« AnteriorContinua »
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 misrepresented 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 unthought-of 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 be small, none but He who says to the sea, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther," 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 apostles' 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 scriptural knowledge, solid judgement, 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, self-denial, 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 wor
thy the name of Christianity. The prosecution of this subject, 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 subjectmatter 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 ineffectual, unless accommodated to the principles
of revelation, respecting the ruin of the human nature by sin, and the only possible method of its recovery by Jesus Christ.
And as the Holy Spirit bears witness to no other doctrine, so he ordinarily restrains his blessing to those ministers who have themselves experienced the power of the truths which they deliver to others. A man may be systematically right, and strenuous in the delivery and defence of orthodox notions; yet if he is not in some degree possessed of the dispositions and motives which become a minister of the New Testament, he will seldom be honoured with much success or acceptance. The want of that disinterested and dependent frame of mind which the Gospel inculcates on all who profess it, will render his labours insignificant; for the Holy Spirit, on whose influence success entirely depends, will seldom co-operate with any but those who are sincerely governed by his precepts.
A great stress therefore is laid in the New Testament upon the principles, tempers, and conduct which ought to distinguish the men who have the honour to be intrusted with the important charge of preaching the Gospel of Christ. To delineate their proper character, and to form their manners suitable to their high calling, is the principal scope of the epistles to Timothy and Titus. And when we consider what we read there, in connexion with many passages to the same purpose, which occur occasionally in the inspired writings, we may well adopt the apostle's words, "Who is sufficient for these things?" A Christian, even in private life, is exposed to innumerable snares and dangers, from his situation in an evil world, the power and subtilty of his spiritual enemies, and the influence of the body of sin in himself, which, though weakened and despoiled