« PreviousContinue »
are not sure, however, that there were many collected societies of Christians in every province, or that those societies were in general very numerous. Those parts of Asia and Greece which had been the scene of St. Paul's labours, seem to have had the greatest number of settled churches in proportion to their extent; and their largest assemblies were probably in their principal cities, such as Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. But we have reason to believe, from our Lord's own declarations, that real Christians, in the most flourishing times* of the church, have been very few, in comparison with the many who chose the broad and beaten road which leads to destruction: but these few are under his conduct and blessing, as the salt of the earth, and are therefore scattered far and wide, according to the disposal of his wise providence, who appoints the time of their birth and the bounds of their habitation.
If, by the epithet primitive, we mean that period during which the professed churches of Christ preserved their faith and practice remarkably pure, and uninfluenced by the spirit and maxims of the world, we cannot extend it far beyond the first century. We are sure that a mournful declension prevailed very early, and quickly spread, like a contagion, far and wide; and, indeed, the seeds of those evils, which afterwards produced such a plentiful harvest of scandals and mischiefs, were already sown, and began to spring up, while the apostles were yet living. And we shall show hereafter, that the first and purest age of the church was not free from such blemishes as have been observable in all succeeding revivals of true religion. These things are to be guarded against with the utmost attention, but they will more or less appear while human nature con
Matth. vii. 13, 14.
tinues in its present state of infirmity. While the professors of Christianity were few in comparison of their opponents, while they were chiefly poor and obscure persons, and had sharp persecutions to grapple with, so long they preserved the integrity and purity of their profession in general, and the disorders which appeared among them were faithfully and successfully opposed and corrected; afflictions and sufferings kept them firmly united in a love to the truth and to each other; but when they were favoured with intervals of peace, and the increase of numbers and riches seemed to give them a more fixed establishment in the world, they were soon corrupted, and that beautiful simplicity, which is the characteristic of genuine Christianity, was obscured by will-worship and vain reasonings. Amongst the multitudes who abandoned idolatry, and embraced the Christian faith, there were several who had borne the specious name of philosophers. Some of these, on the one hand, laboured to retain as many of their favourite sentiments as they could, by any means, reconcile to the views they had formed of the Gospel; and, on the other hand, they endeavoured, if possible, to accommodate the Christian scheme to the taste and prejudices of the times, in hopes thereby to make it more generally acceptable. Thus the doctrines of the Scripture were adulterated by those within the church, and misrepre sented to those without. Perhaps the first alterations of this kind were not attempted with a bad intention, or extended to the most important points; but the precedent was dangerous; for the progress of error, like that of sin, is from small beginnings to awful and unthoughtof consequences. Gospel-truth, like a bank opposed to a torrent, must be preserved entire, to be useful; if a breach is once made, though it may seem at first to VOL. III. 2 E
be small, none but He who says to the sea, "shalt thou come, but no further," can set bounds to the threatening inundation that will quickly follow. In effect, a very considerable deviation from the plan of the apostles had taken place in the churches, before the decease of some who had personally conversed with them.
We have no ecclesiastical book of this age extant worthy of notice, except that called the First of the Two Epistles to the Corinthians, which are ascribed to Clement, bishop of Rome, who is supposed to be the Clement mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. This epistle is not unsuitable to the character of the time when it was written, and contains many useful things; yet it is not, (as we have it,) free from fault, and, at the best, deserves, no higher commendation than as a pious well-meant performance. It stands first, both in point of time and merit, in the list of those writings which bear the name of the apostolical fathers; for the rest of them, if the genuine productions of the persons whose names they bear, were composed in the second century. For as to the epistle ascribed to Barnabas, St. Paul's companion, those who are strangers to the arguments by which many learned men have demonstrated it to be spurious, may be convinced only by reading it, if they are in any measure acquainted with the true spirit of the apostle's writings. We are, indeed assured, that both the epistles of Clement, this which bears the name of Barnabas, several said to have been written by Ignatius, (the authenticity of which has likewise been disputed,) one by Polycarp, and the book called the Shepherd of Hermas, which is filled with visionary fables, were all in high esteem in the first ages of the church, were read in their public assemblies, and
considered as little inferior to the canonical writings; which may be pleaded as one proof of what I have advanced concerning that declension of spiritual taste and discernment which soon prevailed; for I think I may venture to say there are few, if any, of the Protestant churches but have furnished authors whose writings, (I mean the writings of some one author,) have far surpassed all the apostolical fathers taken together, and that not only in point of method and accuracy, but in seriptural knowledge, solid judgment, and a just application of evangelical doctrine to the purposes of edification and obedience.
But though the first Christians were men subject to passion and infirmities, like ourselves, and were far from deserving or desiring that undistinguishing admiration and implicit submission to all their sentiments, which were paid them by the ignorance and superstition of after-times; yet they were eminent for faith, love, selfdenial, and a just contempt of the world; multitudes of them cheerfully witnessed to the truth with their blood, and, by their steadfastness and patience under trials, and their harmony among themselves, often extorted honourable testimonies even from their opposers. Could they have transmitted their spirit, together with their name, to succeeding generations, the face of ecclesiastical history would have been very different from what it now bears; but, by degrees, the love of novelty and the thirst of power, a relaxed attention to the precepts of Christ, and an undue regard to the names, authority, and pretensions of men, introduced those confusions, contentions, and enormities, which at length issued in an almost universal apostasy from that faith and course of practice which alone are worthy the name of Christianity. The prosecution of this sub
ject, more especially with a view to the history of the favoured few who were preserved from the general contagion, and of the treatment they met with who had the courage to censure or withstand the abuses of the times they lived in, will be attempted in the following volumes of this work, if God, in whose hands our times are, is pleased to afford opportunity; and if the specimen presented to the public, in this volume, should so far meet the approbation of competent judges, as to encourage the author to proceed.
Some particulars which may conduce to render the state of the church in the first century more evident to the reader, as well as to give light into the true state of religion amongst ourselves, and which could not be well introduced in the course of our narration, without making too frequent and too long digressions, I have, for that reason, treated of separately in the chapters that follow.
An Essay on the Character of St. Paul, considered as an Exemplar or Pattern of a Minister of Jesus Christ.
THE success with which the first promulgation of the Gospel was attended, is to be ultimately ascribed to the blessing and operation of the Holy Spirit; and the great means which the Spirit of God is pleased to accompany with an efficacious power upon the souls of men, is the subject-matter of the Gospel itself. He concurs with no other doctrine but that of the Scripture. The most laboured endeavours to produce a moral change of heart and conduct will always prove in