Declension of the Early Christian Church

popefrom The History of Protestantism by J. A. Wylie

The declensions in doctrine and worship already introduced had changed the brightness of the Church’s morning into twilight; the descent of the Northern nations, which, beginning in the fifth, continued through several successive centuries, converted that twilight into night. The new tribes had changed their country, but not their superstitions; and, unhappily, there was neither zeal nor vigor in the Christianity of the age to effect their instruction and their genuine conversion. The Bible had been withdrawn; in the pulpit fable had usurped the place of truth; holy lives, whose silent eloquence might have won upon the barbarians, were rarely exemplified; and thus, instead of the Church dissipating the superstitions that now encompassed her like a cloud, these superstitions all but quenched her own light. She opened her gates to receive the new peoples as they were. She sprinkled them with the baptismal water; she inscribed their names in her registers; she taught them in their invocations to repeat the titles of the Trinity; but the doctrines of the Gospel, which alone can enlighten the understanding, purify the heart, and enrich the life with virtue, she was little careful to inculcate upon them. She folded them within her pale, but they were scarcely more Christian than before, while she was greatly less so. From the sixth century down-wards Christianity was a mongrel system, made up of pagan rites revived from classic times, of superstitions imported from the forests of Northern Germany, and of Christian beliefs and observances which continued to linger in the Church from primitive and purer times. The inward power of religion was lost; and it was in vain that men strove to supply its place by the outward form. They nourished their piety not at the living fountains of truth, but with the “beggarly elements” of ceremonies and relics, of consecrated lights and holy vestments. Nor was it Divine knowledge only that was contemned; men forbore to cultivate letters, or practice virtue. Baronius confesses that in the sixth century few in Italy were skilled in both Greek and Latin. Nay, even Gregory the Great acknowledged that he was ignorant of Greek. “The main qualifications of the clergy were, that they should be able to read well, sing their matins, know the Lord’s Prayer, psalter, forms of exorcism, and understand how to compute the times of the sacred festivals. Nor were they very sufficient for this, if we may believe the account some have given of them. Musculus says that many of them never saw the Scriptures in all their lives. It would seem incredible, but it is delivered by no less an authority than Amama, that an Archbishop of Mainz, lighting upon a Bible and looking into it, expressed himself thus: ‘Of a truth I do not know what book this is, but I perceive everything in it is against us.'”

Apostasy is like the descent of heavy bodies, it proceeds with ever-accelerating velocity. First, lamps were lighted at the tombs of the martyrs; next, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated at their graves; next, prayers were offered for them and to them; next, paintings and images began to disfigure the walls, and corpses to pollute the floors of the churches. Baptism, which apostles required water only to dispense, could not be celebrated without white robes and chrism, milk, honey, and salt. Then came a crowd of church officers whose names and numbers are in striking contrast to the few and simple orders of men who were employed in the first propagation of Christianity. There were sub-deacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, choristers, and porters; and as work must be found for this motley host of laborers, there came to be fasts and exorcisms; there were lamps to be lighted, altars to be arranged, and churches to be consecrated; there was the Eucharist to be carried to the dying; and there were the dead to be buried, for which a special order of men was set apart. When one looked back to the simplicity of early times, it could not but amaze one to think what a cumbrous array of curious machinery and costly furniture was now needed for the service of Christianity. Not more stinging than true was the remark that “when the Church had golden chalices she had wooden priests.”

“This change brought a multitude of others in its train. Worship being transformed into sacrifice – sacrifice in which was the element of expiation and purification – the “teaching ministry” was of course converted into a “sacrificing priesthood.” When this had been done, there was no retreating; a boundary had been reached which could not be recrossed till centuries had rolled away, and transformations of a more portentous kind than any which had yet taken place had passed upon the Church.”

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