The appearance of another history of the early Church requires some explanation. As the progress of the Christian commonwealth for the first three hundred years has been recently described by British, German, and American writers of eminent ability, it may, perhaps, be thought that the subject is now exhausted. No competent judge will pronounce such an opinion. During the last quarter of a century, various questions relating to the ancient Church, which are almost, if not altogether, ignored in existing histories, have been earnestly discussed; whilst several documents, lately discovered, have thrown fresh light on its transactions. There are, besides, points of view, disclosing unexplored fields for thought, from which the ecclesiastical landscape has never yet been contemplated. The following work is an attempt to exhibit some of its features as seen from a new position.
The importance of this portion of the history of the Church can scarcely be over-estimated. Our attention is here directed to the life of Christ, to the labours of the apostles and evangelists, to the doctrines which they taught, to the form of worship which they sanctioned, to the organization of the community which they founded, and to the indomitable constancy with which its members suffered persecution. The practical bearing of the topics thus brought under review must be sufficiently obvious.
In the interval between the days of the apostles and the conversion of Constantine, the Christian commonwealth changed its aspect. The Bishop of Rome—a personage unknown to the writers of the New Testament— meanwhile rose into prominence, and at length took precedence of all other churchmen. Rites and ceremonies, of which neither Paul nor Peter ever heard, crept silently into use, and then claimed the rank of divine institutions. Officers, for whom the primitive disciples could have found no place, and titles, which to them would have been altogether unintelligible, began to challenge attention, and to be named apostolic. It is the duty of the historian to endeavour to point out the origin, and to trace the progress of these innovations. A satisfactory account of them must go far to settle more than one of our present controversies. An attempt is here made to lay bare the causes which produced these changes, and to mark the stages of the ecclesiastical revolution. When treating of the rise and growth of the hierarchy, several remarkable facts and testimonies which have escaped the notice of preceding historians are particularly noticed.
Some may, perhaps, consider that, in a work such as this, undue prominence has been given to the discussion of the question of the Ignatian epistles. Those who have carefully examined the subject will scarcely think so. If we accredit these documents, the history of the early Church is thrown into a state of hopeless confusion; and men, taught and honoured by the apostles themselves, must have inculcated the most dangerous errors. But if their claims vanish, when touched by the wand of truthful criticism, many clouds which have hitherto darkened the ecclesiastical atmosphere disappear; and the progress of corruption can be traced on scientific principles. The special attention of all interested in the Ignatian controversy is invited to the two chapters of this work in which the subject is investigated. Evidence is there produced to prove that these Ignatian letters, even as edited by the very learned and laborious Doctor Cureton, are utterly spurious, and that they should be swept away from among the genuine remains of early Church literature with the besom of scorn.
Throughout the work very decided views are expressed on a variety of topics; but it must surely be unnecessary to tender an apology for the free utterance of these sentiments; for, when recording the progress of a revolution affecting the highest interests of man, the narrator cannot be expected to divest himself of his cherished convictions; and very few will venture to maintain that a writer, who feels no personal interest in the great principles brought to light by the gospel, is, on that account, more competent to describe the faith, the struggles, and the triumphs of the primitive Christians. I am not aware that mere prejudice has ever been permitted to influence my narrative, or that any statement has been made which does not rest upon solid evidence. Some of the views here presented may not have been suggested by any previous investigator, and they may be exceedingly damaging to certain popular theories; but they should not, therefore, be summarily condemned. Surely every honest effort to explain and reconcile the memorials of antiquity is entitled to a candid criticism. Nor, from those whose opinion is really worthy of respect, do I despair of a kindly reception for this volume. One of the most hopeful signs of the times is the increasing charity of evangelical Christians. There is a growing disposition to discountenance the spirit of religious partisanship, and to bow to the supremacy of TRUTH. I trust that those who are in quest of the old paths trodden by the apostles and the martyrs will find some light to guide them in the following pages.