Forgotten Truths - CHAPTER 9 - MEANTIME, THE CHURCH AGE

CHAPTER 9  - MEANTIME, THE CHURCH AGE

"MY people doth not consider." Such was the reproach cast upon Israel in the days of Isaiah's prophecy. And surely a like reproach rests upon the people of God today in regard to the promise of the Lord's return. During all His ministry He spoke of His coming again; and He confirmed the promise after His resurrection from the dead. The teaching of His inspired Apostles gave prominence to the hope. And in His final message to His people, as recorded on the last page of Scripture, the words are three times repeated, "I am coming quickly."
"Surely I am coming quickly." No reference here to a thousand-year day of the eternal God, but to the time calendars of men. "The time was long," was Daniel's lament as he pondered the revelation made to him, that seven times seventy years would pass before the realization of the promised blessings to his people. And more than four centuries elapsed between the promise of the land to Abraham, and the day when his descendants took possession of it. But nineteen centuries! And in view of such a promise, "Surely I am coming quickly"! Here it would be the pettiest quibble to raise the question of the Tribulation - persecution definitely limited to a term that might be covered twenty times within a single lifetime. At this point, then, let us turn aside from controversy. Let us awake to realities and think. And if we do but think, the staggering fact of a nineteen centuries' delay will lead us to "consider" with a solemnity and earnestness we have never known before.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, given to "lead them into all truth," the Apostles taught the saints to look for the Coming as a present hope. The suggestion of subterfuge or mistake would be profane. The facts are not in dispute. how then can they be explained? Israel's story may teach us something here. When the people were encamped at Sinai, Canaan lay but a few days' march across the desert. And in the second year from the Exodus, they were led to the borders of the land, and bidden to enter and take possession of it. "But they entered not in because of unbelief." The Canaan rest, moreover, was only a type of the promised rest of the Messianic Kingdom. That rest was preached again "in David," (Hebrews 4:7) but lost again through unbelief and the apostasy which unbelief begets. And in the exile it was revealed to Daniel that it would be further deferred for seven times seventy years. Lastly it was preached at Pentecost, and lost once more by unbelief. And to continued unbelief is due the fact of these nineteen centuries of Israel's rejection. Does not this throw light on the seeming failure of "the hope of the Church"? Putting from us the profane thought that the Lord has been unmindful of His promise, are we not led to the conclusion that this long delay has been due to the unfaithfulness of His people upon earth? The third chapter of 2 Peter has no bearing upon the question. In that passage the Apostle is not dealing with either the hopes or the heresies of Christians, but with the scoffing of the unbeliever who mocks at the Divine warning that the world shall at last be given up to judgment fire. The scientist may possibly be right in thinking that "for untold millions of years this earth has been the theatre of life and death."1 All that we know is that "in the beginning" (whenever that was) God created it, and that He did not create it "a waste," albeit it had become a waste (Isaiah 45:18, R.V. Cf. Genesis 1:2, R. V.,)2 before the epoch of the Adamic creation. And 2 Peter 3:5, 6, points to the cataclysm referred to in Genesis 1:2, by which "the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished."
"Where is the promise of His coming!" is not the appeal of an inquirer as to the Coming of Christ, but the taunt of a scoffer about the coming of "the day of God."3 And the Apostle answers his appeal to the permanence of "all things from the beginning of the creation" by referring to the aeons of Genesis 1:2, and to a God with whom a thousand years are as one day.4 But what bearing can this passage in Peter's Epistle have upon the question here at issue? The long-suffering of God explains His tiding back the sea of fire by which the world is at last to be engulfed, but it cannot explain the Lord's delaying to fulfill His promise to His believing people. "The coming of the day of God" means endless destruction for all the ungodly inhabitants of the earth; whereas beyond the coming of the Lord Jesus there lies the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, which is to be "as life from the dead" to the nations of the earth; and beyond that again there lies the deliverance of a groaning creation.
No, no; the question here cannot be solved in that way. Nor can we tolerate the thought that the promise has failed. Sometimes in the past, God has not fulfilled His word, but only when His word threatened wrath. (See, e.g., Exodus 32:11-14; Joshua 3:10) No Divine promise of blessing has ever failed. But if we reject that solution of the difficulty, what other can be found? No event or influence of a transient nature deserves a moment's consideration; nothing partial or merely local in its effects. We must find a cause of which the influence began to be felt before the Apostles left the earth, and which has been in operation during all the centuries until the present hour. And by a process of negative induction the suggestion forces itself upon us that the evil history of the Church on earth may afford a solution of the mystery.
Christian thought, I again repeat it, is leavened with the error of failing to distinguish between the heavenly Church and the Church on earth. But here I would fain shirk the role of an iconoclast, and I will shelter myself behind the. words of others in seeking to expose the prevalent; superstitions to which that error has given rise,, superstitions which are inconsistent with undivided loyalty to our Lord Jesus Christ. The following sentences are quoted from Canon T. D. Bernard's Bampton Lectures of 1864,5 a great book which ought to find a place in every Christian library:
"How fair was the morning of the Church! how swift its progress! what expectations it would have been natural to form of the future history which had begun so well! Doubtless they were formed in many a sanguine heart but they were clouded soon… "While the Apostles wrote, the actual state and the visible tendencies of things showed too plainly what Church history would be; and at the same time prophetic intimations made the prospect still more dark…
"I know not how any man in closing the Epistles could expect to find the subsequent history of the Church essentially different from what it is. In those writings we seem, as it were, not to witness some passing storms which clear the air, but to feel the whole atmosphere charged with the elements of future tempest and death…
"The fact which I observe is not merely that these indications of the future are in the Epistles, but that they increase as we approach the close; and after the doctrines of the Gospel have been fully wrought out, and the fullness of personal salvation and the ideal character of the Church have been placed in the clearest light, the shadows gather and deepen on the external history. The last words of St. Paul in the second Epistle to Timothy, and those of St. Peter in his second Epistle, with the Epistles of St. John and St. Jude, breathe the language of a time in which the tendencies of that history had distinctly shown themselves; and in this respect these writings form a prelude and a passage to the Apocalypse."
The Church's story from the close of the New Testament Canon to the era of the Patristic theologians must be gleaned from the revelations their writings afford of its condition in their own time. Who can doubt that then, as in the days of Israel's apostasy, there were many who feared the Lord and thought upon His name? But here I am speaking of the Church as a whole. Protestantism delights in attributing to the Romish apostasy the vices which disgraced the Church of Christendom during the Middle Ages; but in this regard the Church of Rome was merely the product and development of the much-vaunted "primitive Church" of the Fathers. Abundant proof of this will be found in the acts and words of some of the great and holy men who sought in vain to stem the evil tide. The facts are disclosed in various standard works; here of course s few characteristic extracts must suffice.
The birth of Cyprian occurred about a century after the death of the last of the Apostles. Born and bred in Paganism, he was converted in middle age, and three years afterwards he became Bishop of Carthage. Ten years later he suffered martyrdom in the Valerian persecution. The following words may indicate the condition of the Church in his time -"Serious scandals existed even among the clergy. Bishops were farmers, traders, and moneylenders, and by no means always honest. Some were too ignorant to teach the catechumens. Presbyters made money by helping in the manufacture of idols."6
In Cyprian's day "the virgins of the Church" ("nuns" we call them now) were held in special honour on account of their reputed sanctity. What, then, passed for superior sanctity may be gleaned from the following words of that eminent and holy man - "What have the virgins of the Church to do at promiscuous baths, there to violate the commonest dictates of feminine modesty! The places you frequent are more filthy than the theatre itself; all modesty is there laid aside; and with your robes your personal honour and reserve are cast off."7 Half a century before these words were written, Clement of Alexandria had bewailed the low morality which prevailed among Christians, even at a time when, as he said, "the wells of martyrdom were flowing daily." Referring to their attendance at church he wrote: "After having waited upon God and heard of Him, they leave Him there, and find their pleasure without in ungodly fiddling, and love songs, and what-not - stage plays and gross revelries."
The "conversion of Constantine" set free the Church to put her house in order, and pursue her mission to the world without hindrance from without. But her condition in those halcyon days may be judged by the fact that at a single visitation the great Chrysostom deposed no fewer than thirteen bishops for simony and licentiousness. Nor was this strange, having regard to the means by which men secured election to the episcopal office. Here are Chrysostom's words: "That some have filled the churches with murders, and made cities desolate when contending for this position, I now pass over, lest I should seem to say what is incredible to any." He was equally unsparing in dealing with the vices of the lower orders of the clergy. The natural result followed. The "historic Church" convened a packed council, which deprived him of his archbishopric, and he was banished to Nicaea. Moved, however, by the indignant fury of the laity, the Emperor recalled him, and his return to Constantinople was like a public triumph. But his fearless and scathing denunciations of the corruptions and immoralities of Church and Court led to the summoning of another council, more skillfully arranged; and his second banishment was intended to be, as in fact it proved, a death sentence. He practically died a martyr - one of the first of the great army whose blood cries to God for vengeance upon the "historic Church."
Nor were licentiousness and simony evils of recent growth in the Church; nor were they peculiar to the see of Chrysostom. In A. D. 870 an imperial edict was read in the churches of Rome, prohibiting clerics and monks from resorting to the houses of widows or female wards, and making them "incapable of receiving anything from the liberality or will of any woman to whom they may attach themselves under the plea of religion; and (the edict adds) any such donations or legacies as they shall have appropriated to themselves shall be confiscated."
This edict, sweeping though its terms were, had to be confirmed and strengthened by another twenty years later. And here is the comment of Jerome on the subject: "I blush to say it, heathen priests, players of pantomimes, drivers of chariots in the circuses, and harlots are allowed to receive legacies; clergy and monks are forbidden to do so by Christian princes. Nor do I complain of the law (he adds), but I am grieved that we deserve it."8 According to Jerome, so great was the evil, that men actually sought ordination in order to gain easier access to the society of women, and to trade upon their credulity. He, at least, maintained no reserve about the vices of the clergy of his day. And the picture he draws of the state of female society among the Christians is so repulsive that, as a recent writer remarks, we would gladly believe it to be exaggerated; but (he adds) "if the priesthood, with its enormous influence, was so corrupt, it is only too probable that it debased the sex which is always most under clerical influence."9
Of "Saint" Cyril of Alexandria, Dean Milman writes' "While ambition, intrigue, arrogance, rapacity, and violence are proscribed as unchristian means, barbarity, persecution, bloodshed, as unholy and unevangelical wickednesses, posterity will condemn this orthodox Cyril as one of the worst of heretics against the spirit of the Gospel."
A kindly estimate this, of a man who was morally guilty of the murder of Hypatia, and who was a notorious mob leader, and the brutal persecutor of the Jews, whom he drove out of Alexandria in thousands, giving up their houses to pillage. This turbulent pagan claims notice here only because he was the ruling spirit in the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 481), which dealt with the heresies of Nestorius. Cyril had hurled anathemas against him for refusing to acknowledge the Virgin Mary as the "Mother of God," and he procured his condemnation by means that would discredit the lowest political contest, including the free use of a hired mob. So disgraceful was the disorder which prevailed that the Emperor dissolved the Council with the rebuke' "God is my witness that I am not the author of this confusion. His providence will discover and punish the guilty. Return to your provinces, and may your private virtues repair the mischief and scandal of your meeting."10
No one need suppose that a wider outlook would lead us to reverse the judgment to which these facts and testimonies point. A portly volume would not contain the evidence available to prove the utter apostasy of "the primitive Church of the Fathers." One more testimony, however, is all I will here adduce. In his early life Salvian of Marseilles was the contemporary of Jerome and Augustine, the greatest of all the Latin Fathers. A century had elapsed since "the conversion of Constantine." The "persecution" which the Christians had most to fear from the State was due to their vices and crimes, and to the operation of penal laws of drastic severity, designed to prevent their lapsing back to paganism. Why was it then that God seemed to have forsaken the Church? Here is Salvian's answer -"See what Christians actually are everywhere, and then ask whether, under the administration of a righteous and holy God, such men can expect any favour? What happens every day under our very eyes is rather an evidence of the doctrine of Providence, as it displays the Divine displeasure provoked by the debauchery of the Church itself." The following are further extracts from the same treatise:
"How can we wonder that God does not hearken to our prayers…Alas! how grievous and doleful is what I have to say! The very Church of God, which ought to be the appeaser of God, is but the provoker of God. And a very few excepted who flee from evil, what is almost every assembly of Christians but a sink of vices. For you will find in the Church scarcely one who is not either a drunkard or a glutton, or an adulterer, or a fornicator or frequenter of brothels, or a robber or a murderer. I put it now to the consciences of all Christian people whether it be not so…
"The Churches are outraged by indecencies…You may well imagine what men have been thinking about at church when you see them hurry off, some to plunder, some to get drunk, some to practice lewdness, some to rob on the highway…
"How should we exult and leap for joy if we could believe that the good and bad were nearly balanced in the Church as to numbers!…How happy should we be in so thinking, but in fact we have to mourn over almost the whole mass as guilty."
In accounting for the growth of Christianity in early days, Gibbon the infidel gives prominence to the morality of the Christians. And Tertullian declared that no one who transgressed the rules of Christian discipline and propriety was recognized as a Christian at all. And yet two centuries later, "almost every assembly of Christians had become a sink of vices!"11
There is no need in this connection to speak of the Church of the Middle Ages - the fiendish enemy and persecutor of all who feared the Lord and followed righteousness and truth. The estimates formed of the number of the martyrs are unreliable; for though not one of those many millions is forgotten in heaven, the records on earth are altogether faulty. This at least is certain, that for long ages God was on the side of the martyrs, and that the Church of Christendom was the most awful impersonation of the powers of hell that earth has ever known. "No means came amiss to it, sword or stake, torture chamber or assassin's dagger. The effects of the Church's working were seen in ruined nations and smoking cities, in human beings tearing one another to pieces, like raging maniacs, and the honour of the Creator of the world befouled by the hideous crimes committed in His name. All this is forgotten now, forgotten and even audaciously denied."12
And what of the Churches of the Reformation? Here I will call another witness whose words should command attention. The following is a quotation from Dean Alford's Commentary on the Lord's Parable recorded in Matthew 12:48-44. After explaining the direct application of the parable to the Jewish people, he proceeds:
"Strikingly parallel with this runs the history of the Christian Church. Not long after the apostolic times, the golden calves of idolatry were set up by the Church of Rome. What the effect of the captivity was to the Jews, that of the Reformation has been to Christendom. The first evil spirit has been cast out. But by the growth of hypocrisy, secularity, and rationalism, the house has become empty, swept, and garnished by the decencies of civilization and discoveries of secular knowledge, but empty of living and earnest faith. And he must read prophecy but ill, who does not see under all these seeming improvements the preparation for the final development of the man of sin, the great repossession when idolatry and the seven worse spirits shall bring the outward frame of so-called Christendom to a fearful end."
With what increased emphasis might Dean Alford write these words today if he were still with us! Half a century ago the Church of England was giving a bold testimony to the principles of the Reformation, or, in other words, to the Divine authority of Scripture, and the great truths which Scripture teaches. And Nonconformity was a great spiritual power throughout the land. But today the Epistle to Laodicea is finding its fulfillment on every hand. For though "empty of living and earnest faith," the Churches were never so boastful of their condition. "The tree of knowledge, now, yields its last, ripest fruit," for men sit in judgment on the Word of God!
The Philadelphian Epistle promised an open door that none could shut; and at the Reformation the Bible was given to the people. The Devil has thus been baffled for centuries; for a return to his former methods is barred by the printing-press. But quite as effectually, and by far more subtle means, the Old Serpent is now filching the Bible from us. It is acclaimed as the best of books, but it is not the Word of God. And the agency by which he is seeking to achieve this fell design is the same as that which he used in pre-Reformation times - the Professing Church on earth.
And the Churches of the Reformation are his chief agents in this evil work. Within living memory they stood together in defence of the Bible, but there is not one of them that corporately maintains that testimony today. Stier's epigram about the teaching of German Rationalists applies to the teaching of most of our Theological Colleges and numberless quasi- Christian pulpits -"Heaven and earth will never pass away, but the words of Christ pass away in time!"
Some one may object, perhaps, that all this refers only to the Professing Church, and not to the true Church. But there are not two Churches on earth in this dispensation, any more than in that which preceded it. "The Jewish Church" was Divine in its origin, but it was apostate; and so is it with the Church on earth today. The only true Church is that which the Lord is building, and it has no corporate existence upon earth. But it may be said that the real Christians, though within the Professing Church, are in no way responsible for its apostasy. In the age of the martyrs this plea might, perhaps, have been sustained, but never before or since. And certainly not today; for their apathy amounts in effect to positive connivance with evils which are undermining true Christianity. If they stood together in refusing to enter any church in which an altar, with its pagan furniture, has supplanted the Communion Table, or where, in the ministry of the pulpit, the "Higher Criticism" has dethroned the Word of God, the very apostasy itself might prove a blessing in disguise. But faithfulness to the Lord is subordinated to the maintenance of "Church unity." And so "the salt has lost its savour," and all hope of recovery is gone.
It seems to be forgotten that discipleship is a personal bond. "Follow Me" is not addressed to congregations, but to the individual Christian. To love father or mother more than Christ is to be unworthy of Him; but it is deemed allowable to love one's Church more than Him? In the Epistles to the Seven Churches, from Ephesus to Laodicea, the ruling note is individual faithfulness - "to him that overcometh." A similar note vibrates in the Apostle Paul's address to the Elders of Ephesus. The future of the Church was dark. Grievous wolves would enter in among them, and of their own selves there would arise fomenters of heresy and leaders of schism. And what was to be their resource? "I commend you to God and to the word of His grace." (Acts 20:29-32)
It marks a crisis in the Apostle's ministry. His earlier Epistles had been addressed to churches; but Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, written during his Roman imprisonment, were addressed to "saints." In sympathy with the Apostle's words, Chrysostom, writing three centuries later, lamented that "all things which are Christ's in the truth" were counterfeited in the prevailing heresies of that age, and he urged that Christians "should betake themselves only to the Scriptures." And in our own day all this found an echo in the exhortation of the late Bishop Ryle, that Christians should expect nothing from churches, but look only to the Lord.
The student of human nature who has adequate means and opportunities of inquiry respecting the vices and crimes of men finds no need of a devil to account for everything in that sphere. But, without the Satan of Scripture, the religion of men is an insoluble enigma. For Satan is the god of this world, and therefore the religion of the world is the normal sphere of his activities. And, as Luther said, all his assaults are aimed at Christ Himself. He blinds the minds of men to the revelation of a Christ who is "the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4:4-6) The Deity of Christ is thus his main objective, for upon that depends everything that is vital in Christianity.
Hence his campaign against the Bible. For no one whose mind is not warped or blinded by the superstitions of religion can fail to recognize that it is only through the written Word that we can reach "the living Word." The man who denies the Divine authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture and yet clings to a belief in the atonement of Calvary and the Deity of Christ is a superstitious creature who would believe anything.13