffused the culture which ultimately undermined itself. In doing its proper work it attempted much more, and when it found that spiritual weapons were unavailing, it, resorted to craft and coercion. Nor was this all. Instead of the old Catholicity there were novel usurpations. Intolerable exactions drained the gold from the European States, simony became a system, the traffic in Indulgences became so shameless as to kindle the wrath of Europe. St. Bridget said, in her time, that at Rome the whole Decalogue was abridged into one precept. "give gold," but it was worse after her. The Papacy became a byword for shameless nepotism. And when, in addition, protests made against these evils were met by the Inquisition, it was evident that a searching and far-reaching reform was called for. In England the great name of Wiclif is identified with a movement in this direction.

This led to the great councils which are distinguishing landmarks of the fifteenth century. They failed to carry through any real reforms, the popes being too astute to suffer them, and a Protestantism began to course through the mind of universal Christendom. It was helped first by the invention of printing, which diffused aenong the people the culture which had been confined to the clergy and to kings' courts; and secondly, by the revived study of Greek and Roman literature, extended though not occasioned by the fall of Constantinople. This opened up the sources of Christian history, and drew back the veil which had long hidden primitive Christianity and the sacred Scriptures. The Papacy began to be suspected of lacking the historic base on which all its assumptions rested. Then, again, the old feudalism in nearly all the European states had given place to vigorous monarchies which consolidated the nations. This was a heavy blow to Papal pretensions.

The fifteenth century witnessed the decline of the scholastic learning, and the rapid growth of a reforming literature accompanied with the classical revival to which we have just referred. The names of Platina (died 1481) (Lives of the Popes), Froissart, Philip de Commines, Guicciardini, are noteworthy among historical writers. Wiclif and Huss were reforming writers, hostile to traditional beliefs; and Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris (died 1429), Savonarola (died 1498), were also earnest reformers on Church basis. The Imitatio Christi of Thomas a Kempis may also be classed among real works for reformation. The great Papal schism had terribly weakened the Church, but had been healed. Nevertheless, good men saw that nothing had been done to reform abuses. The fifth Lateran Council (1512 to 1518), convoked by Julius II., demonstrated the impossibility of reform without upheaval. It may be regarded as the last movement of the Mediaeval period. When its sessions were opened Luther was twenty-nine years old, Zwingli twenty-eight, Calvin three. The preparations for the great change had been going on in all the spheres of life. But the parties as yet had no common principle or great leader. The authority of Mediaevalism was broken, but the rallying note of the New Order was not yet sounded. Even at Rome there was no faith in the old system. Erasmus wrote, "At ego Romae his auribus audivi quosdam abominandis blasphemiis debacchantes in Christum et in illius Apostolos."

III. Modern Epoch. Modern History begins with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Its causes, as we have seen, run back two centuries, into the heart of the Middle Ages; its warrant was found, not merely in the needs of the European peoples, but also in the Scriptures and in the best traditions of the Christian Church. The moving cause was not opposition to the Papacy; it was a deeper spiritual experience, a sense of sin and of the need of deliverance. By the Reformation Christendom was divided into two main parts, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant. Southern Europe adhered to the former, North and North-West to the latter, the Centre being divided. It may be said that no Celtic race accepted the reform. So widespread was the sense of the need of reformation, that during the first forty years of the movement more was gained than was retained. A reaction, headed by the Jesuits, succeeded in bringing back France and South Germany to the Mediaeval Church. But the Reformation was planted in the most free and advancing nations of Europe, and its greatest triumphs have been with these. But even Roman Catholics admit that the reform movement brought back life into their own Church, and caused it to put forth its energy with greater force and concentration. It must be noted that the discoveries of Columbus had added a new continent to the civilised world. Of this continent South and Central America became Roman Catholic and North Protestant, except Lower Canada and Louisiana.

The Reformed Churches on the Continent were divided into two main portions, the Lutheran, or "Reformed," and the Calvinistic, or "Evangelical." In England the ancient Episcopal constitution was preserved, but, so far as related to doctrine, the sympathies of the leading Reformers leaned towards Calvinism. At the commencement of the Reformation the three great powers were Charles V., Francis I., and Henry VIII., and the national struggle in Europe was respecting the supremacy of France or Spain. Italy was the chief battle-field of that struggle. Monarchical absolutism was at its height. Then came the disastrous Thirty Years' war, in which was seen the strange fact that Cardinal Richelieu, in order to humble the pride of Germany, sided with the Protestants who were struggling against Imperialism. That war was ended by the peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the political rights of the reformed churches and princes of Europe. All of the great Confessions of Faith had now been written. the Reformation was an accomplished fact, the struggles of the Church from that date were against the Deism of England, the Pantheism of Germany, and the Atheism of France.

The literature of the Reformation Period was immense in quantity, for in this respect printing introduced a revolution, bringing all the points of controversy before the public mind. In 1523 Luther published 183 works; other reformers, 123; the other side only twenty. Calvin was the father of the modern system of Biblical criticism. He was a far better scholar than Luther, had great organising power and logical acuteness. His works were published in 12 vols, folio at Geneva in 1556. In English they make 52 vols. The impetus given to the study of the Scriptures by the Reformation is shown by the manifold editions of them. The Complutensian Polyglot was published in 1520; Erasmus' New Testament (the first edition printed in Greek) in 1519; Luther's German translation, 1523 to 1532; the English version of Cranmer in 1538, and several versions followed it, ending with the present Authorised Version, 1011. Then, along with a splendid secular literature in the days of Elizabeth, the writings of Hooker were the beginning of a religious series equally glorious. Here are some of the great names of theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: - Bishop Jewell, Geo. Herbert, Donne, Bishop Andrewes, Bishop Hall, Chillingworth, Archbishop Brainhall, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, Bishop Pearson, Barrow, Archbishop Leighton, Sherlock, Bishop Sanderson, Bishop Bull, Bishop Beveridge, Cudworth, John Bunyan, Baxter, Owen, Howe, Matt. Henry, Doddridge, Hickes, Leslie, John Johnson, Archbishop Potter, Lardner, Waterland, Bishop Butler, Bishop Warburton, Toplady.

Then came the disastrous Thirty Years' war, in which was seen the strange fact that Cardinal Richelieu, in order to humble the pride of Germany, sided with the Protestants who were struggling against Imperialism. That war was ended by the peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the political rights of the reformed churches and princes of Europe. All of the great Confessions of Faith had now been written. the Reformation was an accomplished fact, the struggles of the Church from that date were against the Deism of England, the Pantheism of Germany, and the Atheism of France.

Of Church historians we have to name in England - Thomas Fuller (Church History of England), Heylin (History of Reformation), Twysden (Hist. Ang. et Scriptores), Dugdale (Monasticon), Rymer (Foedera), Selden (On Councils), Bishop Pearson (Cyprian, Ignatius, etc.), Cosin (On the Canon), Thorndike (Church Government), Stilling fleet (Origines Sacr. Britan.), Burnet (History of His Own Time), Cave (Lives of Apostles and Fathers), Bingham (Origines Ecclesiasticae), Wall (On Infant Baptism), John Johnson (Canons of Church of England), Strype (Annals), Prideaux (Con. of O. and N. Test.), Wake (Apostolic Fathers), Gibson (Synod. Angl. Codex Juris), Wilkins (Concilia), Le Neve (Fasti Feci. Angl.), Jortin (Eccl. Hist.), Burns (Eccl. Law), Milner (Church History). French Protestant Church historians of the same period are Suicer (Thes. Eccl.), Hottinger (Hist. Eccl.), Daile (De Usu Patrum), Oudin (De Script. Eccl.), Benoit (Edict of Nantes), Lenfant (Councils of Fifteenth Century), Beausobre (Manicheans), Le Sueur (Eccl. Hist.). In Holland flourished Spanheim, Basnage, Le Clerc; and in Germany lived the illustrious Mosheim and Semler. Roman Catholic Church historians were Bossuet, D'Achery, Mabillon, Martianay, Martene, Montfaucon, the Benedictines of St. Maur, Harduin, Ruinart, Cotelerius, Baluze, Maimbourg, Le Cointe, the authors of the Acta Sanctorum, Du Pin. Launoi, a Sorbonnist (Le Denicheur des Saints), though remaining in communion, vigorously attacked legends of the saints, the Immaculate Conception, and defended Gallican liberties. Fleury, who wrote an ecclesiastical history in twenty quarto volumes, was also a strong Gallican. Tillemont was the great Jansenist historian.

The English Revolution against Charles I., the establishment of a Commonwealth for twelve years. followed by a reaction in favour of monarchy and the Restoration of the Stuarts, had permanent effect upon the English nation. Though the people gladly restored the monarchy, much of Puritan teaching had entered into their souls, and remains with us still. Unhappily the Stuarts had not learned wisdom in exile, and the shameless immorality of Charles II. led to a terrible deterioration in the national character. And thus the 18th century opened with many discouraging features. France was given over to infidelity, Germany to rationalism, England to indifference. The Roman Catholic Church had lost its hold on the educated classes. Politics and philosophy were the great interests. It is sadly significant that the first great attempt in England to estimate the effect and influence of Christianity as a factor in the history of mankind was that of Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Raman Empire. He is the founder of the great school of English history, and his name as historian still remains the greatest, but he was an infidel. And the philosophical writings of his contemporaries are honeycombed with Rationalism and Arianism. The outcome, so far as France was concerned, was the terrible Revolution of 1789. The saviours of England from a similar catastrophe were Wesley and Whitefield, to whom were owing the revival of practical piety in England and the great evangelical movement which followed. The names of Wilberforce, Simeon, Bickersteth, Bradley, Melvill, are all illustrious in this connection. The reaction against the want of ecclesiastical doctrine and discipline in this party led to a counter-movement commonly known as the Anglo-Catholic or Tractarian, the latter name being derived from the Tracts for the Times, in which its principles were advocated (1833-1841). The leaders in this movement were John Henry Newman, Richard Hurrell Froude, Dr. E. B. Pusey, John Keble, Hugh James Rose. The first-named of these joined the Church of Rome in 1845, and after many years was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. The secession of Dr. Newman was for a few years a chock to the Tractarian movement, but it revived under the care of Keble and Pusey. An attempt made to enforce its views on Baptismal Regeneration led to the Gorham Case in 1847 seq., and the attempt failed, in consequence of which several of the leading men in this party, Manning, Maskell, H. W. Wilberforce, and others, joined the Romish Church.

The publication of Essays and Reviews, a collection of writings, most of which were rationalistic, led to an attempt to expel two of the writers, but this also failed, and the comprehensiveness of the Church of England was secured. The principal parties within it are generally reckoned as High (the advanced wing of which is known as Ritualistic), Low (the old Evangelical), and Broad, The latter contains many grades. In its ranks have been reckoned Coleridge, Arnold, Jowett, Maurice, Hare, Kingsley, Macnaught. Some of them vigorously refused to be reckoned in this party, and certainly Jowett, Maurice, and Arnold held widely different views. They were all pious, learned, and earnest men, but while Arnold was largely in sympathy with the Low Churchmen, so was Maurice with the High, while Jowett has much affinity with the German Freethinkers.

The publication of the work entitled Lux Mundi marks the beginning of a new school, in which the free criticism of the letter of Scripture is united with a strong belief in the authority of the Church and Creeds.

One of the brightest features in the aspect of the religious movements since the Reformation has been that of missionary enterprise. At first the Roman Catholics took the lead, under the impulse of the newly-formed Order of Jesuits. The Orphan House of Halle undertook Lutheran missions in the East, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded under King William III., led the missions of the Church of England. But at no period since the first century of the Christian era was the missionary growth of our holy faith been so auspicious as now. £2,000,000 are expended yearly in this work by Protestant societies. The Roman Catholic missions under the Propaganda spend about £200,000 a year.

Rationalism in Germany began in the 18th century, reason being made the ultimate arbiter of truth in contrast with revelation ("supernaturalism"). In criticism and theology Paulus and Strauss carried Rationalism to its extreme consequences. By his appeal to a specific Christian consciousness Schleiermacher broke the power of Rationalism as to doctrines, though in Biblical criticism he yielded to many of its conclusions; his influence has greatly shaped subsequent parties. The orthodox school of Lutheranism, represented by Olshausen, Neander, Dorner, Muller, has done great service by its depth of piety and its great learning.

In the Roman Catholic, Church the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was made an article of faith in 1854, and the personal infallibility of the Pope in 1870. A reaction against these dogmas resulted in the separation of a large number, the chief of whom was the great historian Dollinger, and these still form the communion known as the Old Catholics.

Among the writers on Church history of the nineteenth century may be mentioned Neander and Gieseler in Germany, Renan in France, Schaff in America, and Robertson, Lightfoot, Westcott, Hatch, and Farrar in England.