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THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD: MISTAKEN AND
UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS TO ASSERT THE
MONTANISM-LATENT CONGREGATIONALISM-NOVATIAN AND PURITY
OF COMMUNION-DONATISM-AUGUSTINE'S ARGUMENTS AGAINST
HAT noble ideal of the Church which was expressed in
the church polity of apostolic times, continued to haunt the imagination of devout men through century after century of corruption, superstition, and spiritual tyranny. Again and again attempts were made to realise it ; but the earlier of these attempts were ruined by extravagance, fanaticism, and violence, and by a fatal incapacity to apprehend the spiritual principles in which the apostolic polity was rooted.
In the last quarter of the second century, Montanus, a native of Phrygia, claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet, and revolted against the growing power of the bishops and clergy. The extraordinary movement which he originated began to attract attention in the west about A.D. 177: it extended over Asia Minor, reached Constantinople, and obtained adherents in many parts of the Western Church. It was finally suppressed by the Emperor Justinian in the middle of the sixth century.
At that time the Christian Gospel was coming to be regarded as a tradition which had been entrusted to the bishops as its official guardians ; Montanism asserted that the Spirit of God did not forsake the Church when the apostles passed
away, that divine illumination was still granted to menand to men who held no office in the Church; that inspired prophets-not consecrated bishops—are the true successors of the apostles and the divinely appointed guardians of the Christian faith. The ordinary ministers of the Church were beginning to usurp the prerogatives and powers of a priesthood ; Montanism asserted the priesthood of all Christians. Great masses of men, with no spiritual life, regarded themselves as secure of the divine favour in this world and of eternal blessedness in the next, because they were in the Church ; Montanism taught that the Church consists of those, and of those only, who hear the voice of God and obey it.
The movement was a passionate attempt to recover a lost ideal ; but it was wanting in that calmness, sobriety, and spiritual wisdom, which alone could have given it success. Every one of its great protests against the corruption of the age was marred by the gravest error. It asserted a noble truth in maintaining that the Holy Spirit still illuminated the true Church; but its conception of inspiration was mechanical and pagan rather than Christian. To Montanism the freedom and personality of the prophet were overpowered by the activity of the Spirit of God; he was not an inspired man, he was only a passive instrument of revelation.
It asserted a second noble truth in maintaining that every Christian man is a priest ; but the moral worth of this testimony was destroyed by the inference that the asceticism which a false conception of the Christian life imposed on priests should be practised by all Christians.
It asserted a third noble truth in maintaining that those alone are true members of the Church who hear the voice of God and obey it; but by those who hear the voice of God Montanism meant those who recognised the inspiration of the new prophets; and so the true Church was made to consistnot of all those who received the Christian Gospel and found in Christ the Lord and Giver of Life, the Brother and Redeemer of men-but (I) of Montanist prophets, and (2) of those who acknowledged their inspiration.
To what extent the original conception of the Church survived in a purer form among obscure Christian men who organised no sect, and broke out into no revolt against the ecclesiastical authorities, it is impossible to say. It is, however, interesting to notice that in the middle of the third century, when Cyprian was making every bishop “the vicegerent of Christ," and was contending vehemently that where there was no Catholic bishop there was no true Church, and that where there was no true Church salvation was impossible, he was met by the objection that the presence of Christ in a Christian assembly-not the presence of a Catholic bishopis the essential thing; and that Christ is present wherever two or three are gathered together in His name. Cyprian attempted in vain to give any effective answer to the objection ; it was fatal to his whole position, and fatal to the whole theory of the Church which was now achieving a disastrous supremacy.
The real cause of all the disorders by which the Church was troubled was the introduction into its communion of large numbers of persons who were Christians only in name. For an assembly to secure that presence of Christ which makes it a Church, it must be an assembly of Christians. Only those who are “ in Christ " can be gathered together in the name of Christ. But was it possible to clear the Church-and to keep it clear—of those who had no right to membership ? Was it the duty of the Church to close its gates against those who were not loyal to Christ? If the obligation were made plain, could the duty be discharged ? These questions were raised, but in a singularly unfortunate form, by the schism of Novatian.
Cornelius, who was elected Bishop of Rome A.D. 251, shortly before the death of the Emperor Decius, was charged with receiving back into the communion of the Church those who had sacrificed to heathen gods during the recent persecution. He was a “Catholic ” bishop; the validity of his orders could not be contested. But Novatian-a presbyter
of the Roman Church, who before his conversion to the Christian faith had been a Stoic philosopher-maintained that idolatry was a mortal sin for which the Church had no power to grant absolution ?; that the true Church of Christ is a holy fellowship ; that by receiving idolaters into its communion, the Church which submitted to the authority of Cornelius had ceased to be holy; that it was, therefore, no longer a true Church, and that Cornelius himself was no longer a true bishop. Novatian himself-perhaps against his will—was consecrated to the episcopate of the Roman Church, and endeavoured to obtain from the great Churches of Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria, the recognition of his claims. His contention was, not that Cornelius, as a bishop, asserted an authority which belonged to the commonalty of the Church, but that he had not exercised his authority with sufficient severity.
In the party of Novatian there were large numbers of men who had endured cruel losses and sufferings through their fidelity to Christ. To them it seemed that the time of trouble had separated the chaff from the wheat. What the relaxed discipline of a degenerate age had been unable to effect had been effected by persecution. The Church had been cleared of “false brethren ” who had corrupted its communion. A golden opportunity had come for restoring the zeal and the sanctity of an earlier age. If the Church were thrown open to those who in times of peril had denied the faith, the opportunity would be lost.
The controversy raised a question which touches the very foundation of the Congregational polity. The opponents of Novatian maintained that every religious society-however corrupt—under the charge of a bishop duly consecrated, and therefore standing in the true episcopal succession, is a part of the true Church of Christ ; and that to separate from its communion on the ground of its corruption is to be guilty of schism. Novatian maintained that when the communion of a Church becomes corrupt, it is a part of the true Church of Christ no longer ; to separate from its communion on the ground of its corruption is a duty. This, in substance, is the
"A Christian who had lapsed into idolatry might, according to Novatian, obtain the divine forgiveness ; but the Church had no power to absolve him : all that it could do was to exhort him to repentance and commit him to the divine mercy.
contention of Congregationalism. A Christian Church should consist only of Christians; and when any society consciously and systematically admits persons into its membership whether they are Christians or not, it has deliberately surrendered the ideal which every Christian Church should endeavour to realise.
But in the Novatian scheme the controversy assumed a form which involved a true and noble principle in discredit. Among those whose courage had failed in the persecution, there were doubtless many whose faith in Christ was genuine, and whose lives in more peaceful times were governed by His laws. To exclude them from the Church for ever, to refuse to receive their confession of sorrow for their fall, was an outrage on Christian charity; and charity is the chief glory of the Christian Church. On the other hand, among those who had stood firm there were doubtless some, at least, whose steadfastness was due rather to the native stubbornness of their temper and to the vehemence of their party spirit than to the energy of their devotion to Christ.
The leaders of the schism claimed to be the defenders of the purity of the Church. They were altogether right in maintaining that there can be no true Church where the commonalty of the Church are corrupt.
But their test of corruption was mechanical, unmerciful, unchristian.
Another half-century passed by, and the Churches of Africa were rent by a schism in which some Episcopalian writers have discovered so close an analogy to Congregationalism that they have described Congregationalists as the modern Donatists.?
During the Diocletian persecution Mensurius, Bishop of
2 But Roman controversialists have drawn from the history of the Donatists weapons to attack the position of Anglicans. A sentence of Augustine's, quoted by Bishop Wiseman in an article on the Donatists with an application to Anglicanism, made a profound impression on Cardinal Newman while he was still a “priest " in the English Church. "By those great words of the ancient Father, the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverised. . . . I had seen the shadow of a hand upon the wall” (John Henry Newman, Apologia, 211-213). To Anglicans, Congregationalists who separate from the English Church on account of its corruption are Donatists. To Romanists, the separation of England from the Western Church on account of its corruption involves all Anglicans in the sin of Donatism.