Second Period, Early Church Introduction

INTRODUCTION.


IN the first period, the great facts of Christian history, in the sphere of the State, were the extension of Christianity over the Roman Empire, and its peaceful, heroic resistance to the exterminating efforts of the secular power; in the sphere of doctrine, the defence of its faith against Jewish and heathen criticism, the overcoming of Jewish and Gnostic heresies, and the completion, though the condemnation of Sabellius and Paul of Samosata, of the first great stage in the trinitarian controversies; in the sphere of church constitution and discipline, the gradual development of an episcopal hierarchy, an enlarging system of rules as respects admission into the Church, and the conditions of retaining membership, and the rise of a party (the so-called Montanists) which advocated a very rigorous treatment of offenders against the sanctity of Christian fellowship; in the sphere of morals and life, the revelation of a new power to purify heart and conduct, and to ameliorate all human relations.


In the period upon which we now enter, the order of events is, in many respects, strongly contrasted with that just given. We are still confronted, it is true, with agitation and conflict. Christian history in no century has been free from such factors. But the agitation and the conflict are now carried forward under new conditions and in new directions. From the culminating storm of heathen rage and violence in the Diocletian persecution, the Church emerges into the sunshine of imperial favor. Its servants, instead of wandering in exile, suffering in prison, being tortured, or burned at the stake, are honored guests at one of the most magnificent courts which ever shone upon Roman soil. The old conditions are reversed. Instead of haughtily denying the right of Christianity to an existence, heathenism finds its own right to an existence questioned, and is obliged to turn suppliant. Instead of reviling Christians as a kind of secret, underground association, the heathen themselves are obliged to retire from the field, until their very name, as "pagans " (villagers or countrymen), publishes their proscription and obscurity. In place of outward pressure, the Church has now to sustain the shock of violent controversies within. To the age of apology succeeds that of polemics. Instead of poverty and persecution to humble the Church, and to guard it from unworthy members, wealth and secular glory are found within its pale, with their temptations to corruption, and their tendencies to swell the list of merely nominal Christians. A far harder task is imposed than that of resisting an openly hostile world; namely, the task of subduing and sanctifying a world proffering a seductive alliance and friendship.


We have, then, the following as the distinguishing facts of the period: In the sphere of the State, the alliance of the secular government with the Church, to the great advantage of the latter in some respects, and to its equal detriment in others; in the sphere of doctrine, a succession of heated controversies and the fixing of creeds; in the sphere of ecclesiastical constitution, an increased centralization of power in the chief episcopal centres, an advance in the direction of papal pretensions and prerogatives, and, in general, a continued development of the hierarchical system; in the sphere of morals and life, the growth of worldliness, the increasing subordination of the spiritual to the dogmatic and the ceremonial, the incorporation of heathen elements, -- such, in particular, as the polytheistic tinge given to the worship,--and, finally, the spread and powerful influence of monasticism.