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The Beginnings of the Christian Church

by William Henry Simcox


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CANON WILBERFORCE, of Winchester, asked me to give a course of Lectures in the Cathedral during the Lent of 1880 on the history of the early Christian Church. Owing to accidental circumstances, the delivery of the Lectures was postponed to the beginning of the present year. After the first of them, I was encouraged by Canon Wilberforce and other friends to prepare them for publication; and in doing so, I have been able to include a good deal which the limits of time obliged me to omit in delivery. What now forms the last four Lectures had then to be compressed into two. But though the matter has been thus amplified, and to a certain extent rearranged, it was for oral delivery that the Lectures were written; and I have not thought it worth while to divest them of their original form, further than altering a few colloquialisms, or expressions which it was easier to follow when heard than when read. The postponement of the Lectures has had this advantage, that I have been able to read before their publication (though mostly since their delivery) three recent books bearing on the subject: the Bishop of Lincoln's Church History to the Council of Nicaca, the late Dean Stanley's Christian Institutions, and Mr. Hatch's Bampton Lectures on The Organisation of the Early Christian Churches.

When writers of such reputation as the two former named, and such a thorough and painstaking student as the last, had entered the field, it was perhaps presumptuous to offer to the public so slight a work as these Lectures, which cannot pretend to any originality of research, or use of any but the most familiar authorities. But in the period treated of, unlike most others, the most familiar authorities are happily to a great extent first-hand ones; and among the first-hand authorities, the familiar ones (the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers) are, I venture to think, more important as well as easier to use than the unfamiliar ones which Mr. Hatch has collected with such praiseworthy diligence.

In fact, Mr. Hatch himself encourages me to hope these Lectures may be useful, because part of their object was to bring out a point on which he very properly insists, in a passage of his introductory Lecture, with which it is easier to agree entirely than with much of what follows: "The special difficulty of studying 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.... 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." One may surely add, that between the second century and the third the difference seems to be even less, no such revolution intervening as the conversion of the Emperors or the conquests of the Barbarians. Anything between the death of St. John and the Council of Nicaea, perhaps even of Chalcedon, is to the ordinary Anglican student of historical theology a fact belonging to "the Primitive Church," just as to Scott and his imitators any time between the Norman Conquest and the Reformation belonged to "the Middle Ages."

On the other hand, we are so fully conscious of the marked difference of character between the apostolic and post-apostolic writings, that we find it difficult to remember, even with St. Clement's help, that the apostolic age must have passed insensibly into the post-apostolic. All Christians before St. John's death, or at least before St. Paul's, seem to us to live in the atmosphere of the Acts of the Apostles; while all Christians after those events seem to live in that of a chronic Diocletian persecution.


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CrossReach Publications
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