« AnteriorContinuar »
This volume, though not pretending to completeness, forms a connected whole. The Essays touch on a variety of topics, and were written at long intervals of time, but they are united by the common bond which connects the institutions to which they relate. It may be well to state here some of the general conclusions which they suggest.
1. Underneath the sentiments and usages which have accumulated round the forms of Christianity, it is believed that there is a class of principles—a Religion as it were behind the religion—which, however dimly expressed, has given them whatever vitality they possess. It is not intended to assert that these principles were continuously present to the minds of the early Christians, or that they were not combined with much heterogeneous matter which interfered with their development. But it is maintained that there is enough in them of valuable truth to give to these ancient institutions a use in times and circumstances most different from those in which they originated. If this be shown to be the case, the main purpose of these Essays will have been accomplished. The Sacraments—the Clergy--the Pope--the Creed—will take a long time in dying, if die they must. It is not useless to indicate a rational point of view, from which they may be approached, and to show the germs which, without a violent disiocation, may be developed into higher truth.
2. The entire unlikeness of the early days of Christianity (or, if we prefer so to put it, of the times of the Roman Empire) to our own is a point which such a study will bring out. It has been truly said to be a great misfortune in one who treats of theological subjects to have the power of seeing likenesses without the power of seeing differences. In practical matters the power of seeing likenesses is certainly a rare and valuable gift. The divergencies and disputes of theologians or theological parties have been in great measure occasioned by the want of it. But in historical matters the power of seeing differences cannot be too highly prized. The tendency of ordinary men is to invest every age with the attributes of their own time. This is specially the case in religious history. The Puritan idea that there was a Biblical counterpart to every—the most trivial-incident or institution of modern ecclesiastical life, and that a! ecclesiastical statesmanship consisted in reducing the varieties of civilization to the crudity of the times when Christianity was as yet in its infancy, has met with an unsparing criticism from the hand of Hooker. The same fancy has been exhibited on a larger scale by the endeavor of Roman Catholic and High Church divines to discover their own theories of the Papacy, the Hierarchy, the administration of the Sacraments, in the early Church. Such a passion for going back to an imaginary past, or transferring to the past the peculiarities of later times, may be best corrected by keeping in view the total unlikeness of the first, second, or third centuries to anything which now exists in any part of the world.
3. This reluctance to look the facts of history in the face has favored the growth of a vast superstructure of fable. It used to be said in the early days of the revival of mystical and ecclesiastical Christianity at Oxford that it was impossible to conceive that the mediæval system could ever have been developed out of a state of things quite dissimilar. “That is the fundamental fallacy of the ecclesiastical theory," it was remarked in answer by a distinguished statesman. “It is forgotten how very soon, out of a state of things entirely opposite, may be born a religious system which claims to be the genuine successor. Witness the growth of the Catholic and Apostolic Church,' with its hierarchy and liturgy, out of the bald Presbyterianism and excited utterances of Edward Irving and his companions.” A like example might be pointed out in the formation of the Society of Friends, as founded by William Penn and his associates, with the sober self-control which has ever since characterized them, out of the enthusiastic, strange, indecorous acts of George Fox. Another might be found in the succession which, though with some exaggeration, has been traced, of the Oxford movement to the Wesleyan or so-called Evangelical movement of the last generation.
Such a transformation may have occurred with regard to Christianity. If its earlier forms were quite unlike to those which have sprung out of them, it may be instructive to see in various instances the process by which the change took place. It does not follow that the earlier form was more correct than the later; but it is necessary to a candid view of the subject to know that it existed.
4. Another point which is disclosed in any attempt to go below the surface of ecclesiastical history is the strong contrast between the under-current of popular feeling and the manifestations of opinion in the published literature of the time. Especially is this brought to light in the representations of the Roman catacombs_hardly to be recognized in any work of any Christian writer of the time, and yet unquestionably familiar to the Christians of that age. Forms often retain an impress of the opinions of which they were the vehicles, long after the opinions themselves have perished.
5. There is an advantage in perceiving clearly the close community of origin which unites secular and sacred usages. It is evident that the greater part of the early Christian institutions sprang from social customs which prevailed at the time. It is satisfactory to see that this community of thought, which it has been the constant effort of later times to tear asunder, was not unknown to the primitive epoch. It has been the tendency of the lower and more vulgar forms of religious life to separate the secular and the sacred. It will always be the tendency of the loftier forms of religious thought to bring them together. Such a union is, to a certain extent, exhibited in these early centuries.
6. It has been attempted to find on all these points a better and not the darker side of these institutions. This is a principle which may be pushed to excess. But it is believed to be safer and more generous than the reverse policy. No doubt every one of these forms has a magical or superstitious element. But even for the purpose of superseding those barbarous elements, it is wiser to dwell on the noble and spiritual aspect which the same forms may wear; and with the purpose of reconciling the ultimate progress of civilization with Christianity, it is the only course which can be advantageously pursued.
7. Finally, two conclusions are obvious. First, that which existed in the early ages of the Church cannot be deemed incompatible with its essence in later ages. Secondly, that which did not exist in primitive times cannot be deemed indispensa, ble to the essence of the Church, either late or early. DEANERY, WESTMINSTER: