Union of Christendom
FREE Catholic Classes
The Catholic Church is by far the largest, the most widespread, and the most ancient of Christian communions in the world, and is moreover the mighty trunk from which the other communions claiming to be Christian have broken off at one time or another. If, then, we limit the application of the term Christendom to this, its most authentic expression, the unity of Christendom is not a lost ideal to be recovered, but a stupendous reality which has always been in stable possession. For not only has this Catholic Church ever taught that unity is an essential note of the true Church of Christ, but throughout her long history she has been, to the amazement of the world, distinguished by the most conspicuous unity of faith and government, and this notwithstanding that she has at all times embraced within her fold nationalities of the most different temperaments, and has had to contend with incessant oscillations of mental speculation and political power. Still, in another and broader sense of the term, which is also the more usual and is followed in the present article, Christendom includes not merely the Catholic Church, but, together with it, the many other religious communions which have either directly or indirectly, separated from it, and yet, although in conflict both with it and among themselves as to various points of doctrine and practice agree with it in this: that they look up to our Lord Jesus Christ as the Founder of their Faith, and claim to make His teaching the rule of their lives. As these separated communities when massed together, indeed in some cases even of themselves, count a vast number of souls, among whom many are conspicuous for their religious earnestness, this extension of the term Christendom to include them all has its solid justification. On the other hand, if it is accepted, it becomes no longer possible to speak of the unity of Christendom but rather of a Christendom torn by divisions and offering the saddest spectacle to the eyes. And then the question arises: Is this scandal always to continue? The Holy See has never tired of appealing in season and out of season for its removal but without meeting with much response from a world which had learnt to live contentedly within its sectarian enclosures. Happily a new spirit has lately come over these dissentient Christians, numbers of whom are becoming keenly sensitive to the paralyzing effects of division and an active reunion movement has arisen which, If far from being as widespread and solid as one could wish, is at least cherished on all sides by devout minds.
In summarizing in this article the various matters that bear upon this question of the unity of Christendom, its present default, and the hopes for its restoration, the following points will be considered:
- I. The Principles of the Church's Unity
- II. Unity in the Early Church and its Causes
- III. The Divisions of Christendom and their Causes
- IV. Reunion Movements in the Past
- V. Reunion Movements in the Present
- VI. Conditions of Reunion
- VII. Prospects of Reunion
I. PRINCIPLES OF THE CHURCH'S UNITY A. As Determined by Christ
It is to the Gospels we must go in the first place if we desire to know what in the intentions of its Founder were to be the fundamental elements in the constitution of the Church, nor do the instructions He gave to His Apostles leave us in doubt on the subject. His last words, as reported by St. Matthew , are: "All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Going therefore make disciples ( matheteusate ) of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and, lo, I am with you all days until the consummation of the world" (xxviii, 19, 20). St. Mark's account is to the same effect, but adds important details: "Going into all the world, proclaim the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, he that disbelieveth ( ho de apistedaz ) shall be condemned. And these signs shall follow those that believe : in my name they shall cast out devils, speak with new tongues, and take up serpents, and if they shall drink any deadly drink it shall not hurt them; and they shall lay their hands on the sick and they shall be healed. . . . And they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord co-operating with them, and confirming their words by the signs that accompanied them" (xvi, 15-20). St. Luke, in Acts, i, 8, preserves words of Christ which fit in with these two accounts: "You shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost that will come down upon you, and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth"; whilst in his Gospel this Evangelist has recorded how Jesus Christ in His post-Resurrection discourses to His disciples enumerated as among the primary doctrinal facts to be thus attested by the Apostles and preached throughout the world, the fulfilment in Jesus of the Old-Testament prophecies, and the remission of sins through His name: "These are the words which I have spoken to you whilst I am still with you, for it is necessary that all things which are written of Me in Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms be fulfilled; and He said to them: For thus it is written that the Christ must suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day, and repentance be preached in His name for the remission of sins to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. And you shall be witnesses to these things. And I will send down upon you that [gift] which has been promised to you by My Father. Remain therefore in this city until you be endued with power from on high" (xxiv, 44-49).
Further, to go back to St. Matthew, this Evangelist tells us, in a most impressive passage intimately connected with the plan of his Gospel, that Christ made provision for unity of action among His Apostles by appointing one of them to be the leader of his brethren, and assigning to him a unique relation to the spiritual building He was raising. "And I say to thee that thou art Peter [i.e. the Rock], and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven " (xvi, 18, 19). St. Luke (xxii, 31, 32) has words spoken in the supper-room which imply this previous appointment of St. Peter, by describing in other terms the same firm support which it would be his to communicate to the faith of the Church. "Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for thee that thy faith may not fail, and do thou when thou art converted " (or it may mean, "do thou in thy turn") "confirm thy brethren." St. John, whose Gospel follows a different course from the Synoptics, and seems to select for narration previously unrecorded deeds and words of Christ which cast a fuller light on what the others had given, tells of Jesus Christ's final reiteration of the commission to St. Peter rendered necessary perhaps to reassure him after his fall and deep repentance, and entrusting him anew with the supreme pastoral charge of the entire flock. "Simon, Son of John, lovest thou me more than these . . . feed My lambs . . . be the shepherd of my sheep" (xxi, 15-17). To St. John, too, we are indebted for our knowledge of a fact which accords well with the words, "Lo, I am with you always", reported by St. Matthew ; for he testifies that on the occasion of the Last Supper Jesus Christ promised to send the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, and "will bear testimony of me" (xv, 26) and "will lead you into all truth " (xvi, 13); also that on the same occasion He prayed an effectual prayer for His disciples and "those who through their word should come to believe in him, that they all may be one, even as Thou, Father, art one in me, and I am one in Thee, so that they may be one in us, and thus the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (xvii, 20-23).
Were we arguing with the Rationalistic critics we should have to meet their refusal to grant the authenticity of much that is in these passages, but the question of reunion is practical only for those who accept fully and in all respects the authority of the canonical Scriptures. If, then, we take these passages together as utterances of the same Divine voice, reaching us through these different channels, the conclusion is irresistible that the Church was founded by Christ on the principle of a revelation to which, as attested by the word of God, unquestioning assent is due from all to whom it is addressed; on the principle of an authority communicated by Christ to chosen representatives whom He set as teachers of the world, and to whom He requires that the world should render the obedience of faith ; and on the principle of a single religious communion, under the rule of these teachers and their duly appointed successors, admission to which is through the gate of baptism and adherence to which is imposed on all under the most solemn sanctions. For:
- the duty assigned to the hearers is simply to believe what the Apostles impart to them as teaching derived from Jesus Christ, no liberty being allowed for disbelief on the ground that the Apostolic teaching does not commend itself to the judgment of the disciple ; and this duty is declared to be so imperative that the fulfilment of it places a man in the way of salvation, but disregard of it in the way of Divine condemnation -- the implication being that, as this teaching comes ultimately from Christ, that fact in itself should be held to give the disciple a better guarantee of truth than any reasoning of his own could give.
- The Apostles are sent by Christ in like manner as He was sent by His Father, and to the chief of them are given the keys of the kingdom of heaven with a far-reaching power to make binding laws which must mean that He sends them forth to continue the work He had begun, to make disciples as He had done, and to rule them in the spirit of the Good Shepherd as He had done; consequently, that He delegates to these Apostles such share of the authority given to Himself as He deemed necessary for the discharge of their world-wide commission.
- The community thus formed out of the Apostolic teachers and their disciples was necessarily one by a twofold bond of union, inasmuch as the teaching, being from God, was necessarily one, and the faith with which it had to be received was correspondingly one, inasmuch too, as the visible society into which all were baptized was essentially one, being under the rule of a body of pastors united under the presidency of a single visible head.
- The words, "I am with you always until the consummation of the world", prove, what indeed was presumable from the nature of the case, that Christ was then instituting a system not intended for the Apostolic generation only, but for all the generations to come, and hence that He was addressing His Apostles, not as eleven individual men only, but as men who, with their legitimate successors, formed a moral personality destined to last through the ages.
- We may further gather from the texts above cited that the revelation thus brought down from heaven and imparted to the world to be the means of its salvation was not confined to a few ethical maxims, lit up by the splendour of a surpassing example and of such simplicity that all men in all ages could without difficulty reconcile them on intrinsic grounds with the dictates of their personal reason. On the contrary, it is expressed in terms of unlimited range -- "teaching them all that I have commanded" -- and is explicitly declared to contain first and foremost in its doctrinal whole the mystery which surpasses all others in baffling human speculation, namely, the mystery of the Holy Trinity -- " baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost " -- in other words, for this is the meaning, dedicating them by baptism to the worship of ( eis to honoma ), and therefore to belief in the Trinity in Unity.
- At the same time, that the human mind, in thus giving its assent to doctrines so difficult for it to conceive may do no violence to its own rational nature, the above passages tell us of the promise of the Spirit to abide for ever in the Church, to guide at all times the mind of the teaching body, organized under its visible head, so that it may always be kept from corrupting the sacred doctrine, and presenting it for acceptance in a form foreign to its original purity.
- Lastly, that we may understand the vital importance of this unity of communion, of this unity of truth, for the due carrying out of the Church's work, we have the prayer of Christ to His Father to teach us that the spectacle of it was intended by Him to furnish the world with the most signal and convincing proof of the divinity of the Christian religion : "That even as the Father is in Me, and I in Him, so they may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me." We can appreciate the character of this motive, we who live in an age when the divisions of Christendom are cast in our faces as evidence of the uncertainty on which the Christian pretensions rest. We can see how it would facilitate Christian work at home and in the mission field, if we could still say, as in the time of the Apostles, "The universality of those that believe are of one heart and one soul." We can understand how discerning observers, weighing the natural tendency of human minds to differ, would, in the presence of such a world-wide unity, be fain to exclaim, "This is something that surpasses the power of nature ; the hand of God is here."
In the Acts and the Epistles we have a record of the way in which the Apostles understood their commission, and it is obvious that the two things correspond. After receiving the promised gift of the Spirit, the Apostles go forth confidently and commence their preaching. Peter is their leader and, in those early days, so far their spokesman as for the moment to throw his fellow-Apostles almost entirely into the shade. Even St. John, great as he was, and, as we may gather from a comparison of the writings of the two, greatly St. Peter's intellectual superior, accompanies him as a silent companion, thus illustrating the completeness of the union that bound together the Apostolic band. In his preaching St. Peter follows an easily recognizable plan. First he seeks to accredit himself and his colleagues by appealing to the character of their Master, Whose life had been led before the eyes of the people of Jerusalem. He was Jesus of Nazareth, "a man approved by God among you by miracles and wonders and signs which God wrought through him in the midst of you" ( Acts 2:22 ), One, therefore, to Whose teaching the people were bound to attend and Whose representatives they were bound to receive. It was true that He who had thus been approved by God among them had afterwards fallen into the hands of wicked men who had taken and slain Him, thereby appearing to show signs of weakness hard to reconcile with such stupendous claims. But the Twelve, who were now addressing the people, were also known to them as having each and all been the companions of the Lord Jesus all the time He went in and out from the Baptism of John ( Acts 1:21-22 ); and these could testify from their own immediate experience that what had befallen their Master, so far from being a real sign of weakness, had been ordained for His glorification "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God ", Who, after thus permitting His Son's death for our sakes, had "raised him up" from the dead, whereof they, the Apostles, were the witnesses ( Acts 2:33 ), as they were also of His subsequent Ascension.
Having thus declared and authenticated their commission, and having received a further confirmation of it by the miracles wrought through their intercession ( Acts 4:10, 29, 30 ; 5:12, 16 ), which made a, deep impression on the people, they take up a position of the utmost authority ( Acts 5:32 ), proclaim their Master's teaching, and, on the faith of their sole word, demand credence for it and obedience to its requirements. "Therefore let the House of Israel know that God hath made this same Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ. Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost " ( Acts 2:36, 38 ). Thus did they teach and claim to be believed, and thus did they call upon their hearers to enter the nascent Church by Baptism and to place themselves as disciples under the Apostolic instruction and rule. And this is what the hearers did in large numbers. On the day of Pentecost itself there were added to the Church, we are told, three thousand souls (ibid., 11, 41), a number which a few days later, after another discourse from St. Peter, swelled into five thousand, and from thence the multitude steadily grew, not only in Jerusalem but in Judæa, and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (iv, 4). In strict conformity with the words of Christ (make disciples of all nations. . . . He that believeth and is baptized shall he saved), those who thus join themselves to the Apostles are described invariably as "believers" ( pistoi , Acts 10:45 ), or again as "disciples" ( mathetai , Acts 9:1 ; 11:26 ; 16:1 ), or in other places as "those who are being saved" ( sozomenoi , Acts 2:47 ; 1 Corinthians 1:18 ). On these principles the Church was founded, and from these principles unity of faith and communion resulted. "They continued", we read, "steadfastly in the Apostles' teaching and communion, and in the breaking of bread and in prayer " ( Acts 11:42 ); and again "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul " (iv, 32). Later indeed disputes arose and led to critical situations. That was to be expected, for human minds necessarily approach subjects that challenge their attention from the standpoint of their own antecedents, which means that their judgments are apt to be one-sided and to differ. But the point to note is that in those times the authority of the Apostles was universally recognized as competent to decide such controversies and to require obedience to its decrees. Accordingly, they were controversies which led to no breach of communion, but rather to a strengthening of the bonds of communion by eliciting clearer statements of the truths to which all believers were committed by their faith. One instance of a controversy thus happily terminated we have in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts. It is a valuable illustration of what has been said, for it was settled by the authority of the Apostles, who met together to consider it, and ended by affirming the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the Christian Church, together with the non-necessity of circumcision as a condition of participating in ifs full benefits; and by recommending to the Gentile converts a certain (apparently temporary) concession to Jewish feelings which might soften the difficulties of their mutual intercourse. "It has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us" (xv, 28) was the ground on which those Apostles claimed obedience to their decree, thereby setting a type of procedure and language which subsequent rulers of the Church have consistently followed.
From the second part of the Acts and from the remaining books of the New Testament we have the means of ascertaining how St. Paul and the other Apostles conceived of their mission and authority. It is clear that they, too, regarded themselves as clothed by Jesus Christ with authority both to teach and to rule, that they, too, expected and received in every place a like assent to their teaching and a like obedience to their commands from their disciples, who just by this means were held together in the unity of the one undivided and indivisible Church which the Apostles had founded. The following texts may be consulted on this point, but it is not necessary for our present purpose to do more than refer to them: Acts, xv, 28; Rom., i, 5; xv, 18, 19; xvi, 19, 26; I Cor., iv, 17-21; v, 1-5; xv, 11; II Cor., iii, 5, 9; x, 5, 8; xiii, 2, 10; Eph., ii, 20; iv, 4-6, 11, 12; I Thess., ii, 13; iv, 1, 2, 3, 8; II Tim., ii, 2; Tit., ii, 15; Heb., xiii, 7-9; I John, iv, 6; III John, 10; Jude, 17, 20. We must not, however, pass over St. Paul's jubilant description of this unity in his Epistle to the Ephesians, standing out so conspicuously as it does in the New-Testament writings, to convince us of its deep significance, its all-penetrating character, and the firm foundations on which it was set: "One body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, Who is over all and through us all, and in us all." Such was the spectacle of Christian unity born of the Apostolic preaching which presented itself to the eyes of the enraptured Apostle some thirty years from the time when St. Peter preached his first sermon on the day of Pentecost.C. As Resisted by the Earliest Heretics
To claim this wonderful unity as distinctive of the followers of Jesus Christ in the Apostolic days is not to forget that there were sad exceptions to the general rule. There were indeed no rival communions then which, whilst claiming to be Christian, were maintained in formal opposition to the Church of the Apostles. It is expressly stated by Tertullian (Adv. Marcion., IV, v) that the Marcionites, in the middle of the second century, were the first who, when expelled from the Church Catholic, created an opposition Church for the expression of their peculiar views. Before that time the dissentients contented themselves with forming parties and schools of thought, and of this mode of separation, which sufficed to put men outside the Church, we find clear traces in the New-Testament writings together with predictions that the evil thus originating would become more pronounced in after times. Men of what would nowadays be called independent temperament were dissatisfied with the Apostles' teaching in some particulars, and refused to accept it without further warrant than the mere "word of an Apostle." Thus we may gather from the Epistle to the Galatians that, in spite of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, there continued to be a party which insisted that the observance of the Jewish Law was obligatory on Gentile Christians, and from the Epistle to the Colossians that there was likewise a Jewish party, probably of Hellenistic origin, which mingled insistence on Jewish legalities with a superstitious worship of the angels ( Colossians 2:18 ). At Ephesus we may detect the adepts of an incipient Gnosticism in St. Paul's warnings against giving heed to "fables and endless genealogies " ( 1 Timothy 1:4 ) and against "profane and vain babblings and oppositions of 'gnosis' falsely so-called " ( 1 Timothy 6:20 ). Hymenæus and Alexander are mentioned by name as denying the resurrection of the flesh at the last day ( 2 Timothy 2:l8 . Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12 ). St. John, in the Apocalypse (ii, 6, 15), tells us of the Nicolaites who seem to have fallen into some kind of Oriental admixture of immorality with worship, and in his second Epistle (verse 7. Cf. 1 John 4:2 ) he warns his readers that many "deceivers are entered into the world" who confess not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, which the church historians refer to the Docetism of Cerinthus.
Help Now >
Our modern admirers of comprehensive Churches would regard the coexistence side by side of these beliefs with those of the Apostles as a healthy sign of mental activity in those early Christian communities, and it is instructive to compare such modern judgments with those of the Apostles, because the comparison enables us to realize better how strong was the feeling of the latter as to the essential importance of basing unity of communion on adherence to the Apostles' doctrine, and as to the exceeding sinfulness of dissenting from it. Thus St. Paul calls these alien doctrines "old wives' fables" ( 1 Timothy 4:7 ), "doctrines of devils " (ibid., 2), and "profanities the preaching of which will spread and devour like gangrene" ( 2 Timothy 2:17 ). St. Peter calls them "fables skillfully made up" ( 2 Peter 1:16 ), and, in a passage where the word heresy under Christian influences has already acquired its traditional meaning, "damnable heresies ", or " heresies leading to damnation" (ibid., ii, 1). The preachers of these heresies St. Paul calls "men of corrupt minds " ( 1 Timothy 6:5 ), who "speak falsehood in their hypocrisy, and have consciences seared with a red-hot iron" ( 1 Timothy 4:2 ). St. Peter calls them "false teachers who deny the Lord that bought them and bring upon themselves speedy damnation" ( 2 Peter 2:1 ), and St. John calls them "antichrists" ( 2 John 7 ; 1 John 2:18 ; 4:3 ). Moreover, so far from wishing to tolerate such persons in the Church, St. Paul warns the faithful to avoid them ( Romans 16:17 ), calls upon those who are set over Churches to cast out the recalcitrant heretic, as one who is "subverted and self-condemned" (Tit., iii, 10, 11), and, in a particular instance, tells St. Timothy that he has "delivered" two such heretics "to Satan " -- that is, cast them out of the Church -- "that they may learn not to blaspheme " ( 1 Timothy 1:20 ). Finally, St. John is most severe towards the Christians of Pergamos for neglecting to expel from their midst the two classes of heretics whom he describes ( Revelation 11 , 14 , 15 ).Summary
In short, according to the teaching and record of the Scriptures, the Church is one everywhere with a oneness which is desired by Christ on its own account as befitting the obedient children of one God, one Lord, and one Spirit, and likewise as the necessary outcome of faithful adherence on the part of its members to the concordant teaching of those whom He appointed to be its rulers, and whom the Holy Spirit preserves in all truth. Still, inasmuch as each is left free to accept or reject this one teaching, this wholesome doctrine, there were, side by side with the general body of the true believers, some apparently small groups who held alien doctrines, for which they had been rejected from the communion of the one Church and these were regarded as having placed themselves outside the pale of salvation. There is not a trace, however, of any third class, separated from the communion of their brethren, but still regarded as members of the true Church.
II. UNITY IN THE EARLY CHURCH
In the writings of the early Fathers, which contain their testimony to the nature of the Church as it existed in their days, we find the same formative principles which moulded its origins continuing to determine the character of its structure and the distinctive spirit of its members. The Church is now widely spread through the known regions of the world, but it is still, as in the days of St. Paul, everywhere one and the same, all its members in whatever place being united in the profession of the same faith, in the participation of the same sacraments, and in obedience to pastors who themselves form one corporate body and are united by the bond of an intimate solidarity. We learn, too, from these contemporary witnesses that the principle of this remarkable unity is still that of a strict adherence to the Apostles' doctrine, but here a new element from the nature of the case comes in. The Apostles no longer live to proclaim their doctrine ; It can be obtained, however, with perfect security from the Apostolic tradition . In other words, it has been banded down incorrupt by oral transmission through the lines of bishops who are the duly appointed successors of the Apostles, and who, like them, are guarded in their teaching by the assistance of the Holy Ghost. Thus the word tradition now comes into prominence, and, just as St. Paul said to Timothy, "keep the deposit" ( 1 Timothy 6:20 ), that is the sacred doctrine committed to him by the Apostle as a sacred trust, so the Fathers of the Church say "keep the tradition." This is ever their first and most decisive test of sound doctrine, not what recommends itself to the reason of the individual or his party, but what is sanctioned by the Apostolical tradition; and for the ascertaining of this tradition the Fathers of the second and third centuries refer the searcher to the Churches founded immediately by the Apostles, and before all others to the Church of Rome. We learn, moreover, from these early witnesses, that this Church of Rome, in proportion as the ecclesiastical system passed out of the state of embryo to that of full formation, became more and more explicitly recognized as the see which had inherited the prerogatives of Blessed Peter, and was, therefore, the authority which in all cases of controversy must ultimately decide what was in accordance with the tradition, and in all questions of jurisdiction and discipline was the visible head, communion with which was communion with the one and indivisible Church. As these points of ecclesiastical history are discussed elsewhere, we need not demonstrate them by bringing forward the copious Patristic testimonies which may be found in any good treatise on the Church. We may, however, usefully quote, not so much in proof as in illustration of what is said, a passage or two from St. Irenæus's treatise "Adversus hæreses", he being the earliest of the Fathers from whom we have extant a treatise of any fullness, and this particular treatise dealing with just the points with which we are concerned.
"The Church which is now planted throughout the whole inhabited globe, indeed even to the ends of the earth, has received from the Apostles and their disciples that faith which is in one God, the Father omnipotent who made Heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in it; and in one Lord Jesus Christ , the Son of God, Who was incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Ghost. . . . Having received this preaching, and this faith, as we have said, the Church, though spread throughout the whole world, preserves it with the utmost care and diligence, just as if she dwelt in one house, and believes these truths just as if she had but one and the same soul and heart, and preaches them and teaches them and hands them down [ tradit ] just as if she had but one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are diverse, the force and meaning of the tradition is everywhere the same. Nor do the Churches which are in Germany believe differently or pass down a different tradition, as neither again do the Churches in Spain or Gaul or in the East, or in Egypt or Africa, or those situated in the middle of the earth [that is the Churches of Palestine]. But as the sun, which is God's creature, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so too does the preaching of the truth shine everywhere and illuminate all men who desire to come to the knowledge of the truth. And neither do those of the Church's rulers who are powerful in speech add to this tradition -- for no one is above the [great] teacher -- nor do those who are infirm in speech subtract from it. For since the Faith is one and the same, neither does he who can say more add to it, nor he who can say less diminish it" (Adv. hær., I, x, n. 2).
This striking passage shows not merely how complete was the unity of faith throughout the world in those days, but how this unity of faith was the response to the unity of the doctrine everywhere preached, to the unity of the tradition everywhere handed down. Elsewhere St. Irenæus testifies to the source of this uniform tradition, and what was understood to be the safeguard of its purity. In the first three chapters of his third book he is criticizing the heretics of his time and the inconsistency of their methods; and in so doing sets forth by way of contrast the method of the Church. "When you refute them out of Scripture ", he says "they accuse the Scriptures themselves of errors, of lack of authority, of contradictory statements, and deny that the truth can be gathered from them save by those who know the tradition." By "tradition", however, they mean a fictitious esoteric tradition which they claim to have received, "sometimes from Valentinus, sometimes from Marcion, sometimes from Basilides, or anyone else who is in opposition." "When in your turn you appeal to the tradition that has come down from the Apostles through the succession of the presbyters in the Churches, they reply that they are wiser than the presbyters and even than the Apostles themselves, and know the uncorrupted truth." To this Irenæus observes that "it is difficult to bring to repentance a soul captured by error, but that if is not altogether impossible to escape error by setting truth by the side of it." He then proceeds to state where the true tradition can be found: "The tradition of the Apostles has been made manifest throughout the world, and can be found in every Church by those who wish to know the truth. We can number, too, the bishops who were appointed by the Apostles in the Churches and their successors down to our own day, none of whom knew of or taught the doctrines which these men madly teach. Yet, if the Apostles had known of these secret mysteries and used to teach them secretly, without the knowledge of others, to the perfect, they would have taught them to those chiefly to whom they confided the Churches themselves. For they desired that those whom they left behind them as successors, by delivering over to them their own office of teaching, should be most perfect and blameless, inasmuch as, if they acted rightly, much good, but if they fell away the gravest calamity, would ensue."
Help Now >
To exemplify this method of referring to the tradition of the Churches, he applies it to three of the Churches: Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus, setting that of Rome In the first place, as having a tradition with which those of the other Churches are necessarily in accord. The passage is well known, but for its Intimate hearing on our present subject we may transcribe it. "But as it would take too long in a volume like the present to enumerate the successions of all the Churches, we confound all those who, in any way, whether through self-will, or vain glory, or blindness, or evil-mindedness, invent false doctrines, by directing them to the greatest and most ancient Church well known to all, which was founded and established at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, and to the tradition it has received from the Apostles and the faith it has announced to men, both of which have come down to us through the succession of the Bishops. For to this Church, on account of its greater authority", -- the Greek text being defective here, it is impossible to say exactly what Greek word lies behind the Latin principalitas , but the context indicates "authority" as giving the intended sense -- "it is necessary that every Church -- that is, the faithful from all parts -- should have recourse as to that in which the Apostolic tradition is ever preserved by those" -- if we follow Dom Morin's highly probable correction of an apparently defective reading -- "who are set over it."
One more quotation from St. Irenæus we must permit ourselves, as it evidences so clearly the feeling of this Father and his contemporaries as to the relative conditions of those who were in the one Church or without it: "For in the Church God has set Apostles, prophets, and doctors, together with all the other operations of the Spirit, in which those have no share who do not fly to the Church, but deprive themselves of life by their evil opinions and evil deeds. For where the Church is there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is there is the Church and all grace, but the Spirit is truth. Wherefore those who have no part in it neither receive the life-giving nutriment from the breasts of their mother, nor drink of the most pure spring that flows from the Body of Christ; but such people dig for themselves broken cisterns out of earthly trenches, and drink out of the filth putrid water, flying from the faith of the Church lest they should be converted, rejecting the Spirit that they may not be instructed. Being alienated from the truth by just consequence, they are rolled and tossed about by every error, holding at one time one opinion, at another another in regard to the same subject, never having any fixed and stable judgments, caring more to cavil about words than to be disciples of the truth. For they are not built upon one rock, but upon the stone-strewn sand; and hence invent many gods, and plead ever in excuse that they are seeking, but, being blind, never succeed in finding" (ibid., III, xxiv).
A modern reader of St. Irenæus's "Adversus hæreses" might be inclined to object that the heretics of those days held doctrines so preposterous that his severe language about them is intelligible without our having to suppose that he would have judged with similar severity doctrines opposed to the tradition which could claim to rest upon a more rational basis. But his principle of the authority of the tradition is manifestly intended to have universal application, and may be safely taken as supplying the test by which this typical Father of the second century would, were he living now, judge of the modern systems in conflict with the Church's tradition.
III. DIVISIONS OF CHRISTENDOM AND THEIR CAUSES A. Extinct Schisms
The notable heresies that originated in the first four Christian centuries have long since expired. Gnosticism in its various forms occasioned serious trouble to the Apologists of the second century, but scarcely survived into the third. Montanism and Novatianism are not much heard of after the third century, and Donatism, which arose in Africa in 311, perished in the general ruin of African Christianity caused by the Vandal invasion in 429. Manichæism came forward in the third century, but is not much heard of after the sixth, and Pelagianism, which arose at the very end of the fourth century, though for the time it provoked an acute crisis, received a crushing blow at the Council of Ephesus (431) and disappeared altogether after the Council of Orange in 529. Arianism arose at the beginning of the fourth century and, in spite of its condemnation at Nicæa, in 325, was kept alive both in its pure form and in its diluted form of Semi-Arianism by the active support of two emperors. From the time of the First Council of Constantinople (381) it disappeared from the territories of the Empire, but received a new lease of life among the northern tribes, the Goths, Lombards, Burgundians, Vandals, etc. This was due to the preaching of Ulfilas, a bishop of Arian views, who was sent from Constantinople in 341 to evangelize the Visigoths. From the Visigoths it spread to the kindred tribes and became their national religion, until 586, when, with the conversion of Reccared, their king, and of the Spanish Visigoths, the last remnants of this particular heresy perished.
As these ancient heresies no longer exist, they do not concern the practical problem of reunion which is before us in the present age. But it is instructive to note that the principles they embodied are the very same which, taking other forms, have invariably motived the long series of revolts against the authority of the Catholic Church. Thus regarded, we may divide them into five classes. First there are certain intellectual difficulties which have always puzzled the human mind. The difficulty of explaining the derivation of the finite from the infinite, and the difficulty of explaining the coexistence of evil with good in the physical and moral universe, motived the strange speculations of the Gnostics and the simpler but not less inconsistent theory of the Manichæans.
Join the Movement
When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.
St. Paul Miki
Saint of the Day for Monday, Feb 6th, 2023
Mysteries of the Rosary
Prayer of the Day for Monday, Feb 6
Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony
The Apostles' Creed
7 Morning Prayers you need to get your day started with God
- Daily Readings for Monday, February 06, 2023
- St. Paul Miki: Saint of the Day for Monday, February 06, 2023
- Morning Offering: Prayer of the Day for Monday, February 06, 2023
- Daily Readings for Sunday, February 05, 2023
- St. Agatha: Saint of the Day for Sunday, February 05, 2023
- For Special Intentions: Prayer of the Day for Sunday, February 05, 2023
Copyright 2022 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2022 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.