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ed might not perish, they appointed out of these new converts, men of the best sense, and of the most unblemished lives, to preside over these several assemblies, and to inculcate without ceasing what they had heard from the mouths of these eye-witnesses.
VI. Upon the death of any of those substitutes to the apostles and disciples of Christ, his place was filled up with some other person of eminence for his piety and learning, and generally a member of the same church, who, after his decease, was followed by another, in the same manner, by which means the succession was continued in an uninterrupted line. Irenæus informs us, that every church preserved a catalogue of its bishops, in the order that they succeeded one another, and (for an example) produces the catalogue of those who governed the church of Rome in that character, which contains eight or nine persons, though but a very small remove from the times of the apostles.
Indeed, the lists of bishops, which are come down to us in other churches, are generally filled with greater numbers than one would expect. But the succession was quick in the three first centuries, because the bishop very often ended in the martyr: for, when a persecution arose in any place, the first fury of it fell upon this order of holy men, who abundantly testified, by their deaths and sufferings, that they did not undertake these offices out of any temporal views, that they were sincere and satisfied in the belief of what they taught, and that they firmly adhered to what they had received from the apostles, as laying down their lives in the same hope, and upon the same principles. None can be supposed so utterly regardless of their own happiness, as to expire in torment, and hazard their eternity, to support any
fables and inventions of their own, or any forgeries of their predecessors who had presided in the same church, and which might have been easily detected by the tradition of that particular church, as well as by the concurring testimony of others. To this purpose, I think it is very remarkable, that there was not a single martyr among
heretics who disagreed with the apostolical church, and introduced several wild and absurd notions into the doctrines of Christianity. They durst not stake their present and future happiness on their own chimerical imaginations, and did not only shun persecution, but affirmed that it was unnecessary for their followers to bear their religion through such fiery trials.
VII. We may fairly reckon, that this first age of apostles and disciples, with that second generation of many who were their immediate converts, extended itself to the middle of the second century, and that several of the third generation from these last mentioned, which was but the fifth from Christ, continued to the end of the third century. Did we know the age and numbers of the members in every particular church, which was planted by the apostles, I doubt not but in most of them there might be found five persons, who, in a continued series, would reach through these three centuries of years, that is, till the 265th from the death of our Saviour.
VIII. Among the accounts of those very few, out of innumerable multitudes, who had embraced Christianity, I shall single out four persons eminent for their lives, their writings, and their sufferings, that were successively contemporaries, and bring us down as far as to the year of our Lord 254. St. John, wbo was the beloved disciple, and conversed the most intimately with our Saviour, lived till Anno Dom. 100:
Polycarp, who was the disciple of St. John, and had conversed with others of the apostles and disciples of our Lord, lived till Anno Dom. 167, though his life was shortened by martyrdom : Irenæus, who was the disciple of Polycarp, and had conversed with many of the immediate disciples of the apostles, lived, at the lowest computation of his age, till the year 202, when he was likewise cut off by martyrdom ; in which year the great Origen was appointed regent of the Catechetic school in Alexandria, and as he was the miracle of that age, for industry, learning, and philosophy, he was looked upon as the champion of Christianity, till the year 254, when, if he did not suffer martyrdom, as some think he did, he was certainly actuated by the spirit of it, as appears in the whole course of his life and writings : nay, he had often been put to the torture, and had undergone trials worse than death. As he conversed with the most eminent Christians of his time in Egypt, and in the east, brought over multitudes both from heresy and heathenism, and left behind him several disciples of great fame and learning, there is no question but there were considerable numbers of those who knew him, and had been his hearers, scholars, or proselytes, that lived to the end of the third century, and to the reign of Constantine the Great.
IX. It is evident to those who read the lives and writings of Polycarp, Irenæus, and Origen, that these three fathers believed the accounts which are given of our Saviour in the four Evangelists, and had undoubted arguments that not only St. John, but many others of our Saviour's disciples, published the same accounts of him. To which we must subjoin this further remark, that what was believed by these fathers on this subject, was likewise the belief of the
main body of Christians in those successive ages when they flourished; since Polycarp cannot but be looked upon, if we consider the respect that was paid him, as the representative of the eastern churches in this particular, Irenæus of the western upon the same account, and Origen of those established in Egypt.
X. To these I might add Paul, the famous hermit, who retired from the Decian persecution five or six years before Origen’s death, and lived till the year 343. I have only discovered one of those channels by which the history of our Saviour might be conveyed, pure and unadulterated, through those several ages that produced those Pagan philosophers, whose testimonies I make use of for the truth of our Sa. viour's history. Some or other of these philosophers came into the Christian faith during its infancy, in the several periods of these three first centuries, when they had such means of informing themselves in all the particulars of our Saviour's history. I must further add, that, though I have here only chosen this single link of martyrs, I might find out others among those names which are still extant, that delivered down this account of our Saviour in a successive tra. dition, till the whole Roman empire became Christian ; as there is no question but numberless series of witnesses might follow one another in the same order, and in as short a chain, and that perhaps in every single church, had the names and ages of the most eminent primitive Christians been transmitted to us with the like certainty.
XI. But to give this consideration more force, we must take notice, that the tradition of the first ages of Christianity had several circumstances peculiar to it, which made it more authentic than any other tradition in any other age of the world. The Christians, who carried their religion through so many general and particular persecutions, were incessantly comforting and supporting one another, with the exam ple and history of our Saviour and his apostles. It was the subject not only of their solemn assemblies, but of their private visits and conversations. “ Our virgins," says Tatian, who lived in the second century, “ discourse over their distaffs on divine subjects.” Indeed, when religion was woven into the civil government, and flourished under the protection of the emperors, men's thoughts and discourses were, as they are now, full of secular affairs ; but in the three first centuries of Christianity, men who embraced this religion, had given up all their interests in this world, and lived in a perpetual preparation for the next, as not knowing how soon they might be called to it: so that they had little else to talk of but the life and doc trines of that Divine Person, which was their hope, their encouragement, and their glory. We cannot therefore imagine, that there was a single person, arrived at any degree of age or consideration, who had not heard and repeated, above a thousand times in his life, all the particulars of our Saviour's birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
XII. Especially if we consider, that they could not then be received as Christians, till they had undergone several examinations. Persons of riper years, who flocked daily into the churchduring the three first centuries, were obliged to pass through many repeated instructions, and give a strict account of their proficiency, before they were admitted to baptism. And as for those who were born of Christian parents, and had been baptized in their infancy, they were with the like care prepared and disciplined for