Now the greatest transformation which the new religion ever experienced—almost greater even than that which gave rise to the Gentile Church and thrust the Palestinian communities into the background—falls in the second century of our era, and therefore in the period which we shall consider in the present lecture.
If we place ourselves at about the year 200, about a hundred or a hundred and twenty years after the apostolic age—not more than three or four generations had gone by since that age came to an end—what kind of spectacle does the Christian religion offer? We see a great ecclesiastical and political community, and side by side with it numerous “sects” calling themselves Christian, but denied the name and bitterly opposed. That great ecclesiastical and political community presents itself as a league of individual communities spanning the Empire from end to end. Although independent they are all constituted essentially alike, and interconnected by one and the same law of doctrine, and by fixed rules for the purposes of intercommunion. The law of doctrine seems at first sight to be of small scope, but all its tenets are of the widest significance; and together they embrace a profusion of metaphysical, cosmological, and historical problems, give them definite answers, and supply particulars of mankind’s development from the creation up to its future form of existence. Jesus’ injunctions for the conduct of life are not included in this law of doctrine; as the “rule of discipline” they were sharply distinguished from the “rule of faith.” Each church, however, also presents itself as an institution for public worship, where God is honoured in conformity with a solemn ritual. The distinction between priests and laymen is already a well-marked characteristic of this institution; certain acts of divine worship can be performed only by the priest; his mediation is an absolute necessity. It is only by mediation that a man can approach God at all, by the mediation of right doctrine, right ordinance, and a sacred book. The living faith seems to be transformed into a creed to be believed; devotion to Christ, into Christology; the ardent hope for the coming of “the kingdom,” into a doctrine of immortality and deification; prophecy, into technical exegesis and theological learning; the ministers of the Spirit, into clerics; the brothers, into laymen in a state of tutelage; miracles and miraculous cures disappear altogether, or else are priestly devices; fervent prayers become solemn hymns and litanies; the “Spirit” becomes law and compulsion. At the same time individual Christians are in full touch with the life of the world, and the burning question is, “In how much of this life may I take part without losing my position as a Christian?” This enormous transformation took place within a hundred and twenty years. The first thing which we have to determine is, How did that happen? next, Did the Gospel succeed in holding its own amid this change, and how did it do so?