Schaff's colleague John Nevin wrote a fascinating essay entitled "Early Christianity." It is available in his book "Catholic and Reformed, Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin," published by The Pickwick Press.
In this work Nevin argues the old Puritan argument of a rapid decline in the church's obedience to the Apostolic Doctrine is ridiculous. He argues that such corruptions and deviations could not have taken place during a period so short as from the death of John around the year 100AD until the time of Constantine. For the whole character of Christianty to have changed, as per the old Protestant argument, there would have been massive protest of which we have very little documentation. It's as if he's saying, "C'mon, where's the proof?"
We've always argued the proof comes from the New Testament being set next to the post-persecution church of the 4th century. Something obviously happened. Nevin would say the argument of Apostolic Tradition must have some validity. If he's right, my flesh wishes he was…then we all need to go to Rome or Constantinople. We are all outside the church. But I can say with confidence from a simple reading of the Bible that Nevin is dead wrong.
I think by citing the Puritans as an example Nevin sort of shoots himself in the foot. Look at the profound changes in doctrine, life and practice in New England from say 1700 (the Puritan Twilight) to 1900. Calvinistic Theology had been abandoned for Unitarian Transcendentalism. Pretty profound change! Were there protests? Sure, but not many. Look at the hallowed Puritan Sabbath in 1700 compared to 1900. Metamorphosis can occur in a short period of time. When basic principles are lost, it doesn't take long.
Who can blame the church for losing its way under the fires of persecution? Their faith was fervent but as they struggled to survive they lost their sense of authority. They had climbed into the coffin, Constantine nailed it shut.
There was some dissent. The Montanists were early protestors of dubious ideology. But it shows something. Their popularity exhibits a discontentment, a questioning of the status quo. Only later with Aerius (not Arius) and Vigilantius do you start to hear some real protest. Of course Jerome excoriates Vigilantius, Schaff reporting this in a rather amusing fashion…but it shows how far things had devolved when the Biblically ignorant Jerome is lifted up and Vigilantius mocked. Jerome ought to have known better having translated the Bible into Latin! One would think him familiar with its contents, but apparently the message did not enter into his heart. Again, if the church and its authority is organic, developing, then fine Jerome was right. But then Paul could not have really meant what he said in 2 Timothy 3.
There's not a lot of information on these men, but one can glean a little. Apparently Aerius' followers had to hide in the hills and woods. The Sacral state was already beginning to persecute those who followed the Biblical doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Dissent and "Heresy" were now civil offenses and the first execution took place in 385 in Treves. These Priscillianists were not Christians but the principle was startling and certainly represented a watershed in the history of Christianity.
What about the good a 'christian' state can do? Again, this proceeds from a false assumption. The Scriptures are abundantly clear the unbeliever is dead in their sins. They cannot obey God and His laws. They hate Him and count Him enemy. How is he glorified by all these unbelievers being forced to outwardly conform to sets of rules? Don't we just create a veneer? Make them twice the children of hell? The unregenerate can't worship/glorify God…….their prayers are an abomination to Him. Schaff admits the decline of the church during this age but deemed it necessary for the elimination of social evils and for the later schooling of the nations, referencing the so-called national conversions of the barbarians.
Eliminating social evils may make our society a nicer place to live, but it does nothing in promoting the gospel. People who are 'good and moral' rarely have a sense of sin leading them to cry out in desperation for a God of grace. In fact compelled people grow bitter and hostile, just as we would expect…and ultimately rebel with a vengeance. Was not the sixties a protest of the so-called "Greatest Generation"? Were they not rejecting the veneer of Christianity, the hypocrisy, the sham morality of the post-war suburban society? Hmm..maybe it wasn't all bad. They asked many of the right questions…but sadly came up with the wrong answers.
How much of this did Aerius understand? We don't know, but he apparently understood Christian liberty and the dangers of superimposed piety…legalism on the personal level or on the civil level. He was condemned by Epiphanius the famed heresy-hunter for resisting monasticism, Episcopacy, Easter, prayers for the dead, signs of the growing corruption. He was rewarded by persecutions and living as a fugitive.
Vigilantius a generation later at the dawn of the fifth century rejected these things and more. I don't believe we know what happened to him in the end.
A final thought….
There are those who insist on a Cultural Mandate based on Genesis 1.26-27, and some would even tie that in with the Great Commission of Matthew 28, saying that is how we 'disciple' the nations. This is a larger issue to be discussed later, but their view of Genesis 1 fails to take Genesis 3, the Fall, into account. And, if anything the command regarding fruitfulness and multiplication would apply in the New Testament by Baptizing converts. That's how we, the church increase. Dominionists of both the Theonomic and non-Theonomic variety would persecute and destroy the non-conformist pagan. That places the mandates of God into opposition. We cannot preach the gospel and then when they don't obey, incarcerate them, execute them, or even fine them. This is a gross misunderstanding.
Augustine who no doubt is a towering figure in church history, a veritable giant, though flawed used a spurious argument from the gospels to deal with the Donatists. Jesus said in reference to the feast to go out into the highways and compel them to come in. Augustine took the word compel and used it as an excuse for the 'Holy' Magistrate to force people to become Christians.
The Donatists, another dissenting group who have been misunderstood and unjustly maligned learned the hard way, but eventually they cried…What has the Emperor to do with the church?
Good question. More to come on the Donatists.
Now in the next post I hope to briefly discuss the nature of the protestant label in relation to these and other early dissenters.