A.D. 500-800

We have followed in our last section the spiritual decline that took place in the visible church from the time that it was established as the state religion of the Roman Empire. In this section, which will cover the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, we shall see that decline brought to its logical conclusion one important tendency. First, however, it will be useful to look at the great expansion of the church which took place during these three centuries. When the period of confusion which we have described was past, missionary activity was resumed. It was not quite the same sort of missionary activity as that of which we read in the Acts of the Apostles, nor as that which took place in the primitive days. How could it have been? The church was tainted with worldliness, monasticism, increasing heathen corruption and lack of spirituality. Where she carried the Gospel, she carried also the marks of these things. She lost her sense of the importance of individual conversion and concentrated upon mass-movement. In spite of all this, however, knowledge of the Gospel to a greater or less degree was spread, and the opportunity of hearing the Saviour's Name and of reading the Scriptures was brought to many thousands.

This expansion went on in several parts of the world. One of the most remarkable eras of missionary work was inaugurated at the beginning of this period by the churches outside the frontier of the eastern Roman Empire to the east. In the middle of the fifth century Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, had become involved in the Christological controversies which we mentioned in the last section. He was degraded and finally excommunicated by the orthodox party, and several of those who had been associated with him fled over the frontier into Persia and gave themselves to the work of strengthening the Christian churches there. This is the reason for the name Nestorian being given to these churches. The name contains a double fallacy. They had never been associated with Nestorius himself. Moreover, neither Nestorius himself nor these churches of the east believed or taught the special unscriptural doctrines about the Person of Christ which were attributed to them by the majority party and implied in the name Nestorian. The activity of these churches was not affected by the false name, which served if anything to keep them separate from the church of the empire and so turned out to be an advantage.

We have seen that in quite early days the churches of Parthia had evangelised the far east. There does not seem to be evidence as to the survival of those primitive churches in the sixth century. Whether some of them were still in existence or not, the so-called Nestorians followed in the steps of their predecessors and reached as far China in the east, Siberia in the north and Ceylon in the south. By the eighth century there was at least one bishopric in China, there were Christians in Samarcand and along all the great trade routes to the east. Some of the churches in South India survive today, some in Ceylon were in existence in the fourteenth century, and it seems that many in Central Asia existed as long. Here and there, over the far east, inscriptions have been found which bear testimony to the activity of these missionaries. A Chinese document dating from the middle ages, which referred to them, was known to Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China. The churches in Persia were naturally weakened by the Moslem conquest in the seventh century, but the rise of Islam did not greatly affect these eastern churches as a whole. Their decay was due to the seeds of corruption which had been sown by their founders in the same soil as the seed of the Word, and they almost all perished during the era of deadness that overspread Christianity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with which we shall deal in a later section.

Irish Missions

The second stream of expansion at which we must glance started from the opposite quarter of the known world. In every generation it has been true that God has not left Himself without witness. While the civilization of Europe was perishing in confusion, overrun by the heathen from the north, there was an island in the west, isolated from the catastrophic events taking place on the continent, where the Christian church was free to develop in peace. This was Ireland. During the sixth and seventh centuries it could almost be said that Ireland was the only place in Europe where conditions of stability existed. We know nothing of the origin of this far-flung activity that broke out from Ireland during the sixth and seventh centuries. It appeared as a revival appears. The Gospel had reached Ireland in the third century, and during the following three hundred years had an extensive church grown up. The country was christianised and in close touch with the Welsh Christianity of Britain. It may be that the missionary activity of Ireland was stimulated by the invasion of Britain by the heathen English in the fifth century, and their settlement there, while they drove the British Christians into the mountains of the west. Corruption had made its way into the Irish church. Centralization was firmly established there, and there was a certain amount of monasticism. But the Irish monasteries when first established were little more than mission stations. They were enclosed with wails, not for religious purposes so much as for protection. The inmates were free to marry if they wished, and these stations were centres of active evangelisation among the heathen around. Irish missionaries established centres on many of the western islands of Scotland, the most notable being Iona. They spread to Scotland and the north of England, where they regained much ground for Christianity, but they did not stop there. They passed over to the continent, and the wild forests of heathen Germany and the mountains of central Europe became dotted with mission stations founded by Irish monks. Two of the best known are Bobbio and St. Gall, the latter, in north-eastern Switzerland, founded by the Irishman Gallus. As the middle ages advanced, these mission stations lost whatever scriptural simplicity they may have possessed at their foundation, and were absorbed into the full monastic system. The numerous superstitious legends that grew up around the activities of St. Columba and his followers, impossible tales of absurd miracles in true mediaeval style, need not prevent our believing that a real and widespread work of evangelisation was done by these early Irishmen, whose church, so long it was possible, maintained a healthy opposition to the claims of the Bishop of Rome.

As soon as the barbarian invaders of the Empire began to settle down in the new kingdoms of western Europe into which the empire had split up, and the confusion which the fifth century had brought into all spheres of life showed signs of abating, the church of western Europe, now firmly settled under the overlordship of the Bishop of Rome, as we shall see shortly, began to take its share in the expansion that was going on. This was done by means of the planting of Benedictine monasteries among the heathen Germans of northern Europe. The Benedictine order had been founded by Benedict of Nursia towards the beginning of the sixth century, and his rule directed his monks rather away from pure contemplation to a life of practical activity. The Benedictine establishments were real monasteries, not semi-monastic mission stations as was the case with those founded by the Irish. They introduced Latin culture to the heathen and proved refuges for learning during the barbarian age. They were active agents in the spiritual subjection of the surrounding districts to the authority of the Bishop of Rome. But of evangelisation in the scriptural sense we may say they did little or none.

Naturally, as they spread northwards, the Roman missionaries came into collision with the Celtic. On the continent the latter were too weak to resist absorption, but in England a struggle took place. In the last decade of the sixth century Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, sent Augustine to christianise the heathen kingdom of Kent. He settled at Canterbury and seems to have had little difficulty in persuading the heathen king of the superior advantages of Christian civilization and of bringing about a mass subjection of the kingdom of Kent to the Roman church. Gregory and Augustine intended that this should be the first step in the christianisation of the whole island, and in the subjection of those parts which were already Christian to the authority of Rome. The Welsh had been Christian for generations, and the Irish missionaries had recaptured for the faith the kingdom of Northumbria, which extended from the Humber to the Forth. Augustine, therefore, sought contact with the British bishops. A dispute ensued which most chroniclers connect with the date of the keeping of Easter, but which obviously hung on far wider issues. The Synod of Whitby, by a majority, decided in favour of Rome, and the British bishops were obliged to give way. Ostensibly the authority of the Bishop of Rome extended over the whole island, but recent discoveries have shown that the resistance of the Celtic church was far greater than had been thought, and that Celtic ways and influences persisted in the north of England far into the middle ages.

By the close of the eighth century we can say, then, that the Name of Christ was known throughout the world from Ireland in the west in an unbroken line, through Scotland and England, south-western Europe, Italy, the eastern Mediterranean Asia Minor, Persia, Central Asia to China, India and Ceylon. If this is so, how is it that it was necessary for the Protestant missionaries of the nineteenth century to start out to evangelise many of these regions afresh, and that so many of them are regarded as recently evangelised fields? What we have said already provides a partial answer. The remainder of this section and those to come will give the explanation. The question that matters more than any other is whether present-day missions will understand and take warning.

Rise of Papacy

We have now to trace to its conclusion the rise of a phenomenon whose appearance and persistence is one of the most startling things in the strange history of the Christian church. Even back in the third century, the manner of life of a bishop such as Paul of Samosata must have raised questions in the mind of one acquainted with the New Testament. There we read that the Son of man had not where to lay His head, and that He said to His disciples, "As the Father hath sent Me, even so send I you." We have watched the growth in influence, power and worldly wealth of the higher clergy in defiance of the New Testament ideal and direction. The three centuries under review in this section show the logical outcome of this concentration of power in the hands of a few men, the rise to supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome.

We have already noticed the activities in the middle of the fifth century of Leo the Great, and his successful attempt to avert the invasion of Attila. This man had the vision which was fulfilled in the popes of the middle ages. He saw himself and his successors as the heads of Christendom, stepping into the place of the Roman Emperor, rulers of the new kingdom which the unscriptural outlook of the day (and of many a day since) supposed that God had set up in this world. Leo was the first Bishop of Rome to claim to be the successor of the Apostle Peter. This pretension has been woven into the foundation of the papal claims and is supported by a distorted interpretation of the Lord's words to Peter recorded in Matt. xvi. 18. There is no certain evidence that Peter was ever in Rome. Though there is a sentence in his own writings that is most easily explained by supposing that he was, another explanation is possible, and there are many difficulties in the way of the conclusion that he was there. The period of his supposed bishopric in Rome is not thought to have ended till some years after the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans was written. In this epistle is a long list of Christians in Rome to whom greetings were to be given. This list must include either those with whom the Apostle Paul was acquainted or the most prominent members of the church, perhaps some of both; but the name of the Apostle Peter is not included. It seems most difficult to believe he was there. The truth or otherwise of his residence in Rome will never be settled unless contemporary evidence comes to hand. However that may be, the claim to represent the Apostle Peter served the popes well when it was first made and has served them well since.

We have seen how the circumstances of the fifth century forced the organised church into the position of guardian and representative of the civilization that was falling. During the sixth century the Bishops of Rome consciously set themselves to attain to the supreme position of authority in the church. They did so by the forging and fabrication of documents, easily palmed off upon an uncritical age, in which false evidence was produced to prove that, from the beginning, the popes had legislated for the whole church. Augustine was appealed to, but falsely, to prove that the Apostle Peter had been in a position of primacy among the other Apostles. A contemporary anonymous work in which it was asserted that the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome had been declared by supernatural means was palmed off as the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the Apostle Paul's converts at Athens, mentioned in Acts xvii. Meanwhile the activities of the popes became more and more political. They engaged in constant intrigues for or against the eastern Emperor at Constantinople. As a result the desired supremacy came to be confirmed and recognised by legal enactment. A decree to this effect was issued by the Emperor Justinian in the year 538. Rather more than fifty years after this Gregory the Great became Bishop of Rome. We have already met him as the one who dispatched Augustine of Canterbury to England. He was an able, large-minded man, whose interests seem really to have been as much religious as political. An incident with which he was connected is significant and interesting. The Patriarch John of Constantinople assumed the title of "universal bishop." The perennial jealousy between the ecclesiastics in Rome and Constantinople makes it far from surprising that this should have roused Gregory's ire. The interesting part of his angry rebuke is one of the statements made in it. He said that the very fact that a bishop should dare to assume such a title made it clear that the time of antichrist was close at hand. Three years after his death the Emperor Phocas, who was on good terms with the popes because of the support they had given to his accession attained by the murder of his predecessor, issued a set of decrees declaring Gregory's successors to be the universal heads of Christendom and the ordinary of all men, without obedience to whom no one could be saved.

Thus the spiritual supremacy of the popes was consolidated. The eighth century brought them its complement, the position of temporal rulers. The dependence of the popes upon the Byzantine Emperors had grown less and less, as the Emperors became more and more involved in the east and relaxed their designs upon Italy. In the middle of the eighth century, in return for the pope's support in his accession to the throne, Pepin, the new King of France, overthrew the last Arian kingdom, that of the Lombards, and presented territory in central Italy to the pope. The papal states, though at first their boundaries shifted from time to time, continued to be ruled directly by the pope until 1870 and, by every testimony, were the most miserable and shockingly misruled section of Europe. An attempt was made to gain the consent of the Byzantine Emperor to this transaction and to deceive the world by the production of a forgery known as the Donation of Constantine, which claimed to be a document drawn up over four hundred years earlier by the Emperor Constantine presenting territory in Italy to the Bishop of Rome. The western world believed in the genuineness of this document for many generations.

By the eighth century we find, therefore, that the supremacy of a single man was finally established over the visible church of Christ. There is no palliation of this fact as there might have been, had this rule been either merciful or spiritual. It was a despotism of the most oppressive kind. Any sign of insubordination or disobedience to the pope was punishable by death and torture in this world, and, in intention, by everlasting torment in the next. A slavery of thought and conscience was established. No man might question the dogmas of the papal church. Individuals were liable to excommunication and whole kingdoms to interdict. Excommunication carried with it disabilities in the present world, because it cut its victim off from social and commercial intercourse. Interdict prevented the normal religious rites from being carried on, and played upon the superstitious fears of the inhabitants. Thought and education were discouraged, and indeed, compared with our own age, may be said to have been non-existent. Already in the tenth century we find the papal court corrupted by flagrant vices, a condition of affairs which was normal throughout the middle ages, and aroused protest within the church. The wealth of the European countries was severely fleeced in order to fill the papal coffers to provide for the lavish luxury of the court at Rome, the large sums spent in bribery and corruption, and the amounts consumed upon political intrigue. Persecution was constantly used to keep down freedom of expression of any sort, and in a later section we shall see something of this horrible side of ecclesiastical activity at its height. The triple tiara was assumed by the popes, so far as is known, in the seventh or eighth century. Its origin is lost in obscurity. Some suppose that it commemorates the victories over the three Arian kingdoms. For centuries it has been associated with the threefold title assumed by each pope at his coronation, "father of kings and princes, ruler of the world, and vicar of Jesus Christ." The arrogance of the first two titles is equalled only by the blasphemy of the third, by which a man assumes the place on earth which belongs only to the Holy Spirit of God. A review of the power and pretensions of the mediaeval papacy excites amazement. The thought that all this cruelty, oppression and vice were carried on in the Name of the Jesus Christ of the New Testament makes one wonder whether the depravity of man is subject to any limit, or his reason capable of blinding itself to the most palpable deductions and the most patent facts.

Well might the scattered remnants of God's flock during the middle ages ask, "Has God forgotten to be gracious? Is His mercy clean gone for evermore?" But God had not forgotten. As we look back upon the mystery of those long dark ages, we can discern, among others, three possible threads in the permissive purpose of God as it unfolded itself century by century. The first purpose is that of warning. Away back in the third century, or possibly even earlier than that, we saw that the church of Christ took steps which set her in a course that led her by degrees along a logical sequence to the final development in the papacy. And so the whole dread mystery teaches us that a single step away from the Word of God may lead in time to a logical consequence more dreadful than the most far-seeing could come near to conceiving. If such a warning were ever needed, it is needed in the days in which we live. The second purpose is that of testing. If we allow the necessity, so clearly taught in Scripture, of any trial of faith at all, we cannot logically suppose that such a process need stop short of the severest lengths to which it is possible for it to go. In the condition of affairs in the middle ages we see every inducement that it is possible to imagine combining to make resistance to papal authority as difficult as anything could be. Every material consideration forbade it, for it entailed every sorrow and every torment that the body of man could suffer without hope of relief. In the sphere of the mind and spirit there is no plausible argument that can be devised which was not brought into play to convince the reason that the pope and his church must be listened to and obeyed. There may well have seemed to be no flaw in the historical continuity which appeared to connect them in direct descent with the Apostles. Lastly, in regard to the things of the spirit, the ecclesiastical authorities had the means of playing upon the deepest and most sacred feelings of the heart and of prostituting the most sacred instincts of man in the service of tyranny and oppression. In the third place, this great mystery of the past becomes to us, who contemplate it from the safe distance of our modern age, a reason for assurance, comfort and thanksgiving. If God brought His church safely through such an ordeal as that, an ordeal long drawn out, as fierce as can be imagined, in the midst of which the situation can only have appeared as hopeless, there is nothing through which He cannot bring her and will not bring her in the end.

Rise of Islam

It has been necessary during the last few paragraphs to anticipate in order to draw out the final conclusions to which the aspirations of the Bishops of Rome in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries led. We must now return to those centuries and look at the opportunities for martyrdom that they provided. At the beginning of the seventh century there arose unexpectedly a danger that might have overwhelmed the whole Christian church. In distant Arabia, which had not been christianised, the false prophet Mohammed imposed his religion upon a people who were stirred by it to excesses of fanatical zeal. In 632 the Saracen armies burst out of the peninsula to impose their faith upon an infidel world. The Byzantine empire was engaged in a struggle with the Persians, and both were weakened for this cause. Syria and Palestine fell to the Saracens in seven years and Egypt almost as quickly. Later Persia was subjugated, and during the second half of the century the Saracens swept through north Africa as far as the Atlantic, and in the year 710 crossed into Spain. The sudden rise of Islam, and the almost equally sudden cessation of the conquering career of the Arab armies that first propagated it, can only be explained as a judgment and a providence of God. The puritanical strain in Mohammedanism, which abhors idols, and the white-hot enthusiasm of its devotees, came as a rebuke and condemnation to the decadent and corrupt Christian church. Islam remains today, and it is a solemn thought that it constitutes a standing reminder of the departure from scriptural standards of those who professed Christ's Name.

Everywhere the new religion was imposed at the point of the sword. The choice for all lay between conversion and death. The majority of Christians, to their honour, seem to have preferred death to betrayal of their profession. The churches of north Africa were wiped out of existence, and, with the exception of a few individuals hardly won by the devoted labour of Protestant missionaries during the last two generations, that region has never been regained.

Persecution by the Church

It is during these centuries, as the visible church went farther and farther from the scriptural pattern and became more and more distinct from the true church, that there begin to appear traces of the communities of true believers keeping themselves separate from the great worldly church. Thus, in the seventh century, we find In the Taurus mountains companies known as Paulicians. No one knows why they were called by this name. They seem to have been people who determined to preserve scriptural simplicity in worship and practice, and to have been among the earliest known of those who protested against the corruption of the visible church and who continued in an unbroken line until the Reformation. In our next section we shall discuss them more fully. At present it is our purpose to see how the visible church resorted to persecution at this comparatively early stage of its career as the partner of the state. In the west, persecution broke out as early as the fourth century against Priscillian and his followers in Spain. The church called in the aid of the state to deal with "heretics." During the three centuries with which the present section deals there seems to have been no persecution in the west for the simple reason that there was no one in evidence to be the object of it. The general corruption was so great that none had the knowledge, or possibly the courage, to take a stand for the scriptural position. It has sometimes been said that the Greek church of the east differed from the Roman in the respect that she did not persecute. This is untrue. While her annals are unstained by such unspeakable horrors as filled page after page of the later mediaeval history of the west, in the early days, when communities arose within reach of her arm which had the courage to differ from her teaching and to refuse recognition to her hierarchy, she used the functions of the state to repress them ruthlessly. Thus in the year 684 the Byzantine Emperor issued an order for the execution of Constantine, a Paulician teacher. The general who was sent to stone him was himself converted when he saw the faithfulness and piety of these Christians. Later, the Emperor Justinian II, at the request of the ecclesiastical authorities, had a large company, including Simeon the converted general, burnt alive at the same time. This action had the opposite effect from that intended, for the courage of the martyrs was the means of the conversion of many to their faith. Until the accession of the Emperor Leo the Isaurian in the middle of the eighth century, the persecution and the suffering continued.

We must now deal with a development that reached fulfillment during these three centuries, which it is necessary to understand in order to realise the extent and nature of the great unceasing conflict of the Christian age between the true church and the devil, and which has important bearings upon the day in which we ourselves are living. We have traced to its conclusion the wrong road taken by the visible church in temporal things, a road which ended in the exaltation of a visible head of the church as supreme ruler, and we may remind ourselves in passing that this phenomenon was prevented from reaching full fruition in the east by the continued presence of a Byzantine Emperor until the fifteenth century. If this had not been the case, there would have been nothing to restrain the metropolitan of Constantinople from aspiring to the position of pope, and it may well have been that internecine wars would have destroyed the whole visible structure of Christianity during the early middle ages. In our second section we noticed the spiritual changes that took place in the church as the result of her establishment in the fourth century, changes which were inevitable under the circumstances, and which reflected the accommodation of large numbers of unconverted people. We saw that the foundation of what occurred was the substitution of the heathen for the Christian and the resultant alteration in the view of view of baptism, the Lord's Supper and in the position of the clergy. Logically, the development might have stopped there, but it did not. The influx of unconverted heathen into the church not only transformed the Christian ministry into a heathen priesthood, but brought into Christian worship the whole gamut of heathen ritual and heathen symbolism, until the mediaeval church became a museum of almost every phase of heathen idolatry that had arisen in the world. Our minds should be clear on the fact that in the mediaeval church there was a twofold corruption, the secular which turned the ministry into temporal rulers with a supreme head, and the spiritual which brought heathen worship, and we may add heathen morals, into Christianity. There seems to be no necessary direct logical connection between these two developments, unless it lies in the fact that the clergy could retain their hold over the minds and consciences of the people at large only by the fascination of a sensuous and ornate ritual.

Primitive Worship

The primitive worship of the church was scriptural and of the simplest kind. In apostolic days Sunday, the day of the Lord's resurrection, replaced the Jewish sabbath as the day on which Christians usually met. As many members as possible of a local church came together and ate together a common meal, in the middle of which the bread and cup of remembrance were passed round while all stood in reverent silence. In sub-apostolic days the Christians met on Sunday morning, inviting the heathen to attend. The Scriptures were read and expounded, this earnest preaching of the Word proving by its results to have been a fruitful soul-winning ministry. After this, the heathen were asked to leave, and the meeting was thrown open to prayer, the presiding minister, apparently, generally leading with prayers that perhaps in most churches were liturgical, that is to say, set prayers. Any other man in the congregation might then lead in extempore prayer. If only our churches of today would adopt this simple combination of liturgical and extempore prayer during worship! After this the catechumens, whose presence had been welcomed at the prayer-meeting, were asked to leave, and those who had given evidence of their conversion by confessing Christ in baptism remained to partake of the memorial of the Lord's death. An account of this service given by Justin Martyr in the second century, in which he tells us that the deacons carried the bread and wine to those unable to be present, has been adduced as evidence that the "sacrament" was "reserved" in sub-apostolic days. This plea reads the theology of later times into primitive practice. The bread and wine were no more reserved by the early Christians than they are today by those who replace half a bottle of wine in a cupboard to wait for the following Sunday. There is no "reservation" where there is no "consecration" in the mediaeval sense, because there is nothing to "reserve." The early Christians simply emphasised the unity of all their company in wishing those detained from being present at worship to share the memorial feast literally in a touching and simple way.

This was still the simple worship carried on in the prisons and labour-camps during the great persecution under Diocletian and Galerius. But following upon the changes we have already noticed in the fourth century a fundamental alteration took place. We shall treat of these heathen characteristics brought over into Christianity under four heads. First comes the change in outlook about the place of worship. We have seen that unscriptural ideas crept in almost from the moment when Christian worship ceased to be informal and the government allowed the erection of buildings for the specific purpose of worship. At first we can well imagine that these buildings were dedicated, a perfectly scriptural procedure. When heathenism came in, the churches were no longer dedicated but consecrated - that is to say, a particular service containing a particular form of words pronounced by a high ecclesiastic was held in them, after which they were considered as being "holy" ground, places in which it was indecorous to carry on any activity but the liturgical or normal worship of the church. This is, in Christian shape, simply heathen magic conferring sanctity by a formula upon something material. It overspread the mediaeval church and is rampant in Romanism and Anglo-Romanism today. We often read of bishops "blessing" water, ships, motor-cars, aeroplanes and other objects. It survives in Protestantism in the narrowness and exclusiveness of the uses permitted to church buildings, causing waste of money and space in the erection of "church halls," where every other activity but worship must be carried on, as well as, for example, in the fact that a man takes off his hat on entering a church, simply because he is entering it, irrespective of whether worship is proceeding or not, and not only for the purpose of taking part in worship in which use such an action is scriptural. An immediate and surviving result of this view of church buildings has been that the heathen sense of religious mystery hangs about them, thus generating a force which exerts a powerful influence on the mind of the masses.

The changed conception of the church building involved the shape of the building itself. Churches were first built with a view to conference. Later they were built in certain shapes because they always had been and because everything connected with the church, including its shape, became involved in the false sanctity which hung about it. Churches in the west have always normally been built in the shape of the Roman basilica, which was the name of any large hall intended for gatherings for public purposes, and contained a nave and two side-aisles. Since heathen ideas became associated with them, they have normally been built with the "sanctuary" towards the east, and the magical sanctity has attached especially to the east end for reasons which will fall into the scope of our next section. Again we have seen that, even in the third century, a certain ostentation was apparent in Christian churches, at any rate those in the large cities. After the establishment there was added to this ostentation the unnecessary ornamentation of the interior. Money, which in a scriptural church would be spent on the propagation of the Gospel and the care of the poor, was used instead in the accumulation of costly paintings and rich mosaics. Biblical and other scenes were carved upon walls and screens, and ornamented sarcophagi appeared in and around the buildings. The principal use of sculpture we reserve for treatment in a later paragraph.

Observance of Festivals

The second heathen characteristic that was transplanted into Christianity during the fourth century was the observance of festivals and sacred days. In apostolic times the first day of the week was set aside for Christian worship. This was simply obedience to the fourth commandment adapted from Jewish to Christian uses. Before the fourth century it seems that special significance was given annually to the season of the Lord's death and resurrection. This might have been harmless, and in any case was natural. Now one of the most prominent features of heathenism was the observance of sacred festivals recurring at set times of the year, such as the spring festival, known in Greece as the Great Dionysia, the festival of the summer solstice, and the winter festival, known in Rome as the Saturnalia, which commenced on the 17th of December, lasted nearly a fortnight, and was characterized by the mutual giving and receiving of presents among relatives and friends. All these festivals were occasions when riot and immorality were always encouraged and occasionally organised by the religious authorities. Primitive Christians endured much suffering as a result of their resolute refusal of contact with these feasts. One would have imagined that the known danger to morals which these festivals provided would have been sufficient warning to the church of the fourth and fifth centuries. Further, one would have imagined that acquaintance with such Scriptures as I Kings xii. 32, 33 or Galatians iv. 9-11 would have confirmed the church in the attitude of their primitive forefathers. Yet, so great were the corruption and blindness of the times, that the heathen festivals came to be incorporated bodily into the Christian church and clothed in a Christian dress. As the church expanded during the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries over northern Europe and the east, these festivals were carried with it as a normal part of its worship. In northern Europe the winter Yule feast, corresponding to the Saturnalia, was observed by all the Teutonic nations with the symbolism of log and fir-tree. It is still observed today, though only a small minority of those who observe it are acquainted with its nature and origin. Its transference wholesale with other similar festivals into Christianity made the christianisation of these nations less difficult and more convenient.

The Sacred Calendar

In addition to the great festivals, the various deities of heathenism each enjoyed days in the year which were specially sacred to them. These days also became incorporated in what has been known since as "the church's calendar." This happened by the alteration of the names of the deities into the names of Christian martyrs who had suffered under the pagan empires. On the triumphant ending of the great persecution in the early fourth century it was natural and right that those who had given their lives in this and previous persecutions should be honoured by those who survived. It was not right that the honour shown should go to the lengths that it did. The tombs of the martyrs were turned into shrines and sanctuaries, and the dates of their martyrdom turned into sacred days. These dates must have been numerous, and many of them must have coincided with the sacred days of heathen gods. In such cases a simple change of the name of the being honoured was all that was necessary. When heathen days existed for which no martyrs were available, martyrs at a later date were invented. But the whole process was so clumsily undertaken that the origin of some of the new saints was not even concealed by a change of name. In the month of October when the vintage was gathered there had taken place from time immemorial the festival of the wine god. The Latin name of this deity was Bacchus. In Greece his name was Dionysus, and there were legends current of how on his had Dionysus way to Greece through Macedonia married the daughter of King Demetrius, whose name was the Gentle Breeze. In Latin the words meaning "gentle breeze" are Aura Placida. In view of this it is surprising to those who do not look below the surface to realise that in the calendar of the Roman church at the present day the names Bacchus, Denis (that is, Dionysus), Demetrius, Aurea and Placidus all occur in October within a few days of each other.

The mention of the martyrs and of their sacred days leads us, by a natural transition, to the third characteristic of the heathen system that came over into Christianity and was developed so fully during the three centuries with which our present section deals. This was the interposition of a whole host of mediatory beings between the soul and God. The saints and martyrs among whom the Apostles and other New Testament characters naturally took a prominent place, the remainder being, as we have seen, re-christened heathen gods, came to be regarded as in a position in the other world to hear prayer and to intercede with the Father or Christ for those who desired any petition. The most prominent of these new gods and goddesses was the Virgin Mary. She took the place of the heathen "queen of heaven," under which name she is worshiped in the Roman church today, and assumed the characteristics and prerogatives of one or other of the heathen virgin goddesses. The growing asceticism and monasticism of the age played an important part in her elevation, as her virginity was considered to be itself something of particular sanctity. It has been pointed out that her cult, her pictures and her statues provided a subtle if half-conscious appeal to the sexual instincts of her male devotees. In the fifth century she was referred to widely as "Mother of God," a title, in the Greek east rendered by the single epithet theotokos, which played a considerable part in the Christological controversies of these centuries. We do not hear later than the fourth century of anyone not regarded as heretical who believed or taught that Mary had children by Joseph, a fact implied in more than one New Testament passage. It was during these three centuries that the legend of her perpetual virginity passed into the dogma of the visible church. It should be remembered that the mediaeval church, as does the Roman church today, drew a technical distinction between the worship of God and the adoration of the Virgin, saints and angels. This distinction has never passed for much in practice, and its emptiness is at once seen when we remember that the Latin word for "worship" is adoratio. Later we shall consider these developments at their height, and notice the inevitable influence that they exerted upon doctrine.

Worship of Images

The fourth heathen feature adopted by the Christian church during these centuries is so startling, that its very existence provides evidence that the Scriptures were forgotten and the illumination of the Holy Spirit extinguished in the visible church. This was the transplanting of the system of the erection and veneration of images from the heathen temple to the Christian church. This system had been inherent in heathenism from the early days of the world. It is forbidden by the direct command of God in one of the ten commandments of the moral law. The erection and use of any statue for religious purposes is therefore as fundamentally sinful as is murder or adultery. The primitive Christians protested against it with holy zeal and defiance. Pictures in churches grew into carved images in wood and stone. Images of Christ, then of the Virgin, then of saints and martyrs during these centuries increasingly filled the churches. Inside the churches, and in prominent positions on their roofs, stone or metal crosses appeared. This is the more surprising, as it must have been well known at the time, as widely as it is unrealized today, that the cross is a very ancient heathen emblem. Probably the instrument of crucifixion in the time of our Lord had no cross beam, but was simply an upright stake. The images may have been at first intended as no more than reminders of the persons represented, although many of the unconverted, crowding as they did out of heathenism into the church, must have regarded them from the first as objects of veneration, and identified them with the being they were intended to portray. It was not long before lights burned in front of them and prayer was made facing them. It is likely that in early times in official quarters the same apology for this flagrant disregard of moral law was made as can be read in the (Roman) Catholic Encyclopedia today. It is that the image itself is not the object of worship, but the being whom it represents. Apart from the fact that this theory was held by all intelligent heathen since the beginning of time, it is unmasked in Scripture, where we need proceed no further than Exodus xxxii. 1-6 (noting specially verse 5) in order to learn that to worship even the true God under the form of an image, much more any other being, constitutes the essence of idolatry.

So flagrant and obvious a departure from Scripture was this use of images and eikons, that it did not pass into universal use in the mediaeval churches of either the east or west without protest. In the Byzantine church what is known as the iconoclastic struggle went on bitterly for over a hundred years. The Emperor Leo the Isaurian, who ascended the throne in the year 726, had been born and brought up in the region of the Taurus mountains. This was the home of the Paulicians, whom we have mentioned, and it is surmised that Leo had been under their influence. He rightly denounced images as idolatrous and had them destroyed in all the churches. Though bitterly opposed by most of the ecclesiastics, he was strong enough to maintain his policy, which was carried on by members of his family who succeeded him. The struggle between Emperor and church, a struggle, be it noted, like others which have taken place since, in which the state stood for the scriptural Christian position and the church opposed it, went on with varying fortunes till it was ended by the Empress Theodora, who restored the images in the year 842. In the west, the Council of Frankfort, called by the Emperor Charlemagne in 794, pronounced against the worship of images, though permitting their use as ornaments, and, indeed, rejected other superstitions that had grown up in the western church.

Allied to the worship of images was the preservation and superstitious veneration of relics of saints and martyrs and such like. This practice began extraordinarily early. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine himself, brought from Jerusalem what was supposed to be a piece of the true cross. We can understand this lady's action if her adherence to Christianity was of the same nature as that of her son. Perhaps it was she who, by doing this, set a precedent for future generations.

Theological Disputes

The theological disputes which agitated the eastern church, in which the Bishop of Rome was perpetually intervening, continued into the sixth and seventh centuries. They illustrate from a totally different aspect to what extent the church had departed from primitive scriptural simplicity. They are nothing more than philosophical speculation of the type of which the Greek mind had always been so fond, brought over into Christian society and spending its ingenuity upon theological subjects. The Christological discussions had resolved themselves into the question of the divine and human natures of Christ. The orthodox view taught that there were two natures in one Person. A large section of theological thinkers, known as Monophysites, fought for the theory that He had but one nature. The state of course intervened, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other: till finally in the sixth century the majority party prevailed and monophysitism is not heard of openly any more in the Greek church. Disputes arising out of this question went on, however, well into the seventh century. It is significant and tragic that during the time that the Saracens were sweeping the churches of north Africa out of existence the pope was engaged in controversy with Constantinople over the question of monothelism - that is to say, whether Christ had two wills or one, a speculation that was absorbing much of the energy of either party. This was the extent to which Christian intellect had lost the spirituality that attached it to the exposition of Scripture and had launched out into barren speculation upon fine points that had no practical bearing upon the commission and witness of the church, penetrating to ground that lay beyond what God had revealed, which, for that very reason there was no use in traversing. The monophysite controversies, however, left permanent marks upon Christian history. In the first place, certain eastern churches, including the Armenian, Coptic and Abyssinian, were so much influenced by the minority party that they adopted its views and have retained them since. The recent prominence which world affairs have given to the Abyssinian church gives this fact a significance for our own generation. Again, echoes of them were heard at the time of the Reformation when the confessions of the Protestant churches were being composed. The articles of our own national church bear traces of this controversy in those statements which affirm the scriptural doctrine of the nature and Person of Christ.

We have now traced the course of the visible church of Christ for almost eight hundred years since its foundation on the day of Pentecost. At the end of that period it had grown to dimensions which would have amazed Jewish Christians of the first generation. It had also changed to such an extent in character that not one of the Apostles would have recognised it for what it professed to be. Instead the Apostles, one and all, would have taken their stand with that tiny persecuted minority, which in secret places amid bitter suffering maintained the standard of truth in doctrine and the scriptural pattern in practice. Though the Apostles did not have the opportunity of identifying themselves with this little flock of God, there dwelt and walked One among them greater than the Apostles, Who had dwelt and walked with the twelve, Who never yet left His faithful people, and Who awaits the day when He will acknowledge openly each single one in the presence of the whole company of heaven.


Gibbon (E.): as before, chaps. xlvii, xlix, 1, li and liv.
Cambridge mediaeval History.
Conybeare (F. C.): The Key of Truth.
Article Paulicians in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Stokes (G. T.): Ireland and the Celtic Church.
Article Nestorians in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Howelles (T. B.): The Chair of St. Peter.