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ON THE CHURCH.
Eph. iv. 11, 12; 1 Tim. v. 17-22 ; Titus i. b,
MY YOUNG FRIENDS, It will appear, I suspect, to many, that the subject which I now propose to lay before you, is of too trilling importance to be associated with those weightier matters which have been considered in my former Letters. I certainly do not consider it as being of equal importance with them; and yet, if the Evangelist describing the state of the early Christians, thought it not enough to say, that they abode in the Apostles' doctrine, but added that they abode in their fellowship also; it may be worth our wbile to consider, whether, amidst the various sects into which the Church of Christ is now unfortunately divided, there be any which possesses a fairer claim to this fellowship than others.
In pursuing this enquiry, it appears ne. cessary to shew, in the first place, that our Saviour, when on earth, not only revealed a system of truths, but formed all those who
believed those truths, into a society. By a society, I mean a certain number of persons voluntarily combined together for some common purpose, subject to obligations, and enjoying privileges not shared by the rest of mankind. And as obligations can be enforced, and privileges enjoyed, only under a regular and orderly system of administration, it is nécessary that every society which serves its purpose, should have certain officers to superintend and rule it. The question then is, Did our Saviour, personally, and by his Apostles, institute a visible society upon earth ? That He did, is clear from the following considerations :- 1. The very first generation of Christians were so closely associated, not merely in sameness . of belief, but also in secular polity, as to have “all things in common," (Acts iv. 32). 2. All the members of this association had a definite and avowed purpose to be effected by their church-membership, namely, the securing of their salvation, (Acts ii. 47.) 3. This society had a distinct mark of initiation, by which each of its members was distinguished from all the rest of mankind, namely, the sacrament of baptism, (Acts ii. 41.) 4. It had exclusive privileges ; such as the promises of Christ's special presence, and aids of the Spirit, the use of the Lord's Supper, and other means of grace, and the promise of eternal salvation conditional apon the proper use of these, (Acts ii. 38, 39; Ephi ii. 19-22.). 5. It bad proper officers for the maintenance of its polity, and the furtherance of its purpose ; namely, Christ himself, “the High Priest of our profession,” the Apostles appointed by him personally, and then the ministers of different ranks appointed by them and their successors, (Eph. i. 22; iv. 11.)
There can then be no doubt but that all professed believers in Christ, did in the first age of Christianity constitute a society called the Church ; and we have now to consider what has been the fate of this society in the period between the primitive age and our own. That the same society which had been founded in the Apostolic age, continued, without interrup: tion or violent alteration, to subsist in the next century, is clear from the undoubted records of antiquity, especially from the remains of those writers usually denominated the Apos; tolic Fathers. If you wish to acquire an accu. rate knowledge of the evidence on this head, I would send you to the second chapter of Mr. Sinclair's First Dissertation on Episcopacy: But as the continuity of a society is best proved by proving the regular succession of its officers, I sball transcribe from that Dissertation a remarkable passage there quoted from the writings of Tertullian, the earliest of the Latin Fathers; and as the date is an important mat. ter in this enquiry, you must bear in mind that the passage was written about one bundred
years after the death of the lastsurviving
Apostle. He is speaking of the hereties of that time, and says "Let them sbew:us. the origin of their Churches ; let them unrol a catalogue of their Bishops, from the earliest to the latest, by which their first Bishop may appear to have had for his founder and immediate predecessor, either some Apostle or some Apostolic person, living in the time of the Apostles. For this is the established mode in which the Apostolic Churches count up their pedigree. The church of Smyrna, for example, counts up to Polycarp, appointed by St. John; the church of Rome to Clement, ordained by St. Peter; so in like manner the other churches produce their first Bishops apostolically constituted, that by them the apostolic succession might be propagated and continued.” Here you see that a writer of high credit informs us, that the several churches at the end of the second century were well convinced, and had written evidence to prove, that they had continued as uninterrupted societies, ever since the time of the Apostles. After this the historical evidences are so numerous apd explicit, that no one has been found bold enough to suggest the probability of any break in the continuance of the Church as a society, down to the time of the Reformation. During this long period, and as appears from the ex tract, at the time of Tertullian, and, as we learn from Scriptore, in the Apostolic age itself, there were heretics and schismatics. By Heretics we understand persons whose belief is opposed to the truth as revealed in Scripture' by Scbismatics, those who separate themselves from the Church, considered as a society, by breaking its rules and disobeying its officers. No specific heresy had, however, formed itself into an abiding society; and the only extensive schism which, at the time of the Reformation, existed in the visible Church, was the division between the Greek and Latin portions of itod
Throughout western Europe, then, and we may say throughout the far greater part of Christendom, there existed an apparent unity upon all matters both of doctrine and of discipline. But in allowing this, we must remem ber that for some time previous to Luther, very strong measures bad been found necessary, in order to insure this apparent unity ; and that
were kept from what the rulers of the Church chose to consider heresy and schism, at least as much by the fear of offending against the Inquisition, as by the fear of sinning against God.
At the Reformation, hewever, as you all know, a very great change took place. The great change which had previously taken place in the intellectual character of Europe by the invention of printing, and the restoration of Greek literature, rendered necessary some alteration in the religious system. The absurdities which, in so many centuries of ignorance