The feature which most immediately forces itself upon our notice, as distinctive of the Church in the Apostolic age, is its possession of supernatural gifts. Concerning these, our whole information must be derived from Scripture, because they appear to have vanished with the disappearance of the Apostles themselves, and there is no authentic account of their existence in the Church in any writings of a later date than the books of the New Testament. This fact gives a more remarkable and impressive character to the frequent mention of them in the writings of the Apostles, where the exercise of such gifts is spoken of as a matter of ordinary occurrence. Indeed, this is so much the case, that these miraculous powers are not even mentioned by the Apostolic writers as a class apart (as we should now consider them), but are joined in the same classification with other gifts, which we are wont to term natural endowments or "talents."
Thus, Apostle Paul tells us (1Corinthians 12:11) that all these charisms, or spiritual gifts, were wrought by one and the same Spirit, who distributed them to each severally according to His own will; and among these he classes the gift of Healing, and the gift of Tongues as falling under the same category with the talent for administrative use fulness, and the faculty of Government. But though we learn from this to refer the ordinary natural endowments of men, not less than the supernatural powers bestowed in the Apostolic age, to a divine source, yet, since we are treating of that which gave a distinctive character to the Apostolic Church, it is desirable that we should make a division between the two classes of gifts, the extraordinary and the ordinary.
The most striking manifestation of divine interposition was the power of working what are commonly called Miracles, that is, changes in the usual operation of the laws of nature. This power was exercised by Apostle Paul himself very frequently (as we know from the narrative in the Acts), as well as by the other Apostles; and in the Epistles we find repeated allusions to its exercise by ordinary Christians. As examples of the operation of this power, we need only refer to Apostle Paul's raising Eutychus from the dead, his striking Elymas with blindness, his healing the sick at Ephesus, (Acts 19:11, 12) and his curing the father of Publius at Melita.
The last-mentioned examples are instances of the exercise of the gift of healing, which was a peculiar branch of the gift of miracles, and sometimes apparently possessed by those who had not the higher gift. The source of all these miraculous powers was the charism of faith; namely, that peculiar kind of wonder-working faith spoken of in Matthew 17:20, 1Corinthians 12:9, and 1Corinthians 13:2, which consisted in an intense belief that all obstacles would vanish before the power given. This must of course be distinguished from that disposition of faith which is essential to the Christian life.
We have remarked that the exercise of these miraculous powers is spoken of both in the Acts and Epistles as a matter of ordinary occurrence, and in that tone of quiet (and often incidental) allusion in which we mention the facts of our daily life. And this is the case, not in a narrative of events long past (where unintentional exaggeration might be supposed to have crept in), but in the narrative of a contemporary, writing immediately after the occurrence of the events which he records, and of which he was an eye-witness; and yet farther, this phenomenon occurs in letters which speak of those miracles as wrought in the daily sight of the readers addressed. Now the question forced upon every intelligent mind is, whether such a phenomenon can be explained except by the assumption that the miracles did really happen.
Besides the power of working miracles, other supernatural gifts of a less extraordinary character were bestowed upon the early Church. The most important were the gift of tongues, and the gift of prophecy. With regard to the former there is much difficulty, from the notices of it in Scripture, in fully comprehending its nature.
From the gift of tongues we pass, by a natural transition, to the gift of prophecy. It is needless to remark that, in the Scriptural sense of the term, a prophet does not mean a foreteller of future events, but a revealer of God’s will to man; though the latter sense may (and sometimes does) include the former. So the gift of prophecy was that charism which enabled its possessors to utter, with the authority of inspiration, divine strains of warning, exhortation, encouragement, or rebuke; and to teach and enforce the truths of Christianity with supernatural energy and effect. The wide diffusion among the members of the Church of this prophetical inspiration was a circumstance which is mentioned by Peter as distinctive of the Gospel dispensation; (Acts 2:17, 18) in fact, we find that in the family of Philip the Evangelist alone, (Acts 21:9) there were four daughters who exercised this gift; and the general possession of it is in like manner implied by the directions of Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. (1Corinthians 11:4, and 1Corinthians 14:24, 31, 34) The latter Apostle describes the marvellous effect of the inspired addresses thus spoken. (1Corinthians 14:25) He looks upon the gift of prophecy as one of the great instruments for the conversion of unbelievers, and far more serviceable in this respect than the gift of tongues, although by some of the new converts it was not so highly esteemed, because it seemed less strange and wonderful.
Thus far we have mentioned the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit which were vouchsafed to the Church of that age alone; yet (as we have before said) there was no strong line of division, no "great gulf fixed" between these, and what we now should call the ordinary gifts, or natural endowments of the Christian converts. Thus the gift of prophecy cannot easily be separated by any accurate demarcation from another charism often mentioned in Scripture, which we should now consider an ordinary talent, namely, the gift of teaching. The distinction between them appears to have been that the latter was more habitually and constantly exercised by its possessors than the former: we are not to suppose, however, that it was necessarily given to different persons; on the contrary, an excess of divine inspiration might at any moment cause the teacher to speak as a prophet; and this was constantly exemplified in the case of the Apostles, who exercised the gift of prophecy for the conversion of their unbelieving hearers, and the gift of teaching for the building-up of their converts in the faith.
Other gifts specially mentioned as charisms are the gift of government and the gift of ministration. By the former, certain persons were specially fitted to preside over the Church and regulate its internal order; by the latter its possessors were enabled to minister to the wants of their brethren to manage the distribution of relief among the poorer members of the Church, to tend the sick, and carry out other practical works of piety.
In all cases, so far as we may infer from the recorded instances in the Acts, those who were selected for the performance of Church offices were solemnly set apart for the duties to which they devoted themselves. This ordination they received, whether the office to which they were called was permanent or temporary. The Church, of which they were members, devoted a preparatory season to "fasting and prayer;" and then those who were to be set apart were consecrated to their work by that solemn and touching symbolical act, the laying-on of hands, which has been ever since appropriated to the same purpose and meaning. And thus, in answer to the faith and prayers of the Church, the spiritual gifts necessary for the performance of the office were bestowed by Him who is "the Lord and Giver of Life."
We now pass to the consideration of the early church's Ordinances. Of these, the chief were, of course, those two sacraments ordained by Christ Himself, which have been the heritage of the Universal Church throughout all succeeding ages. The sacrament of Baptism was regarded as the door of entrance into the Christian Church, and was held to be so indispensable that it could not be omitted even in the case of Apostle Paul. We have seen that although he had been called to the apostleship by the direct intervention of Christ Himself, yet he was commanded to receive baptism at the hands of a simple disciple. In ordinary cases, the sole condition required for baptism was, that the persons to be baptized should acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, "declared to be the Son of God with power, by His resurrection from the dead." In this acknowledgment was virtually involved the readiness of the new converts to submit to the guidance of those whom Christ had appointed as the Apostles and teachers of His Church; and we find that they were subsequently instructed in the truths of Christianity, and were taught the true spiritual meaning of those ancient prophecies, which (if Jews) they had hitherto interpreted of a human conqueror and an earthly kingdom. This instruction, however, took place after baptism, not before it; and herein we remark a great and striking difference from the subsequent usage of the Church. For, not long after the time of the Apostles, the primitive practice in this respect was completely reversed; in all cases the convert was subjected to a long course of preliminary instruction before he was admitted to baptism, and in some instances the catechumen remained unbaptized till the hour of death; for thus he thought to escape the strictness of a Christian life, and fancied that a deathbed baptism would operate magically upon his spiritual condition, and insure his salvation. The Apostolic practice of immediate baptism would, had it been retained, have guarded the Church from so baneful a superstition.
We know from the Gospels that the new converts were baptized "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And after the performance of the sacrament, an outward sign was given that God was indeed present with His Church, through the mediation of The Son, in the person of The Spirit; for the baptized converts, when the Apostles had laid their hands on them, received some spiritual gift, either the power of working miracles, or of speaking in tongues, bestowed upon each of them by Him who "divideth to every man severally as He will." It is needless to add that baptism was (unless in exceptional cases) administered by immersion, the convert being plunged beneath the surface of the water to represent his death to the life of sin, and then raised from this momentary burial to represent his resurrection to the life of righteousness. It must be a subject of regret that the general discontinuance of this original form of baptism (though perhaps necessary in our northern climates) has rendered obscure to popular apprehension some very important passages of Scripture.
In the midst of so much diversity, however, the essential parts of public worship were the same then as now, for we find that prayer was made, and thanksgiving offered up, by those who officiated, and that the congregation signified their assent by a unanimous Amen (1Corinthians 14:16). Psalms also were chanted, doubtless to some of those ancient Hebrew melodies which have been handed down, not improbably, to our own times in the simplest form of ecclesiastical music; and addresses of exhortation or instruction were given by those whom the gift of prophecy, or the gift of teaching, had fitted for the task.
We have seen that the Judaizers at first insisted upon the observance of the law of Moses, and especially of circumcision, as an absolute requisite for admission into the Church, "saying, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." But after the decision of the "Council of Jerusalem" it was impossible for them to require this condition; they therefore altered their tactics, and as the decrees of the Council seemed to assume that the Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Mosiac Law, the Judaizers took advantage of this to insist on the necessity of a separation between those who kept the whole Law and all others; they taught that the uncircumcised were in a lower condition as to spiritual privileges, and at a greater distance from God; and that only the circumcised converts were in a state of full acceptance with Him: in short, they kept the Gentile converts who would not submit to circumcision on the same footing as the proselytes of the gate, and treated the circumcised alone as proselytes of righteousness. When we comprehend all that was involved in this, we can easily understand the energetic opposition with which their teaching was met by Apostle Paul. It was no mere question of outward observance, no matter of indifference (as it might at first sight appear), whether the Gentile converts were circumcised or not; on the contrary, the question at stake was nothing less than this, whether Christians should be merely a Jewish sect under the bondage of a ceremonial law, and only distinguished from other Jews by believing that Jesus was the Messiah, or whether they should be the Catholic Church of Christ, owing no other allegiance but to him, freed from the bondage of the letter, and bearing the seal of their inheritance no longer in their bodies, but in their hearts. We can understand now the full truth of his indignant remonstrance, "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."
And we can understand also the exasperation which his teaching must have produced in those who held the very antithesis of this, namely, that Christianity without circumcision was utterly worthless. Hence their long and desperate struggle to destroy the influence of Apostle Paul in every Church which he founded or visited, in Antioch, in Galatia, in Corinth, in Jerusalem, and in Rome. For as he was in truth the great prophet divinely commissioned to reveal the catholicity of the Christian Church, so he appeared to them the great apostate, urged by the worst motives to break down the fence and root up the hedge, which separated the heritage of the Lord from a godless world.
We shall not be surprised at their success in creating divisions in the Churches to which they came, when we remember that the nucleus of all those Churches was a body of converted Jews and proselytes. The Judaizing emissaries were ready to flatter the prejudices of this influential body; nor did they abstain (as we know both from tradition and from his own letters) from insinuating the most scandalous charges against their great opponent. And thus, in every Christian church established by Apostle Paul, there sprang up, as we shall see, a schismatic party, opposed to his teaching and hostile to his person.
This great Judaizing party was of course subdivided into various sections, united in their main object, but distinguished by minor shades of difference. Thus, we find at Corinth that it comprehended two factions, the one apparently distinguished from the other by a greater degree of violence. The more moderate called themselves the followers of Peter, or rather of Cephas, for they preferred to use his Hebrew name. These dwelt much upon our Lord’s special promises to Peter, and the necessary inferiority of Apostle Paul to him who was divinely ordained to be the rock whereon the Church should be built. They insinuated that Apostle Paul felt doubts about his own Apostolic authority, and did not dare to claim the right of maintenance, (1Corinthians 9:4, 6; 2Corinthians 11:9, 10) which Christ had expressly given to His true Apostles. They also depreciated him as a maintainer of celibacy, and contrasted him in this respect with the great Pillars of the Church, "the brethren of the Lord and Cephas," who were married. (1Corinthians 9:5) And no doubt they declaimed against the audacity of a converted persecutor, "born into the Church out of due time," in "withstanding to the face" the chief of the Apostles. A still more violent section called themselves, by a strange misnomer, the party of Christ. These appear to have laid great stress upon the fact, that Paul had never seen or known our Lord while on earth; and they claimed for themselves a peculiar connection with Christ, as having either been among the number of His disciples, or at least as being in close connection with the "brethren of the Lord," and especially with James, the head of the Church at Jerusalem. To this subdivision probably belonged the emissaries who professed to come "from James," (Galatians 2:12) and who created a schism in the Church of Antioch.
Connected to a certain extent with the Judaizing party, but yet to be carefully distinguished from it, were those Christians who are known in the New Testament as the "weak brethren." (Romans 14:1, 2; Romans 15:1; 1Corinthians 8:7, 9:22) These were not a factious or schismatic party; nay, they were not, properly speaking, a party at all. They were individual converts of Jewish extraction, whose minds were not as yet sufficiently enlightened to comprehend the fulness of "the liberty with which Christ had made them free." Their conscience was sensitive, and filled with scruples, resulting from early habit and old prejudices; but they did not join in the violence of the Judaizing bigots, and there was even a danger lest they should be led, by the example of their more enlightened brethren, to wound their own conscience, by joining in acts which they, in their secret hearts, thought wrong. Nothing is more beautiful than the tenderness and sympathy which Apostle Paul shows towards these weak Christians. While he plainly sets before them their mistake, and shows that their prejudices result from ignorance, yet he has no sterner rebuke for them than to express his confidence in their further enlightenment:"If in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal this also unto you." (Philippians 3:15) So great is his anxiety lest the liberty which they witnessed in others should tempt them to blunt the delicacy of their moral feeling, that he warns his more enlightened converts to abstain from lawful indulgences, lest they cause the weak to stumble. "If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend." (1Corinthians 8:13) "Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty, only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another." (Galatians 5:13) "Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died." (Romans 14:15)
These latter warnings were addressed by Apostle Paul to a party very different from those of whom we have previously spoken; a party who called themselves (as we see from his epistle to Corinth) by his own name, and professed to follow his teaching, yet were not always animated by his spirit. There was an obvious danger lest the opponents of the Judaizing section of the Church should themselves imitate one of the errors of their antagonists, by combining as partisans rather than as Christians. Apostle Paul feels himself necessitated to remind them that the very idea of the Catholic Church excludes all party combinations from its pale, and that adverse factious, ranging themselves under human leaders, involve a contradiction to the Christian name. "Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were you baptized into the name of Paul?" "Who, then, is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?" (1Corinthians 1:13, and 1Corinthians 3: 5)
The Pauline party (as they called themselves) appear to have ridiculed the scrupulosity of their less enlightened brethren, and to have felt for them a contempt inconsistent with the spirit of Christian love. And. in their opposition to the Judaizers, they showed a bitterness of feeling and violence of action, too like that of their opponents. Some of them, also, were inclined to exult over the fall of God’s ancient people, and to glory in their own position, as though it had been won by superior merit. These are rebuked by Apostle Paul for their "boasting," and warned against its consequences.
"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and you became a fellow partaker of the root and of the fatness of the olive tree, Do not boast against the branches; but if you are boasting against them, remember that you do not bear the root; rather, the root bears you. Will you then say, 'The branches were broken off in order that I might be grafted in'? That is true! Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith.
"Do not be high-minded, but fear; For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He not spare you either. Therefore, behold the graciousness and the severity of God: upon those who fell, severity; and upon you, graciousness, if you continue in His graciousness; otherwise you also will be cut off." (Romans 11:17-22, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV) where noted)
One section of this party seems to have united these errors with one still more dangerous to the simplicity of the Christian faith; they received Christianity more in an intellectual than a moral aspect; not as a spiritual religion, so much as a new system of philosophy. This was a phase of error most likely to occur among the disputatious reasoners who abounded in the great Greek cities; and, accordingly, we find the first trace of its existence at Corinth. There it took a peculiar form, in consequence of the arrival of Apollos as a Christian teacher, soon after the departure of Apostle Paul. He was a Jew of Alexandria, and as such had received that Grecian cultivation, and acquired that familiarity with Greek philosophy, which distinguished the more learned Alexandrian Jews. Thus he was able to adapt his teaching to the taste of his philosophizing hearers at Corinth far more than Apostle Paul could do; and, indeed, the latter had purposely abstained from even attempting this at Corinth. (1Corinthians 2:1) Accordingly, the School which we have mentioned called themselves the followers of Apollos, and extolled his philosophic views, in opposition to the simple and unlearned simplicity which they ascribed to the style of Apostle Paul. It is easy to perceive in the temper of this portion of the Church the germ of that rationalizing tendency which afterwards developed itself into the Greek element of Gnosticism. Already, indeed, although that heresy was not yet invented, some of the worst opinions of the worst Gnostics found advocates among those who called themselves Christians; there was, even now, a party in the Church which defended fornication (See 1Corinthians 6:9-20) on theory, and which denied the resurrection of the dead. (See 1Corinthians 15:12) These heresies probably originated with those who (as we have observed) embraced Christianity as a new philosophy; some of whom attempted, with a perverted ingenuity, to extract from its doctrines a justification of the immoral life to which they were addicted.
The Resurrection of the Dead was denied in the same city and by the same party; nor is it strange that as the sensual Felix trembled when Paul preached to him of the judgment to come, so these profligate cavillers shrank from the thought of that tribunal before which account must be given of the things done in the body. Perhaps, also (as some have inferred from Apostle Paul's refutation of these heretics), they had misunderstood the Christian doctrine, which teaches us to believe in the resurrection of a spiritual body, as though it had asserted the re-animation of "this vile body" of "flesh and blood," which "cannot inherit the kingdom of God;" or it is possible that a materialistic philosophy led them to maintain that when the body had crumbled away in the grave, or been consumed on the funeral pyre, nothing of the man remained in being. In either case, they probably explained away the doctrine of the Resurrection as a metaphor, similar to that employed by Apostle Paul when he says that baptism is the resurrection of the new convert; (Colossians 2:12. Compare Romans 6:4) thus they would agree with those later heretics (of whom were Hymenaeus and Philetus) who taught "that the Resurrection was past already."
Hitherto we have spoken of those divisions and heresies which appear to have sprung up in the several Churches founded by Apostle Paul at the earliest period of their history, almost immediately after their conversion. Beyond this period we are not yet arrived in Apostle Paul's life; and from his conversion even to the time of his imprisonment, his conflict was mainly with Jews or Judaizers. But there were other forms of error which harassed his declining years; and these we will now endeavor (although anticipating the course of our biography) shortly to describe, so that it may not be necessary afterwards to revert to the subject, and at the same time that particular cases, which will meet us in the Epistles, may be understood in their relation to the general religious aspect of the time.
We have seen that, in the earliest epoch of the Church, there were two elements of error which had already shown themselves; namely, the bigoted, exclusive, and superstitious tendency, which was of Jewish origin; and the pseudo-philosophic, or rationalizing tendency, which was of Grecian birth.
In the early period of which we have hitherto spoken, and onwards till the time of Apostle Paul's imprisonment at Rome, the first of these tendencies was the principal source of danger; but after this, as the Church enlarged itself, and the number of Gentile converts more and more exceeded that of Jewish Christians, the case was altered. The catholicity of the Church became an established fact, and the Judaizers, properly so called, ceased to exist as an influential party anywhere except in Palestine. Yet still, though the Jews were forced to give up their exclusiveness, and to acknowledge the uncircumcised as "fellow-heirs and of the same body," their superstition remained, and became a fruitful source of mischief. On the other hand, those who sought for nothing more in Christianity than a new philosophy, were naturally increased in number, in proportion as the Church gained converts from the educated classes; the lecturers in the schools of Athens, the "wisdom-seekers" of Corinth, the Antinomian perverters of Apostle Paul's teaching, and the Platonizing rabbis of Alexandria, all would share in this tendency. The latter, indeed, as represented by the learned Philo, had already attempted to construct a system of Judaic Platonism, which explained away almost all the peculiarities of the Mosaic theology into accordance with the doctrines of the Academy. And thus the way was already paved for the introduction of that most curious amalgam of Hellenic and Oriental speculation with Jewish superstition, which was afterwards called the Gnostic heresy. It is a disputed point at what time this heresy made its first appearance in the Church: some think that it had already commenced in the Church of Corinth when Apostle Paul warned them to beware of the knowledge (Gnosis) which puffeth up; others maintain that it did not originate till the time of Basilides, long after the last Apostle had fallen asleep in Jesus. Perhaps, however, we may consider this as a difference rather about the definition of a term than the history of a sect.
If we define Gnosticism to be that combination of Orientalism and Platonism held by the followers of Basilides or Valentinus, and refuse the title of Gnostic to any but those who adopted their systems, no doubt we must not place the Gnostics among the heretics of the Apostolic age. But if, on the other hand (as seems most natural), we define a Gnostic to be one who claims the possession of a peculiar "Gnosis" (i.e. a deep and philosophic insight into the mysteries of theology, unattainable by the vulgar), then it is indisputable that Gnosticism had begun when Apostle Paul warned Timothy against those who laid claim to a "knowledge (Gnosis) falsely so called. And, moreover, we find that, even in the Apostolic age, these arrogant speculators had begun to blend with their Hellenic philosophy certain fragments of Jewish superstition, which afterwards were incorporated into the Cabala. In spite, however, of the occurrence of such Jewish elements, those heresies which troubled the later years of Apostle Paul, and afterwards of John, were essentially rather of Gentile than of Jewish origin. So far as they agreed with the later Gnosticism, this must certainly have been the case, for we know that it was a characteristic of all the Gnostic sects to despise the Jewish Scriptures. Moreover, those who laid claims to "Gnosis" at Corinth (as we have seen) were a Gentile party, who professed to adopt Apostle Paul's doctrine of the abolition of the law, and perverted it into Antinomianism: in short, they were the opposite extreme to the Judaizing party. Nor need we be surprised to find that some of these philosophizing heretics adopted some of the wildest superstitions of the Jews; for these very superstitions were not so much the natural growth of Judaism as ingrafted upon it by its Rabbinical corrupters and derived from Oriental sources. And there was a strong affinity between the neo-Platonic philosophy of Alexandria and the Oriental theosophy which sprang from Buddhism and other kindred systems, and which degenerated into the practice of magic and incantations.
It is not necessary, however, that we should enter into any discussion of the subsequent development of these errors; our subject only requires that we give an outline of the forms which they assumed during the lifetime of Apostle Paul; and this we can only do very imperfectly, because the allusions in Apostle Paul's writings are so few and so brief, that they give us but little information. Still, they suffice to show the main features of the heresies which he condemns, especially when we compare them with notices in other parts of the New Testament, and with the history of the Church in the succeeding century.
We may consider these heresies, first, in their doctrinal, and, secondly, in their practical aspect. With regard to the former, we find that their general characteristic was the claim to a deep philosophical insight into the mysteries of religion. Thus the Colossians are warned against the false teachers who would deceive them by a vain affectation of "Philosophy," and who were "puffed up by a fleshly mind." (Colossians 2:8, 18) So, in the Epistle to Timothy, Apostle Paul speaks of these heretics as falsely claiming "knowledge" (Gnosis). And in the Epistle to the Ephesians (so called) he seems to allude to the same boastful assumption, when he speaks of the love of Christ as surpassing "knowledge," in a passage which contains other apparent allusions to Gnostic doctrine. Connected with this claim to a deeper insight into truth than that possessed by the uninitiated, was the manner in which some of these heretics explained away the facts of revelation by an allegorical interpretation. Thus we find that Hymenaeus and Philetus maintained that "the Resurrection was past already." We have seen that a heresy apparently identical with this existed at a very early period in the Church of Corinth, among the free-thinking, or pseudo-philosophical, party there; and all the Gnostic sects of the second century were united in denying the resurrection of the dead. Again, we find the Colossian heretics introducing a worship of angels, "intruding into those things which they have not seen:" and so, in the Pastoral Epistles, the "self-styled Gnostics" (1Timothy 6:20) are occupied with "endless genealogies," which were probably fanciful myths, concerning the origin and emanation of spiritual beings. This latter is one of the points in which Jewish superstition was blended with Gentile speculation; for we find in the Cabala, or collection of Jewish traditional theology, many fabulous statements concerning such emanations. It seems to be a similar superstition which is stigmatized in the Pastoral Epistles as consisting of "profane and old wives’ fables;" (1Timothy 4:7) and, again, of "Jewish fables and commandments of men." (Titus 1:14) The Gnostics of the second century adopted and systematized this theory of emanations, and it became one of the most peculiar and distinctive features of their heresy. But this was not the only Jewish element in the teaching of these Colossian heretics; we find also that they made a point of conscience of observing the Jewish Sabbaths and festivals, and they are charged with clinging to outward rites (Colossians 2:8, 20), and making distinctions between the lawfulness of different kinds of food.
In their practical results, these heresies which we are considering had a twofold direction. On one side was an ascetic tendency, such as we find at Colossae, showing itself by an arbitrarily invented worship of God, an affectation of self-humiliation and mortification of the flesh. So, in the Pastoral Epistles, we find the prohibition of marriage, the enforced abstinence from food, and other bodily mortifications, mentioned as characteristics of heresy. If this asceticism originated from the Jewish element which has been mentioned above, it may be compared with the practice of the Essenes, whose existence shows that such asceticism was not inconsistent with Judaism, although it was contrary to the views of the Judaizing party properly so called. On the other hand, it may have arisen from that abhorrence of matter, and anxiety to free the soul from the dominion of the body, which distinguished the Alexandrian Platonists, and which (derived from them) became a characteristic of some of the Gnostic sects.
But this asceticism was a weak and comparatively innocent form, in which the practical results of this incipient Gnosticism exhibited themselves. Its really dangerous manifestation was derived, not from its Jewish, but from its Heathen element. We have seen how this showed itself from the first at Corinth; how men sheltered their immoralities under the name of Christianity, and even justified them by a perversion of its doctrines. Such teaching could not fail to find a ready audience wherever there were found vicious lives and hardened consciences. Accordingly, it was in the luxurious and corrupt population of Asia Minor, that this early Gnosticism assumed its worst form of immoral practice defended by Antinomian doctrine.
Thus, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, Apostle Paul warns his readers against the sophistical arguments by which certain false teachers strove to justify the sins of impurity, and to persuade them that the acts of the body could not contaminate the soul, -
"Do not let anyone deceive you with vain words; for because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be joint partakers with them." (Ephesians 5:6-7, HBFV)
Hymenaeus and Philetus are the first leaders of this party mentioned by name: we have seen that they agreed with the Corinthian Antinomians in denying the Resurrection, and they agreed with them no less in practice than in theory. Of the first of them it is expressly said that he (1Timothy 1:19, 20) had "cast away a good conscience," and of both we are told that they showed themselves not to belong to Christ, because they had not His seal; this seal being described as twofold, - "The Lord knoweth them that are His," and "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." (2Timothy 2:19) Apostle Paul appears to imply that though they boasted their "knowledge of God," yet the Lord had no knowledge of them; as our savior had himself declared that to the claims of such false disciples He would reply, "I never knew you; depart from me, ye workers of iniquity." But in the same Epistle where these heresiarchs are condemned, Apostle Paul intimates that their principles were not yet fully developed; he warns Timothy (2 Timothy 3) that an outburst of immorality and lawlessness must be shortly expected within the Church beyond any thing which had yet been experienced. The same anticipation appears in his farewell address to the Ephesian presbyters, and even at the early period of his Epistles to the Thessalonians; and we see from the Epistles of Peter and Jude, and from the Apocalypse of John, all addressed (it should be remembered) to the Churches of Asia Minor, that this prophetic warning was soon fulfilled. We find that many Christians used their liberty as a cloak of maliciousness; (1Peter 2:16) "promising their hearers liberty, yet themselves the slaves of corruption;" (1Peter 2:19) "turning the grace of God into lasciviousness;" (Jude 1: 4) that they were justly condemned by the surrounding Heathen for their crimes, and even suffered punishment as robbers and murderers. (1Peter 4:15) They were also infamous for the practice of the pretended arts of magic and witchcraft, (Revelation 2:20. Compare Revelation 9:21, Revelation 21:8, and Revelation 22:15) which they may have borrowed either from the Jewish soothsayers and exorcisers, (See Acts 19:13) or from the Heathen professors of magical arts who so much abounded at the same epoch. Some of them, who are called the followers of Balaam in the Epistles of Peter and Jude, and the Nicolaitans (an equivalent name) in the Apocalypse, taught their followers to indulge in the sensual impurities, and even in the idol-feasts, of the Heathen. We find, moreover, that these false disciples, with their licentiousness in morals, united anarchy in politics, and resistance to law and government. They "walked after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despised governments." And thus they gave rise to those charges against Christianity itself, which were made by the Heathen writers of the time, whose knowledge of the new religion was naturally taken from those amongst its professors who rendered themselves notorious by falling under the judgment of the Law.
When thus we contemplate the true character of these divisions and heresies which beset the Apostolic Church, we cannot but acknowledge that it needed all those miraculous gifts with which it was endowed, and all that inspired wisdom which presided over its organization, to ward off dangers which threatened to blight its growth and destroy its very existence. In its earliest infancy, two powerful and venomous foes twined themselves round its very cradle; but its strength was according to its day; with a supernatural vigor it rent off the coils of Jewish bigotry and stifled the poisonous breath of Heathen licentiousness; but the peril was mortal, and the struggle was for life or death. Had the Church’s fate been subjected to the ordinary laws which regulate the history of earthly commonwealths, it could scarcely have escaped one of two opposite destinies, either of which must have equally defeated (if we may so speak) the world’s salvation. Either it must have been cramped into a Jewish sect, according to the wish of the majority of its earliest members, or (having escaped this immediate extinction) it must have added one more to the innumerable schools of Heathen philosophy, subdividing into a hundred branches, whose votaries would some of them have sunk into Oriental superstitions, others into Pagan voluptuousness. If we need any proof how narrowly the Church escaped this latter peril, we have only to look at the fearful power of Gnosticism in the succeeding century. And, indeed, the more we consider the elements of which every Christian community was originally composed, the more must we wonder how the little flock of the wise and good could have successfully resisted the overwhelming contagion of folly and wickedness.
In every city the nucleus of the Church consisted of Jews and Jewish proselytes; on this foundation was superadded a miscellaneous mass of Heathen converts, almost exclusively from the lowest classes, baptized, indeed, into the name of Jesus, but still with all the habits of a life of idolatry and vice clinging to them. How was it, then, that such a society could escape the two temptations which assailed it just at the time when they were most likely to be fatal? While as yet the Jewish element preponderated, a fanatical party, commanding almost necessarily the sympathies of the Jewish portion of the society, made a zealous and combined effort to reduce Christianity to Judaism, and subordinate the Church to the Synagogue. Over their great opponent, the one Apostle of the Gentiles, they won a temporary triumph, and saw him consigned to prison and to death. How was it that the very hour of their victory was the epoch from which we date their failure? Again, - this stage is passed, - the Church is thrown open to the Gentiles, and crowds flock in, some attracted by wonder at the miracles they see, some by hatred of the government under which they live, and by hopes that they may turn the Church into an organized conspiracy against law and order; and even the best, as yet unsettled in their faith, and ready to exchange their new belief for a newer, "carried about with every wind of doctrine." At such an epoch, a systematic theory is devised, reconciling the profession of Christianity with the practice of immorality; its teachers proclaim that Christ has freed them from the law, and that the man who has attained true spiritual enlightenment is above the obligations of outward morality; and with this seducing philosophy for the Gentile they readily combine the Cabalistic superstitions of Rabbinical tradition to captivate the Jew. Who could wonder if, when such incendiaries applied their torch to such materials, a flame burst forth which well-nigh consumed the fabric? Surely that day of trial was "revealed in fire," and the building which was able to abide the flame was nothing less than the temple of God.
It is painful to be compelled to acknowledge among the Christians of the Apostolic Age the existence of so many forms of error and sin. It was a pleasing dream which represented the primitive church as a society of angels; and it is not without a struggle that we bring ourselves to open our eyes and behold the reality. But yet it is a higher feeling which bids us thankfully recognize the truth that "there is no partiality with God;" (Acts 10:34) that He has never supernaturally coerced any generation of mankind into virtue, nor rendered schism and heresy impossible in any age of the Church. So Apostle Paul tells his converts (1Corinthians 11:19) that there must needs be heresies among them, that the good may be tried and distinguished from the bad; implying that, without the possibility of a choice, there would be no test of faith or holiness. And so our Lord Himself compared His Church to a net cast into the sea, which gathered fish of all kinds, both good and bad; nor was its purity to be attained by the exclusion of evil, till the end should come. Therefore, if we sigh, as well we may, for the realization of an ideal which Scripture paints to us and imagination embodies, but which our eyes seek for and cannot find; if we look vainly and with earnest longings for the appearance of that glorious Church, "without spot or wrinkle or any such thing," the fitting bride of a heavenly spouse; - it may calm our impatience to recollect that no such Church has ever existed upon earth, while yet we do not forget that it has existed and does exist in heaven. In the very lifetime of the Apostles, no less than now, "the earnest expectation of the creature waited for the manifestation of the sons of God;" miracles did not convert; inspiration did not sanctify; then, as now, imperfection and evil clung to the members, and clogged the energies of the kingdom of God; now, as then, Christians are fellow-heirs, and of the same body with the spirits of just men made perfect; now, as then, the communion of saints unites into one family the Church militant with the Church triumphant.