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The Great Apostasy

Section II "THE theologian may indulge the pleasing task," writes Gibbon," of describing Religion as she descended from heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings."—" Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Vol. I, chap. 15, par. 2.

An outstanding fact confronts us as we enter upon an investigation of the later history of the Christian church: the changes introduced into the doctrines and polity of the church were largely in the nature of compromise. The Christians of apostolic times were not at all inclined to pander to worldly interests, or to yield one jot of the system of truth committed to them. They regarded their life upon earth as a pilgrimage; all their thoughts and desires were heavenward, and their crowning ambition was to reign with Christ above. Later Christians lost sight of these pure, unworldly aims and high spiritual ambitions, and came to look on the church chiefly in its external aspect. They coveted power and influence in the world, and were willing to purchase them at the loss of purity and holiness. They saw that by yielding some points they could gain the adherence of large numbers of the most influential people, and they yielded the points.

The spirit of compromise first revealed itself in corrupting the doctrines of the Christian church. These had in early days been marked by great simplicity, in which they differed alike from the highly elaborated teachings of the rabbis and from the fine-spun theories of heathen philosophers. They gradually underwent a process of elaboration, intended to make them more acceptable to the philosophically inclined among the new converts.

The fundamental conception of salvation by faith gave wayby degrees to the old erroneous idea that man could be saved by his own good works. To begin with, there was a classification of sins, some of which were to be regarded as venial, and thus easily forgivable; others as mortal, not to be forgiven at all, or only by special divine favor. It followed that persons who were guilty of what had been classified as mortal sins must needs do something very extraordinary to show that they were truly repentant. Hence the introduction in its earliest forms. of the idea of penance,

Corresponding closely with the classification of sins, there was a classification of good works. Some were required of all Christians; others were not required, but if attained to, were evidence of special piety. Thus it was possible for a man to attain to a higher degree of holiness than was necessary for





"It is probable that he [Constantine] embraced Christianity, not entirely from conviction, but partly from political motives. As the historian Hodgkin puts it. He was half convinced of the truth of Christianity, and wholly convinced of the policy of embracing it."— Myers.

salvation. By doing a certain amount of praying, fasting, and almsgiving, he would be entitled to a place in heaven; what he did more than this would be regarded as works of supererogation, that is, works that went beyond the divine requirements.

The belief in this doctrine of supermeritorious works led in time to the notion that these works were the property of the church, and could by her be dispensed for the benefit of such of her children as stood in need of them. Still later it came to

be considered proper for the church to dispense such favors to any one she pleased, and for a monetary consideration. Thus was gradually built up, as a superstructure on this foundation of salvation by works, the whole system of indulgences,1 that fruitful source of so many and monstrous evils in the medieval church.

The notion of supermeritorious works depended for its full development and exploitation on another error that early crept

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into the Christian church; namely, the doctrine that the soul is an entity entirely apart from the body, and that when the body dies, the soul enters upon a separate state of existence, in which it continues until the time of the resurrection. The belief in natural immortality had prevailed more or less widely in the heathen world for centuries. It received its full development as a philosophic tenet at the hands of Plato, whose main teachings, in a modified form and under the name of the Neoplatonic

1. "An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints."-The Catholic Encyclopedia," art. "Indulgences." Vol. VII, p. 783,

philosophy, were largely introduced into the teachings of the church in the third century.



When ascending this stairway on his knees, Luther heard, as it were, the words which later became the rallying call of the Reformation, "The just shall live by faith."

The conception of an intermediate state opened the way, humanly speaking, for a satisfactory solution of another problem which had confronted the theorists. Origen, meditating on

the greatness of sin and the feebleness of man's attempts to free himself from it, came to the conclusion that no human being at the time of death was so entirely free from sin as to be fit for immediate entrance into heaven. He accordingly taught that the disembodied souls, even of the best men, must undergo purification by fire. At first it was believed that this purification took place at the resurrection; later it was referred to the intermediate state, or purgatory.

Along with the belief that the dead were in this intermediate state, undergoing necessary purification from sin, there naturally followed prayers for the dead. And from praying for the dead the custom arose of beseeching their prayers in behalf of the living. Thus entered the doctrine of the invocation of saints, which in time came largely to supersede prayer to God.

The falling away of the church from apostolic simplicity in the matter of government and discipline was simultaneous with the decline of spirituality, and the progressive changes in doctrines and worship that have just been mentioned. The primitive order, as recorded in the previous section, provided for only two classes of church officers,- bishops, or elders (presbyters), to whom the spiritual interests of the churches were especially intrusted; and deacons, to whom pertained the temporal affairs. Besides these officers, there were persons endowed with special gifts, as the gift of tongues, of healing, of prophecy, and these had a share in the spiritual upbuilding of the churches.

As time went on, and the tendency grew to regard the church chiefly in its external aspect,- as a human institution calculated to achieve certain ends, and officered with men who possessed the requisite talents for leadership, these gifts disappeared, and simultaneously with their withdrawal increased emphasis came to be placed upon the office of bishop, which in the absence of the aforementioned gifts seemed to sum up in itself all that was most sacred and holy in ecclesiastical relationships.

As the cause continued to grow, and the administrative cares of the bishops increased, it became necessary to select for the office men of pronounced executive ability, and spiritual attainments came to figure less and less as requisite to the holding of important office in the church. Especially was this true in the case of the men selected to fill the office of bishop in the large cities. Moreover, the prestige of these men as leaders naturally led their brother bishops of outlying districts to look to them for advice and counsel, and in time it became a custom, and then a duty, for them to do this.


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