The Re-Introduction Of Law Into The Church Of The New Testament, In The Sense In Which Law Was Abolished By Christ And His Apostles.
THE history of the law, considered as a revelation of God, reaches its close in the personal work of Christ and the formal institution of His kingdom among men; every thing pertaining to it had then, as on God’s part, assumed its final norm. But there is an instructive, though at the same time a mournful sequel to that history, which it will be proper briefly to trace before we take leave of the subject. It is the history of man’s additions to God’s testimony—claiming, however, equally with this, the sanction of Divine authority, and, by gradual and successive innovations, re-imposing upon the church a legalism, precisely similar in kind to that which had been done away in Christ, but greatly more pervasive and exacting in its demands, and in its practical operation fundamentally at variance with the true spirit of the Gospel.
The rise of this false direction in the Christian church is the more remarkable, that it not only had the clear revelations of the Gospel against it, but even ran counter to what may be called the later development of practical Judaism itself. The tendency of things under the Old Covenant, especially from the time that the Theocracy began outwardly to decay, we formerly saw, was to give increasing prominence to the spiritual element in the legal economy, and to make relatively less account of the merely outward and ceremonial. This tendency was considerably strengthened by the prolonged dispersion of the Jewish people, and what everywhere accompanied it, the synagogal institution, which, to a large extent, took the place of the priestly ministrations and sacrificial worship of the Temple. The synagogue, in its constitution and services, was founded upon what was general, rather than upon what was distinctive and peculiar, in Judaism; it made account only of the common priesthood of believers, and the essential elements of truth and righteousness embodied in the records and institutions of the Old Covenant; and, consequently, the worship to which it accustomed the people at their stated meetings was entirely of a spiritual kind—prayer, the reading of inspired Scripture, and occasionally the word of brotherly counsel or admonition from some one disposed and qualified to impart it. Priests, as such, had no peculiar place either in its organization or its services; and the rulers who presided over every thing connected with it were nominated by the people on the ground simply of personal gifts and reputed character. There still remained, of course, the observance of such things as the rite of circumcision, of the distinction of meats, and of days sacredly set apart from a common to a religious use, which depended upon nothing local or individual—might be practised anywhere and by any member of the community. It was this kind of legalism which first sought to press into the Christian church—the only kind that could press into it from the synagogue; but which, though hallowed by ancient usage, and, besides, possessing nothing of a sacerdotal or ascetic nature, was yet firmly repressed by the apostles, and ejected from the bosom of the churches which had begun to follow it. No taint of evil, therefore, was allowed to insinuate itself from this quarter—not even at first, when not a few from the synagogue passed over into the membership of the church; and much less afterwards, when the synagogue everywhere arrayed itself in fierce antagonism to the church:—while, on the other hand, in the simple polity of the synagogue and its spiritual, non-ritualistic, if somewhat imperfect worship, the church found a starting-point fashioned out of those elements in the Old Covenant, which had at once their correspondence and their more complete exhibition in the New.
Yet, with all this, one can easily understand, if due regard be had to the circumstances of the early church, how a disposition might arise and grow—if not very carefully guarded against—to assimilate the state of things in it to that of the preceding dispensation, and effect a virtual return to the oldness of the letter. There was the general relation between the two economies to begin with. Christianity sprang out of Judaism, and stood related to it as the substance to the shadow. More than that, a principal part of the Christian, as of the Jewish synagogal worship, consisted in the reading of the Scriptures of the Old Testament—proportionally a much larger part than in later times; for the function of preaching was at first but imperfectly exercised, and the Scriptures of the New Testament were only by and by gathered into a volume, and made to share with those of the Old in the services of the sanctuary. Hence, the minds of the Christian people were kept habitually conversant with the religion, as well as the other affairs of the Old Covenant, with the Temple and its priesthood, its rites of purification and ever-recurring oblations; and what might, perhaps, be still more apt to bias their views, they heard in the prophetical Scriptures delineations of Gospel times couched in legal phraseology—intimations, for example, of the Lord coming to His temple, that He might purify the sons of Levi, and receive from them an offering of righteousness; of incense and a pure offering being presented to the Lord from the rising to the setting sun; or of kings and far-off heathen bringing gifts to His temple. Inversely, also, in New Testament Scripture, spiritual things are sometimes described in the language of the Old as when believers are said by St John to have an anointing from the Holy One; or when, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, they are represented as having an altar, which those who served the tabernacle had no right to partake of, and are exhorted to have their bodies washed with pure water. Such passages, if superficially considered, and interpreted otherwise than in accordance with the true spirit of the Gospel, might readily beget a disposition, might create even a kind of pious desire, to have the things of the New dispensation fashioned in some sort after the pattern of the Old, and so to give to the descriptions a concrete and sensible form, similar to what they had in the past.
There was, also, it must be added, a class of services and requirements occupying from the first an important place in the activities of the Christian church, in which the New necessarily came into a formal approximation to the Old. I refer to the pious and charitable contributions which the members of the Christian community brought for the relief of the poor, the support of the ministry, and the celebration of Divine ordinances. These contributions were essentially the same in kind with the tithes and free will offerings of the elder economy; and the apostle, when treating of them in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, brought the one into express comparison with the other; and on the ground that they who were wont to minister about holy things lived of the Temple-offerings, he argued that they also who preached the Gospel should live of the Gospel. (1Co_9:12-14.) In such a case the transition might seem natural from an essential to a formal agreement. Why, it might be asked, not give the New somewhat of the same sacrificial character as the Old, and invest it with the same sort of ritual accompaniments? Such thoughts might the more readily occur, if there were influences at work to dispose the early believers to forsake the channels of Christian simplicity for the more sensuous attractions of ritualistic observance.
Now, there were influences of this description not only existing in all the centres of Christian agency, but also very actively at work. There was a current of opinion and feeling perpetually bearing in from the scenes and inter course of every-day life, in behalf of temples, altars, sacrifices, priestly ministrations and dedicatory offerings, as so essential to Divine worship that the one could hardly be conceived of without the other; the absence of such outward materials and instruments of devotion seemed incompatible with the very existence of the religious element. Hence, the reproach which was not infrequently thrown out against the Christians as being godless—ἄθεοι—because they refused to approach the altars, and take part in the sacrificial rites of heathenism, without appearing to have any of their own as a substitute for them. (Justin, ‘Apol.,’ chap. 6; ‘Athenagoras,’ chap. 4.) The proper way to meet this prevailing sentiment was to point to the one great High-Priest, the minister of a higher than any earthly temple, and to the one perfect sacrifice, by which, once for all, He accomplished what never could be done by sacrifices of an inferior kind, and which, by its infinite worth and ever-prevailing efficacy, imparts to those interested in it a position so high, and a character so sacred, that their services of faith and love become in the sight of God sacrifices of real value. This is the light in which the matter is presented in New Testament Scripture, where Christ is the one and all of a believer’s confidence, and the whole company of the faithful have the character assigned them of the royal priesthood, to whom belongs the privilege of offering up in Him spiritual sacrifices, which for His sake are accepted and blessed—the sacrifices, namely, of thanksgivings, alms-deeds, works of beneficence and well-doing, which, when springing from genuine faith and love in Christ, are regarded as offerings of sweet-smelling savour to God. (1Pe_2:5; Php_4:8; Heb_13:15-16.) But the church had not proceeded far on her course when she lost to some extent this clear discernment of the truth, and correct apprehension of the things relating to her proper calling and work in Christ; and continually as men who had been educated in heathenism pressed into the ranks of the visible church, the number increased of those within her pale whose preparation for the kingdom of God had been imperfect, and who had been too long accustomed to identify religion with the outward and the visible to be able to grasp sufficiently the spiritual realities of the Gospel. There consequently arose a temptation to accommodate the form of Christianity to the taste of a lower class of persons, and by means of its external services work upon their natures, as by a new law of observance and discipline. They might thus hope, without foregoing the realities of the faith, to retain the allegiance of the less informed, and accomplish by symbolical and ritual appliances what seemed less likely to be reached by means of a more elevated and spiritual kind.
In these circumstances, it devolved upon the church as a primary duty to take order for having proper counter acting checks and agencies brought into play; especially to see to it that those who were chosen to direct her counsels and preside over her assemblies, had become soundly instructed, not only in the principles of the Christian faith, but also in the organic connection between the Christian and Jewish dispensations, their respective differences as well as agreements, and the points wherein it was necessary to guard Christianity against any undue approach either to Judaic or heathen observance. But this was precisely what the early church failed to do—perhaps, we may say, the greatest failure into which she fell, the one fraught with the longest train of disastrous results. For centuries there was no specific theological training generally adopted for such as aspired to become her guides in spiritual things, or actually attained to this position. By much the larger portion even of those who contributed in the most especial manner to mould her character and government (Justin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), were in their early days total or comparative strangers to the exact knowledge of Scripture; their period of culture and training was spent under heathen guides, with a view to civic or military life; and when they passed, after a brief process of trial and instruction, into the ecclesiastical sphere, it could scarcely be otherwise than with many of the influences of the age still cleaving to them. Coming to know Christianity before they knew much of what preceded it, they wanted what they yet very peculiarly needed—the discipline of a gradual and successive study of the plan of God’s dispensations, and the directive light of a well-digested scheme of Scriptural theology. They knew the Bible in portions, rather than as an organic and progressive whole; and even for that knowledge, especially in its earlier parts, they were but poorly furnished with grammatical helps or with judicious expositions. Should it surprise us if, in such circumstances, they should often have caught but imperfectly the meaning of Old Testament Scripture—if they should even sometimes have shewn themselves to be insufficiently acquainted with its contents—and, in regard to the institutions and history of former times, should occasionally leave us at a loss to say whether the true or the false predominated—spiritualizing the most arbitrary going hand in hand with the crudest literalisms, profound thoughts intermingling with puerile conceits, and the most palpable Judaistic tendencies discovering themselves while evangelical principles were alone professedly maintained? Such are the actual results; and if there be one point more than another on which the spiritual discernment of those early Fathers was obviously defective, and their authority is least to be regarded, it is in respect to the connection between the New and the Old in the Divine economy. In this particular department, so far from having any special lights to guide them, they laboured under peculiar disadvantages; and their proper place in regard to it is that, not of the venerable doctors of the Christian church, but of its junior students.
Now let us mark the effect of the unfortunate combination of circumstances we have indicated, and see how, by gradual, yet by sure and successive steps, the tendency in the wrong direction, which was scarcely discernible at the outset, wrought till it became an evil of gigantic magnitude, and reduced the church to a worse than Judaic bondage. In the earlier writings—such as have come down to us with probable marks of authenticity and genuineness—we notice nothing in the respect now under consideration, except a somewhat too close and formal application of the ritualistic language of the Old Testament to Christian times, coupled with certain puerile and mistaken interpretations of its meaning, in the line of extravagant literalisms. Thus, to begin with the Epistle of Clement, which in point of character as well as time is entitled to the first place, when exhorting the Corinthians to lay aside their self-will and conform to the settled and becoming order of God’s house, he refers to the prescriptions given under the old economy respecting services and offerings, which were to be done at the appointed times and according to God’s good pleasure, nor any where men might please, but at the one altar and temple in Jerusalem. This Clement assigns as a reason why believers now should perform their offerings (προσφοράς) and services (λειτουργίας) at their appointed seasons, and that each should give thanks to God in his own order, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him (c. 40, 41). The passage cannot, as Romish controversialists and some others have alleged, point otherwise than by way of example to the legal sacrifices and services; for it would then, against the whole spirit and many express statements in the epistle, absolutely merge the functions and services of the Christian church in those of the Jewish. On the contrary, in the Christian church he recognises only two orders, those of bishops or presbyters and deacons, and these standing related not to any Jewish functionaries, as to the reason of their appointment, but to a passage in the prophecies of Isaiah. (Isa_40:17.) The only exception that can justly be taken to the statement of Clement is, that, in referring to legal prescriptions, he did not mark with sufficient distinctness the diversity existing between Old and New Testament times; and, in describing the work proper to Christian pastors, characterized it in ritual language as consisting ‘in a holy and blameless manner of offering the gifts (προσενεγκόντας τὰ δῶρα).’ It is undoubtedly a departure from the style of New Testament Scripture, and shews how readily, from the predominant use of the Scriptures of the Old Testament, their language was transferred to Christian acts and objects. In this respect it formed a commencement which was but too generally followed, though not quite immediately. For in the epistle of Polycarp, which in its approach to apostolic simplicity stands next to Clement s, there is not even such a slight departure from the mode of representation current in New Testament Scripture as we have marked in Clement; the epistle is throughout practical in its tone and bearing; the presbyters, deacons, and common believers are each exhorted to be faithful in their respective duties; and for the proper discharge of these, and for security against the spiritual dangers of the times, mention is made only of prayer, fasting, and a steadfast adherence to the teaching of the pure word of God. Nor is it materially otherwise in the epistles of Ignatius, if with Cureton we take the Syriac form of the three preserved in that language as he only genuine ones, for in these there is nothing whatever of rites and ceremonies, priesthood and sacrifice, but only exhortations to prayer, watchfulness, steadfastness, and unity, with somewhat of an excessive deference to the bishop in respect especially to the formation of marriages. Even in the seven epistles, in their shorter Greek form (which is as much as almost any one not hopelessly blinded by theory is now disposed to accept), omitting a few extravagant statements respecting the bishop, such as that ‘nothing connected with the church should be done without him,’ that ‘it is not lawful without him either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast,’ (‘Smyr.,’ chap. 8.) the style of exhortation and address, though often passionate and hyperbolical, can scarcely be deemed unscriptural: believers are spoken of as the temple or building of God, they break one and the same bread, are related to one and the same altar (spiritually understood of course, for it is the entire body of the faithful that is the subject of discourse), and have many practical admonitions addressed to them. (Eph. ix, xi, xxi; Phil. iv., etc.)
From the uncertainty, however, which hangs around the epistles of Ignatius, both as to their authorship and the time of their appearance, it is impossible to assign them any definite place in the chain of evidences of which we speak. The epistle to Diognetus, being entirely spiritual and evangelical in its spirit, going even to a kind of extreme in its depreciation of the Jewish religion, does not come within the scope of our argument. But the so-called epistle of Barnabas, though in all probability a production not earlier than the middle of the second century, while quite evangelical in its sentiments, knowing no proper sacrifice but the one offering of Christ, no temple but the regenerated souls of believers, is very arbitrary in the use it makes generally of Old Testament Scripture, and especially in the many outward, superficial agreements and prefigurations of Gospel realities—as if the past had in its very form and outline been intended for an image of the future. (See, in particular, the fancied prefigurations of regeneration, baptism, Christ and the cross, in chap. 7-12.) Passing on to Justin, he, too, designates no select class, but the entire company of believers, ‘the true priestly race of God, who have now the right to offer sacrifices to Him;’ (‘Tryp.,’ chap. 116, 117.) and the sacrifices themselves are with him, sometimes prayers and thanksgivings, sometimes again the bread and the wine of the Supper, but these simply as gratefully offered by the Christian people out of their earthly abundance. (‘Tryp.,’ chap. 117; ‘Apol.,’ chap. 65-67.) Sacrifices of blood and libations of incense, he again says, are no longer required; the only perfect sacrifices are prayer and thanksgiving, and such things as can be distributed to the poor; (‘Apol.,’ chap. 13; ‘Tryp.’ chap. 117.) nor does he know of any functionary who has to do with one or other of these distinctive offerings but a presiding brother, or the deacons of the church. In Justin, the Eucharist, or, as he also puts it, the Eucharistic bread and the Eucharistic cup, being especially connected with prayers and thanksgivings for the great mercies of God, come into view merely as a peculiar embodiment or representation of these, and as such are classed with sacrifices and offerings—marking a certain departure from the language of our Lord and the apostles, and that in the Old Testament direction—though he also speaks of the celebration as done in remembrance of Christ’s suffering unto death for men. (‘Tryp.,’ chap. 41.) But Irenaeus makes a further advance in the same line by representing the Eucharist not merely as having, like other spiritual acts, somewhat of a sacrificial character, but as being emphatically the Christian oblation. ‘The Lord gave instruction to His disciples to offer unto God the first-fruits of His own creatures, not as if He needed them, but, that they themselves might be neither unfruitful nor ungrateful, He took that which by its created nature was bread, and gave thanks, saying, This is my body. In like manner, also, the cup, which is of that creation whereto we belong, He confessed to be His own blood; and taught the new oblation of the New Testament, which the church, receiving from the apostles, offers throughout the whole world to God, to Him who gives us the means of support the first-fruits of His gifts in the New Testament.’ (Irenaeus, iv. chap. 17, sec. 5.) It can scarcely be doubted, that the close connection which in early times subsisted between the love-feast, in which the poor of the congregation partook of the charitable donations of their richer brethren, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, materially contributed to the formation and entertainment of this view. But in the view itself, at least when so prominently exhibited, we cannot but perceive an evident approach to the symbolism of the Old Covenant, and a corresponding departure from the mode of representation in New Testament Scripture. (See, in preceding Lecture, p. 258.) For, though in Irenaeus we find nothing of a priestly caste within the Christian church, and no altar or temple but such as are in Heaven, (Irenaeus, iv. chap. 18, sec. 6.) yet once distinctly connect the communion elements (as he did) with the idea of an oblation—the oblation by way of eminence—an oblation, moreover, involving some mysterious change in the thing offered, and the thought was natural that a priest, a priest in the strictly official sense, must be required to offer it. So that we might presently expect to hear that the presiding brother of Justin, the episcopus or presbyter of Irenaeus, had risen to the dignity of a pontifex. And this is precisely the fresh advance that meets us in the next writer of eminence. (It is quite true, that the ordinance of the Supper may, without the least violation of its Scriptural character, be spoken of as the Eucharist, or the distinctively thanksgiving service. For, calling to remembrance, as it does, the great gift of God, and even pressing home on each individual a palpable representation and offer of that gift, it should call forth in a very peculiar manner the fervent and united thanksgivings of the church. Hence, from the first it was accompanied with the special offering of thanks to God and singing of hymns of praise; and the service might not unjustly be regarded as the culmination of the church’s adoring gratitude, poured forth over the crowning act of God’s goodness. But this is still rather the proper and fitting accompaniment of the sacrament than the sacrament itself; and when taken as the one and all in a manner of the service (as it plainly was from the time of Tertullian and onwards), the primary idea and end of the institution naturally fell into comparative abeyance, and the commemoration of a sacrifice became identified with the ever renewed presentation of it. This, beyond doubt, was the actual course which the matter took in the hands of the Fathers, though their language is not uniform or consistent. But the commemorative character of the ordinance, and that with reference to our common participation in the benefits of the great act commemorated (its sealing virtue or purport as a communion), this is pre-eminently its Scriptural aspect; and in proportion as it departed from that view, the church lost the key to the ordinance.)
The writer referred to was Tertullian, who flourished at the close of the second and the beginning of the third century in North Africa. Christianity had taken early root in that region, especially in the cities, where a vigorous race of Roman or Italian colonists formed the governing part of the population. From the character of the people, the church there became peculiarly distinguished for its strength and moral earnestness, and, in many respects, exercised a formative influence over the government and polity of the church of Rome, and through her upon Christendom at large. Tertullian was the first distinguished representative of this African church, and he brought into it the notions of order, and discipline, and stern administration, which he derived from his position and training as the son of a Roman centurion, and his education as a Roman lawyer—naturally, therefore, predisposed in a legal and ritualistic direction. His writings, accordingly, contain much tending in this direction. And in respect to the matter now immediately before us, he distinctly names the bishop the summus sacerdos or high-priest, though the dignity was still only in a provisional and fluctuating state—growing into definiteness and fixity rather than having actually attained to it. In his treatise on baptism, and speaking of the right of administration, c. 17, he says, ‘The high-priest, indeed, who is the bishop, has the right of giving it; thereafter presbyters and deacons, not, however, without the bishop’s authority, for the sake of the church’s honour, by the preservation of which peace is secured. Apart from this (alioquin), the right belongs also to laics; for what is received on a footing of equality (ex aequo), on the same footing can be given. The word of the Lord should not be hid by any one: therefore ;also baptism, which is not less a thing of God, can be dispensed by all.’ Elsewhere he applies the term clerus to denote the body holding ecclesiastical positions, with evident reference to the previous use of it in the Old Testament, as a collective designation of the priests and Levites, as the Lord’s peculiar lot or heritage. (‘De Monog.,’ chap. 12.) And for the same purpose he transfers the Homan official term ordo to the governing, the ecclesiastical body, while the laity are the plebs, but with the same kind of shifting flexibility as before. Urging his favourite point of absolute monogamy, (‘De Exhort. Castitatis,’ chap. 7.) he says, ‘It is written, He has made us a kingdom and priests to God and our Father. The authority of the church has made a difference between the order and the laity (ordinem et plebem), and a stamp of sacredness is set upon her honour by the meeting of the order. Moreover, where there is no meeting of the ecclesiastical order, you both offer (i.e. dispense the communion) and baptize, and alone are a priest to yourself. But when three are present, though laics, there is a church; for every one lives by his own faith, nor is there respect of persons with God.’
It was impossible, however, that matters could remain long in this kind of suspense—ecclesiastical orders with their appropriate functions, yet others on occasions taking their place—a priestly standing for some, yea, a high-priesthood, with sacrificial work to perform, rising out and apart from the common priesthood of believers, and yet, in the absence of those possessing it, the work allowed to be performed by unconsecrated hands. Once acknowledge the distinction as the normal and proper one, and it was sure soon to develop into a regular and stereotyped, yea, indispensable arrangement; as, indeed, we presently find it doing in the hands of Tertullian’s immediate disciple—Cyprian of Carthage. Bred, like the other, to the legal profession, and practising in the courts of law till within a comparatively short period of his elevation to the episcopate, Cyprian, even more than Tertullian, partook of the imperial impress, and carried into ecclesiastical life its regard for official distinctions and the observances of a regulated discipline. Every thing, according to him, seemed to hang upon this. Presbyters, as priests and bishops, still more as high-priests, held God’s appointment; His authority was with them; by them His judgment was pronounced; evils of every kind ensue if obedience is not paid to them; and in their daily service at the altar ‘they act in Christ’s stead, imitating what Christ did, and offering a true and full sacrifice in the church to God the Father.’ (Epp. 57, sec. 2; 63, sec. 11.) Such is the style of thought and speech introduced by Cyprian on this subject, in practice also vigorously carried out; and here, still more than in the writings of those who preceded him, the affairs and incidents of Old Testament Scripture are in the roughest and most literal manner applied to those of the New, as if there were no characteristic difference between them. The passages which describe the functions and services, the calling and privileges, of the priests and Levites, are transferred wholesale to the Christian ministry and diaconate: the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, has its exact counterpart in the deacon who treats his bishop with disrespect; (Ephesians 3, sec. 1.) and all sorts of external things are freely employed, which, from their colour or their use, presented any kind of likeness to the sacraments of the New Testament. Even in the lament able defection of Noah in his latter days—in the fact that he drank wine to excess, with all that followed, there was, according to Cyprian, ‘exhibited a type of the future truth, since he drank not water, but wine, and so portrayed a figure of the passion of the Lord.’ (Ep. 63, sec. 2.) Such a mode of interpretation, so singularly oblivious of the distinction between letter and spirit—carried, indeed, to peculiar excess in Cyprian, but in a great degree common to early Patristic writers generally—could not stop till it had assimilated the form of things in the new dispensation to that of the old; since it found, not the principle and germ merely of Christianity, but its very shape and lineaments in the rites and institutions of Judaism.
There was, however, another and a confluent stream of influence from the prevailing heathenism, which bore powerfully in the same direction, and in respect to nothing more than the Christian sacraments, around which the ritualistic tendency had been more peculiarly concentrating itself. For, besides what was ever flowing from the temples, the altars, the festal processions, and other public rites of idolatry, to beget and foster a sensuous spirit, there was the more specific and also more fascinating influence derived throughout the more cultivated portions of the Roman empire, from the celebration of the mysteries. Uncertain as these singular institutions were as to their origin and design, and associated, in the later periods of their history at least, with much that was disorderly and demoralizing, they still possessed a most powerful attraction to the popular mind, and, for ages after the introduction of Christianity, contributed immensely to deepen the hold which the existing religion had on men’s imaginations and feelings. A sort of charmed virtue was ascribed to them, whereby the participants were supposed to be raised to a higher elevation—to become commingled in some mysterious way with the Divine. And by intensifying to the uttermost the sacerdotal element in the sacraments, especially in the celebration of the Supper, it came to be thought by the leaders of the Christian church, that an attractive and spell-like sway might be found within her pale, similar in kind to the other, but higher in character and aim. Hence, every distinguishing epithet applied to the heathen mysteries, with the view of heightening their sacredness and magnifying their importance, was transferred without limitation or reserve to the sacraments: they were called expressly the mysteries, and with every variety of designation (μυήσεις, τελετάς, τελειώσεις, ἐποπτείας), etc., the Eucharist, in particular, was the mystery by way of eminence, ‘the great and terrible mystery;’ to partake of it was to be initiated (μυεῖσδαι); the officiating priest was the initiator (μύστης, μυσταγωγός), who, in his action upon the elements, was said conftcere Deum (to make God), or to make the body and blood of Christ, and, in respect to the initiated, to impart a kind of deification (θείωσιν), or confer the vision (ἐποψίαν)—meaning such an insight into Divine things as the supernaturally illuminated alone can enjoy. The comparison might be, and has been, drawn out into the fullest circumstantiality of detail; (See the striking passage quoted from Is. Casaubon, in B. ii. p. 2 of ‘Divine Leg. of Moses.’ It is of no moment, for the point of view under consideration , whether the priestly act in the sacrament was considered as actually transubstantiating the elements, or in some mysterious way changing their character, so as to make them in power and efficacy the body and blood of Christ. Dr Goode has adduced apparently conclusive arguments, in the work previously referred to, for shewing that it was the latter, not the former, that was meant; but he has not, we think, made due account of the priestly and sacrificial representations of the ordinance given by the Fathers, which were such as to render their view of it, in practical effect, scarcely less sensuous, and equally fitted to minister to superstitious uses as the Roman mass; so that, in spite of all explanations, the Anglo-Catholic ritualists can claim the great body of Patristic writers, from the middle of the third century, as, at least, virtually on their side.) but ‘the thing (as Warburton says) is notorious;’ the Fathers, who at first denounced in unmeasured terms the heathen mysteries, afterwards adopted the fatal counsel of bringing the most sacred Christian ordinances into the closest formal resemblance to them. So that, far asunder as Judaism and Heathenism were in their spirit and aims, there still was a class of things in which they wrought together with disastrous influence on the course of events in the Christian church. What the one, when applied at an earlier period to the institutions of the Gospel, began, the other, at a more advanced stage, consummated and crowned as with a super-earthly glory. The Christian ministry, under the one class of influences, passed into a vicarious priesthood, having somewhat of its own to effect or offer; and this priesthood, yielding to the seductive power of the other, became transformed into a kind of magic hierophants, in whose hands the symbolical ordinances of the Gospel exchanged their original simplicity for the cloudy magnificence of potent charms and indescribable wonders. A formal gain in the external show and aspect of things, but purchased at an incalculable loss as to their real virtue! For it was the loss of the truth in its Scriptural directness and power; and in comparison of this, the most attractive influences of an outward ceremonialism (even if it had borne the explicit sanction of Heaven) must ever prove a miserable compensation.
But if the legal and ritualistic elements of this new discipline might be said to concentrate itself here, it could not, in the nature of things, be confined to one department of the religious life; it was sure to spread, and actually did spread, in all directions. Baptism, for example, was accompanied with a whole series of symbolical services, preceding and following the rite itself;—the disrobing of the shoes and the ordinary garments; the turning to the west with a formal renunciation of the devil; the exorcism, and sanctification both of the subject of baptism, and the water; the three-fold immersion; then, after the action with water, the anointing with oil, the administration of milk and honey, etc.,—the greater part of which, though confessedly without any warrant in Scripture, are testified by Tertullian to have been traditionally observed in his time, and the prevailing custom is pleaded in their behalf as having virtually won for them the force of law. (De Cor.,c. 3, 4.) Cyprian presses several of them as indispensable. (Ep. 70.) In like manner, postures in devotion for particular times and seasons were religiously practised, the signing of one’s forehead or breast with the mark of the cross (which already, in Tertullian’s time, seems to have reached its height), the observance of days of fasting and prescribed seasons of watching and prayer, as necessary, to some extent, for all who would lead the Christian life, and, in the case of those who aspired to be religious in the stricter sense, growing into a regular and enforced system of discipline. And the sad thing was, that while this new and complicated legalism was everywhere in progress, the leading minds in the church, overlooking the fundamental agreements between it and the things they were bound to reject, deemed themselves sufficiently justified in countenancing the course pursued, on account of certain superficial differences. It was true that, after having been abolished, a vicarious, sacrificing priesthood had found its way again into the church; but then it differed from the Jewish in being held, not by fleshly descent, but by ecclesiastical ordination, and having to do directly with Christian, not with typical, events and objects. The observance of Easter on the part of the Asiatics was characterized as Jewish, in contradistinction to that of the church at large, which was Christian not because the services in the former partook more, in the latter less, of a ritualistic and sacrificial character, but merely because the mode of determining the day coincided with the Jewish in the one case, and in the other somewhat differed from it. (So the merits of the question are exhibited on the occasion of its final settlement at the council of Nicaea, in the letter addressed, in the name of the council, by Constantine to the Asiatic churches: ‘It seemed, in the first place, to be a thing unworthy and unbecoming, that, in the celebration of that most holy solemnity, we should follow the usage of the Jews, who, being persons that have defiled themselves with a most detestable sin, are deservedly given up to blindness of mind. Let nothing, therefore, be common to us with that most hostile multitude of the Jews’ (Euseb. ‘Vit. Const.,’ iii. 18).)
And so, in other things, Tertullian, when contending with the Psychical (as he called them), in behalf of more frequent fastings than either New Testament Scripture or ecclesiastical usage had sanctioned, vindicates his view on the ground of the same sort of circumstantial distinctions. ‘We, therefore,’ says he, ‘in observing times and days, and months and years, plainly galatianize (i.e. imitate the folly of the Galatians), if, in doing so, we observe Jewish ceremonies, legal solemnities; for the apostle dissuades us from these, disallowing the continued observance of the Old Testament, which has been buried in Christ, and urging that of the New. But, if there is a new condition in Christ, it will be right that there should be new solemnities.’ (‘De Jejunio,’ c. 14.) And then he goes on to press, not only the now universal observance of Easter, but of fifty days of exuberant joy after its celebration, and certain stated fasts, as a proof that the church had already conceded the principle of the matter, and needed only to proceed farther in the same line to reach a higher perfection. So that, in the estimation of Tertullian, it was enough to escape the condemnation pronounced by the apostle on the Galatians, and to save the imposition of a new yoke of carnal services from the charge of Judaism, if only fresh periods and occasions were fixed for their observance; that is, if, in respect to the mere accident of time, they underwent a change:—as if the apostle had said that he was afraid of the Galatians, and regarded them as imperilling the interests of the Gospel, not simply because they made their resort to fleshly ordinances, and observed times and days, and months and years, but because the resort was to precisely Jewish things of this description! What the apostle really condemned was the commingling with the Gospel of a law of carnal ordinances (no matter whence derived), as inevitably tending to cloud the freeness of its salvation, and bring the filial spirit proper to it into bondage. Chrysostom saw a little further into the matter than Tertullian; and yet did not see far enough, or possess sufficient strength of conviction, to pierce to the root of the evil. While, therefore, not unconscious of the aspect of legalism which had been settling down upon the church, he rather sought to throw a gloss over it, than rouse his energies to resist and expose it. Contending against the Jews, and endeavouring to shew how, though the Christians had been discharged from observing times and seasons, they should yet celebrate Easter with a true oblation, and should have their minds prepared and purged for it by exercising themselves for forty days beforehand ‘to prayers, and alms, and vigils, and tears, and confession, and other such things,’ it is all only that the soul may get free from consciousness of sin not as if any observation of days were in itself necessary or commendable. ‘If, therefore (he counsels), a Jew or a Greek should ask you, Why do you fast? Do not say, on account of the Passover [i.e., the Christian oblation], nor on account of the cross, since thus you would give him a great handle. For we do not fast because of the Passover, nor because of the cross, but because of our sins, since we are going to approach the mysteries.’ (‘Adv. Jud.,’ iii. 4.) But for what other purpose, one might justly ask in reply, were the times and seasons of the Old Covenant, with their confessions, purgations, and sacrifices, appointed? Was it not also because of sin, and, in the absence of the more perfect way of deliverance from it, to have the minds of the people exercised aright concerning it? And should the same be substantially continued now—yea, greatly increased and intensified (for Judaism knew of nothing like such a regularly recurring forty days of penitence and mortification),—after this new and better way has come? Such a mode of procedure was neither more nor less than the Galatian policy of seeking to perfect in the flesh what had been begun in the spirit. It virtually said, ‘These are legalisms, indeed, if you regard them as absolutely tied to particular times, or indispensable to the actual accomplishment of Christ’s salvation in the soul: you would judaize if you so observed them.’ What then? Reject the impositions as fraught with danger to your spiritual good? as sure to take off the regard of your soul from Christ, and find, at least, a partial saviour in your prolonged asceticism? No; the Fathers (says Chrysostom), ‘have seen it meet to enjoin such things; it is wise and dutiful for you to keep to the appointed order; only, see that you do not lose sight of the great realities of the faith, and feel as if you might do every day what you more systematically do in the course of these special solemnities.’ (See also Origen, Horn. xi. in Lev. sec. 10—who draws well the distinction between the new and the old in regard to fast days, but practically drops the difference when he com.es to the now stated and customary observances.)
All this shews but too plainly, that the light of the church had become grievously darkened. The men of might, if in certain respects they had not lost their hands, had here, at least virtually, lost their eyes. They did not perceive that there might be the essence of Judaism—a bondage even surpassing the bondage of its necessary symbolism and prescribed ritual of service—though not a day might be kept, nor a rite observed, in exact conformity with the ancient institutions. It was the return to observances the same in kind, however differing in the accidents of time and mode, with those of the Old Covenant—it was the overshadowing of Christ and His blessed Gospel by a long procession of penitential exercises and awe-inspiring solemnities, regulated by the canons o/,an approved ecclesiastical order—it was this which constituted the essentially legal element, and therewith the anti-evangelical, perilous tendency of such a line of things—the very same substantially, only in a more developed form, which, at the beginning of the Gospel, crept into the churches of Galatia, and drew forth the earnest expostulation and warning of the apostle. This is no mere conjecture. We can appeal in proof of it to the testimony of the very greatest of the Fathers, though in giving it he might be said to bear witness against himself. Augustine was plainly conscious of a misgiving about the vast multiplication of rites and ceremonies in his day, as tending to the reproduction, in its worst form, of a spirit of legalism, while still he conceded to mere usage the virtual right of perpetuating and enlarging the burden. Take as an example his two letters to Januarius. (‘Classis, ii.; Epp. 54, 55.) He is there returning an answer to certain questions, which had been proposed to him by his correspondent concerning the propriety, or otherwise, of observing some fasts and ordinances, in which the practice of the church was not uniform; and in doing so he sets out with a broad enunciation of the principle, which he wished Januarius to hold by—namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, according to His own declaration in the Gospel, placed His people under a gentle yoke and a light burden, binding the community of the New Testament together by sacraments very few in number, quite easy of observance, in their purport altogether excellent, and relieving them of those things which lay as a yoke of bondage on the members of the Old Covenant. These sacraments, of course, He would have everywhere observed—yet not these alone, but what things besides ecclesiastical councils and long continued usage had sanctioned, though without any authority in Sacred Scripture; nay, even the special usages of particular localities, if they had obtained a settled footing—such as fasting on the Sabbath (viz. , Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath) at Home or Carthage, but not at Milan and other places, where the practice had not yet established itself—thus leaving the door open for the entrance of a state of things very different from what he declared to be the manifest design and appointment of Christ in the Gospel. And so the Christian feeling in his bosom expresses itself before he reaches the close of his second epistle. ‘But this (says he, sec. 35) I very much grieve at, that many salutary prescriptions which are given in the Divine Scriptures are too little heeded; and all things are so full of manifest prejudices, that if one have but touched the ground with his naked foot during his octaves (the week of holidays succeeding the Easter baptisms), he is more severely reprimanded than one who has buried his soul in intemperance. Therefore, all such ceremonies as are neither enjoined by the authority of Sacred Scripture, nor have been decreed by the councils of bishops, nor have been confirmed by the usage of the church universal, should in my judgment be cut off, where one has the power to do so. For, although it could not be discovered in what respects they are contrary to the faith, yet they oppress with servile burdens the religion which the mercy of God wished to be free, with very few and simple observances; so that the condition of the Jews was more tolerable, since though they knew not the time of liberty, yet they were subjected only to legal burdens, not to human impositions. But the church of God (he plaintively adds) , having in her constitution much chaff and many tares, is tolerant of many things, without, however, approving or doing what is directly at variance with the faith or a good life.’
We have here a right apprehension of the evil which had been making way, but by no means a right conception of the proper mode of dealing with it. It was not by such a temporizing policy, and such a faint resistance, that the swelling tide of ritualism was to be checked then, any more than now. The question should have been boldly raised: Since the effect of yielding to usage and ecclesiastical councils has been to load the church with impositions, which have marred its primitive simplicity, and brought in upon it a worse than Judaic bondage, why not withstand and reject whatever has not its clear warrant or implied justification in Scripture? This position, however, was not taken, in regard to the points now under consideration, either by Augustine, or by any of the more prominent guides of the church in the centuries succeeding the apostolic age. On the contrary, they allowed the untoward influences which were at work to fashion, by gradual and stealthy advances, a yoke of order and discipline, which, by connivance first, then by authoritative enactment, acquired the force of law, and stopt not till the whole spirit and character of the new dispensation had been brought under its sway. The principle of Augustine, that in respect to those things on which Scripture is silent, ‘the custom of the people of God, or the appointments of our ancestors, must be held as law’—a principle substantially enunciated nearly two centuries before by Tertullian, and systematically carried out by Cyprian and others (See Aug.’s ‘Ep. to Casulanuss,’ sec. 2. ‘In his rebu de quibus nihil certi statuit Scriptura divina, mos populi Dei, vel institute majorum pro lege tenenda sunt.’ Also Ep. ad Januarium; Tertul. de Corona, sec. 3; ‘Observationes, quas sine ullius Scripturae instrumento, solius traditionis titulo, et exinde consuetudinis patrocinio vindicamus.’)—had not failed even under the legal economy to introduce certain things that were at variance with its fundamental scope and design; but with the comparative freedom which exists in the New Testament from detailed enactments and formal restraints, the entire field in a manner lay open to it, and it was impossible to say how far, in process of time, and with external circumstances favouring its development, it might go in multiplying the materials of the church’s bondage to form and symbol. The practical result has been, that Rome has found in it a sufficient basis for her mighty mass of ritual observance and ascetic discipline. Bellarmine’s principle here is little else than a repetition of Augustine’s, (‘De Verbo Dei,’ L. iv. c. 2. ‘Ecclesiasticae traditiones proprie dicuntur consuetudines quaedam antiquae, vel a praelatis vel a populis inchoatae, quae paulatim, tacito consensu populorum, vim legis obtinuerunt.’) ‘What are properly called ecclesiastical traditions are certain ancient customs, originating either with prelates or the people, which by degrees, through the tacit consent of the people, have obtained the force of law.’ And so the legalizing tendency proceeded, gathering and consolidating its materials, till it reached its culmination in the edifice of the Tridentine Council, which has been justly said to rest on the two great Pillars—that Christ is a lawgiver in the same sense in which Moses was, and that the Gospel is a new law presenting, in a spiritualized form, the same features which the old did (Litton ‘On the Church,’ p. 122.)—the same, indeed, in kind, though far surpassing them in its multifarious and irksome character, and operating also after the same disciplinary style, as the very eulogies of its adherents indicate. In the church, they tell us, ‘we are placed, as it were, under the discipline of childhood—God having constituted an order which shall bear rule over His people, and shall bring them under the yoke of obedience to Himself.’ (Manning ‘On the Unity of the Church,’ p. 254.) What is this but in effect to say of the Romish church, that she has brought back her people, through the carnal elements she has infused into her worship and polity, to the condition out of which it was the declared purpose of Christ’s mission to raise and elevate the members of His kingdom?—not her glory, therefore, but her reproach. The new in her hands has relapsed into the old; what was begun in the Spirit, she has vainly sought to perfect in the flesh, and has only succeeded in displacing a religion of spirit for a religion of forms and ceremonies, and getting the dead works of a mechanical routine, for the fruits of a living faith and responsive love.
This were itself bad enough. For it completely inverts the proper order and relation of things as set forth in New Testament Scripture—makes more account of external rites than of essential truths—and, while all-solicitous for the rightful administration of the one, provides no effectual guarantee for the due maintenance and inculcation of the other. The primary aim of the church comes to be the securing of legitimate dispensers of ordinances, who may, at the same time, be teachers of heretical doctrine, and abettors of practical corruption—and in reality have often been such. But this is by no means the whole of the evil. For, while avowedly designed to render salvation sure to those who keep to the prescribed channel of external order and ritualistic observance, it really brings uncertainty into the whole matter; and places New Testament believers not only under a more complicated service than was imposed on those of the Old Testament, but under a great disadvantage as regards the assurance of their heart before God. The ancient worshipper, as regards the mediating of his services and their acceptance with Heaven, had to do only with objective realities, about which he could, with comparative ease, satisfy himself. There was for him the one well-known temple with which Jehovah associated His name—the one altar of burnt-offering, also perfectly known and obvious to all—the officiating priesthood, with their local habitations and carefully preserved genealogies, descending from age to age, and excluding almost the possibility of doubt; and the confession of sin which required to be made, and the offerings on account of it which were to be presented, in order to the obtaining of forgiveness, both had their explicit ordination from God, and were directly rendered to Him: they depended in no degree for their success on the caprice or the intention of him who served the altar. But the spiritual element, which it has been impossible to exclude from the new law of ordinances, has, in the ritualistic system, changed all this, and introduced in its stead the most tantalizing and vexatious uncertainty. The validity of the sacraments depends on the impressed character of the priesthood, and this, again, on a whole series of circumstances, of none of which can the sincere worshipper certainly assure himself. It depends, first of all, on the ministering priest having been canonically ordained, after having been himself baptized and admitted to deacons orders; and if, as will commonly happen, several priests have to be dealt with, then the same conditions must be found to meet in each. But these are only the earlier links. The validity of ordinances depends not less upon the spiritual pedigree of the priesthood, who must have received ordination from a bishop, and he again have been consecrated by at least three bishops, none of whom has been without baptism, or deacons and priests orders, nor at the time under excommunication, or in deadly heresy and sin; and so also must it have been with their predecessors, up through all the ages of darkness, ignorance, and disorder, to the time of the apostles. ‘The chance of one’s possessing the means of salvation is (upon the ritualistic theory) just the chance of there having been no failure of any single link in this enormous chain from the apostles time to ours. The chance against one’s possessing the means of salvation is the chance of such a failure having once occurred. And is it thus that the Christian is to give diligence to make his calling and election sure? Is it thus he is to run not as uncertainly, and to draw near to God in full assurance of faith?’ (‘Cautions for the Times,’ p. 312.) It is easy to affirm, as Dr Hook does, ‘There is not a bishop or priest or deacon, among us, who may not, if he please, trace his spiritual descent from Peter and Paul.’ But where is the proof of the assertion? ‘It is probable,’ says Macaulay, ‘that no clergyman in the church of England can trace up his spiritual genealogy from bishop to bishop so far back even as the time of the Conquest. There remain many centuries during which the history of the transmission of his orders is buried in utter darkness. And whether he be a priest by succession from the apostles, depends on the question, whether during that long period some thousands of events took place, any one of which may, without any gross improbability, be supposed not to have taken place. We have not a tittle of evidence for any of these events.’ (Essay on Gladstone’s ‘Church and State.’) It is therefore justly concluded by the preceding authority, that ‘there is not a minister in all Christendom who is able to trace up with any approach to certainty his own spiritual pedigree. Irregularities could not have been wholly excluded without a perpetual miracle; and that no such miraculous interference existed, we have even historical proof.’ (‘Cautions,’ etc., p. 302.) Even this, however, is not the end of the uncertainties. For, in this new, man-made law of ordinances, there is required the further element of the knowledge and intention of the parties—those of the worshippers in confessing to the priest, receiving from him absolution and the sacraments; and those again of the priest in administering the rites—the utter want, or essential defect of which, on either side, vitiates the whole. And who can tell for certain, whether they really exist or not? The poor penitent is at the mercy of circumstances, connected with the character and position of his spiritual confidant, which he not only cannot control, but which, from their remote or impalpable nature, he cannot even distinctly ascertain: he must either refuse to entertain a doubt, or be a stranger to solid peace.
On every account, therefore, this retrogressive policy, this confounding of things which essentially differ, is to be condemned and deplored as the source of incalculable evils. It is a disturbing as well as an enslaving system, shackles the souls which Christ has set free, and robs the Gospel of its essential glory as glad tidings of great joy to mankind. Men may disguise it from themselves; they may resolutely shut their eyes on its more objectionable features, or refuse to make full application of its more distinctive principles; but its native tendency and working unquestionably are to place the believer under the Gospel in much closer dependence than even the disciple of Moses on the carnal elements of a merely external polity and human administration; and, were it left to his choice, he might well exchange the fuller knowledge he has obtained of the eternal world for the larger freedom from arbitrary impositions, and the more assured possession of peace with God, which were enjoyed by those who lived in the earlier periods of the Divine dispensations.