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CHRISTIANITY has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world's history. Its genius and character, its doctrines, precepts, and objects cannot be treated as matters of private opinion or deduction, unless we may reasonably so regard the Spartan institutions or the religion of Mahomet. It may indeed legitimately be made the subject-matter of theories; what is its moral and political excellence, what its due location in the range of ideas or of facts which we possess, whether it be divine or human, whether original or eclectic, or both at once, how far favourable to civilization or to literature, whether a religion for all ages or for a particular state of society, these are questions upon the fact, or professed solutions of the fact, and belong to the province of opinion; but to a fact do they relate, on an admitted fact do they turn, which must be ascertained as other facts, and surely has on the whole been so ascertained, unless the testimony of so many centuries is to go for nothing. Christianity is no dream of the study or the cloister. It has long since passed beyond the letter of documents and the reasonings of individual minds, and has become public property. Its “sound has gone out into all lands," and its “words unto the ends of the world.” It has from the first had an objective existence, and has thrown itself upon the great concourse of men. Its home is in the world; and to know what
it is, we must seek it in the world, and hear the world's witness of it.
The hypothesis, indeed, has met with wide reception in these latter ages, that Christianity does not fall within the province of history,—that it is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else; and thus in fact is a mere name for a number of different religions all together, at variance one with another, and claiming the same appellation, not because they can assign any one and the same doctrine as the common foundation of all, but because certain points of agreement may be found here and there of some sort or other, by which each in its turn is connected with one or another of its neighbours. Or again, it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited but a portion of its teaching; that it has existed indeed among men ever since, and exists at this day, but as a secret and hidden doctrine, which does but revive here and there under a supernatural influence in the hearts of individuals, and is manifested to the world only by glimpses or in gleams, according to the number or the station of the illuminated, and their connexion with the history of their times.
This is what, with more or less distinctness, is said or thought; and it is sufficient to observe upon it simply that it is an hypothesis, which has no claim on our time and attention till facts are adduced on which it is built, or for which it accounts. Till it is shown why we should view the matter differently, it is natural, or rather necessary, it is agreeable to our modes of proceeding in parallel cases, to consider that the society of Christians which the Apostles left on earth were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion is a primâ facie argument for a real continuity of doctrine; that, as Christianity began by manifesting itself to all mankind, therefore it went on to manifest itself; and that the more, considering that prophecy had already determined that it was to be a power visible in the world and sovereign over it, characters which are accurately fulfilled in that historical Christianity to which we commonly give the name. It is not a great as- o sumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism,' to take it for granted that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and his Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs have impressed upon it.
I am not denying the abstract possibility of extreme changes. The substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity for the original, by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons, till, according to the familiar illustration, the “blade” and the “handle" are successively renewed, and identity is lost without the loss of continuity. It is possible; but it must not be assumed. The onus probandi is with those who assert what it is unnatural to expect; to be just able to doubt is no warrant for disbelieving.
Accordingly, some writers have gone on to give reasons from history for their refusing to appeal to it. They say that, when they come to look into
On “The Difficulties of Latitudinarianism,” vide Tracts for the Times, No. 85, Lecture 2.
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the history of Christianity, they find its doctrines so variously represented, and so inconsistently maintained by its professors, that, however natural it be à priori, it is useless, in fact, to seek in history the matter of that Revelation which has been vouchsafed to mankind; that they cannot be historical Christians if they would. They say, in the words of Chillingworth, “There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age.” And it must be allowed to such persons that, while reason antecedently suggests an historical inquiry, as the means of arriving at a knowledge of Christianity, it makes no promise that difficulties will not embarrass its course, or even preclude its satisfactory completion. The remoteness or the nearness of the times, the scantiness or the abundance of materials, the multitude of details, the depth and intricacy of the system, the subtle intermixture of received O teaching and personal opinion, and the disorder which is inevitable in any mass of historical facts,the problem of finding a point of view from which minds born under the gracious shelter of Revelation may approximate to an external and general survey of it,—these are considerations which lead to misgivings, that, even though history be the true mode of determining the character of Christianity, still it cannot be satisfactorily used for the purpose.
Now it cannot be denied that this anticipation is in a measure, though only in a measure, fulfilled. It is not fulfilled in such sense that an inquirer, coming to history, would not obtain a certain definite impression what Christianity was, and certain general views of its doctrines, principles, and characteristics. The nature and temper of the religion, as a matter of fact, no one can mistake, whether he