Ambrose White Vernon.

Some turning-points in church history, being the Southworth lectures in Andover theological seminary for the year 1915 online

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3 3433 06823639 1










Minister of Harvard Church
Brookline, Mass.



t I 911


R I9!8 L

Copyright 1917
By frank M. SHELDON








These lectures are an attempt to consider those par-
ticular crises in Church History which have been so
far reaching as to determine the form of the organ-
ization of the Christian Churches. Their polity
has been determined chiefly, I believe, by four
outstanding historical events; the founding of
the Church, the establishment of the Christian
Ministry, the organization of delimited National
Churches and the formation of free Churches,
independent of both ecclesiastical and civil
authority. One lecture is devoted to each of
these pivotal events and to them a fifth is added
which deals with the establishment of free churches
on the shores of America.

The first of these lectures appeared in The Harvard
Theological Review for January, 1917, and three
of them have been delivered at Union Theological



I The Founding of the Church ... 3

II The Beginnings of the Christian

Ministry 33

III The Beginnings of the National

Churches 63

IV The Beginnings of the Free Churches 93

V Contribution of Congregationalism to

Church Polity . . . . . . 125



The church has come to have an enduring
place not only in history but in thought. At
least since the writing of The City of God it has
decided some of the most vital questions con-
fronting us because of a peculiar sanctity at-
tached to it. It is not therefore out of place
to demand from time to time that it show us its
credentials. The present lecture is an attempt
to discover if there is anything peculiarly
sacred about the manner of its founding that
would justify us in ascribing unique spiritual
authority to it.

And the surprising fact which we discover is,
that we cannot discover any actual founding
of the church whatever. We cannot be sure
that the church was founded in any accurate
sense of that term; it is probably more in
accord with the facts to say that the movement
which eventually became known as the church
grew. Creation by fiat seems as mythical in
this sphere as in more material realms. It
seems as if there were a church almost before
its members knew it.

In endeavoring to show that the founding of
the church is obscure and to discover some rea-


Some Turning-Points in Church Historic

sons for such obscurity, we shall be obliged to
see if we can trace the rise of the idea of
the church in the minds of the early friends
and disciples of Jesus. Of course ideas and
words are never quite conterminous. A word
never covers an idea. If a word is laid on top
of an idea, the idea peeps out all around it. Yet
at the same time before an idea can clothe itself
with a word it is in a pre-natal state and can-
not be said to be properly born. And so, it
seems to me, our first, but not our only, duty
in attempting to come upon the birth-hour of
the Christian church, is to discover, if we may,
when the word ^' church'^ was first applied,
either by its friends or its foes or its members,
to the group of people who were held together
by common devotion to Jesus of Nazareth,
whom they recognized as the Christ.

Strictly speaking, there is only one thing to
say : that we do not know when this word was
first applied. But because we cannot know pre-
cisely, we are not excused from finding out all
that we can know ; because our sources are not
all that we would wish them to be, there is no
good reason for refusing to find out from them
all that they have to tell us. We must there-
fore examine those early chapters of the Acts
of the Apostles which contain \^rtually all that
has even the faintest suggestion of being first-
hand information about the earliest months
and years in and about Jerusalem after the
death of Jesus.


The Founding of the Church

There are so few things that are certain
about the authorship of the historical books of
the New Testament that it is refreshing to
come upon one of the few in connection with
this book of the Acts. There can be no doubt
that it was written by the same hand as that
which wrote the Third Gospel. In the preface
to that Gospel, the author virtually tells us that
he has consulted various sources for informa-
tion. The structure and language of the Acts
lead us to the supposition that when he came
to write the Acts he followed the practice he
had used in wl*iting the Gospel. Students of
the book have fathered many theories concern-
ing its structure, but they have had most to
say about two sources which many of them
have believed to underlie this work. One of
these is the familiar '*We'^ source, so called
because of the sudden and unexplained appear-
ance of the first personal pronoun in some of
the later travels of Paul; the other has been
even more vaguely denominated and it has
been supposed to underlie the first, say, twelve
chapters of the book, which are devoted to giv-
ing us a picture of the beginnings of the church
in Jerusalem. Harnack, who has recently made
a valiant attempt to identify the author of the
''We'' passages with the author of the entire
work, still admits Luke's use of probably writ-
ten sources for the first portion of the book.^
The book itself cannot have been written of

' Lukas der Arzi, pp. 84-5. Die Apostelgeschichte, Capitel 5.


Some Turning-Points in Church History

course before the last event therein narrated
— the arrival of Paul in Rome. By that time,
as the letters of Paul testify, the word
*' church'' was applied as a matter of course
to the local Christian communities. The author
of the Acts, a Pauline admirer, would, there-
fore, be accustomed to use the word ^^ church''
for the various groups of Christian disciples
of whom he was writing and in particular for
the church at Jerusalem, which Paul so
peculiarly revered. Under these circum-
stances, we must attribute either to a phenom-
enal intuition or to his sources the astonishing
fact that until ^^the persecution against the
church that was in Jerusalem" arose on the
outburst and martyrdom of Stephen,^ we have
only one single instance of the use of the word
*^ church" for the Christian circle.

We hear of the filling out of the apostolate,
of the descent of the spirit in the upper room,
of the large addition to the Christian company
through the inspired speech of Peter, of the
first startling miracle performed by him and
John, of the imprisonment of the apostles and
their courage and release, of the growth of the
*^ multitude which believed" and of their
brotherly life, and though it seems to us the
most natural thing in the world to speak of
these events as the beginnings of the church,
that notable word is not once employed. We
are further instructed concerning the deceit

'Acts 8:1.


The Founding of the Church

and death of Ananias and Sapphira, of the re-
newed imprisonment and release of the apos-
tles, of the strife between the Hellenists and
the Hebrews, of the appointment of seven men
to see that they were treated equally in the dis-
tribution of food, of the character and genius
of Stephen, of his epoch-making speech in the
temple, of the rage of his hearers and of his
martyrdom; and though we should expect the
word ''church'' in every paragraph, it occurs
but once as a designation of the disciples. And
its occurrence is neither in connection with any
of the pivotal events of these stirring days,
nor in the heart of any of the narratives, nor
in those wonderful speeches of Peter and
Stephen, so full of verisimilitude and breath-
ing the spirit of the most primitive Christian
theology ; we find it in what I think may, under
these circumstances, be confidently regarded
as one of those seams with which an author is
accustomed to join together independent nar-
ratives. Just at the close of the story of the
death of Ananias and Sapphira, and before
the transition to the healing ministry of Peter
and the imprisonment of the apostles, we read
these words: ''And great fear came upon the
whole church and upon all who heard these
things."^ This is the solitary use of that
classic word in The Book of the Acts until the
time of Stephen. Instead of this word
"church/' which we should have used con-

» Ads 5 : 11.

Some Turning-Points in Church History

stantly and which all our teachers use
constantly in the retelling of these brilliant
narratives, we find other words, much less
pretentious, to us much less characteristic —
^* believers,'' ^'brethren," *' their own com-
pany," and 'Misciples." Of these the word
^'disciples" seems to be the technical word, or
to be becoming the technical word, for this un-
technical group of people who were expecting
their Lord from heaven. It might have re-
mained such, had not, as we read, *^the disciples
been called Christians first at Antioch. " * In-
deed until, in the last part of the eleventh
chapter, after the conversion of both Paul and
Cornelius has been recorded, we get to Antioch,
whither certain men of Cyprus and Cyrene fled
on the death of Stephen and where they
preached the Lord Jesus to Greeks as well as
Jews, the word ^^ church" is used only in the
seams of the narrative. Even in those seams,
it occurs but four times and save for the obvi-
ously editorial sentence, ^'So the church had
peace, " Mt does not occur at all in that portion
of the early chapters of Acts which on alto-
gether other grounds Harnack assigns to the
ancient Jerusalemic source.^

This peculiar state of affairs must not be
dismissed from our minds until we have in-
quired whether it may have any historical sig-

* Acts 11 :36.
6 Acta 9 :S1.

• Die Apostelgeschichte, pp. 148-152.

The Founding of the Church

nificance for our inquiry concerning the origin
of the church.

I have said that the word '^church" was
never used in the heart of the early narratives
or in the course of the early speeches to de-
scribe the disciples of Jesus. But once in the
midst of Stephen's speech we find these words:
^'This is he [that Moses] . . . which was in
the church in the wilderness with the angel
that spake to him in the mount Sinai. ' ' ^ The
word '^church/' though apparently not applied
to the Christian groups in the earliest times,
was applied by a prominent member of those
groups to the Israelitish nation quite as a mat-
ter of course. That this is no mere accident is
abundantly proved by reference to the Septua-
gint. Here we find the word ^'ecclesia,"
** church," used 71 times to translate ''kahal'^
or its derivatives. It is also used 23 times in
those parts of the Septuagint for which we
have no Hebrew original. It is always em-
ployed as the equivalent of our word ^* assem-
bly '' or '^company.'' It is the word usually
employed to denote the assembly of Israel, in
what we should call the ecclesiastical or exclu-
sive sense. When, for example, we read that
'*an Ammonite and a Moabite shall not enter
into the assembly of God forever," the word
for '^assembly" is the word ^^ecclesia." When
it is said that '^the transgressor shall be cut
off from the assembly of my people," it is

1 Acts 7 : 38.


Some Turning -Points in Church History

again the word ^^ecclesia*^ that is used. Har-
nack calls attention to the fact that in the
Septuagint ^^ecclesia" is usually the word used
to translate ^^kahal," the most sacred word
for the entire nation, whereas ^ ^ synagogue ' * is
used to translate ^*edhah/^ a more secular

It therefore seems proper to suppose that
the reason why the early Christians did not
employ the word '^church'' to designate their
own gatherings is because they used it to
designate the assembly of the Jews to which
they still regarded themselves as belonging.
And that the author of the Acts preserved this
interesting fact in his sources may be due to
his knowledge of the Septuagint from which
his Old Testament citations are taken.

While the fact that the early disciples of
Jesus still regarded themselves as ^^ Hebrews
of the Hebrews'* is well known of course to
scholars, though not always duly appreciated
even by them, it is widely ignored by most of
us. This ignorance of ours makes it still dif-
ficult for us to do justice to the position and
the emotions of that mother ' ^ church ' ' in Jeru-
salem. It is, however, written clearly on the
records that the early Christians ^Svere con-
tinually in the temple blessing God, ' ' ^ that the
apostles ''went up to the temple at the hour of
prayer, '* '° after they had seen the risen Lord,

8 Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums, p. 29S. Note 4-
» Luke S4 : 63.
^^ Acts 3 : 1.


The Founding of the Church

just as they had before, and that they preached
in one of the porches of the temple " — and
probably in the synagogues — as those who felt
themselves there at home.

The old Latin prologue to Mark's Gospel
asserts that Mark, after having become a Chris-
tian, cut olf his thumb so that he should not be
eligible for the priesthood/^ This tradition
confirms the letter and the spirit of the early
chapters of Acts, and indicates that to the Jews
faith in Jesus as Christ did not disqualify a
man for ritual service in the holy place so
surely as the lack of a thumb. Nothing was
further from the minds of the disciples than to
cut themselves off from the church or assembly
of the Jews. Why should they take such a
step? They alone among their people had been
permitted to recognize the Messiah. Soon their
leader was to descend from heaven to restore
the kingdom to Israel and to choose from
their group those who were to reign over the
tribes of the nation. Would such a confident
hope lead them to make less or more of those
laws which had been given to prepare the way
of the Lord and which they had kept in com-
pany with him I He was crucified not for de-
nouncing the Jews, but for claiming to be the
Jews' prince. They had not separated from
their church when they were baptized by John ;
thereby they had been only more surely ad-

11 Acts S : 11, 12.

12 Cf. Weiss: Das alteste Evangelium, ji. 400.


Some Turning -Points in Church History

mitted into membership of the coming king-
dom of the Messiah. And when either at Pen-
tecost or at the time of the earthquake they had
been baptized with the Holy Ghost, they were
not thereby separated from their people; they
were merely given the power to bring that king-
dom in. More than ever they recognized them-
selves as necessary to the redemption and to
the exaltation of the Jewish nation. It was
they who were to enable their countr^onen to
repent so that their sins might be blotted out,
and in consequence the Lord might be sent from
heaven. Hence they called themselves *^ be-
lievers'' as distinguished from their unbeliev-
ing countrymen, ^'disciples" as distinguished
from crucifiers and mockers of their Messiah,
and ^'brethren'' as their Lord had indeed al-
ready called them; but the thought of cutting
themselves off from the church of the Jews,
the assembly of the people of God, did not
occur to them for a long time. And until it so
occurred to them, the church of Jesus Christ,
in any accurate sense of the words, as distin-
guished from the church of the Jewish people,
could not have been founded.

"Wlien we ask ourselves, therefore, regard-
ing the founding of the Christian church, we
ask ourselves to discover the point of time or
the point of consciousness when the Christian
disciples regarded themselves not as a part of
the Jewish nation but as a substitute for the


The Founding of the Church

Jewish nation, not as belonging to the people
of God but as constituting the people of God.

And here it may be well to repeat the state-
ment which was made at the outset and which
I hope has become already better established.
We cannot come upon any one moment of his-
tory when the church was founded; we cannot
tell whether the church was founded ; it is prob-
ably more in accord with the facts to say that
it grew. Our sources do not record any final
and explicit break of the disciples with the
Jewish nation. They do, however, record such
a change of the relations of the disciples with
the Jewish church at one particular point and
perhaps also at one particular place that we
may say that then the church consciousness,
absent before, had arisen.

In our search for that moment when the early
disciples regarded themselves as the holy
group which had been substituted in the favor
of God for the ancient people of Israel, we find
five events which chiefly call for our scrutiny.
It may also be said that these five events seem
to church historians somehow or other to mark
the beginning of the church.

The first of these events occurred while our
Lord was yet upon the earth, going himself
habitually into the synagogue on the Sabbath
and regarding the temple as hib Father's house.
It is that solemn moment that is set aside for
us all from other moments of time, when at
Caesarea Philippi, on a brief retirement from


Some Turning-Points in Church History

the confines of Palestine, Simon Peter recog-
nized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Now
there can be no question that that moment
marked the definite recognition of the supreme
authority of Jesus Christ, and that it helped
to give to the words spoken on the mount and
by the sea, to the parables of the publican and
the prodigal and the ministering Samaritan,
the carrying powder through which they swept
through — and swept out — the world. But does
that recognition of Jesus as the Messiah
amount to the laying of the corner stone of the
Christian Church I There is no such thought
in the earliest of the Gospels which report the
event.^^ Only in the Gospel of Matthew do we
find an interpolation in the older account which
might be construed in that sense. There we
read that Jesus blessed Peter for recognizing
him as the Messiah, and added, *'Thou art
Peter, and upon this rock will I build my
church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail
against it.'*^*

It is to this passage that those resort who like
to call Jesus ^^the Founder of the Church.''
But there are three reasons which render it im-
possible to believe that we have here to do with
such an event. In the first place, the verb is in
the future rather than in the present tense. If
Jesus is to be regarded as the personal founder
of the church, it must be at some future and un-

" Mark 8 : 29.
" Matt. 16 : 18.


The Founding of the Church

discoverable moment. In the second place, the
words, if spoken by Jesus, would almost in-
evitably have been treasured with his most
sacred utterances. It is well-nigh inconceiv-
able that Mark would have omitted them as too
unimportant to mention, or that they would
have found — as seems the case — ^no place in
the Logia, the earliest collection of Jesus' say-
ings. The fact that the word '^church'' is
never put into Jesus ' mouth in the New Testa-
ment except here and in another passage in
this same Gospel of Matthew is very significant.
And the second passage bears even more un-
mistakable marks of a late origin. There Jesus
is represented as saying, ^*If a brother sin
against thee and thou tell it to the church, and
he refuse to hear the church, let him be unto
thee as the Gentile and the publican.'' ^^ Not
only the word ^^ church" but the words ^^ Gen-
tile ' ' and ' ^ publican ' ' seem utterly out of place
on Jesus ' lips, in the significance in which they
are used. Moreover the conception of Jesus'
band of disciples as a disciplinary organization
seems quite unhistorical. If Jesus used the
words at all, the church to which he alluded was
the Jewish Church and not the Christian one.
And in the third place, we are confident that
the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah does
not mark the founding of the Christian Church,
because after that recognition Jesus went with
his disciples into the temple and purified its

15 Matt. 18 : 17.


So7ne Turning -Points in Church History

courts, and partook of the feast of the Passover
with his disciples, as though they were all still
members of the Jewish Church. In it, indeed,
he had peculiar power, but to it he and they
alike belonged. The break with the Jews had
not yet come.

Weizsacker and Bacon are at one in regard-
ing Peter rather than Jesus as the Founder of
the church. They regard him as such, how-
ever, not because of his recognition of Jesus at
l)aesarea Philippi as the Messiah, but because
he was the first to whom Christ was revealed
in resurrection glory.^^ "He appeared to
Peter'' — this phrase out of the 15th of 1st
Corinthians seems to them to point to a greater
vision of Peter than any he had while Jesus
walked by his side, and in virtue of which he
became the founder of the Christian Church.
Yet they hesitate to say definitely that the
appearance of Jesus to Peter marked the
founding of the church; the event was too per-
sonal for that, and, as personal, it has quite
disappeared from the narrative of the Acts.
McGiffert, who inclines to the belief that Peter
was the "second founder of the church" ^^ does,
however, single out another definite moment —
of great importance in Christian history — for
our attention in seeking for the origin of the
church. "That Christianity has had a his-

'*• TFeizsacter; Das apostolische Zeitalter, pp. 5, 13, 15. Bacon: Founding
of the Church. Chapter 2.
" Apostolic Age, p. 4S.


The Founding of the Church

tory," he writes/^ '^is due to the fact that these
disciples did not go back disheartened to their
old pursuits and live on as if they had never
known Jesus, but that on the contrary, filled
with the belief that their Master still lived and
conscious of holding a commission from him,
they banded themselves together with the re-
solve of completing his work and preparing
their countrymen for his return. Their resolve,
put into execution when they left Galilee and
returned to Jerusalem, marks the real starting-
point in the history of the church. ^ ' If indeed
they came to any such clear-cut resolve, the mo-
ment of that resolve plays an important part
in the gathering together of Christian believers,
but that gathering would have regarded itself
not as a church but as a favored group within
the Jewish Cliurch. Preuschen, who also em-
phasizes the place of Peter among the Chris-
tian disciples, seems better to express the facts
when he says, ^* Peter gathered a company of
like-minded people, but without giving up com-
munion with the Jewish people and the Jewish

The Day of Pentecost is the third great mo-
ment in the history of Christianity which has
been hit upon for the founding of the Christian
Church, which seems so curiously to baffle our
search. Of all these moments it seems most
widely chosen for this great honor. '^ While

18 Apostolic Age, p. 43.

i» Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte : Das Altertum, bearbeitei von Erwin
Preuschen, p. 37.


Some Turning-Points in Church History

the apostles and disciples,'' writes Philip
Schaff, '^ about one hundred and twenty in
number, no doubt mostly Galileans, were as-
sembled before the morning devotions of the
festal day and were waiting in prayer for the
fulfilment of the promise, the exalted Saviour
sent from his heavenly throne the Holy Spirit
upon them and founded his church upon earth.
The church of the new covenant was ushered
into existence with startling signs which filled
the spectators with wonder and fear.''-*^ And
George P. Fisher, not quite so certainly, writes,
''With the day of Pentecost the career of the
'Church Militant' fairly begins. "^^ And Wil-
helm Moller, still more cautiously, says, ''The
Spirit, proceeding from the Ascended One, not
the earthly manifestation of Jesus nor his
teaching in itself, is the really church-founding
[element], yet even this [is to be taken] in the
sense that the separation of this particular fel-
lowship from the general religious-national

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Online LibraryAmbrose White VernonSome turning-points in church history, being the Southworth lectures in Andover theological seminary for the year 1915 → online text (page 1 of 9)