So far I have attempted to answer the question, "What Was the Roman Empire?" We have seen that it was an institution of such and such a character, but to this we had to add that it was an institution affected from its origin, and at last permeated by, another institution. This other institution had (and has) for its name "The Catholic Church."
My next task must, therefore, be an attempt to answer the question, "What was the Church in the Roman Empire?" for that I have not yet touched.
In order to answer this question we shall do well to put ourselves in the place of a man living in a particular period, from whose standpoint the nature of the connection between the Church and the Empire can best be observed. And that standpoint in time is the generation which lived through the close of the second century and on into the latter half of the third century: say from A.D. 190 to A.D. 270. It is the first moment in which we can perceive the Church as a developed organism now apparent to all.
If we take an earlier date we find ourselves in a world where the growing Church was still but slightly known and by most people unheard of. We can get no earlier view of it as part of the society around it. It is from about this time also that many documents survive. I shall show that the appearance of the Church at this time, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and forty years after the Crucifixion, is ample evidence of her original constitution.
A man born shortly after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, living through the violent civil wars that succeeded the peace of the Antonines, surviving to witness the Decian persecution of the Church and in extreme old age to perceive the promise, though not the establishment, of an untrammelled Catholicism (it had yet to pass through the last and most terrible of the persecutions), would have been able to answer our question well. He would have lived at the turn of the tide: a witness to the emergence, apparent to all Society, of the Catholic Church.
Let us suppose him the head of a Senatorial family in some great provincial town such as Lyons. He would then find himself one of a comparatively small class of very wealthy men to whom was confined the municipal government of the city. Beneath him he would be accustomed to a large class of citizens, free men but not senatorial; beneath these again his society reposed upon a very large body of slaves.
In what proportion these three classes of society would have been found in a town like Lyons in the second century we have no exact documents to tell us, but we may infer from what we know of that society that the majority would certainly have been of the servile class, free men less numerous, while senators were certainly a very small body (they were the great landowners of the neighborhood); and we must add to these three main divisions two other classes which complicate our view of that society. The first was that of the freed men, the second was made up of perpetual tenants, nominally free, but economically (and already partly in legal theory) bound to the wealthier classes.
The freed men had risen from the servile class by the sole act of their masters. They were bound to these masters very strongly so far as social atmosphere went, and to no small extent in legal theory as well. This preponderance of a small wealthy class we must not look upon as a stationary phenomenon: it was increasing. In another half-dozen generations it was destined to form the outstanding feature of all imperial society. In the fourth and fifth centuries when the Roman Empire became from Pagan, Christian, the mark of the world was the possession of nearly all its soil and capital (apart from public land) by one small body of immensely wealthy men: the product of the pagan Empire.
It is next important to remember that such a man as we are conceiving would never have regarded the legal distinctions between slave and free as a line of cleavage between different kinds of men. It was a social arrangement and no more. Most of the slaves were, indeed, still chattel, bought and sold; many of them were incapable of any true family life. But there was nothing uncommon in a slave being treated as a friend, in his being a member of the liberal professions, in his acting as a tutor, as an administrator of his master's fortune, or a doctor. Certain official things he could not be; he could not hold any public office, of course; he could never plead; and he could not be a soldier.
This last point is essential; because the Roman Empire, though it required no large armed force in comparison with the total numbers of its vast population (for it was not a system of mere repression–no such system has ever endured), yet could only draw that armed force from a restricted portion of the population. In the absence of foreign adventure or Civil Wars, the armies were mainly used as frontier police. Yet, small as they were, it was not easy to obtain the recruitment required. The wealthy citizen we are considering would have been expected to "find" a certain number of recruits for the service of the army. He found them among his bound free tenants and enfranchised slaves; he was increasingly reluctant to find them; and they were increasingly reluctant to serve. Later recruitment was found more and more from the barbarians outside the Empire; and we shall see on a subsequent page how this affected the transition from the ancient world to that of the Dark Ages.
Let us imagine such a man going through the streets of Lyons of a morning to attend a meeting of the Curia. He would salute, and be saluted, as he passed, by many men of the various classes I have described. Some, though slaves, he would greet familiarly; others, though nominally free and belonging to his own following or to that of some friend, he would regard with less attention. He would be accompanied, it may be presumed, by a small retinue, some of whom might be freed men of his own, some slaves, some of the tenant class, some in legal theory quite independent of him, and yet by the economic necessities of the moment practically his dependents.
As he passes through the streets he notes the temples dedicated to a variety of services. No creed dominated the city; even the local gods were now but a confused memory; a religious ritual of the official type was to greet him upon his entry to the Assembly, but in the public life of the city no fixed philosophy, no general faith, appeared.
Among the many buildings so dedicated, two perhaps would have struck his attention: the one the great and showy synagogue where the local Jews met upon their Sabbath, the other a small Christian Church. The first of these he would look on as one looks today upon the mark of an alien colony in some great modern city. He knew it to be the symbol of a small, reserved, unsympathetic but wealthy race scattered throughout the Empire. The Empire had had trouble with it in the past, but that trouble was long forgotten; the little colonies of Jews had become negotiators, highly separate from their fellow citizens, already unpopular, but nothing more.
With the Christian Church it would be otherwise. He would know as an administrator (we will suppose him a pagan) that this Church was endowed ; that it was possessed of property more or less legally guaranteed. It had a very definite position of its own among the congregations and corporations of the city, peculiar, and yet well secured. He would further know as an administrator (and this would more concern him–for the possession of property by so important a body would seem natural enough), that to this building and the corporation of which it was a symbol were attached an appreciable number of his fellow citizens; a small minority, of course, in any town of such a date (the first generation of the third century), but a minority most appreciable and most worthy of his concern from three very definite characteristics. In the first place it was certainly growing; in the second place it was certainly, even after so many generations of growth, a phenomenon perpetually novel; in the third place (and this was the capital point) it represented a true political organism– the only subsidiary organism which had risen within the general body of the Empire .
If the reader will retain no other one of the points I am making in this description, let him retain this point: it is, from the historical point of view, the explanation of all that was to follow. The Catholic Church in Lyons would have been for that Senator a distinct organism; with its own officers, its own peculiar spirit, its own type of vitality, which, if he were a wise man, he would know was certain to endure and to grow, and which even if he were but a superficial and unintelligent spectator, he would recognize as unique.
Like a sort of little State the Catholic Church included all classes and kinds of men, and like the Empire itself, within which it was growing, it regarded all classes of its own members as subject to it within its own sphere. The senator, the tenant, the freed man, the slave, the soldier, in so far as they were members of this corporation, were equally bound to certain observances. Did they neglect these observances, the corporation would expel them or subject them to penalties of its own . He knew that though misunderstandings and fables existed with regard to this body, there was no social class in which its members had not propagated a knowledge of its customs. He knew (and it would disturb him to know) that its organization, though in no way admitted by law, and purely what we should call "voluntary," was strict and very formidable.
Here in Lyons as elsewhere, it was under a monarchical head called by the Greek name of Episcopos . Greek was a language which the cultured knew and used throughout the western or Latin part of the Empire to which he belonged; the title would not, therefore, seem to him alien any more than would be the Greek title of Presbyter –the name of the official priests acting under this monarchical head of the organization–or than would the Greek title Diaconos , which title was attached to an order, just below the priests, which was comprised of the inferior officials of the clerical body.
He knew that this particular cult, like the innumerable others that were represented by the various sacred buildings of the city, had its mysteries, its solemn ritual, and so forth, in which these, the officials of its body, might alone engage, and which the mass of the local "Christians"–for such was their popular name–attended as a congregation. But he would further know that this scheme of worship differed wholly from any other of the many observances round it by a certain fixity of definition . The Catholic Church was not an opinion, nor a fashion, nor a philosophy; it was not a theory nor a habit; it was a clearly delineated body corporate based on numerous exact doctrines , extremely jealous of its unity and of its precise definitions, and filled, as was no other body of men at that time, with passionate conviction.
By this I do not mean that the Senator so walking to his official duties could not have recalled from among his own friends more than one who was attached to the Christian body in a negligent sort of way, perhaps by the influence of his wife, perhaps by a tradition inherited from his father: he would guess, and justly guess, that this rapidly growing body counted very many members who were indifferent and some, perhaps, who were ignorant of its full doctrine. But the body as a whole, in its general spirit, and especially in the disciplined organization of its hierarchy , did differ from everything round it in this double character of precision and conviction. There was no certitude left and no definite spirit or mental aim, no "dogma" (as we should say today) taken for granted in the Lyons of his time, save among the Christians.
The pagan masses were attached, without definite religion, to a number of customs. In social morals they were guided by certain institutions, at the foundation of which were the Roman ideas of property in men, land and goods; patriotism, the bond of smaller societies, had long ago merged in the conception of a universal empire. This Christian Church alone represented a complete theory of life, to which men were attached, as they had hundreds of years before been attached to their local city, with its local gods and intense corporate local life.
Without any doubt the presence of that Church and of what it stood for would have concerned our Senator. It was no longer negligible nor a thing to be only occasionally observed. It was a permanent force and, what is more, a State within the State.
If he were like most of his kind in that generation the Catholic Church would have affected him as an irritant; its existence interfered with the general routine of public affairs. If he were, as a small minority even of the rich already were, in sympathy with it though not of it, it would still have concerned him. It was the only exceptional organism of his uniform time: and it was growing.
This Senator goes into the Curia. He deals with the business of the day. It includes complaints upon certain assessments of the Imperial taxes. He consults the lists and sees there (it was the fundamental conception of the whole of that society) men drawn up in grades of importance exactly corresponding to the amount of freehold land which each possessed. He has to vote, perhaps, upon some question of local repairs, the making of some new street, or the establishment of some monument. Probably he hears of some local quarrel provoked (he is told) by the small, segregated Christian body, and he follows the police report upon it.
He leaves the Curia for his own business and hears at home the accounts of his many farms, what deaths of slaves there have been, what has been the result of the harvest, what purchases of slaves or goods have been made, what difficulty there has been in recruiting among his tenantry for the army, and so forth. Such a man was concerned one way or another with perhaps a dozen large farming centres or villages, and had some thousands of human beings dependent upon him. In this domestic business he hardly comes across the Church at all. It was still in the towns. It was not yet rooted in the countryside.
There might possibly, even at that distance from the frontiers, be rumors of some little incursion or other of barbarians; perhaps a few hundred fighting men, come from the outer Germanies, had taken refuge with a Roman garrison after suffering defeat at the hands of neighboring barbarians; or perhaps they were attempting to live by pillage in the neighborhood of the garrison and the soldiers had been called out against them. He might have, from the hands of a friend in that garrison, a letter brought to him officially by the imperial post, which was organized along all the great highways, telling him what had been done to the marauders or the suppliants; how, too, some had, after capture, been allotted land to till under conditions nearly servile, others, perhaps, forcibly recruited for the army. The news would never for a moment have suggested to him any coming danger to the society in which he lived.
He would have passed from such affairs to recreations probably literary, and there would have been an end of his day.
In such a day what we note as most exceptional is the aspect of the small Catholic body in a then pagan city, and we should remember, if we are to understand history, that by this time it was already the phenomenon which contemporaries were also beginning to note most carefully.
That is a fair presentment of the manner in which a number of local affairs (including the Catholic Church in his city) would have struck such a man at such a time.
If we use our knowledge to consider the Empire as a whole, we must observe certain other things in the landscape, touching the Church and the society around it, which a local view cannot give us. In the first place there had been in that society from time to time acute spasmodic friction breaking out between the Imperial power and this separate voluntary organism, the Catholic Church. The Church's partial secrecy, its high vitality, its claim to independent administration, were the superficial causes of this. Speaking as Catholics, we know that the ultimate causes were more profound. The conflict was a conflict between Jesus Christ with His great foundation on the one hand, and what Jesus Christ Himself had called "the world." But it is unhistorical to think of a "Pagan" world opposed to a "Christian" world at that time. The very conception of "a Pagan world" requires some external manifest Christian civilization against which to contrast it. There was none such, of course, for Rome in the first generation of the third century. The Church had around her a society in which education was very widely spread, intellectual curiosity very lively, a society largely skeptical, but interested to discover the right conduct of human life, and tasting now this opinion, now that, to see if it could discover a final solution.
It was a society of such individual freedom that it is difficult to speak of its "luxury" or its "cruelty." A cruel man could be cruel in it without suffering the punishment which centuries of Christian training would render natural to our ideas. But a merciful man could be, and would be, merciful and would preach mercy, and would be generally applauded. It was a society in which there were many ascetics–whole schools of thought contemptuous of sensual pleasure–but a society distinguished from the Christian particularly in this, that at bottom it believed man to be sufficient to himself and all belief to be mere opinions .
Here was the great antithesis between the Church and her surroundings. It is an antithesis which has been revived today. Today, outside the Catholic Church, there is no distinction between opinion and faith nor any idea that man is other than sufficient to himself.
The Church did not, and does not, believe man to be sufficient to himself, nor naturally in possession of those keys which would open the doors to full knowledge or full social content. It proposed (and proposes) its doctrines to be held not as opinions but as a body of faith.
It differed from–or was more solid than–all around it in this: that it proposed statement instead of hypothesis, affirmed concrete historical facts instead of suggesting myths, and treated its ritual of "mysteries" as realities instead of symbols.
A word as to the constitution of the Church. All men with an historical training know that the Church of the years 200-250 was what I have described it, an organized society under bishops, and, what is more, it is evident that there was a central primacy at Rome as well as local primacies in various other great cities. But what is not so generally emphasized is the way in which Christian society appears to have looked at itself at that time.
The conception which the Catholic Church had of itself in the early third century can, perhaps, best be approached by pointing out that if we use the word "Christianity" we are unhistorical. "Christianity" is a term in the mouth and upon the pen of the post-Reformation writer; it connotes an opinion or a theory; a point of view; an idea. The Christians of the time of which I speak had no such conception. Upon the contrary, they were attached to its very antithesis. They were attached to the conception of a thing : of an organized body instituted for a definite end, disciplined in a definite way, and remarkable for the possession of definite and concrete doctrine. One can talk, in speaking of the first three centuries, of stoic ism , or epicurean ism , or neoplaton ism ; but one cannot talk of "Christian ism " or "Christ ism ." Indeed, no one has been so ignorant or unhistorical as to attempt those phrases. But the current phrase "Christianity," used by moderns as identical with the Christian body in the third century, is intellectually the equivalent of "Christianism" or "Christism;" and, I repeat, it connotes a grossly unhistorical idea; it connotes something historically false; something that never existed.
Let me give an example of what I mean:
Four men will be sitting as guests of a fifth in a private house in Carthage in the year 225. They are all men of culture; all possessed of the two languages, Greek and Latin, well-read and interested in the problems and half-solutions of their skeptical time. One will profess himself Materialist, and will find another to agree with him; there is no personal God, certain moral duties must be recognized by men for such and such utilitarian reasons, and so forth. He finds support.
The host is not of that opinion; he has been profoundly influenced by certain "mysteries" into which he has been "initiated:" That is, symbolical plays showing the fate of the soul and performed in high seclusion before members of a society sworn to secrecy. He has come to feel a spiritual life as the natural life round him. He has curiously followed, and often paid at high expense, the services of necromancers; he believes that in an "initiation" which he experienced in his youth, and during the secret and most vivid drama or "mystery" in which he then took part, he actually came in contact with the spiritual world. Such men were not uncommon. The declining society of the time was already turning to influences of that type.
The host's conviction, his awed and reticent attitude towards such things, impress his guests. One of the guests, however, a simple, solid kind of man, not drawn to such vagaries, says that he has been reading with great interest the literature of the Christians. He is in admiration of the traditional figure of the Founder of their Church. He quotes certain phrases, especially from the four orthodox Gospels. They move him to eloquence, and their poignancy and illuminative power have an effect upon his friends. He ends by saying: "For my part, I have come to make it a sort of rule to act as this Man Christ would have had me act. He seems to me to have led the most perfect life I ever read of, and the practical maxims which are attached to His Name seem to me a sufficient guide to life. That," he will conclude simply, "is the groove into which I have fallen, and I do not think I shall ever leave it."
Let us call the man who has so spoken, Ferreolus. Would Ferreolus have been a Christian ? Would the officials of the Roman Empire have called him a Christian ? Would he have been in danger of unpopularity where Christians were unpopular? Would Christians have received him among themselves as part of their strict and still somewhat secret society? Would he have counted with any single man of the whole Empire as one of the Christian body?
The answer is most emphatically No .
No Christian in the first three centuries would have held such a man as coming within his view. No imperial officer in the most violent crisis of one of those spasmodic persecutions which the Church had to undergo would have troubled him with a single question. No Christian congregation would have regarded him as in any way connected with their body. Opinion of that sort, "Christism," had no relation to the Church. How far it existed we cannot tell, for it was unimportant. In so far as it existed it would have been on all fours with any one of the vague opinions which floated about the cultured Roman world.
Now it is evident that the term "Christianity" used as a point of view, a mere mental attitude, would include such a man, and it is equally evident that we have only to imagine him to see that he had nothing to do with the Christian religion of that day. For the Christian religion (then as now) was a thing, not a theory. It was expressed in what I have called an organism, and that organism was the Catholic Church.
The reader may here object: "But surely there was heresy after heresy and thousands of men were at any moment claiming the name of Christian whom the orthodox Church rejected. Nay, some suffered martyrdom rather than relinquish the name."
True; but the very existence of such sects should be enough to prove the point at issue.
These sects arose precisely because within the Catholic Church (1) exact doctrine, (2) unbroken tradition, and (3) absolute unity, were, all three, regarded as the necessary marks of the institution. The heresies arose one after another, from the action of men who were prepared to define yet more punctiliously what the truth might be, and to claim with yet more particular insistence the possession of living tradition and the right to be regarded as the centre of unity. No heresy pretended that the truth was vague and indefinite. The whole gist and meaning of a heresy was that it, the heresy, or he, the heresiarch, was prepared to make doctrine yet more sharp, and to assert his own definition.
What you find in these foundational times is not the Catholic Church asserting and defining a thing and then, some time after, the heresiarch denying this definition; no heresy comes within a hundred miles of such a procedure. What happens in the early Church is that some doctrine not yet fully defined is laid down by such and such a man, that his final settlement clashes with the opinion of others, that after debate and counsel, and also authoritative statement on the part of the bishops, this man's solution is rejected and an orthodox solution is defined. From that moment the heresiarch, if he will not fall into line with defined opinion, ceases to be in communion; and his rejection, no less than his own original insistence upon his doctrine, are in themselves proofs that both he and his judges postulate unity and definition as the two necessary marks of Catholic truth.
No early heretic or no early orthodox authority dreams of saying to his opponent: "You may be right! Let us agree to differ. Let us each form his part of 'Christian society' and look at things from his own point of view." The moment a question is raised it must of its nature, the early Church being what it was, be defined one way or the other.
Well, then, what was this body of doctrine held by common tradition and present everywhere in the first years of the third century?
Let me briefly set down what we know, as a matter of historical and documentary evidence, the Church of this period to have held. What we know is a very different matter from what we can guess. We may amplify it from our conceptions of the probable according to our knowledge of that society–as, for instance, when we say that there was probably a bishop at Marseilles before the middle of the second century. Or we may amplify it by guesswork, and suppose, in the absence of evidence, some just possible but exceedingly improbable thing: as, that an important canonical Gospel has been lost. There is an infinite range for guesswork, both orthodox and heretical. But the plain and known facts which repose upon historical and documentary evidence, and which have no corresponding documentary evidence against them, are both few and certain.
Let us take such a writer as Tertullian and set down what was certainly true of his time.
Tertullian was a man of about forty in the year 200. The Church then taught as an unbroken tradition that a Man who had been put to death about 170 years before in Palestine–only 130 years before Tertullian's birth–had risen again on the third day. This Man was a known and real person with whom numbers had conversed. In Tertullian's childhood men still lived who had met eye witnesses of the thing asserted.
This Man (the Church said) was also the supreme Creator God. There you have an apparent contradiction in terms, at any rate a mystery, fruitful in opportunities for theory, and as a fact destined to lead to three centuries of more and more particular definition.
This Man, Who also was God Himself, had, through chosen companions called Apostles, founded a strict and disciplined society called the Church. The doctrines the Church taught professed to be His doctrines. They included the immortality of the human soul, its redemption, its alternative of salvation and damnation.
Initiation into the Church was by way of baptism with water in the name of The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Before His death this Man Who was also God had instituted a certain rite and Mystery called the Eucharist. He took bread and wine and changed them into His Body and Blood. He ordered this rite to be continued. The central act of worship of the Christian Church was therefore a consecration of bread and wine by priests in the presence of the initiated and baptized Christian body of the locality. The bread and wine so consecrated were certainly called (universally) the Body of the Lord.
The faithful also certainly communicated, that is, eat the Bread and drank the Wine thus changed in the Mystery .
It was the central rite of the Church thus to take the Body of the Lord.
There was certainly at the head of each Christian community a bishop: regarded as directly the successor of the Apostles, the chief agent of the ritual and the guardian of doctrine.
The whole increasing body of local communities kept in touch through their bishops, held one doctrine and practiced what was substantially one ritual.
All that is plain history.
The numerical proportion of the Church in the city of Carthage, where Tertullian wrote, was certainly large enough for its general suppression to be impossible. One might argue from one of his phrases that it was a tenth of the population. Equally certainly did the unity of the Christian Church and its bishops teach the institution of the Eucharist, the Resurrection, the authority of the Apostles, and their power of tradition through the bishops. A very large number of converts were to be noted and (to go back to Tertullian) the majority of his time, by his testimony, were recruited by conversion, and were not born Christians.
Such is known to have been, in a very brief outline, the manner of the Catholic Church in these early years of the third century. Such was the undisputed manner of the Church, as a Christian or an inquiring pagan would have been acquainted with it in the years 160-200 and onwards.
I have purposely chosen this moment, because it is the moment in which Christian evidence first emerges upon any considerable scale. Many of the points I have set down are, of course, demonstrably anterior to the third century. I mean by "demonstrably" anterior, proved in earlier documentary testimony. That ritual and doctrine firmly fixed are long anterior to the time in which you find them rooted is obvious to common sense. But there are documents as well.
Thus, we have Justin Martyr. He was no less than sixty years older than Tertullian. He was as near to the Crucifixion as my generation is to the Reform Bill–and he gave us a full description of the Mass.
We have the letters of St. Ignatius. He was a much older man than St. Justin–perhaps forty or fifty years older. He stood to the generations contemporary with Our Lord as I stand to the generation of Gladstone, Bismarck, and, early as he is, he testifies fully to the organization of the Church with its Bishops, the Eucharistic Doctrine, and the Primacy in it of the Roman See.
The literature remaining to us from the early first century and a half after the Crucifixion is very scanty. The writings of what are called "Apostolic" times–that is, documents proceeding immediately from men who could remember the time of Our Lord, form not only in their quantity (and that is sufficiently remarkable), but in their quality, too, a far superior body of evidence to what we possess from the next generation. We have more in the New Testament than we have in the writings of these men who came just after the death of the Apostles. But what does remain is quite convincing. There arose from the date of Our Lord's Ascension into heaven, from, say, A. D. 30 or so, before the death of Tiberius and a long lifetime after the Roman organization of Gaul, a definite, strictly ruled and highly individual Society , with fixed doctrines, special mysteries, and a strong discipline of its own. With a most vivid and distinct personality, unmistakeable. And this Society was, and is, called "The Church."
I would beg the reader to note with precision both the task upon which we are engaged and the exact dates with which we are dealing, for there is no matter in which history has been more grievously distorted by religious bias.
The task upon which we are engaged is the judgment of a portion of history as it was. I am not writing here from a brief. I am concerned to set forth a fact. I am acting as a witness or a copier, not as an advocate or lawyer. And I say that the conclusion we can establish with regard to the Christian community on these main lines is the conclusion to which any man must come quite independently of his creed. He will deny these facts only if he has such bias against the Faith as interferes with his reason. A man's belief in the mission of the Catholic Church, his confidence in its divine origin, do not move him to these plain historical conclusions any more than they move him to his conclusions upon the real existence, doctrine and organization of contemporary Mormonism. Whether the Church told the truth is for philosophy to discuss: What the Church in fact was is plain history. The Church may have taught nonsense. Its organization may have been a clumsy human thing. That would not affect the historical facts.
By the year 200 the Church was–everywhere, manifestly and in ample evidence throughout the Roman world–what I have described, and taught the doctrines I have just enumerated: but it stretches back one hundred and seventy years before that date and it has evidence to its title throughout that era of youth.
To see that the state of affairs everywhere widely apparent in A.D. 200 was rooted in the very origins of the institution one hundred and seventy years before, to see that all this mass of ritual, doctrine and discipline starts with the first third of the first century, and the Church was from its birth the Church, the reader must consider the dates.
We know that we have in the body of documents contained in the "canon" which the Church has authorized as the "New Testament," documents proceeding from men who were contemporaries with the origin of the Christian religion. Even modern scholarship with all its love of phantasy is now clear upon so obvious a point. The authors of the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles, Clement also, and Ignatius also (who had conversed with the Apostles) may have been deceived, they may have been deceiving. I am not here concerned with that point. The discussion of it belongs to another province of argument altogether. But they were contemporaries of the things they said they were contemporaries of. In other words, their writings are what is called "authentic."
If I read in the four Gospels (not only the first three) of such and such a miracle, I believe it or I disbelieve it. But I am reading the account of a man who lived at the time when the miracle is said to have happened. If you read (in Ignatius' seven certainly genuine letters) of Episcopacy and of the Eucharist, you may think him a wrong-headed enthusiast. But you know that you are reading the work of a man who personally witnessed the beginnings of the Church; you know that the customs, manners, doctrines and institutions he mentions or takes for granted, were certainly those of his time, that is, of the origin of Catholicism, though you may think the customs silly and the doctrines nonsense.
St. Ignatius talking about the origin and present character of the Catholic Church is exactly in the position–in the matter of dates–of a man of our time talking about the rise and present character of the Socialists or of the rise and present character of Leopold's Kingdom of Belgium, of United Italy, the modern. He is talking of what is, virtually, his own time.
Well, there comes after this considerable body of contemporary documentary evidence (evidence contemporary, that is, with the very spring and rising of the Church and proceeding from its first founders), a gap which is somewhat more than the long lifetime of a man.
This gap is with difficulty bridged. The vast mass of its documentary evidence has, of course, perished, as has the vast mass of all ancient writing. The little preserved is mainly preserved in quotations and fragments. But after this gap, from somewhat before the year 200, we come to the beginning of a regular series, and a series increasing in volume, of documentary evidence. Not, I repeat, of evidence to the truth of supernatural doctrines, but of evidence to what these doctrines and their accompanying ritual and organization were: evidence to the way in which the Church was constituted, to the way in which she regarded her mission, to the things she thought important, to the practice of her rites.
That is why I have taken the early third century as the moment in which we can first take a full historical view of the Catholic Church in being, and this picture is full of evidence to the state of the Church in its origins three generations before.
I say, again, it is all-important for the reader who desires a true historical picture to seize the sequence of the dates with which we are dealing , their relation to the length of human life and therefore to the society to which they relate.
It is all-important because the false history which has had its own way for so many years is based upon two false suggestions of the first magnitude. The first is the suggestion that the period between the Crucifixion and the full Church of the third century was one in which vast changes could proceed unobserved, and vast perversions of original ideas be rapidly developed; the second is that the space of time during which those changes are supposed to have taken place was sufficient to account for them.
It is only because those days are remote from ours that such suggestions can be made. If we put ourselves by an effort of the imagination into the surroundings of that period, we can soon discover how false these suggestions are. The period was not one favorable to the interruption of record. It was one of a very high culture. The proportion of curious, intellectual, and skeptical men which that society contained was perhaps greater than in any other period with which we are acquainted. It was certainly greater than it is today. Those times were certainly less susceptible to mere novel assertion than are the crowds of our great cities under the influence of the modern press. It was a period astonishingly alive. Lethargy and decay had not yet touched the world of the Empire. It built, read, traveled, discussed, and, above all, criticized , with an enormous energy.
In general, it was no period during which alien fashions could rise within such a community as the Church without their opponents being immediately able to combat them by an appeal to the evidence of the immediate past. The world in which the Church arose was one; and that world was intensely vivid. Anyone in that world who saw such an institution as Episcopacy (for instance) or such a doctrine as the Divinity of Christ to be a novel corruption of originals could have, and would have, protested at once. It was a world of ample record and continual communication.
Granted such a world let us take the second point and see what was the distance in mere time between this early third century of which I speak and what is called the Apostolic period; that is, the generation which could still remember the origins of the Church in Jerusalem and the preaching of the Gospel in Grecian, Italian, and perhaps African cities. We are often told that changes "gradually crept in;" that "the imperceptible effect of time" did this or that. Let us see how these vague phrases stand the test of confrontation with actual dates.
Let us stand in the years 200-210, consider a man then advanced in years, well read and traveled, and present in those first years of the third century at the celebration of the Eucharist. There were many such men who, if they had been able to do so, would have reproved novelties and denounced perverted tradition. That none did so is a sufficient proof that the main lines of Catholic government and practice had developed unbroken and unwarped from at least his own childhood. But an old man who so witnessed the constitution of the Church and its practices as I have described them in the year 200, would correspond to that generation of old people whom we have with us today; the old people who were born in the late twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century; the old people who can just remember the English Reform Bill, and who were almost grown up during the troubles of 1848 and the establishment of the second Empire in Paris: the old people in the United States who can remember as children the election of Van Buren to the office of President: the old people whose birth was not far removed from the death of Thomas Jefferson, and who were grown men and women when gold was first discovered in California.
Well, pursuing that parallel, consider next the persecution under Nero. It was the great event to which the Christians would refer as a date in the early history of the Church. It took place in Apostolic times. It affected men who, though aged, could easily remember Judea in the years connected with Our Lord's mission and His Passion. St. Peter lived to witness, in that persecution, to the Faith. St. John survived it. It came not forty years later than the day of Pentecost. But the persecution under Nero was to an old man such as I have supposed assisting at the Eucharist in the early part of the third century, no further off than the Declaration of Independence is from the old people of our generation. An old man in the year 200 could certainly remember many who had themselves been witnesses of the Apostolic age, just as an old man today remembers well men who saw the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The old people who had surrounded his childhood would be to St. Paul, St. Peter and St. John what the old people who survived, say, to 1845, would have been to Jefferson, to Lafayette, or to the younger Pitt. They could have seen and talked to that first generation of the Church as the corresponding people surviving in the early nineteenth century could have seen and talked with the founders of the United States.
It is quite impossible to imagine that the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Rite of Initiation (Baptism in the name of the Trinity), the establishment of an Episcopacy, the fierce defence of unity and orthodoxy, and all those main lines of Catholicism which we find to be the very essence of the Church in the early third century, could have risen without protest. They cannot have come from an innocent, natural, uncivilized perversion of an original so very recent and so open to every form of examination.
That there should have been discussion as to the definition and meaning of undecided doctrines is natural, and fits in both with the dates and with the atmosphere of the period and with the character of the subject. But that a whole scheme of Christian government and doctrine should have developed in contradiction of Christian origins and yet without protest in a period so brilliantly living, full of such rapid intercommunication, and, above all, so brief , is quite impossible.
That is what history has to say of the early Church in the Roman Empire. The Gospels, the Acts, the Canonical Epistles and those of Clement and Ignatius may tell a true or a false story; their authors may have written under an illusion or from a conscious self-deception; or they may have been supremely true and immutably sincere. But they are contemporary. A man may respect their divine origin or he may despise their claims to instruct the human race; but that the Christian body from its beginning was not "Christianity" but a Church and that that Church was identically one with what was already called long before the third century /1/ the Catholic Church, is simply plain history, as plain and straightforward as the history, let us say, of municipal institutions in contemporary Gaul. It is history indefinitely better proved, and therefore indefinitely more certain than, let us say, modern guesswork on imaginary "Teutonic Institutions" before the eighth century or the still more imaginary "Aryan" origins of the European race, or any other of the pseudo-scientific hypotheses which still try to pass for historical truth.
So much for the Catholic Church in the early third century when first we have a mass of evidence upon it. It is a highly disciplined, powerful growing body, intent on unity, ruled by bishops, having for its central doctrine the Incarnation of God in an historical Person, Jesus Christ, and for its central rite a Mystery, the transformation of Bread and Wine by priests into the Body and Blood which the faithful consume.
This "State within the States" by the year 200 already had affected the Empire: in the next generation it permeated the Empire; it was already transforming European civilization. By the year 200 the thing was done. As the Empire declined the Catholic Church caught and preserved it.
What was the process of that decline?
To answer such a question we have next to observe three developments that followed: (1) The great increase of barbarian hired soldiery within the Empire; (2) The weakening of the central power as compared with the local power of the small and increasingly rich class of great landowners; (3) The rise of the Catholic Church from an admitted position (and soon a predominating position) to complete mastery over all society.
All these three phenomena developed together; they occupied about two hundred years–roughly from the year 300 to the year 500. When they had run their course the Western Empire was no longer governed as one society from one Imperial centre. The chance heads of certain auxiliary forces in the Roman Army, drawn from barbaric recruitment, had established themselves in the various provinces and were calling themselves "Kings." The Catholic Church was everywhere the religion of the great majority; it had everywhere alliance with, and often the use of, the official machinery of government and taxation which continued unbroken. It had become, far beyond all other organisms in the Roman State, the central and typical organism which gave the European world its note. This process is commonly called "The Fall of the Roman Empire;" what was that "fall?" What really happened in this great transformation?
 The Muratorian Fragment is older than the third century, and St. Ignatius, who also uses the word Catholic, was as near to the time of the Gospels as I am to the Crimean War.
H. Belloc, Europe and the Faith, 30-51.