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 favorable 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 theory of the study or the cloister. It has long since passed beyond the letter of documents and the reasoning 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 times 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 it is a mere name for a cluster or family of rival religions all together, religions at variance one with another, and claiming the same appellation, not because there can be assigned 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 other of the rest.
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 the original religion has gradually decayed or become hopelessly corrupt; nay, 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 at best but some fragments of its teaching. Or rather that it cannot even be said either to have decayed or to have died, because historically it has no substance of its own, but from the first and onwards it has, on the stage of the world, been nothing more than a mere assemblage of doctrines and practices derived from without, from oriental, Platonic, polytheistic sources, from Buddhism, Essenism, or Manicheeism. Or that, allowing true Christianity still to exist, it has but a hidden and isolated life in the hearts of the elect, or again as a literature or philosophy, not certified in any way, much less guaranteed, to come from above, but one out of the various separate informations about the Supreme Being and human duty, with which an unknown Providence has furnished us, whether in nature or in the world.
All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with, or at least to prevail against, any number whatever of free and independent hypotheses concerning it. But this surely is not self-evident, and has itself to be proved. Until positive reasons grounded on facts are adduced to the contrary, the most natural hypothesis . . . is to consider that the society of Christians that the apostles left on earth was of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion argues a real continuity of doctrine; that, as Christianity began by manifesting itself as of a certain shape and bearing to all mankind, therefore it went on so 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 violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous skepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion that 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.
Of course, I do not deny the abstract possibility of extreme changes. The substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity superseding the original by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons, until, according to the familiar illustration, the "blade" and the "handle" are alternately 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 history. They aver that, when they look into the documents and literature of Christianity in times past, they find its doctrines so variously represented and so inconsistently maintained by its professors, that, however natural it be a priori, it is useless in fact to seek in history the matter of that Revelation that 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"—hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine.
This is a fair argument if it can be maintained. . . . Not that it enters into my purpose to convict of misstatement, as might be done, each separate clause of this sweeping accusation of a smart but superficial writer; but neither on the other hand do I mean to deny everything that he says to the disadvantage of historical Christianity. On the contrary, I shall admit that there are in fact certain apparent variations in its teaching that have to be explained; thus . . . I shall attempt to explain them to the exculpation of that teaching in point of unity, directness, and consistency. . . .
History is not a creed or a catechism; it gives lessons rather than rules. Still, no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete, but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain: Whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.
And Protestantism as a whole feels it and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone. Men never would have put it aside unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicea and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophecies of Paul and John. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.
And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Antenicene as its Posttridentine period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance: "So much must the Protestant grant, that if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing; so that 'when they rose in the morning' her true seed 'were all dead corpses'—nay, dead and buried—and without gravestone. 'The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.' Strange antitype, indeed, to the early fortunes of Israel! Then the enemy was drowned, and 'Israel saw them dead upon the sea shore.' But now, it would seem, water proceeded as a flood 'out of the serpent's mouth,' and covered all the witnesses, so that not even their dead bodies lay in the streets of the great city."
Let him take which of his doctrines he will: his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of Scripture as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless."