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RISE AND PROGRESS OF PRELACY.
WHEN we have proved that the apostolic church existed without diocesan Bishops, we have done enough. No matter how soon after the death of the apostles, and the close of the sacred canon, such an order of ministers was introduced. Whether the introduction of this order were affected in four years, or four centuries after that period, it equally rests on human authority alone, and is to be treated as a mere contrivance and commandment of men. We cannot too often repeat, nor too diligently keep in view, that the authority of Christ can be claimed for nothing which is not found, in some form, in his own word.
But our episcopal brethren, forgetting this great principle of the reformation, when we acknowledge that prelacy existed in the fourth century, attempt to found on this fact an argument in favour of their cause. Their argument is this: "Bishops, as an order "superior to presbyters, are confessed to have existed in the fourth "century. Now in what manner shall we account for the intro"duction of such an order? Can any man believe that it was an "innovation foisted in by human ambition within the first three "hundred years? Is it supposable that men of so much piety, "self-denial, and zeal, as the ministers of the primitive church are "generally represented to have been, would be disposed to usurp "an unscriptural authority? Had they any temptation to do this, "when, by gaining ecclesiastical pre-eminence, they only became "more obnoxious to the fury of persecution? But even supposing "them to have been so ambitious and unprincipled as to attempt
"this encroachment on the rights of others, can we imagine that "such an attempt would have been successful? Would the rest of "the clergy have quietly submitted to the usurpation? Would the "people have endured it? In a word, is it credible that so great a "change should have taken place in the constitution of the church, "without opposition, without noise, without leaving in the records "of antiquity some traces of the steps by which it was accom"plished? No; it is not credible. It is impossible. The infer
ence then is, that no such alteration ever took place; that bish"ops, as an order superior to presbyters, have existed in the "Christian church from the beginning, and consequently are of "apostolical origin." This is the substance of an argument, which the celebrated Chillingworth ventures to style " demonstration,"* and on which great stress has been laid by all succeeding episcopal writers.
But to invalidate this reasoning, which scarcely deserves to be called specious, nothing more is necessary than a little attention to a few plain facts. From these facts it will appear, that, considering the character and circumstances of the church, from the close of the second to the beginning of the fourth century, nothing was more likely to happen than such an usurpation and change as are here supposed: That changes quite as inconsistent with primitive purity, and quite as likely to excite opposition and noise, are acknowledged on all hands, actually to have taken place during that period, without our being able to find in the records of antiquity, any distinct account of the manner in which they were introduced and that, notwithstanding every plausible theory to the contrary, there is abundant evidence that the precise change which our opponents pronounce impossible, did, in fact, gradually gain admittance into the church, after the close of the second century, and produced an important revolution in its aspect and government.
The desire of pre-eminence and of power is natural to man. It
* It is not meant to be asserted that Chillingworth was the first writer who stated and urged this argument. It is of popish origin, and, among others, was employed with great confidence by Bellarmine, against the protestants of his day in support of prelacy, and several other corruptions of the church of Rome. See his work De Notis Ecclesiæ. Lib. 4. cap. 5.
is one of the most early, powerful, and universal principles of our nature. It reigns without control in wicked men, and has more influence than it ought in the minds of the most pious. Accordingly, we find the criminal operation of this principle disclosing itself even under the eye of our Saviour himself. The sons of Zebedee, filled with ambition, came to their Lord with a formal request, that they might be promoted to places of distinguished rank in his kingdom. Mark x, 37. And even on that solemn night in which Christ was betrayed, when he had just dispensed to the twelve apostles the sacrament of the last supper, and had informed them that the hour of his departure was at hand; when they were still seated in his presence, and might be expected to be under the influence of all the devout and humble feelings which such a scene, and such a disclosure, were calculated to inspire, there was a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. Luke xxii. 24. The same principle continued to manifest itself after the ascension of the Saviour. The apostles repeatedly caution the ministers of their day against a spirit of covetousness and ambition, and especially against lording it over God's heritage; plainly intimating, either that in the midst of all the persecution to which the church was exposed, they perceived such a criminal disposition arising; or that they foresaw that it was likely to arise. The Apostle Paul more than once represents himself as called to struggle with the ambitious pretensions of Christian ministers, who sought unduly to exalt themselves: and the apostle John informs us, that a certain Diotrephes, who loved to have the pre-eminence in the church, violently opposed the apostolic ministry, because he considered it as unfavourable to his plans of selfishness and domination. If such a disposition were exhibited while the apostles were still alive; while the gifts of inspiration and miracles were still enjoyed by the church; and while the precepts and example of the Saviour were so fresh in the memory of his people, what might not have been expected to appear in three centuries afterwards, when the state of the church exhibited, in almost every respect, a lamentable degeneracy?
We are accustomed to look back to the first ages of the church with a veneration nearly bordering on superstition. It answered the purposes of popery, to refer all their corruptions to primitive times, and to represent those times as exhibiting the models of all
excellence. But every representaton of this kind must be received with distrust. The christian church, during the apostolic age, and for half a century afterwards, did indeed present a venerable aspect. Persecuted by the world, on every side, she was favoured in an uncommon measure with the presence and spirit of her divine Head, and exhibited a degree of simplicity and purity, which has, perhaps, never since been equalled. But before the close of the second century, the scene began to change; and before the commencement of the fourth, a deplorable corruption of doctrine, discipline, and morals, had crept into the church, and disfigured the body of Christ. Hegesippus, an ecclesiastical historian, who wrote in the second century, declares that the virgin purity of the church was confined to the days of the apostles. Nay, Jerome tells us, that "the primitive churches were tainted with gross errors, while the "apostles were alive, and the blood of Christ yet warm in Judea." Cyprian, in the third century, complained of universal depravity among the clergy, as well as the laity. He declares, “We observe "not the will of the Lord, having all our mind and study set upon "lucre and possessions, are given to pride, full of emulation and "dissension, and void of simplicity and faithful dealing." And again, the same writer complains, that " the priests had no devo❝tion, the deacons no fidelity; that there was no charity in works, "no discipline in manners." Eusebius, describing the state of the church towards the close of the third century, gives the following representation. "Bishops rushed against bishops. Most detest❝able hypocrisy and dissimulation advanced even to the very height "of wickedness. We were not touched with any sense of the "divine judgment creeping in upon us, nor used any endeavours "to regain his favour; but wickedly thinking that God neither "did regard nor would visit our crimes, we heaped one wicked“ ness upon another. Those who seemed to be our pastors, reject"ing the rule of piety, were inflamed with mutual contentions against one another; and while they were only taken up with contentions, "threatenings, emulation, mutual hatred, and enmity, every one "eagerly pursued his ambition in a tyrannical manner."
After such descriptions as these, let us hear no more of the primitive church being so pure, and all her ministers so humble and disinterested, as to preclude the probability of any of them being actuated by ambition, or disposed to usurp unscriptural authority.
All authentic history shows that such a conclusion is as false in fact, as it is inconsistent with the uniform character of human nature. Yes; that mystery of iniquity which began to work under the ministry of our Saviour himself, and which retarded the growth of the church, while it was watered with the tears and the blood of the apostles, might be expected to prove, as it did, in a much greater degree, her bane, in after times. But, perhaps it will be said, that, although some of the clergy in the second and third centuries, were ambitious, and disposed to usurp unscriptural power; yet we cannot suppose that their claims would have been calmly yielded, and their usurpations submitted to without a struggle, by the other clergy, and by the body of the people. If, then, such claims were made, and such usurpations effected, why do we not find in the early history of the church, some account of changes so memorable, and of conflicts so dreadful, as must have attended their introduction ?
In answer to this question, let it be remembered, that the nations over which the Christian religion was spread with so much rapidity during the first three centuries, were sunk in deplorable ignorance. Grossly illiterate, very few were able to read; and even to these few, manuscripts were of difficult access. At that period, popular eloquence was the great engine of persuasion; and where the character of the mind is not fixed by reading, and a consequent habit of attention and accurate thinking, it is impossible to say how deeply and suddenly it may be operated upon by such an engine. A people of this description, wholly unaccustomed to speculations on government; universally subjected to despotic rule in the state; having no just ideas of religious liberty; altogether unfurnished with the means of communicating and uniting with each other, which the art of printing has since afforded; torn with dissensions among themselves, and liable to be turned about with every wind of doctrine, such a people could offer little resistance to those who were ambitious of ecclesiastical power. A fairer opportunity for the few to take the advantage of the ignorance, the credulity, the divisions, and the weakness of the many, can scarcely be imagined. In truth, under these circumstances, ecclesiastical usurpation is so far from being improbable; that, to suppose it hot to have taken place, would be to suppose a continued miracle.
Nor is there more difficulty in supposing that these encroach