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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


SUCH, then, is the testimony borne in various ways by Origen, Eusebius, and Cyril, by Aerius, Jovinian, and Vigilantius, to the immemorial reception among Christians of those doctrines and practices which the private judgment of this age considers to be unscriptural. I have been going about from one page to another of the records of those early times, prying and extravagating beyond the beaten paths of orthodoxy, for the chance of detecting some sort of testimony in favour of our opponents. With this object I have fallen upon the writers aforesaid; and, since they have been more or less accused of heterodoxy, I thought there was at least a chance of their subserving the cause of Protestantism, which the Catholic Fathers certainly do not subserve; but they, though differing from each other most materially, and some of them differing from the Church, do not any one of them approximate to the tone or language of the movement of 1517. Every additional instance of this kind does but go indirectly to corroborate the testimony of the Catholic Church.

It is natural and becoming in all of us to make a brave struggle for life; but I do not think it will avail the Protestant who attempts it in the medium of ecclesiastical history. He will find himself in an element in which he cannot breathe. The problem before him is to draw a line between the periods of purity and alleged corruption, such, as to have all the Apostles on one side, and all the Fathers on the other; which may insinuate and meander through the dove-tailings and inosculations of historical facts, and cut clean between St. John and St. Ignatius, St. Paul and St. Clement; to take up a position within the shelter of the book of Acts, yet safe from the range of all other extant documents besides. And at any rate, whether he succeeds or not, so much he must 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 cockcrowing; so that “when they rose in the morning” her true seed “were all dead corpses”—nay, dead and buried—and without grave-stone. “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 seashore.” 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 the Scriptures 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 in the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.


Representations such as these have been met by saying that the extant records of Primitive Christianity are scanty, and that, for what we know, what is not extant, had it survived, would have told a different tale. But the hypothesis that history might contain facts which it does not contain, is no positive evidence for the truth of those facts; and this is the present question, what is the positive evidence that the Church ever believed or taught a Gospel substantially different from that which her extant documents contain? All the evidence that is extant, be it much or be it little, is on our side: Protestants have none. Is none better than some? Scarcity of records—granting for argument’s sake there is scarcity—may be taken to account for Protestants having no evidence; it will not account for our having some, for our having all that is to be had; it cannot become a positive evidence in their behalf. That records are few, does not show that they are of none account.

Accordingly, Protestants had better let alone facts; they are wisest when they maintain that the Apostolic system of the Church was certainly lost;—lost, when they know not, how they know not, without assignable instruments, but by a great revolution lost—of that there can be no doubt; and then challenge us to prove it was not so. “Prove,” they seem to say, “if you can, that the real and very truth is not so entirely hid in primitive history as to leave not a particle of evidence betraying it. This is the very thing which misleads you, that all the arguments are in your favour. Is it not possible that an error has got the place of the truth, and has destroyed all the evidence but what witnesses on its side? Is it not possible that all the Churches should everywhere have given up and stifled the scheme of doctrine they received from the Apostles, and have substituted another for it? Of course it is; it is plain to common sense it may be so. Well, we say, what may be, is; this is our great principle: we say that the Apostles considered episcopacy an indifferent matter, though Ignatius says it is essential. We say that the table is not an altar, though Ignatius says it is. We say there is no priest’s office under the Gospel, though Clement affirms it. We say that baptism is not an enlightening, though Justin takes it for granted. We say that heresy is scarcely a misfortune, though Ignatius accounts it a deadly sin; and all this, because it is our right, and our duty, to interpret Scripture in our own way. We uphold the pure unmutilated Scripture; the Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants; the Bible and our own sense of the Bible. We claim a sort of parliamentary privilege to interpret laws in our own way, and not to suffer an appeal to any court beyond ourselves. We know, and we view it with consternation, that all Antiquity runs counter to our interpretation; and therefore, alas, the Church was corrupt from very early times indeed. But mind, we hold all this in a truly Catholic spirit, not in bigotry. We allow in others the right of private judgment, and confess that we, as others, are fallible men. We confess facts are against us; we do but claim the liberty of theorizing in spite of them. Far be it from us to say that we are certainly right; we only say that the whole early Church was certainly wrong. We do not impose our belief on any one; we only say that those who take the contrary side are Papists, firebrands, persecutors, madmen, zealots, bigots, and an insult to the nineteenth century.”

To such an argument, I am aware, it avails little to oppose historical evidence, of whatever kind. It sets out by protesting against all evidence, however early and consistent, as the testimony of fallible men; yet at least, the imagination is affected by an array of facts; and I am not unwilling to appeal to the imagination of those who refuse to let me address their reason. With this view I have been inquiring into certain early works, which, or the authors of which, were held in suspicion, or even condemned by the ruling authorities of the day, to see if any vestige of an hypothetical Protestantism could be discovered in them; and, since they make no sign, I will now interrogate a very different class of witnesses. The consent of Fathers is one kind of testimony to Apostolical Truth; the protest of heretics is another; now I will come, thirdly, to received usage. To give an instance of the last mentioned argument, I shall appeal to the Apostolical Canons, though a reference to them will involve me in an inquiry, interesting indeed to the student, but somewhat dry to the general reader.


These Canons, well known to Antiquity, were at one time supposed to be, strictly speaking, Apostolical, and published before A.D. 50. On the other hand, it has been contended that they are later than A.D. 450, and the work of some heretics. Our own divines take a middle course, considering them as published before A.D. 325, having been digested by Catholic authorities in the course of the two preceding centuries, or at the end of the second, and received and used in most parts of Christendom. This judgment has since been acquiesced in by the theological world, so far as this—to suppose the matter and the enactments of the Canons to be of the highest antiquity, even though the edition which we possess was not published so early as Bishop Beveridge, for instance, supposes. At the same time it is acknowledged by all parties, that they, as well as some other early documents, have suffered from interpolation, and perhaps by an heretical hand.

They are in number eighty-five, of which the first fifty are considered of superior authority to the remaining thirty-five. What has been conjectured to be their origin will explain the distinction. It was the custom of the early Church, as is well known, to settle in Council such points in her discipline, ordinances, and worship, as the Apostles had not prescribed in Scripture, as the occasion arose, after the pattern of their own proceedings in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts; and this, as far as might be, after their unwritten directions, or after their practice, or at least, after their mind, or as it is called in Scripture, their “minding” or “spirit.” Thus she decided upon the question of Easter, upon that of heretical baptism, and the like. And, after that same precedent in the Acts, she recorded her decisions in formal decrees, and “delivered them for to keep” through the cities in which her members were found. The Canons in question are supposed to be some of these decrees, of which, first and nearest to the Apostles’ times, or in the time of their immediate successors, were published fifty; and in the following age, thirty-five more, which had been enacted in the interval. They claim, then, to be, first, the recorded judgment of great portions of the Ante-Nicene Church, chiefly in the eastern provinces, upon certain matters in dispute, and to be of authority so far as that Church may be considered a representative of the mind of the Apostles; next, they profess to embody in themselves positive decisions and injunctions of the Apostles, though without clearly discriminating how much is thus directly Apostolical, and how much not. I will here attempt to state some of the considerations which show both their antiquity and their authority, and will afterwards use them for the purpose which has led me to mention them.


1. In the first place, it would seem quite certain that, as, on the one hand, Councils were held in the primitive Church, so, on the other, those Councils enacted certain Canons. When, then, a Collection presents itself professing to consist of the Ante-Nicene Canons, there is nothing at all to startle us; it only professes to set before us that which we know anyhow must have existed. We may conjecture, if we please, that the fact that there were Canons may have suggested and encouraged a counterfeit. Certainly; but though the fact that there were Canons will account for a counterfeit, it will not account for those original Canons being lost; on the contrary, what is known to have once existed as a rule of conduct, is likely to continue in existence, except under particular circumstances. Which of the two this existing Collection is, the genuine or the counterfeit, must depend on other considerations; but if these considerations be in favour of its genuineness, then this antecedent probability will be an important confirmation.

Canons, I say, must have existed, whether these be the real ones or no; and the circumstance that there were real ones existing must have tended to make it difficult to substitute others. It would be no easy thing in our own Church to pass off another set of Articles for the Thirty-nine, and to obliterate the genuine. Canons are public property, and have to be acted upon by large bodies. Accordingly, as might be expected, the Nicene Council, when enacting Canons of its own, refers to certain Canons as already existing, and speaks of them in that familiar and indirect way which would be natural under the circumstances, just as we speak of our Rubrics or Articles. The Fathers of that Council mention certain descriptions of persons whom “the Canon admits into holy orders;” they determine that a certain rule shall be in force, “according to the Canon which says so and so;” they speak of a transgression of the Canon, and proceed to explain and enforce it. Nor is the Nicene the only Council which recognizes the existence of certain Canons, or rules, by which the Church was at that time bound. The Councils of Antioch, Gangra, Constantinople, and Carthage, in the same century, do so likewise; so do individual Fathers, Alexander, Athanasius, Basil, Julius, and others.

Now here we have lighted upon an important circumstance, whatever becomes of the particular Collection of Canons before us. It seems that at the Nicene Council, only two centuries and a quarter after St. John’s death, about the distance of time at which we live from the Hampton Court Conference, all Christendom confessed that from time immemorial it had been guided by certain ecclesiastical rules, which it considered of authority, which it did not ascribe to any particular persons or synods (a sign of great antiquity), and which writers of the day assigned to the Apostles. I suppose we know pretty well, at this day, what the customs of our Church have been since James the First’s time, or since the Reformation; and if respectable writers at present were to state some of them,—for instance, that it is and has been the rule of our Church that the king should name the bishops, that Convocation should not sit without his leave, or that Easter should be kept according to the Roman rule,—we should think foreigners very unreasonable who doubted their word. Now, in the case before us, we find the Church Catholic, the first time it had ever met together since the Apostles’ days, speaking as a matter of course of the rules to which it had ever been accustomed to defer.

If we knew no more than this, and did not know what the rules were; or if, knowing what they were, we yet decided, as we well might, that the particular rules are not of continual obligation; still, the very circumstance that there were rules from time immemorial would be a great fact in the history of Christianity. But we do know, from the works of the Fathers, the subjects of these Canons, and that to the number of thirty or forty of them; so that we might form a code, as far as it goes, of primitive discipline, quite independent of the particular Collection which is under discussion. However, it is remarkable that all of these thirty or forty are found in this Collection, being altogether nearly half the whole number, so that the only question is, whether the rest are of that value which we know belongs to a great proportion of them. It is worth noticing, that no Ecclesiastical Canon is mentioned in the historical documents of the primitive era which is not found in this Collection, for it shows that, whoever compiled it, the work was done with considerable care. The opponents to its genuineness bring, indeed, several exceptions, as they wish to consider them; but these admit of so satisfactory an explanation as to illustrate the proverb, that exceptio probat regulam.

Before going on to consider the whole Collection, let us see in what terms the ancient writers speak of those particular Canons to which they actually refer.

(1.) Athanasius speaks as follows:—“Canons and forms,” he says, when describing the extraordinary violences of the Arians, “were not given to the Churches in this day, but were handed down from our fathers well and securely. Nor, again, has the faith had its beginning in this day, but has passed on even to us from the Lord through His disciples. Rouse yourselves, then, my brethren, to prevent that from perishing unawares in the present day which has been observed in the Churches from ancient times down to us, and ourselves from incurring a responsibility in what has been intrusted to us.”—Ep. Encycl. 1. It is remarkable, in this extract, that St. Athanasius accurately distinguishes between the Faith which came from Christ, and the Canons received from the Fathers of old time: which is just the distinction which our divines are accustomed to make.

(2) Again: the Arians, by simoniacal dealings with the civil power, had placed Gregory in the see of Alexandria. Athanasius observes upon this:—“Such conduct is both a violation of the Ecclesiastical Canons, and forces the heathen to blaspheme, as if appointments were made, not by Divine ordinance, but by merchandise and secular influence.”—Ibid. 2.

(3) Arsenius, bishop of Hypsela, who had been involved in the Meletian schism, and had acted in a hostile way towards Athanasius, at length reconciled himself to the Church. In his letter to Athanasius he promises “to be obedient to the Ecclesiastical Canon, according to ancient usage, and never to put forth any regulation, whether about bishops or any other public ecclesiastical matter, without the sanction of his metropolitan, but to submit to all the established Canons.”—Apol. contr. Arian. 69.

(4) In like manner, St Basil, after speaking of certain crimes for which a deacon should be reduced to lay communion, proceeds, “for it is an ancient Canon, that they who lose their degree should be subjected to this kind of punishment only.”—Ep. 188. Again: “The Canon altogether excludes from the ministry those who have been twice married.”

(5) When Arius and his abettors were excommunicated by Alexander of Alexandria, they betook themselves to Palestine, and were readmitted into the Church by the bishops of that country. On this, Alexander observes as follows:—“A very heavy imputation, doubtless, lies upon such of my brethren as have ventured on this act, in that it is a violation of the Apostolical Canon.”—Theod. Hist. i. 4.

(6) When Eusebius declined being translated from the see of Cæsarea to Antioch, Constantine complimented him on his “observance of the commandments of God, the Apostolical Canon, and the rule of the Church,”—Vit. Constant, iii. 61,—which last seems to mean the regulation passed at Nicæa.

(7) In like manner, Julius, bishop of Rome, speaks of a violation of “the Apostles’ Canons;” and a Council held at Constantinople, A.D. 394, which was attended by Gregory Nyssen, Amphilochius, and Flavian, of a determination of “the Apostolical Canons.”

It will be observed that in some of these instances the Canons are spoken of in the plural, when the particular infraction which occasions their mention relates only to one of them. This shows they were collected into a code, if, indeed, that need be proved; for, in truth, that various Canons should exist, and be in force, and yet not be put together, is just as unlikely as that no collection should be made of the statutes passed in a session of Parliament.

With this historical information about the existence, authority, and subject-matter of certain Canons in the Church from time immemorial, we should come to many anti-Protestant conclusions, even if the particular code we possess turned out to have no intrinsic authority. And now let us see how the matter stands on this point as regards this code of eighty-five Canons.


2. If this Collection existed as a Collection in the time of the above writers and Councils, then, considering they allude to nearly half its Canons, and that no Canons are anywhere producible which are not in it, and that they do seem to allude to a Collection, and that no other Collection is producible, we certainly could not avoid the conclusion that they referred to it, and that, therefore, in quoting parts of it they sanction the whole. If no book is to be accounted genuine except such parts of it as happen to be expressly cited by other writers,—if it may not be regarded as a whole, and what is actually cited made to bear up and carry with it what is not cited,—no ancient book extant can be proved to be genuine. We believe Virgil’s Æneid to be Virgil’s, because we know he wrote an Æneid, and because particular passages which we find in it, and in no other book, are contained, under the name of Virgil, in subsequent writers or in criticisms, or in accounts of it. We do not divide it into rhapsodies, because it only exists in fragments in the testimony of later literature. For the same reason, if the Canons before us can be shown to have existed as one book in Athanasius’s time, it is natural to conceive that they are the very book to which he and others refer. All depends on this. If the Collection was made after his time, of course he referred to some other; but if it existed in his time, it is more natural to suppose that there was one Collection than two distinct ones, so similar, especially since history is silent about there being two.

However, I conceive it is not worth while to insist upon so early a formation of the existing Collection. Whether it existed in Athanasius’s time, or was formed afterwards, and formed by friend or foe, heretic or Catholic, seems to me immaterial, as I shall by-and-by show. First, however, I will state, as candidly as I can, the arguments for and against its antiquity as a Collection.

Now there can be no doubt that the early Canons were formed into one body; moreover, certain early writers speak of them under the name of “the Apostles’ Canons,” and “Apostolical Canons.” So far I have already said. Now, certain collectors of Canons, of A.D. (more or less) 550, and they no common authorities, also speak of “the Apostolical Canons,” and incorporate them into their own larger collections; and these which they speak of are the very body of Canons which we now possess under the name. We know it, for the digest of these collectors is preserved. No reason can be assigned why they should not be speaking of the same Collection which Gregory Nyssen and Amphilochius speak of, who lived a century and a half before them; no reason, again, why Nyssen and Amphilochius should not mean the same as Athanasius and Julius, who lived fifty to seventy years earlier than themselves. The writers of A.D. 550 might be just as certain that they and St. Athanasius quoted the same work, as we, at this day, that our copy of it is the same as Beveridge’s, Pearson’s, or Ussher’s.

The authorities at the specified date (A.D. 550) are three—Dionysius Exiguus, John of Antioch, patriarch of Constantinople, and the Emperor Justinian. The learning of Justinian is well known, not to mention that he speaks the opinion of the ecclesiastical lawyers of his age. As to John of Antioch and Dionysius, since their names are not so familiar to most of us, it may be advisable to say thus much—that John had been a lawyer, and was well versed both in civil and ecclesiastical matters,—hence he has the title of Scholasticus; while Dionysius is the framer of the Christian era, as we still reckon it. They both made Collections of the Canons of the Church, the latter in Latin, and they both include the Apostolical Canons, as we have them, in their editions; with this difference, however (which does not at present concern us), that Dionysius published but the first fifty, while John of Antioch enumerates the whole eighty-five.

Such is the main argument for the existence of our Collection at the end of the third century; viz., that, whereas a Collection of Apostolic Canons is acknowledged at that date, this Collection is acknowledged by competent authorities to be that Apostolic record at the end of the fifth. However, when we inspect the language which Dionysius uses concerning them, in his prefatory epistle, we shall find something which requires explanation. His words are these, addressed to Stephen, bishop of Salona:—“We have, in the first place, translated from the Greek what are called the Canons of the Apostles; which, as we wish to apprise your holiness, have not gained an easy credit from very many persons. At the same time, some of the decrees of the [Roman] pontiffs, at a later date, seem to be taken from these very Canons.” Here Dionysius must only mean, that they were not received as Apostolic; for that they were received, or at least nearly half of them, is, as I have said, an historical fact, whatever becomes of the Collection as a Collection. He must mean that a claim had been advanced that they were to be received as part of the apostolic depositum; and he must be denying that they had more than ecclesiastical authority. The distinction between divine and ecclesiastical injunctions requires little explanation: the latter are imposed by the Church for the sake of decency and order, as a matter of expedience, safety, propriety, or piety. Such is the rule among ourselves, that dissenting teachers conforming must remain silent three years before they can be ordained; or that a certain form of prayer should be prescribed for universal use in public service. On the other hand, the appointment of the Sacraments is apostolic and divine. So, again, that no one can be a bishop unless consecrated by a bishop, is apostolic; that three bishops are necessary in consecration, is ecclesiastical; and, though ordinarily an imperative rule, yet, under circumstances, admits of dispensation. Or again, it has, for instance, in this day been debated whether the sanctification of the Lord’s-day is a divine or an ecclesiastical appointment. Dionysius, then, in the above extract, means nothing more than to deny that the Apostles enacted these Canons; or, again, that they enacted them as Apostles; and he goes on to say that the Popes had acknowledged the ecclesiastical authority of some of them by embodying them in their decrees. At the same time, his language certainly seems to show as much as this, and it is confirmed by that of other writers, that the Latin Church, though using them separately as authority, did not receive them as a Collection with the implicit deference which they met with in the East; indeed, the last thirty-five, though two of them were cited at Nicæa, and one at Constantinople, A.D. 394, seem to have been in inferior account. The Canons of the General Councils took their place, and the Decrees of the Popes.


This, then, seems to be the state of the case as regards the Collection or Edition of Canons, whether fifty or eighty-five, which is under consideration. Speaking, not of the Canons themselves, but of this particular edition of them, I thus conclude about it—that, whether it was made at the end of the third century, or later, there is no sufficient proof that it was strictly of authority; but that it is not very material that it should be proved to be of authority, nay, or even to have been made in early times. Give us the Canons themselves, and we shall be able to prove the point for which I am adducing them, even though they were not at first formed into a collection. They are, one by one, witnesses to us of a state of things.

Indeed, it must be confessed, that probability is against this Collection having ever been regarded as an authority by the ancient Church. It was an anonymous Collection; and, as being anonymous, seemed to have no claim upon Christians. They would consider that a collection or body of Canons could only be imposed by a Council; and since the Council could not be produced which imposed this in particular, they had no reason to admit it. They might have been in the practice of acting upon this Canon, and that, and the third, and so on to the eighty-fifth, from time immemorial, and that as Canons, not as mere customs, and might confess the obligation of each: and yet might say, “We never looked upon them as a code,” which should be something complete and limited to itself. The true sanction of each was the immemorial observance of each, not its place in the Collection, which implied a competent framer. Moreover, in proportion as General Councils were held, and enacted Canons, so did the vague title of mere usage, without definite sanction, become less influential, and the ancient Canons fell into disregard. And what made this still more natural was the circumstance that the Nicene Council did re-enact a considerable number of those which it found existing. It substituted then a definite authority, which, in after ages, would be much more intelligible than what would have by that time become a mere matter of obscure antiquity. Nor did it tend to restore their authority, when their advocates, feeling the difficulty of their case, referred the Collection to the Apostles themselves: first, because this assertion could not be maintained; next, because, if it could, it would have seemingly deprived the Church of the privilege of making Canons. It would have made those usages divine which had ever been accounted only ecclesiastical. It would have raised the question whether, under such circumstances, the Church had more right to add to the code of really Apostolic Canons than to Scripture; discipline, as well as doctrine, would have been given by direct revelation, and have been included in the fundamentals of religion.

If, however, all this be so, it follows that we are not at liberty to argue, from one part of this Collection having been received, that therefore every other was also; as if it were one authoritative work. No number of individual Canons being proved to be of the first age will tend to prove that the remainder are of the same. It is true; and I do not think it worth while to contest the point. For argument-sake I will grant that the bond, which ties them into one, is not of the most trustworthy and authoritative description, and will proceed to show that even those Canons which are not formally quoted by early writers ought to be received as the rules of the Ante-Nicene Church, independently of their being found in one compilation.


3. I have already said that nearly half of the Canons, as they stand in the Collection, are quoted as Canons by early writers, and thus placed beyond all question, as remains of the Ante-Nicene period: the following arguments may be offered in behalf of the rest:—

(1) They are otherwise known to express usages or opinions of the Ante-Nicene centuries. The simple question is, whether they had been reflected on, recognized, converted into principles, enacted, obeyed; whether they were the unconscious and unanimous result of the one Christian spirit in every place, or were formal determinations from authority claiming obedience. This being the case, there is very little worth disputing about; for (whether we regard them as being religious practices or as religious antiquities) if uniform custom was in favour of them, it does not matter whether they were enacted or not. If they were not, their universal observance is a still greater evidence of their extreme antiquity, which, in that case, can be hardly short of the Apostolic age; and we shall refer to them in the existing Collection, merely for the sake of convenience, as being brought together in a short compass.

Nay, a still more serious conclusion will follow, from supposing them not to be enactments—much more serious than any I am disposed to draw. If it be maintained that these observances, though such, did not arise from injunctions on the part of the Church, then, it might be argued, the Church has no power over them. As not having imposed, she cannot abrogate, suspend, or modify them. They must be referred to a higher source, even to the inspired Apostles; and their authority is not ecclesiastical, but divine. We are almost forced, then, to consider them as enactments, even when they are not recognized by ancient writers as such, lest we should increase the authority of some of them more than seems consistent with their subject-matter.

Again, if such Canons as are not appealed to by ancient writers are nevertheless allowed to have been really enacted, on the ground of our finding historically that usage corresponds to them; it may so be that others, about which the usage is not so clearly known, are real Canons also. There is a chance of their being genuine; for why, in drawing the line, should we decide by the mere accident of the usage admitting or not admitting of clear historical proof?

(2) Again, all these Canons, or at least the first fifty, are composed in uniform style; there is no reason, as far as the internal evidence goes, why one should be more primitive than another, and many, we know, were certainly in force as Canons from the earliest times.

(3) This argument becomes much more cogent when we consider what that style is. It carries with it evident marks of primitive simplicity, some of which I shall instance. The first remark which would be made on reading them relates to their brevity, the breadth of the rules which they lay down, and their plain and unartificial mode of stating them. An instance of this, among others which might be taken, is supplied by a comparison of the 7th of them with one of a number of Canons passed at Antioch by a Council held A.D. 341, and apparently using the Apostolical Canons as a basis for its own. The following, read with the words in brackets, agrees, with but slight exceptions, with the Antiochene Canon, and, without them, with the Apostolical:—

“All who come [to church] and hear the [holy] Scriptures read, but do not remain to prayer [with the people,] and [refuse] the holy communion [of the Eucharist, these] must be put out of the Church, as disorderly, [until, by confession, and by showing fruits of penitence, and by entreaty, they are able to gain forgiveness.”]

(4) Now this contrast, if pursued, will serve to illustrate the antiquity of the Apostolical Canons in several ways, besides the evidence deducible from the simplicity of their structure. Thus the word “metropolitan” is introduced into the thirty-fifth Canon of Antioch; no such word occurs in the Apostolical Canon from which it is apparently formed. There it is simply said, “the principal bishop;” or, literally, the primus. This accords with the historical fact, that the word metropolitan was not introduced till the fourth century. The same remark might be made on the word “province,” which occurs in the Canon of Antioch, not in the other. This contrast is strikingly brought out in two other Canons, which correspond in the two Collections. Both treat of the possessions of the Church; but the Apostolical Canon says simply, “the interests of the Church,” “the goods of the Church;” but the Antiochene, composed after Christianity had been acknowledged by the civil power, speaks of “the revenue of the Church,” and “the produce of the land.”

Again, when attempts have been made to show that certain words are contained in the Canons before us which were not in use in the Ante-Nicene times, they have in every case failed in the result, which surely may be considered as a positive evidence in favour of their genuineness. For instance, the word “clergy,” for the ministerial body, which is found in the Apostolical Canons, is also used by Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian. The word “reader,” for an inferior order in the clergy, is used by Cornelius, bishop of Rome; nay, by Justin Martyr. “Altar,” which is used in the Canons, is the only word used for the Lord’s table by St. Cyprian, and, before him, by Tertullian and Ignatius. “Sacrifice” and “oblation,” for the consecrated elements, found in the Canons, are also found in Clement of Rome, Justin Irenæus, and Tertullian.

This negative evidence of genuineness extends to other points, and surely is of no inconsiderable weight. We know how difficult it is so to word a forgery as to avoid all detection from incongruities of time, place, and the like. A forgery, indeed, it is hardly possible to suppose this Collection to be, both because great part of it is known to be genuine, and because no assignable object would be answered by it; but let us imagine the compiler hastily took up with erroneous traditions, or recent enactments, and joined them to the rest. Is it possible to conceive, under such circumstances, that there would be no anachronisms or other means of detection? And if there are none such, and much more if the compiler, who lived perhaps as early as the fourth century, found none such (supposing we may assume him willing and qualified to judge of them), nay, if Dionysius Exiguus found none such, what reasons have we for denying that they are the produce of those early times to which they claim to belong? Yet so it is; neither rite, nor heresy, nor observance, nor phrase, is found in them which is foreign to the Ante-Nicene period. Indeed, the only reason one or two persons have thrown suspicion on them has been an unwillingness on their part to admit episcopacy, which the Canons assert; a necessity which led the same parties to deny the genuineness of St. Ignatius’ epistles.

(5) I will make one more remark:—First, these Canons come to us, not from Rome, but from the East, and were in a great measure neglected, or at least superseded in the Church, after Constantine’s day, especially in the West, where Rome had sway; these do not embody what are called “Romish corruptions.” Next, there is ground for suspecting that the Collection or Edition which we have was made by heretics, probably Arians, though they have not meddled with the main contents of them. Thus, while the neglect of them in later times separates them from Romanism, the assent of the Arians is a second witness, in addition to their recognition by the first centuries, in evidence of their Apostolical origin. Those first centuries observe them; contemporary heretics respect them; only later and corrupt times pass them by. May they not be taken as a fair portrait, as far as they go, of the doctrines and customs of Primitive Christianity?


I do wish out-and-out Protestants would seriously lay to heart where they stand when they would write a history of Christianity. Are there any traces of Luther before Luther? Is there anything to show that what they call the religion of the Bible was ever professed by any persons, Christians, Jews, or heathen? Again, are there any traces in history of a process of change in Christian belief and practice, so serious, or so violent, as to answer to the notion of a great corruption or perversion of the Primitive Religion? Was there ever a time, what was the time, when Christianity was not that which Protestants protest against, as if formal, unspiritual, self-righteous, superstitious, and unevangelic? If that time cannot be pointed out, is not “the Religion of Protestants” a matter, not of past historical fact, but of modern private judgment? Have they anything to say in defence of their idea of the Christianity of the first centuries, except that that view of it is necessary to their being Protestants. “Christians,” they seem to say, “must have been in those early times different from what the record of those times shows them to have been, and they must, as time went on, have fallen from that faith and that worship which they had at first, though history is quite silent on the subject, or else Protestantism, which is the apple of our eye, is not true. We are driven to hypothetical facts, or else we cannot reconcile with each other phenomena so discordant as those which are presented by ancient times and our own. We claim to substitute à priori reasoning for historical investigation, by the right of self-defence and the duty of self-preservation.”

I have urged this point in various ways, and now I am showing the light which the Canons of the Apostles throw upon it. There is no reasonable doubt that they represent to us, on the whole, and as far as they go, the outward face of Christianity in the first centuries;—now will the Protestant venture to say that he recognizes in it any likeness of his own Religion? First, let him consider what is conveyed in the very idea of Ecclesiastical Canons? This: that Christians could not worship according to their fancy, but must think and pray by rule, by a set of rules issuing from a body of men, the Bishops, over whom the laity had no power whatever. If any men at any time have been priest-ridden, such was the condition of those early Christians. And then again, what becomes of the Protestant’s watchword, “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible,” if a set of Canons might lawfully be placed upon their shoulders, as if a second rule of faith, to the utter exclusion of all free-and-easy religion? and what room was there for private judgment, if they had to obey the bidding of certain fallible men? and what is to be done with the great principle, “Unity, not Uniformity,” if Canons are to be recognized, which command uniformity as well as unity?

So much at first sight; but when we go on to examine what these Canons actually contain, their incompatibility with the fundamental principles of Protestantism becomes still more patent. I will set down some instances in proof of this. Thus, we gather from the Canons the following facts about Primitive Christianity:—viz., that,

1. There was a hierarchy of ordained ministers, consisting of the three orders of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

2. Their names were entered on a formal roll or catalogue.

3. There were inferior orders, such as readers and chanters.

4. Those who had entered into the sacred orders might not afterwards marry.

5. There were local dioceses, each ruled by a Bishop.

6. To him and him only was committed the care of souls in his diocese.

7. Each Bishop confined himself to his own diocese.

8. No secular influence was allowed to interfere with the appointment of Bishops.

9. The Bishops formed one legislative body, and met in Council twice a year, for the consideration of dogmatic questions and points in controversy.

10. One of them had the precedence over the rest, and took the lead; and, as the priests and people in each diocese obeyed their Bishop, so in more general matters the Bishops deferred to their Primus.

11. Easter and Pentecost were great feasts, and certain other days feasts also. There was a Lent Fast; also a Fast on Easter Eve; and on Wednesdays and Fridays.

12. The state of celibacy was recognized.

13. Places of worship were holy.

14. There was in their churches an altar, and an altar service.

15. There was a sacrifice in their worship, of which the materials were bread and wine.

16. There were oblations also of fruits of the earth, in connection with the sacrifice.

17. There were gold and silver vessels in the rite, and these were consecrated.

18. There were sacred lamps, fed with olive oil, and incense during the holy rite.

19. Baptism was administered in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

20. Excommunication was inflicted on Christians who disgraced their profession.

21. No one might pray, even in private, with excommunicated persons, except at the cost of being excommunicated himself.

22. No one might pray with heretics, or enter their churches, or acknowledge their baptism, or priesthood.


These rules furnish us with large portions, and the more important, of the outline of the religion of their times; and are not only definitive in themselves, but give us the means of completing those parts of it which are not found in them. Considered, then, as a living body, the primitive Christian community was distinguished by its high sacerdotal, ceremonial, mystical character. Which among modern religious bodies was it like? Was it like the Wesleyans? was it like the Society of Friends? was it like the Scotch Kirk? was it like any Protestant denomination at all? Fancy any model Protestant of this day in a state of things so different from his own! With his religious societies for the Church, with his committees, boards, and platforms instead of Bishops, his Record and Patriot newspapers instead of Councils, his concerts for prayer instead of anathemas on heresy and schism, his spoutings at public meetings for exorcisms, his fourths of October for festivals of the Martyrs, his glorious memories for commemorations of the dead, his niggard vestry allowances for gold and silver vessels, his gas and stoves for wax and oil, his denunciations of self-righteousness for fasting and celibacy, and his exercise of private judgment for submission to authority—would he have a chance of finding himself at home in a Christianity such as this? is it his own Christianity?

I end, then, as I began:—If Protestantism is another name for Christianity, then the Martyrs and Bishops of the early Church, the men who taught the nations, the men who converted the Roman Empire, had themselves to be taught, themselves to be converted. Shall we side with the first age of Christianity, or with the last?

NOTE ON P. 366

Lately the relics of St. Ambrose have been discovered in his Church at Milan, as were the relics of St. Gervasius and St. Protasius several years since. On this subject I received a month since a letter from a friend, who passed through Milan, and saw the sacred remains. I will quote a portion of his letter to me:—

“Sept. 17, 1872.

“I am amazed at the favour which was shown me yesterday at the Church of St. Ambrogio. I was accidentally allowed to be present at a private exposition of the relics of St. Ambrose and the Saints Gervasius and Protasius. I have seen complete every bone in St. Ambrose’s body. There were present a great many of the clergy, three medici, and Father Secchi, who was there on account of his great knowledge of the Catacombs, to testify to the age, etc., of the remains. It was not quite in chance, for I wanted to go to Milan, solely to venerate St. Ambrose once more, and to thank him for all the blessings I have had as a Catholic and a Priest, since the day that I said Mass over his body. The churches were shut when I arrived; so I got up early next morning and went off to the Ambrosian. I knelt down before the high altar, and thought of all that had happened since you and I were there, twenty-six years ago. As I was kneeling, a cleric came out; so I asked him to let me into the scurolo, which was boarded up all round for repairs. He took me there, but he said: ‘St. Ambrose is not here; he is above; do you wish to see him?’ He took me round through the corretti into a large room, where, on a large table, surrounded by ecclesiastics and medical men, were three skeletons. The two were of immense size, and very much alike, and bore the marks of a violent death; their age was determined to be about twenty-six years. When I entered the room, Father Secchi was examining the marks of martyrdom on them. Their throats had been cut with great violence, and the neck vertebræ were injured on the inside. The pomum Adami had been broken, or was not there; I forget which. This bone was quite perfect in St. Ambrose; his body was wholly uninjured; the lower jaw (which was broken in one of the two martyrs) was wholly uninjured in him, beautifully formed, and every tooth, but one molar in the lower jaw, quite perfect and white and regular. His face had been long, thin, and oval, with a high arched forehead. His bones were nearly white; those of the other two were very dark. His fingers long and very delicate; his bones were a marked contrast to those of the two martyrs.

“The finding, I was told, was thus:—In the ninth century the Bishop of Milan translated the relics of St. Ambrose, which till then had laid side by side with the martyrs in one great stone coffin of two compartments, St. Gervase being, according to the account, nearest to St. Ambrose. He removed St. Ambrose from this coffin into the great porphyry urn which we both saw in the scurolo; leaving the martyrs where they were. In 1864 the martyrs’ coffin was opened, and one compartment was found empty, except a single bone, the right-ankle bone, which lay by itself in that empty compartment This was sent to the Pope as all that remained of St. Ambrose; in the other compartment were the two skeletons complete. St. Ambrose’s urn was not opened till the other day, when it was removed from its place for the alterations. The bones were found perfect all but the ankle bone. They then sent for it to Rome, and the President of the Seminary showed me how it fitted exactly in its place, having been separated from it for nine centuries.

“The Government seems very desirous to make a handsome restoration of the whole chapel, and the new shrine will be completed by May next.”

Thus far my friend’s letter.

I have not been able in such historical works as are at my command to find notice of Archbishop Angelbert’s transferring St. Ambrose’s body from the large coffin of the martyrs to the porphyry urn which has been traditionally pointed out as the receptacle of the Saint, and in which he was recently found. That the body, however, recently disinterred actually was once in the coffin of the martyrs is evidenced by its right-ankle bone being found there. Another curious confirmation arises from my friend’s remark about the missing tooth, when compared with the following passage from Ughelli, Ital. Sacr. t. iv. col. 82:—

“Archbishop Angelbert was most devout to the Church of St. Ambrose, and erected a golden altar in it, at the cost of 30,000 gold pieces. The occasion of this gift is told us by Galvaneus, among others, in his Catalogue, when he is speaking of Angelbert. His words are these:—‘Angelbert was Archbishop for thirty-five years, from A.D. 826, and out of devotion he extracted a tooth from the mouth of St. Ambrose, and placed it in his [episcopal] ring. One day the tooth fell out from the ring; and, on the Archbishop causing a thorough search to be made for it, an old woman appeared to him, saying, “You will find the tooth in the place from which you took it.” On hearing this, the Archbishop betook himself to the body of St. Ambrose, and found it in the mouth of the blessed Ambrose. Then, to make it impossible for anything in future [or anything else, de cætero] to be taken from his body, he hid it under ground, and caused to be made the golden altar of St. Ambrose, etc.

Castellionæus in his Antiquities of Milan (apud Burman. Antiqu. Ital. t. 3, part 1. col. 487) tells us that the Archbishop lost his relic “as he was going in his pontifical vestments to the Church of St. Lawrence on Palm Sunday. He found he had lost it in the way thither, for, on taking off his gloves, he saw it was gone.”

It would seem from my friend’s letter that either the Archbishop took away the tooth a second time, or the miracle did not take place.

It should be added that the place in which Angelbert hid the sacred relics was so well known, that in the twelfth century Cardinal Bernard, Bishop of Parma, was allowed to see and venerate them,—Vid. Puricelli’s Ambros. Basil. Descriptio. c. 58 and c. 352, ap. Burman. Thesaur. Antiqu. Ital. t. 4. part 1.

That St. Ambrose was buried in his own church, called even from the time of his death thc “Ambrosian,” and the church where he had placed the bones of the two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius, by the side of whom he proposed to have his own body placed, is plain from his own words and those of Paulinus his Secretary.

For the controversy on the subject vid. Castcliion. ubi supra.

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