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Finally, it is certain that the unity of the primitive church did not consist in absolute unanimity in religious sentiments. This assertion may appear startling to some.
" What !” (some of my readers may be ready to exclaim)
diversity of opinion in the primitive church, under apostolic guidance ? we have always supposed, that there existed a perfect agreement on all points among the first Christians, and that the proper method to restore the primitive purity of the church is to insist on agreement on all points from those who could unite with us as a church of Christ.” This opinion has also prevailed for many centuries, and has been the prolific mother of extensive and incalculable evils in the christian church. It has led to the persecution and death of millions of our fellow men under the papal dominion, it has caused endless divisions and envyings and strife in the Protestant churches.
Its fallacy we think appears from the following considerations :
It is rendered highly probable by the fact that the Scriptures contain no provision to PRESERVE absolute unity of sentiment on all points of religious doctrines and worship if it ever had existed. Many points of doctrine and forms which men at present regard as important, are not decided at all in the sacred volume. Other points are inculcated in indefinite language, which admits of several constructions. The diversity of views derived from these records by the several religious denominations of equal piety, of equal talent and equal sincerity, indisputably establishes the fact, that they do not contain provision for absolute unity of sentiment among Christians. Now as all admit the substantial similarity of the oral instructions of the apostles to the primitive Christians, and their written instructions in the sacred volume, it follows that the impressions made on an audience of primitive Christians would be the same ; except perhaps in the case of a few individuals who might have opportunity of personal interviews and more minute inquiry with the apostles. With the greatest facility the Author of our holy religion could have made such provision. He did by inspiration endow his apostles with every requisite qualification not naturally possessed by them, and led them into all necessary truth. Now as they have left many points of doctrine and forms of worship and government undecided, and as they do not express with philosophical precision the doctrines which they do teach, it is a just inference that one reason why these minor differences are not obviated in the church, and all truly pious, able and faithful Christians do VOL. XI. No. 29.
not agree on all points is, that the sacred volume has not made
written instructions were addressed to the primitive Christians, and were the only inspired instructions which many of them possessed; there can be but little doubt, that if a dozen of those Christians had been required to state their views on all the points of diversity between protestant Christians, it would have been found, that the impressions then made by these books, were not more definite than those which they now produce on the same points of doctrine. And as the oral teaching of the apostles was doubtless substantially the same as their recorded instructions; the impression made by them on the entire primitive church was probably the same so far as doctrines are concerned; whilst it is evident, that in re
gard to the apostles' mode of worship and church government, there could have been but one opinion, anong those who had witnessed them with their own eyes. Again, the fact that the Bible is not constituted so as to obviate this diversity of sentiment, when it might easily have been so formed by the hand of inspiration, is conclusive proof that the points of diversity among real and enlightened Christians, are not and cannot be of essential importance.
But the existence of diversity of opinion in the apostolic churches is placed beyond all possible doubt by the express declaration of the apostle Paul, who, knowing that such differences would continue to exist in after ages, has also prescribed regulations for our conduct towards those who may differ from
“ Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye but not in order) to (engage in) disputations with him about doubtful matters. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth, despise him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not, judge him that eateth ; for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant ? To his own master he standeth or falleth.—One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it to the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. — But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Here then we have the express testimony of the apostle, that differences of opinion did exist among the primitive Christians at Rome in reference to at least two points, the diversity of meats and the question whether all days should be regarded as equally holy, or whether the Jewish distinction of days should be observed by Christians. Both the points of difference are moreover of such a character, relating to matters of fact, tangible and visible in their nature, that any regulation which the apostle may have previously given, Christians would be aided in comprehending, by observing the example and practice of the apostles themselves. They were matters too concerning one of which he had seven years before expressed his opinion in pretty evident language to the Galatian brethren, when he said : * " How turn ye again to the weak and beygarly elements whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days and months and times and years ; I am afraid of you lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” And how does the apostle settle this dispute among the Romans? How does he introduce perfect unity of sentiment among them on this point of christian duty ? It is worthy of special observation, that he does not even attempt to induce them all to think alike; but enjoins on each one obedience to the dictates of his own conscience, and on all abstinence from every attempt to condemn or censure their brethren for honest difference of opinion; he enjoins on all mutual forbearance and brotherly unity! Be it remembered too, that this point of difference among the primitive Christians,t is one, on which the declarations of the New Testament have produced pretty general unanimity among modern protestant Christians, whilst it is a matter of historical notoriety that the diversity on this very topic was not entirely banished from the primitive church a century after all the books of the New Testament which touch on the subject had been written.
* Rom. 14: 1-13.
Again, look at the church of Corinth itself, whose attempts at division Paul so decidedly censured. The apostle explicitly informis us, that some members of the Corinthian church denied the resurrection of the body. As to the reason of their denial, whether the leaven of the Sadducees bad infected them, or whether, as Greeks, they were misled by their philosophy falsely so called, and with Celsus despised the doctrine as "the hope of worms," the Enis oxWinxo), we know not; but for the fact Paul is our authority. “How," he remarks, “say some among you, that there is no resurrection of the dead ? He then advances several arguments in favor of the doctrine, answers the philosophical objections to it, and proves to them the fallacy of their opinion on this subject; but not the least intimation is given, that those who believe in the resurrection should separate from those who denied it. This doctrine had
* Gal. 4: 10.
+ According to the earliest records extant the difference in the time of celebrating Easter is referred to the apostles themselves. See Dr. Murdock's Mosheim 1. 102, 103. 164.
not, it is true, been so amply unfolded by any inspired writer as is done by Paul in his epistle to these very men, and we are unable to perceive how any believer in the Scriptures could now deny this doctrine. _Yet the fact of the resurrection, to say nothing of the Old Testament, had been distinctly affirmed by the Saviour and his apostles, as must have been known to the Corinthians.
It is therefore absolutely certain that the bond of primitive union, was not that of perfect unity of sentiment on religious subjects even in the days of the apostles themselves. That differences on other topics, especially on minor points of abstract doctrine, also existed, is evident from the fact expressly declared, that some even went so far as to fall into fundamental doctrinal error, such as to "deny the Lord that bought them.” Now every rational man will admit, that the progress of the human mind in the fluctuation of opinions is gradual, and that where the extremes occurred the intermediate gradations must have existed. It seems almost impossible for a mind elevated but a single grade above savageism, when for example the doctrine was taught that Christ made an atonement for sinners, not to advert to the persons for whom this atonement was made, and to understand the declarations of the gospel as teaching, that it was made for somebody, either for all men or a portion of mankind. But although we have no reason to imagine that the same books which are differently understood by modern Christians, could have produced absolute unity of opinion among them; we find no certain traces of dissension about points of abstract doctrine. As these abstract differences had no perceptible influence on christian practice, the primitive Christians probably did not even compare their views on many points of modern controversy, and may have differed on some minor topics without knowing it. Yet on some points they differed and discussed; but Paul dissuades them from indulging in “ doubtful disputations."*
Having thus, as we suppose, satisfactorily ascertained, that the bond of union among the apostolic churches did not consist in a compact ecclesiastical organization of the entire church in any nation or country under one supreme judicatory; nor in the
* Rom. 14: 1: Him that is weak in the faith (who has not fully apprehended all the christian doctrines) receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations (μή είς διακρίσεις διαλογισμών, without deciding on his scruples).