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Edwin Hatch.

The organization of the early Christian churches : eight lectures delivered before the University of Oxford, in the year 1880 online

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traversed, and since, moreover, the chief ground for
challenging the verdict which more than one generation
has passed upon the facts, is that the method of study
has been imperfect, it seems appropriate, before we
begin the detailed consideration of the subject, to
consider what are the special difficulties which we
must expect to encounter, and what have been the
chief causes which have led to the existing divergences
of opinion.

The first step in historical science is the testing of
the documents which contain the evidence. In some
fields of historical enquiry the difficulty of that step

B 2



4 Introductory : [lect.

lies in the scantiness of the evidence : in the present
enquiry, on the other hand, the difficulty arises from
its extent. We find ourselves at the outset face to
face with a mass of literature which has come to us
in many forms and through many channels, under
varying conditions of authentication, and with varying
claims to attention. It is as impossible to accept each
document for what it purports to be, as it would be
impossible to accept en bloc the historical literature of
England. There are forgeries and counter-forgeries:
there are documents of great value which we can only
put together from the chance quotations of an oppo-
nent : there are anonymous works which the enthusiasm
of a later age has fastened upon some great name :
there are books which were the growth of successive
generations, and which the last reviser recast and
unified, so that the separation of the new from the
old is as difficult as it would be to rebuild an ancient
tower from its chipped and battered stones after they
have been worked into the structure of a modern
wall. Upon this vast accumulation of centuries of
busy thought and changing circumstances, of vigorous
polemic and sometimes blind belief, literary criticism
has barely begun its work. There are vast tracts of
ecclesiastical literature which are like vast tracts of
unexplored morass : because, although patches of solid
ground exist here and there, there is hardly a moment
of our passage through them at which we may not
find ourselves sinking in the mire. And yet there
is scarcely a single item in the whole complex mass
which we can afford to lose. A document which is



i.J The Method of Study. 5

proved to be spurious is not thereby proved to be
valueless. That at which a historian has to look is
not so much authorship as date. The Apostolical
Constitutions, for example, are no more the work of
the Apostles than is the Apostles' Creed, and yet they
are the most valuable evidence that we possess of the
internal life of the Eastern Churches from the third
century to the fifth. The Isidorian Decretals are known
to be mostly forgeries, and yet they throw a flood of
light upon the state of the Church in the Frankish
domain in the middle of the ninth century.

This testing of evidence is followed by the tveighing
of evidence: in other words, assuming that we have
found out who the witnesses are, the next point is to
estimate the value of what they say. And here we
are encircled by a new class of difficulties. The in-
ternal evidence for the history of the organization of
Christianity ranges itself into two classes — patristic
literature and conciliar literature. For some periods,
and in some cases, patristic literature is our only guide.
The interest of that literature is so great as almost to
fascinate us. Much of it was written by men whose
saintly lives and spiritual insight seem to place them
upon a higher level than that upon which we ordinarily
move. We listen to them, as it were, with bated
breath, and their words seem almost to fall from the
lips of inspired evangelists. But for the purposes of
constitutional history, and when investigating ques-
tions not of doctrine but of fact, we have to make a
clear distinction between their value as theologians
and their value as witnesses. We have to scan what



6 Introductory: [lect.

they say with a close scrutiny. There is the initial
and preliminary difficulty of finding out exactly what
they mean. The science of patristic philology has
hardly yet begun to exist. The words are for the
most part familiar enough to a Greek or Latin
student ; but the meaning which attaches to those
words is often very remote from that which seems to
lie on the surface. And assuming that we understand
their meaning, we have to make what scientific ob-
servers call the ■ personal equation.' We have to
realize to ourselves their personal character, their
varying natures — passionate and impressionable, ima-
ginative and mystical, cool-headed and practical. We
have to place ourselves in the midst of the circum-
stances which surrounded them — their struggles for
existence or for independence, the rush and storm of
their controversies, the flatteries of their friends, and
the calumnies of their opponents. We have to re-
member that they were all of them advocates, and
many of them partizans. And even when, after sub-
tracting from what they say that which belongs not
to the witness but to the advocate or the partizan, we
come upon a statement which cannot reasonably be
questioned, we have to consider their nearness in time
to the fact which they attest. In ecclesiastical as in
civil history the lapse of a generation, though it does
not invalidate testimony, compels us to distinguish
carefully between what the witnesses know of their
own knowledge and what they know only at second-
hand. When they state what is clearly not of their
own knowledge we have to consider what were their



I.] The Method of Study. 7

probable sources of information, or whether what they
state is a conjecture.

But wherever it is possible, we have to base our
inferences not upon the Fathers, but upon the Councils.
Just as the historian of the constitution of our own
country looks primarily to the Statute-book, so the his-
torian of the constitution of the Church looks primarily
to the decrees of Councils. But though in passing
from patristic to conciliar literature, we pass to firmer
ground, we by no means emerge from cloudland into
light. We are confronted at the outset by a difficulty
which has probably done more to produce erroneous
views as to the history of ecclesiastical organization
than all other causes put together. Comparatively early
in the history of the Church the decrees of Councils
were gathered together into collections. Almost every
great group of Churches had its own collection of rules.
About the beginning of the fifth century in the East,
and about the end of the same century in the West, the
provincial collections were merged into general codes.
In these general codes the decrees of local as well as
of oecumenical councils had a place. Side by side with
the decrees of the great parliaments of Nicaea and
Chalcedon were placed the resolutions of obscure pro-
vincial assemblies, which were essentially local and
temporary, which had originally no validity outside
the limits of their provinces, and which until exhumed
by the care of the antiquary were unknown to the
greater part of Christendom. In addition to this,
almost all the collections were singularly imperfect.
From at least the beginning of the fourth century



8 Introductory : [lect.

provincial assemblies were held, often year by year,
over a large part of the Christian world. A complete
collection of the resolutions of such assemblies would
have enabled us to frame a complete history of the
organization of the several provinces. But when only
one assembly in fifty has left a record, a factitious im-
portance attaches to those which remain. The pre-
valence of the ideas or usages which they adopted
tends to be greatly exaggerated. It is as though only
a few fossils remained of a great geological epoch:
valuable as such fossils would be, they would yet be
misleading, because they would tend to be regarded
as typical, whereas they might be only unimportant
specimens of the fauna and flora of their time.

This difficulty of the heterogeneity and imperfection
of the collections has been increased to an almost in-
calculable degree by the fact that these collections
came in time to be regarded as a legal code, and to
have the authority of legislative enactments. They
constitute the nucleus of what is known as Canon
Law. The various items of which they were com-
posed were regarded as standing upon the same level.
The distinctions of place and time which existed
between those items were practically ignored. For
having, as they had, the force of law, the duty of a
canonist was not to investigate their origin, but to
interpret their meaning. And consequently since
Canon Law has had, and has still, an important and
recognized place in European jurisprudence, there has
been a tendency on the part of ecclesiastical historians
to regard conciliar enactments as a canonist would



I.] The Method of Study. 9

regard them. Since the clauses of the code were of
equal, or nearly equal, value as laws, they came to be
regarded as being of equal, or nearly equal, value as
facts : and hence it has come to pass that over the
enormous varieties of constitution which have prevailed
in different ages, and in different parts of Christendom,
there has been spread the hypothesis of an ideal uni-
formity, which covers them as the whitewash covers
frescoes of various ages and by various masters upon
a cathedral wall.

But the virtue of a canonist is the vice of a
historian. Historical science, like all science, is the
making of distinctions ; and its primary distinctions
are those of time and space.

These distinctions are even more important in the
subject which lies before us than they are in the
secular history of either - mediaeval or modern times,
on account of the magnitude of the scale upon which
Christianity has existed. For the history of Chris-
tianity covers more than three-fourths of the whole
period of the recorded history of the Western world.
It goes back year by year, decade by decade, century
by century, for more than fifty generations. If we
compare what we are and what we believe, the in-
stitutions under which we live, the literature which
we prize, the ideas for which we contend, in this
present year, with the beliefs, the institutions, the
literature, the prevalent ideas, of a hundred years ago,
we shall begin to realize the difference between one
century and another of these eighteen centuries of
Christian history. The special difficulty of studying



i o Introductory : [lect.

any such period of history arises from the fact that
the centuries which are remote from our own seem,
in the long perspective, to be almost indistinguishable.
It is as though we stood upon some commanding
height in a country of mountains and valleys, and as
we saw fold over fold of the purple hills recede farther
and fainter into the distant haze, failed to realize that
between each of those far faint lines were valleys filled
with busy industries, or, it might be, breadths of pas-
ture land, or, it might be, only the torrent-sounding
depths of deep ravines. So the far centuries of Chris-
tian history recede until they are lost in the sun-lit
haze of its dawn. Between the third century and the
fourth, for example, or between the fourth and the
fifth, there seems to all but the scholars who have
trod the ground to be an hardly appreciable difference.
If a writer quotes in the same breath Eusebius and
Sozomen, or St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Leo the
Great, he seems to many persons to be quoting coeval
or nearly coeval authorities. And yet in fact between
each of these authorities there is an interval of a
hundred years of life and movement, of great religious
controversies, of important ecclesiastical changes. The
point is not merely one of accuracy of date ; it is
rather that usages and events have at one time as
compared with another a widely varying significance.
For different centuries have been marked in eccle-
siastical as in social history by great differences in
the drift and tendency of ideas. Our many-sided
human nature tends to develop itself by the exag-
gerated growth of one side at a time: and this ten-



I.] The Method of Study. 1 1

dency exhibits itself in great secular movements — such
as were, for example, the great movement of the fourth
century in the direction of monasticism, or the great
movement of the sixteenth century in the direction
of simplicity of worship. Now a usage or an event
which is of great significance at one stage of such
a movement may be of slight importance at another.
In the constitutional history of our own country, for
example, no one would fail to see the importance of
noting whether the Toleration Act was passed in the
reign of William and Mary, or in the reign of Elizabeth :
and similarly, in the constitutional history of Chris-
tianity, until we are able to see the surroundings of
any given fact we may wholly mistake its value.

Nor are these distinctions of time the only ones of
which we have to take accurate note. We have also
to recognize distinctions of place. In the constitu-
tional history of our own country we at once recognize
the importance of distinguishing between the local
usages, for example, of Wales and those of the Scotch
Lowlands ; and we should at once reject as absurd any
attempt to erect such usages into universal rules of
the British constitution. But in the case of the Chris-
tian Church, the magnitude of the scale upon which
it has existed makes the adequate recognition of the
distinction vastly more important. The Church has
been spread not only over eighteen centuries of time,
but over the greater part of the civilized world, — over
countries peopled by different races, with different
institutions, varying widely in intellectual and moral
force, in the arts of civilized life, and in the institutions



1 2 Introdttctory : [lect.

of social order. Even in those early centuries with
which alone I propose to deal, it existed among a
placid peasantry on the grey slopes of the Batanean
hills, in villages which were always scattered, and
which, as the great highways of Roman commerce
closed, gradually decayed into a silent death. It
existed in the thriving municipalities of Gaul, where
rhetoric and philosophy flourished, where the civil law
was studied and practised by skilled jurists, and where
the elaborate framework of the municipal institutions
of the Empire was strong enough to withstand the
tempest of Teutonic invasion. It existed in the rude
septs of Ireland, where Roman organization was prac-
tically unknown. It existed also in the busy com-
mercial centres of Africa, where the competition of life
was keen and the sense of individuality strong. It
is obvious that we cannot ignore these distinctions,
and regard a rule which was good for and valid in
one country as having been equally good for and valid
in another country. In other words, what is true of
distinctions of time is true also of distinctions of place ;
we cannot determine the value of any item of evidence
until we have localized it.

I have dwelt upon these distinctions at what may
have seemed an unnecessary length because, as I
ventured to indicate at the outset, no small part of
the differences of opinion which have arisen respecting
the course of Christian history may be traced to an
inadequate appreciation of their importance. There is
a kind of glamour attaching to ecclesiastical literature



I.] The Method of Study. 13

from the spell of which few of us are wholly eman-
cipated. A quotation from an ancient Father, or from
an early Council, is to many persons an end of all
controversy. But it is a primary duty of the historian
to go behind the quotation, to enquire into its precise
meaning and its precise value, and to endeavour to
fit it into its exact place in the vast mosaic of Chris-
tian history.

So far as we have yet gone, so far, that is to say,
as in any particular case we have tested the evidence
and estimated its value, and assigned it to its proper
country and its proper time, we are in the position
of a palaeontologist who, wishing to study certain
fossils, ascertains — which is a comparatively easy task
— that they are fossils and not forgeries, and then pro-
ceeds to ascertain the precise stratum and the precise
locality of each of them.

But just as neither a palaeontologist, nor any one
else who applies himself to the systematic study of
any phenomena, is content with however precise a
verification and localization of facts, but is led on by
an inevitable bent of his nature to compare one group
of facts with another, to find out the law of their
sequence, and to reach at length, if he can, the common
causes of all of them, so our work is only begun when
we have ascertained what the facts are and what is
the precise place of each of them in the strata of
Christian history. We are impelled to proceed to
enquire into the probable causes of these phenomena.
There may be those to whom the answer to any such



1 4 Introductory : [lect.

enquiry seems easy and obvious. Just as in the early
days of the physical science to which I have alluded,
there were some pious persons who, not being yet
ripe for that larger conception of creation which is
gradually opening up to us, explained the appearance
of fossils in this place or in that by an inscrutable fiat
of the divine will, which had determined that fossils
should be and fossils were : so it is possible that
there may be persons still living to whom it is a
sufficient explanation of the facts of Christian organiza-
tion to say that God so willed them.

But most of us cannot be so easily satisfied, nor can
we believe that enquiry is barred. In this, as in other
fields which lie open to our view, we cannot resist, nor
do we see any ground of either reason or revelation for
attempting to resist, the enquiry into sequences and
causes. We go on from the ascertainment of facts to
the framing of inductions in reference to those facts.

Now there are two, and only two, ways in which
any phenomena, which have existed through successive
periods of time, can be legitimately viewed for the
purposes of such inductions. They may be treated
by comparison of the whole of the phenomena which
coexist at any one time : and they may be treated
by tracing each group through its successive periods
of existence. The palaeontologist, for example, makes
his inferences partly by putting together all that he
can find about the fauna and flora of each stratum, and
partly by tracing each type of animal or plant through
successive strata, so as to arrive at a conclusion re-
specting the order and succession of life upon the earth,



i.J The Method of Study. 1 5

It is so in the enquiry which lies before us.

In the first place, we have to view the facts in their
relation to preceding and succeeding facts of the same
kind ; in other words, as constituting a series. We
cannot, of course, assume at the outset that that series
is progressive ; but neither on the other hand can we
assume that the links which compose it are of precisely
the same kind throughout. The danger to which in-
ferences of this kind are exposed arises more from the
latter assumption than from the former. If we deal
with an institution or an office which has wholly passed
away — like the Athenian f3ov\*j or the Roman praetor-
ship — we endeavour to form an idea of the functions
of that institution or of that office simply by putting
together whatever we can find out from contemporary
evidence. But if we are dealing with an institution
which, under whatever modifications, has remained to
the present day, we tend almost inevitably to carry
back with us into past times those conceptions of it
which we have derived from our modern experience.
The tendency is assisted by a fact of language which
cannot be too steadily borne in mind. By the slow
and silent alchemy of time institutions change : but,
while institutions change, the words which designate
them frequently remain permanent. We consequently
tend to make the more or less unconscious assumption
that the same word designated in past times what
it designates now. Whereas what we have in fact to
do with every name which we meet with in ancient
records, is to treat it altogether independently of the
accident that it has remained to our own times. In



1 6 Introductory: [lect.

other words, instead of reading the series of historical
facts reversely, and interpreting each factor of the
series as we go backwards by what we know of its
modern use, we have to begin at the beginning, and
find out by careful induction what the function of the
institution or the office was at the earliest period at
which we find it, and, as we trace it through suc-
ceeding centuries, add on step by step the new elements
which attached themselves to it, until we reach, and so
account for, the meaning which it bears now.

In the second place, we have to view the facts of
ecclesiastical organization at any given time in their
relation to all the other ascertainable facts of that
time. To a certain extent that comparison is so in-
evitable that all writers on the subject of Christian
organization have made it. It is inevitable for the
reason that, with probably no single exception, the
names of Christian institutions and Christian officers
are shared by them in common with institutions and
officers outside Christianity. It follows, from the mere
conditions of the case, that those names were given by
virtue of some resemblance in the Christian institutions
and officers to institutions and officers which bore the
same names already. These resemblances have always
been admitted, and have to some extent long been in-
vestigated. But evidence which has not been thoroughly
investigated until recent years, and evidence which has
only within recent years come to light — especially in
the unimpeachable form of inscriptions — has shown
that the resemblances are not merely general but
minute. The points of comparison which have been



I.] The Method of Study. 17

hitherto known have to be supplemented by a large
number of other points, in which the close relation
between Christian and non-Christian organizations has
hitherto been hardly suspected. The importance of
such a comparison lies in the fact that we cannot avoid
going on to the further question, how far the similar
phenomena are the product of the same causes. If we
find in the Eoman Empire civil societies with organiza-
tions analogous to those of the Christian societies, civil
officers with the same names and similar functions to
those of ecclesiastical officers, the question arises and
must be answered, whether the causes which are suf-
ficient to account for them in the one case are not
equally sufficient to account for them in the other.

It has been contended, and it will no doubt continue
to be contended, that the phenomena of ecclesiastical
history are unique, and that an attempted comparison
between them and the phenomena of civil history is
vitiated at the outset by the fact that the resemblances
are accidental and superficial, and that the two groups
of phenomena are in reality incommensurable.

And no doubt those phenomena are so transcendent
in their interest, and so stupendous in their importance,
that few of us can fail to have a profound, if not an
absorbing, sympathy with the sublime exaggeration
which characterizes many descriptions of them. We,
like the inspired dreamer of earlier days, can see the
new City of God coming down bodily from the sky,
invisible to the carnal sight, but to the eye of faith the
only reality in a world of shadows. We can conceive,

C



1 8 Introductory : [lect.

as ancient lovers of symbols often conceived, that no
earthly mother gave birth to the spouse of Christ, but
that, as Eve was taken from the side of the First Adam,
so from the side of the Second Adam there sprang into
instantaneous and immortal life the Virgin 'without
spot or blemish ' who should be His mystic Bride l .

But when we descend from poetry to fact, from the
dreams of inspired and saintly dreamers to the life of
incident and circumstance which history records, and in
which we ordinarily dwell, then, if the evidence shows,
as I believe it to show, that not only did the elements
of the Christian societies exist, but that also the forces
which welded them together and gave them shape
are adequately explained by existing forces of human
society, the argument from analogy becomes so strong
that, in the absence of positive proof to the contrary, it


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Online LibraryEdwin HatchThe organization of the early Christian churches : eight lectures delivered before the University of Oxford, in the year 1880 → online text (page 3 of 21)